by Judith Fertig
The butterfly, a universal symbol of transformation, reminds us that becoming our best selves is an ongoing process. Yet these delicate, fluttering creatures are suffering a decline, especially the vivid orange and black monarch butterflies that depend on milkweed flowers for sustenance during their migration to and from Mexico and Canada.
“When I heard about the monarch butterfly crisis, I also noticed that I had milkweed vines all along my back fence,” says Karen Adler, a Kansas City, Missouri, gardener.
“In years past, I would have pulled them out because they can strangle other plants. But I talked it over with my neighbor and we agreed to let them grow. This year, we had more monarchs than ever.”
These two women might not realize it, but they had engaged in spiritual activism. They became aware of a problem, approached it with compassion, learned about the issue, realized life’s interdependence and committed themselves to positive action for a result that is good for all.
It’s a process that Andrew Harvey first described in a 2005 talk he gave at the Santuario de Guadalupe, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that’s also reflected in his book, The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism. Born in India, educated at England’s Oxford University and in the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, he now resides in Melbourne, Arkansas, where he’s founder and director of the Institute for Sacred Activism. The goal of his international travel is to bring concerned people together to proactively face global crises.
Says Harvey, “Sacred activism is a fusion of two of the most powerful fires of the human psyche—the mystic’s passion for God and the activist’s passion for justice.”
Hallmarks of Spiritual Intent
The Awakening – Progressing from concerned citizen to spiritual activist is a gradual process. It may begin with an issue to which one feels called. “Our life in the world is a continual call and response,” observes Kabir Helminski, of Santa Cruz, California. He authors and translates books on the Muslim Sufi tradition, which tends to have an open relationship with other religions, and is a core faculty member of the Spiritual Paths Institute, which encourages seekers to find the sacred traditions that speak to them.
“Sometimes events are a waking dream calling for interpretation, and sometimes the heart is directly addressed from within,” says Helminski.
Compassion – Once an event moves us, prayer can be a pathway that opens our hearts to compassion, according to Jagadish Dass, of Granada Hills, California. The healer and teacher wrote The Prayer Project: The 3-Minute, 3 Times a Day Solution for World Change, which encourages involvement with something bigger than ourselves. Dass maintains that praying for three minutes, three times a day, will help us transmute into expressing a quiet power. “As we take responsibility for our lives, a transformation occurs within,” he says. We begin to inspire others to also take up the cause of working for change and bringing more peace, joy and love to the world.
Likewise, Harvey urges each of us to make a real commitment to daily spiritual practice on the road to spiritual activism. He suggests, “Start with a short prayer that aligns you with the pure deep love that is longing to use you as its instrument in the world.” Options include prayers from many of the world’s spiritual traditions shared in Dass’ book; a free download is provided at StewardshipOfTheSoul.com.
Interconnectedness – Just as everything in the universe is connected by the simple act of being, like-minded people can connect to do good in the world. Sacred activists pursuing their own spiritual paths need to work with others, according to Harvey. “They form empowering and encouraging networks of grace—beings of like heart, brought together by passion, skill and serendipity to pool energies, triumphs, griefs, hopes and resources of all kinds. When people of like mind and heart gather together, sometimes miraculously powerful synergy can result.”
Harvey has found that groups of six to 12 people become the most efficient and productive, whether joined together through a profession (such as physicians on medical missions), a passion for animal rights or the environment, or a strong sense of social justice.
Knowledge – Knowledge, both inward- and outward-seeking, is another key to doing good for all. Carla Goldstein, JD, chief external affairs officer at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, in Rhinebeck, New York, and cofounder of its Women’s Leadership Center, used her interest in women’s empowerment issues as a springboard to spiritual activism.
“For the first 20 years of my professional life, I focused on public policy and politics,” she says. “But something was missing in the rhetoric of taking care of each other.” Practicing yoga and meditation and receiving support during a personal health crisis prompted what she terms “an awakening understanding of a gap between personal change and systems change.” Goldstein came to question her own “rugged individualism” versus the interconnectedness she felt when people took care of her. “Can we actually move towards integrating these two ideals?” she asked herself. Knowledge about issues is readily available from experts and organizations that experts recommend; she observes, “The big question is: What is needed for us to be of help?”
Sometimes listening and understanding can be powerful. Under the auspices of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, Goldstein invited women on both sides of the reproductive rights issue to meet in 2005. They had been part of the Public Conversations Project in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts, begun after medical staff members were killed and wounded at an area women’s health clinic providing abortions in 1994.
“Women from the divided community initially came together to tell their stories,” Goldstein relates. “Over time, they developed a deep love for each other. Nobody changed their positions, but they did change how they interacted with one another.” They experienced a shift from emotional and verbal turbulence to, if not agreement, feelings of peace and understanding. Since then, the project has grown to facilitate such conversations in 38 states and 15 countries (PublicConversations.org).
Positive Action – While many thorny issues take long-term, dedicated efforts to be resolved, others only need smaller individual or collaborative actions for positive outcomes. For Mark Nepo, a New York City poet, philosopher and author of the New York Times bestseller, The Book of Awakening, kindness is the force behind positive action, no matter how modest at first.
“Kindness reveals kinship. It gives us connection to everything greater than us and everything else that is kind in the universe,” he says. “I think it’s powerfully effective, yet it’s such a small thing.”
Nepo is active in Bread for the Journey, an international nonprofit that encourages community grassroots philanthropic projects that generate micro-grants. One involved a small town in northern New Mexico that sought to improve the lives of local teenagers when the town’s elders wanted to open a youth center as a positive alternative to the drug scene. Just before the center was scheduled to open, the project ran out of money for required floodlights, so Bread for the Journey funded them and the center opened. “Within a few years, the whole culture shifted,” reports Nepo. This small contribution made a big difference to the whole community.
Once awakened and nurtured, spiritual activism can become an omnipresent part of our lives. Says Goldstein, “When you put spirit and activism together, you realize that all actions are connected to spirit. It makes you think about your duty in every instance—from how you treat people throughout your day to how you treat the environment. It becomes a satisfying way of living.”
Judith Fertig is a freelance writer from Overland Park, KS.