Jai Sri Krishna! I am pleased to be resuming this blog on a “tentative” basis. While I like having the opportunity to distill and share my thoughts on subjects related to spirituality and public life, during the academic year it’s just not possible to do that on top of my Work. We’ll see how long this revival lasts. 🙂 In the coming posts I will share some drafts I had written and not published and then I hope reframe this blog in a new direction.
Although it will still fall under the same broad category of “spirituality and life,” I would like to use this blog to offer thoughts and spark discussion about the intersection of spirituality and social justice. In public life there often seems to be a dichotomy between actors (activists, social justice advocates, etc) and thinkers (academics, philosophers, writers, spiritual practitioners) and I think that spiritual people usually fall on one side or another of the divide. Activists who really take their spiritual selves seriously – or spiritual practitioners who take social justice work seriously – are a rare breed, and it is very moving to meet such a person. Not that religious or spiritual people are not activists – there is an amazing tradition of Christian involvement in social justice and civil rights advocacy. But those who consider themselves to be on a “spiritual path” are often less likely to take social justice seriously.
This can be due to a need to work through their own baggage before looking outside themselves with a service attitude. It can be due to a culture or association with others who don’t focus on it either – a lack of inspiration and opportunities to take on social justice causes. (Of course, one can always make such opportunities!) It can also be due to philosophy, especially a spiritual-material divide. It’s possible that members of some faith traditions are simply more likely to be involved in social justice than others, due to philosophy, culture, and emphasis. I would like to suggest, however, that even those of us without a strong history of social justice work can do it, too – with full integrity within our own traditions.
I have found members of my own faith tradition to be afflicted by all three causes. As a group, Hare Krishna devotees (and many other “transcendentalists”) focus on seeking pure devotion to Krishna and/or liberation and sometimes even devalue or denigrate “material” work. Our philosophy teaches that the highest expression of compassion is sharing knowledge and love of God, and that other forms of welfare work are simply incomparable. Material welfare work might help someone’s “bodily” existence, but does it really help their soul? Doesn’t it often just enable them to go back to a karmic lifestyle?* And can welfare work that has a “temporary” (ie, material) benefit bring merit to the giver?
These questions all make sense within a transcendentalist context – but something about them rubs me the wrong way. These questions, and their all-too-easy answers, enable someone to ignore the human, animal, and environmental suffering around them because, apparently, helping with those needs just isn’t meaningful enough. When you live in New York and walk past homeless people, the poor, the sick, volunteers asking for your help, and those in need every day, you either become closed-hearted and numb or deeply aware of Need and compassionate to those who express it. I would like to think that the spiritual path makes one more aware and compassionate. Thus it is even more disturbing when a spiritual person undervalues charity work, humanitarian work, artistry, philanthropy, and plain old “good work.”
The spiritual-material divide is real, and part of human development is learning to see the world according to Divine order, rather than the egoistic order that our culture teaches us. But this doesn’t mean that we have to reject doing “good work” in the world, or that material acts of altruism give us no spiritual credit. (On the contrary!) I would like to use this platform to work through – along with you, my readers – some of the factors in the spiritual-material divide in the valuation of work and charity, some of the manifestations, and alternative ways of thinking. I am not very spiritually advanced or very learned, nor very articulate, and I hope that with your input, encouragement, and due feedback we can come up with some good ideas together – not least good terminology for the concepts we’ll be discussing! Please feel free to offer examples or counter-examples from your own life or faith tradition. As in the past, writing will be a mixture of philosophical and experiential, with a good dose of personal experience. And if I disappear again for six months, don’t be surprised!
I am just coming back from an idyllic five-day vacation with my parents at my grandmothers’ homes on the shores of Maine and in the forests of Massachusetts. My family used to go visit once or twice a year but since being in college I think I might have gone once (I am now entering senior year) so it was well worth it to take a few days off of work (both my summer job, at an anti-domestic violence organization, and my other seva) to spend time with family. Every day we walked in the woods and swam in the ocean or a stream. We canoed, picked sea shells, got stung by bees and chomped on by blackflies and mosquitoes, ran with our dogs, petted horses, watched fireworks, and had lots of good fresh food. As a person who rarely takes a vacation or a break, I went along somewhat reluctantly, but it was really worthwhile both to spend time with the older generation and to once again get to know the outdoors. I have been thinking a lot about the human connection to nature over the past few months, so spending this time so close to it has been very rewarding – the pleasant and unpleasant alike! I’m also really grateful for the conversations I had with my parents – I am always amazed by their wisdom!