Happy Canada Day and happy Fourth of July! Whether in its mountains, by the shores of its seas or its great lakes, or standing in its awe-inspiring north, I feel deep gratitude for being Canadian. I recently returned from the US, including Santa Fe, Chicago and Aspen, where I gave a keynote at the AREDAY Summit.
No nation is perfect. Everywhere around the world, there is fear, anger, even hatred, as well as kindness and compassion. In the face of the intensity of current events, how do we keep our inner light shining and be of service to others without becoming exhausted or overwhelmed? How can we take action, while remaining centred in compassion and unity? What does activism mean for the sincere spiritual seeker?
“We are all cells in the body of humanity — all of us, all over the world.
Each one has a contribution to make,
and will know from within what this contribution is,
but no one can find inner peace except by working,
not in a self-centered way, but for the whole human family.
~ Peace Pilgrim
I had the good fortune of coming early in my life across the teachings of Peace Pilgrim, who walked across the United States for peace from 1953 until her death in 1981. 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.” Yet, despite such a simple and humble approach, she reached millions with the message: When enough of us find inner peace, our institutions will become peaceful and there will be no more occasion for war. She gave regular interviews to media, and spoke to groups from businesses to churches to universities. To this day, her words are made available as inspirational teachings, supported by an all-volunteer organization.
I am not saying we need to all leave our homes and possessions behind and wander the world. What made Peace Pilgrim’s activism potent was in part about how little we need to find inner peace. The strength of her message also came from the luminous clarity she embodied. She walked the talk, never feeling againstness towards any living being.
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. Meditation often gives rise to a greater sense of how connected we are, and as such, that our compassionate actions 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, realized masters remind us that compassion is a sophisticated state of being. We can open our hearts to others’ suffering and empathize. But true compassion, where “no-self” exists and only oneness presides, is a profound state that most of us experience less frequently than we may think. Our world is desperately hungry for more love and true compassion, so we work towards that. We simply must not mistake our good intentions for true compassion. We must make sure that we are not acting from ego when we are doing “good deeds”. Peace Pilgrim herself said it took fifteen years of preparatory spiritual work before she was ready to begin her walk for peace.
The term “spiritual activist” feels like a slippery slope for a sincere spiritual seeker, 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 who justify their acts of violence as somehow being compassionate.
The fierce and heartfelt action by youth like Emma Gonzalez, who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has touched people around the world. When she gave a nationally televised speech that included six minutes and twenty seconds of silence while tears rolled down her cheeks, demonstrating the terrifying moments she and others spent hiding from a gunman in her school, she made one of the most powerful statements of all.
Yet there has also been so much animosity launched from both sides regarding access to guns in the United States. So I believe we need to ask ourselves, how can we ensure that our activism does not feed into the very energies of anger, hatred, revenge and againstness that we wish to end?
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 feeling a self-righteous and self-inflated sense of “me” who is doing “right” as opposed to the “wrong” “they” are doing “over there”. No love can come from such divided thinking.
Would a sincere spiritual aspirant attend a protest? Would the Buddha be beside him, protesting? This is a question we have had to look at in Parvati.org in our work to realize the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary. Having attended protests beginning in my teens, I know they have the potential to inflate the ego. 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 and our volunteers have joined marches and rallies, carrying signs for Parvati.org. But in so doing, we have committed to staying present, kind and welcoming to all, offering information about MAPS as a way to be of service, rather than pointing fingers or inflating againstness.
Living saint and spiritual humanitarian Amma does not go to protests but opens her heart and arms to console and uplift all who come to see her. Whether it is an impoverished farmer, a rape survivor, a film star or a head of state, she meets them with wisdom, compassion, and clarity. 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. Through the power of unconditional love and presence, she has changed the lives of countless millions of people.
Would writing a letter to an MP be an action for a spiritual aspirant? It could be if it were done in a spirit of compassion to highlight the way an action creates suffering, and without attachment to outcome. This does not mean we don’t care; far from it. I regularly write letters to high-ranking officials for MAPS. I feel the urgency of MAPS so much that I am moved to do all I can to see it realized. Yet I know that if I get attached to any particular head of state responding to my letters in a way that I want, I am missing the point. As the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita articulates so powerfully, a yogi must be unattached to the fruits of his or her actions. Our role as spiritual aspirants is to do what we are called to do, and not try to play God and manipulate outcomes. True spiritual activism must make non-duality, that is, the sense of unity, its first priority.
I have felt deeply moved by Julia Butterfly Hill’s year-long residency in a tree. Her goal was to save the tree, which she named Luna, 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 it was grueling at times for Julia, 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 spiritual activism. It is entirely free from passive or active violence. This is very different from 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.
We do not want to hear about our attachment to “me” or the suffering it causes. But the sincere spiritual seeker knows that anything that inflates our ego (positively or negatively) leads us astray. When thinking about what to do in the face of suffering, we must ask ourselves if our actions in any way stem from feeling separate from the whole, or have any sense of aggression, finger-pointing or ego-stroking. If so, we are not acting in peace. When not in peace, we are disconnected in some way, somehow feeding our ego. And when there is ego, there is suffering.
Though true spiritual activism may be a path few can walk, we can all aspire to it. As the great saints and teachers show us, the path the peace is paved with egolessness.
For those who feel inspired to learn from leaders like Amma, this is the last week of her North American tour. She is in DC July 1-2, New York City July 4-6, and here in Toronto July 8-11. If you are feeling in need of having your spiritual batteries recharged and taken to whole new levels, this is the time and the place.
Thank you for reading! All my music, yoga and words are dedicated to MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary. MAPS is an urgently needed global intervention to protect the polar ice that keeps our planet cool and weather stable. The ice caps ensure we have the food and water we all need to survive. Please support MAPS at Parvati.org for the sake of all life on Earth. From my heart to yours, it literally means the world.