The globalization of Spirit requires that we overcome the false dichotomy between changing ourselves and changing societal structures. At times we may be inclined to say, “I need to work on my own head first, then later I’ll try to change society.” But this strategy can be the beginning of a slippery slope toward narcissistic self-absorption, just as the “I’ll change society first and then worry about inner life” strategy can be a slippery slope to the insensitivity and spiritual obtuseness of most contemporary political movements. Emancipatory Spirituality encourages a living synthesis of individual and social transformation.
No amount of social change can replace attention to one’s inner life. The fruits of social change won’t last if they’re implemented by people who are out of touch with their own spiritual dimension–and the change won’t ever be achieved, because most people eventually drop out of social change movements before they’ve achieved their goals because they are so lacking in nourishment for the soul. At the same time, no amount of inner enlightenment can adequately nourish a spiritual life if one’s day is drenched in soul-destroying social realities.
So where do we start? Both places–with spiritual practice in our own lives and with attempts to transform the world of work and other aspects of our political, economic and social institutions.
The civil rights movement in the South began each of its marches with a religious service at a community church. Those who seek to save our environment and challenge the globalization of capital need similar spiritual sustenance for the long, complicated, and often frustrating political challenges that lie ahead. Only if we are rooted in a spiritual practice will we be able to persevere in the face of media marginalization, ridicule, and the distortion of our message
Today there are tens of thousands of non-profit organizations whose mission is to bring healing and change to society. There are millions of people who’ve chosen to work in these organizations because they already feel connected to a higher purpose–and they’ve decided to give their life energies to pursuing their ideals rather than their narrow self-interest. These are people who deserve to be celebrated–and many will play an important role in advancing the spiritual transformation of this planet.
Unfortunately, many people report that their experience in non-profits makes them despair of ever achieving the idealistic goals that had originally motivated them. All too often the experience of working in these organizations is not very different from working in for-profit corporations, except that the pay is markedly lower. The non-profits become so focused on achieving the goals that they forget to nurture the subjective and spiritual experience of people working for them. It becomes very easy both for individuals and organizations to lose their original vision and focus only on the narrow “tasks at hand,” forgetting to nurture the people in their own organization. And as larger transformative goals recede into more narrowly reformist solutions, the original visionary impulse of many of these organizations gets replaced with a narrowly practical focus which lets the current realities of a spiritually-deadened society shape the frame of reference for these non-profits as well.
Reconnecting with their own highest vision could be extremely helpful. Non-profits, government institutions, schools, hospitals, and many other institutions might benefit from a daily or at least weekly meeting of all staff in which the sole topic was “what’s our broadest vision for the world, and how does our specific mode of work, and the activities we are engaged in this week, contribute to bringing about that world?”
We lose our way if we think we can “first” change society and later focus on inner centering.
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
More and more people are coming to realize that we will not be whole until our inner and outer realities are congruent. That’s why an integral spirituality and integral politics go hand in hand. Inner healing and social transformation are like horse and carriage: you can’t have one without the other.
In this chapter, I’ll start with some of the changes we need that begin internally and then move to larger societal change.
The inner change that we need most to make is to recognize ourselves as part of the Unity of all Being, manifesting the goodness and love of the universe.
MEDITATION and PRAYER
It sounds so simple: recognize and rejoice in the Unity of all Being, stand in awe and wonder at the glory of all that is, bring as much consciousness, love, solidarity, creativity, sensitivity and goodness as we possibly can.
But living this way involves much more than holding a correct opinion or subscribing to a good idea. To actually dwell in this experience, to sustain this kind of consciousness is extremely difficult. A momentary elevating thought–sure. But as an ongoing frame of our awareness–not so easy. For thousands of years spiritually oriented people have struggled with a major stumbling block: the ego is typically out of control, and its fear of its own obliteration is so overwhelming that it cannot calm down enough to allow this new awareness to take root.
Spiritual teachers talk about “monkey mind,” the chatterbox tendency of the mind to jump constantly from one thought or feeling to another, unable to slow down and take in the essential unity of all.
