Six Messages that Get in the Way of Social Change

Many of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders started their spiritual revolutions by challenging the beliefs of the day. Often these were the foundational beliefs of the time and culture, beliefs that obstructed Social Awareness, Justice and Equality.

(Check out Spirituality Goes Hand in Hand with Social Change)

Moses challenged the ethnic and geocentric traditions of his time. Claiming all to be the creation of God and from the same human source of Adam and Eve rather than the popular belief that the locals of a culture or its royalty were the descendants of the gods.

This brought equality to the human condition and established a religion that could receive converts from any tribe or ethnicity and could be practiced anywhere.

Buddha challenged the caste systems of India by declaring non-Atman or Anatta, completely undermining Indian society and its karmic justifications for inequality and exclusion.

At the expense of self-exile, Buddha and his followers created their sangha, a truly equal community.

Finally, Yeshua undermined the perceived value of Roman political and social power, the hedonism of Hellenism and the Pharisees and Sadducees’ extreme legalism and oppression.

By declaring all people are children of God, by speaking out against the rich and the judgment of one’s neighbors, Yeshua placed value in the human being rather than their observation of rigid tradition, their lust for new experiences or their ambitions for glory and power.

Like Buddha, he shifted one’s attention from social structures of control and power to the inner realm of thoughts, wants and lusts, asking us to work on ourselves and treat our fellow humans as equal brothers and sisters.

Each of these spiritual leaders saw a belief and philosophy of the time that was undermining the virtues of human compassion, social equality, spiritual growth, and self-mastery.

Each and every one of these beliefs was incredibly popular in their time. They were the foundations of their age, and yet, these leaders saw how the beliefs had been used to excuse social injustice, and seeing this, they spoke out.

So today I am going to share some beliefs that came to light in my own self-reflection and meditation. Most of them are popular; they’ve been rather popular with me too.

I don’t think they’re wrong, I think they just need to be examined and observed in our lives, tested if to see if they are leading to unconscious roadblocks to our own social activism and justice.

1. “iReligion.” The personal spiritual track versus established religions.

Many of us have moved away from organized religion to a more exploratory spirituality. And if you’re like me you had every reason to do so.

Growing up in a conservative Christian household I was constantly learning the ways in which God affected, guided, nurtured and cared for the characters of the Bible. Occasionally I’d even hear testimonies of how people had experienced their own divine grace.

But my own experience was very different. I believed and I knew our theology inside and out, but spiritually I felt dead.

Sometimes, I would feel something stirring with a hymn or praise, maybe at a mountain retreat and certainly when I tried to drive my car off a cliff in high school. It spun out of control, stopped and died right before going over the edge.

I was furious.

That last act can be explained away with an intense self-hatred and repression due to homosexual feelings and the lack of developed coping mechanisms. We were taught to accept and endure. God was either testing us or punishing us; either way, we suffer because we have to.

I still find this with many clients who come from traditions that rely more on faith than ritual practice.

Often, simple coping mechanisms get ignored in favor of a reliance on God. Once taught, however, prayer and God combined with coping mechanisms become a powerful toolkit to accomplish the goals and transformative acts necessary for the individual’s life.

Growing up, religion was all around me, and so was the pain. But God —  whatever, or whoever it was —  felt far away. I was spiritually dead inside.

Many of us have experienced this. Especially those of us raised in a religious environment.

The difficulties between ourselves and our relationships to our families and communities become a burden to our relationship with spirit.

The pains and traumas experienced while growing up often get projected onto our parents’ religious tradition.

You may have found your own spiritual connection in your darkest time when pains and traumas seemed to have overwhelmed you and you face the consequences of your own life and what you have created. The point of greatest shattering, the dark night of the soul.

Often this spiritual connection comes from a place and understanding of the world unique to you. It is a foundation stone cobbled from personal experiences and bits and pieces of spiritual traditions that work for you.

Maybe it was a different religion altogether or a new hold on life through a new mental philosophy.

