FRONTIERS OF CONSCIOUSNESS: PRINCIPLES OF SOCIALLY-ENGAGED SPIRITUAL ACTIVISM



“As socially engaged spiritual activists at the dawn of the third millennium, we are called to serve in two distinct capacities: as hospice workers to a dying civilization, and as midwives to an emerging civilization. Both tasks are required simultaneously. The culture of modernity is disappearing, to be replaced with a civilization of love, if the human race is to thrive and prosper. We are called to move through the world with open hearts — being present to the grief and decay of a waning civilization — while at the same time maintaining heartfelt enthusiasm as we focus our energies on visionary inspiration and building unprecedented new forms of human community that will serve the future evolution of humanity.” - Dr. Katie Kamara

Many social activists who are highly dedicated to bringing about constructive change, but often ended up being stressed and burned out at an early age.

This observation is the inspiration for developing guidelines for Socially-Engaged Spiritual Activism:

1. Transformation of motivation from anger/fear/despair to compassion/love/purpose. This is a vital challenge for today’s social change leaders, particularly those who confront injustice in its various forms. This is not to deny the noble emotion of appropriate anger or outrage in the face of social injustice. Rather, it entails a crucial shift from fighting against evil to working for love, and the long-term results are very different, even if the outer activities appear virtually identical. Action follows Being, as the Sufi saying goes. Thus “a positive future cannot emerge from the mind of anger and despair” (Dalai Lama).

Martin Luther King emphasized that we must purify our intentions before moving into direct action for social change. Otherwise the results of our work may actually undermine our noble purpose, in the name of advancing it. As Thomas Merton cautioned, “If we attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening our own self-understanding, our own freedom, integrity and capacity to love, we will not have anything to give to others. We will communicate nothing but the contagion of our own obsessions, our aggressiveness, our ego-centered ambitions.”

2. Non-attachment to outcome. This is difficult to put into practice, yet to the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we tend to rise and fall with our successes and failures — a sure path to burnout. Our task is to hold a clear intention, and let go of the outcome — recognizing that a larger wisdom is always operating. As Gandhi stressed, “the victory is in the doing,” not the results. Also, remain flexible in the face of changing circumstances: “Planning is invaluable, but plans are useless.” (Winston Churchill)

Several social change leaders have reacted strongly to this principle. As one environmental lawyer stammered, “How can I possibly go into court and not be attached to the outcome? You bet I care who wins and who loses! If I am not attached to the outcome, I will just get bulldozed! And when I lose, the Earth loses!” His exasperation underscores the poignant challenge of implementing these principles in the real world of political and social conflicts. Yet he kept going to retreats, actively looking for ways to love his adversaries. He eventually came to see that non-attachment to outcome does not mean passive indifference to outcome. He also acknowledged that although it was difficult to love some of his adversaries, one way he could do so was to love them for creating the opportunity for him to become a passionate voice for truth and protection of the natural environment.

3. Integrity is your protection. If your work has integrity, this will tend to protect us from negative energy and circumstances. We can often sidestep negative energy from others by becoming “transparent” to it, allowing it to pass through us with no adverse effects. This is a consciousness practice that might be called “psychic aikido.”

4. Integrity in means and ends. A noble goal cannot be achieved utilizing ignoble means. Integrity in means cultivates integrity in the fruit of our work. Some participants engaged regularly in political debates, testimony, and hearings. It is suggested they apply the Tibetan tonglen practice for transmuting negative energy into compassion and love — right there in the hearing room. Those that experiment with this in earnest reported that it was very helpful in defusing charged psychological situations, and reducing tension in heated debates.

5. Do not demonize your adversaries. It makes them more defensive and less receptive to your views. People respond to arrogance with their own arrogance, creating rigid polarization. Be a perpetual learner, and constantly challenge your own views.

The ideal is to constantly entertain alternative points of view, so that we move from certitude to perpetual inquiry. This is sometimes hard to do, because we often feel very certain about what we think we know, and the injustices we see. As John Stuart Mill observed, “In all forms of debate, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.” Entering into an adversarial situation, we are acutely aware of the rightness of our own affirmations, but there is usually a kernel of truth in what is being affirmed by our opponents — however small. We need to be especially mindful about what we deny, because this is where our blind spots often lie.

6. You are unique. Each of us must find and fulfil our true calling. “It is better to tread your own path, however humbly, than that of another, however successfully” (Bhagavad Gita). We each have a unique melody to contribute to the symphony of life. Discover yours, and sing it out with confidence, joy, and abandon — and let the harmony parts take care of themselves.

