“It goes without saying that a civilisation which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.” (Freud, 1927).

A few months ago I saw a young elephant with his back right leg crippled.  Yet he walked along with great dignity alongside his mother – and his entire herd.

This whole group of elephants had slowed down to his pace and accompanied him, valuing him, ennobling him and themselves.  Just as his whole body had had to adapt to his damaged leg, they changed their lives so he too could live.  It was a heartbreaking and heartwarming scene that was a part of a BBC documentary, The Secret Life of Elephants.

We have come to see life as a competitive struggle amongst individuals who must do it all by themselves, as indeed small tribes once had to, the strongest not only wins but dominates and dictates how the rest of us must live.

Only the strongest, the healthiest, the young and young looking are acceptable.

When things are not as we are conditioned to like them we try to perfect them, when they are broken we throw them away.  We treat ourselves and others in the same way.

But Life shows us these remarkable moments where there is also co-operation between those who are strong and those whose bodies are not, so that which is suffering is valued and something is seen beyond the apparent flaw and incorporated into the whole.  And something changes.

Do humans ever do that, can they do that?  Chronic sickness and disability is rapidly becoming one of the greatest issues we humans have to face alongside our ageing populations. Like the more than 700 million people that have diabetes in its various forms with its many complications such as blindness and kidney disease, a hidden,  misunderstood and commercially-exploited chronic illness and symptom of something going on in Earth.

Earth is suffering, some say Life itself is dying.  Do we just abandon her and go somewhere else, which some people have been dreaming of for some time in our explorations and stories of outer space?

Or do we hear Earth’s grief at her inability to care for all of Life within her, hear her sobbing in the cries of the sick, the poor, and the excluded who are all part of Earth.

And then follow the example of these elephants?

Scenes like this open up our hearts and give us hope that many of us have lost.

Like a young woman I heard at a meeting about sacred activism who lamented her inability to be involved any longer.  She had done a lot, she cared deeply about the planet and social injustice and had even left her home in the UK to go to the US to support her cause.  But her body had broken down and she retreated to the quiet of the English countryside.

What can I do now? she asked.

Adam Bucko, a sacred activist who works with the homeless youth of New York, tells a story of a young homeless man who became involved in Occupy Wall Street.  For the first time the man had felt part of a community and safe.  He could leave his things at his makeshift home and come back hours later and everything was still there – unlike life in a homeless hostel.

When the occupation ended so did his ability to participate and take action, the meaning and new lease of life went and he was back on the streets, back on the drugs even more broken than ever after glimpsing and living the hope of love and community, that deep need we have as humans for safety and connection we cannot achieve alone.

The young woman did not just ask the question of what now – she also a made a plea for something new: We need a gentle activism so people like me can still contribute, can still be part of community, develop and share our gifts, she said.

Do these elephants have something to teach us?   It wasn’t just the individual who was helped, as so many projects and processes do, the whole herd changed and so something new developed.

Could human society open up to include and adapt to those of us who are marginal, dispossessed, excluded, so we are all included and we can all take action in our unique and different ways?  If it did, could something yet unknown emerge?

After all are we not all needed, are we not all a necessary part of Earth, perhaps in ways we do not know or have long forgotten?

Back in the 1970’s I recall my activist mother asking a question which has always stayed with me:   What will it take for people to wake up so society can change and become just?

This was not a spiritual enquiry, she is a socialist and atheist, it came with exasperation after a long and successful union battle that had led the workers to benefit but then go back to exactly the same behaviours and thinking they had had before and which had kept them trapped, as though the experience had not changed anything about them personally, just given them more money or rights, with no greater awareness of the deeper inequities of human conditions,  and so no awareness of the need to change them.

Just like after the occupation in New York, the young homeless man was left once more to struggle alone.  Even if others got to publish the books, make the movies, make their names and were inspired to set up new campaigns, he was alone and in a worse state than before the experience.

Just as in capitalism, those at a distance invest in and control and reap the benefits of the excess wealth developed by an industry or project, whilst those working within it, or living in it, are stuck in place, there is apparently never enough to enable them to escape or change, they either stay in the same place with the occasional treat or fall away.  Some have and some don’t. And both are trapped.

Because behind the ways and logic of our global financial systems, a cold and inhuman aesthetic lurks, in which everything that speaks of life is stripped away and all become figures that are disconnected from that they speak of, that they are about, no longer part of.  Something so purified, so inert this mental construct has become deadly.   And we are all dehumanised, whether we are CEO or long term unemployed.

