What Do We Mean By Sacred Activism?
March 24, 2018Sacred Activism has recently become a powerful meme in the spiritual world. After spending decades as a clinical psychologist and many more years writing on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of life's second half, I've tried hard to be a critical thinker about life and its problems. In this short paper, I ask us to think critically about what we mean by the term Sacred Activism, how spiritual change really happens, and which practices best serve our collective spiritual evolution. While the mystic's vision may hold sway in this paper's conclusions, I invite us all to debate the issues and reflect on our work as Sacred Activists.
What Do We Mean by Sacred Activism?
Activism in general may be broadly defined as efforts to promote social, scientific, political, and environmental improvements to remediate human suffering and support the flourishing of life on this planet. Sacred Activism seeks to complement Social Activism by engaging religious or spiritual beliefs and Mystical Experiences in support of our efforts. Sacred Activism includes three specific forms: Religious/Spiritually-Informed Activism, Mystically-Informed Activism, and the Activism of Self-Transformation.
Before we examine these forms, we need to ask what exactly are we hoping to change. I have understood the source of humanity's problems to be The World of Man, a concept I have used throughout my writings. The World of Man is the inner mental framework of thoughts, assumptions, values, goals, and reality beliefs that create and maintain the consensual world of identity, time and story. We live in our cultural mind and, as we know, culture can be the biggest cult of all. I use the word "Man" partly as a generic term for humanity but more importantly because our cultural mindset is dominated by the patriarchy and its values. While we can all stand in awe of its scientific and technological advances and organization of civilization itself ("planes, trains and automobiles"), the World of Man's value system also has many destructive elements, including anachronistic warrior values, ruthless competition, tribalism, gender inequality, scientific materialism, endless commercialism, religious extremism, and a host of other "isms." Sacred Activism is usually envisioned as ameliorating this negative culture of beliefs and behavior.
The mystics from across time and tradition, however, tell us that there is another world around us, one that we fail to see because of the World of Man's dominance. Call it Eden, Heaven on Earth, the Pure Land, The Garden of Shiva or a thousand other names, this infinitely beautiful, divine, conscious and loving Ground of Being appears whenever right-hemisphere Mystical Experience or its subset Mystical Consciousness cleanse the "doors of perception." Having reviewed scores of first hand accounts of such sacred perception, I have came to realize that Heaven on Earth is the not only the truest perception we have of the world, it is also the ultimate but unacknowledged goal of Sacred Activism, for when we realize who and where we really are, and what we have been given, we will live naturally in peace, freedom and love. It is humankind's original perception of the omnipresent divine world.
But here's the problem. Because the beliefs and perceptual distortions inherent in the World of Man prevent us from seeing and experiencing the divine world (we see mostly what we think!), we live instead in a chronic subtext of fear and distrust. We view ourselves as endangered mortals fighting for survival and then fall under the hypnotic spell of our own projections. In sum, we stereotype and devalue others, pursue our own advantages, hoard resources, and profoundly misunderstand God, creating the very problems we want to solve. The overarching purpose all Sacred Activism, I propose, is revealing the Divine World hidden beneath our collective illusions.
How Real Change Happens
The essential problem facing Sacred Activists is this: How do we change the World of Man when we are the World of Man? David Nicol, the author of Subtle Activism, confided: "I participated in numerous rallies for peace and environmental issues and helped out with a progressive political campaign. Yet amid these efforts, I sometimes wondered how much our activism was truly effective in bringing about the world we desired. Many of the legal and political actions I was involved in, although well intended, seemed only to add to the cycle of reactivity and suffering we were attempting to resolve." This is an extremely important point. Does our activism heal or complicate things in the World of Man? Nicol's words also recall Einstein's timeless advice, "The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation." In other words, the World of Man may not be fixable by more ideas from the World of Man; Illusions rarely fix illusions.
