A Conversation with Robert Gass & Nina Utne

About Spiritual Activism

Nina Utne: Our cover says “Calm in the Chaos.” What does this suggest to you?

Robert Gass: These are times of great change. Work, families, community life, the social and political landscape, even our physical environment and climate are in flux. Technological changes are affecting almost every aspect of our lives. In the face of all this change, we understandably feel anxious and overwhelmed. But change is inevitable. It’s the way of things. Those who want to help create a positive future for coming generations have no choice but to embrace uncertainty, to ride the turbulent waters of change. We must indeed learn how to stay calm in the chaos.

Those working for social change often operate in a state of high stress, driven by the sheer magnitude of the problems we face, the suffering in our communities, and declining social and environmental indicators. We may be angry at those with power whose greed and unconsciousness continue to create injustice, wars, and environmental destruction.

Yet increasingly, activists are coming to appreciate that fear and anger, while they are often an important part of awakening political consciousness, are not ultimately the best fuel for making change. Many of us have responded to the words of Gandhi: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” To really become part of the solution rather than part of the problem, we must, even in the midst of chaos and struggle, go beyond railing against what we don’t like. We must learn to keep our hearts open, and to dream the positive future we want to create.

NU: So, in that context, what does activism mean?

RG: It means that we choose to engage with life. We choose to take an active role in creating a better future for our children, for all children. That we say, “Okay, I am part of this wildly imperfect species called humanity. In the face of it all, I choose to do what I can, to give what I can, to make a difference.” We respond to our collective suffering and challenges with some form of action.

NU: How do we know what to do? How do we know what matters?

RG: We don’t! But still we choose to engage. Each of us is here for a purpose. Not an idea, not something we invent, but something we discover. If each of us answers this unique call, somehow it will all get done. For some of us, our purpose might express itself through standing up against racism or sexism. For others, it’s about caring for a family. We may live our purpose through community service, through art, or through business. As one who trains activists, I believe my job is to help each person find a true and powerful expression of that authentic purpose.

NU: So, what do you think distinguishes between those who burn out and those who are able to sustain their energy?

RG: Having an intimate and living relationship to your own sense of purpose is a renewable, inexhaustible source of energy, from which you can draw over a lifetime of service. It was just such a connection to purpose that sustained Nelson Mandela through his years imprisoned at Robben Island.

We also need to make better choices and cultivate better habits. Sprinters throw everything they have into 10 seconds; marathon runners carefully husband their energy for the later miles. Those of us working for a better world need to think marathon. The issues we face are vast and will be around for a long, long time.

We want to prepare ourselves for a lifetime of service, but way too many of us are running around in a state of constant crisis. Our body is a living system. In Rockwood Leadership Program’s activist trainings, we teach the concept of personal ecology, of how to care for our most precious resource, our life force. Research consistently shows that when we invest in care for our body, our heart, our mind, and our spirit, not only are we happier, but it pays huge dividends in our ability to create good results in our work.


NU: So it’s kind of an internal energy crisis as much as an external one.

RG: Exactly! It’s ironic to watch so many of us working for sustainability in the world not living in a sustainable way. There are obvious problems with health and quality of life. But I also see it as an effectiveness problem. When we operate out of a continual state of urgency, we end up constantly fighting fires, not investing time in the strategic thinking, planning, and relationship and capacity building required for social change.

Many of us are working to shift the old paradigm that we need to sacrifice our health and families for the sake of the movement. It’s a false and dangerous dichotomy. I believe these behaviors actually impede the success of our work. If we must sacrifice something, we might consider sacrificing our egoic images of ourselves as heroes, martyrs, and lone warriors. We need to work in the spirit of the famous Zen adage, “Chop wood. Carry water.” Our activism becomes less of a big deal. It’s just what we do. Day after day . . . decade after decade . . . with a clear mind and open heart, patient and steady in our course.

NU: So how does someone who leads a very active, engaged life deal with stress?

RG: First, we have to soberly examine how much we are trying to do. Some of us are simply trying to do too much. At Rockwood, we call this “load management.” There’s a wisdom and maturity in learning what really constitutes a sustainable workload. Then, of course, there’s the courage to say no, especially in an activist culture that tends to reward unsustainable work practices.

Second, we want to look at how we spend our time. Technology is increasing the pace and quantity of demands on our time and attention. We work with activist leaders who receive more than 300 actionable e-mails a day. We challenge activists to set priorities and invest in activities that are not urgent on any given day, but essential to the long-range success of their work.

Finally, we learn to manage our own state of being. Here’s a provocative proposition: Nothing outside of yourself can make you feel stressed. Stress never happens in the moment. Stress is either anxiety about the future, thinking about the endless to-do list hanging over our heads, or stress is holding on to things that happened in the past. But here — like right in this moment? Right now? There is no stress here. It’s a creation of our mind.

