(From the volume Radical Spirit, edited by Stephen Dinan)
The Buddha left the safety of his father's kingdom and found enlightenment. Moses went to the top of the mountain and came back with the Ten Commandments. And Jesus spent forty days in the desert before emerging with his truth.
Mine is taking a little longer. For over a decade, I have been searching for how spirit and justice can truly merge, across space and time. That is, I want to reconcile a deeply held belief that we are all one, (if not in this material world, than on another plane altogether) with the reality that some have more power and privilege than others, resulting in tremendous pain and violence.
My own story begins, I suppose, with my awakening to the dire need for economic justice. I spent my first years out of college developing an understanding of economic injustice and rallying people around related activities. Mostly I worked to organize young people to address issues of hunger and homelessness in their surrounding communities.
First this took the form of education and direct service, but after some time this seemed pretty pointless. When news of more shelter beds is greeted as a positive event, society’s reality-detector has clearly gone awry. So, I turned my sights to what I thought would be more effective: developing young leaders who could support low-income folks to organize their own movements.
This period in my life was full of work and people and commitments. I learned from others what it means to be poor in America, how our economic system thwarts potential, and how communities achieve short-term victories. The work was all-encompassing; there was no time for reflection, relaxation or solid relationships. After many years on this path, I knew it wasn't exactly the right one, but I wasn't sure why.
I found my answer in the summer of 1993 when President Clinton's national service initiative brought 1,500 young people to Treasure Island Naval Base, just off the coast of San Francisco, to prepare for a “Summer of Service.” I had been a strong critic of national service and quite skeptical about this particular program, devoid as it was of political analysis and hell-bent on championing young people over older folks who'd been quietly committed for decades. Still, I agreed to the invitation to be a trainer because so many of the peers I most respected were also going.
It was a complete disaster. More importantly, I was a disaster. During our final wrap-up meeting, I went outside and sat under a tree. Staring at the beauty of Marin County and the San Francisco Bay, I recounted the failures of the week, mine and those beyond my control. The training curriculum had been developed in haste and with little input. Most of the national leadership had little experience with the program’s primary constituency: young people of color from urban neighborhoods. The participants, ages 17-25, were stuck in military barracks and treated like children, asked to be in bed by 11:30 P.M. Cameras and press stalked us at every turn. Many wondered aloud if this was merely a photo-op for the Clinton Administration. Why else would we design a training program a thousand miles away from the actual communities it was designed to serve, without the expertise of the individuals who live and work in them?
Sitting under that tree I realized that I had assumed a role I did not want and was not in any way prepared for. Where was the anchor that would have led me to make a different choice, that would have helped me remember my core values and my deeply-held beliefs? Didn’t I have a spiritual center of some sort? I was raised Jewish but did not find enough sustenance in Judaism growing up. Saying prayers out loud, en masse, did not feed me. The Jewish community felt too homogeneous to me and my suburban synagogue put more emphasis on status than spirit. I had drifted from religion altogether. Was I now paying the price?
I began to weep. Then, mysteriously, I began to pray. I heard a different voice coming through, one that felt slightly familiar and entirely new at the same time. I asked for help from a powerful presence that I felt, but could not name. I made a vow never again to be involved with something I didn't fundamentally agree with. And I committed myself to finding more sources of integrity, strength, and meaning.
Unsettled by this experience, I sought guidance from two mentors who reflected back that what I really needed was a spiritual practice, though I was clueless as to what a spiritual practice actually was. I'd never heard that term before. But with their counsel, and the help of a couple of good books, I cultivated a daily routine of meditation, one which continues to this day. Within days, meditation brought a sense of calm detachment that I had never experienced before. I worried less about what other people thought and what I was missing in the world. My highs and lows weren't as gut-wrenching. I watched as my attention for others and for myself grew.
For six years, most mornings have begun with 15-20 minutes of quiet awareness, just me sitting and paying attention to my breathing. Through the breath, I am fed by the same energy that enables growth and death and everything in between. I often call this sustaining energy “god” because most people recognize that word. But that is just a word for that which is ultimately without a name. This essential part of my day instills a sense of peace and it reminds me what it means just to be.