These are the true testimonies. In the context of an organized religion they tend to lead to deep devotion. The experience reinforces the need for the religious tenets and connection to the community.

This is the story of my parents. Each had their own traumas and tragedies. Their Christian faith got them through and saved them, and it was this faith they sought to pass down to us because it was the best thing they knew.

Sadly, it didn’t work as well for me. I needed something different.

Outside of the context of organized religion, a powerful spiritual experience becomes life-changing, and often impossible to describe.

This is because we have left behind the common languages developed by the traditional religions. Instead, the events and their meanings are written in the language of our own mind, our own soul.

This has become so commonplace in an America breaking away from its traditional religions that spirituality is now often seen as a private journey, a journey you take on your own. Another chance to discover yourself.

It's the way my own story unfolded.

It fits well with western ideology and its obsession with the individual, and it gives you plenty to chew on as you contemplate yourself and your relation to existence.

This differs from the general religious experience because it doesn’t plug you into a community or a practice. These are left free-form.

Some people still seek or build a community, perhaps of shamanic practitioners, a sangha they feel comfortable in, a talk group or drumming circle, but often people instead become independently spiritual persons.

This is fine and good. It’s where I’ve been for most of the last decade, but it takes away from our sense of responsibility to our ideals and our local community and the organizations that go beyond that.

It can be overly convenient and under-challenging because the only one to challenge me is me.

The way my mind works, this challenge often plays out as a perfectionist’s attempt to become better and better, exploring as much as I can from every tradition I can come in contact with, modifying my own behaviors, rooting out every last negative trait I can find, eating healthier and healthier and trying to find a routine I can really get into.

It’s pretty good for self-development, but it can easily lead to obsession, isolation, withdrawal and a teeter-totter disposition, swinging between spiritual ecstasy and personal frustration.

Eventually, even self-development fails. Underneath the obsession with perfection is the larger pains and traumas of trying to relate to a community and others in the intimate sphere of our spiritual lives.

Along with this can come fears of inefficiency, social anxiety, discomfort, and failure.

The personal practice can become an escape from these unconscious pains, and excuse not to open up and show our vulnerability in creating a spiritual community.

It’s difficult when we’re seeking alone to see why we are avoiding things. Our mind is distracted with the more obvious state of our own conscious developments.

The thing is, we are social animals and we evolved in villages, tribes and larger communities. We are meant to be interacting with these.

Taking the personal road of transformation too far by yourself is a trap posed by the Century of the Self. (If you haven’t seen the documentary, please do so.)

There are definitely times when solitude is necessary. Pilgrimages and a walk into the desert or jungle alone are common to every spiritual community. Sometimes you need to find out what spirit means to you.

But to be alone on your walk the whole way through might mean you have simply given up the attachment to (and thus the challenges presented by) the outside world for an attachment to and obsession with your inner world.

It’s fine for monks and ascetics; they are leaving the world outside to clean up their own karma and sow nothing new. They want out. They want Moksha; it’s a very determined choice they have made, but if you’re still interacting with the world outside through your livelihood, family, friends, entertainment and community involvement then you need to realize that spirituality has a part to play in each and every one of these relationships.

To obsess about our own personal spiritual development versus our relation to society is doing both society and ourselves a disservice.

I’ve found that once I gave up the attempts to perfect my own spiritual life and put some of the lessons I’ve learned to use for others, I leaped beyond the inner struggles I had been wrestling with for years while being able to help those in the world around me.

I would like to challenge you to take a look at your spiritual practice.

Is it unnecessarily isolated? Does it take into account your interconnection with the world around you and society? Does it challenge you on account of these beliefs to make a change, make a very real difference?


2. Save yourself first, but please remember to help others.

The metaphor often used here is that you put the oxygen mask on in a crashing plane first, then you help everyone else. Great metaphor, because in this regard it’s very true.

The problem is that we often don’t know when we’re actually out of danger.

Rather than putting our mask on and checking on others we can get stuck trying to figure out if its on tight enough, worrying if the strap is going to break, checking the tube for holes.

