Want to Really Change the World? Try Doing it like the Buddha.

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A post shared by Mike Medaglia (@mikemedaglia) on

I’m the last person you might expect to talk about activism.

In an age where being super busy is a badge of honor and accomplishing tasks the greatest virtue, where some activists promote rallies by quoting Martin Luther King saying, ”For evil to succeed, all it needs is for good people to do nothing,” I did the unthinkable. I dropped out.

First, I dropped out of the peace movement.

I had a job at a peace organization and my boss was a brilliant, charismatic leader who often gave us pep talks about “the fight for peace.” And it was a fight—against anyone who supported the war, against other peace groups over tactics, and against the media who didn’t cover our rallies accurately. I didn’t like fighting, and I was getting depressed.

One day it dawned on me: if I wanted peace, I had to stop making enemies. So I quit.

Ending the war inside became my first priority. I let go of career ambitions and lived simply so I could devote myself to inner work and meditation practice. But it was hard to give it my full attention when I was embedded in busy, distracted, expensive America, so I dropped out again. This time, out of the culture.

I became a nomad, wandering the world to find inspiration from ancient wisdom traditions and living among people who weren’t yet under the spell of consumer culture. Not that I didn’t like some of what it created. But I didn’t want a beautiful eco-house, organic yoga pants, and $6 lattes nearly as much as I wanted to end the suffering of the world.

I’m in good company. The Buddha dropped out, too. He was the original hippie.

The Buddha was a prince who had it all: power, prestige, money, sensual pleasure, but all of these coveted things of the world seemed insignificant when he finally faced the reality of suffering, death, and impermanence. So he threw away his fabulous clothes and wandered off into the forest in search of deeper meaning.

I’m sure there were those in his kingdom who judged him, who thought his dropping out was selfish. Couldn’t he do more good as a king than as a wandering yogi? What a waste. But the Buddha was looking for something more radical than helping the people in his kingdom achieve temporary prosperity. Like me, he wanted to end suffering.

So he dropped out and wandered. He tried all kinds of things to discover the truth. He was so passionate in his search, he even tried extreme austerities, fasting until he was skeletal, hoping it would push him to realization. Finally, when he was nearly starved and delirious, a milkmaid came by and said the obvious: “You’re making yourself sick. Have some porridge.”

I wonder if the milkmaid knew that her simple offer of comfort food provided the means to the Buddha’s key insight. Maybe she promptly forgot about it—just did a little kindness for a stranger, then went back to her cows.

I don’t think she gets enough credit. If the milkmaid hadn’t stood firmly in her perspective and offered her humble truth, then the Buddha, in his dogged pursuit of the highest truth, might have ended up just another strung-out hippie, dead from his excesses.

But lucky for us, the Buddha had some self-doubt. He listened deeply when she spoke, open to the possibility that she might know something he didn’t. And then he ate the porridge. In doing so, he had a deep insight on which he based his philosophy of The Middle Way: it doesn’t help to go to extremes. Better to cultivate balance.

It’s taken a lot of time and dedication to move through the layers of numbness and conditioning, fear, and delusion in my psyche, and I’ve had many insights along the way. But I didn’t have a profound, world-changing realization come to me in only six years of practice as the Buddha did, and it sometimes makes me uneasy.

Is that uneasiness just my ego, wanting to make a big splash instead of following the truth of what is mine to do? On the other hand, I’ve been at this for a long time. Is it really helping the world? Am I kidding myself?

I don’t enjoy self-doubt, but I think it’s probably a good thing because it keeps the inquiry alive: I know that I might be wrong. That alone is an achievement, considering how convinced I used to be that my perspective was always morally right and the most true. 

My practice has gone far enough that I don’t believe anymore that I have all the answers as to how the world ought to change and what everyone else needs to do to change it. And I don’t often think others as enemies, because I’m far less ruled by hope and fear. But I haven’t yet landed in a presence stable enough that I can always trust myself to act from wisdom.

