When the World Trade Centre in New York City was hit by a suicide attack in 2001, my first response was pure joy. I felt delight that someone had finally destroyed the symbol of the global capitalism I so oppose. As more information and news started to come in, my joy was replaced by shame. Despite my impulse to deny and avoid being honest about my initial reaction, I decided to face my own fundamentalism. I resolved to face internal and external dualities of us/them, win/lose, justice/injustice, good/bad, right/wrong, masculine/feminine and try to find something beyond them.
Four years later, I gulped and issued a call to action to Alberta activists: find beauty in a clear-cut. This call was inspired by a Buddhist teaching offered by Jim Butler, an Alberta environmentalist and ordained Buddhist monk. Butler’s spiritual teacher suggested that his greatest learning would be to go into the middle of a clear-cut until he could find beauty in it. Confused yet intrigued, I reacted with every cell of my body. I devoted myself to finding beauty in the clear-cut of my heart.
Certain activists talk about going through pain as a gateway to spiritual evolution. This is what I had to do. To find beauty I first had to go through “duality consciousness”—to understand this way of thinking, the harm it causes, how it leads to the profound disconnectedness of our times. On the other side, I found “unity consciousness,” a place where all is interconnected.
I became curious to learn how others face their own pain and evolve their activism. Nearly 10 years after setting out on my own personal journey, I visited with three local activists, Sarah Kerr, Leila Darwish and Shannon Rosnau, to see how they’re responding to the call to find beauty beyond the duality.
Sarah Kerr worked at the Arusha Centre in Calgary for eight years, four years of which she also organized against corporate globalization. In 2002 Kerr shifted the focus of her activism to social and ecological healing. Kerr’s shift was sparked on the podium of a peace rally in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza. When a Poet for Peace punched another peace activist, she knew something was deeply wrong. “I needed to change how I did this work,” she says. “I stepped back to really reflect on how transformation happens. I came to see that working for peace and justice is about working for healing.”
Kerr is now studying toward her PhD in Transformative Learning and Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Her focus is the role of consciousness in collective healing. “It really has become for me not so much about change or justice, although those are parts of it,” she says. “The frame I see it in now is about healing. The work we’re doing is healing for the world. And what we’re healing, really, is this consciousness, this way of seeing the world. We’re healing the lens through which we in Western culture see the world.”
“Activism has developed parallel to the traditional political system. It’s still based on provoking responses.”
For Kerr and others, that lens is the Western, dualistic worldview that dominates our society. The lens is so familiar, so foundational to our society and its institutions, that it’s often difficult to see and know where and how dualistic attitudes shape us. Given the dominance and pervasiveness of the Western worldview, even suggesting another way of looking at things—let alone healing from something we don’t realize hurts us—is strange.
Kerr and others invite us to consider the quality of life that the dualistic lens of the world offers us. She believes our society is experiencing a crisis of disconnection, that we’re bombarded with events that break our hearts. But she doesn’t shy away from this heartbreak. “A heart broken is a heart open,” she says. “If you can’t let your heart be broken, you can’t ever actually move to the next stage.” Duality consciousness keeps us stuck individually and collectively in heartbreak; we need to create space to move beyond, into unity consciousness.
After working as a community organizer on environmental issues in Alberta, Leila Darwish left the province for a year and a half to travel and reflect. After activist medic training and four months in Nepal and India, she spent a month and a half as a witness to the Jewish/Palestinian conflict.
Darwish’s ancestors include Palestinian refugees to Canada and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. As the first in her family ever to go back to Palestine, her experience was personally very meaningful. While in Palestine, Darwish witnessed homes being forcibly entered and people being arrested and beaten by Israeli soldiers. Witnessing such suffering, she says, broke her heart. Darwish chose to invest herself in energetically “sucking out the pain like venom,” she says, consciously taking on others’ emotional pain.
Darwish’s acts of compassion caused her own traumatic symptoms. It was only later, as she worked the land and put her hands in the soil of a permaculture farm in the Gulf Islands, that her heart was healed, through this deep connection with the Earth. Darwish says she gained wisdom about healing. “I got to feel heartbreak and feel what that’s like,” she says. “I also got to know that when your heart’s broken that really just gives it more surface area.” Darwish also saw the power and strength that can come from letting oneself feel deeply. “If we let ourselves feel that depth of emotion, then maybe someday our activism will respond with that depth,” she says. Darwish has a deep faith in the transformative power that can come from surrendering one’s mind to the full depth of emotions.
Instead, what often happens in activism is that the heart shuts down. People argue with facts, figures and statistics, quoting reports and respected experts to make a rational case that is void of emotional content. While some see this as a necessary tactic in a world where dualistic thinking prevails, Darwish sees the default to rationality as a misguided act of self-protection. “We’re fighting, but it’s a tough fight and it hurts,” she says. “Sometimes folks shut down their hearts and live in their minds. There seems to be a fear that if we open it up, we will go down and may not get back up.” People are afraid to be overwhelmed by the unmanageable power of emotions. Paradoxically, she says, the heart presents us with pain to which we can respond with courage. Facing pain with courage presents an opportunity for us to deepen as people—spiritually and as activists.
Activists often work in the darkest situations. “We walk a fine line when it comes to activist work,” Darwish says. “Just on the other side can be despair and depression, and so much of our work is about building faith, hope and perseverance. But I think it’s inevitable that we cross that line sometimes. And when we do, hopefully we have the support of our community and friends.”
To be depressed in a disconnected world may only be a sign that we are sane, says US civil rights activist Diane Nash. In considering depression in this light, the stigma can shift from the depressed person to the disconnection and suffering in society that causes depression. When we cross that line into depression with support and without stigma, it can, says Darwish, “make us better activists as well as healers and support workers for other folks who struggle with that line—which I think is everyone in this culture.”
