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Upstream and Downstream: The Sacred Importance of Joining Contemplative Practice and Political Engagement

There is a social change parable that powerfully illustrates the vital connection between contemplative practice and social change:

There was once a village located next to a river. One day, during a break from her chores, a villager spotted a baby coursing down the river, struggling to stay afloat. As she waded into the water to save the child, the villager noticed that two other babies had already streamed by. She cried out to her fellow villagers who joined her in the rescue effort. But babies continued to appear. The village quickly organized itself to save the struggling children. After hours of endless work two villagers broke away from the group and began running away. The other townspeople called out to them: “Why are you leaving? We need you here to save these babies!” The two villagers bellowed back: “We’re heading upstream to find out who is throwing them in the river!”

This story demonstrates the importance of simultaneously attending to the many injustices that shape our world (fishing babies out of the water), while also striving to figure out why those challenges keep arising (who/what is throwing them into the river in the first place). Why do colonialism, white supremacy, heterosexism, and capitalist exploitation continue to thrive despite the best efforts of many?

Buddhism posits that existential suffering (like anxieties about our fleshy mortality) play a primary role in the cause of both individual and collective strife. This position is resonant with currents in Euro-American existentialist thought and contemporary social psychology. Thinkers like Georges Bataille, James Baldwin, and Ernest Becker have argued that existential drivers, particularly a fear of death, lurk behind dominative behavior. If feelings of servility in the face of a finite existence prompt compensatory bids for control (as these different schools of thought suggest), then that should affect how we pursue social change.

Conventional political tools like direct action and policy advocacy, which are great for rescuing figurative babies from the river, should be joined with “micropolitical” practices like meditation and ceremony that can transform existential fear into embodied appreciation for the richness of life (a plenitude that includes mortality).

A growing number of social change organizations, like the Movement Strategy Center, generative somatics, and Stand (formerly Forest Ethics), are joining conventional political praxis with contemplative techniques. They are fishing figurative babies out of the river, while also making the journey upstream. Both missions are sacred, and need to be conducted in tandem if we are to achieve a collective and lasting liberation.

James K. Rowe is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Cultural, Social, and Political Thought at the University of Victoria. He is writing a book on the political effects of existential resentment.

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