The Spirit of Social Action: Paradox on the Path of Contemplative Activism

note:  writing below is part of a final assignment for COR 130 at Naropa. I welcome feedback and responses, and I acknowledge that my writing below is far-from-complete. These reflections are ongoing for me. 

Great changes are taking place on planet earth right now. I feel it in my bones, a hot and unstoppable energy moving through me, compelling me to act.  For the past several months at Naropa, I have been  unpacking and integrating my experience as a youth delegate at the COP 21 Climate Talks in Paris. In my free time I read articles about activism and climate change, trying to make sense of what is going on in the world. Inevitably, this reflection has led me to deeper questions:  what is the nature of reality? What is the source of my power? Is there a moral force in the Universe? What is the source of our collective power to create change? These questions have been #berning on my mind and in my heart.  Living these questions are central to my life right now.  This summer, I will be co-leading a training for young activists to explore what kind of change they want to make. I wish I had an easy answer for them, but I don’t. We have to live the questions, and through living, discover our own answers. The question remains, in what spirit do we undertake social action? How do we be, so that what we do creates the change we want? Ghandi writes, “the soul force is indestructible, and it goes on gaining power until it transforms everyone it touches” (qtd. in Dass and Gorman, 181). What is this soul force, and how does one cultivate it and put it to use in social movements?  These questions can only be addressed through the wisdom that arises from lived experience.

Circling up with thousands of people at a youth-planned civil society action at COP 21 in Paris. We held hands in a circle to symbolize our unity as youth. Photo Credit: David Tong Photography 

Navigating paradox is one of the essential tasks of our time, and it is one of the key traits of the warrior, as defined by Chogyam Trungpa. Warriorship here does not mean aggressiveness, but a profound opens and vulnerability to life, and the cultivation of fearlessness in facing reality. “The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything” (Trungpa). Warriorship is needed to undertake meaningful social action.  I want to explore several paradoxes I’ve encountered in my personal and academic journey.  The first is the paradox of basic goodness. A core teaching of many contemplative paths is that the universe is fundamentally a good place. A place in balance. Already perfect, with no beginning and no end.  No coming, no going, just pure, unconditioned existence beyond right and wrong. And yet, unprecedented destruction, pain and violence is taking place across the planet. Species are dying. Wars for oil are being fought and children are being killed in their homes by drones, piloted by Americans in Washington, DC. Racism is tearing apart communities across the country. These are realities happening now, today. The pain of the world is immense. Yet I do believe there is a fundamental balance and goodness to creation.  Eido Roshi and Brother David grapple with this paradox,“even though the world is well balanced on one level, on another level we need to rise to the responsibility of keeping it in balance” (Steindl-Rast and Shimano, 257). On the one hand, things are perfect as they are and on the other hand, we are in crisis and must act. I hold these both as true.

Cultivating the ability to hold simultaneous truths and still act is one trait of the activist warrior I aspire to be. Eido Roshi challenges Brother David on an ontological level: why should we act to change things at the relative level, if things are already perfect in an absolute sense?   How much should we worry about the world and be agitated and disturbed by what is happening, if our faith or contemplative practice teaches that the world is basically good? Eido Roshi says, “I really think we are responsible to realize the world is well-balanced from the beginning less beginning to the endless end” (258).  The two resolve their exchange with the understanding that everyone has their own role to play in social change, and that both truths can exist. For some of us, social action may mean deepening a sitting meditation practice and cultivating inner peace. For others, it may mean going into the streets and protesting unjust government decisions. Others may have roles creating alternative systems such as schools that teach peace, inventions for renewable energy sources, and creation of parallel legal structures that support human well-being rather than corporate profit. I find great relief in Roshi’s insistence that the world is already balanced, yet it also troubles me. Perhaps this is the hallmark of a Zen master. We each have a unique role to play in the great changes taking place on planet earth. Some God in the sky is not coming to save us. I do not subscribe to a new-age delusion that the love of the universe will solve all of our problems automatically and that we can just relax and do yoga and ignore the world. Yes, the universe is in balance, but it will be through us, through our actions and deeds and moral commitments, not despite us, that this balance will come to be true. We are the intelligence of the earth and the universe in motion and in action. The truth that all is in balance only becomes known through our actions for social change. In this way, social action is a vital element of spiritual practice.

