Activism for the Sincere Spiritual Seeker
SHANTI OM: LIVING AND ACTING IN PEACE
Part 3: Activism for the Sincere Spiritual Seeker
This is the last section of my three-part blog exploring peace. (Part 1 is here and part 2 is here.) I would like to explore what it means to act from peace. The term “spiritual activist” has become a popular term among today’s yogis and more conscious communities. But what does it really mean for a sincere spiritual seeker? Since peacefulness arises from a state of non-attachment and unity, what really is spiritual activism?
I had the good fortune of coming across early in my life the teachings of Mildred Lisette Norman, an American non-denominational spiritual teacher and peace activist, who was born in 1908 and died in 1981. In 1953, she adopted the name “Peace Pilgrim” when she decided to walk for peace, which she did across the United States for 28 years. Her only possessions were the clothes on her back and the few items she could fit in her tunic pockets. Her introduction was her “Peace Pilgrim: 25,000 miles on foot for peace” signature on the front and back of her jacket. She had no organizational backing, carried no money and would not ask for food or shelter. When she began her pilgrimage she vowed to “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace, walking until given shelter and fasting until given food.”
This kind of courage and spiritual commitment is a rare and beautiful thing. As we evolve spiritually, we cannot help but feel moved by the suffering we see in the world. An impulse to help alleviate pain is a natural reflection of our inherent humanity. Sitting on our meditation cushion for hours often gives rise to a greater sense of how connected we are, and as such, that our compassionate action can serve the world. Compassion must be the foundation of spiritual activism. Through compassion, we rest in our underlying sense of oneness. We are humbly no better than or worse than others, but feel connected to all through love.
However, we must remember that compassion, as realized masters teach us, is a sophisticated state of being. We learn to empathize. We can open our hearts to others’ suffering. But compassion, when “no-self” exists and only oneness presides, is a beautiful and profound state, something we can aspire to, but most of us experience less frequently than we may think. It does not mean we should not strive for such! We need to. Our world is desperately hungry for more love and true compassion. We simply must not mistake our good intentions with true compassion. We must make sure that we are not acting from ego when we are doing “good deeds”.
The term ‘spiritual activist’ feels like a slippery slope for anyone who is a sincere spiritual seeker, that is, one who is devoted to the cessation of all sense of “me” or ego. Though many spiritual traditions around the world use the word “righteousness” to indicate the spark that calls a spiritual seeker to follow divine guidance, often such can fuel the ego. In radical cases, it can lead to extremist groups that justify their acts of violence as compassion in action. I wonder if groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS would see themselves as spiritual activists.
The ego is a tricky thing and will find any window to slip through and express itself. We have all heard the popular aphorism, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Perhaps some so called cases of spiritual activism are this, an aspect of the ego, our human shadow, feeling a self-righteous, self-inflated sense of “me” because he or she perceives she is doing “right” over the “wrong” “they” are doing “over there”. No love can come from such divided thinking.
When we wonder who may be considered a great spiritual activist of our time, we may not think of Peace Pilgrim, but think instead of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Gandhi peacefully building homes and teaching people how to spin, helping the poor to become self-sufficient, was inspired political action born of compassion. In this way, these actions were karma yoga, selfless acts, serving the world. Were his hunger strikes born of compassion? They were political, but not compassionate, as they were passively aggressive towards himself. Compassion is born out of a profound understanding of the interconnection between all things, including the self. It is rooted in equanimity.
Would a sincere spiritual aspirant attend a protest? Would the Buddha be beside him, protesting? I am not the Buddha, but my guess is that it is unlikely, as the very nature of a protest is either for or against. I know from the protests I have been in that they tend to inflate or deflate the ego in some way. There is a subtle or powerful rush in feeling “I am doing good because…” And that thought is not far from “I am better than…because I am doing this.” I could feel the fix my ego was getting. Living saint and spiritual humanitarian Amma does not go to protests, but opens her heart and arms to console all who come to see her. She goes to conferences and meetings and speaks with heads of state with a sense of wisdom, compassion and true dispassion. Unwaveringly resting in the true nature of reality, our deep and eternal oneness, her powerfully peaceful and transformative selfless work for the poor and suffering reminds us that we are all one.
Some protesting activists are truly inspired, such as the famous Rosa Parks who refused in 1955 to move to the back of the bus because she was black. She was a fiercely courageous activist, yet not necessarily a peaceful spiritual seeker.
Would writing a letter to an MP be an action for a spiritual aspirant? From the point of view of compassion, a spiritual activist may express himself or herself this way by highlighting the way in which an action creates suffering. A yogi doing such would need to do as Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna in the Hindu holy text the Bhagavad Gita: he or she would need to be unattached to the fruits of his or her actions. (I explored more about Krishna and Arjuna in last week’s look at Karma Yoga). True spiritual activism must make non-duality, that is, the sense of unity, its first priority.
Martin Luther King was a spiritually charged, inspired politician. He was an activist, an inspired leader. We have been graced by his passionate and fearless work. He followed his calling and lived with profound faith. But was he a spiritual activist? Are his actions that of a spiritual aspirant, one who is devoted to no self, in other words, the cessation of all notions of duality? He was a politician. May all politicians inspire to be so great!
We do not want to hear about our attachment to “me”, that causes suffering. But the sincere spiritual seeker knows that anything to inflates or deflates our ego leads us astray. Martin Luther King was doing his dharma. Gandhi was doing all he could. They both were and still are an inspiration to many. But they were not sannyasins, those who renounce the self in a yogic way.
Was Julia Butterfly Hill’s yearlong home in a tree political? Yes. Her goal was to save the tree from being clear-cut. I believe that her choice to live in the tree was born of compassion, her sense of oneness with all. Was she suffering in living there? Was the tree suffering? Though the yearlong stay was grueling at times, she has shared that this was a very special time in her life. She was grateful for the tree, with which she felt a deep oneness. This selflessly stepping into wholeness, living in alignment with nature, hurting no one and nothing, is a good example of a spiritual activism. It is entirely free from passive of active violence. This is very different than aggressively chaining oneself to a tree to stop it from being cut. Julia’s cohabitation highlights the potential that exists between humans and nature to co-create.
When thinking about refusing to pay a tax that the government has implemented, or boycotting a country or company whose policies you don’t agree with, as a spiritual aspirant, we must question violence – ahimsa. We must ask ourselves if our actions in any way stem from feeling separate from the whole, if in them there is any sense of aggression or divisiveness, finger pointing, ego stroking. If so, we are not acting in peace. We may be activists. We may be political. But we are not being sincere spiritual seekers. When not in peace, we are disconnected in some way, somehow feeding our ego. And when there is ego, there is suffering. Spiritual activism is something very few can truly do, because only when there is no ego, can this be seen. And when there is no ego, as the great saints show us, there is a more peaceful way. May we aspire to this.