Activism – trying to achieve change – is often associated with extremes, the political left or right.  Marx, one of the key spokesmen of the left, talked about the need for a change in consciousness to achieve a world in which each is given according to her needs and each gives according to their abilities.  He wrote of the need for theory to be linked to action and practice, something philosophers had forgotten.

And activism is seen as being very external and aggressive.  It is harsh not gentle.  After all it was widely known in the sixties and seventies as ‘agit-prop’.  Agitation and propaganda.

Protest and survive.  Humans are designed to protest, it is the only thing that we vulnerable, too early born animals are able to do: cry.  We are designed to cry to get mother’s milk, its hardwired into us, and it is hardwired into mothers to respond to the baby who demands instantaneous responses from her.  From then on we learn to protest to obtain what we need, until we learn other ways when we have needs to be met or when things go wrong.

We cry out when a loved one dies or something important like our home or job is lost, we search for it, try to replace it and weep.  We become agitated and then cry out, in our distress and agitation our thoughts or words may well be more illusion that truth.  Making the story ours..bad mother…wicked government….there is more that you are denying us!  And leaving us even more vulnerable.

This primal impulse is used and manipulated by sophisticated industries, like marketing,  and corrupt causes like Nazism. Tellingly Freud’s revelation of the repression in western society and the power of and within the unconscious was immediately taken to the US and the new marketing industry by his nephew Edward Bernays where it was used for both political as well as commercial causes to stir our unconscious desires into acts of purchase or politics – without us even knowing.

When we are stirred up the body and mind will take on all sorts of rubbish that is not true, not ours.

We know now from both spiritual practice and science that the body and mind affect one another.  Sexual thoughts lead to involuntary sexual bodily actions.  And bodily changes lead to thoughts – ouch that hurts, stupid hammer!

Stir up those minds and we become distressed, we search for others – we are social animals.

And yet in that state of agitation we are primed to take in much that is not ours – our boundaries are loosened and it is as though we become sticky and the thought forms around us bind tightly, the propaganda sticks.  We are not as separate as we tend to think.  Our bodies are impacted by the agitation and the increasingly distressing thought forms and propaganda – we feel deeply threatened and need to act, until we can become more than agitated, we become traumatised.  Our bodies no longer safe, spirit no longer able to be contained, souls fly away – we become dissociated.

And in that state, numb and cut off from our hearts, anything is possible.  Many of us will have seen the images of the Nazi propaganda rallies and the atrocities they resulted in, when people like you and me were stirred to do the unthinkable.

More commonly we eventually become burnt out, bodies damaged..bodies part of Earth and her soul… hurt by our attempts to make things better.

This type of activism seems to come from instinctual -often wounded – aspects as well as our super-egos, our egos, our minds.

And from there it commands, complains and demands.

The activist has been described as always looking for someone to blame – that is they are not being and always looking for something to do, an escape from being, stillness and so integration or wholeness. A way to quell anxiety, fear.  Don’t just sit there: do something! Quick!

Political activism of whatever form such as eco or social, tends to be about fear, about lack and not having, it is probably rarely rooted in conscious, mindful awareness.  The source of that lack is seen as under external and human control which there is then an attempt to wrest hold of.  While those who have, sneer at and deride these actions as the politics of envy.  And everybody is fumbling around in the dark and mists of semi-consciousness, like the moment we stir from sleep and glimpse the morning mists.

Being against something does not necessarily produce good results.  This process of argumentation, common in politics, academia and the media, leaves all the energy pushing in one direction against and yet we want to be in the opposite place, which we cannot even imagine through all the antipathy and hate.  It is something that we are beginning to understand, even in the world of ethical investments where now we have positive investments in what we are for, not just those which refuse to be with those things we are against, like arms.

Many find in activism something so compelling they are irresistibly drawn into it.

In the mass, in the group there is a safety to do and be what is excluded, they can protest at a seemingly safe distance, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has described this using the Lacanian notion of excess enjoyment ‘jouissance’.

Something else is going on, just like the excess that develops in capitalist societies that is enjoyed by those at a safe distance from the appalling conditions of its production, so too there is an evident enjoyment in some activism I have witnessed in my life, especially nationalistic, racial and anti-race.