Many of us have become habituated, even addicted to a high level of urgency. Even as we complain about too much to do, our minds crave yet more stimulus. We have a free moment in our schedule, and we surf the Net or pick up something to read rather than breathe deeply and renew our energy. We live in a society that invites urgency, so we must cultivate a discipline of self-reflection and what we call “state-shifting” in order to stay centered amidst the intensity of our work.


NU: In what other ways does this sense of urgency affect our ability to collaborate and form effective coalitions?

RG: Oh, it pretty much makes it impossible. When any living system gets stressed, it becomes brittle and unresilient. When we’re stressed, our capacity to partner deteriorates. We desperately need to learn how to work together. Our issues are completely interdependent. There will be no solution to our environmental issues without addressing economic and social justice. And the economic revitalization of our cities and campaigns for social justice will come to naught if our children can’t breathe.

At the heart of spiritual activism is the living understanding that we are connected, interdependent. Most of us are fighting the good fight for our particular issues. But even as some of us “win” our isolated campaigns, we must also look at the whole and acknowledge that it’s not enough. We have to find a level of collaboration far beyond anything we have experienced.

This partnership begins in our own hearts and minds. It begins with connection: connection to purpose, and connection to each other. When I am called in to work with organizations or coalitions, it almost always comes down to a problem with people not being able to work together. It’s competition rather than cooperation. Fear rather than trust. “Me” rather than “we.”

NU: What about fear? How do we work with that?

RG: There’s a balance of staying attentive and compassionate toward our own fear without being paralyzed by it. We’re now talking about another foundation of spiritual activism — mindfulness. We have fearful thoughts and sensations in the body. We can witness these phenomena while cultivating awareness and a capacity to think and act with clarity and power, even in the face of fear.

The truth is, we don’t know what the future brings. We don’t know if all our efforts will bear fruit or come to naught. “Chop wood, carry water” invites us to go beyond hope and fear. We simply do what is ours to do.

Another approach is to engage with people and activities that feed our sense of hope. One can easily get depressed reading the newspaper. But I am continually engaged with people of such goodwill, of such intelligence, of such heart and commitment doing such good work in the world, that I find myself uplifted. This is like the Buddhist concept of sangha, or spiritual community. We gain strength from each other.

NU: What is the role of vulnerability in this?

RG: The truth is that our bodies are very frail. We could cross the street and get hit by a car. A bird virus mutates and millions might die. Our existence is tenuous. For some of us, our wealth, our climate-controlled houses, our access to medical care may afford us the illusion that we’re not vulnerable. Events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were especially shocking because they shatter this illusion. There are others of us who live in a more regular and intimate relationship to vulnerability.

At a personal level, we try to mask our vulnerability with a never-ending torrent of thoughts, reactions, and actions in an almost desperate attempt to feel some control. In embracing our vulnerability, we become more open to life. As we lower the walls of our opinions and our judgments, we begin to meet the unique, wondrous unfolding of life. In our vulnerability, we may begin to be present and connect to others. Vulnerability fosters compassion.

NU: On the other end of the spectrum from being incapacitated by fear is the mundane yet intractable obstacle of self-consciousness and embarrassment. How do we get beyond that?

RG: There are really two faces of egotism. We typically think of an ego trip as being “It’s all about me, and look how good I am.” But the preoccupation with “I’m not good enough” is just as much of an ego trip. Both are barriers to actually doing the work that we’re here to do. It’s not about you.

NU: What would you say to someone who wants to get more engaged but is confused about where to begin?

RG: The first thing I would say is, “Don’t worry about it.” There’s no end to what the world needs. It’s not a question of what’s the most important thing we should be doing, but rather what calls you. Ask your heart — and listen.

NU: What is the role of spiritual practice?

RG: The purpose of practice is to practice for real life. The test of our meditation, our reading of spiritual books, our retreats, and our yoga is: How do we live? How do we show up, moment to moment, in our work, in our families, in our communities?

Rather than wondering about how our spiritual work can inform our activism, I suggest that we actually embrace our work itself as our spiritual path. Our work will present us all the opportunities we need to learn the spiritual lessons of attachment and nonattachment, love in action, and staying calm in the chaos. Spiritual activism is important not simply because it’s spiritual. We cultivate these qualities of spirit because they work. By staying connected to our purpose, by keeping our hearts open and minds clear, we are far more likely to actually play our part in creating a better world.

Robert Gass

Robert Gass has been a teacher for more than 30 years at centers such as Omega, Esalen, Brown University, and the U.N. Peace University, and serves as a coach and spiritual guide to leaders. A committed social change agent, Gass is an organizational consultant and shaman to organizations ranging from General Motors to Greenpeace and MoveOn.org, and he designed the Rockwood Art of Leadership training. His web site is www.sacredunion.com.

The Rockwood Leadership Program is a nonprofit organization that brings leadership and collaboration training to individuals, organizations, and coalitions working to improve society. Since 2000, Rockwood has trained more than 1,500 individuals and dozens of organizations and coalitions in the skills and practices associated with leading, organizing, and implementing social change efforts. Find out more at www.rockwoodfund.org.

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