Back in 2008, I separated from my sangha in Oakland after four years because I was uneasy with spending time in a group engaged in what appeared to be personal work, but also seemingly divorced from the issues of the world. Something was missing. I was ignoring a more active or engaged side of development and I wanted to understand what engaged Buddhism meant. When I went looking, even that seemed a limited form of what I was seeking.
I have been exploring activism and spirituality ever since. In fact, I can trace this interest all the way back to the 70’s, when I spent time in an activist collective in a southern town that hosted a very large US Army base. I learned the hard way-having my residence torched in the middle of the night–that ignoring the personal implications of what I was doing in the world offered no benefit. I was creating a “them” and acting against “them” in the very ways that I accused “them” of acting. At times I felt the contradiction of my self-righteousness as a visceral discomfort so intense that I had to withdraw completely. I had to escape myself, or at least reevaluate how I was involved.
So I escaped to California, where I quickly became immersed in the New Age subculture. I found the vocation which served me for the next 40 years. But I was so disillusioned that I went to sleep for a long time, becoming deeply cynical about social change. With the benefit of a longer view, I understand that disillusionment was more than a consequence of anything “out there.” It was an inability to reconcile my internal contradictions. My disillusionment was born of finding fault with the outside world rather than looking at my own reactions to it. Not that there is no fault to address, but to do so in a healthy way, in an effective way, required a very different approach. I certainly could not go backwards because, as Charles Eisenstein would say, the “wound was too deep.”
There was such a vast gulf between my idealism and reality that I became paralyzed. In the face of what has happened since 9/11, with the propagation of fear being the default strategy of conservative forces coupled with being deeply betrayed by those in whom we (mistakenly) placed our hopes, it wouldn’t be any surprise if I were still be buried in that cynicism.
I had heard of Joanna Macy but had never been in her presence. I shortly found an opportunity to attend a deep immersion with a multi-generational group of thirty-five others. It was profoundly awakening, to say the least. Here was a person steeped in Buddhist teachings, practice and thought, fully engaged in the world and bringing the teachings into the moment to create community, vision and action. I climbed out of the rut. I felt deeply restored.
Accessing one’s heart and acting from a continuously refreshing awakened and generous view is not something that automatically happens. It takes deliberate intention, disciplined personal inquiry and letting go. In the interest of these virtues, I have pursued numerous practices. I was meditating, but not exactly according to any method. I was using meditative practice to inquire into my internal process, the beliefs, automatic responses and patterns of behavior that I had.
Nevertheless, after being reminded of the quantum nature of reality by Charles Eisenstein, in contrast to the linear nature of the dominant model of activism, I looked back and saw I was still not quite getting this right. Then I stumbled on Peter Block, a brilliant theorist about community organizing, who understands very clearly all the Newtonian pitfalls of the dominant model, even though he never mentioned that specific word.
The linear approach to political activism employs the laws of thermodynamics. Force is applied at point A in order to effect an outcome at point B. Causality is always linear. There is always a “getting” someone, inducing someone else to “do” something, “convincing” or appealing to rational understanding as a tool of debate, the imagining and implementation of models of force, employing a model of influencing social change that doesn’t quite ring true as a viable approach in a quantum universe. Nevertheless, we seem to be stuck in a milieu in which changing the mix of variables is the only way to see the effects of our actions.
Yet none of our reliance on cause and effect is ultimately satisfying—or even real for that matter. We cling to this way of doing things because we cannot see beyond it. What else is there to do when you don’t know what else to do? Even the many ways that we employ to make ourselves feel good are part of the Old Story of cause and effect. The mind that fails to recognize this is still bound in a dualistic framework in which there is such a thing as being bound or being “free.” In the non-dual view, there is no freedom because there has never been bondage.
But we are deeply attached to a conventional understanding of causality and this is an obstacle to awakening the mind and mindfulness that is necessary to discover and implement a new paradigm. And even now, I use the word “implement,” which has implications of assembling and installing a new idea, which is already displaced from the immediate reality of embodiment and living. So this is also a linguistic issue: our language gets in the way of what we must now learn—or re-learn. Real change only happens when the old stories fall apart or are simply rendered obsolete by enlightened action.
I wrote some years ago, before I ever knew of Charles Eisenstein, that embodiment is the new economy. At the time I meant that inhabiting our true nature is the seed, the source of our renewed relationship with all of nature, our nature. And from that renewed evocation of our true nature arise the transactions, the forms of authentic relationship and community that transcend separation, coercion and exploitation represented in the isolating structures of currency and monetary dynamics, the fiscal dynamics that currently determine our world. But this is a process that takes time and immense focus to discover. It happens in small and large ways.