7. Love thy enemy. Or at least, have compassion for them. This is a vital challenge for our times. This does not mean indulging falsehood or corruption. It means moving from “us/them” thinking to “we” consciousness, from separation to cooperation, recognizing that we human beings are ultimately far more alike than we are different. This is challenging in situations with people whose views are radically opposed to ours. Be firm on the issues, soft on the people.

The practice of loving our adversaries is obviously challenging in situations with people whose views and methods are radically opposed to ours, but that is where the real growth occurs. As we discover that the problems of humanity are also found in our own hearts and lives, we realize that the “them” we often speak of is also us. We are not exempt and we are not different.

8. Selfless service is a must. Our work is for the world, not for ourselves alone. In doing service work, we are sowing seeds for the benefit of others. The full harvest of our work may not take place in our lifetimes, yet our efforts now are making possible a better life for future generations. Let your fulfilment come in gratitude for the privilege of being able to render this service, and from doing so with as much compassion, authenticity, fortitude, and forgiveness as you can muster. This is the traditional understanding of selfless service, and yet its opposite is also true, as reflected in the next principle:

9. Selfless service is a myth. In serving others, we serve our true selves. “It is in giving that we receive.” We are sustained by those we serve, just as we are blessed when we forgive others. As Gandhi says, the practice of satyagraha (“clinging to truth”) confers a “matchless and universal power” upon those who practice it. Service work is enlightened self-interest, and it cultivates an expanded sense of identification that includes all others. So although we are not here to serve ourselves, nothing serves us better than serving others.

10. Do not insulate yourself from the pain of the world. Shielding ourselves from heartbreak prevents transformation. Let your heart break open, and learn to move in the world with a broken heart. As Gibran says, “Your pain is the medicine by which the physician within heals thyself.” When we open ourselves to the pain of the world, we become the medicine that heals the world. If we push away the pain, we are actually preventing our own participation in the world’s attempt to heal itself. This is what Gandhi understood so deeply in his principles of ahimsa and satyagraha. A broken heart is an open heart, through which love flows and genuine transformation begins.

11. What you attend to, you become. Your essence is pliable, and ultimately you become that which you most deeply focus your attention upon. You reap what you sow, so choose your actions carefully. If you constantly engage in battles, you become embattled yourself. If you constantly give love, you become love itself. Each one of us is entirely responsible for our particular life, and for what we choose to serve.

12. Take sufficient time for retreat, renewal, and deep listening. Knowing when to retreat is part of knowing how to advance. The greatest spiritual leaders and activists have always taken significant retreat time away from the world, in order to better serve in the world. Sustained periods of conscious respite help to clarify vision and thought, relax the body and mind, and purify intentions. This expands our capacity to serve and cultivates a larger, more circumspect view of ourselves and our service.

13. Rely on faith, and let go of having to figure it all out. There are larger ‘divine’ forces at work that we can trust completely without knowing their precise workings or agendas. Faith means trusting the unknown, and offering ourselves as willing vehicles for the intrinsic wisdom and benevolence of the cosmos to do its work. “The first step to wisdom is silence. The second is listening.” If you earnestly ask inwardly and listen for guidance, and then follow it carefully, you are working in accord with these larger forces, and you become the instrument for their music.

A foundation in unshakable trust is not Pollyannaish fantasy or naïve idealism, as some “realists” might interpret it. Rather it entails a deep and instinctive alignment with the mystery and wonder of life itself, invoking something real yet hidden that goes quite beyond traditional scientific principles. Faith is not blind adherence to any set of beliefs, but a knowing from intuition and experience about universal forces and energies beyond our direct observation. We can draw upon and engage these hidden forces, first by knowing they are there, and second by asking or yearning for them to support us — or more precisely, asking them to allow us to serve on their behalf. This realization actually brings great relief, as we recognize that it is not up to us to figure out all the steps to transform the world because we are just participating agents in a much larger cosmic will and wisdom.

14. Love creates the form. Not the other way around. The heart crosses the abyss that the mind creates, and operates at depths unknown to the mind. Do not get trapped by “pessimism concerning human nature that is not balanced by an optimism concerning divine nature, or you will overlook the cure of grace” (Martin Luther King). Let your heart’s love infuse your work, and you cannot fail, though your dreams may manifest in ways different from what you imagine.

What Martin Luther King calls the “cure of grace” is fundamental, yet quite beyond what the logical mind can fathom. Grace is ineffable to the senses, yet is no less real for being hidden. It is the power of love in action, and love is the greatest power in the universe. On this point, King soundly refuted even the most compelling social and religious pessimists who relied on political and theological analysis alone (eg. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man, Immoral Society). To overlook the cure of grace is to overlook the very source and foundation of all life.

- Dr. Katie Kamara

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