Maybe this instability isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it keeps me humble, because whether I’m directing my attention inside or outside, even with the best of intentions, I can’t know for sure if what I’m doing will help.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that deep down, none of us really knows if what we are doing will ultimately help or hurt. Can we admit that and still do our best with what we have? Not be so convinced that our view is the whole truth and those who disagree are our enemies?

After all, even the Buddha didn’t hold the whole truth—he got a piece of it from the milkmaid. Not from the expert or the famous wisdom leader—from the milkmaid.

I wonder if world-changing transformation comes from listening for truth from sources that our ego would easily dismiss, and this receptivity requires just the right amount of self-doubt. Not enough to knock us off our seat, but enough to listen to others deeply, willing to be changed.

Maybe this deep listening is the real activism, whether we’re marching in the street or sitting under a bodhi tree.

But of course, I might be wrong.

 

Relephant Read:

Inspired Voices: 5 Unconventional forms of Activism.

 

Author: Jane Brunette
Image: With permission of Mike Medaglia
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Travis May

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Jane Brunette

Jane Brunette trained as a Buddhist teacher, and now teaches retreats and mentors people in soulful writing and spiritual practice. She does her best to stay out of the matrix by wandering the world, living simply in cultures where this is still possible so she can spend her time doing meaningful things that don’t pay much. The author of Cartoon Kali: Poems for Dangerous Times and Grasshopper Guru, her websites are Writing from the Soul and Flaming Seed. You can also this website for info on her upcoming retreat on spiritual activism.

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Joseph Scott May 4, 2018 4:22am

Thank you for sharing this part of your journey Jane. I have walked a parallel path. I spent about ten years working as an activist mostly sharing encouragement and observations with people on Facebook in the hopes they would see the light and get more involved by going to rallies, protests, GOTV canvassing efforts, phone bank their electeds and volunteer. I thought if only enough of us stood up together and elected intelligent compassionate people we could make the change we need! But what I found was people mostly just liked to feel right about positions, victimized and angry and commiserate with each other in our tribe. it was only when I started having heart to heart talks with "strangers" in town about their lives and our community and sharing these stories that I saw my circles online respond. People started pm'ing me with their own stories of how after reading about my experiencs they saw themselves in me and opened up to the possibilities of engaging people out of compassionate interest and respectful attention. I have found the deeper my compassion for myself and others even or especially those who see things very differently from me, the most I see the world change. I've decided that love is the most revolutionary thing there is. And every time I engage with others from this place of kind attention and compassionate interest I see healing, both inside me and around me. That is my new path of activism. I have just finished a book, my first book, about it called Becoming A Love Revolutionary. Changing the world by walking your path of heart. Jane, thanks for sharing your story and journey. I wish you great love and healing and happiness! Being you, is helping the world.

Jane Brunette Jan 31, 2018 6:40am

Wow, thanks Andy. Maybe we don't need a big population of nomads :-), but how amazing if people committed to their soul's calling instead of stepping over themselves to take care of something "more important" from a place of anger and fear. I love how Richard Rohr put it: "The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Oppositional energy only creates more of the same." ... I think of the people you profiled in your book who were living authentic soulful lives and being activists. Seems as though their activism came from those lives of integrity. Anyone looking for inspiration -- check out Andy's book. It is one of my favorites. Very inspiring: https://www.amazon.com/Abundance-Less-Lessons-Simple-Living/dp/1623171326

Andy Couturier Jan 31, 2018 5:23am

I've met Jane, and whatever I ask her, from a curriculum issue to how to resolve a conflict, her ideas are so original and truly enlivening. Why do I say this on this article? I believe it is BECAUSE Jane Brunette has lived this way she writes about that she has this wellspring of wisdom. We need more people making similar choices. Did I say need? I said NEED.

