Spiritual Activism

1. Taking Heart to Make Change

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1: Awareness, Compassion and love: "We take action that is born out of awareness, compassion and love, not out of reaction, fear and anger."

My daughter’s voice quivered over her oatmeal as she explained her bad behavior, “I yelled at you that way, mommy, because that is exactly how you just yelled at me.” She was struggling with feelings of injustice and I could see her heart contracting in self-protection. She was right; I had yelled with too much vigor for the provocation. I ached from the challenge of living in the world, neither wanting to cause nor feel pain.

Having a human heart is treacherous business, yet it is the source of our greatest meaning and joy. A central tenet of spiritual activism is that when we keep our hearts open we are better change agents because we can see more clearly and act more skillfully to transform suffering. But it is hard to stay open when life dishes up so many painful experiences. Our tendency is to try and create a “pain- free” zone by building a fortress around our heart, but ultimately this fortress also blocks the channels for giving and receiving love.

In an article appearing in Ode Magazine, “Cracking the ‘Cool’ Conspiracy,” Tinj Touber suggests that in contrast to years ago when we suffered from diseases that led to fever and being “too hot,” today we suffer from diseases that come from being “too cool” and disconnected from our own hearts. The reasons for the disconnect are worth examining so we can unravel the psychic knot that cuts us off from the heart and impedes our ability to bring deep, transformative healing to ourselves and the world.

Fear and Fatigue: As our lives unfold we experience frightening things of all magnitude that threaten our well-being and our psyches. Fear drives us to avoidance, and we learn to push undesirable experiences away, building our “out of sight, out of mind” muscles. Day-by-day we wrestle with the emotional chatter running through our minds and train ourselves to ignore rather than decipher the often confusing, volcanic signals. In addition to avoiding emotional connection in the first place, we also shut down due to compassion fatigue -- making too much emotional connection. For those who work on the front line of caretaking, being in a constant state of serving the needs of others can create burn-out and the heart closes up shop due to sheer exhaustion.

The Trap of Going it Alone: Our hearts also close down in response to the cultural mythology of rugged individualism. An overemphasis on self-reliance clouds the profound truth of our interdependence, which is seen as something to be ashamed of and denied. We have been taught that we can and should do things on our own and often carry on under the painful pretense that we don’t need one another. To need someone is to admit vulnerability, and our culture shuns vulnerability even though it is as fundamental to human nature as breathing and is the very source of our deepest experiences of love.

Worship of the Reasoning Mind: Our emotional intelligence has also been dwarfed by our worship of the reasoning mind; the feeling realm is relegated to the irrational and illegitimate. It is true that linear thinking can produce impressive results necessary for survival, but recent scientific findings show that our brain is not the sole “central command post,” we once thought it was. Our heart turns out to have many directive functions that don’t originate from the brain and is the sole trigger for functioning throughout the body, including the brain. Science is now documenting what mystics have long known, that cultivating a strong heart, with the capacity for emotion, empathy, intuition, and relational response, is necessary for the optimal well-being of individuals and the collective human family.

Opening the Heart: So how do we open our hearts after years of shutting down? Reconditioning ourselves takes regular, committed practice and is a lifelong journey. Just as we can develop mindfulness through meditation and quiet reflection, we can develop heartfulness by paying attention to our hearts and allowing ourselves to fully experience the emotional feelings rocking around inside. The more practiced we become at feeling rather than denying our emotions, the greater our ability to handle things that might create a seismic reaction. As we block out less of the scary, sad, and threatening elements of the human condition, our field of vision grows, deepening our ability to experience love and joy. We begin to understand that the source of suffering is actually the isolation we experience when we close down our hearts. When we can widen our perspective to accept the coexistence of joy and pain, our hearts and our experience of love grow exponentially.

Personally, after decades of trying to be “cool,” becoming more heartful has been and continues to be a welcome challenge. It is a sweet relief to realize that having a heart is the way life is supposed to be, and that one can protect the heart appropriately without closing the shop. I began my own heart excavation by taking up a regular practice of sitting alone for a relatively short period of time (15 minutes) and opening to my feelings. Following an exercise described in Omega Institute co-founder Elizabeth Lesser’s book, The Seeker’s Guide, I simply put my hand over my heart and welcomed in my feelings. Without too much strain my heart began to reveal itself. The more I practiced this process, the more deeply I experienced things and the more quickly I moved through emotions that threatened to knock me off my feet.

As a result of my heartfulness practice, my activism has radically changed. It has gone from being something I do to accomplish a social change goal to a way of being. I have come to understand that the means and the end are equally important, which brings me to know that yelling at “the other side” (or my daughter) is doing exactly the same thing I am condemning – creating fear and anger. The more I get in touch with my own heart, the more I am in touch with the hearts of others and the more interested I become in cultivating peace rather than polarization.

At the core of spiritual activism is the notion that when our actions arise from heartfulness we are working in congruence with the truth of our interconnectedness. When we act as if we are all in this together, which we undoubtedly are, everyone is better served. By taking heart in our daily lives, spiritual activism becomes a promising ground for creating a more unified, loving world. So take time to excavate your heart and practice being uncool, even if it’s just a few minutes a day!

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Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega Institute's chief external affairs officer and cofounder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. An attorney with 25 years of experience in public interest advocacy, she has contributed to more than 100 city, state, and federal laws, and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women’s rights, poverty, public health, and social justice. She is a commentator for WAMC’s show, 51%, writes a column and serves on the advisory board for, and serves as advisor to Women Without Borders.

Before joining Omega, Carla Goldstein was vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC), where she directed the agency’s advocacy and strategic communications work. Before joining PPNYC, Goldstein worked for the speaker of the New York City Council, where she helped craft and advocate for state and federal legislative agendas. While in law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she was cofounding editor-in-chief of the state’s first women’s law journal, the Buffalo Women’s Journal (now published as Buffalo Journal of Gender, Law, and Social Policy). Goldstein has also been featured at the New York State Bar Association’s “Women on the Move: Successful Women in the Know”.

Goldstein was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College for eight years, where she taught a course called Law and Social Justice, which was designed to empower students to be effective advocates for progressive social change. She now teaches a variety of workshops at Omega, including Omega’s Women & Power conferences and retreats, which inspire thousands of women from around the world. Carla Goldstein also appears regularly on local and national radio and television, and makes public presentations on issues related to women’s empowerment, holistic and sustainable living, activism, and spiritual activism.

Follow Carla on Twitter @Carla_Goldstein

Read Carla's article about her recent trip to Rwanda: Omega Attends Women's Conference in Rwanda

Founded in 1977, Omega is the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops, retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.

The Omega Women's Leadership Center, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since 2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political. The OWLC provides opportunities for women and men to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices through unique learning and community building experiences.

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