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Evolutionary Activism: A Bodhidharma Strategy

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At the Integral Theory Conference a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel on Integral Politics. During the discussion, I found myself outlining a 3-part strategy for evolutionary activism--using the metaphor of Bodhidharma, the bushy-eyebrowed sage who is said to have brought Buddhism to China from India and to have founded Chinese martial arts at the Shaolin Temple.

The question I was addressing was: How can conscious citizens effectively help bring about a positive future in the face of our current crises and stuckness? Do we have a workable strategy?

According to ancient legends, certain Emperors of China ruled wisely and well, guided by the advice of great sages--including Lao Tzu, Confucius, and perhaps also Bodhidharma. Such stories suggest a broad approach that evolutionaries can adopt:

  1. Become Bodhidharma.
  2. Help create enlightened sustainable solutions-- "spare parts' for 4-quadrant systems redesign.
  3. Gain the ear of the Emperor.

Okay, let's unpack that a little. First, some meta-context:

Evolutionary Urgency, "Pre" and "Trans"

One of the problems with conventional political activism is that it can be so painfully egoic.Egos commonly experience anxiety, and on that basis they feel an urgency to take action. But anxiety-based activism tends to recreate the disharmony that motivates it. If you've ever volunteered in a political campaign or for a political cause, you've probably come across the incredible narrowing of vision--and often the incredible lack of understanding or compassion for the "other side"--that accompanies these efforts, even if the candidate or cause is otherwise just. That anxious urgency frequently leads to unnecessary conflict, emotional burnout, and even a disaffected cynicism that gives up on the very possibility of meaningful change.

Spiritual development awakens people beyond such urgency, conferring a great sense of relief as we recognize, deeply and truly, that everything, in a real sense, is perfect just as it is. Since ultimately, everything is Spirit or God, nothing really needs be done. "Non-effort," or simply practicing a peaceful attitude in everyday life, is held up as the ideal. And this is a valuable and legitimate way of being, as far as it goes.

But the process of spiritual development doesn't end there. It then awakens us beyond mere contentment and freedom from dilemma. It liberates us into a profound enlightened commitment to serve, a passionate participation in life that is capable of great urgency--a tran s-enlightened urgency altogether different from the pre- enlightened egocentric, dilemma-based urgency with which we began.

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Our Evolutionary Dilemma

The very idea of a strategy for evolutionary activism may appear naïve, grandiose--or even dangerous, considering how frequently such grand idealistic aspirations have fed totalitarianism. Nonetheless, the continued survival and evolution of human culture may now depend upon us making a critical transition to sustainability--one that's not spontaneously emerging via the market's invisible hand, nor the wise decision-making of our economic and political elites. The hardwired motivations of "the selfish gene" aren't designed to meet threats like the depletion of fresh water aquifers, the resolution of culture wars, or global warming. And the transition before us requires evolved leadership and an organizing rationale.

Therefore, responsible citizens need a credible strategy for enlightened action. In most of the world, and egregiously in the United States, vested interests and political parties are locked in zero-sum power struggles between traditional, modern, and postmodern value structures. To resist the abuses of one inadequate approach often seems impossible except by contributing to another.

During the George W. Bush presidency, for example, I repeatedly found myself stirred to political action only to the de'jà vu experience of my voice being drowned out by the roar of disappointing "progressive" (postmodern leftist) rhetoric. Resistance often seemed futile.

Efforts to enact enlightened reforms are necessary and laudable--but often extremely frustrating. To enact an integral evolutionary commitment we need a vision of how can get past (or around) the current political and cultural stuckness that seems to make adequate responses to escalating crises impossible.

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A "Soft Landing" for our Overheated Global Culture.

What's the evolutionary objective for our activism? I suggest that THE political issue of our time is doing what we can to create a path to sustainability with minimal catastrophic disruptions. We should focus on optimizing global human culture's passage through an epochal adaptive transition. Since our current social patterns and habits are overheated and unsustainable, the goal is to transition as quickly as possible to more sustainable modes of living, while minimizing traumatic disruptions--it's especially important not to trigger cultural regression (small or large "dark ages").

Preparation is everything.Realistically, most well-informed observers believe that big disruptions are probably inevitable -- huge shocks, disasters, and crises seem not only likely, but maybe even necessary to catalyze the political will for us to change human choices and behavior. The "silver lining" is that these crises will punctuate our current deadlock and stuckness. Each will present "windows of opportunity" for more fundamental systems redesign.

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Terry Patten Terry Patten is a leading voice in the emerging fields of Integral leadership and spirituality. He worked with Ken Wilber and a core team at Integral Institute to develop Integral Life Practice, which distills ancient and modern (more...)

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