In the age of Trump, a man who has by now clearly shown us that his leadership instincts are authoritarian and that his allegiance is tied only to himself and those who can pay for it, who among us is responsible for speaking up and out? Who among us has the obligation to get involved in politics at any level? Who are the activists? Who will do the work that must now be done if we hope to see a healthy, safe, and free future for ourselves and our children?
There are few people doubting anymore that Trump’s win caused a rippling awakening. Activism movements are on the rise and holding steady. Millions of people who never have before are speaking out: protesting, calling, writing, contributing.
But what I’m most curious and increasingly frustrated about is this: Where are the spiritual practitioners in the activist movement? Don’t those of us who have had the opportunity to cultivate skill-sets that revolve around mindfulness and oneness have an obligation to speak out? In fact, don’t we have an even greater obligation to speak out, as befits these skill-sets, than our non-practicing friends and family?
There are, after all, a lot of us. Just consider these staggering yoga statistics alone: As per a recent joint study between Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, 36 million people now practice yoga in this country. That’s roughly 10% of our population. Ten percent is halfway to the tipping point, as written about in the book of that name, by Malcolm Gladwell. The tipping point is the point at which our collective consciousness shifts/expands/rises to accommodate the new, higher vibration the minority has been working for. This is when the entire culture takes a giant step forward. Even those who did no work at all benefit from the work of the minority. That’s how ideas go global, or viral, or become common knowledge cross continents.
At this halfway point, we’ve already done a lot of consciousness shifting. This assumes, of course, that when people say they are studying yoga, they are referring to consciousness-shifting activities, including meditation, reflection, and reassessment. Sadly, I think it’s just as likely that a large percentage of that 36 million are simply taking yoga to reap physical benefits, and care little for the deep spiritual well of which the physical poses are only the pretty bubbles on top. But even then, with a few small moments of silence and time spent alone with our bodies, some consciousness must be affected.
So…where are the spiritual practitioners and leaders now, today, when we need their wisdom and care the most?
Is it just me? Because I didn’t see them at the voting booths. I didn’t see mobs of mala-wearing, kali-chanting yoga practitioners in the pictures of protests and marches from all around the globe. I still don’t see people marching out of their yoga studios after a blissful practice to head over to the nearest city hall. I can’t even say I hear their voices online.
There were and are exceptions—Deepak Chopra and Andrew Harvey—but it was overwhelmingly silence from the masses of yoga teachers, who, perhaps chose to not discomfort their students, that I’ve seen since election. I understand this to some degree—the desire to create a space free from conflict and discomfort. Unfortunately, this reads as apathy and even some of that nasty elitism we hear so much about. After all, only people who are likely to be largely unaffected with possible legislation would have the leisure to say “let’s just not talk about politics.”
It seems to me that at some point during 2016, when the campaigns heated up and divisions among Republicans and Democrats only widened, spiritual teachers too divided into two camps: those who would speak about politics, and those who would refuse. Sadly, I have found many more choose to keep their classes focused on “light and love,” even while the practices of light and love were never meant to be passive or left behind in the studio. They were always supposed to be embodied and shared. How better to do this than to get involved in politics?
It seems to me that too many people have decided that spirituality and politics don’t mix.
But if our spiritual practices weren’t preparing us to be stronger, wiser, kinder people as we operate in the world, what were they for?
As Andrew Harvey states in his book Radical Passion: Sacred love and Wisdom in Action, “…mysticism [spirituality] alone isn’t going to do it, and activism alone isn’t going to do it, but there is a deep truth in both that can be united and can create in each of us the deep, rich, mature individual that can then act from that wealth of inner awakening to help and serve and transform the world.”
We cannot create a healthier world by stepping back from the light of the truth.
We cannot create a fairer world by silencing our voice.
We cannot cultivate peace through passive actions.
Not only should spiritual practitioners get involved in political activism, they are even more well-equipped than their non-practicing counterparts. Here are 10 reasons why:
Whether you practice yoga, consider yourself a Buddhist, or simply devote yourself to the practice of everyday kindness, mindfulness is a corner stone of your life. Mindfulness means developing the capacity to not react to life, but instead respond appropriately to it. The difference between reaction and response is space. In that space, which works like a buffer, we can reflect and choose. Anyone who has practiced mindfulness with any degree of commitment would be well-equipped in a stressful debate or protest. They would not so easily be triggered into saying things that end up hurting the cause. They could stay centered while considering how best to respond to a moment. Their cool-headedness is a salve to the fires that arise around them.
2) An awareness of our Interconnectedness
Whether we are chanting Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu (May all beings everywhere be happy and free), or extending our reach from Warrior II into the hearts and minds of all people, spiritual practitioners know that we are all connected. We are one human heart with many limbs. When one part of the whole hurts, we rally around to heal. Spiritual practitioners choose to not cut themselves off energetically. That means they should not cut themselves off from the political realm.
