Integrating Spiritual LIfe and Social Action

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon & Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Integrating Spiritual Life and Social Action


The Heart’s Deepest Desire
Nothing is more important in integrating spirit and action than coming into alignment with one’s life purpose. How do we do this? Where do we look in ourselves? The Sufis locate the root of life’s intentionality not in the mind, not in ideas we might have about our purpose, but in the heart, in the pre-verbal realm of our being. They call this function our himma, our spiritual will, or our heart’s deepest desire. In the words of Ibn ‘Arabi, the 12th century Sufi mystic, “Himma has the power to create real, actual outcomes that are not associated with illusory projections of the psyche.” It is the source of the best that we leave behind us. Learning to focus and liberate one’s himma is a life-long practice.

We have learned that following our himma isn’t about “doing what we want”. It is more about doing what we must if we are to remain true to ourselves. Over these years on pilgrimage it has meant foregoing dreams of cherished outcomes and letting go of traditional measures of safety. It has meant moving beyond talk and concept to simply “show up” and to respond to what is at hand.  It has meant learning when to plunge into the unknown and when to wait until the time ripens.

When interviewed shortly before his death, the sculptor Henry Moore was asked if he believed there was a secret to life. “The secret to life”, Moore answered without hesitation, “is to have something you devote your entire life to, something you bring your whole self to each day. And the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possibly do.

This is a perfect description of our pilgrimage and the himma that motivates it. Our own himma is the deepest intention to embody and serve the peace, justice, and love of beauty that we wish to see manifest in the world. This is a task without end. We cannot possibly do it, fix it, or bring it to completion. But our intention focuses our actions and inspires us to keep on. Without seeking this kind of clarity of purpose, it is too easy to be distracted from what matters most. When you know who you are and what you are about, spirit co-arises with action

Being the Same All the Way Through
What we are calling “spirit” – the recognition of the underlying unity of existence – always seeks a link to daily life. Everything needs to be held, everything needs a place it can be born into. A fetus needs a womb to mature, a seedling needs the earth. The inner life too needs a vessel. We believe that the traditional values of character and personal integrity can provide the needed constancy of a container.

The root of the word integrity means “whole or undivided”. And so we think that in people with integrity their intention is not split from its embodiment. Words and acts do not differ. They are transparent, the same all the way through. They bring spirit into the world to work, to be of benefit.

Most of us have had the experience of waking up to find that we are not living a life that is the same as the life that wants to live in us. We find ourselves unsatisfied. We may begin to seek a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition or securing a career. Our search is a search for integrity – an alignment with the truer life we sense that is hidden inside.

On pilgrimage we have had the opportunity to meet many people who have chosen such a life. They are easy with themselves and inspiring to work with. They remind us that integrity is not idealistic or about heroic models. Integrity takes us into all the complications of being a human being and thus must be grounded in the realism of who we are. In this context integrity does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening and an open curiosity about who we are and what kind of time we are living in. It is not so much a goal we pursue as a calling that we hear.

The pilgrim necessarily holds his or her self-identity lightly. We have experienced as we travel that our natural curiosity pulls us out from behind our masks of privacy or perfection, into the risky world of being present to what comes. We have learned that the way we act when we are in difficulty is the answer to life’s question: “Who are you and what do you love?” This learning then shapes our souls.

Bearing Witness
The word “witness” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to wit, to know in a certain way.” That way is by direct experience. If we think of the witness in the courtroom, no hearsay evidence is allowed. The witness must know for herself the truth to which she is testifying.

To “bear witness” was first used in the religious context to describe how the disciples evidenced the effect of Jesus’ teachings on them. Their lives were their witness to the truth they had experienced. “You shall know them by how they love one another”.

To “bear witness” today has become an approach to social action in which one seeks to be present to a situation with a compassionate heart and without preconceived ideas or solutions. One is open to truth as it reveals itself in the moment and trusts that from this openness and the encounter that flows from it, healing will naturally arise. It is a call to be compassionately present to every life situation, no matter how difficult that may be, and to willingly testify through one’s life to the truth of what one has seen.

As we understand this practice, we accept it as a call to come in closer to that which is different, unacceptable, and undervalued. We practice expanding  the boundaries of our heart to include “the other” without prejudice. When we accept that absolutely everyone and everything is different we begin to see the oneness of life. It is about letting our spiritual intuition of oneness and interdependence direct our actions in the great multiplicity of this world.

Bearing witness does not depend on detailed solutions from afar but rather listens for the truth in person. It is based on the premise that we serve best that which we are connected with.  Being listened to feels very different from being “helped” or “fixed,” and it evokes a different response. To choose to be present in this way creates the context for bridges to be built and change to occur. Instead of a sense of satisfaction for this work we feel in ourselves a sense of gratitude, of mystery and surrender. Are those not the heart of every spiritual path?

Open-Hearted Action
To be fully alive is to act. But action is more than movement. It is movement that involves expression, discovery, and continual co-creation of ourselves and our world. This kind of action is an outward manifestation of the inward power of our himma.

Parker Palmer in his book, The Active Life, delineates two kinds of action – instrumental and expressive. Instrumental actions are what most of us do most of the time. We head toward a goal, thinking we understand what needs to be done and trying to play it safe. Over time this kind of action diminishes our capacity to take risks or be truly creative.

It is the second kind of action that arises from our himma and enhances our integrity and our capacity to bear witness. This is expressive action, or what we call open-hearted action. It is integral with the insights of contemplation. It is not about achieving a goal outside of myself but of expressing a conviction, a truth that is within me. An open-hearted act is taken because if I did not take it I would be denying my own insight. While an open-hearted act is not obsessed with outcomes, it is entirely about making an offering that is uniquely mine to make.

Open-hearted action is a hard teacher. An action like this might reveal something false in us, or it might reveal something true that others might want to censure. We might make others annoyed with us or angry or resistant. We might simply be ignored. Open-hearted actions, as opposed to busyness, change our lives such as when we commit to love a person or a great cause. Often we have asked ourselves, “Are we willing to act in the face of these risks?” Yet in the absence of action like this, how are we to learn and grow from whatever new truths the action may reveal?

The pilgrimage of service and teaching is such an action for us. We learn by going where we have to go. Every time we engage in open-hearted action we set our souls muddling through to some new expansion. The more we risk of ourselves in this way the more we learn. If we did not value learning we would not risk and our actions would be limited to small and predictable arenas in which we know we can succeed, but a deeper opportunity would be missed.

To conclude, it is in these several ways that we are learning to move beyond the alternation of contemplation and action to a greater integration which infuses our daily lives and our journey. But it is never an accomplishment. It is always a practice.

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