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Politics As Spiritual Practice


The Dubrovnik Conference on the Alchemy of Peacebuilding
June 4-11, 2002

Sunday, June 9, 2002
Morning speech by
Larry Robinson <>
Former Mayor of Sebastopol, CA


"Politics as Spiritual Practice"


We are on the threshold of ecological disaster. The West's grand experiment in democracy seems to be on the verge of failure. Simultaneously, an unprecedented proportion of our population is engaged in spiritual practice. Yet many religious traditions have encouraged detachment from the world. Psychology has compounded the problem by viewing soul as a subset of the psyche, rather than as an inherent property of the world. All of this has served to banish soul from the world. If the anima mundi, is to be restored, it will be through the mature outward expression of deep spiritual work. Can we re-imagine political engagement, not as an "unspiritual" activity, but, in itself, as a spiritual practice?



Politics As Spiritual Practice


We are living in desperate times: a culture of death, bereft of Soul and worshipping the machine. We are on the threshold of ecological disaster. The West's grand experiment in democracy seems to be on the verge of failure, while it becomes increasingly clear that what we like to call the "developing nations" never will be developed, but merely exploited. Simultaneously, an unprecedented proportion of our population is engaged in spiritual practice. This is an interesting juxtoposition.

A vigorous cross-pollination of spiritual and cultural traditions is taking place all over the world. One example of this is the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi, the Sufi mystic who was born in what is now Afghanistan. Currently he is the best selling poet in America. In one of his poems he says,

"I've broken through to longing
Now, filled with a grief I have
Felt before, but never like this.
The center leads to love.
Soul opens the creation core.
Hold on to your particular pain.
That too can take you to God."

Undoubtedly the resurgence of the spiritual is, in no small measure, a response to the times and to the pervasive sense of helplessness which sickens us. Throughout human history, an interest in the spiritual has grown in times of crisis. Much of this movement has been towards escape: escape from complexity, from fear and despair, and from the overwhelming weight of the world's suffering.

Many spiritual traditions have encouraged this escape, warning people to avoid attachment to the world, or teaching that all existence is illusory, or promising a better world somewhere else. Psychology has contributed to this escape by viewing soul as a subset of the psyche, rather than as an inherent property of the world. All of this has served to banish soul from the world. We live as exiles in a Babylon of our own making.
In the words of Denise Levertov,

"Through the midnight streets of Babylon
between the steel towers of their arsenals,
between the torture castles with no windows,
we race by barefoot, holding tight
our candles, trying to shield
the shivering flames, crying
"Sleepers Awake!"
the rhyme's promise was true,
that we may return
from this place of terror
home to a calm dawn and
the work we had just begun."

In such an environment, is it any wonder that politics should have lost its soul? Of course we have become cynical about our political commons. Our educational systems offer us an idealized view of our own governments, then we grow up to see the corrupting influence of greed for money or power upon the political process. Yet if we lack the skill of critical thinking, historical understanding or access to a deep structural analysis of how our political and economic systems have come to be, we can imagine that power itself is inherently corrupting and that all politics are corrupt.

It is important to remember that cynicism is the flip side of naivite; that cynicism and naivite inevitably re-create each other. Too many spiritual practitioners think of politics as either unworthy or unimportant. Some even convince themselves that visualizations, affirmations and meditation are all that are necessary to change the world. They become idiots, in the original sense of the word: the private person who does not participate in the life of the polis.

Western culture has no shortage of money or technological skill. What we lack is imagination. We must cultivate the capacity to imagine a world other than the one of injustice, war and environmental destruction. But we must also carefully differentiate imagination from fantasy. Fantasy is a function of ego, uninformed by a deeper understanding of the nature of reality. Imagination is a property of the universe, itself which speaks to us through art and poetry, dreams and myths. Imagination can be a powerful tool for change, but only if it is grounded in clear perception, deep structural analysis and intelligent action.

Edmund Burke said that "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Too many good men and women in our time have been doing nothing. We are in great danger and it will take all of our efforts to avert disaster.

We are also poised on the edge of a great transformation, as a culture and as a species. As we come to understand the interconnectedness of all things, it becomes increasingly clear that individual salvation cannot be divorced from our collective salvation. It is also becoming clear that each of us is essential to the collective transformation; that the tapestry of our shared life is woven from the threads of our individual lives.

