Ep. 154: Off the Cushion – Activism + Spirituality

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Sometimes we can unintentionally spiritually bypass activism, thinking and believing “we are all one” and having “high vibes only” is enough… 


Or, on the flip side, we get burned our because we’re too overwhelmed trying to make a difference with very complex issues. 


But it’s so important that these tendencies don’t turn us away from activism, because caring and taking action is part of our spiritual practice. 


Many social activists are feeling the need to root their activism in spirituality, in more compassion and more presence – not just from action-oriented goals, but also from a deeper spiritual root. 


When I think back to my own path in terms of social activism, in high school I was very involved with peace work and I organized boycotts against GE because they made the triggers for nuclear bombs and whatnot. In college I started volunteering for feminist causes, environmental issues, and more community activism. 


Then I started taking meditation classes, so one night I would go to a political meeting and I’d hear these angry, hostile things and bitter name-calling, and the next night I would be in a bliss state on my cushion feeling so calm. The worlds felt disconnected and at odds with one another. I wanted to bring them closer together. But how? 


Albert Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”  


The truth of this was becoming more apparent to me. It would take rethinking how activism and the calm tranquility and growing equanimity found in my spiritual practice could merge. The key for me was found in more deeply understanding interdependence. 


I think of a story told by Jarvis Masters, who is an African-American Buddhist on death row in San Quentin: One day, there was a seagull out in the yard, paddling around in a puddle after some rain. And one of the inmates picked something up to throw at the bird, and without even thinking, Jarvis puts his hand up to stop it. 


Of course, this escalated the man’s aggression, who started yelling. And everyone starts to circle around them, because this is the way fights would start in the prison, and they’re all screaming at Jarvis, “Why did you do that?” 


And the words that came out of Jarvis’s mouth were, “I did that because that bird got my wings.” He knew there was an inseparable connection. There’s something that connects us all – you and me and the mountains and oceans and chickens and ravens and trees. 


How can we deepen this sense of belonging together? 


One step is to investigate – how do we relate to our “opponents?” To the people that we’ve created as the “bad other” or the “enemy”? This can be a really compelling inquiry right now, since many who want peace on the planet also harbor a lot of resentment towards other…earthlings;) 


When I read the New York Times in the morning and hear about what’s going on in the world, I can get really riled up and start to separate me and who I start to think of as the “bad guys.” 

But the reality is, when I look under my anger, what’s really there? Usually it’s fear – fear for  the planet, for future generations, for what’s left of my time here on this planet… 


But then let’s go even deeper. What’s underneath the fear? Usually, for me it’s actual sadness. And grief. Grief for the loss and the pain.  


And underneath that is  – surprisingly – a deep sense of caring about it all. 


So when I’m able to see that, I can start to put on my “glasses of compassion,” as my teacher Rashani on the Big Island calls them. I can start to see how that “other” person is actually really hurting. How the things they do are greatly impacted by their suffering and how it’s shaped how they see the world. 


The second reflection that I find really useful is to ask, “What are my unseen biases?”  


What are the ways we create separation in a kind of habitual way where we assume the other person is somehow “less than?” Through internalized racism, patriarchy, and consumer culture, for example. 


The third inquiry is, “How do we relate to the suffering we encounter?”  


It’s common that we reflexively pull away from and avoid suffering. 


So really this comes down to being willing to feel uncomfortable, right? 


To have a willingness to feel pain, a willingness to be touched by suffering – our own and others. 



I remember one time when we were volunteering in Mexico in high school, and we were building a schoolhouse. Later that day a family invited my friend and me to dinner. We went into their home and it had a dirt floor and bare furnishings, but they had saved their best food for us and made chicken with beans and rice.  


We were trying to politely decline, since we knew they didn’t have much food as it was, and we didn’t want them to feed us out of feeling obligated. We knew chicken was a rare delicacy. 


We declined a few times, but they insisted. It was delicious. We were grateful, and they were so happy to be able to give us something in return. 


And we realized that we had actually created a distance between us and them. Like we were the “helpers” and they were the “other.” And that, my friends, is when compassion turns into pity. That distance we create can take away from someone’s dignity. 


True compassion and action means we’re in it together. Tara Brach said the point of organizing isn’t actually to “organize something.” It’s actually to strengthen the web of life and the connections between people. And it takes time – as long as it needs to. If we’re going to get depressed or discouraged if we don’t see quick results, we aren’t going to last very long, right? 


In Zen they say there are only two things: you sit, and you sweep the garden…and it doesn’t matter how big the garden is.  


Our activism can sit in the sweeping of the garden. So in our practice we can invite ourselves to quiet our minds and open our hearts and as we go out into the “garden” of the world, we reflect on what opens our heart.  



As we do this, we feel more hope and encouragement and joy and can potentially overcome our depressed mood or sense of hopelessness. 



What inspires compassion and action within us? What love do we want to express? What gift can we offer the world – even if the gift is the suffering that we’ve gone through and witnessed?  


It just takes one person to shift things. One person. One thing. 


To be that person who can offer something somewhere, to do that one things, begins to open a channel of connection for all of us. 


What is that channel that wants to open? What is that first step we can take? What is that gift you might have to offer – even if it is your suffering? 


You will learn: 

// How to reconcile the seemingly different energies of activism and spirituality 

// The one feeling to tap into to motivate our activism from a more loving place instead of hate or unhealthy anger 

// Why we are naturally called to take care of Earth and all of its inhabitants, even the non-human ones 

// 3 reflections we can do to connect ourselves with our belonging with others 

// The true purpose of activism 



// Episode 4: Anti-Racism + Radical Mindfulness 


// Episode 5: Try Allyship and the Willingness to Be Uncomfortable 


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