How to be a Political Activist

Jenny Marsh—08/2003


POLITICAL ACTIVISM is much more than turning out on voting day and ticking a ballot sheet. That is far too passive and ineffective, and will NEVER be enough to halt the current erosion of community and the destruction of our planet. Instead, to become a bona fide activist, we have to do much more: we have to have such a burning desire to make a difference that we are willing to embody the solution in ourselves, without only resorting to the all too easy recourse of vilifying politicians, governments and/or multinationals (although it is important to first identify the problem step in trying to find a solution). To embody the solution takes courage, commitment and a deep understanding of the power of our minds.

Think of two perspectives of reality: the first is that we are all separate human beings with our own thoughts and actions on a particular planet that is finite and being rapidly destroyed. In this perspective we struggle to achieve political freedom and economic fairness, whilst at the same time trying to limit greedy governments and corporations from taking more than their fair share, and taking it in such a manner that is destructive to the environment and cruel to other life-forms. This paradigm is the one held by most activists — the kind that takes part in protests, hand-outs out leaflets and is generally quite vociferous about injustice.

The second perspective is one in which we are all connected by one mind in a world that is the creation of that mind. Unlike the first scenario in which matter is the foundation of reality, in this one it is mind that is that foundation. Our minds collectively construct every aspect of what we see "out there", including the injustice, destruction, cruelty and greed that we perceive. In this scenario, we realize that vilifying the projected image of "mind" is not ultimately helpful… in fact, as all minds are connected, negative emotions like this only serve to exacerbate the problem. This paradigm is the one held by many New Age and spiritually developed people — the kind that meditates and uses visualisation to modify reality (but the kind that is also unfortunately politically naive).

Naturally, there are many activists who like to think they can hold both perspectives. However, the bottom line is that these two paradigms are so fundamentally different that it takes some serious juggling to hold both. More likely, traditional activists tend to hold to an earth-based "Gaia" pseudo-spirituality which is in fact a souped-up version of materialism. This belief is an eco-spirituality which renders the human being once more to a cog in a machine, albeit a green eco-machine complete with Earth spirits and invisible energies. True spirituality is by definition our relationship with the infinite, whereas this form of spirituality relates primarily to a finite Earth Mother. The first acknowledges an open system whereas the second a closed system.

Ecology, of course, is essential to our understanding of the world and the consequences of our physical actions. Without it's understanding, the destruction of the environment would probably be a lot worse than it is today, and ecology by itself certainly offers important solutions to improving the health of this planet. But ecology can only be incorporated into spirituality if it acknowledges the fundamental role of mind (used in the larger sense of the word - spirit) in the actual creation of reality. Otherwise ecology is "just" a useful tool which must not be elevated to a central status in any personal philosophy or paradigm. If it is treated as THE central perspective, then it will only lead to greater materialism and therefore more psychological pathologies.

However, if ecology can acknowledge the central role of consciousness, then it would demand a very different approach to finding solutions to the ecological problems of the world. That approach would include serious self-examination, becoming psychologically ecological, accepting responsibility for our role in creating this problem, stopping shadow projection onto "those responsible" and acknowledging that there is and will always be something much bigger than the destiny of this beautiful planet, and that our responsibility is not so much to heal the planet but to heal our minds and perceptions. This would mean letting go of desperation, anger, materialism and trying to control outcomes.

Unfortunately, most ecology today does not acknowledge consciousness's central role, which is why it is not being as effective as it can in stopping this looming ecological crisis. The true activist should be cautious of holding too tightly to an ecocentrism, or hanging around too much with those hardened eco-warriors. Much of today's ecological and activist moments have descended to pure reactionism. Political activism wants social change so badly because it invariably views people as victims of a political system… once again, cogs in a machine. This paradigm is self-defeating because disempowered people — denying people their role in reality creation is seriously disempowering, and disempowerment of the people is the very last thing that effects societal change. The fundamental role of consciousness must be acknowledged if we are to truly heal society and this planet.

So the true activist first of all must acknowledge the power of mind. There is no other road to healing; consciousness must be fundamental. In the process of doing this he or she realizes that the root cause of the ecological destruction and social injustices in the world are not "out there" but "in here"… in our own minds, and it is therefore "in here" that we must start the healing process.

If we see ecological destruction "out there" in the world, there is ecological destruction in our minds: we are spewing out negative emotions and destructive thinking. How can we expect the world to clean-up when we have not cleaned ourselves up? We have to take responsibility for this, we have to learn psychological ecology (see article on Psychological Ecology for more info). If we see social injustice and cruelty "out there" in the world, there is social injustice and cruelty in our minds: we are acting like a repressive dictator to certain aspects of ourselves. We are suppressing our spirit, imprisoning what we believe is unacceptable to ourselves and others, and hurting a tender part of ourselves. This is the root cause of social injustice. It might sound trite and self-centred, but it will only sound this way to a person who does not acknowledge the central role of mind in the underpinning of reality.

Having healed the mind, the reality changes automatically. A person who has healed themselves in this way has an incredibly infectious influence on each and every person he or she meets — much more so than a person who just gripes on about the injustice and horror of it all. This is because the change so desperately needed is embodied, and just in going about his or her daily life a healed person has an enormously greater influence than if he or she went on a thousand angry political marches. Of course, once a person has healed in this manner, he or she can consciously and specifically go out into the world to heal both society and the planet. There are a few of these individuals in traditional activist movements but they are, unfortunately, few and far between (although it is they that make the biggest contribution, usually unknowingly).

So if we want to be an effective political activist, we are probably better off pursuing a spiritual path (not a religious-dogma path but a true open-ended spiritual path), and then incorporating into it outer ecological and political practices. But if we ever find ourselves getting angry, frustrated and fearful, then our perspective has started to creep outwards again, and we are again embodying the problem and not the solution. At such times it is important to reaffirm (through contemplation, meditation and prayer) that there is something much bigger than our lives, the justice of society and the destruction of this planet… a something of which we are and always will be an integral part. This is the paradox and is called getting our priorities right!