Activism as Practice

by DT Strain


Philosophies with inward-focused development and those with teachings like non-attachment or living in accord with Nature, often face questions about whether they inspire inaction in the face of the challenges of our time, or working for causes greater than ourselves. Indeed, if these teachings are interpreted to suggest that accepting what we can and cannot control equates to defeatism, or if they are interpreted to mean that contentment equates to being content not to work for improvements in our lives or the lives of others, then these are serious misunderstandings of those philosophies.

All of these elements of our practice have a flip-side. Epoché is the practice of withholding judgment, but only for a time and in certain conditions. Effortless Practice does not mean no action, but patient skillful action in the right time and place. The acceptance of impermanence does not diminish the fact that, in the present, we all have experience and that can be painful or joyful.

The inward focus of our practice is not one of selfishness, but instead the prevention of selfishness that would lead us to impose our ego outward; telling others how they should live while being hypocrites – casting the first stone. Through example, if everyone focuses on the only person they truly have the power to change, this is the best route to larger transformation. One purpose of inner development is broadening our concern beyond the ego or self, and this will inevitably lead to the impetus to make the world a better place for others.

If we are inspired by the Stoics, we do not merely recognize what is not in our control, but we bring our focus to what is within our control – that being our choices. This places virtue and its duties as central to our concern. So, sitting by while we could help would be vice – something within our control, and therefore having the potential to harm our contentment. Action is required of the virtuous person, and virtue is absolutely essential to True Happiness. These are the truths of Karma (in a naturalistic sense), which is a helpful concept for navigating what can become highly complex matters of causes and effects.

But most importantly, we cannot forget the foundation of our entire endeavor, which is compassion. Expanding our unconditional compassion for all beings is our aim, and this necessarily brings with it motivation to take positive action in the world to help others. It also calls us to love even our enemies (even while we may need to work against them in our activism), which is important to our spiritual health and keeps us from becoming consumed by hate. Empathy can even make our tactics in activism more effective by better understanding our opponents, helping us to reach them diplomatically, negotiate settlements, and barring that, know what their next move may be. The key point is that we need not hate in order to do what must be done, and loving forgiveness does not preclude vigorous action. If virtue and compassion demand we sometimes work in opposition to others, we can do this effectively even while solemnly; without glee for their suffering, but instead regret that the conflict was necessary in the first place.

Activism practice, then, can refer to volunteer work, making pilgrimages to places central to social justice issues, marches, vigils, and more. But what is the big difference – the advantage – of being an activist in the spiritual sense?

Many activists, in difficult struggles, can become hateful, bitter, or hopeless. They can get ‘burned out’ or experience great anguish when they perceive that their efforts may not always succeed, or when staring into the face of immense suffering in the world. But, with a solid foundation in the wisdom and perspectives that inspire many Spiritual Naturalists, the activist has come to terms with the ways of Nature. They know that all things are impermanent, including everything they work for. But they also know that impermanence implies the potential for change and growth. They have a larger view of the world in the long-term, and know that the failures of today are not necessarily an indicator of the whole.

But most importantly, they have detached the source of their happiness from external conditions, and instead reseated that source upon their own virtue and character. They have stopped being a person who thinks, “I must change this”. Instead, they have become a person who thinks, “I must be the kind of person who works for change” and the difference is profound. When they internalize these perspectives fully, deeply, and intuitively through continued practice over time, they are no longer what Epictetus would call a slave. They have freed themselves of the vicissitudes of fortune and, in their new charge, they have already succeeded, regardless of what results from their virtuous choices and efforts. They know results are a matter for the Logos. They understand it is not their job to control the outcomes of the world – only to live in accordance with their best nature as rational/moral beings. That includes working for good in the world, and that is enough for True Happiness.