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When I say ‘activism,’ it almost certainly brings a particular picture to mind. Perhaps it’s people peacefully assembled with picket signs; maybe it’s masked members of a protest movement throwing rocks at cops; or maybe it’s making a monthly donation to an organization that does wonderful work. How many of you think of a monk meditating on a mountaintop? How about a group of people engaged in collective inquiry to uncover hidden or limiting beliefs? What if instead of saying ‘activism’ I said ‘spiritual activism?’ Would that change the picture that first comes to mind? If yes, I think that’s a problem and I am going to tell you why. Then I am going to offer a solution and invite you to play a new game.
When something doesn’t fit in the boxes we construct to help us understand, we react with bewilderment and often anger, resistance, or outrage. When a label becomes an identifier rather than a descriptor we move into the world of absolutes, of duality, of separation. Either you are an activist or you are not. Either you are spiritual or you are not. The frontline activists often judge the spiritual activists and vice versa. “They are not really activists.” Put differently, they are not one of ‘us.’ When we are willing to engage in a process of challenging our assumptions, we begin to decolonize our minds. We begin allowing things and people to be unique, to be exactly as they are. This open inquiry allows us to relate to each other’s essence and being rather than to our story of who someone ought to be, how they ought to act, and whether or not they are one of us. If we embrace the simple fact that we are each ourselves and active in our own ways, we would see that we are all in this together. What becomes important then is the rules we play by—the ‘why?’
I see the illusion of separation clearly because I carry it inside myself. If you do, too, it is not your fault. It is a condition of the programming we have all been through in today’s world. There is no need for shame, only the decision to play a new game. In his book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, James Carse does a beautiful job describing the ‘infinite game’ and lays out some ground rules: “In the infinite game, the rules can and must evolve to ensure the continuation and expansion of the game; the rules of a finite game are set in advance and cannot be changed. Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries. Finite players seek predictability while infinite players embrace unpredictability. Surprise causes finite play to end; surprise is the reason for infinite play to continue.”
The infinite game is where I find my ability to challenge assumptions and bring forth my full potential. To be honest, I used to experience deep judgment as I thought of monks meditating on mountains. These folks, pursuing enlightenment in their own way, were not doing anything, or worse, had given up. They were just escaping reality under the self-delusion of greater purity or a deeper reality beyond the earthly realm. They were watching as the world burned. When I played the infinite game I was surprised to see that, in some ways, I actually envied these practitioners. I had a longing to escape the world of suffering I found myself in. I thought that maybe life would be easier if I disengaged and stopped trying. I was hurting and allowing my pain to create judgment.
As I healed my pain, I understood the role of these dedicated practitioners as something quite different: as generators of a long-range frequency of calm and stillness in the collective vibration of consciousness. Their detachment from human desire lays the foundation for others to actively walk in the world with unprecedented levels of grounded awareness. In this realization, I began to practice mindfulness, meditation, yoga, qi gong, breathwork, and anything else that helped me find stillness and overcome the existential pressures I was reacting from as an activist. I found greater balance and greater peace in my own life and found that how I engage is even more important than what I do once I get there. My activism became about what I stand for, not what I stand against.
Now my activism is deeply informed by an ongoing inquiry into ‘why?’ This is both an internally focused practice of examining my own assumptions and an externally focused practice of questioning anything that is presented as fact or as ‘the way.’ Each time I ask ‘why?,’ I find a deeper level of meaning, intention, self, and story. Allowing deeper levels of awareness to inform my action in the world is the deepest form of activism I know. Depth gives me the clarity and power to stand uncompromisingly and effortlessly in my integrity. And to be clear, uncompromising does not mean unchanging!
The inquiry into ‘why?’ is nothing new. In fact, it’s extremely basic. Most children go through an early phase in which they incessantly ask ‘why?,’ often to the point of exhausting their parents. They are making sense of the world. Unfortunately, this inquiry ends for many after an initial pre-understanding level of inquiry. They reach certain conclusions and stick to them for the rest of their lives. They unknowingly enlist in the finite game. Unless they have an experience that profoundly rocks their understanding of themselves or of the world, they may get stuck there forever. The infinite game player continues this inquiry, taking it to a new, trans-understanding level. We continually decolonize, unlearn, and expand beyond the worldviews we currently hold, the ones programmed into today’s culture. The deeper down the rabbit hole of ‘why?’ I travel, the more I realize that this simple question is the anecdote for the assumptions that hold us back from our full potential, both internally in our psyche and externally in our systems and cultures.
Systems and cultures are the manifest forms of our collective beliefs. Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It is essential that we decolonize our modern ways of thinking if we are to solve the problems endemic in our world. The more I inquire, the more I see how many of modern society’s accepted systems are not designed with values I want to see in the world. I want to live in abundance, not scarcity. I want to live as a part of a whole system, not a separate and isolated self. I want to honor the gift of life and recognize ownership as an entitled illusion. I want to take responsibility and design my life, not let outside conditions, influences, or illusions decide for me. Rather than fighting against, I choose to heed the words of Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Combining the words of these two pioneers, I choose to change my thinking and build new models that solve the problems of the existing, rendering them obsolete.
