Personal Spiritual Model
What follows are some guiding principles that form the ideological framework for my own spiritual model of social action. This represents the synthesis of spirituality and activism, a marriage which has long been of great interest and inspiration to me. Too often social change activity becomes narrowly focused on a political agenda that lacks the depth that can inspire sustained commitment or nourishing involvement. Modern spiritualists too often use their spirituality as an excuse to withdraw from the critical issues of the world. Spiritual activism however, is a response to the burnout of impassioned activists and the bypass of modern spiritualists. Fundamentally, it strives to challenge the ethos of selfishness and materialism, the monolithic economic paradigm of neo-liberalism, and seeks to uphold the values of love, kindness, generosity, gratitude, peace, non-violence, and social and environmental justice.
Our Action is based in the Connection Between all Living Beings
Thich Nhat Hanh calls this Interbeing--the recognition that we are all connected through our shared presence in the web of life. In this way, we have to challenge ourselves to not fall prey to the shallow dichotomy of "us and them"--this schism exists as the root of many (if not all) of the major crises/injustices humanity faces. Rather, we should look to our common heritage, for truly we are all in this together. When we refuse to see "other," we can more readily access our ability to be compassionate.
Horizontal not Lateral Power
Synergy is the process where two or more actions combine to produce an effect greater than the sum of its individual parts. Like ripples in a pond, the actions of a collective build on each other to magnify an effect beyond what each could do individually. Whenever possible, we should strive to team up with others to acquire a multifaceted and more holistic approach.
This is being called a horizontal power structure as opposed to the traditional hierarchical/lateral power structure. Experiments in this can be seen in the Occupy movement. The horizontal power structure challenges us to work with diverse perspectives and approaches, to seek synthesis, and ultimately can lead us to a more complete picture of the issues and greater buy-in for the solutions. It is a purely democratic process. In a way, this mimics the biodiversity of nature--when one method fails, another is there to ensure continued propagation.
Horizontal power structures call upon diversity not as a hindrance but as tremendous strength to meet the unexpected challenges of the struggle to create positive lasting change. In effect, this is a direct challenge to Weber’s assertion that a movement requires the leadership of a charismatic prophet. Though, this has undeniable been the case in past movements, i.e. Martin Luther King and Malcom X for the civil rights movement, Gandhi in the fight for India’s independence, Harvey Milk in the LBGTQ movement etc. , as recent movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring have shown, this model has become outdated.
People no longer need to be lead so much as they need to get in contact with their own ability to function effectively within a group. Put another way, given the sheer breadth and gravity of the critical issues humanity now faces, how can any single leader possibly galvanize a population to simultaneously oppose environmental degradation, human rights violations, discrimination, rampant political corruption, privatization, exploitation… I could go on. The point being, the issues are too large, too complex, and too varied to be effectively encapsulated by a single leader. Thus, what is needed is a movement that does not take its cues from a charismatic prophet; rather, it draws its strength for the rich and diverse experience, expertise, and perspective of a collective that values the contributions of each member.
Address the Cause, not the Symptom
In so many issues we find that precious resources, energy, and time get invested in stymieing the symptoms of a deeper malady. The drug war in America is a prime example of this. More than $51 billion dollars are spent annually in an attempt to remove drugs from American streets. Yet, it is well known that these efforts have largely been ineffective if not disastrous. The reason for this is that drug policy has almost completely focused on the symptom and not the cause. Perhaps the question we should be asking is “why do people turn to drugs in the first place?”
Often, it is easy to assume that we have the solution to the causes for which we champion. We should not however, allow ourselves to fall prey to rigid, simplistic, or reductionist thinking. Rather, we should be continually engaged in a process of deep inquiry and investigation—for the quality of our questions will determine the quality of our action.
Seek to be of Benefit and Service to all Beings
It is essence of the vow of the Boddhisattva, to devote oneself to the alleviation of all suffering, not just the suffering of those we are ideologically in alignment with. Ultimately, we have to abolish our sentiments of partisanship. We may align ourselves with a cause, with a movement, with an ideal, but we should not allow those things to blind us or paralyze our ability to consider the impact of our actions on others—not just humans, but also the myriad expressions of life we share this planet with. Our motivation should be to be of service to the whole of creation.
When Gandhi non-violently fought for the liberation of India from British imperialism, an oft cited criticism of his tactics were that, though he stood for non-violence, his actions were in effect adversely affecting the British. In Gandhi’s mind however, the deeper cause of their suffering was in fact the subjugation of India’s people. In a world of interpenetrating relationships, slavery makes a slave of the master as well.
Don’t Forget the Wise Counsel of Your Heart
It is our hearts that compel us to action. It is our love for the world and for the sanctity of life that inspires us to stand against injustice. There would not be so much pain, if there wasn’t this great love. On some level, we have the sense, perhaps only nascent at most, that a different way of doing things exists. Activist, author, and economist Charles Eisenstien calls this, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” We would do well as agents of change to remain in contact with the vision and counsel of our hearts as it familiarizes us with a very different form of knowing. Some call it intuition or guidance, regardless of what we call it however, it is an essential skill to cultivate. There will inevitably be problems that we simply cannot think our way out of. Sometimes we have to feel and listen our way out of them. There is also an element of trust involved here—trust in a force greater than the mind or the small self, trust that, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Seek out Viable, Long Term, Sustainable Solutions
Seek out solutions that maintain or restores the dignity of individuals and their communities, and work to secure solutions that become self-sustaining. Additionally, we must be wary of the savior mentality, the arrogance of thinking that we have the solution to problems most directly affecting others. Seek first to understand, especially when working with other communities. Our work to manifest the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible must embolden and empower others to do the same.
Allow it to be About Process
It's not so much about an ideology as it is about a methodology. The process by which we arrive at the goal is as important as reaching the goal itself. Machiavelli’s “the ends justify the means” has no place here. We are a tremendously goal oriented society, and much of the dominant cultural narrative has been about reaching our goals at whatever costs. We cans see however, how destructive this mentality has been not just to the planet but ourselves and to our relationships. Rather, we should strive to embody the change we want to see in the world.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Activism can be a tremendous drain on the spirit—it’s all too easy to allow ourselves to be disheartened by the seemingly futile nature of our actions in the world. Thus the importance of a maintaining a regular spiritual practice is of great importance. Building a deep relationship with a practice can serve as the spiritual sustenance to give us the strength to continue forward. A practice can help us to ground our passions and approach our work in the world from a space of greater clarity and awareness. As always, self-care is important and Self-care is equally as important.
Acknowledge What We Don’t Know
Put simply, we do not know all that we need to know to do the healing that needs to be done on the earth. And as uncomfortable as that is, it’s ok and it is not an excuse for inaction. However, through working with open minds and open hearts together, we can begin to bring that healing more clearly into focus. Author and activist Arundhati Roy writes, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Perhaps she is already here, building momentum in those already wedded to her and drawing our attention to the fissures and cracks in a crumbling status quo. She's whispering in our ears, coaxing us to consider something beyond this tired and joyless worldview of separation. She's alive and thriving in the hearts and minds of many, who, like her, are working to clarify the vision--collectively. Together, we're opening the birth canal from inner to outer, from vision to manifestation, learning to make the impossible possible.