Politics and a life of the spirit

Not long ago, when I first made a comment about the Katrina disaster, I received an email from a reader who said,”I am emotionally moved by your writings,” and then went on to make some very kind comments about how I stated “the profoundest truths in the simplest ways.”

These were, of course, welcome sentiments — the sort all writers love to hear.

But then he finished his email with, “Stay out of politics. I love you.”

An odd sentiment, but very common. Witness the instructions to interviewees on the website of a woman who will be interviewing me shortly on her radio show:

“Please note that the theme of Donna’s show is ‘personal empowerment’. Donna does not choose to engage in political discussion or religion as topics.”

“Stay out of politics.” Personal empowerment does not include either the political or the religious.

We have come to an odd turning point in our culture. Not only do we make a distinction between religion and spirituality — a distinction that I think can be defended — but we have determined that personal empowerment should be something separate from politics or religion.

What we are seeing, I fear, is a terribly wrong-headed reduction of the Eastern path of self-realization to a kind of psychologized concern with self-improvement.

Self-realization, even in its most rudimentary stages, requires a rigorous spiritual self-examination and constant effort at clarification, purification, and control of many, many dimensions of one’s thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Self-improvement can mean anything that makes one’s life better. In contemporary society it usually reduces to “clear out your negative blocks, align your intentions with your dreams, and open yourself to possibility.”

It is, at heart, a self-obsessed philosophical position, and this can be either good or bad. It is good if the self-obsession is about clarifying your life to be better able to offer service to the world around you. It is bad if the self-obsession is about turning your back on the world to focus on surrounding yourself with more stuff.

My talk show host would likely not instruct her guests to say away from discussions about how people can increase their personal wealth by removing negative blocks in their thinking. You would likely not see her saying, “This show is not about how to have the life of your dreams.” These are fair areas of consideration in the world of self-empowerment and self-realization. Serving the poor, questioning the powerful, honoring the truths of specific religious traditions, are not.

But this is a false version of spiritual growth. It is the spiritual equivalent of living in a gated community — the mess and muck of the world outside should be kept out of sight and not allowed to intrude.

The hard truth is that if you choose not to involve yourself with things of this world — again, one of the highest and most noble spiritual paths — then you’d better be as indifferent to wealth as you are to poverty, as willing to give away everything you own as to seek to increase the things you possess.

“Pray and grow rich,” “Seven Spiritual Laws of Success,” and other paths of that sort may be good personal psychology, but they are not good spirituality.

Like it or not, Jesus went into the temple and knocked over the tables of the money changers. Like it or not, the buddhist path of worldly involvement requires the boddhisatva stance of not allowing yourself to enter into “heaven” until you have assisted all others in getting there.

By and large, I will stay out issues of religion, but not because I don’t believe; because I believe too much. I seek what is common to all, what is unique in each, and I bend my knee before the worthy path that each presents.

But I will not stay out of politics. I work to build the schools in my community, I fight against the forces of avarice that try to turn our cities into junkscapes, I struggle for the protection of the environment, and I speak out against policies, both local and national, that devolve into means of helping the rich get richer, while the poor are left sitting by the side of the road.

You may not agree with me, and that I can understand. But to think that politics is not part of spiritual growth is to abdicate our moral responsibility to our brothers and sisters and our mandate to serve as stewards of the earth.

One cannot live in a gated community of the heart.

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