This state of being has a way of drawing important thoughts to the surface, while less useful thoughts recede. With so much of my day spent rehashing the past and anticipating the future, meditation lets me be in the present. I've found that it is hard to learn when the mind is frantic. In meditation, I train myself to be more mindful. And, the more aware I am, the more I can respond in a way that is truthful and wise. Meditation makes me a kinder person, somehow, and for that alone, it is worth it.
When I first began meditating, I felt isolated and wondered what communities supported individuals in their quest for that rather elusive quality I was unable to name. So, when I finished graduate school, I spent three months traveling, seeing old friends, and exploring the spiritual life. I visited holistic health centers, bookstores and yoga centers. I read books and participated in workshops. Everywhere I went I found people who were considering questions similar to those preoccupying me: What does a life aligned with the spirit feel like? How can I bring more groundedness into my day to day life? What practices would help me feel less full of myself, more full of god?
For those three months, part of me was in heaven. I was surrounded by thoughtful, alive, intelligent people having the conversations I'd been yearning to have. An inner calm arose and I was able to sink into a comfortable sense of self that was new and yet vaguely familiar. I was discovering what it felt like to live life in the present and I was incredibly grateful for it.
Soon, however, I began to feel uncomfortable. The worlds in which I was traveling were overwhelmingly white and well-resourced: the homogeneity and privilege of my synagogue with a slightly new face. Many people seemed unwilling, or at least unsure, of how to see their lives in a broader context. There was heightened consciousness around the pain individuals had suffered in their own lives but little conversation about the larger pain of a society thriving on violence and exploitation. The resounding message was "The only thing you can change is yourself.” I believed this, but at the same time I believed it was a cop-out.
Yes, my own spiritual practice enabled me to go out in the world each day as a calmer person, with more patience, and that made my work stronger somehow. It had some impact on the greater good, but only if I kept this greater good, this bigger story, in the forefront of my mind. Mostly, I felt torn between two worlds. My greatest commitments were justice-based, but my ability to sustain those commitments, I now knew, would require the energy I was cultivating in this altogether different realm, the realm of the spirit. My daily experience of the divine was an individual one, but social justice required collective action. I was torn, and unsure how to marry seemingly different practices. I knew there had to be other people who were struggling with themselves, as well as issues beyond themselves.
In 1995 I decided to formalize my quest to join spiritual practice with the world of social justice. I wanted to bring groups of people together to shed light on what it means to have a shared journey and a collective struggle. I wanted to help activists develop tools to carve out time for their spiritual life. I wanted to find ways for community-based organizations to become more reflective, more conscious of their values, more able to live and work harmoniously from day to day. And I wanted to do it all in a way that would eventually bring a broader spectrum of faithful voices into the public square. I had experienced the gifts of a spiritual life, and now I wanted to share them with all of the brilliant but overworked activists who I had always worried might kill themselves before they'd saved anybody else.
I began by envisioning circles, small groups of activists who would meet regularly for reflection, renewal and peer education. I saw these circles as supportive environments to explore individual vision, personal and political history, community building and core values. Unsure of how to proceed, I asked people what they thought of the idea of a small group of activists, loosely defined, coming together for spiritual renewal. Would they come? Most people responded favorably, so I scheduled a potluck dinner at my house and sent out a letter with directions, stating my intentions.
Then a scary thing happened: People called and said they were coming. What was I supposed to do now? The day of the first gathering I stayed home and cleaned my house for five hours. This was about more than just sweeping and mopping. I was clearing the way for new people, new energy, and new ideas. In the midst of this ritual, the doorbell rang. I opened it to find two young men, Mormon missionaries from the Church of Latter Day Saints. A grin crept across my face.
"Good afternoon, ma'am," one of them said, "We'd like to tell you about a path that you might not have considered. You might have heard about us on television or something."
"Actually, I don't watch much TV. . ."
"Good, that's good," the other one said.
"But I certainly know who you folks are. I was in Salt Lake City once. Pretty beautiful." Now I'm starting to sound ridiculous, I thought.
“Yes, yes it is,” they responded. “And we’d really like to share more about it with you.”
"You know what?" I continued, calmly, "I'm on a path that I feel good about. I'm all about god; I just think differently about it than you guys do." They stared at me blankly for a couple of seconds, and then smiled again.
"Well, ma'am, thanks for your time. You have a great day."
"You too," I answered. "Good luck."
