Consciousness, Spirituality

Contemplation and Global Change

In 1969, horrified by the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia,
I left graduate school in search of a way of living on the planet that
didn’t require us to kill each other. I was deeply confused by what I
perceived to be the utter disconnection between my own values and
behavior and those of the people who were planning, funding and
fighting that war. In an unstructured search that was more of a
meander, guided by often invisible “signs,” I traveled through Europe
and the Middle East. It was a pilgrimage, I now realize, to an unknown
destination. It introduced me to the human family: I remember picnics
outside Belgrade, meeting sheep herders in the Turkish desert,
visiting mosques in Tehran, laughing and bargaining with merchants in
the bazaars of Kandahar and Kabul and Peshawar, living with a family
in Kashmir whose son had just been released from prison for being part
of the independence movement. I felt at home everywhere. I was moved
and intrigued to discover something intimate and familiar in all these
people. Eventually, I reached India, and soon found myself in a
monastery with 100 others learning to meditate at the first retreat
offered for Westerners by a Burmese meditation teacher. A line I had
heard Gary Snyder say while I was in graduate school came back to me:

“The mercy of the West has been social revolution; The
mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic
self/void. We need both.”

I no longer see these mercies as existing at the poles of East and
West. We find them in many places in the Global Whole. But when I
was first sitting in that Buddhist monastery in India, the merging of
the two began to seem important for our future.

Although Western thinkers, even those who are not social
revolutionaries, have focused on creating social change through legal,
political, and economic systems, contemplatives in every tradition
throughout time have taught that a changed world depends on changing
the inner life of individuals. The Dalai Lama is a tireless
spokesperson for this message. “When we have inner peace, we can be
at peace with those around us. When our community is in a state of
peace, it can share that peace with neighboring communities, and so
on.” He recognizes that “material progress is also important for
human advancement” but says that “material development without
spiritual development can cause serious problems.” Thomas Merton said
“We must be true inside, true to ourselves, before we can know a truth
that is outside us.&rdqou; My own experience in the monastery began to
confirm this as I saw the ways in which my own mind created a false
separation from others out of insecurity and fear, and I began to
realize that of course others would do the same, and that very
separation could lead to hatred and violence.

As unlikely as contemplative practice as a strategy for social
change seemed to me when I arrived in India, it slowly began to look
like a critical component in the creation of a more just and
compassionate global society. If by looking within in stillness, we
could see not just our common humanity with others but the seeds of
world problems in ourselves as well, we would understand them better
in others and might be able to create methods for eliminating them, or
at least better choices for acting on them. Awareness seemed key.
And contemplative practices seemed like a really good way to develop
awareness of both our own inner lives and our connection with others.

Although religious and spiritual institutions have traditionally
been the source for contemplative practices, contemplative
opportunities now exist also in secular settings. My own path since
that first meditation retreat has led to the creation with others of
the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, an organization
committed to integrating contemplative practices into secular settings
in order to help create a more just, compassionate, and reflective
society. In the course of our work, we have become even more
committed to supporting contemplation as a critical part of social

Its contribution to stress reduction and enhanced well-being is now
widely documented. We know we are better able to engage most problems
when we are less stressed, from love affairs to terrorism. But beyond
those benefits (with the caveat that meditation can also increase
stress in the short term as it reveals what we have cleverly hidden
from ourselves) are the many qualities and capacities that lead toward
a life lived fully in wisdom and compassion. These are the real
foundations of awakened citizenship, activism, and leadership in every
sector of life and a global society that works for all. We are not,
of course, suggesting that contemplative awareness alone will lead to
a fully just and sustainable society, but that along with education,
analysis, and resources, it makes a critical contribution. It is also
true that the practices must be taught with skill and integrity and
learned with commitment and endurance to have deep positive impact.
Contemplative practices, although simple in form, are not easy to
sustain, and they do not always produce short-term improvement. Anyone
who has practiced knows this. They are seeds of change for a long-
term sustainable cultural shift in our individual and global lives.
Some of the benefits are particularly relevant for global citizenship:

