How to combine the wisdom of spiritual teachings with the passion of an activist—and create positive change in yourself, your community, and the world.
A plump Indian businessman, dripping with gold and diamonds, came one day to visit Mother Teresa, fell at her feet, and proclaimed, “Oh my God, you are the holiest of the Holy! You are the super holy one! You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast! Not one single chapati for lunch can I give up!”
Mother Teresa started to laugh so hard her attendant nuns grew scared (she was in her middle 80s and frail from two recent heart attacks). Eventually, she stopped laughing and, wiping her eyes with one hand, she leaned forward to help her adorer to his knees.
She said to him quietly, “So you say I have given up everything?” The businessman nodded enthusiastically. Mother Teresa smiled. “Oh, my dear man,” she said, “you are so wrong. It isn’t I who have given up everything; it is you. You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life, the source of all lasting happiness, the joy of giving your life away to other beings, to serve the Divine in them with compassion. It is you who are the great renunciate!” To the Indian businessman’s total bewilderment, Mother Teresa got down on her knees and bowed to him. Flinging up his hands, he ran out of the room.
The tremendous and simple secret that Mother Teresa was trying to communicate to the businessman is the message at the core of all the world’s spiritual revelations—that lasting happiness springs only from true love of the Divine, the world, and others, a true love that expresses itself tirelessly in wise and compassionate action.
The other side of this secret—also proclaimed by the world’s spiritual traditions—is that this true love of the Divine and others, when expressed in wise, compassionate action, can lead not only to lasting inner joy but also to profound transformation of outer reality. As Robert Kennedy said in 1966 so eloquently and accurately: “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
When the inner joy Mother Teresa spoke of, the joy of compassionate service, is married to a practical and pragmatic drive to transform our economic, social, and political institutions, a radical and potentially all-transforming holy force is born. I call this radical holy force sacred activism.
A sacred activist is someone who is starting to experience the inner joy and outer effectiveness of this force, who knows that the profound crisis the world is in is challenging everyone to act from our deepest compassion and wisdom, and who is committed to being, in the face of growing chaos, suffering, and violence, what Robert Kennedy called “a tiny ripple of hope” and a “center of energy and daring.
A sacred activist is someone who is starting to experience the inner joy and outer effectiveness of this force.
Millions of people all over the world are now waking up to the need to become sacred activists. The collapse of the world’s financial markets, the growing universal understanding that the environment is in serious danger—and that a wholly new energy policy is urgently needed—and the menace of nuclear war in the Middle East and between India and Pakistan have started to change everything. The election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States, the focusing symbol of the free world, has opened up a new, sober, and urgent conversation about essential values, and the need for a radical transformation of our way of being is breaking out everywhere.
So how exactly do you become a sacred activist? I believe it’s by making a steady commitment to combine five interlinked forms of service—to the Divine, to yourself as an instrument of the Divine, to all sentient beings in your life, to your local community, and to the global community.
Service to the Divine
Without constant divine help, grace, illumination, and strength, no one can be a sacred activist. So turn to the Divine in whatever way you imagine it and serve it in devotion and adoration and gratitude and praise, asking it constantly and humbly to illumine your mind with sacred wisdom, keep your heart on fire with a passion of compassion for all beings, and keep filling your body with sacred energy for whatever work it calls you to do in the world.
Service to Yourself as an Instrument of the Divine
A sacred activist wants to be as healthy and strong as possible to do the work. This means looking after the soul through sacred practice, looking after the mind through constant inspiration, looking after the heart through deep emotional work, and looking after the body through diet, exercise, and sufficient rest.
For most sacred activists the greatest challenge is to look after the body. The Christian mystic Father Bede Griffiths once said to me, “Imagine that God is a great musician and that you are a flute He wants to play the most glorious music on. If the stops of your flute are filled with mud, how can the music that is meant to be played through you sound at all?” By removing the mud from the “stops” of your sacred instrument—yourself—with prayer, inspiration, and diet, exercise, and rest, you can allow your body to renew itself and live in balance.
