Book Excerpt | The New Republic of the Heart: An Ethos for Revolutionaries

By Terry Patten, from Chapter 2 of The New Republic of the Heart

Translating Heartbreak into Action

The work we have to do can be seen as a kind of coming alive. More than mere moral imperative, it’s an awakening to our true nature, a releasing of our gifts.
– Joanna Macy

Without inner change there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.
– Angel Kyodo Williams

Purchase the book here.

No one can say with certainty how our civilizational crisis will play out. We don’t know how much suffering and destruction–human and nonhuman–might lie ahead, or how soon. But we do know, with increasing certainty, that the actions of human beings have created an existential predicament; and we can also know that the actions of human beings–for good or for ill–will determine the future of our great grandchildren and most other living beings. The stakes could scarcely be higher. We cannot wait to “see what happens” before we act on this awareness. Rather, we are obliged right now to do whatever we can to help prevent or mitigate the horrific scenarios that we may have set in motion. What could be a greater moral imperative?

Only human beings can protect and defend the future of life on Earth from human beings. It will take conscious individuals making deliberate choices based on the best information available–people presuming responsibility to make a difference. Nothing could be more honorable and worthwhile.

The word “activist” conjures images of sit-ins, people circulating petitions and raising money and marching and organizing and meeting, and getting people to the polls. But it also means doing research, starting businesses, making loans, and changing one’s diet. When people creatively act on their moral intuition, all kinds of things happen. The world of activism is very big, diverse, and dynamic. And it requires—and helps us along in–transcending the collective trance.

Gratitude, Grief, and Spiritual Activism

Spiritual life involves growing into a wise and healthy relationship to reality. The word “spiritual” points to the deepest level of being–essential and existential. Spiritual growth and development enable us to glimpse the bountiful grace in which we live–the beauty of the world, and the privilege of conscious embodied existence. Gratitude is universal spiritual wisdom and it is sufficient.

Such gratitude is awake. It is realistically in touch with loss and death and threat–not in denial. Saints are grateful even while resonating empathically with suffering. Everything we love is mortal, even the living Earth. Everything regenerates, and yet it is also wounded and under threat. The heart breaks to see the destruction of vulnerable people, living creatures, and wild places. We want to protect them. We want to help. As Joanna Macy so sagely puts it, “If everyone I love is in danger, I want to be here, so I can do what I can.” Activism is simply acting on the impulse to “be of benefit” to something greater than yourself, in a whole variety of ways. Not all of them look like overt “activism,” but many do. All are natural expressions of human maturity.

But exactly how can we effectively address the totality of this crisis? If addressing it requires knowing exactly how the crisis will unfold and exactly what it will take to prevent it, then we can’t. As we have seen, no one, not even the best of scientists, has that degree of omniscience, especially with the kind of wicked predicament we are facing. There is no way that we can address the whole tangle of causes and consequences–everything is connected to everything else. Our predicament requires a revolutionary transformation of every aspect of human life–a “Great Transition” or “Great Turning.” It will ultimately require revolutionary changes in human consciousness, behavior, culture, and the physical, economic, and political infrastructure of our whole civilization. It is so vast and intricate, it easily seems impossible. We might be tempted to despair, but despair easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet, because this huge transformation has so many aspects, every one of us can readily find ways to magnify love and sanity and beauty and truth and human connection. Every one of us can find many things we can actually do.

Paradoxically, the many little things we can do–each of which may seem in itself woefully insufficient to our total predicament–may well be a good start. We will continue to see the endings of life all around us, and we will grieve for all of the losses we witness. Our spirit and consciousness will go through a transformative ordeal as we take in new terrible truths about our predicament. But many actions on many levels, when collectively engaged (and perhaps further catalyzed by positive black sawn breakthroughs) may ultimately add up into a single great action. At our micro level, there are many things we can do, and are doing, to address even our mega crisis.

