Spiritual Activism

A radical revisioning of the sacred life so that we may survive

The Dharma of mutual caring is a path of heartbreak and high stakes. It means that we are willing to forgo personal comfort for the sake of opening our souls to the cries and sorrows of the world.
Alan Clements, Instinct for Freedom

It seems that since the publication of the previous edition of Kindred, a mere three months ago, there has been a quickening in human consciousness. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the climate change debate. What was purely a ‘green’ issue not long ago, left to the environmental pundits and the fringe dwellers, has now become mainstream. Only a handful remains sceptical. Even John Howard has had his own epiphany since the Stern report was published.


Over the past several months, the normally restrained and sober voice of science has taken on a distinct note of panic, swinging from debating the ‘uncertainty’ behind climate science to near hysterical warnings about irrevocable and catastrophic consequences.

Some studies estimate over 4.5 billion people could die from global warming-related causes by 2012. According to a recent statement from Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery, ‘… it is possible that the Arctic ice will be gone within 15 years unless drastic political and economic changes occur’.

In February, as part of its Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading climate scientists, concluded that global warming has indeed begun, is very likely caused by man, and will be unstoppable for centuries. The phrase ‘very likely’ translates to a more than 90 per cent certainty that global warming is caused by man’s burning of fossil fuels. This is the strongest conclusion to date, making it nearly impossible to say natural forces are to blame.

The scientific uncertainty that does remain about global warming isn’t about whether it’s occurring or whether it’s caused by human activity, or even if it will cost us too much to deal with it. That’s all been settled. Scientists are now debating whether it’s too late to prevent planetary devastation, or whether we have yet a small window to forestall the worst effects of global warming.

Now we are faced with our collective mortality, which perhaps is forcing us to look for solutions beyond science and beyond where religion has left us. With little spiritual substance robust enough to arm us for these times to come we are, as Ken Wilber states, ethically destitute just when, for the first time ever, we are faced with the irreversible closing down of the earth’s functioning.

Too often, in conversations with people about these and other emerging issues I am met with an inability to respond. Some feel so overwhelmed that they don’t even want to speak about it. Others say that they feel so disempowered that the only thing they feel they can do is attend to their own lives. ‘I do my bit,’ they often say, ‘I recycle, I walk to work, I vote. What else can I do?’ Given that there are no real strategies given to us about how we are to cope with the next twenty years, this is understandable. Even Al Gore leaves us hopeless, by pointing the finger at small individual actions (change a light bulb, recycle more, turn off electronic equipment … see www.climatecrisis.net/pdf/10things.pdf).

Somewhere it feels just a little bit useless to switch that light off and think that it is really making any difference when over twenty million 4WDs remain on US roads. Meanwhile, Holden has announced that the ‘Hummer’, one of the largest and least fuel efficient 4WDs in the world, will be released in Australia. What Gore neglects to tell us is not ‘what’ the problem is, but ‘who’ is responsible for creating the problem.

Catherine Austin Fitts, former Assistant Secretary for Housing-Federal Housing Commissioner at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, stated recently, ‘Gore does not ask or answer — Who is doing this? Who has been suppressing alternative technologies resulting in our dependency on fossil fuels? Who has how much financial capital generated from this damage? Who benefits?…’ (See Who Killed the Electric Car www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com)

Utah Phillips said, ‘The earth is not dying. It is being killed, and the people killing it have names and addresses.’ We need to have those names named and made accountable. But Gore offers no names and addresses. He leaves us impotent to make real change, to aim our arrow at the heart of the problem.

So, it’s a bit like being finally diagnosed with an illness after encountering so many doctors who say you’re just imagining it, and being so grateful that finally someone has recognised it, but then that doctor gives you the wrong cure. In which case, you remain ill. While Gore’s sounding the alarm is to be applauded, it is beyond me why he then wastes his time (and ours) by not telling us the most important thing — how the growth of the global financial system and the resulting centralisation of economic and political power is killing our planet.

George Orwell once said that omission is the greatest form of lie.

In order to truly respond to this catastrophe, we need to do more than change that light bulb. We need to participate in the change of an entire system. And this, I believe, is going to require much more than political, social or scientific savvy; it is going to require a spiritual, or rather transdimensional, perspective, in order to succeed. And, it is going to require each and every person to participate.

I am reminded of a very poignant Dr. Suess story called Horton Hears a Who. It’s a story of Horton the Elephant, who one day hears a small speck of dust calling out for help. It turns out the speck of dust is actually a tiny planet inhabited by microscopic-sized inhabitants known as Whos. The Whos ask Horton (who, though he cannot see them, is able to hear them quite well due to his extraordinary hearing) to protect them from harm, to which Horton happily agrees. In doing so he is ridiculed and nearly murdered by the other animals in the jungle for believing in something that they are unable to see or hear. Horton tells the Whos that they need to make themselves heard to the other animals, lest they end up destroyed by the sceptical mob. The mayor of Whoville rallies the cries of all the dust speck’s citizens, who are shouting in unison, ‘We are HERE!’ But alas, the angry jungle animals cannot hear, and continue pulling Horton’s trunk, holding the dust speck, over a boiling pot.

Horton pleads with the mayor to make sure every last Who is shouting. ‘Are you sure everyone is doing their part?’ cries Horton. The mayor covers hill and dale looking to make sure that every last Who is shouting and calling, until he finds one tiny Who in a small room, playing with his yo-yo, unconcerned. ‘You have no right to stand around! Your fellow citizens are counting on you! You must shout!’ demanded the mayor as he lifted the boy high in the air to give a shout. The shout burst the cloud surrounding the planet so that all the Whos’ voices could be heard loud and clear by all the animals in the forest, thus saving the Whos from extinction.