Living in a world of cultural beliefs and its illusions doesn't mean that the culture is not changing. As evident to everyone these days, western culture is changing dramatically though not necessarily through organized activism. Rather, tears in the sacred fabric of existence cause social changes: school shootings, drug deaths, war trauma, political corruption and corrosive poverty build outrage because of their horrific violence to deep Self. As a divine structure, the Self naturally seeks to restore its original wholeness, creativity and gifts, like Earth's amazing renewal in Spring, and the True Self in each of us embodies this co-creating energy and vision of renewal. Change also comes with each new generation who see the world with fresh eyes and dreams. What I am saying here is that we are really not in charge of these great cultural shifts; they represent slowly advancing cycles of divinely-inspired cultural awakening. We can, however, support such evolutionary change and this may be where Sacred Activism fits best.
Sadly, however, we are more often in the way of change. The World of Man, our default operating system, based on ego, self-advantage, fear and competition, constantly pulls us back into our illusions of scarcity and danger. Indeed, every thought reinstates the whole problem for thought. As a result, we are the unsuspecting architects of the very problems we seek to change. The World of Man will not change as long as we are the World of Man. The way out of this mental labyrinth, however, may be found in the divine consciousness of the mystic.
I believe the ultimate goal of Sacred Activism is to awaken Mystical Consciousness in our lives and work. A thought-free state of awareness, Mystical
Consciousness erases our projections of a False Self in the World of Man to reveal instead the infinite beauty and perfection of Creation exactly as it is, including you, me and everything around us. It calls for the unapologetic renewal of pantheism undiminished by religious disapproval. Now we act from an immense, first-hand and life-affirming revelation of sacred being. We discover that we are divine beings in a divine world. As we experience sacred reality directly, we care for the world and each other as the divine does - with the consciousness of love, creativity and blessing.
Changing the World: The Continuum of Sacred Activism
Now let's return now to the three forms of Sacred Activism mentioned earlier: Religious/Spiritually-Informed Activism, Mystically-Informed Activism and the Activism of Self-Transformation. (Current examples can be found in the Appendix).
1. Religious/Spiritually-Informed Activism. Here the energy and commitment generated by our deeply held spiritual beliefs and commitments motivates our activism. We are passionate about our work. The problem with Religious/Spiritually-Informed Activism is that it's still based on beliefs that inadvertently imprison us in our default World of Man projections. Our echo chambers simply excite the echo chambers of those whose opinions we are trying to change.
2. Mystically-Informed Activism. This form of activism brings the experience of sacred directly into our work, generating profound and sacred insights, motivations and actions through mystical practices. This approach offers tremendous inspirational and transcendent resources for change. Its primary limitation is that we still view ourselves as flawed beings living our everyday lives in the World of Man's problem-ridden landscape. As a result, our sacred work is intermittent at best and easily disrupted or discouraged by the next horrific event. We are also just beginning to assess its efficacy and the jury is still out. The mystical practices involved, however, can change us individually and represent an important steppingstone to the third form.
3. The Activism of Self-Transformation. Self-Transformation represents a progressive evolution of Mystical Consciousness in our own lives. The further we go, the more we live in the divine flow of awakened perception. We become Divine Humans. We spontaneously witness Creation everywhere, love and value the beauty and perfection of each being, and change the world right where we are by how we are. As we dissolve the False Self and its obsessive worry, we open the flow of love, joy and creativity inherent in our underlying state of divine being. United with the deep Self, the mystic becomes the prophet who cannot help but respond to the self-inflicted wounds of humanity. The main limitation of this approach is the culture's lack of familiarity with it for we are barely at the threshold of experiencing and understanding the Divine Human. Nonetheless, our awakening will awaken others, for Presence is itself a kind of sacred contagion: as they mystics tell us, change yourself and you change the world, because you are the world. The Activism of Self-Transformation is also our spiritual future if we are to survive.
First hand Mystical Experience and Consciousness change us and the new person, group and community that emerges drinks from a deep and meaningful well of sacred energy and vision. We are one with the divine Source. But interestingly, the transformed Self requires no heroic projects. As Henri Nouwen asks, "Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come." These are the behaviors that support the spiritual changes already happening in the world as the divine subtly but persistently permeates our individual and collective being. We accelerate this spiritual evolution when the self dissolves into its flow. Activism is less about pushing the river than joining it.