To be an effective agent of change does not mean we have to know everything. But it does require opening to another level of transformation and creativity. Our predicament presents us with a vast demand and limitless opportunity for growth. Our crisis seems overwhelming, and yet we live in a universe of awe-inspiring creative potential–in nature, in our fellow humans, in the evolutionary process, and certainly in ourselves. The story of evolution is a story of miracle after miracle. We must simultaneously take in the magnitude of the problem–grieve for much inevitable suffering–and do what we can on behalf of creative solutions, on every scale. To do both requires great openness on our part–openness to growth and to creative responses that we didn’t know were possible. We give ourselves over to something that feels true. We magnify health and wholeness, even in the face of fragmentation–and in our trust of the larger process, we also become more effective. Our souls are positively stirred, and conscripted. This process of growth is clearly never-ending.

The first stage of the journey into spiritual activism is grounded robustly in gratitude and appreciation. In the second stage, we awaken from denial, apprehend the enormity of the challenge before us, and allow a great grieving process to transform the soul. We benefit even from the awful moments of hopelessness–because despair is not just the end of our conventional hope. It is also the beginning point for a new possibility, a third stage–perhaps a kind of unreasonable affirmation.

The Wisdom of Grieving

Not only is grieving a stage of the spiritual activist’s journey, but the grieving process itself often unfolds in stages, which can be described using Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of grief. These five stages–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance–describe the process of psychologically responding to the prospect and reality of any catastrophic loss.

Denial can be said to be a defense against suffering and grieving. If reality is too painful, don’t face it. Maintain equilibrium and good humor by closing the metaphorical eyes, or the mind. Turn off the new, doubt its veracity, change the channel.

While we can certainly criticize people’s motivations for disengagement, it is also true that the attitudes communicated in media are often reactive and draining. So there are good reasons to practice skilfull, selective disengagement from the 24/7 news cycle. Making intelligent and economical use of media and politics disciplines tendencies toward both mindless addiction and reactive avoidance.

Anger easily becomes a habitual defense against feeling loss, sadness, and fear. There are very good reasons to be angry. Anger is the energy to change what needs to be changed. But healthy anger rises and falls, rather than becoming a chronic state, and it stays in touch with grief.

The next stage is bargaining, an attempt to regain lost equanimity, perhaps by imagining alternative scenarios that mitigate the sense of loss. Whereas true equanimity is based on opening up to all of reality, including its darkness, bargaining seeks to keep painful realities at bay. It is a more sophisticated form of denial.

The fourth stage is depression. When it is clear that heartbreaking loss cannot be avoided, the being is at least temporarily shattered. We begin to fear losing something we have always depended upon and taken for granted–such as the company of a loved one, the restorative and healing grace of Mother Earth, or the ability to live in prosperous, secure, open liberal society without doing anything to protect or defend it.

Mature, responsible adults are charged with staying intelligently related to the realities of our lives. But that requires us to pass through all the harrowing stages of grief into acceptance.

True acceptance recognizes the reality of our situation and accepts responsibility to arrive in basic equanimity and a capacity to act. We find a way to choose life, even in a world that includes horrific losses. We choose engagement with reality, including the gritty and not always pleasant involvements with people we may not like and in situations we would prefer to avoid. We know we have arrived in acceptance when we are in motion, doing what we can to make a positive difference. We find deep equanimity in activism itself.

Grief as Gateway

Grief is not a weakness–it is a form of moral intelligence and even wisdom. It takes us through a necessary gateway.

It took me decades to fully appreciate how holy it is. And then, in 2016, the gates swung wide open. I had for so long lived such a blessed and joyous existence, I was a bit unprepared for what I would feel. But for me 2016 was not just an election year with all the shock many of us felt about the outcome; it was also a year of an alarming series of record-high global temperatures and extreme weather events, and deep grieving over the grave damage we are doing to our living planet.

One of grief’s great lessons is patience–an attitude of self-compassion. Under these kinds of circumstances, my imperfections rise to be noticed. Even under the most kinds of circumstances, I will be imperfect, maybe a bit of a klutz or unconscious in some moments, or seeking what cannot be found. Those limitations don’t simply go away–not for me, nor for you, nor for anyone. But we are privileged (even if awed) to be present in these very interesting times, facing realities that people before us couldn’t countenance without horrified despair. It may take us many tries to get this right (and even then, we are never perfect), and our failures may even be costly. But, with self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and generosity, we can see our way through.

On the other side of all disillusionment and even despair, there will also be joy, goodness, and beauty. Gratefulness and celebration have always sprung from the soil of loss and grief. We will be alive, and life will be good. However difficult circumstances become, we will be able to savor the beauty of life in each present moment.