Much of what we call spiritual practice is actually an exercise in slowing and quieting the mind. It is only in this relaxed state of being that the mind is able to recognize itself as part of something larger.
This is where meditation enters the picture. Meditation trains the mind to be still and attend only to the present moment, rather than jumping forward into fears, or backward into anger and regrets.
Meditation trains us to notice and accept the various states of the mind as it rushes around on its various trips. We sit quietly, gently noticing how our mind wanders, and gently returning it to focus on something specific (often our breathing, but sometimes on a particularly evocative phrase or mantra).
The more we succeed in quieting the mind, the more receptive it becomes to the Unity of All Being. And the more it can deeply acknowledge the truth of this experience and hold onto it, the less frenetic it becomes. Eventually, we become far more capable of integrating this awareness into our daily lives.
Don’t underestimate the degree to which the organization of daily life in a competitive, obsessive society like our own tends to undermine many of the benefits of meditation. Even spiritual masters often retreat to monasteries to seek a supportive environment. But for most people on the planet, life in a monastery is not really an option. The solution is to work on one’s meditative practice, and to work on changing social institutions as well!
Prayer too, can help quiet and focus the mind on a deeper awareness of ultimate Unity. But too often prayer is rushed through, as though the main goal were to get certain words said and have it over with. In those cases, prayer becomes just one more instance of monkey mind, not a counter to it. Yet prayer can be a rich opportunity to connect with Unity. I generally do daily prayer after morning meditation, and I find that the two reinforce each other in a very powerful way.
Along with prayer and meditation, try singing and dancing. Try them by yourself, but even better, try them in groups. I often sing a blessing before and after each meal, and when possible, invite people to join in other meal-time singing. If you have teenagers in your family, they may think it’s weird, but they think everything their parents do is weird. And even they have a great time when they are doing it with enough of their peers.. Similarly, dancing can be approached in a meditative mode or as a form of prayer. Moving one’s body often helps connect with aspects of reality that words cannot access by themselves.
Prayer, meditation, singing, and dancing, are extremely nourishing and health-producing. But they are only rarely sufficient in themselves to sustain a spiritual consciousness through a normal day in the contemporary world. Think back to the world of work I described in chapter three, with Samuel, Joan, and the others–and recognize that the spiritual consciousness faces a massive wall of resistance in the world around us.
Every interaction, every bit of language, every work situation, every communication we receive from television, radio, e-mail, or the Web tends to restimulate the fragmented, anxious, lonely, and frightened consciousness that finds its expression in monkey mind.
My conclusion: a healthy person will combine inner work like meditation and prayer with outer work aimed at transforming the institutions of our society.
So, if you’ve gotten this far in reading this book, and you are convinced now that Spirit Matters, then this might well be the right time to begin the process of deepening your inner life. For those who wish to develop some of the appropriate skills, I suggest the following resources:
Lorin Roche’s book Meditation Made Easy (HarperSanFrancisco 1998) is a user-friendly place to start meditation practice. Then turn to Sylvia Boorstein, teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California (www.spiritrock.org) See particularly: Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat and It’s Easier Than You Think (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). Another brilliant teacher is Sharon Salzberg (cofounder of the Insight Meditation Center at Barre, Ma., www.dharma.org) particularly in her Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary art of Happiness .
Finding a way into prayer is more difficult. I suggest you start with a book by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld, Minding the Temple of the Soul: Balancing Body, Mind and Spirit (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).
The more we can clear the mind of its tendency to be everywhere but here and now, the more we are able to develop mindfulness, the active attention to what is.
To be mindful is to know ourselves, to feel our bodies, to be in touch with our emotions, to honor our intuitions. To be mindful is also to be present to others, to experience them in their fullness, to allow ourselves to know what we intuit from them. To be present is, most of all, to not impose our preconceptions, judgments and cunning commentary on what is happening, but to allow ourselves to be receptive to it and to take it in.