Ecclesiastes says "for everything there is a season."
You say "It's tax season;
it's baseball season; it's allergy season;
I've got to season the steak on the barbie;
besides, I don't have time to change the world."

Goethe tells us of the genius, power and magic in boldness.
You say "What can I do, anyway?
The foxes are guarding the henhouse;
the juggernaught is out of control;
we're all just snowflakes in a windstorm."

The mountain asks "Which snowflake, falling,
will be the one to send down the avalanche
to change this entire landscape?"

It may be that the times themselves are now calling on those peole who have been doing intensive spiritual work to bring the fruits of that labor forth into the world in the service of that great transformation. In fact, the mindful practice of politics can itself be a powerful form of spiritual practice. As Rainer Maria Rilke said, "The future enters into us to transform itself in us long before it happens."

A key concept in alchemical transformation is that of enantiadromia: that all things change into their opposites. Every pathological condition contains the seeds of its own healing. We might ask what war is trying to become - what are the transformative spiritual longings for which war is a toxic substitute.

Psychologist Lawrence Le Shan says that "The promise of war offers a clean conscience, full membership in a group, meaningfulness to one's actions and intensity in one's life, and a chance to change to an easier, less stressful, more magical way of organizing reality. Where else can you get all that at once?" war also promises escape from the ordinary. The human heart contains an innate longing to manifest and embody the qualities of courage, love and sacrifice to something greater than the self. If we wish to evolve beyond war - and I believe that our survival as a species requires it - we need to create other ways of meeting these longings.

Gandhi said that "Those who think religion and politics are not connected don't know much about politics, nor about religion." In an understandable and sincere attempt to free politics from the tyranny which organized religion has too often exerted over the human spirit, the liberal humanist movement may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The first amendment to the United States Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

This separation of church and state is one of our most precious protections in both civic and spiritual life. However, in defending that right we have divorced political expression from the spiritual - to our great detriment. The challenge we face is to re-sacralize the political without opening the door to the dictatorship of religious ideology, even our own.
The Welsh poet David Whyte reminds us that

"This is not the age of information
Turn off the news and the radio
And the blurred screen.
This is a time for loaves and fishes.
People are hungry
And one good word is bread for a thousand."

Ultimately, politics is about story-telling - about which story will prevail. Stories tell us who we are and where we belong. They give meaning to our lives and to our suffering. In an age of fear and uncertainty, people are hungry for a story which shows us a way through the current darkness. The religious right in America, India, Europe, Japan and the Middle East understand this hunger and is using it to gain increasing political advantage. The story they tell may be reassuring to many, but ultimately it is a false, destructive and dangerous one.

As progressives, we have failed to tell a story which adequately addresses this spiritual hunger. We must seek our own spiritual inspiration to articulate this story. We need to listen for the new story which is emerging from the human spirit and from the Earth itself in response to our times. I believe that this story is inextricably linked to the story of democracy, justice and partnership with all things. But in telling this story, we must not impose our beliefs on others.The key point here is that we must clearly differentiate vision from belief and practice from ideology.

Spiritual practice means bringing spiritual understanding into practice, making it manifest in the world, in our everyday lives. This requires that we embody our deepest understanding of the nature of reality.

As long as we see spiritual work and political work as separate, we contribute to the loss of soul. If we are ever to restore the soul of the world - the anima mundi - we must restore soul to politics. We can only do this by bringing our deepest truths to our engagement in the life of the community and of the world. Ultimately, it is who we are in the engagement rather than any policy or program we may implement which will bring about the transformation we seek. As D. H. Lawrence says, "Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me; a fair wind is blowing the new direction of time. If only I let it bear me, carry me; if only it carry me..."

The dominant story of our time has been one of domination and violence: the subjugation of Nature, of the feminine and of the indigenous. War and other forms of violence, global corporatism, the mercantilization of democracy, the commodification of the Earth, the increasing disparity between those who have and those who don't, our addiction to petroleum, unsustainable patterns of consumption, the poisoning of our air and water, disruption of the climatic balance of the planet, and the shredding of the very fabric of life are not accidents of history; nor are they simply human nature. They are both the symptoms and the inevitable consequences of the dominant story.

