Part 4 of 5: Spiritual Practices
On Contemplative Practices
Contemplation is any practice designed to quiet the mind and cultivate a capacity for deep concentration and insight. While usually practiced in silence, some types of contemplative practice involve voice or other use of sound. Types of contemplative practice include prayer, meditation, mindful walking, yoga, vision quests and council circles.
Through contemplation the individual brings aspects of themselves into focus and becomes more fully aware of the interconnectedness of life. Contemplation can be a solitary experience or one that is communal. The intention with which a practice is done is a very important factor. Contemplation connects us with an inner source of wisdom – a deep spiritual dimension. While contemplative practices are today employed as practical tools for stress reduction and relaxation, their transformational potential is vast.
The spiritual potential of contemplation includes:
- Deep, focused attention that dissolves our preconceptions so that we can observe situations as they more truly are;
- Putting ourselves in another’s shoes as a way to bear witness to the suffering and pain of others;
- Paying attention to what is in your heart;
- Remaining open to outcomes and remaining unattached;
- Conceiving of loving action toward others and ourselves;
- Recommit ourselves to nonviolence, reverence for life, solidarity, justice, democratic practice and sustainability.
Silence, mindfulness, contemplation and discernment allow the mind to calm down and focus clearly on what is at hand. At times we direct our thoughts to certain topics or concerns and metaphorically send them out to the world. When we clear our minds of thoughts and attempt to just be with the breath, we focus on the embodied sensations of the moment. At other times we attempt to open our minds and hearts and be receptive to the wisdom of the universe (discernment)
Prayer is a particularly powerful spiritual practice which creates a sacred space, provides hope for what we are doing and connects us to the spirit of love. When praying I attempt to:
- Rejoice in the glorious wonder of the universe;
- Focus on what is in my heart;
- Remain humble;
- Speak the truth;
- Acknowledge the suffering of the world;
- Express gratitude for all I have;
- Recognize the changes I have to make;
- Imagine a better world made through good works;
- Recommit myself to others, and above all;
- Express love for my neighbors (and adversaries)
Contemplative spiritual practices can benefit political activists by allowing them to slow down and reflect on their circumstances. The numerous benefits of mindfulness have been documented by science.
On Direct Action as a Spiritual Practice
Practical theology shifts the concern in religion from sets of beliefs to real-world actions. The focus on praxis means that we must live our ideals. We affirm our worldviews through our actions. By strategic direct actions I am referring to long-term, large-scale plans to reach our goals of changing our social world. Revolutionary social change requires a wide range of strategies, including civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, lobbying, direct confrontation, obstruction and occupation.
By analyzing the root causes of our problems we hope to change the structural features of our social world, and not merely apply band-aids. Because of our commitments to collective liberation, we must build alliances with other groups, especially those who have been marginalized in our society. We remain committed to empowering disenfranchised people to change the social structures that deny them justice.
As a Dionysian Naturalist, I insist upon bringing carnivaleque pleasures and joyful celebration to my transformational politics. Since Seattle 1999 street protests in North America have become more theatrical and fun, with costumed clowns on stilts poking fun at militarized police squads. Song and dance and spiritual rituals do much to temper the tone of protest marches.
What religion brings to these social change actions is a focus on living our values. If we want to create a world that is just and compassionate, we must use strategies that are also just and compassionate. The “means” matter. As stated above, the revolution is how we live our lives. Through social movement participation we reveal our values and embody the ends we seek. I draw inspiration from Jesus’s words: “Love your enemies.”
Contemporary anarchist activism is very strong on these forms of “prefigurative politics” in which we put our values into action through praxis, and have means that resonate with the ends. Anarchists are committed to address all forms of domination, and attempt to deal with these, even among activists themselves. And these internal concerns are truly exciting because who wants to listen to radical activists who talk a good revolution but do not have their own house in order. Sexism, racism and homophobia (and other forms of oppression) pervade all institutional forms on the North American continent, including progressive social movements.
