It is my deep conviction that any meaningful religious or spiritual approach must also really address the key issue of today – and that is a world that works for all. Disparities and inequalities in income and opportunities are become so huge, environmental degradation is advancing so rapidly, that unless we create a world that works for ALL (and this includes the environment), it will soon work for no one, not even the super-rich in their private, computer protected suburban citadels.
Eckhart Tolle, echoing Isaiah, has said that loving your neighbor as yourself means that your neighbor IS yourself, and that RECOGNITION OF THIS ONENESS is love. This is meaningful spirituality, or true religion – the original meaning of the world religion being to create links or bridges.
A great source of inspiration for me in this area of what a meaningful spirituality for today might look like has been the Indian teacher and activist Vimala Thakar.
Born in 1920 into a Brahmin family, she very early manifested a passion for spirituality, and very early in life started visiting ashrams. At 19 she spent a year in a cave meditating. Following that experience, she went to the opposite end of the spectrum and joined the land distribution movement inspired by Gandhi and then led by Vinoba Bhave, travelling the Indian countryside for eight years.
Then a major event occurred in her life. At 40 years of age, she met the legendary Krishnamurti, the great teacher. He encouraged her to teach, and she left the field of social activism, writing to her friends in the movement that ‘the only salvation for mankind appears to be in a religious revolution of the individual’. Yet, 18 years later, the same Vimala returned to activism with the aim of aiding the poor and disenfranchised and healing the environment. She is the only major example I know of a person with that particular path: from meditation to activism, to teaching, and back to activism.
The clue, I believe, lies in her reply to the well-known American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, who questioned her about returning to her earlier love: “I am a lover of life,” she replied, “and as a lover of life, I cannot keep out of any activity of life. If people are hungry for food, my response is to help feed them. If people are hungry for truth, my response is to help them discover it. I make no distinction between serving people who are starving and have no dignity in their physical lives and serving people who are fearful and closed and have no dignity in their mental lives. I love all life.”
In our dualistic approach to existence we are so fond of making comfortable little categories: inner and outer, meditation and activism, spirit and matter, individual and collective, my neighbor and myself, etc. There has yet to be a true blending of the two, a real integration of spirituality and social action. I have met many social activists who were angry, self-righteous, full of judgement and even cynical and hateful, and I have known supposedly spiritual people who were indifferent to the needs of the poor and the real suffering of the world. To claim to be spiritually minded and yet be indifferent to the intense suffering of the poor, who are poor because of an economic system we keep in place by our votes, is a grave and dangerous illusion. And to be a social activist without an understanding of the spiritual laws which ultimately run the universe is to court personal and collective disaster.
We truly need the total revolution Vimala Tharkar speaks about, where there is no longer a division between the spiritual and social spheres, inner and outer. All is one. As she states, “A tender loving concern for all living creatures will need to arise and reign in our hearts if any of us is to survive. And our lives will be truly blessed when the misery of one is genuinely felt to be the misery of all. The force of love is the force of total revolution. It is the unreleased force, unknown and unexplored as a dynamic for change.”
I truly believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and that is is a law to every single situation that needs healing on the planet.
photo credit Unsplash, Zac Durant