Jane Brunette Jan 31, 2018 4:55am

Thanks, Adam, for dispelling any notion that I will ever be able to count on always acting from wisdom -- when you say that my very efforts at depth will extend my naivete and this is the nature of emergence. Wow. Great insight for me. My takeaway from your words as a whole is that it is enough just to be what I am and let the helping and reform take care of itself--that it will naturally emerge out of the authenticity of how I relate to the scope of my own existence, as you put it. That really resonates for me. Maybe we all just need to relax and be authentically ourselves? And this is a kind of deep activism? The way a tree is naturally generous and makes tremendous contribution without trying to "help"....

Jane Brunette Jan 31, 2018 4:27am

Thanks for the encouragement, Christa!

Jane Brunette Jan 31, 2018 4:27am

Wow-- so happy to hear that my little gatherings inspired you to offer the same in Hawaii. Such power, for us to offer to others what is real and helpful to ourselves, which is anyway all I did in Bali. I love what you say about the answer is in the asking, in the living of the question. Maybe living is the key word here. It makes me wonder if the "answer" we all seem to want so much is more like a death -- a conclusion that stops the conversation, not unlike giving up in that way. "Squinting the eyes," as you put it, instead of staring too hard --as though insight comes to us from the blurry place, instead of the one with all the crisp edges. Also glad we met -- once in Bali, and then here again in cyber space. Glad to feel another ally in the world who also wants to help ease suffering and celebrate beauty from a place of authenticity. Feeling gratitude for that -- and for you taking the time to connect here. Namaste.

Adam Beall Jan 31, 2018 12:23am

How clever you are without realizing. I read your little story twiceover, and you have already answered all your own deepest questions. Whether what you are doing helps some and hurts others is a matter of perspective and insight. That it helps you is well enough, and whether your efforts help others is better for only them to judge. You might not worry that you at times act from emotion and instinct rather than wisdom as it is all a just matter of familiarity. With your best efforts to achieve greter depth and more novel experience, you will only ever discover the further extension of your naivete. Such is the nature of emergence in each new direction or scale. How joyous for all of us that our lives may be in this way ever interesting and new. The allegory of the milkmaid describes not only the nature one key insight, but all key insights. Even each and every simplest suffering and remedy combined with wisdom, openness, attentiveness, and may yield insights of greatness. As we look back through the lens of our life, the exploits and tribulations of youth will show you everything you missed when you so rightly lived in and for the moment in your own time. This will be equally true for well retained memory of one's own life as well as the vicarious observations of others. It is inconsequential whether or not you correct all the problems of the world. They are limitless. Give effort to change of your own preference and purpose at the scale and scope of your own existence and infuence. If your reform catches fire and spreads beyond you all the better. If it doesn't or fails entirely, no matter. And then either way just be at peace and grow your gardens.

Christa Annes Jan 30, 2018 9:08pm

Beautiful....thank you for this refreshing perspective. Namaste

Will Donnelly Jan 30, 2018 7:50pm

Aloha from Hawaii, Jane. We met in Bali at one of your fantastic writing gatherings about 7 years ago. It changed my life. In fact, I went home to Hawaii and found no others leading the way with writing, so I started a therapeutic writing class myself. It is still going strong today, even without me, after having left Big Island. I wanted to thank you for your constant wisdom. I'm sure you don't remember me, as we only met in your class of 18 people briefly, but your words have always felt real to me. As one who also truly wants to help, to encourage the world to be a beautiful place with less brutality and pain (not sure it's possible) and with all the blabber of the world/internet, I have also needed to drop out. I now realize we'll never have the answers we so desparately seek, but that that is ok. It has to be. If the answer exists, it exists within the asking of the question. We just need to keep living the question. It matters if we just don't give up. This was a wonderful article & story. Gotta love the wisdom of the milkmaid. This wisdom is all around us. Best not to stare too hard at the question. Best to squint your eyes a bit and just keep on. Here's to more of your wonderful stories. Glad we've met. xo Will