As a student in the late 1960s, I was an idealistic radical who wanted to change the world. I devoted more time to the civil rights and anti-war movements than I did to my classwork. At the same time, I was confused and anxious about my personal life.
What began as typical introspection—What should I major in? How will I earn my living?—evolved into a quest for answers to the Big Questions: Who am I? What is my place in the world? What’s it all about? What am I doing here?
In the midst of this private turmoil—a generational one, as it turned out—I was drawn to books about Eastern spiritual traditions that were circulating in the counterculture.
Those who knew me thought the attraction was odd. I’d been raised by working-class parents who considered religion the opium of the people, and I carried that quasi-Marxist attitude proudly. But, somehow, the ancient teachings of what we call Hinduism and Buddhism resonated with me.
As interpreted by respected thinkers like Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, and Joseph Campbell, they seemed rational, pragmatic, and empirical. I liked that they were meant to be applied in the spirit of experimentation, not taken on faith.
I vividly remember a turning point. Shortly after moving to Boston, I found myself alone in a small, hushed gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts lined with statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
As I moved from statue to statue, enchanted by the knowing, serene, imperturbable expressions on the faces, I thought, Whatever those guys had, I want it.
I yearned for inner peace. I longed for joy. I ached to know what was true and real.
The Bhagavad Gita, which I had recently read for the first time, held out the promise of “equanimity in gain and loss, victory and defeat, pleasure and pain.” That sounded awfully appealing to someone who felt buffeted about by the storms and upheavals of the material world.
Before long I took up meditation and other yogic practices. I read everything I could about the world’s mystical traditions.
My aspiration to change the world was as strong as ever, but now I was convinced that the route to social betterment had to be an inside job. Surely, I thought, the peace, prosperity, and justice we dreamed of could come into being only by a transformation of hearts, minds, and souls.
My way of helping to facilitate that spiritual revolution was to be trained as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation. My personal slogan became “Changing the world one mantra at a time.”
I almost entirely disconnected from political and social issues.
I did this for two reasons. One was that I felt no need to bother with the details or to keep up with shifts in the news from one day to the next; the problems of the world would surely take care of themselves as more and more people found inner peace and higher consciousness.
The other reason was that paying attention to the social tumult was so disturbing, so agitating and stress-inducing, that I considered it an impediment to attaining the inner states I aspired to.
I was far from the only one who turned from social activism to various forms of inner transformation. And we did grow; we did change; we did evolve. But the second part of the plan—the transformation of society that we expected to automatically follow—didn’t quite work out.
Merely looking upward doesn’t cut it. The most effective spiritual practice involves actively making the world a better place.
Balancing the Equation
The world is as crazy as it was five decades ago, and in some ways crazier. Large numbers of people who are dedicated to their spiritual lives today feel the same tension I wrestled with back in the ’60s: whether to withdraw from the madness of the world or engage it to help change things.
Nothing that’s happened over the years has diminished my conviction that individual transformation is a necessary—and tragically neglected—cornerstone of enduring social change. What has become incontestably clear, however, is that the inside game is not enough.
Cultivating spiritual growth is like making sure the roots of a plant are watered: it’s necessary, but not sufficient. Healthy plants also require some gardening techniques, like tending to the soil, assuring the proper amount of sunlight, and removing weeds.
Metaphorically, the same is true in the sociopolitical realm: Elections, leadership, policies, legislation, and institutional norms are all necessary but not sufficient. Activism without personal transformation is like doing skillful gardening work while failing to water the roots sufficiently.
The times cry out for both inner-directed spiritual skills and outer-directed action skills. We need spiritually evolving citizens who care enough about the conditions of the world to get engaged, and we also need engaged citizens to work on themselves inwardly to cultivate higher awareness and virtuous traits while at the same time protecting themselves against stress and burnout.
Transformative spiritual practices work on both levels: as a refuge in the midst of trying conditions and as a platform for right action rooted in wisdom and compassion.
I’m not naive enough to suggest that everyone who steps onto a spiritual path becomes a moral giant in perfect attunement with divine intelligence. I’ve witnessed a shocking amount of narcissism, insensitivity, and foolishness in spiritual circles.
I’ve also seen much more kindness, empathy, and concern. And it turns out that research has found that those and other desirable traits are enhanced by spiritual practices, as is the ability to regain inner stability after an upheaval.
It seems reasonable to assume that society would be better off if spiritual awareness were to find greater expression in the decisions that affect the common good.
Spiritual people are more likely to know that enduring contentment is found in the chambers of the soul, not in wealth and acquisition. They are more likely to have compassion for the needy, the afflicted, and the vulnerable. They are more likely to seek nonviolent solutions to conflict. And they are more likely to comprehend that human beings are deeply connected to one another, to nature, and to the Great Mystery that guides the galaxies.
That awareness is needed to counter the greed, materialism, fear-based dogmas, and tribal animosities that currently afflict the public sphere.
Service with a Smile
We now hit “pause” in this appeal to engaged spirituality to acknowledge that withdrawal from the so-called “real world” has always played an important role in the spiritual life.
Virtually every tradition has an honorable history of institutionalized renunciation, with vow-taking monks and nuns who eschew family and other householder concerns. But very few monastics are full-on hermits. Most of them actively serve the world outside their cloisters, often in ways the rest of us cannot and with a level of dedication that the most ambitious go-getters would envy.
Monastics aside, it’s also true that ordinary spiritual aspirants often find it beneficial, perhaps even necessary, to pull away from the world’s travails.
Tuning out can be healing. It can nurture the soul by creating space to plunge more deeply into practice and contemplation.
As a young seeker newly committed to the spiritual path, I turned away from the turbulence, watching from a psychic distance as Watergate and the final years of the Vietnam War played out. I needed to disengage at that time; I was rebuilding the foundation of my life.
But I later realized that I had made a common, self-serving mistake: justifying what was clearly a personal need by claiming I was following advanced spiritual precepts. Worse, I had allowed myself to feel spiritually superior for doing so.
Even as I cringe in retrospect, I laugh at how easily we can misuse metaphysical principles such as nonattachment or “Let go and let God.” It dishonors all the spiritually grounded leaders, prophets, and reformers who have fought the good fight throughout history.
Not everyone has the time, energy, or inclination to be an activist, of course. But everyone can do something to make the world a better place. It takes nothing more than to access the quiet Source within, listen for the whisper of a higher wisdom, and heed the call to serve the greater good. It need not be a colossal effort, arduous or sacrificial. Acts of service can, in fact, be energizing, uplifting, and jubilant.
The world needs happy warriors, not martyrs.
Why shouldn’t doing good for others also do good for the doer? Why shouldn’t service serve the server as well as the served? In fact, it often works precisely that way.
One reason every spiritual tradition calls upon its adherents to give back in some way is that humble service is a potent spiritual practice. It breaks the stranglehold of ego and shatters the self-referential looking glass through which we normally perceive reality.
That’s another of the timeless spiritual insights that science has confirmed: People who devote some time to help others tend to be happier, healthier, more optimistic, and more satisfied with their lives.
Regular spiritual practice is not merely a rest stop, but a refueling station. It’s not merely an escape valve, but a launching pad.
Think of it as a spiritual two-step: (1) Step back, turn within, access the silent core of being, and ground yourself in the consciousness of our essential unity, and then (2) step boldly into active life fully equipped to fulfill your responsibilities and make the world a better place. No gesture is too small; no effort is insignificant.
At this inflection point in history, we can’t afford to hide our light under a bushel.