Nonviolence is a cardinal principle for the forms of social change I advance. Collective liberation must not harm others. We must learn from the great nonviolent revolutionaries who have changed the world for us, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Caesar Chavez. Change agents must remain noble, dignified and above rebuke as they critique existing institutions. They must never attack personalities, but must focus on principles.
All forms of direct action must be thoughtfully considered. Is the destruction of private property justified? Obviously the “disruption” of the normal routines of public lives must be interrupted. But how much? Even “protests” must be spiritually motivated and never mean or hateful.
Self-Bound Thinking in Modernity is a Spiritual Disease
Modernity is a “civilizational epoch” noted for industrial capitalism and increases in the rationalization of social practices. It has been an epoch of many scientific discoveries and technological inventions that continue to alter our lifestyles. For the first time in history humans have a sense of the age and size of the Universe, and are beginning to understand the processes by which it operates. We are beginning to grasp our place in the cosmos and know that we are the Universe reflecting back on itself. As noted above, modernity has caused massive ecological damage, created levels of inequality unrivaled by any other time in human history, and produced a mass psychology of misery, in which alienation, nihilism and cynicism abound. Quite frankly, modernity isn’t working and must be crushed. (We need to learn how to correct these many problems caused by modernity, while keeping modernity’s benefits.)
Modernity must be brought to a close and a new society made in its place. We need a new social system based on sustainability, justice and love. There seems to be broad agreement among progressive change agents that if we are going to undertake a massive transformation of our social structures to deal with our ecological crisis, we should seize this opportunity to address other major social problems. Within the last few years there has emerged a growing literature exploring this potential transformation in social systems, often called The Great Turning or The Great Transition.
The root cause of many of our current social ills is a particularly modern form of egotism –a self-bound and self-centered type of thinking which dominates the populations of western industrial civilization, as well as the ruling classes of most of the world. This mindset allows people to focus so exclusively on their own needs and situations that they fail to take into account the perspectives of others—both human and other living beings.
Regarding our ecological problems we fail to grasp the perspectives of other life forms. With our prevailing anthropocentric thinking we totally ignore the perspectives of other species. Within the modern era, certainly in “western” societies, we tend to regard Nature as merely a resource that is there to serve human needs and desires. We fail to value the inherent worth of every life form. We are so wrapped up in our almighty human perspectives that seeing the world from the point of view of polar bears, jack rabbits and starlings goes far beyond our current imagination.
Regarding our problems of inequality and oppression we fail to grasp the perspectives of other human beings who are less fortunate than us. Our self-bound thinking and egotistical mindsets prevent those in power or who have unearned privileges from grasping the perspectives of those without power or privilege,
Genetics, modern childrearing practices and a culture of radical individualism cultivate a myopic self-consciousness which blocks the empathy required to grasp the suffering of other beings, both human and other life forms. The result has been an egotism and anthropocentrism which, as stated above, are the root causes of our ecological crisis and many other social problems.
The biological evolution of human beings over hundreds of thousands of years has created a mental system in which our “default position” includes a “tendency to analyze everything as an immediate, personal phenomenon: what does this mean to me” (Ornstein and Ehrlich 1989, p. 93)11. While our biological nature is relatively fixed and difficult to mold, another aspect of our psychology is adaptive and molds to fit the needs of society. This “social character” (Erich Fromm) exacerbates the self-referencing of our biological nature. Capitalism has a ruling ethos stating: “if only everyone strives for himself on the market, the common good will come of it”12. Our private dealings are governed by egotism, with people typically out for themselves.
And this egotism begets anthropocentrism, which is a form of that same self-bound thinking brought to the species level. We have become alienated from the natural world and have become disconnected from other living beings and therefore discount their inherent value, while inflating our own value.