If you honor the need to serve yourself as an instrument of the Divine, you will discover, over time, that you will have far more compassionate and healthy energy to give to your work. You will also find that because you are treating yourself with patience, generosity, and respect, you naturally treat others better.
Service to All Sentient Beings in Your Life
One day, when I was walking with Father Bede Griffiths in the grove of tall, ancient trees near his ashram by the Cauvery1 River in Southern India, he told me, “Everything would change if only we could treat every single being we meet, human or animal, as who they really are—a disguise of God. Your enemy is as much God as you are; the waiter serving you is God; the annoying old woman talking too loudly on the bus is God. The deeper you are taken into the heart of non-dual experience, the greater the tenderness and respect you cannot help feeling for all sentient beings, for you know, not sentimentally but by direct knowledge, that you are one with them in the One.” At that moment, a very old peasant woman, carrying some sticks she had gathered by the river, came walking down the path. Father Bede stopped talking, went up to her, bowed slightly to her, and took half of her bundle, giving me some to carry also. The old woman was beside herself with happiness, for, as she explained to us, she had bad arthritis in her hips and knees and walking at all was hard. We walked half a mile with her and when we parted it seemed as if we were all old friends.
Seeing all sentient beings as disguises of God and serving them is, I believe, one of the great healing powers of sacred activism. Service starts with your family, friends, and pets. Make a commitment to remember that those whom you deal with intimately are all secretly divine. You will fail in this constantly, as I do. Don’t waste time in judging and condemning yourself—that, too, can be a bitter game of the ego—just return to the practice with tenderness and self-forgiveness, and you will see that over time those whom you have to deal with intimately will become more and more precious to you. From this experience of forming increasingly sacred relationships, a wholly new vision of the sacredness of reality will start to emerge in you.
But it is not only your intimate circle that needs to be seen and served in this way. In the course of our days we meet all different kinds of people—bus drivers, shopkeepers, waiters, bank tellers, and telephone operators. Remembering to treat everyone with sacred respect is perhaps the most difficult practice for our goal-oriented, self-driven egos; we all tend to feel that our needs are most urgent and important and that others exist only to fulfill them as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is especially true in Western societies where nearly everything is based on bottom-line utilitarian efficiency. We are encouraged to see ourselves and everyone else as cogs in a machine that has to keep working relentlessly at all costs. The price we pay for this feverish coldness is immense; it deadens our souls and fills our bodies with nervous stress. Practicing sacred respect for all others starts to release us from these harsh forces and set us free to be our truest selves.
Remembering to treat everyone with sacred respect is perhaps the most difficult practice for our goal-oriented, self-driven egos.
Service to Your Local Community
Nothing is more important than restoring public service in our communities. Modern life separates us from each other, and this increases suffering immeasurably. It has never been more essential for us to recognize that we are all in the same boat, that our local communities reflect the emotional, physical, social, political, and financial problems of the larger world.
Think globally, but act locally. When my friends and students who want to help ask me what they should do, I always say the same thing: follow your heartbreak. Determine which one of all the causes in the world really breaks your heart. When you identify this, you have found the cause you will always have the energy and passion to work for. Once you have identified this cause, act immediately in your local community, so your heartbreak doesn’t remain abstract but becomes a living force of practical compassion in your daily world.
Let me offer you a practice to help you identify your heartbreak and experience the focus and empowerment it can give you.
Set your alarm clock to wake you up at 3:00 a.m. This early hour of the morning, as many mystical systems know, is a particularly good time to do spiritual work because the noise of the world is hushed and it is easy to feel alone with the Divine. Sit calmly and peacefully and open your heart, perhaps with a prayer or mantra that you love. Only then—when you have grown peaceful and strong—allow yourself to feel the pain of what is happening in the world. Ask yourself, what is the cause I care for that breaks my heart the most?
When you have identified your heartbreak, imagine that your heartbreak has become a torch of flame that guides you down a spiral staircase into a small, dark cave. This small, dark cave is a symbol of your heart center. By the golden light that your heartbreak is emitting, you see that there is a letter on the floor of the cave with your name on it in your own handwriting. Praying for courage and clarity, pick up that letter, open it, and read it. Written in the letter will be your life’s purpose, spelling out your particular role in the world.