Many of us are on a healing journey, a journey of transformation, of transmutation. We are trying to turn old pains into new lessons and recover from some very deep wounds.

Often the best way to heal these wounds, especially in the beginning of our journey, is to retract from the world.

In fact, this is what Jung saw as the main use of introversion. To gather back our strength, to examine the inner world and to heal.

The problem comes when this introversion and inner healing runs away with our lives.

While Jung invented the concepts of the Extrovert and Introvert, he deemed both states of being necessary for every individual, and he often warned his clients about becoming too obsessed with their own mental health, dream analysis, and inner worlds.

He saw a very important obligation to the world at large, one that must be fulfilled for a truly healthy life.

Responsibility often stabilizes us. When I have too much time on my hands, my bipolar takes on new drastic forms, but when I have a steady flow of clients to work with, the depression and mania set themselves aside.

Jung experienced this too while writing the Red Book. He was worried he was going insane as he stayed up all night every night and experienced the oddest of imaginings.

These “active imaginations” are the foundation of his later works on the unconscious. In order to understand madness he had to go a little mad, but all that would clear in the morning, he wrote, when he had clients to attend.

This is one of the basic philosophies of the Mental Health Peer Wellness movement.

We understand that responsibility creates a foundation of self-reliance and empowerment, and that service to others is self-empowering and transformative.

I wish I had taken this on far sooner.

I find that we often believe ourselves to be far more vulnerable and brittle than we truly are. I spent years trying to get myself just right, telling myself I can’t help others until I fix everything.

There’s never a time when everything gets fixed, and until you’re walking on the road of service you’re going to be uneasy with it. It’s natural; we fear the things we don’t know.

I’d like to challenge you to take a very candid look at your own path of healing and transformation.

Do you feel ready to step out and start working in the world at large? If your immediate response is a knee-jerk no, dive into this. Are you holding yourself back, and thus holding back your own growth due to fear?  

3. “All you need is Love,” but not really.

While it’s a nice chorus line, it’s just not enough.

From what I’ve seen, this ideology tends to take two noticeable forms that can impede our service to social justice and activism.

There's the light and cheery love, the people who love everyone and seem to expect this cheery disposition to save the world if it just catches on.

And then there’s the romanticist, the category I’ve fallen into for vast portions of my life.

Romanticists are obsessed with the image of the soulmate. We want something epic and powerful, and if you’re anything like me, in the throes of it you don’t mind if the world is going to hell, it’s just something for you and your soulmate to survive together.

But even in the romances and tragedies of playwrights and history, Love requires more than a cheery disposition or a heart-wrenching devotion.

Love requires strength, conviction, fierceness and a willingness to fight for what we believe in.

These principles and values went hand in hand with Love in the social activism of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

True Love is having the conviction and bravery to place that flower in the muzzle of a rifle and become the icon of a national movement.

It’s being willing to be one of the dozens of African Americans who refused to move to the back of the bus in the simple hope that this time the Civil Rights movement can finally spark.

Sitting back on the sidelines and sending heart emoticons through text and social media isn’t going to do it. Neither is a romance that places one relationship above the entirety of the community.

When we do this we turn a blind eye to the truth that every individual is affected by the community and society. We can’t have one without the other.

True Love summons all of our courage, strength, and conviction to not only love another but to give all we can to the world so as to make it better for those we love.

I challenge you to examine your beliefs on Love, power and true self-agency.

Are you letting yourself off the hook with feel-good philosophies? What would Love demand of you? What can you do in the world to make it better for those you love?

4. Positive Thoughts, Manifesting and the Power of the Mind are nice, but Matter Matters.

Growing up, when church members got sick, others brought them food. If it was severe, they’d watch the kids for them. My mom would even go dress wounds, whatever was needed.

Good intentions, positive vibes, and meditations are nice, and they can help us focus on important issues, strengthen our resolve and cause us to feel connected to others in a community devoted to a common cause, but even the best intentions require action.