Like that small boy with his yo-yo, not all of us are contributing our voices. Some of us remain in our small rooms engaged in our own personal activities. What is it that kept that boy from joining his community to save himself? Was he just complacent? Did he feel his one small voice or action could not really make a difference? Did he not care? Could he not see what was happening? It is worth examining each of our own reasons for not doing more for our world.

But the real question is this: how do you know that you are not that one small voice that will create the tipping point? And how do you know that by your not participating, it is keeping the entire shift from occurring? We could be just one person away from survival. As Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point — How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, writes, ‘Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.’ However, fear and apathy keep us from recognising this. Like a startled deer in the headlights, we are at risk of rendering ourselves impotent in the face of our extinction.

An authentic inner life provides us with the courage of heart it requires to open our eyes, see what is going on, and do something about it. Andrew Cohen recently stated, ‘It really seems that a new spirituality with a higher reach and a deeper embrace is necessary at this time, one that will enable us to discover our true identity, the timeless source of our being, while simultaneously compelling us to face the actuality of the world context that we’re living in. The spiritual path must free the individual in a very specific way, a way that would cultivate enough strength and maturity to bear the incredible emotional and psychological urgency of the life conditions we’re in the midst of. We need a path that will free the awakening human in the face of fear, despair, and self-doubt, a path that will make it possible for him or her to respond with a world-centric passion and God-centered devotion to the evolutionary needs of the life process at this point in time.’

Indeed, I would argue that a spiritual life is the obligation that comes with true activism. I would also argue that activism is the obligation of a spiritual life, and allows us to engage in the world of politics and environment without the pitfalls of bitterness, despair, rage and hopelessness. Such trappings are not possible when one is grounded in the fundamental underpinnings of emptiness. The world might be dying, yes, but who were we before the world was born? Who are we before a thought arises? However, rather than straddle both worlds we often settle in just one — being centred completely in the world of form, or denying the world and settling into a purely introspective life.

The way forward, I believe, is to integrate the two together. This means hanging out in that strange paradox between ‘relaxed okay-ness’ with all that is, and yet actively engaging in change. Oddly enough, this does not result in confused immobility, but instead gives us the capacity for clear ‘considered action’ — action that comes from love and compassion, rather than revenge and fear.

As Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön said, ‘The classic aspiration is “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.” That means I aspire to end suffering for all creatures, but at the same time I stay with the immediacy of the situation I’m in. I give up both the hope that something is going to change and the fear that it isn’t. We may long to end suffering but somehow it paralyses us if we’re too goal oriented.’ It’s like the teaching Don Juan gave to Carlos Castaneda, where he says that you do everything with your whole heart, as if nothing else matters, all the while knowing that it actually doesn’t matter at all.

Revised spirituality must also be willing to give up old religious models. The world’s great religions originated from about fifty thousand years ago all the way up to about one thousand years ago. They are ill-equipped to meet today’s challenges. Inherent to their system is the reliance on an outside authority or dogma of some kind. This remains in the guru-disciple relationship in the arenas of the modern day self-realisation movement.

The trouble with this model is that it perpetuates spiritual postponement, birthing generations of seekers who still insist that they are only ‘partially awake’ and thus never get on with their lives, and their ability to creatively participate in social change. Today’s seekers remain emotionally and psychologically ensnared by the enlightenment and transformation business, perpetuated by a population of post-modern spiritual teachers whose livelihood is dependent upon finding and keeping students. Such a system keeps an otherwise creative, intelligent and capable group of people out of the activism arena altogether, and stuck in ‘spiritual’ self-obsession.

‘It’s the old paradigm out of Asia, commodified and turned into income. Open the window and look at God yourself without a filter!’ says Alan Clements, former Buddhist monk who coauthored The Voice of Hope, the internationally acclaimed book of conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991’s Nobel Peace laureate and leader of Burma’s nonviolent struggle for freedom.

I believe that while once there was a legitimate need for masters and guides (I myself had a teacher in India many years ago), human consciousness has evolved to another, more independent level, thanks in part to those who have trail blazed before us. By refusing to acknowledge this new evolution, we render ourselves powerless.

According to the Buddhist tradition, the next Buddha who is coming is called Maitreya, which means ‘the friend’. He has been expected for generations by all of the major religions. Christians know him as the Christ, and expect his imminent return. Jews await him as the Messiah; Hindus look for the coming of Krishna; and Muslims anticipate the Imam Mahdi or Messiah. But religions are notorious for taking metaphor literally. And it is quite possible instead that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual, but of a way of being. Perhaps this is the invitation upon us — to become spiritual friends to one another, to seek counsel and good company in a ‘friend’ whom you trust, but don’t deify. And in this way we shed separatist dualistic concepts such as ‘enlightened’ and ‘unenlightened’, ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, heaven and earth, political and spiritual.

It’s only when we get rid of the middle man, and engage in an active, authentic and direct relationship to the divine that we become truly free and truly empowered. We must give up the hope of being saved, of being liberated or being fixed by someone ‘out there’, by any of our modern day icons, be it Al Gore or the Dalai Lama. We must, my friends, do this without delay.

We might then find that consciousness is not an experience we seek, or something we rest in, but something we participate with as its own self. We might discover that we are the Buddha we’ve been looking for; we are the change we seek. Perhaps as with Horton’s dust speck, just in the nick of time, we see that our active and heart-centred participation in life will transform the world as we know it.

Published in Kindred, issue 21, March 07

You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.

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