I have taught this practice with remarkable results. One woman, passionate about cats, saw that she was called to volunteer in her local animal shelter; a former teacher realized that his passion to teach was as alive in him as ever and decided to become a mentor to four young African American men and help them lift themselves out of the violent life they had fallen into; one middle-aged woman read that she was to help a local women’s prison and began giving free meditation classes there two evenings a week; an old Jewish rabbi started to speak for free in high schools about the ancient prophets and the acute modern relevance of their vision of justice.
What is remarkable was that everyone who did this practice and found his or her “mission” said the same thing to me: “Now that I am doing something real in my local community to serve the cause I care most about, I find my life is far happier and the free-floating anxiety about the world that I have been feeling for a long time is beginning to ease.” They all told me that starting to “follow their heartbreak” and put compassion into immediate action in their local community had inspired many of their friends to do the same.
I believe that part of what the world crisis is “designed” to do is to break open our hearts to the reality of cruelty and suffering. I believe, too, that if each person were to follow his own private heartbreak and then do something about it in his local community, a great lessening of pain would occur, replaced by an overwhelming surge of hope.
Service to the Global Community
In this world crisis, every single human being from every walk of life is in danger, and each choice we make affects everyone else. The only possible response to this acute interconnectedness is what the Dalai Lama calls “universal responsibility”: the decision to be conscious in the core of our lives of the effect all our choices have on every other being, and so to make all of our choices—economic, social, political—congruent with our most compassionate beliefs.
What does this mean in practice to someone who wants to be a sacred activist? It means always remembering to pray for the happiness and safety of all sentient beings, both when you begin your private spiritual practices and when you end them; it means dedicating all merits and benefits of your practice, both at the beginning and at the end, to all other beings everywhere; it means committing to being deeply informed on the major crises afflicting our planet, especially our growing environmental challenges; it means having the integrity to see that your money is not invested in corporations that destroy the environment or exploit sweatshop labor; it means buying a fuel-efficient car and taking as much public transportation as you can.
It also means honoring our duty as citizens in our various local communities and countries and voting for those officials whom we consider best qualified to safeguard the planet and address the real issues of financial hardship now crowding around us. It means scrutinizing our own consumerist habits. Finally, it means speaking out against intolerance of any religion or prejudice against any group.
All of this can and should be done without self-righteousness. Who of us, even the most conscious among us, does not collude in some way with the very forces of greed, competition, and exploitation that are destroying the world? Even the Dalai Lama takes planes. Even Mother Teresa got driven around Calcutta in a car. Recognizing this inevitable collusion makes you humbler and kinder and more aware of how hard it can be for many people—for all of us, if we are honest—to make the way we live congruent in every way with what we believe and hope for the future.
Finding that you can become more congruent in all of your choices restores to you a living sense that things in general can be changed and that conditions in the world can be transformed.
A major part of the hopelessness I see everywhere is the unspoken belief that everyone is so involved in the “system” that it is impossible to do something real and useful. This has, of course, some uncomfortable truth in it. It is also true that we have a great many areas in which we can step up and make choices that make a difference and give us a sense of integrity, which over time empowers us. This sense of empowerment, in both small and large issues, is essential to the success of sacred activism. It cannot be given to you, it has to be earned individually. Finding that you can become more congruent in all of your choices restores to you a living sense that things in general can be changed and that conditions in the world can be transformed.
When you fuse together these five forms of service in the core of your life—service to the Divine, to yourself as an instrument of the Divine, to all sentient beings, to your local community, and to the global community—you begin to discover for yourself the living truth of the sacred activism that is now breaking out everywhere and of the strength of hope, energy, passion, focus, and joy it can fill you with. As Rumi writes:
To be born in love
Is to serve all beings and all creation.
Real lovers serve ardently, hopefully,
And in an ecstasy of awe.
Look for the happiness
Of the servant of love
All the joys of the world are nothing to it.
Internationally acclaimed poet and lecturer Andrew Harvey is the author of over 25 books, including The Direct Path. Visit him at andrewharvey.net.