Our shamanic ancestors who believed fully in magic, the power of ceremony and ritual, didn’t just draw pictures, drum and imagine deer coming to them. They drew the sacred art, performed their magic rituals and then went out and got those deer.

As a Life Coach and Hypnotist obsessed with the mind and self-development, I can tell you that mental states most certainly affect your life and thus reality, but it’s too common today for teachings about “the secret” to become the secret to society never changing.

Positive Thinking, Manifestation and the Power of the Mind are in their own ways beliefs of privilege.

When you are already empowered by your society, community, family or education, you can do a lot more with the power of your mind than a person fighting against society.

As a whitish male, the things I set my mind to will come easier to me than an African American male trying to get out of poverty or a woman trying to launch her business.

And as a queer, mixed-latino man with bipolar diagnoses and a poor family, there are others who certainly had more resources to empower their own positive thoughts into manifested tangibles.

If we’re not careful, concepts like Positive Thinking and Manifesting can become as repressive as Karma was in the caste societies of India.

The unspoken assumption becomes “that person is simply manifesting a difficult life with a focus on negativity and not enough positive manifesting.” Or as in another popular belief, “they accepted this life and contract before coming.”

Both place the blame for the individual’s hardships in their own choices, either in the state of their mind or in their choice before birth.

Similarly, Brahmins used karma to explain why the lower castes, such as the laboring Shudra, didn’t enjoy the wealth and power of the ruling Kshatriya or the social benefits of being priestly Brahmins.

This turns a blind eye to the fact that societies actively repress certain individuals, and they are made up of a horde of individuals perpetuating this repression.

The Buddha taught that people pop into this world in various degrees of empowerment, disadvantage, and repression through no fault of their own. This was his lesson on Anatta, non-Atman. Essentially you come into the world with karma, but it isn’t yours because there is no immortal you.

Someone else instituted the practice of slavery, which still affects vast portions of the population due to the pain passed one generation to the next from discrimination, poverty, poor education and epigenetic trauma.

Someone else created a society of misogyny, which still manages to pay women less money for the same work as men and accept sexual harassment as “man talk.”

Someone else decided to draw borders on a map and claim that just because you were born outside of those borders you have less of a right to the safety and economic opportunities offered within those borders.

But you are here now, and all that karma is going to affect you one way or another. In a way, all those others —  the slaveholders, the businessmen and the governments and their maps —  have manifested this world that you now have to navigate through.

Buddha avoided metaphysical questions such as the nature of the afterlife, contracts or souls because these beliefs are beyond our ability to prove. What we can prove and see clearly is that people are suffering and there are causes to why that is.

If you are economically or socially traumatized, it’s going to be pretty hard to “think positively,” and if you are constantly stressed about whether you and your family are going to be able to eat tonight, pay the bills or avoid the next drive-by shooting in your neighborhood, you don’t have the luxury of sitting back and manifesting your dream job and next vacation.

Will meditation help? You’re damn right it will.

So will seeing the silver lining in the things you can’t control and affecting the things you can to the best of your ability. But these are personal uses of mental tools that will help you cope with the difficulties in your own life.

When we take the ideas of Manifesting, Positive Thought and the Power of the Mind too far we create a philosophy that dismisses other people’s suffering as something they are mentally creating for themselves.

The truth of the matter is that much of that suffering is being created by the systems we interact with, use and support every single day in order to get what we want out of the world.

If you’re too low on this systemic pyramid you get crushed. If you’re in the middle range or higher due to any number of advantages from race, gender, age, wealth or education your “positive thoughts” and “manifesting” take you further, sometimes at the expense of others.

I’d like to challenge you to see where you are on this social pyramid.

Are you at the bottom fighting an uphill battle? In this case, brace yourself, positive thoughts will help, but it’s going to take a lot more work than the preaching of some of our favorite motivational bloggers.

I know from my own experience it takes a lot of patience, and I have to leave room for a longer timeline. I get frustrated with myself for not accomplishing more, and then I have to be reminded there’s a lot that I’ve overcome.

