I’m filling in some details missing from the original post about activism. I want to clarify a few things before getting into some of the thornier questions about how we can be effective in the world and keep our intentions clear and our hearts open at the same time.
At one time I thought of myself as an activist. Looking back, I was utterly naïve and unschooled in either activism, political theory or critique. Nevertheless, like so many righteous idealists at the time, I was indeed “putting my body on the line” on a regular basis, directly confronting the political and military machine behind the war of my generation in both writing and action.
Like so many of my peers, I was drafted, also known as kidnapped and blindfolded by a bunch of old white men, driven to the edge of a cliff, having a gun shoved into my hand and invited to take a step forward into membership in that publicly financed vehicle of private profit known as the US Army. I said no thanks. I had already been denied Conscientious Objector status and was now putting myself at risk of prosecution and prison.
Although I believed I had some understanding of the political issues of the moment, I had little comprehension of the full consequences of what I was undertaking in my personal life. I devoted myself to being a witness for a different idea than what my government had planned for me. And even though I had the strength of those convictions enough to contemplate the possibility of prison time for refusing to be drafted, I had no conception of what that scenario held for me. Nor was I a strategist, a tactician or even a very systematic thinker. I had explored little. I was not prepared to ask, let alone respond to the larger questions such as what I wanted or how I intended to live; I was not prepared to distinguish between the nuances of political analysis and organizing strategies. I was simply not prepared to lead.
I did have the presence to notice that there were a number of like-minded activists around me who managed to rationalize violence as a tactic. These justifications arose from anger, flawed analysis, vestiges of previously failed “revolutionary” ideologies, unexamined assumptions, victimhood or outright callousness. We were all in some form of pain and not able to acknowledge it or tease it apart: the pain of feeling trapped, dismissed and ineffectual; of being robbed of our future, controlled, betrayed and ignored –or worse– unseen. There was frustration with the inertia and power of the dominant political system, unprincipled leaders; the cynicism, ignorance or disengagement of the general public. But above all, there was righteousness. We were correct.
The intensity of righteousness and the required ideological purity accompanying it that I saw around me, and more importantly, that I felt rising in myself, became increasingly confusing, exhausting and eventually intolerable. Righteousness became a poison that I recognized whenever it arose because I came to realize myself becoming my own enemy, becoming what we all regarded as the source of our outrage. It came to represent not only blindness and rigidity, but also a manifestation of a fury that could ultimately justify just about anything. And no one (that I knew) was questioning any of this at the time. No one I knew was interested in looking very seriously into the mirror of that behavior.
It was only later that I came to understand that such fury was not merely a way that I separated the world into friends and foes, the enlightened and the ignorant, the moral and the immoral, but also how I separated from myself. Turning others into “others” in that way, cutting myself off from myself in that way became so intolerable that I recoiled out of that toxic milieu of endless unresolved conflict, vowing to address my own conflicts and to be more mindful of how the internal division arises.
For years thereafter, until I became more proficient with the tools of resolution, the physiological profile of moral outrage became a precursor to cynicism and detachment: another vehicle of self-denial. Paralysis ensued.
For quite a few years now there has been a shift away from reforming the existing paradigm toward a transformational activism based on a different Story of who we are and what is possible. The conventional definition of an activist is of one who has developed a critique of social, political conditions and decides to do something about them. And as we know, there are innumerable possible issues to get active about. Any one of us can look around and find something about life that arouses our passion and to which we can apply ourselves.
Someone who is deliberately addressing the more internal material of how we view the world, what values and attitudes we bring into our social relations has not historically been considered much of an activist because greater value is placed on doing something in the world than in crafting our inner being? Because what needs to be changed is “out there,” not “in here.” Yet we are always engaged in reality testing, trying out what we are learning in every situation possible.
The distinction between the outward intention to change something “out there” versus inquiring into one’s inner process has been dissolving. Or better yet, after years of treating these different orientations as separate (either/or), we now treat them as identical (both/and). The complete dissolution of the artificial barrier between internal and external activism is underway and has gained widespread understanding and following. The best evidence is can point to is to ask where conventional organizing remains prevalent and effective. Labor unions?
The more we look at either inner or outer sources of dysfunction, the more we devise ways to address what we see, the more we realize they cannot truly be separated from each other. Each informs and determines the other.
The consequences of how we act in the world either affirm or transform emotional responses and habitual patterns of thought. How we think and whether we act out the stories and inner conflicts that arise, whether our actions are driven by an inner wound that externalizes those conflicts and recapitulates our innermost and (largely hidden) beliefs, or whether we attain some measure of freedom from those core attitudes is a lifelong journey that we are all on whether we are present to it or not.
To believe that one’s doing in the world can be held as separate from one’s being doesn’t stand up under any real scrutiny. Finding an integral way of viewing, acting and assessing one’s being and doing in the world requires that we examine our motivations, that we inquire into the Story we are telling ourselves. What we usually find is that if we are uncomfortable, if events did not turn out the way we had intended, including the discomfort, errors and hurts that have resulted can usually be traced to attitudes, beliefs and wounds that are taking us out of the present moment.
The deeper we go into the meaning of the present, the more the artificial boundary between being and doing dissolves. The more honestly we are able to look at who we are in this very moment. This is a journey of embodiment at the individual and at the collective level. We have to be here in order to be true to the opportunities of the present.
Activism is as much a stripping away of the veils that cover our own eyes as it is any objective accomplishment. And if we look at who has been most effective in transforming attitudes, who has been able to inspire the heart of the world, we see that it is those for whom those veils have become at least transparent, if not dissolved altogether.
How much more subversive can you get than to utterly transform your inner space through examination and transformation of your primal perspectives on self and knowing? Exploring the roots of your knowledge and completely transforming the conceptions of what can be known—is an exploration into the deep grottos of self-hood and community, our relations with all life, a journey into the grief, alienation and pain of being disconnected from not only each other but from ourselves.
We are constantly confronted by the prohibition against knowing who we are, where we come from and why we are here. We navigate daily the labyrinth of distracting digital dream-spaces of modern culture, a Disneyland where the boundaries between reality and entertainment are continuously blurred. Finding our way back through all of that and into an authentic knowing of who we are is a revolutionary act. The degree to which we are successful is a measure of our presence. The outlook and the actions that flow from that authenticity become as natural as breathing, the springboard of a compassionate presence in the world.
©2015 Gary Horvitz. All rights reserved.