Inviting the World to Transform: 5 Core Intentions
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach….
To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these —
to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both –
are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
~ Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
The world is on fire.
That’s how it’s felt lately — but I’m not sure that the times we live in are more challenging than any other time in history. Yet we are in them and witnessing suffering unfolding before our eyes. How do we respond? How do we make a difference?
How do we change the world? Is that even the right question?
More than 10 years ago, I wrote a report for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society on the role of spiritual practices in social justice work. I was scrambling around for a title when I remembered a quote from one of the women we interviewed, Marcelle Martin, a Quaker. She noted that so often we say we want “to change the world.” Yet there is a kind of violence embedded in that wording, a colonizing mindset that thinks we know best what needs changing. Instead, Marcelle put it this way:
We have to be transformed ourselves in order to invite the world into that transformation.
When we honor the sacred brokenness of this world, the phrase that my friend Katya uses in her haiku that graces the top of this page, we love things as they are. We love ourselves as we are, imperfectly perfect. We enter into this task of healing from a place of humility and listening. We realize that we are not separate from that which needs healing.
Yet we still aspire to soften the suffering of our fellow beings and to build the “beloved community,” in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is not passive Love, it’s fierce and wholehearted.
So as you open your heart and mind to engage with the huge issues facing all of us – climate change, police violence, racism, huge gaps between rich and poor, and more – consider how these five intentions might guide your efforts.
1. Begin from Love.
Whatever it is you want to transform, make sure you do it from a place of Love, not out of desperation, fear, rage, or anger. It’s absolutely natural to feel those emotions, particularly given the intensity of the injustices of our times. But it’s essential to find ways to work with those emotions in a skillful way so you can act from Love. Without doing so, you risk creating more of what is harmful.
A contemplative or spiritual practice is a powerful way to free yourself from what does not serve, and to root yourself in Love. These practices take diverse forms. Sitting meditation is one, but there are so many more. Take a look at my Tree of Contemplative Practices to get a sense of the possibilities.
Returning to this place of Love also means that we become willing to learn how we are part of a web of larger suffering, connected to our histories and our ancestors, part of social structures that we cannot deny nor escape.
Educate yourself in the way that oppression works, the way it takes the form of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and more, and the way it lives in each of us no matter how “progressive” we like to think of ourselves. Commit to waking up from this legacy. I have found the writings of the late Erica (Ricky) Sherover-Marcuse so helpful in this process. One gem from Ricky:
Liberation is possible. It is possible to recover the buried memories of our socialization, to share our stories and heal the hurts imposed by the conditioning, to act in the present in a humane and caring manner, to rebuild our human connections and to change our world.
2. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground…
You may feel as small as a mosquito next to an elephant as you look at the challenges of our times and wonder how to be a part of transformation. But you are more powerful than you know.
Look around your corner of the world and notice what and who it is you deeply care about. Is it the kids in your neighborhood who don’t have any place to hang out after school? The workers at the local car wash who are struggling with sub-standard wages and working conditions? The friend who is dying from cancer and needs accompaniment for her journey? Begin a path of discovery to see how you can respond. Your response may happen on an individual level or it may be a community intervention. The important thing is to respond in a way that is aligned with your heart.
Find your gift and share it. Each of us has a unique combination of temperament, skills, talents, and life experiences that shape what we have to contribute to these struggles.
When I teach the “Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism” workshop, I share four archetypes that can inform our actions in the world: Warrior, Healer, Creator, and Educator (inspired by Joanna Macy and Angeles Arrien). The main point I bring home is that all these energies are needed – they dovetail beautifully and cannot exist without the others. And they all exist within each of us, though we may find that one or two are predominant. This is a dance of taking action from our place of strength as well as developing the energies that may be less present in us.
In a similar way, writer and activist Rivera Sun also outlines five constructive actions we can engage in as part of this process of inviting the world to transform. Learn more about the Live/Share/Grow movement that Rivera and others are nurturing here.
3. Every site of suffering is an opportunity for liberation.
Every crisis contains the seed of possibility. Commit to helping to tend that seed. (This is something I wrote about a few years ago in this essay, “The World is Falling Apart and Five Reasons Why That’s a Good Thing.”)
Yes, reform is a necessary step — of police forces, of our economy, of the education system, and so much more. But don’t stop with reform.
Be a visionary and imagine bigger possibilities. Some of these include restorative justice, localism (e.g. time banks, community gardens, credit unions), and education that lights up our passion for learning rather than teaches us how to conform to unjust systems. Here’s a clue: the main ingredient of everything that truly liberates our spirits and is sustainable will be community.
There are people and groups doing amazing work out there on these alternative social structures, and much more. Tap into their wisdom, find out how you can be a part of this next wave.
4. Show up for each other’s struggles.
Solidarity recognizes the deep ties that bind us together, across our differences (including ethnicity, class, gender). Solidarity is also a kick-ass organizing tactic, one that amplifies one group’s struggle for justice as other groups step in to lend support and at times protection.
Whatever corner of the world in which you choose to respond, notice how it is connected to other corners. That worker at the carwash may also be an undocumented immigrant woman who is trying to get her kids through school, in the face of great odds.
The labor rights organization Jobs With Justice asks their members to take an “I’ll be there” pledge — a promise that they will show up at least five times a year for other groups who are fighting for racial justice, immigrant rights, and more. They get it that we are more powerful when we are together.
Often the most powerful question you can ask another is, “How can I support you? What would be most helpful?” And really listen to the answer.
Even as you show up for others, remember you are really doing this for yourself. This is actually very pragmatic. His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about healthy “selfishness”:
The selfishness of the buddhas and bodhisattvas is functional and efficient. It allows them not only to achieve awakening, but also the capacity to help others…. Just imagine if we all lived with no compassion, thinking only of ourselves. We would suffer greatly. The more you think of others, the happier you are.
5. Be persistent.
You already know this. But it bears reminding ourselves and encouraging each other, over and over again. None of this happens overnight. Commit to being in this for the long haul. I’m not sure that anyone has ever said it better than Dr. King:
I believe firmly that we will get to the promised land of collective fulfillment. I still believe that right here in America we will reach the promised land of brotherhood. Oh, I know that there are still dark and difficult days ahead. Before we get there some more of us will have to get scarred up a bit. Before we reach that majestic land some more will be called bad names…. I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
photo credits: Top photo and heart rock photo by Katya Lesher, www.pausingturtle.com
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