Spiritual Activisim—an Oxymoron?

John Smith—03/2002
Spirituality is often seen as an avoidance of reality, a hinderance to change in society. After all, people in spiritual practice are usually focused inward and upward. Paradoxically, however, it offers the only path to true global healing.

IT IS VERY EASY to become frustrated with this world: we see stupidity causing so much suffering — suffering not just of humans, but of animals and the environment. When we feel that we know solutions, our natural propensity is to reach out and try to change things, to make a difference, to show "them" the suffering "they" are causing not only to others, but ultimately to themselves. Every activist knows that feeling of incomprehension that human society could organise itself in such a cruel and self-destructive way, that society is so blind to continue on a reckless path of unrestrained greed and consumption.

The world is full of problems, and if only. If only! The two words that sum up the activist's grasping: if only the society was just; if only people were more conscious; if only governments were wiser; if only everyone stopped at "enough"; if only people could respect the sanctity of all life. But that grasping for solutions is the same as the grasping which is at the heart of our problems — grasping that has manifested an unjust world. The politician grasps for power and validation (and sometimes justice); the businessman grasps for status and comfort; the activist for justice and a future.

Whilst grasping for a vision or a dream is often regarded as a prerequisite for achieving goals and building society, at the very same time it is the ultimate cause of our psychological dissonance, that restless frustration that is the hallmark of the addict. Much of the world is addicted to fulfilling itself in ways that are destructive and cruel, just like the alcoholic or the druggy. Although many of us would have that addiction moved to more constructive activities, addiction is addiction; grasping is grasping. And the very essence of addition and grasping is destruction. You cannot be a healthy addict! That is the message of all true spiritual traditions — we have to let go in order to ultimately stop destruction, and to reach human fulfilment.

Of course, that last statement sounds like an invitation to do nothing in the face of our desperate times, a call to inactivity. What good would that be? On the face of it, it would do absolutely no good at all. But we are more than just a face; much more than just this human façade. We are connected to something much greater (call it Spirit, God, All That Is, Divine Love, Cosmos, the Universe or whatever). And when we let go to that greater part, and find our place in the order of things, we are plugged into true power and influence. Not the kind that corrupts, or that which demands personal acknowledgement, but the kind that knows the right thing to do at the right time. the kind that can heal. Only then can we end suffering and injustice on this planet.

But that requires a large amount of faith, made even larger by our cultural obsession with the potential and sanctity of the human individual. When the individual is God, what room is there to let go to something greater? In our modern hubris, we have closed the door that leads to transcendence, but ONLY transcendence can lead us out of our problems. Otherwise we just continue playing the game of grasping and dissatisfaction, desperately trying to build a whole society with fragmented people.

Traditional religions offer transcendence, but they have often controlled our natural drive to something greater for their own political means. There is no force stronger than our desire to be reconnected to the greater, whether it be through spiritual ecstasy, bible-bashing or sexual union. Harness that human drive and you have a huge weapon at your disposal — the fanatic who will kill and be killed in the name of God. But you also sow the seeds of your own destruction, for the power of transcendence is a two edged sword which will destroy any abuser.

So we learn to take the "religion" out of religion. We distil spiritual practice so that what is left is only its essence. And in that essence we find true transcendence, uncorrupted by the limitations and connivance of human understanding. And those that have reached that place, and there have been many, have taught us that we are all, in fact, connected to that place already, but our concept of a separate identity — our ego — is preventing us from realising this. And without realisation, we are unable to bring the power and resolution of the greater through our human vehicle and into this world.

Unfortunately, letting go of our identity is extremely difficult, especially because we live in a society that, at every opportunity, reinforces that identity. We live, breath, eat and sleep our identities! We tenaciously hold on to them because they are "us". Otherwise we would be lifeless zombies. So our egos think! And so the ego is constantly laying claim to its existence precisely because it knows, in the larger picture, that it is an illusion. And the realization of non-existence is terrifying!

Dispelling the illusion of our separate self can be done, but it is tricky: for we have to use the mind to get past the mind. The way it is usually done is by focusing, single-mindedly, on a simple act or activity such as our own breath, our footsteps when we walk, playing tennis or cooking. This activity is known as meditation and is formally done sitting still in a quite place. Meditation is the practice of filling our minds with non-self, until this becomes a habit. For example, when we focus 100% on our breath — the feel of the air on our nostrils — we are so engrossed that we forget our self. Of course, as soon as we realize that we have forgotten we conjure up our self with a jolt, for we are afraid of no-self. But given time, we find that we can "be" quite comfortable with non-self. In fact, we can be VERY comfortably with non-self! But it takes time and patience.

When we learn to get ourselves out of the way, we connect with the greater. And we become part of the natural healing process. We become true activists. But, paradoxically, only by first letting go of the desire to change the world. Spiritual activism, therefore, is not an oxymoron if we have worked on reconnecting ourselves to our greater being. Then, right activity flows effortless. In fact, spiritual activism is the only effective activism. And it only takes a small number of spiritual activists to make huge changes in society. So our focus must be working on dissolving our limiting selves, otherwise we remain trapped in the energy of compulsive grasping, and our "activism" serves only to further the world's suffering.