This story has cost us our connection to the sacred, resulting in a profound loneliness and hunger. There is an old Greek myth about a wealthy landowner named Erysichthon. One day, while cutting wood, he came across a great oak sacred to the goddess Demeter. His men recognized the tree for what it was and felt the proper awe. Erysichthon saw only the potential for profit and ordered his men to fell the great tree. When they refused, he seized an axe, decapitated his foreman, who had tried to protect the tree, and proceeded to cut it down.

When Demeter learned of this sacrilege, she placed a curse on him such that whatever he ate would only increase his hunger. He consumed everything he had, including his own children and, eventually, himself. This story is emblematic of western culture's dysfunctional condition. We have severed our connection to the very source of life and as a result we are possessed by an ever-growing hunger which we try to fill by consuming more and more and, in the process, destroying the fabric of life which sustains us.

The politics engendered by the old story are based upon coercion, control and exploitation. The old politics can never eliminate war and injustice. In fact, they lead inevitably to war and injustice. A new kind of politics is emerging with the new story, based on models of partnership, of stewardship, of respect for life and for diversity - the return of the organic. As Novalis, the 17th century German poet said,

"When geometric diagrams and digits
Are no longer keys to living things,
When people who about singing or kissing
Know deeper truths than the great scholars,
When society is returned once more
To the unimprisoned life, and to the universe,
And when light and darkness mate
Once more and make something entirely transparent,
and people see in poems and fairy tales
The true history of the world,
Then our entire twisted nature will turn
And run when a single secret word is spoken."

We have some inspiring historical examples of the new politics, such as Gandhi's Satyagraha movement, Martin Luther King Junior's commitment to non-violence and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But more and more, we are seeing it in the practices of grass roots organizations all over the world, trying to effect social change without compromising their core values. Bilbo Baggins said, "It's the little people who turn the wheels of the world, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."

The new politics is rooted in our growing awareness of the radical interconnectedness of all things. It recognizes that the means must be consistent with the ends; that, in fact, the means determine the ends. If we are to give birth to a new politics - to a new world - we must live it to the deepest parts of ourselves.

To practice the new politics requires that we embody its principles, that, to paraphrase Gandhi, we become the change we wish to see in the world. If we commit to this principle, politics itself becomes a spiritual practice. It compels us to do the inner work necessary to become or remain congruent with our spiritual ideals. At the same time, it calls us to share with the world the fruits of our spiritual labors.

We might imagine a spiritual political platform for our own lives based on the following 12 planks. We might even use such a platform as a standard against which to measure our specific political agendas.

1. Listen carefully/pay attention, both internally and externally.

2. Maintain your commitment to truth and non-violent communication even if it means losing on a particular issue.

3. Own your projections.

4. Admit when you are wrong.

5. Practice compassion for everyone you encounter; the enemy is ignorance, greed and fear, not those who are their captives.

6. Ask questions.

7. Hold opinons lightly.

8. Hold your larger vision, but attend to the details.

9. Let go of the outcome, but don't become indifferent.

10. Cultivate equanimity.

11. Seek wise counsel.

12. Persevere.


These planks can be seen as guidelines for practice, not rules for behavior. What is important in spiritual practice is the attempt, not the success. It is the struggle to achieve an ideal, not the achievement of it, which does the real work of soul-making. Rilke says,

"I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers' sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings."

That angel which chooses to wrestle with us, does so for a reason. We may not know the reason - and in fact it may not be important that we know the reason. But it is important that we be true to ourselves, to each other, and to that which is trying to be born through us.

The great American poet William Stafford said:

"If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep."

The darkness is indeed deep; but it is precisely at the darkest moment of the year, the Winter Solstice, that the light begins to return. These are dark and desperate times, but they are also the most exciting times to be alive in all of human history. We are approaching the turning point. We are rounding the corner and beginning the return from the long exile from our greater community and from our true home. We are truly blessed to be able to play a role in the transformation. As Gary Snyder says,

"The rising hills, the slopes
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up
up, as we all go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say, are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light


see also "Spirit and Stardust" speech by US Rep Dennis Kucinich