‘What have you done while Australia burns?’ yelled teen activist Izzy Raj-Seppings. ‘What have you done while your people can’t breathe,’ she continued, well wound up in front of thousands of Sydneysiders protesting climate change and wanting rid of their Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
Heady stuff for a 13 year old, dubbed the Australian Greta Thunberg, another young woman practised at speaking out about her concerns. Both participating with enthusiasm in public activism, an important part of belonging to a democratic society. They might be surprised to know that ‘activism is the highest form of spirituality’, according to Claudia Goncalves, co-founder of The Edinburgh Shamanic Centre.
Goncalves holds up activists as selfless, consciously aware people who see beyond the veils of illusion, not dazzled by gold, possessions or money. Activists fly, ‘on the wings of their consciousness, beyond the pettiness of the ordinary world, seeking a new truth’, she says. Activists ‘breathe truth and they are truth.’
Depending on your familiarity, or not, with the bible, you might find remarkable similarities between Claudia’s ideas and the Jesus character who said, when being quizzed by Pilate the Roman Governor of Judea that, ‘I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for truth, recognises my voice.’ Activists, two thousand years apart, all talking about truth.
But what is this truth? Is it about actual events, truth that might be determined in a court room, or perhaps a truth that swirls around moral issues? Professor John Carroll, in The Existential Jesus, suggests that the question about truth in the Jesus narrative is about a higher order, or ‘capital T truth’ and that ‘we are haunted by the Truth that we suspect lies behind things.’
Getting to the truth of the matter in an existential sense, is different to staging a protest about what seems to be wrong in the world, difficult and all as that is, because the Truth that lies behind things is buried deep within the human psyche. Perhaps unreachable because of the protective layers we load onto it but also there in plain sight, often unrecognisable because it is so unpalatable.
For instance, humans have always been concerned about apocalyptic destruction in mythic and literal ways. In the 1950’s and 60’s the threat of annihilation through nuclear war was real and present to the point where we were marched into movie theatres to watch very frightening propaganda films. In 1982, some of these movies were released as The Atomic Café. They look ridiculous now. But even so, the threat of nuclear destruction remains. We’ve learned to live with our fears differently.
Pointing out that Agent Smith of The Matrix was right on the button when he informed Morpheus that humans were a disease, a cancer of the planet, might be unpalatable. But instinctively, we know what Smith meant, for his words carried a universal truth. No explanation needed.
Waking up to reality is central to the spiritual journey. Realising how toxic humanity can be, all of us, not just them over there. Recognising how caught we all are in what used to be called principalities and powers; complex systems and power blocs that control much of what happens in the world, despite our best efforts to be free. Knowing that there will always be another apocalypse around the corner, which prophets or activists will use to foretell the end of days.
Neither will there be a utopian future, or a delicious heaven to loll about in. Instead, life is broken, fragile and tenuous. So, it’s understandable that activists, especially the young, feel desperate about the plight of their home, the Earth, and want to fix it, whilst holding their elders responsible.
Fear of our fragility and powerlessness seems to be a strong driver of activism. Our ego, that necessary energy drive, gets over engaged and pulls the wool over our eyes to the point where we believe it can ‘sort shit’, as a friend of mine is fond of saying. But everything that I know about living is that our vulnerability is a call to the journey within, instead of rallying troops to the ramparts. This can be difficult to swallow.
But what if we were prepared to be still, to go inwards and wait? To listen to what our fragile selves are saying. To sit with our fears and hear what emerges from the darkness. To take our inner world seriously as a source of truth with a capital T.
Strangely enough, Jesus was on about this. He said that the kingdom of heaven is within. Simply put, within each person is a source of Truth and authority that when accessed and worked with is how we come to our own enlightenment, or perhaps what Carl Jung called individuation.
Jung held that there was a drive towards holistic connection within the human organism that he called the Self. James Hollis, a Jungian analyst, says in The Eden Project that this Self, like God, is essentially unknowable but, ‘is meant to honour the mystery that we are.’ So, a process rather than a thing, moving towards integration and wholeness.
Hollis suggests that ‘the Self embodies the totality of the organism and its mysterious, autonomous activity, so we may never know it fully any more than a swimmer would know the ocean, or a thinker conjugate the dome of Heaven.’ Perhaps the realisation that there really are unexplored depths within could be appealing enough to get us in and swimming.
This process is not easy. It means detaching from the power of organisations and systems that have kept us captive. John Carroll: ‘Whatever the virtues of a community for human well-being – most commonly in the form of family – that is not where a person will find who he or she is … group traits and attachments have to be stripped away.’ How challenging and confronting that is, and yet how liberating.
Life is often about living in the tension of opposites, balancing polarities. The vibrant enthusiasm of youth believing anything is possible, over and against the uncomfortable truth of awakening to reality. In the face of injustice, that doesn’t have to mean sitting on our hands and doing nothing, but it might call for a more contemplative approach to action.
This would make activism an important expression of our spiritual Truth. Hard won by embarking on an internal journey to explore that great sea of unknowing within, so that whatever action we choose to take emerges from our Self, unencumbered by familial, cultural, political or religious expectations. Ritual action inspired by the kingdom within.