The forms of communication by which the new paradigm propagates are not even fully within our grasp. They seem always to be just beyond our grasp. And yet we know them when we see them. Charles exudes optimism because “there are people who are living contradictions to what we have been taught about human nature and the way the universe works.” Our task is to find those people, recognize them, connect with and reveal within our selves what they know.
As an example, Charles spoke about a woman in Bhutan who tended her daughter, locked in a vegetative state, for 15 years with no expectation of any possible sign that her efforts had made any difference in her daughter’s existence or in the world at large. We are guided by others who have committed similar acts of profound generosity without a shred of expectation or selfishness involved in them. These stories beg for the one word to crystallize their true nature and the true nature of what we must bring to the world.
Compassion is the clear, consistent and determined witnessing of the living nature of the universe and the human condition without any expectation of a return for oneself—the doing of what must be done for its own sake, without agenda or story. To have such an agenda or expectation of some form of personal gain would already be residing in a dualistic frame of reference, an erroneous frame of mind about that living nature. True compassion and non-dual awareness are inseparable; we cannot be truly and fully compassionate and simultaneously hold a dualistic view.
Our task is to discover what it is within us, what reveals our own nature in ways that present us with the opportunities to create the new paradigm, to connect with our selves in ways that dissolve our separation from others. The dissolution of the “other” is the truth; it is embodied optimism and that optimism is a driver of a new economy.
Eisenstein also describes the technology of activism as “service to what wants to be born”—even though we may have little notion of what that is. He also says that true change only happens outside of the conventional understanding of causality. I find myself musing in this territory about the Buddhist understanding of causality—karma—and about the nature of that understanding and its relationship to linear causality, or at least linear thinking about how the universe works.
After listening to Eisenstein sketching out his model, I wanted to ask him whether he felt that direct opposition to the Keystone pipeline was legitimate; whether civil disobedience or swamping the White House with petitions or the EPA with public comments or legal strategies fit his idea of activism–or whether these are flawed acts because they occur within the old paradigm of causality and are thus ultimately futile. I wanted to ask him, for example, if showing up at the Watauga County Elections Board meetings in North Carolina to challenge the implementation of vote suppression policies was legitimate. How do these acts fit in his world?
I was also prompted to review how Joanna and others talk about the Great Turning, there being only three possible ways of changing anything in our times: creating new institutions, opposing the old paradigm and changing one’s own consciousness.
From Charles’s view, directly opposing the old paradigm, or as Joanna talks about it, impeding the Industrial Growth Society to slow down the devastation of ongoing environmental destruction, is an act that itself, by creating the “other,” perpetuates the old paradigm. There may be a time and place for such action, but we have to be aware that it only serves to preserve the old story, attacking policies, solving “problems,” engaging in public debate, outspending, using better tactics, better public relations, legal strategies or shifting the course of governance with sheer numbers.
Whatever ways Joanna’s thinking arises from such a dualistic view may also be her flaw. The creation of new institutions and even changing one’s own consciousness may be ways of differentiating ourselves from others and thus feeling good, depending on the nature of the institutions or the type of consciousness emerging from our efforts. In the end, the virtues of any of these vehicles come down to only one: the non-dual view.
The magic and the miracles of true compassion manifesting in the world are all similar. They are evidence of a non-conceptual reality in which the separation between self and other, inside and outside, dissolves. Our true nature is directly known. The true nature of reality is revealed as a common arising of all phenomena in service of a dynamic creativity that has no origin: the emergence of empowered compassion, selflessly acting without agenda to directly meet a need in the world.
Once again, this consciousness does not arise. True compassion does not arise as an act of will. Even suggesting so is another form of reification—that will acts on something; that “will” is one aspect of mind acting upon the rest of mind to bring it into service. Will is an act of control upon something that is not already pure, not already perfect. This is already separation, the very habitual pattern of creating hierarchies of controlling mind that has brought us to this historical moment.
In the Tibetan Buddhist understanding, non-dual awareness and compassion are inseparable. One gives rise to the other—a condition that our linear minds struggle to grasp. This is not mutual causality. In their view, it is spontaneous arising from a source that has no source, a condition devoid of any causality whatsoever. Bringing that awareness into the world is likely the most challenging and the most effective thing we could do.