A recent poll, funded by Ford Foundation and others, found that
“religious belief and participation emerged as a key indicator
of civic involvement.” But in a comment on the study, Robert
Putnam (Harvard, Bowling Alone) cautions that “people with
strong religious views and connections also tended to rate lower than
average in tolerance for people with ideas different from their
own.” On the other hand, we have heard repeatedly from
participants in the Center’s retreats that meditation, walking the
labyrinth, contemplative arts, and other contemplative practices
learned outside a religious setting increased their tolerance,
compassion, and ability to see the positions of others and work
creatively with them. At a meeting on philanthropy and the inner
life, Leah Wise of the Southeast Network for Economic Justice, who
works with ethnically and racially diverse groups toward a common
goal, said, “The real work is developing ways to address our
differences and build community together. Building a community of
inclusiveness requires the spiritual practices of ritual and
celebration.” Pat Harbour, Director of Healing the Heart of Diversity,
includes meditation, contemplative music, and altar building in all
their training sessions. Awakening the wise heart outside any
parochial form is proving to be powerfully healing in socially diverse
settings. (This is not to make a “new age” distinction of
spirituality vs. religion-we just note that sometimes religious
affiliation can reinforce a sense of “us” and “them,” and that does
not seem to be a factor in the secular settings in which we have

Become awake to life so that you can live it more completely.
Be more aware of every moment. Increase your
sense of shared humanity, of the
interconnection of all life.

— from The Center Meditation Manual

During the first stage of the Center, we interviewed 40 well-respected
teachers of contemplative practice from diverse religious, spiritual,
and secular traditions. One of the many questions we asked them was
this: What is the connection between contemplation and social change?
Most of these teachers stated that not only does meditation not lead
to antisocial (navel-gazing) behavior but that there is a causal
connection between contemplative practice and social action. They
gave specific examples both of direct action and of service offered in
the form of teaching contemplative practices as a means of relieving
suffering. They also discussed capacities for compassionate action
that are developed through contemplative practice.

What happens for many people in the process of quieting, stilling, and
cultivating awareness is a deepening sense of the interconnection of
all life, and flowing out of this, greater compassion. It seems
to me, Rabbi Meir Sendor explained, that there are
certain ethical postures or stances that you come to appreciate, to be
understood more deeply as you meditate. A sense of equanimity that
meditation helps generate also gives you a deeper sense of equality
that spreads to your relationship to others, as you can diminish your
own ego obsession and open up to others and you get a greater sense of
reciprocity and mutuality. These are all the great principles of every
moral tradition. It seems that, in a certain sense, meditation or
contemplation, helps bring these principles alive. You get to
understand them in a much deeper way. It’s not just on the surface.
It’s not just weighing one thing against another. You really feel your
sense of oneness with others, your connectedness with others, with all
beings in the universe.

The relation between contemplation and social action is deep, one
balancing the other. Ram Dass points out that One shouldn’t see it
as contemplation versus action. I think contemplation is a form of
action. I think that one needs a contemplative mind in order not to
get trapped in seeing things a single way–which can be the
predicament of the activist.

Some teachers are concerned about the dangers. Rabbi Jonathan
Omer-Man cautioned that meditation could also be used to avoid dealing
with life. My concern was that people – my students and other
practitioners – were using meditation for a means to become too
detached when there was a need to be attached. But Rabbi David Cooper
reminds us that it is about balance: In our day, you need both; you
can’t do one without the other. If you become a person of incredible
social action and you’re just out there, burning the candle at both
ends, what happens is you burn out very quickly. You need a place
where you can come back and regenerate yourself. On the other hand if
you just go inside and become completely dedicated to practice and
don’t have social consciousness and social action in mind – what
happens is you shrivel up and lose your juices. Father Thomas
Keating also felt that contemplation is the basis for social action,
in the sense that without contemplation such action can be draining,
while if one’s activity is rooted in a spiritual center nourished by
contemplative prayer, there is much greater chance of perseverance and
effectiveness in one’s service.

Now that the Center has been exploring these connections for five
years, we have heard interesting and profound reports of the potential
benefits of contemplative practices for social change, from the
ability to be more present with suffering to the renewal of commitment
to a cause. This transformative approach to experience that
contemplative practice cultivates not only allows for change but
appreciates its inevitability, essential to a vision of a more just