This question of ‘activism’ and ‘right action’ is becoming increasingly important for me these days, as I stand at life’s cross roads and contemplate what path to take forward. I’ve been volunteering for many ‘social change’ activities since college days, like ‘educating’ poor children, spending time at old age homes, being a part youth collectives, awareness spreading and information dissemination, corporate environmentalism, etc. Apart from these direct involvements, I’ve also had the opportunity to interact closely with many activist friends from diverse backgrounds, philosophies, and approaches to social change. Needless to say, these experiences have been quite enriching and have thrown up many further questions and insights which have guided my path so far. However, I now am losing the inner meaning these activities had held for me and am revisiting some of the root questions again.
One of the issues I think about often is that of ‘social change’. A lot of people I get to meet or hear about in the media, from the president of the country, to corporate bosses, to NGO do-gooders, to the young school children in our classes everybody want to change the world, ‘develop’ the country etc. As I said earlier, there are many philosophies and approaches regarding this, and I am trying to see where I fit in amidst all this. What is my understanding of social change? Why change at all? How is it interrelated with the individual? What is ‘right action’ in an increasingly reactionary society?
While I don’t have too many answers yet, I feel they are closely linked to the understanding of what the “problem” is? Do I merely hold our problems to be as Environmental Degradation, Economic Globalization, Business Corporations, Schools, George Bush (and Dick Cheney), Limitless Growth, Farmer Suicides, Riots and Wars, Corruption, The Oil Crash, Loss of Bio-Diversity, ‘Development’, etc.? Or are these reflections of a deeper rot, within us and our inter-relationships? Can these issues be “solved” or even genuinely addressed without understanding their real roots? I think any response (including whatever ‘activism’ is held to be) that doesn’t go deep enough and address the real roots of the crisis will only end up becoming superficial reactions that spawn further reactions.
Initially, I perceived these to be disjointed issues that had to be ‘fixed’. If the numerous such ‘problems’ are to be ‘solved’, there would be peace and happiness in the world. Then as I dabbled more with philosophy and spirituality to deal with some unpleasant happenings in life, I found my perception of these problems also changed over time. I no longer feel that these are disconnected issues but are the manifestations of the growing chaos and fragmentation inside us individuals and communities. And these external manifestations cannot be genuinely dealt with, without an inwardly pilgrimage towards spontaneous order and wholeness.
That said, I also feel it’s very vital to understand how deeply entrenched we are inside the “machine”1, as much as it is rooted inside us. It is like a well grown tree that goes as deep below the ground, as tall as it grows above it. We share a vicious and dynamic relationship with it, we mould the “machine” and it shapes us in return. I feel most of activism today fails to address this dynamic duality.
I’ve seen friends who hold very powerful critiques on the system, its institutions, and the destruction they wreak on our lives and environments, then (unintentionally) mirroring the very values they critique in their own organizations, ways of being and relating to each other and the earth. On the other hand, there are also friends who are involved very intently in looking at personal change and spiritual transformation, then with perfectly good intentions go about spreading ‘education’ or starting new schools and companies! Some have even shied away from all things ‘political’ and turn their attention only to matters of ‘self-change’.
Today, as much as we need a revolution in our states of being, we also require an intimate knowledge of how this oppressive, violent system works at all levels. Apart from learning to look at each other with new eyes, we also need to evolve fresh ways of organizing human activity (economic, social and political) to facilitate the flowering of life, rather than stifle it. I see no way out of our individual and collective crises until this dichotomy is bridged, the split between Radical Critique and Radical Spirituality. I feel the ‘activism’ we need today is the living of our lives as embodiments of both these at the same time. Lives of Resistance and Regeneration as two sides of the same coin.
So coming back to my situation, where do I stand now? I have all these opinions and so what do I do with them? It has taken many months for this understanding to emerge. Along the way, seeing things inside and around me I’ve felt confused, paralysed, angry, frustrated, fear-filled, tongue tied, unsure, depressed etc at various points. During this time I have also pretty much withdrawn from any form of social action. But of late, I can feel the clouds lifting and I am becoming more articulate and confident to venture out of the shell. The road ahead looks exciting and bumpy. Hope I develop enough love and wisdom to keep going.
1. Considering the times we live in, its values and its prime metaphors, I find the label “machine” more convenient to use than other labels like the “problem”, “society” etc.
(Originally written for “Reflections on Now Activism” , Aug ’07)
Prof Devdas Menon’s Response:
Your article is extremely well-written! Perhaps, it may help you to know that many people world-wide share your views and concerns and confusions, although in terms of percentages, it is still a small number. It is reflective of the emergence of a post-green meme or second-tier level of awareness (in the language of ‘spiral dynamics’, which you could look up in the web). Your approach resonates well with Ken Wilber’s integral movement (of which I happen to be a member). However, to answer your specific question, my view is that the only place where conflict and confusion get dissolved in toto is in the state of pure Being or Big Mind. I would hesitate to pass judgement on mystics who have been rooted entirely in this state. Was someone like Ramana Maharshi, for example, in a state of “self-delusion”? My suggestion, therefore, is to first discover and get immersed in Being, and anchored in that state, allow action to be directed. Nearly all so-called social activists have no clue of this state of Being, and acting totally from the perspective of the fragmented ego-self, no matter how altruistic, is, in my view, a heavy kind of delusion. Action rooted in Being can have many dimensions and directions, and this is something we will dwell on in our future sessions. But, first things first. Find deep inner peace. That will remain our focus.
Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that all boundaries involving “me” (or “our group”), as different from “not me” (or “others”) are ultimately self-delusion.