Indigenous leaders and youth activists came together on the final day of COP 21 to call on world leaders to leave fossil fuels in the ground and mobilize for a just transition to a spiritually and economically vibrant society. (Photo Credit: David Tong Photography) 

Dass and Gorman pose a second paradox: “How to we maintain the integrity of spirit on the battlefield of social action?” (Dass and Gorman, 156) They explore how we can call out oppression and injustice, without judgement and othering. “What kind of victory is it when someone is left defeated?” (175) This question gives me chills and strikes a chord deep within me. Is it really a victory to defeat an enemy? What kind of world are we working towards, anyways?  Dass and Gorman passionately articulate that the spirit in which we go about making change is reflected in the actual changes in the world. If we go about making change from a place of chaos, fear, and impulsiveness, we will get a result which mirrors those states of being. The Way of Social Action encourages activists to be the change we want to see in every moment. We must hold the awareness of our shared humanity and basic goodness, even as we go whole-heartedly into the political and social fight to change power dynamics and systems of injustice and degradation. “There’s a way to oppose and still be beyond opposition…there’s a way to call for justice but not get lost in constantly judging.” (Dass and Gorman, 173) I hear Dass and Gorman’s words as a call to activist warriorship. This warrior activist can hold paradox and still act. She can call for justice and name acts of oppression that are happening, without demonizing or “othering” the person who she is focusing on. He practices seeing the discord and violence in his own being first, and seeks to address this before taking action and reproducing this discord in society. The activist warrior has the courage to imagine what could be, and live by those ideals, as opposed to being dissuaded into cynicism by fixating on how things are now. 

bell hooks and Thict Nat Nanh discuss the role of love in social action in an interview titled “Building a Community of Love.” She writes from an African American perspective, which I find very valuable to this conversation.  She says, “We oppress ourselves by holding on to anger. My students tell me, we don’t want to love! We’re tired of being loving! And I say to them, if you’re tired of being loving, then you haven’t really been loving, because when you are loving you have more strength.” By being the love that was not given to African Americans for most of the history of this country, there can be liberation from oppression. This takes immense strength and courage, but ultimately is more fruitful than holding onto burning anger and resentment for generations, which reinforces trauma and violence in a vicious cycle. Activist warriorship is needed to cut through the centuries of violence, “othering” and oppression . The foundations of this warriorship are love, because that force of love or that soul force that Ghandi speaks about only grows in strength. That love is the strength needed to mobilize masses of people to demand systemic changes to injustice and racism.

In reflection on my life, on this course, and on my semester at Naropa, one insight stands out above all the rest. We are not here to figure this out by ourselves. Paradox cannot be integrated by one personal alone. Dialogue and story-sharing critical elements of building the connections and relationships needs to sustain us through these times.  This summer I am committing myself to listening to people’s stories, and to sharing my own story. Dass and Gorman state “the most effective political action often grows out of telling one another our stories” (164). By opening our hearts to each other, and expressing our pain and anger, as well as our hopes and dreams, we can birth an emergent pattern of action which is is rooted in our love for life and for the world.

Ultimately, it is simple. We have to become that which we want to see in the world, through our relationships with ourselves and each other. Connection is the only way to create a connected world. Peaceful and loving action is the only way to create a world that knows peace. This peaceful action is not passive, it is incredibly powerful and active . In the words of A.J Muste, “There is no way to peace…peace is the way” (quoted in Dass and Gorman, 165). 

Works Cited 

Dass, Ram, and Paul Gorman. “The Way of Social Action.” How Can I Help?: Stories and Reflections on Service. New York: Knopf, 1985. 153-83. Print.

Hooks, Bell. “Building a Community of Love: Bell Hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh.” N.p., Jan 2000. Web.

Steindl-Rast, David, and Eido Tai Shimano. “Well-Balanced I.” Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists in Dialogue. Ed. Susan Szpakowski. Halifax: Vajradhatu Publications, 2005. 256-60. Print.



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