I was grateful to read my friend Be Scofield’s post, “Why Eckhart Tolle’s Evolutionary Activism Won’t Save Us.” As someone who thinks a good deal about the intersection between spiritual practice and work in the world — and as someone with a longtime committed spiritual practice — this felt, to me, like the ocean does when you first step in: bracing, a little painful, ultimately rejuvenating. I noted in myself (good Buddhist practitioner that I am) some real discomfort upon reading, and after recognizing what it was – that some of my feel-good notions about my own spirituality were getting rocked — I welcomed it. Scofield’s piece got me thinking.
For those of us navigating the path between inner work and activist/service work, it’s a little easy, given that both carry such lofty agendas, to get self-righteous. To get comfortable, ideologically. I spent a large chunk of my twenties constantly occupied in some kind of global justice or peace organizing. I then submerged myself in graduate school, and I’ve spent the past couple of years since engaged in some pretty deep (and necessary) inner work. I think it’s normal, and healthy, to move in phases; that there is an intuitive cycling, when we are open to it, between our work for outer transformation and our work for inner transformation. And I believe both are needed. Especially now.
I agree with Scofield that deeply flawed individuals can certainly create positive social change. I also believe – and here is where he raises a crucial point — that we cannot wait until we feel peaceful and joyful to take steps to serve social and environmental justice. We are scared, and we are angry, and yet we move anyway, hopefully with a degree of humility (“Asking, we walk,” one of the mantras of the Zapatistas, leaps to mind). Yet I also believe — and this belief has been justified by ample experience, both personal and interpersonal — that when we do not do the inner work, we run a serious risk of recreating the violence inherent in the systems we claim we want to change. When we don’t look at our own anger and fear, we project it outward. There are countless examples of this in history: revolutions that simply served to instate the next oppressive regime. And if there isn’t a modicum of self-awareness, we won’t see this: that our actions are ultimately self-defeating, and that, in terms of genuine transformation, we are achieving nothing. A serious spirituality that incorporates a dedicated awareness practice is vital to real change. Here is where I agree with Tolle that consciousness, and the evolution of consciousness, is crucial to the planetary change we all want. There will always be anger, and there will always be fear. Simultaneously, there will always be compassion, and joy. We are human: our motives are mixed. The problem arises when the dominant motivation is anger; when we do not have sufficient awareness to recognize the anger, and how it is driving us. When we can see this, we can choose to hold it mindfully, instead of simply reacting to it; we can choose, instead, to act from a place of love. This is the kind of awareness a committed spiritual practice will give us, and it is, I believe, no less than vital to authentic social change.
That said, there’s a middle ground here. Scofield reminds us that we need to keep thinking, we need to ensure that our spiritual practice isn’t simply self-serving (as the worst of the New Age stuff encourages), but instead grows constantly toward what King called the “love that does justice.” What does this love look like? As I see it, the primary difference between a progressive agenda and a conservative agenda is inclusivity: a vision of interconnection. A Tea Partier may be incredibly loving towards his family, but someone on the other side of the world is another matter altogether. So, how do we navigate this rift? How can spiritual practice actually nourish justice? What is the “middle way” here?
My main argument is that consciousness — awareness — is not enough. We can commit murder with perfect awareness. In Buddhism, there is the vision of the “two wings of the dove”: wisdom and compassion. Building awareness builds clear-seeing, which fosters wisdom. But it is of little use without compassion, the other wing. A heart practice is needed, too; a practice that specifically orients the heart toward an inclusive love. In the Theravadan tradition, this is metta practice; in the Tibetan, tonglen. Both are practices that orient the heart towards love, and that include not only ourselves and our families, but all being, all who suffer, in this wish. Prayer is another wonderful means to this end – but again, and crucially: it must be prayer that extends beyond ourselves and our circles.
We will get nowhere without realizing our interconnection. If we truly understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as King said, then the circle of our compassion does not only extend to ourselves, or our families, or the community of likeminded — but rather to all. Glenn Beck’s religiosity may include tremendous love for those who have been saved, but it effectively excludes those beyond his walls. Indeed, it damns many of them. There may be compassion here, but clearly wisdom is lacking.
In essence, I am arguing that, as Tolle maintains, a shift in consciousness is necessary to genuine social transformation. And I believe this shift in consciousness is greatly aided by, if not dependent upon, a committed spiritual practice. However, our practice must incorporate the intention of fostering both wisdom and compassion, both clarity and love. It must incorporate a vision of interconnection. And it is most certainly not enough simply to read Tolle and trust he speaks the truth. We must find out for ourselves: we must negotiate with our own anger and fear and pain and confusion, and learn how to hold them, to allow them to transform. We must learn how to choose to act from love. We must learn, at the risk of cliché, to be the change we want to see in the world. This inner work is not rewarded in our culture — significantly less so, in my experience, than activist work. Yet our activism will change very little of true substance unless we do this work. It is this work that shows us what we are engaging with in the world, this work that leads us to understand the nature of hatred, and greed, and fear. For we are human, and these are in us. And we cannot work from love unless we have learned to hold these in ourselves.
But finally, and crucially: it’s not enough just to practice. Unless we expose ourselves to the world — to the thorny issues we wish to change, and to the often-challenging interpersonal dynamics that arise as we do engage – spiritual practice risks devolving into navel-gazing, or worse, self-righteous justification for our narrow worldview. In short: we must act. We will not evolve, spiritually or collectively, unless we negotiate with the very tricky, often humbling, issues of our times; unless we expose ourselves, and our beliefs – spiritual, social, and beyond — to the great big world out there, in all its complexity and contradiction. We cannot simply transcend. We must be immanent, too: we must choose, we must engage.
Marisa Handler — writer, activist, speaker, and singer-songwriter — is the author of Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist, which won a 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books. Her journalism has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Earth Island Journal, Salon.com, Alternet, and Tikkun, Orion, The Sun, and Bitch magazines. Marisa speaks and sings about visionary social change all over the country. She received her MFA in fiction from theIowa Writers’ Workshop, and was a Fulbright scholar in Creative Writing. She teaches Creative Writing at CIIS, Stanford, and Esalen, as well as her own workshops. More, including music videos and her album, Dark Spoke, at www.marisahandler.com.