The trouble with living in a society of oppression is that our role models and cultural images make “the basics” look simple. In reality these basics —  holding down a job, navigating personal relations or finishing a course in college —  can become huge struggles when faced with economic, racial or gender discrimination.

It isn’t simply a matter of repression from “the system,” an employer or a professor, but the pressures that occur inside that create instability in reaction to all the pressures coming at us from the outside.

If you’re somewhere in the middle or on the top of this pyramid, I’d like you to examine the way your goals and interactions with the system might be accidently repressing others.

An easy example of this in most urban or suburban areas is gentrification. The well-manifested dreams of the middle class are often at the expense of poorer families.

When you start to get a feel for where your life’s possibilities are hampered or empowered and how, consider asking yourself how you can help empower others to change their lives in a very physical, very real way.

Positive thoughts are nice, but people are living physical lives that require physical action.

5. Release your attachments, but please don't cherry pick.

I got caught in this trap for a while. The releasing of attachments, the renouncement of duality.

It is particularly popular today to try and let go of the duality of Good and Evil.

Personally, I didn’t want to participate in a larger community because I didn’t want to become attached to any one ideal.

Let people do what they do, they’ll work out their own karma, and I’ll work out mine.

But while non-attachment and non-duality are core tenets of many eastern beliefs, if you’re reading this right now you’re already attached to dozens of things, such as your computer or your phone, my opinion and blog posts.

I had to come to this understanding myself. There are many things I’m still attached to and, more importantly, that I want to be attached to.

We can’t let non-attachment to the duality of Good and Evil get in the way of choosing actions that contribute to the greater good.

One of the biggest things to get lost in the translation of traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism coming to the west is who was trying to break their attachments and gain enlightenment or Moksha.

The practice of non-attachment was mainly implemented by monks or the elderly who had withdrawn from their normal lives.

In the Hindu tradition, one is expected to raise a family, work in their business or caste calling and, when their children are grown, retire into seclusion and prepare for death.

In Buddhism and Daoism, practitioners seeking to further understand the Dao or Nirvana left behind human civilization went out into nature or a monastery and meditated and practiced their rituals.

In all of these traditions, it was seen as perfectly normal and, in fact, just part of life for people to remain attached to the day-to-day affairs of the world.

It’s what kept the world going. It is only when you become disillusioned with this and want to break the endless cycle of incarnation that you leave and try to break your attachments to the body, mind, society, Good and Evil.

In the West, though, we want our cake, and we want not only to eat it but to turn it into a milkshake and a vodka flavor.

We try to take these meditative traditions and concepts, such as non-duality and non-attachment, and implement them in a life filled with daily commutes, desires for promotions, education goals, child rearing, hobbies, vacations and dream homes.

Meditation will help everyone, and even laypersons in the eastern religions put it to good use, but the underlying philosophies of these religions can get really twisted in this new context.

Denying Good and Evil works when you’re out in the forest by yourself, and you’re not really performing in relation to humanity or the world at large.

But when we cherry-pick what we’re attached or not attached to in our personal lives, it just becomes an excuse — as it was for me.

If you have a job, if you look at things online, if you are raising a family, own property or have any aspirations in life other than Moksha, you are already attached.

I for one am attached to many things. I want to better understand myself and others. I want to do well in most anything I do. I want to be able to support myself while living Right Livelihood and helping others.

I want to tend to the environment and inspire the world to do the same. I want social justice and equality, and I want to write best sellers in philosophy, sci-fi, and poetry.

I’m not shooting for Moksha, and chances are, if you want to make a difference in this world, neither are you. That is where Mahayana Buddhism comes from. People wanted to remain here so as to do the most good.

If we sit by and watch social injustice happening all around us while parroting “there is no Good or Evil, these are attachments to dualities,” we’re not speaking a truly realized wisdom, we’re making an excuse not to do the right thing.

