Contemplative Activism Gathering: Recap and Takeaways from Our First Gathering

Just previous to Christmas, Art Earth Tech hosted a gathering on a subject that could almost be oxymoron in our culture – contemplative activism. Thankfully, a great set of people saw promise in this idea and came along – activists from Extinction Rebellion and Transition Townes, Contemplative teachers, academics, authors, and consultants of various stripes travelled to the Beautiful West Lexham in Norfolk, and a Rabbi skyped in.

Participants had responded to an invitation that reflected on activists’ seeming inability to halt an unfolding climate change crisis, and asked invitees to join us in considering how contemplative traditions and practices figure into our response to this situation. It is a big and difficult question, but our fear of the answers that we might get if we ask these difficult and seemingly bottomless questions, which has stopped us from considering them. And this is a large part of the reason why so many are so concerned about humanity’s future, now.

The idea that contemplative or spiritual issues and questions are enmeshed in the climate emergency is not new. But, though many believe that the climate emergency has as much to do with culture, spirit, or souls as it does with carbon, activist efforts do not often take this observation as their starting point.

We do often hear it said as a way of hopeful consolation, in the face of the environmental movement’s failures, that ‘someday, consciousness is going shift.’ But we’ve been waiting for a long time but what shifts we’ve seen are small compared to the depth of the environmental emergency. In our gathering we tried to ask with genuine inquisitiveness - what kind of consciousness do we need, why, and is there something we can do to further this shift?”

This invitation precipitated quite a bit of pre-gathering conversation. An emerging notion that guided the start of our gathering was that cultivating as much awareness of the unsettled times that we live in, with openness to both beauty and tragedy was the place to start. In spiritual traditions, whether it is mindfulness retreats or fasting on a mountain top as many European tribes did, quiet consideration helps a colorful and textured awareness of our situation sink in. This is honored as a step towards dealing with the situation.

The gathering commenced the day after the UK elections in which the party with an ambitious program for addressing climate change lost badly. Half of the participants were delayed for a few hours after a man stepped in front of a train between London and Norfolk, one was delayed for an entire day. For many participants, the jolt provided by this election result gave a renewed sense of having something to get in touch with.

The gathering started with a guided imagination of one kind of tragic future that we could be facing – sharing our fears and feelings, and keeping as centered as possible. This is the type of experience that is impossible to relate in words, but those present felt a release and uncommon freedom in expressing taboo fears. The potential for breakdown of agricultural systems in the face of global warming was discussed, our fears felt more real, and so did a sense of community and the need for contemplative communities.

We we divided over what “awareness of our situation” means – for some it was accepting the inevitability of environmental catastrophe, for others, it was accepting uncertainty, but in general participants who were here for this segment of the gathering found it helpful to contemplate the future together with a greater sense of peace and remarked on the uncommon lack of resistance that they felt when voicing uncomfortable thoughts.

We then moved on to discussing what drew us towards the notion of contemplative activism, and how we connected to it personally.

Here we had a great deal of diversity. Though we all felt drawn to the idea of contemplative activism, what contemplative activism looked like in various people’s lives was very different. This is probably no surprise, contemplation is most useful when we don’t have answers for broad important and difficult questions – What am I so afraid of? What is the best use of my life? We all end up with different answers, but how we consider these questions matters.

Some notions that we agreed upon were:

We once again experienced deeply the eternal truth that difficult facts are best faced together. This includes awareness of our times and emerging chaoes. In a culture of individualism we need to do the hard work of admitting how much we need each other to stay steady. It is easier to agree intellectually with ideas such as “science shows that humanity is imperilled by a number of sources including climate change” than it is to let this awareness touch us at the deepest level. Contemplative traditions are about getting on with this hard work.

Contemplation is itself a form of activism – it is a radical act and it can change the world. Our culture, focused on action, and externally measurable behavior and results (metrics) and deliverables makes us timid about talking about or relying on inner guidance. By challenging these taboos we are inviting others to do the same. Calm and presence are felt and are contagious as almost every mental ability is, by finding calm and centeredness we help others to do the same. We must realise that the inner life is real life.

We do not have to think that the whole world is going to be enlightened, or even that we are going to avoid catastrophe in order to “justify” contemplative activism. For instance, whether are working to avert the worst effects of climate change or dealing with the fear of a looming crisis, greater self-understanding and an ability to find peace in stormy times is useful.

Our culture needs to become regenerative, and getting in touch with our ability to heal and regenerate ourselves is a first step. Contemplation is part of this.

Activism very often seems to chase away the contemplative mindset. Contemplation is about letting go of strongly held perceptions and ideas. Activism, as usually conceived, is about holding on to ideals as tightly as possible. Great efforts have been made to resist this tendency, but it is deep and stubborn. We need to organise spaces that allow practices and conversations that aim to counteract this tendency to mature.

Contemplative activism involves both pursuing conventional goals with an unconventional state of mind, but also being guided, via unconventional routes, to unconventional goals. Taking action on behalf of the contemplative state of mind is one such goal. Standing for it and its importance in society and with our actions and words, and how we speak and how we act. We did that in the gathering itself by devoting a lot of time to personal practice and embodied activities, but all of us can do more simply by being more solid in, and less apologetic about our feeling that contemplation is a medicine for much of what ails our societies, and by showing this conviction in our ways of being.

We need courage and support to actually say that we think the climate emergence grows out of a “emergency in spirit” (or substitute your preferred term) publicly.

Crises are often necessary for learning.

Just doing personal practice is not the only way we can contribute to a more contemplative society. Some variation of “Just change yourself, that is all you can do” is a common refrain in many contemporary spiritual circles. But service has been at the base of some contemplative traditions (and not just Christianity – Mahayana Buddhism, out of which Zen arose, started with a movement towards service). Setting up a school is one example of social change that we all agree with, but activism on social issues can be done contemplatively as has been famously shown by Gandhi and King. Wider conversations on this issue are in need of a shift.

Making space and time for different awareness is a service, a valuable and difficult mix of art and science, and that awareness will lead to different acts.

Understanding that there really is no contradiction between accepting things as they are and action for change could be the single most important awareness that is missing from activist circles and society generally. (More on this later.)

Relatedly, activism often becomes less effective when it comes to be about “fixing” and making others wrong (moral superiority), and that is the hardest awareness for activists themselves to stay with. The way we say and do things (for example speaking with a loving or respectful versus an accusatory tone) is often more important than what we say and do. Being in touch with ourselves deeply is the way to say and do things in the best way possible.

So, we managed to take a few first steps. The group left with a feeling of peace and greater centredness, and with plans to hold further events – a period for deep dives on specific projects in the near future outside Liverpool, and another gathering in the Spring where we plan to extend our outreach and focus on more specific questions about what contemplative mindsets can bring to activist efforts.

Personally, what rings in my head is what Thich Nhat Hanh said about the Vietnam peace movement – there was no peace in the peace movement. Of course meditation helps with peace, but so do conversations about the questions that most divide us. These could be about inclusivity, privilege or whether activists should accept or oppose geoengineering. Actively looking into sources of activist movements inner tension may be a pursuit that contemplatives traditions can help with most.

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