Joanna Macy offers a map of three approaches to activism in our time, a time she calls the ‘Great Turning:’
These three dimensions are often perceived as separate rather than as necessary parts of a greater whole systems transformational movement. This is one of the most essential assumptions we must overcome if we wish to witness change. We distance ourselves from each other when we need to work together.
Even the best built systems fall apart if people do not support them. This was a challenge for me to learn, as I watched many projects fail due to lack of unified intention, organization, and action. I also felt extremely empowered as I realized that the current systems I sought to affect were subject to the same truth. All systems and stories, no matter how powerful they seem, can be brought to their knees if we change our minds and organize effectively. To stand for something even when the systems and majority culture around us say we’re crazy, we must have clarity and deep integrity.
For years I have continually asked myself ‘why?’ and have pursued the answers to the deepest extent of my awareness. I have learned through working with groups of people in many modalities:
conflict reconciliation, authentic communication, sociocracy, through working with groups of people in many modalities: conflict resolution, authentic communication, sociocracy, dragon dreaming, appreciative inquiry, peer mediation, collaborative decision-making, way of council, circling, authentic relating, and more. I am now skilled in working with others to deconstruct assumptions and radically imagine the systems and stories we live in, from the relational to the political to the economic. Together, we can bring them back to being in service of life.
One of the primary outlets for my activism is NuMundo, a platform that connects individuals with impact centers around the world. Impact centers are places around the planet that exhibit care for the Earth, offer educational experiences, and have overnight accommodations. The intention is to cultivate transformational experiences for individuals, as well as to bring more resources and energy to places where people are living together and embodying life-enhancing values.
One of the most effective and productive engagements I could choose at this time is working at the network level to support the grassroots growth of a decentralized culture-shifting movement. The more that we build positive models that offer truly viable lifestyle alternatives, meeting all of our essential needs, the more we empower people to change their lives. The more we can support people to come together in communities that live by these new values, the faster we can affect change in the world.
One month ago (February 2017) I was in Costa Rica, traveling from VerdEnergia, a permaculture retreat center, to Earth University, an 8,000-acre agronomy university. I had just set up an event template and immersive leadership retreat hosted by NuMundo, designed to bring our online platform of transformation and impact centers to life. With top impact center educators and the best event organizers and facilitators in our network, we aim to support and encourage attendees to step fully into the lives they want to live.
At Earth University, three members of our NuMundo team attended ‘Ecoversities,’ an unconference on reinventing higher education with a group of 50+ people from many countries and cultures. Following this, we attended Envision Festival, a 5,000+ person gathering, where we reconvened with our NuMundo core team to build a Networking Center for attendees to find experiences in Costa Rica. This event was especially powerful as the 100+ individuals who had attended NuSeed permeated Envision’s larger container.
Upon return to the US, I spent 48 hours repacking in Boston before flying to Colorado and reconvening with a group of gamechangers at Sunrise Ranch, the oldest intentional community and retreat center in the US. At the end of January, I had attended the Emerging Technology Innovation Summit at Sunrise where the power of the event had inspired participants to stay and continue their co-creation. After a week of blueprinting a foundational container for a free, open, and collaborative society, I spent 48 hours at Green Valley Farm in Sonoma County for the Communities Movement Stakeholders Summit. Together with members of the Global Ecovillage Network, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, NuMundo, VillageLab, Reinhabiting the Village, and Village Nexus, we explored building interorganizational alliances and interoperable project teams to better serve the movement, beyond the scope of our organizational silos. Now I am in Colorado doing group process work in the context of Possibility Management to deepen relationships with a group working for a world based in abundance and interbeing.
There are many ways to be an activist. The more we explore our inner landscape to discover our natural ways of engaging, the more intentional impact we will have in the world. A new world is already being born. No single person can birth it alone. The more we embrace that we are in this together, the easier we will find it to discover and carry that which is uniquely ours. I am dedicated to serving the birth of this new world in the deepest way I know how. Right now, that means working with people to shift assumptions, building relationships and communities of practice, and reinventing systems from a place of deep cultural awareness. Regardless of what you feel called to, one thing is for certain: it’s time to do it. Get active and build alliances beyond perceived separation. Together, we can accelerate the timeline for living in a new world, one where we are grateful for and in service to life.
Nicholas is a systems designer – catalyzing people, places, and ideas towards a regenerative future. He has visited 50+ impact centers across four continents. As a global consultant, he offers resiliency to communities, businesses, and non-profits. His strength is in business strategy, development, and alliance building. He regularly offers workshops, facilitation and coaching sessions. Nicholas […]