Darwish also sees grief as an opportunity, not as a failure, on the path to enlightenment. “According to some spiritual beliefs, if I’m seeking enlightenment and peace, I should detach myself from the world,” she says. “If I’m really upset about the state of the world, that means I’m not enlightened, I’m too attached. I think that belief does a huge disservice to the world.” Grief, she says, can be an opportunity to deepen a spiritual practice as love flows amid the chaos.
“Part of me wants to leave Alberta sometimes,” Darwish admits. “It’s a hard place to be. But then maybe the part of me that’s a healer and a medic holds me here. We need to go to the places in the world that need our love the most. Like a clear-cut needs some love. Let’s not turn away from that. There’s a lot of history to account for here in Alberta, a lot of damage that needs to be healed. Maybe that’s why it’s important to be here, to be in these places where so much damage is, because that’s where our work and our hearts call us to be.”
Activists must “stay open to everything we experience,” writes Pema Chödrö. “Let difficult times… humble us.”
How is Alberta damaged? It depends on your worldview. From a duality worldview, there are many places more empirically damaged than Alberta. But many Albertans cannot identify with a forest, have no sense that all living beings are interconnected. Some activists, even, don’t fully acknowledge our interconnectedness. This makes things more challenging for their fellow activists.
“Activism has developed parallel to the traditional political system,” says Shannon Rosnau, an activist from Whitecourt now living in BC. “It’s still based on provoking responses from these traditional systems. I don’t want to interact with these systems as they now are.” Rosnau’s rejection of traditional systems was transformative, she says. She now wants a similar change “on the outside. If I do my own inner work, I’m hopeful that this can somehow be conveyed in the outer world too. I don’t want to play the same old game. I have to change myself and then maybe the game will change too.”
Rosnau decided to “not replay old approaches to things” when the town of Whitecourt announced in 2008 that they were considering a nuclear power plant project. She “waited for the universe to show me a sign that I was meant to do something.” She wanted to put her new consciousness into action, wanted to free herself of the illusion that those opposed to nuclear are separate from those who support nuclear. Rosnau and others started The Tipping Point Project. The activist campaign that followed wasn’t a “fight” for a “win,” but a campaign of shifting awareness on a number of levels.
As Rosnau attempted to raise awareness of alternatives to nuclear power, the debates began to be characterized by frustration, anger and personal attacks. In spite of this, Rosnau told herself not to vilify nuclear power’s proponents. “I reminded myself that this is another being; in the way of Mayan spirituality, this is another myself,” she says. All Aboriginal spirituality is grounded in unity consciousness, in a lived experience of the interconnectedness of all beings. Living and working as an activist, Rosnau became “really aware of my old tendency to judge,” she says. She tried “just to be present with this person, hear them for what they are saying and to be still with that.”
In 2009 Rosnau decided to move from Whitecourt to the Sunshine Coast. “Being in Alberta was increasingly hostile to my soul,” she says. “It’s as though we [activist leaders] held space energetically for a lot of people [while] others hid behind us.”
In Whitecourt, Rosnau was recognized as an authority and a leader to whom others deferred. When others handed power to her, they deferred responsibility as well, validating their personal apathy. Many had the attitude that “well, we don’t really have to do anything because they’ll do it… We’ll support them and they’ll be the ones who will speak up, speak out and make the change.” Rosnau’s role as an activist leader became a burden. While activism was her personal call to action, hierarchical attitudes toward her leadership felt wrong. Since moving to BC, Rosnau has felt supported as an equal in a community of people who share leadership in a much more holistic way.
A major difference in her new community is “there’s a common spiritual feeling that we are the ones we’re waiting for, and we can’t look outside of ourselves for somebody else to save the world,” Rosnau says. “We’re the ones who’ll make the changes, but in a very different way than things have looked before.” The community values collaboration and co-operation where all are leaders.
The nuclear power issue still resonates on a very deep level for Rosnau. She was “constantly struck by the metaphor of nuclear,” she says. “What do they do in the process of creating a nuclear reaction to generate power? Well, they split the atom. And it seemed so symbolic to me, because I’m becoming ever more in touch and aware and attuned with us being one.” From a dualistic worldview, the splitting of the atom releases a massive amount of energy and is a strong metaphor for dualistic thinking, of man’s power over nature, of splitting that which is whole. From a unity consciousness perspective, the healing journey mends that which is split, fractured, disconnected, and restores the natural and original form—oneness. Rosnau commits herself to unity consciousness in her day-to-day activities and in her activism against the literal splitting of the atom.
Alberta activists all find different ways to bring into wholeness things that have been split apart. Seeing a beautiful forest cut to the ground is heartbreaking. But activists need to go into the middle of a clear-cut until they can find beauty in it.
Pema Chödrön, an American author and ordained Buddhist nun, writes in Practicing Peace in Times of War about the transformative potential of keeping the heart open despite suffering. “Becoming intimate with pain is the key to changing at the core of our being—staying open to everything we experience, letting the sharpness of difficult times pierce us to the heart, letting these times open us, humble us and make us wiser and more brave,” she writes. “Let difficulty transform you. And it will. In my experience, we just need help in learning how not to run away.”
The events of 9/11 brought my fundamentalism to the surface and gave me the opportunity to heal. Today the necessary call is for a higher state of consciousness and for collective processes that support all of us as we grieve the damage done to our world. It is clear we are living in times of heartbreak. And that is our most sacred opportunity.
Meagan Smith-Windsor lives at Matchean Lake near Edmonton. She is writing a book about transformational healing and learning.