There is no way to fully overcome seeing reality from the standpoint of who we are, individually. Even the greatest spiritual teachers were limited beings, and they understood truth through the framework of their own reality. Gandhi could see the suffering of the Indian people, and he taught people how to effectively resist British rule, but he was remarkably silent when spiritual leaders should have been teaching the world how to resist Hitler and the Holocaust.
We can reduce the distorting lens of ego, so we stop seeing other sentient beings through the lens of our own needs. But we don’t want to reduce that awareness too much, because our ego orientation provides useful information, because our own needs are also valuable and worthy of attention.
The goal is not to annihilate the ego, but to make it an object of awareness. Part of our task is to heal it through gentle acceptance rather than to repress it through harsh self-criticism.
Part of being present to “what is” involves opening ourselves to the omnipresent possibility of possibility, to the presence of the Force of Healing and Transformation (YHVH) or, to put it in other terms, the Voice from the future drawing us toward what could be. To hear that Voice in the present, to know that the potential for transformation is in everything, is to touch a central truth of Biblical religion.
Yet that is not all there is to being mindful of what is before us. We will also be overwhelmed by the beauty and luminosity of all existence. We will be filled with radical amazement at its grandeur.. We will feel unable to articulate the wonder that we see. And at the same time, we will be filled with sadness and compassion for all the pain and suffering that fills our world. We will feel joy at the life force that flows through us all.
Here are some resources for enhancing mindfulness:
Joel Levey and Michelle Levey: Living in Balance (Conari Press, 1998) provides a very useful account of how to achieve a spiritual balance in one’s mind, in one’s relations, in the rest of one’s life. Its subtitle: A dynamic approach for creating harmony and wholeness in a chaotic world may overpromise since it lacks a serious sense of social transformation, but it contains a lot of good tips for a mindfulness approach.
So, too, does Larry Rosenberg in Breath by Breath (Shambhala, 1998) and Lama Surya Das in Awakening the Buddha Within (Broadway Books, 1997)–both rooted in a non-sectarian approach to Buddhism. Also very accessible is Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful The Miracle of Mindfulness (Beacon Press, 1976).
For a powerful integration of mindfulness with the need for tikkun (healing and transformation), see Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush’s Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service. (Bell Tower, 1992).
Getting in Balance: Steps on the Spiritual Path
When we begin to experience the joy of being liberated from “getting and spending” and the extraordinary personal gifts that come from a regular spiritual practice, we sometimes begin to lose perspective and think that we have found the one true answer that will work for everybody or the one truth that obliterates all others.
Spirit Matters–but, as I’ve learned in my life, it is not the only thing that matters. It changes many things, but not everything.
The Buddhist teacher Chugyam Rinpoche wrote of the dangers of “spiritual materialism” when people reduce the spiritual life to yet another product to be consumed.
Balance requires a certain maturity that cannot be fixed by formula. Aristotle talked about it in terms of the need to find the mean between two extremes, but when asked how one could know the mean, he talked about finding and learning from a person who already exhibited “practical wisdom.” But how identify that person? Any formula can be misused. “It takes one to know one”–you have to develop your own life experience and wisdom to know from whom you can learn.
The reason we need accomplished spiritual therapists is that all the spiritual truths must be applied in complex situations. In my own work as a spiritual counselor, I’ve found that people sometimes may need to develop a particular understanding at one point in their development, and need a move in just the opposite direction at another point. No formula can replace practical wisdom and openness to one’s own experience.
One excellent place to read about achieving this kind of balance is Elizabeth Lesser’s The New American Spirituality: A Seeker’s Guide (Random House, 1999). Lesser’s book combines practical lessons with a stunningly comprehensive review of new spiritual thinking.
Letting go of Control
One of the great illusions of the ego is that it can control everything. Fearful of its own dissolution, the ego seeks to convince itself of its own solidity and power.
We’ve all suffered the consequences. In our own lives, we’ve tried to control others, only to find that doing so ruined our relationships. Or we’ve succeeded, and then found the person became less filled with life, less like a real partner, because in succumbing to control they lost what we valued in them, the ability to be themselves. Or we’ve belonged to groups only to see a member or leader intent on controlling everything and everybody make the rest of us feel so uncomfortable that we eventually dropped out. Or we’ve allowed others to control us, only to find ourselves filled with anger and resentment–and then we’ve eventually abandoned the situation.