The participants in this type of activism are involved in something intangible that has an “elaborate enjoyment, again in the sense of something that goes over-and-above what might be expected, and explicable, on the basis of sociopolitical and economic interests.” (Frosh, 2013)  I recall witnessing this at an anti-Iraq war demonstration in London in 2002.  From a short distance I saw a professional white middle class man I had once known.  His enjoyment was evident, his body dancing, his face smiling, his whoops and cries, despite the child and pram he was pushing along.

It was clearly something ‘other’ that was happening.  Frosh (2013) quoting Zizek suggests:

‘The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never “just life”: humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things.’ In the context of racism, this kind of ‘enjoyment’ does not mean ‘having fun’; it means that there is something surplus and unnecessary to which humans are nevertheless ‘passionately attached’. An energy suddenly released.

Yet this was a demonstration in which people close by were in prayer, in tears, looking up to the sky and seemingly pleading with the Divine.  Their clothes, behaviours and the words I heard suggested this war was something that was affecting them in a very deep and personal way in which there was no enjoyment.  Just pain and an obvious cause for concern, for protest.  They were stuck and crying out.

The man with the pram was in a very different place. A place of the split off, the fragmented, and fantasy perhaps? The unreal. The imaginary impure, the forbidden, claiming something from those forbidding gods. A substitute for the real and life?

Again quoting Zizek in Frosh (2013) Fantasies “that generally explain the ways our enjoyment is threatened by others who want to steal it, who want to ruin our way of life by corrupting it with their own peculiar enjoyment. In turn, we find enjoyment in fantasizing about their enjoyment, in positing an enjoyment beyond what we imagine for ourselves. So, we don’t like the excess of others’ ways of life.” We feel threatened and invaded by it. It is something we cannot control. And it, the power and enjoyment of the Other, is something we want.

An excess the conditions of our hyper-controlled and regulated lives inwardly and outwardly will not allow.

Life itself.

Paul Kingsnorth describes this contrast with great feeling in his description of his time in, and departure from, being an environmental activist after his heartfelt attempts to produce change in our attitudes to and destruction of Earth were drowned by the increasing presence, then take over by those whose protests were from this other place, whose ways were more brutal and in contrast, even opposition, to his own protests.  So he returned to being with Earth and poetry.

Many people find this type of activism so threatening they cannot even consider becoming involved, even though they deeply care and desire to, need to, act.

Whilst some of that fear may be from the strictures imposed by middle class, even new age mores, good people don’t complain let alone demonstrate – they are positive, accepting and peaceful.  Or Martin Luther King’s ‘paralysis of analysis’, there are other eminently sensible reasons to be wary.

Activism occurs to encourage and produce change.  Change implies a movement for one place to another.  But very often I saw that though changes may occur from activism, on one level the beneficiaries were rarely those the changes were intended for as though there is something inherently conservative in humans and human structures that will not allow too much change at any one time.  Just as poet TS Eliot warned that humans cannot bear too much reality.

So we may hear the complaints, sense the pain and take on women or people of colour as long as they are like us – middle class, Oxbridge, Ivy League educated or whatever group we may be.  We may try to cut carbon, care for the planet and yet after the initial movement something flips, goes back so all stays the same – we still have flash cars but now they too are saving the planet.  So the system stays intact. And we are left with the question again of where from and how does change come, what does it involve?

Activism occurs at in-between places, places where something is breaking down, something needs to die and something else is trying to break through and opposites collide – like the dispossessed on Wall Street in the Occupy movement and the financial institutions.  It is not in the space of the entirely outer, rational, disembodied, dehumanised arena of pure concepts like statistics and a movement of numbers from one place to another balancing the percentages.  Though it maybe a reaction to such factors as they operate in global production and trading, and in institutions like hospitals and schools and universities.

It is the place of the destroyer and the Trickster. It is of the divine we have cut ourselves away from, said does not exist and suppressed.  Our minds, our psyches are not quite as we think they are.  They are vast and open, they travel and interpenetrate, they are not so easily under our control.  In the inner worlds there are energies, beings, gods and goddesses beyond our knowings and understandings – though we may deny them, still they haunt us.

They travel amongst us and through us like the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream, often causing all sorts of havoc as well as happiness.  Or like nano particles that travel through us, through earth, though we do not know.

It is the place where the two seas meet, the salty and the sweet, this material world and the divine. The place of the Qu’ranic story of Moses in his search for divine knowledge and his meeting with the divine messenger Khidr.  But it is a world of paradox that, as Khidr warns Moses, he will find hard to keep up with without complaining and disagreeing, because the spiritual operates by ways that are beyond the mind, the restrictions of the intellect.  An action that seems arbitrary and unfair, later seen from another perspective is just and merciful.  What do we know?