I closed the door and resumed cleaning. Good luck? A nice Jewish girl wishing two nice Mormon missionary boys good luck? When I stopped to think about it, their activity wasn't all that different than mine. Wasn't I a missionary of sorts? This gathering at my house, wasn't it a way of saying to people, "Come on, put a little more spirit in your life. Get a little more god?"
Why did the promise and possibility of these circles matter so much to me? Because I knew that going out into the world every day to make some meaningful change was no easy task; it took energy, focus, and commitment. Every day, it seemed, I faced my own anger, anxiety, and insecurity. It took me a while to realize that these emotions were energy — the raw material of my life. Unexamined, this energy manifested as self-criticism, judgment, despair, pain, or paralysis. Through spiritual community, however, I knew we could transform this energy into strength, joy, serenity, compassion, and love.
And this is precisely what these circles provided for people. We gave each other ongoing support and built enough trust for real collaboration. We talked about money and Jesus and the Passover story. We created our own rituals to usher in the seasons and looked at baby photos while telling painful and joyous stories of childhood. We shared food and ritual and silence. We taught each other meditation and explored our greatest fears. And as a result, we built relationships that were more resilient to the tests of difference and time.
Small groups of spirited and faithful individuals coming together on a regular basis for a common purpose are nothing new. Seekers have always needed communities to reinforce their journey and to keep themselves authentic. They have a great legacy in forms old and new that continue to thrive: in the Jewish havurah, Christian mission groups, the tribe, twelve-step programs, Bible study groups, women's spirituality groups, and many others. I’ve come to think of these groups as circles of individuals who gather regularly, with intention, to support each other, to renew themselves spiritually, and to explore areas of common interest. Circles are communities unto themselves and, at the same time, they support the creation of community on a larger scale.
They seem particularly important to me now, as I and many of my peers place greater emphasis on a spiritual path carved from meditation, ritual, yoga, writing, art, personal prayer and other practices. Many of us are breaking with organized tradition, or at least attempting to supplement its flaws with other experiences. However, we forget too easily those aspects of religious traditions that have both helped people remember their social mission and find their way to god. Gathering weekly in worship instills accountability and community, however flawed, that is harder to come by on an individual path. The Hebrew and Christian bibles are full of stories and parables which nudge the faithful towards a larger sense of responsibility.
They carry messages of faith and hope, reconciliation and redemption, love and justice. And religious mystics from both the East and the West have helped me believe a direct relationship with the divine is possible. I fear that in our quest for something that feels authentic, we often undermine the very traditions that have allowed us to come as far as we have.
When taking photographs, there is a moment in which each photographer must decide how far to zoom in on the subject. Perhaps individuals get to a similar juncture when developing a spiritual practice. If our lens zooms in too close, and we see the work of the spirit as purely inner work, we lose the bigger picture — the sense of how connected we are to the world around us. If we pull back too far and forget about our own development, we are in danger of burning out or not honoring our uniqueness. If we focus just right, we see our own lives in a broader context. We are reminded that large-scale, societal transformations both require and inform our own transformation, and vice versa.
I believe some of the current trends in the world of spiritual development take us too deep within ourselves and too far afield from the rest of what matters. We cannot let the quest or journey to spirit allow us to drift off into oblivion or isolation. We need to see how our journeys overlap. We need to find or create venues that lift up the stories of inequity, oppression, reconciliation, and redemption, stories that inspire us to care for a larger circle than just ourselves. We need spiritual communities that will fulfill the individual longing for peace on the inside and further the social mission of justice on the outside. My experience is that such communities will allow us to weave both god and justice into the very fabric of our daily lives.
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Claudia Horwitz is the founding director of stone circles, a nonprofit organization based in Durham, North Carolina that finds unique ways to integrate faith, spiritual practice, and social justice. Since 1995, stone circles has worked with 3,500 change agents and activists all over the country through training, organizational development, and interfaith gatherings. Her previous work includes developing youth leadership, supporting struggles for economic justice, and strengthening nonprofit organizations. Her first book, A Stone's Throw: Living the act of faith, (stone circles, 1999) is a practical guide to individual and social transformation through spirit and faith. Her work is focused where contemplative practice, creative expression, and social justice intersect. She is a Rockefeller Foundation Next Generation Leadership Fellow and teaches Kripalu yoga.
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