The people who truly know Good and Evil as duality have left civilization. The rest of us are simply choosing what we will and will not be attached to. In essence what we will and will not care about.

I’d like to challenge you to examine your own thoughts and ethics. Is there anywhere you throw up your hands and say “there’s no good or bad here,” when you really feel there is a right way?

Can you find anywhere you are cherry-picking what you are or are not attached to just to make your life easier? Maybe keep you from having to do more work on yourself or the world in general?

6. “Just as long as it isn’t hurting anyone.” Ethical relativity versus cultural relativity.

Ethical relativity can often create an obstruction to social change and activism. We may ask ourselves, “if everything is relative, what right do I have to resist or try to change the political, cultural or social norms and practices?”

I believe ethical relativity often stems from a misunderstanding of cultural relativity, the idea that because I choose to accept and understand other cultures, I should accept and understand all behaviors and paradigms as a manifestation of those cultures.

Cultural relativity is an important lens with which to practice equanimity and greater understanding of people and circumstances.

In the attempt to reduce racism, xenophobia, and misunderstanding, cultural relativity has been rightfully promoted in general culture.

Star Trek is a great example of this, showing respect for other cultures no matter how strange and incomprehensible they seem to the observer.

However, just as the Federation maintains its own set of ethical procedures, so must we. Cultural relativity does not translate into ethical relativity, which seems to be the way it is often interpreted.

As an International Relations student, my anthropology professors couldn’t drill this into us enough. They were insistent.

It is important to understand why headhunters in Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and Africa do what they do, but how it affects their society, is conceived of by their society and works with their environment and cosmological ideas don't make killing right.

Neither does the rampant use of assassination and bombing in an attempt to suppress violence with more violence.

We observe why a culture does what it does, but that does not change what is right. This is something my philosophy professors also went over again and again. Relativity and subjectivity, while fun ideas for a college debate, take away a lot more than they produce.

As an ethnic queer man, I understand why cultural and ethical relativity have been able to be so confused. We live in a society that actively oppresses members of the LGBT community, women, immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Throughout the history of this society, here in the States and in Europe, it was considered wrong to be queer, to be a woman, and to stand up for what you believe in, or to be an ethnic man or woman and hold a position of power over a white male Christian.

In order for us to find empowerment, the ethical values of that white dominant patriarchy had to erode, had to be found and declared as “relative,” culturally relative.

But this isn’t because ethics, in general, are relative. It is because the actions and belief systems of the white patriarchy are repressive and ethically wrong.

In order to dissolve these repressive beliefs, liberals, academics, and philosophers have allowed too much to get thrown out with the bathwater.

I think we all shy away from being called hypocrites. We’re scared of saying another belief system is wrong while supporting our own. In a way, we’re too educated.

The patriarchy is conditioned to be blind to their privilege and to the circular arguments of their premises, such as the acceptance of one religious text to prove their point when there are thousands of other religions and texts.

There is a reliance on tradition, “this is the way it has always been,” or an errant reliance on “gut instinct,” which is conditioned to respond to circumstances based on their own experience of the familiar.

Each of these assumes something is right because the dominant culture has accepted it as right. Most of them are circular arguments when you get down to the bottom of them.

It is the recognition of these weak premises that causes us to hesitate in establishing our own ethical systems because we’d rather not make the same mistake.

The thing is, when it comes down to basic ethics, we need to swallow the circular argument and stand our ground. You may not be able to declare racism as wrong by divine decree or a natural law, but that doesn’t matter. You know it’s wrong, so stand up against it.

Cultural relativity is getting in the way of us standing up for what we believe in.

I’d like to challenge you to make a list of the ethics you believe in most and give voice and power to them.

A professor asked me to do this my freshman year, create an ethical will. It changed my life and I am asking you to now create your own.

What are the ethics of your character? What do you value? What do you believe in? What gives you strength in your convictions? And how to do you live, breathe and bring these values and ethics into the world?

If you’d like to explore these questions with the rest of the community I’d love to hear your thoughts.