I know people who are active in what is called the “non-duality” movement.
Some host non-duality meet-ups, where only awareness is discussed. Nothing psychological or emotional, nothing to do with current events in the world. Just awareness.
Like Tupperware or sex toy parties, but without the Tupperware or sex toys.
No, I’m not going to dis them or the non-duality movement. After all, some of my work has even been labeled non-dual, a label I take off as fast as I can. (Yes, you can feel a “but” coming, so here it is.)
We embrace spiritual principles and practices in order to become free from self-created alienation, suffering and confusion. We long to experience our wholeness, our connectedness to others and the Earth, our creativity and joy, our authentic being.
As we do so, it is important to remember that inner experience and its outer action are a singular, inseparable movement, and that all manner of personal growth, self development and higher consciousness ultimately bear fruit in this world, as embodied action.
Exploring the nature of mind, self and reality often takes us into higher and subtler planes of existence, where we can lose touch with the physical world and the dramas of everyday life.
Many religions and spiritual traditions place spiritual above material, creating a false hierarchy and pitting Soul against World in a struggle for supremacy. This misconception has helped to create the common stereotype of a mystic or sage as an aloof witness to the world.
But I have learned the greater purpose of inner spiritual work: to unite spiritual wisdom with compassionate action—in the world. The essence of this view is that wisdom is both insight and action; thus we want to engage life fully and with our whole heart—nourishing self, relationships, work, and world with wisdom, compassion, and love through conscious choice and action.
This awakening to the practical implications of “oneness” was a long time coming for me.
For the first 20 years or so of my “spiritual” journey, I was addicted to self-transcendence, to a medicated, meditative lifestyle in which I allowed my feeling for the world—my caring and passion and enthusiasm for life and for living—to be numbed by too much witnessing and watching, and not enough acting.
Shortly after the morning of September 11, 2001, an unexpected awareness of the connection between spiritual awareness and social participation opened within me.
I was horrified at the militaristic responses of America.
During the U.S. bombardment of Baghdad, I felt as if the missiles were exploding in my own body. Is this firebombing of a city of 4.5 million people actually happening? Is this carnage and slaughter of a nation half of whose population is under 16 years of age actually happening?
Suddenly, my every cell awoke to the true meaning of what I had first learned decades ago in India: tat tvam asi, Thou Art That. I had first learned that the “that” was a transcendent consciousness, an invitation to take refuge in pure consciousness as my fundamental identity, or nature. But I was discovering that there was a relative dimension to Thou Art That: I am this world, and this world is me. Every spasm of violence, each shattered life and moments of horror were happening inside me.
It was not something I could hide from or ignore.
My being, my body, had grown as big as the world. I was that supreme, world-transcending consciousness, but I was also the world and everything in it.
I founded Radical Sages, through which I wanted to encourage meditators and yogis to get involved in social activism and the electoral process of the 2004 presidential elections.
The idea behind Radical Sages was an update of the archetype of a sage, from the high-on-the-mountain renunciate to a modern, urban-dwelling action hero. Unless one lives above the tree line in a remote mountain range, we all depend upon each other and the extensions of society. We all eat at the same trough. It became unconscionable to embrace a spirituality that depended upon the faux reality of a disengaged zendo, yoga room, or satsang hall.
I began to write and speak about engaged spirituality, about taking responsibility for the condition of our world and carrying spiritual practice and principles from the meditation halls into the world. I realized that we risk social apathy in our search for personal enlightenment if we believe that the goal of spiritual work is to transcend the world.
It is not, as these words from Kabbalah suggest: “First we receive the light, then we impart it. Thus we repair the world.” Imparting the light requires great things of us: authenticity, honesty, courage, determination, empathy, personal responsibility, and commitment.
Repairing the world requires that we add responsibility to realization, caring to love, and action to insight.
The task of renewing society to reflect the heart of wisdom requires us to demonstrate our unity-in-love with all creation in all areas of life through direct action. “Every community,” said civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, “needs a group of angelic troublemakers.”
The philosopher J. Krishnamurti once said, “The crisis is not out there in the world; it is in our own consciousness.” It is self-evident that the outer, cultural world in which we live is a direct manifestation of our inner world of beliefs, attitudes, and values—all of which determine and drive our actions.
Naturally, whatever any one part does touches and affects the whole.
Every thought, every word, every slight touch of our hand sends energetic impulses racing outward on the trillions of strands of connective tissue that enfolds us all in the One.
Whatever we do to ourselves, we do to each other as each action is a stone thrown into the pond of our common existence. Within minutes, or hours, or days we will feel the ripples of our actions wash over everything. This is why we cannot use war as a tool of peace, because the killing keeps coming back.
We have to wage peace, not war.
And then peace will keep coming back.
Our every thought, word, and action holds the power to create or destroy. In the simplest of terms, our choices are between the paths of war and peace, between violence and nonviolence, between hatred and understanding, between fear and love, between retribution and reconciliation, between aggression and restraint.
It is as true today as it was in 2001: our world is begging to be healed of violence, brutality and greed. Let this be our project.
We cannot use our spirituality as an escape hatch from social life and responsibility, nor be afraid to put our spiritual hands into the mulch of committed action for social change. We cannot let national identities, religious dogma, political ideology or spiritual apathy corrupt the knowing of our one heart.
Can we rise above the self-created tyrannies of our times—nationalism, racism, militarism, sexism, corporatism—to establish just societies in which all people, indeed all living creatures and the Earth herself, may live in harmony and peace?
The French novelist Emile Zola once said, “If you ask me why I came to this Earth, I’ll tell you: I came to live out loud.” And we, too, must live out loud, but with wisdom and love and kindness.
These are the truths we must embody and send like a cosmic roar throughout the land. Can we do this? Can we find a way to heal our world?
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Vinoth Chandar/Flickr, US Army/Flickr
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