As a political activist in the 1960’s, I was an avowed atheist who believed that religion was the opium of the people. Then I snapped out of it and became a spiritual activist. Now politics was the opium of the people. My point of view had shifted from Marx to Carl Jung, who said that “If the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption.” I spent several years blissfully detached from world events. Vietnam, which had once drawn me to the barricades, became as removed as the Crimean War. I observed Watergate as if it were a Shakespearean tragedy or a Monte Python sketch.
I had gone from one extreme to the other, from an exclusive focus on the domain of the Caesars to an exclusive focus on what I perceived as the domain of God. Gradually, I shifted to a more mature and balanced position, trying to be an informed and engaged citizen while at the same time viewing events in a spiritual perspective and holding firm to my practices and principles. Now, as we witness the health care debate and other political spectacles, I find myself reflecting once again on the relationship between spirituality and social/political involvement.
On the one hand, by turning our gaze inward to the true source of happiness, spiritual teachings can foster detachment from social problems. This is especially true of traditions that promote renunciation and withdrawal, or that portray the sound and fury of worldly affairs as illusory, or even toxic. Many seekers stand back from active participation, feeling that they are doing their bit to heal the planet by being as loving and compassionate as they can be, or by attuning themselves to whatever they see as the source of higher morality. Some are content to meditate for world peace, or to join in communal prayer aimed at alleviating collective suffering.
On the other hand, the spiritual path can lead to direct social and political engagement. In most teachings, contributing in some way to making the world a better place is a central requirement of religious or spiritual life. For some of the faithful, that translates into personal acts of selfless service; for others it means writing checks in support of worthy causes; and for still others, it entails campaigning for political candidates or carrying picket signs or otherwise stepping into the corridors of power.
Needless to say, if we swing too far in the first direction, we can become spiritual narcissists, totally focused on our own development. But, if we swing too far the other way, we might do some good in the world but neglect our own spiritual well-being—in which case our ability to have a meaningful impact on matters that concern us will be compromised.
With rare exceptions, those who take their spiritual lives seriously eventually feel the impulse to make the world a better place. Whether your model is Mother Teresa-like service or Gandhi-like activism, whether your code is Christian charity, or Jewish tzeddakah (acts of righteousness), or Muslim zakat (giving to the poor), whether you abide by the Buddhist precepts or the Hindu yamas (virtues), or whether you are simply moved by the inner flowering of the heart, at some point the inner voice asks, “How can I help?” not just “What do I need?” An increase of concern and compassion is one of the byproducts of genuine spiritual practice; those qualities flow quite naturally when one’s awareness expands and senses a kinship with other beings. The funny thing is, when we put that impulse into practice, we come to realize that there is really no conflict between spirituality and social engagement. If you approach each of those dimensions in a way that suits your personality and circumstances, they tend to reinforce and strengthen one another: a rich inner life feeds one’s worldly actions, and right actions uplift and enlarge the spirit.
Certainly, not every seeker is also a warrior. But too many of us have made such an obsession of self-improvement that we’ve failed to respond to the crying needs of the world. The planet needs citizens who live spiritual values not just talk about them, who apply spiritual principles not just hide behind them or use them as a rallying cry for fanaticism. We each have to find our own mission. If yours is not obvious, turn within, get out of the way and listen for the whispers of your better angels. But don’t be surprised if you also hear the voice of resistance. Your ego might hold on for dear life, placing before you all the personal needs and desires that cry out for attention: “What’s in it for you? You’re too busy. How much good can little old you do?”
You may feel ill-equipped to have an impact on the world stage. It may seem that your efforts to influence an election or shift the social currents or save the environment amount to nothing more than the “hill of beans” that Bogart referred to in “Casablanca.” But your vote counts, every check you write makes a difference, every act of kindness adds up. As Buddha reportedly said, “Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit. Even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel.”