In order to empathize with another we must step outside of our heads and take their perspective. Without the ability to empathize we lack compassion, and treat the world harshly and coldly. This lack of empathy and absence of compassion amounts to a “spiritual disease” because it eliminates reverence from our lives. At the heart of many religious traditions is the Golden Rule which instructs us to treat others the way we wish to be treated. Exploring the emergence of the Golden Rule across the globe during the “Axial Age”, religious historian Karen Armstrong argues that sages such as Confucius, the Buddha and Jesus each created “spiritual technologies” that utilized natural human energies to counter aggression (Karen Armstrong p. 390)13. Their programs were designed to eliminate the egotism which causes violence.
I want to build on this insight, yet to expand its scope to include all living beings. We need to treat all living beings with respect and reverence, not just other humans. We must eliminate the anthropocentrism which pervades our thinking and develop an ecological consciousness.
“Thinking Like a Mountain” as a Spiritual Practice
To re-kindle their awareness of their spiritual connections to other humans and to other living beings, many modern humans may require a program designed to eradicate their egotism and anthropocentrism. Here I propose as a spiritual practice an exercise I call “thinking like a mountain”, which is designed just for those purposes.
In his classic Sand County Almanac (originally published in 1949), Aldo Leopold urges us to “think like a mountain”. At one point in that book we are following Leopold as he follows the tracks of a skunk in the January snow. We learn to think of different animals as subjects rather than objects, as beings that have their own goals and their own perspectives on the world. As a youth, Leopold kills a wolf and watches the “fierce green fire” die in her eyes. This event leads to an epiphany in which he comes to realize how, while killing the wolf might seem beneficial to the hunter as it allows the deer population to swell, for the mountain and for the wolf, it might not be such a good thing. The deer population’s boom could lead to a drastic reduction in vegetation available for other species.
Like the young Leopold who shot the wolf, we often are so focused on our roles and our needs that we unintentionally ignore the roles of others. To “think like a mountain” is to see the “big picture”, to take a holistic perspective, to grasp the delicate interconnectedness of the web of existence. It entails being able to simultaneously take the perspective of a whole ecosystem. When we grasp our deep connections to the world this amounts to a “moment of grace” in that we realize that our well-being is linked to the well-being of our planet.
To cultivate a habit of reverence for others, whether those others are human or non-human, animate or inanimate, we must transcend the egotism and anthropocentrism so prevalent in modernity. To have empathy for another entity or to understand another’s perspective requires that we get out of our own heads. It is only by stepping outside the confines of our routine patterns of self-bound thinking and consciousness that we can transcend the self-absorption which blocks our sensitivity to our environment and the other living beings found therein. As we become aware of the plurality of perspectives, our sense of having a privileged perspective melts away.
By letting go of our self-obsession and putting ourselves in the role of other beings and grasping their vital role in the interconnected web of existence, we take a step towards the humility demanded for an ecological consciousness. By nurturing this new “other-directed” mind-set and more humble state of being, we can even acquire a constant sacred consciousness, fully feeling the presence of all life around us
The heart of this spiritual practice is a guided meditation, in which we take a journey back through deep time to explore the evolutionary pathways of the atoms in our bodies and the previous life forms from which we have descended. Perhaps some of our atoms emerged almost fourteen billion years ago briefly after the Big Bang, while others emerged from generations of supernova. Moving forward we imagine each of our predecessors as ancestors, whether these ancestors are bacteria, sponges, fish or lizards.
Our bodies are merely the latest incarnation of our being. When we realize that we are kin with all other life forms and even closely related to all other elements in the universe, we escape our self-bound thinking and the egotism and anthropocentrism so prevalent in our thinking. When we truly grasp the interconnected web of existence and the inherent value of all it contains, we begin to “think like a mountain”.
While most humans exclusively identify with their humanness, the point of this inner journey is to recognize our intimate relationship with other species, all other life forms and even the soils beneath our feet and the stars above our heads. The ancient savannah still dwells within our veins. As our memories return a change in consciousness will occur as we replace the anthropocentric structures of our minds with awareness of how evolution and ecology combined to bring our species to this point.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.