Ironically, the best way to build a different kind of world is for each of us to learn the practice of giving up control. This is not easy. But it’s a powerfully important experience: to allow things in our life and in relationships to develop without us always needing to be in the driver’s seat. Even allowing ourselves to think about the world without putting ourselves and our desire to control things at the center is an important first step. The world is continually being recreated by each one of us, and we must never minimize the amount of power we have. But neither should we forget that we are just one part of a vast picture.
And we must recognize that we are on this planet with six billion other human beings. The world was not created just for you or just for me but for all of us.
Giving up control is actually giving up the arrogance of imagining that we are in control when in fact we rarely are, and giving up the futile ego drive for control over all things. Ironically, once we give up this fantasy, we are better able to take control of things that ought to be under our control (e.g. the ways we pollute the environment or the ways that corporations shape the economic and political life of our planet). Giving up our grandiosity is a first step toward increasing our actual power.
In the current historical moment, the spiritual task is to reverse our energies so we are willing to share control in our loving relationships and communities and take more control over our economy, political life, media, and the other major institutions that shape our lives.
There is Enough–You Are Enough
The world is not running out of food, shelter, or clothing.
If we share the world’s riches and plan sensibly, there is enough for everyone.
When we see that there is enough, we can get off the endless cycle of producing and consuming more and more, while always feeling empty and unsatisfied. So what if we didn’t produce a new model of car or supercomputer each year? What if we just slowed down? We’d still have enough.
We need to focus on seeing the world from the standpoint of gratitude for what is already there, and learn how to share it in a loving and caring way.
One reason we have trouble slowing down is that we feel internal that we ourselves are not enough, that if only we accomplished some great feat, won some trophy, got our picture in the newspaper, had an attractive lover or partner, had a bigger house, a more powerful position at work or a more successful stock portfolio, then others would recognize that we are okay and then we’d start to feel okay.
The deep truth the spiritual tradition has to teach is this: you are ALREADY enough. You don’t have to do anything You are created in the image of God, an embodiment of sacred energy, a miracle that is already happening, an heir of the greatest possible wealth, namely the goodness and love of the universe. There is nothing more you have to do but rejoice in who you are and all you have.
Once you realize that you are already enough, you can begin to feel good about being promiscuous with kindness and concern for others. Just as there is no shortage of goods, so there is no shortage of love. Love is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. Or, as a pop song puts it, the more you give away, the more you have. This simple wisdom is so counter-intuitive to marketplace consciousness that we need to remind ourselves of it every day.
Give to Give, Not to Get
Generosity to others means giving for the sake of giving without expectation of a “return on the investment,” without feeling hurt or angry if we do not get back from them in equal measure.
Giving to give quickly becomes its own reward. The inner pleasure of giving can be one of life’s great joys.
Model the kind of love you want to receive and you will receive that kind of love in return. Be the goodness that you wish for in the world.
If you give to get, you will likely distort the quality of your giving, and the gift will feel more like a demand to those who receive it.
Even prayer can be like that: not a statement of awe and wonder and celebration, but a demand on God to deliver something.
If you are calculating and controlling, if you make a move for some personal advancement, people know it, the universe can feel it, and you end up being disappointed by their response and by yourself.
So giving to give is the key: give without hope of reward and without anticipation of gratitude. Imagine that people around you are in so much pain that they are not going to be able to really appreciate your goodness, and so distorted that no good deed will go unpunished. Nevertheless, in the midst of that world, see your task as lighting a beacon of hope by being the one person who is giving goodness without expectation of real appreciation, and knowing that others who feel unable to be equally giving may even be somewhat resentful.
Start with this simple exercise: Every day, find some way to be giving or loving or to do some act of kindness and generosity for someone you barely know, someone who has not done something to “earn” this favor. Spontaneous acts of giving for the sake of giving are good places to start your spiritual practice.