Seeing an overwhelming army massed on the horizon was anciently seen as the test of a soldier’s mettle–it was the time to get strong, fierce, and inspired. The battle was coming. And in the meantime it was wonderful to be alive. The “meantime” is all any of us has ever had anyway.

May we all be instructed by Willaim Blake’s beautiful quatrain:

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Finding Your “Yes”

Activism emerges from the stark recognition that we really are the cocreators of our world. We wake up from the trance in which we had imagined ourselves to be passive observers of the world, standing somehow apart from it. We recognize that we not “in the stands” watching the action from an objective vantage point, and we never have been. We have always been on the field, and the ball is in play. When we realize we are full participants, we awaken into activism, and our practice becomes to engage with the game completely, holding nothing back.

One reason we give it all we’ve got is that nobody knows what will come. “It’s hard to make predictions,” Yogi Berra famously said, “especially about the future.” The future is indeterminate. It will emerge, and we have a part to play in determining what exactly will emerge. This uncertainty calls for sobriety, humility–and the aliveness of unreasonable hope. We do not and cannot know enough to justify despair and passivity.

Scientists and environmentalists have sometimes predicted that we have twenty, or ten, or five years to turn things around, to launch a society-wide mobilization to convert our presence on the planet into a sustainable trajectory. These estimates were not just wild guesses. They were based on real data, and I respect and learn from them. But it doesn’t serve to relate to them credulously.

Human knowledge is far too incomplete to quantify our opportunities. The real bottom line is that even though the world may be seriously out of balance, we just don’t know–and can’t know–exactly how bad (and good) things really are. We don’t know how severe or sudden climate changes will really be. We don’t know how soon and how much sea levels will rise. We don’t know how disruptive the transition will be from our unsustainable global financial, food, and transportation systems to sustainable ones. We cannot and will not be able to know how much (or how little) disruption, pain, loss, and degradation are in store for us.

But we don’t have to figure it all out. We don’t have to become tangled up in our unknowable future as if it were an unsolvable dilemma. We don’t have to handicap the odds in this high-stakes evolutionary horse-race in order to respond. We can cut through all the mind chatter by asking a deeper and more essential question:

Can I find in myself a no-matter-what commitment? Under the worst-case scenario, can I still tap into the well of uncaused, unreasonable happiness? Can I still relate to my fellow humans, and to all of life, with care and love? Can I still relate to my fellow humans, and to all of life, with care and love? Can I still, to the fullest extent possible, remain present as a force for good in every moment?

A no-matter-what commitment resolves all dilemmas. Even if our predicament is hopeless, incapable of being turned around, we are still capable of loving one another, capable of enjoyment, capable of doing whatever we can to make life better, and capable of surrendering to the unknown. Ultimately, we cannot know what lies on the other side of our predicament. But we can still be happy, because our happiness is not based on external certainties (or “reasons”), but rather on our ultimate connectedness with the source of all life. And this noncontingent happiness is free to express itself in the service of others and of creation. If we do things, we are saying a resounding “Yes!” to life. And that “Yes!” makes all the difference.

Seen from another angle, this great “Yes!” is also a great “No!”

When we see an approaching sl0w-motion train wreck, we yell out a warning. A scream issues forth that refuses to stand idly by and allow the destruction to take place. We can feel a great “No!” shouting forth from our own hearts. It is deeper than our feelings and even our understanding. Something much bigger than us is finding its way into life through us. And it expresses as much urgency, right now, as the most pressing deadline ever could.

Life wants to keep living. Insists on it, even. Evolution wants to keep evolving, and simply will not be refused. It comes forward with ancient, revolutionary fervor.

That is what has been surfacing and circulating. This impulse toward activism is the sound of love when it roars–when it demands to be heard. The universal is deeply personal.

Purchase The New Republic of the Heart here.

About the Author

Terry Patten speaks and consults internationally as a community organizer, philosopher, and teacher. Over the last fifteen years he has devoted his efforts to the integral project of evolving consciousness through practice, and facing, examining, and healing our global crisis through the marriage of spirit and activism.


From The New Republic of the Heart by Terry Patten, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018 by Terry Patten. Reprinted by permission of publisher.