3) Ability, willingness and even enthusiasm for sitting in discomfort.
If you’ve ever taken a yin yoga class in which the practitioner stays in one pose for 5-6 minutes, or a hot yoga class where the temperature rises beyond 100 degrees, or even a simple beginners class where the stretch in the hips can bring one to tears, you know that yoga practitioners have a willingness to sitting in discomfort (not pain) to “stretch” beyond their current limits. They don’t just undertake discomfort for its own sake, they understand the higher purpose—the growth and maturity—behind it. And so we must also choose the discomfort of reading the news every day, conversing about difficult topics with difficult people as often as we can, and in any other way begin to see that our discomfort with politics is a necessary step towards stretching ourselves beyond what we think is possible.
4) A Chosen code of ethics
Most practitioners of spirituality have taken on a moral code that for them feels right. Rather than simply inheriting or accepting on a set of codes, when we truly do the work to ask ourselves what we stand for, we tend to be more steadfast in that conviction. Now, we have the training to look beyond rhetoric to the truth of what we are hearing or seeing and decide: does this fall in line with my morals? Or is is this something I must add a voice of dissent to?
5) Incessant Truth-Seekers
I’ve yet to meet a spiritual practitioner who doesn’t seek a higher truth, who doesn’t take refuge in the many truth-speakers of our time—be they books or teachers or nature herself. Anyone who has committed to this level of truth-hunting in the spiritual world can easily transfer those skills to the political realm. Yes, hunting for truth there might be a bit more of a needle-in-haystack job, but our bullshit meters and rat-sniffers are generally in good working order. We have learned how to see it all—our shadows included—without flinching, because we know that only if we are willing to see it all can we change anything.
6) Committed to staying awake
Those of us who have committed to a spiritual path know that what we’ve really committed to is staying awake, staying aware, and continuing to expand our consciousness. But how can we do this if we fall asleep or turn a blind eye while millions lose healthcare, or school children lose access to healthy lunch, or we as a country lose the right to a fair investigation into whether or not our president has colluded with Russia? How can we say that we are awake and aware if we close our eyes to the things that underpin our entire society? We cannot separate politics from spirituality any more than we can separate the policies from the people they impact.
7) We’ve learned how to embody the actions needed.
Think about the verbs used in a yoga class: ground, reach, extend, fold, open, plant, stretch, lift. All of these verbs now have meaning within our bodies. We know what it feels like to be grounded, to find balance, to open our chests and breathe deeply. These are all the same verbs needed to be active in the political realm. We must take what we have embodied and use it in the world everyday. If, when we roll up our yoga mats, we roll up these practices, we have done an injustice to the great masters. We have forgotten that yoga was never supposed to stay on the mat. The mat is practice. Politics is real life.
8) A certain amount of privilege, or opportunity, is built-in to the lives of spiritual practitioners
If you are one who is able to find the time in your life to engage in spiritual practices, it is quite likely that you also have enough to eat, a place to sleep, and some comfy yoga clothes to practice in. In other words, you are in a position of privilege in which the basic needs have been met. We owe it to those who are struggling to meet their basic needs to fight on their behalf. A cause does not have to be “ours” to get involved.
9) Development of discernment, detachment, resiliency, patience, compassion.
The cues of listen to your body, and listen to your soul, are all cues that help train up discernment. By listening, we learn to honor ourselves. We know when we can move in further, we know when we need to retreat to rest. By allowing ourselves to be put in the fires of refinement, we gain resiliency. And no spiritual practice is authentic if we are not cultivating patience and compassion and so many more of the very qualities that are needed right now.
10) Passionate love of humanity and mother earth.
It’s not enough to stay it. It’s not enough to chant it. Please, enough thoughts and prayers. We must get out there, stand up, and show up. We all can do better, each day, to offer love, kindness and compassion to each other. I still believe that love is stronger than hate, but only if it’s active and moving. If it’s dormant, if it’s afraid, it loses it’s power.
Yoga was never supposed to be about perfecting Warrior II. It’s just a rest stop along the way. Keep going, learn what Warrior II has come to teach us about how to be in the world: grounded, awake, active, engaged, steady, open-hearted.
Spiritual practices have always been about how to use the tools we gain in everyday life.
Activism consists of promoting, impeding, educating, and in any other way working in the world to make it better.
Spiritual activism blends the two, and as such is the outreach of the insights and equanimity we receive through our spiritual practices.
If you see injustice, fight for justice.
If you see unfairness, fight for fairness.
If you see unkindness, fight for kindness.
If not now, then when? If not us, than who? We must stop seeking heroes out there, and begin looking within. We are all we have. We are it. Onward, spiritual activists.