John C. Robinson is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, the author of nine books and numerous articles on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of the New Aging, and a frequent speaker at Conscious Aging Conferences across the country. You can learn more about his work at www.johnrobinson.org.
Appendix: Examples of Sacred Activism Forms
The following examples are meant to be more illustrative than exhaustive and were chosen to reflect the range and variety of current Sacred Activism paradigms.
Interfaith Dialogue: Integrating the work and values of the world's great religions harnesses our spiritual energies for the collective good. Interfaith seminaries like the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley and the Parliament of World Religions take on the great problems of the world through interfaith dialogue and community, shared action programs, and conscious-raising training.
Spiritual Activism: In this variety, our deeply held religious and spiritual beliefs prompt us to act in the service of humanity, life or the Earth. Drawing on our personal understanding and experience of prayer, meditation, reading, and religious gatherings, we act from spiritually informed commitments, realizations and teachings. Religious organizations often encourage spiritual activism in line with their founder's teachings.
Presencing: A methodology adapted from Otto Scharmer's Theory U, Presencing is used by the Wisdom Council of the Conscious Elders Network (CEN) to bring presenting problems and conflicts into the direct experience of the sacred. After defining the differing points of view, participants settle into a deep meditative silence for several minutes, waiting patiently for images, metaphors, feelings and intuitions to rise from the deep ground of sacred being. Insights, realizations and revelations are then shared through deep listening, mirroring and reflection. Presenting issues often change dramatically at the end of the process. (Wisdom Council, CEN)
Dialogue with God: In this process, an individual identifies a specific problem and then move into Mystical Consciousness to dialogue with the divine about it. Based on John Robinson's model of the Religious Psyche, the dialogue process separates the left-brain beliefs from mystical right-brain consciousness allowing new insights and revelations to emerge, often dramatically changing the problem's significance. (Robinson: Finding Heaven Here)
Subtle Activism: According to David Nicol, Subtle Activism melds the power of spiritual practices (e.g., prayer, meditation, visualization, etc.) into a coherent group field of consciousness to affect positive change in near or distant places. Its methodology involves creating a group energy field, becoming deeply centered in that field, and then using the field to reach traumatized people or places in the world. The Maharishi Effect is an example of Subtle Activism. (David Nicol: Subtle Activism)
The Activism of Self-Transformation
Meditation and Mindfulness Practice: Practicing Mindfulness changes now we respond to personal and social upheaval. We become less reactive, more conscious and peaceful, and thus capable of breaking the cycle of violence that drives contentious discourse and vengeful acting out. Working on ourselves, we bring loving kindness and peace into the world, which are also forms of Sacred Activism.
Mystical Consciousness: Here action flows from our immersion in the awakened, thought-free consciousness of divinity. In this heightened non-conceptual state of consciousness, we experience the world as a literally sacred, no longer related to personal identity and belief. Mystical Consciousness also affects others, bringing quiet healing energy, kindness and love into the dramas surrounding us. In this variety of activism, changing the self subtly changes the world around us. (Robinson, Ordinary Enlightenment, Finding Heaevn Here)
The Work of Monasteries and Monks: Those who dedicate their lives to the spiritual service in monasteries or as solo mystics often dwell in the depth and timelessness of Mystical Consciousness. Their teaching, spiritual direction and retreats serve many and their individual work touches the common ground of divine being even if there is no apparent connection to the problems of the world, for acausal influences ripple through the Creation like the waves of a pebble dropped into still water.
The Divine Human: Experiencing our unity with the divine as exemplified by the 'I am God" mantra represents a further development of. The up-surging ecstatic love from divine consciousness transforms the body-mind and we become Divine Humans. From this state of unity consciousness, what happens to the other is happening to me for self and other are one. Now the mystic drives the prophet whose awakened perception turns everything back into divinity and revealing the ultimate nature and purpose of divine action. (Harvey: The Hope; Robinson: The Divine Human).