Would spiritual practice make us better activists?
Generally, the staff blogs of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the principal organization I’ve worked/consulted for over the last decade, are worldly in character. They deal in rational ideas, matter-of-fact reporting, heavy-duty policy prescriptions, and the quotidian hand-to-hand combat over control of the public debate that are an issue advocate’s stock-in-trade. That’s one reason a new post from Peter Malik, director of NRDC’s Center for Market Innovation (can’t get much more reality-based than that), struck me as so unusual.
Malik is just back from Ecuador, where he spent four days in the company of the Achuar people, whose village life deep in the Amazon is much as it was “before contact.” He describes a sort of communal early morning ritual the Achuar practice every day:
We got up at 4 a.m. and slowly assembled in the communal longhouse. It was pitch black, with only the perpetual fire smouldering in the middle of the floor offering some light. Sitting silently in a circle alongside the Achuar, we were soon offered bowls of wayusatea. Drinking gradually, we individually trickled beyond the edge of the compound to make ourselves vomit. Once reassembled, the most important part of the day could begin.
Ingesting the wayusa tea (made of a regular herbal extract) and the subsequent purging makes one enter a lucid, highly alert state of mind. And as dawn starts to turn the sky to the east slightly gray, the Achuar relay their dreams from the previous night to each other. On the basis of the interpretation of these dreams, they decide to go hunting or fishing that day, they glean what the weather has in store and receive all information necessary to give the day direction and content. Dreams and their interpretations are an invaluable daily compass for the Achuar.
In fact, the whole early morning period is. They use the clarity and calmness of the mind for the discussion of any contentious issue, and resolve it by compromise. In addition, any proposal to marry must be made during this period. By the time it is light—around 6 a.m. —the day has content and no issue of importance has been left unresolved.
Strange? Yes and no. The highest entity in the Achuar world is Pachamama. It represents all the beings and objects in the world and extends to all of the universe and all of time, past, present and future. As such, it is the ultimate One. Everyone and everything in Pachamama is interconnected. And all actions, large and small, affect all of Pachamama. Of course the complexity of such a web of relationships is literally infinite. That’s why the Achuar believe in the role of the mysterious and resort to their dreams in order to determine the direction of their actions. It is a humble and wise posture, one that considers people deeply integrated into the surrounding world and doesn’t put them above anyone or anything else. It is the ultimate holistic view.
Wow. I was moved to leave the following comment:
What a treat to read this story.
In the western world, we typically give no time and energy at all to starting the day with a centering practice like you describe — the alarm rings, and we go from dreams to a full-tilt sprint of doing, doing, doing. Who has time to reflect, to reconnect with a sense of the whole of things, how we fit into it as individuals, the very real way in which we are interdependent with all else?
The problem with this way of living, in my experience, is that it makes each new day nothing more than a continuation of the past’s momentum. It forestalls the possibility of intentional change, which requires a surrender to … well, stopping, and listening, and looking deeply. And in the end, the daunting global problems we face today will overwhelm humanity if it is not up to the challenge of making intentional, rather than adaptive, change.
I have been so angry and frustrated of late with the American political landscape. But I wonder what would happen if I (and everyone concerned about climate change) were to live as the Achuar do and begin the day with contemplation. I’ve tried this but it hasn’t become true habit. I bet I’d do a better job living well and in a less resource-intense way. And maybe I (we) wouldn’t see those on the other side of the divide as the “other”; maybe, in affirming each day that we are all one, new possibilities might open for engaging those folks.
When people consider how humans might evolve from here, it’s usually increased intelligence we think of. But I suspect that if humans avoid going the way of the dinosaurs, it will be because of increased spiritual capacity more than brain power.
I’ve actually been thinking about how spiritual practice might affect my work for years. I decided long ago that I really needed some sort of centering practice, for many reasons. But I’ve always struggled to make it stick, to establish it as daily practice. One reason is the the voice in my head that tells me things like, You can’t go to sleep … you need to finish that task! and You can’t get up at 6 for morning meditation — you’d be on 3 hours of sleep and useless at work! and even If you really gave yourself to this Buddhism business, you’d lose your edge — your competitiveness, fighting spirit, ability to work from urgency and anger and passionate resolve.
But then I look around, and the evidence suggests that maybe I’m somehow wrong about the value of that “edge,” at least as I’ve relied on it to this point. Maybe what’s more important is living from principles. If I put a spiritual practice centered on principles first and foremost, would I be a better communications pro? I think that kind of questions is worth consideration — for all of us.