In the West we are conditioned to see ourselves as personally responsible, that we must try to change ourselves or our world.  That we are at the centre. And as we go about trying to change or produce change we have also forgotten how little control we have and that what we think and do is impacted by the time and place and conditions of its production.

These words are produced at a time and place and are being impacted and influenced and produced by any number of influences ‘I’ both know about and have no idea about, even if it appears to an article by ‘me’ about what ‘I’ have learnt about activism that ‘I’ am producing for certain reasons. Yet it could well be some inner energies, some archetypal forces driving all this for something quite other.

In which case maybe it is wise to try to become aware of these greater powers, respect them.  Just because we claim they do not exist, does not stop them.

The ancient Greeks understood this.  Euripides wrote The Bacchae as a warning to the Greeks about the effects of patriarchy, of the emerging Greek state and rationalising.  It tells us about the effects of the denials and mocking of the power of the gods, of the instinctual self, of woman and Earth. It reminds us of the boundlessness of the human psyche and soul and what will happen if we banish it and refuse to acknowledge our ambivalent nature.  The young king is ripped to death by his own mother in a Bacchic state.  This is the power of the trickster and destroyer, aspects of the sacred we have denied.

Now patriarchy is dying and we need to remember this old battle between the opposites and not get drawn back in again. Some say we are in a time of great transition on many levels, in a multitude of ways.  Rational, outer, secular, spiritual, inner, mystical. Masculine, feminine, rich, poor….

And Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee warns about the dangers at these times: “It is vital that we step beyond the dynamic of opposition.  The new knowledge that is waiting for us belongs to oneness, but it cannot be accessed if we have an attitude of dualism.  At any time of transition we need to ensure that we are not caught in patterns of past conflict.  However, we need to acknowledge the existence of these conflicts in order to turn away from their attraction, their magnetic pull and quality of familiarity.  Otherwise they affect us in the unconscious where we have less resistance….We can easily be drawn into the battles of previous ages.” (2007)

Some of us are aware of these interior powers and seek to use them for our own purposes.  And how do we know we are not doing just that in our attempts at activism, even spiritual activism?

It is hard to know – maybe it requires both a maturity and innocence, an ethics and a sense of responsibility to act with and from the inner, from the sacred, the soul.  What is it that is impelling us to go and act?

It requires a steadiness, a stillness, a balance or alignment and inner quietness to hear and so to know what is really needed and to act from that place.  And still we do not know and still it fails.

We can tell when it is not from that place, in the examples life gives of others who lack that humility, that rightful relationship with Earth and Life, so we can reflect on what is moving us to act. Consider the many celebrities or politicians who pop up at times of crisis as a pointer to this dynamic of ‘look at me aren’t I good, I’m raising this money, I’m looking after these poor people, look at me the patriarch or matriarch showing you the way’.   The gods and goddesses, these impulses, may flow through us and yet we are not them.

And many of us do need to act and activism can and does come from other places.

It can come from the place in the human in which we are also hardwired to be compassionate, altruistic and care for others. For just as much as there is a primal instinct to cry out to have our needs met, there is another to respond, to share, to be in relationship  – and all humans learn from very early on to connect and respond compassionately even if harsh conditions, trauma and neglect prevent this from developing appropriately.

And it can occur in very dramatic ways.  Tibetan and Vietnamese monks have immolated themselves in protests, giving their very lives away in dramatic pleas for freedom.  People throw themselves into all sorts of dangerous situations to save others – often sudden bursts of energy, intense movements yet coming from our common humanity, our compassion, our hearts.

It can recognise and combine both the inner and outer worlds, be aware and respectful of the very real and powerful energies of the inner worlds of the Trickster or the Destroyer.

It can link even politics and spirituality, secular and sacred, which never were separate.  The Dalai Lama, the exiled former political as well as spiritual leader of the Tibetans, has spoken of his admiration for Marxism an economic theory which cares for the underprivileged and the oppressed, even describing himself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.

And yet he says Marxist political regimes have failed because of their materialism, totalitarianism and encouragement of hatred of those who have, the ruling class, which leave their countries impoverished ‘as if the initial aim were to become poor’.

Instead of hating those who have, those who are different, those who may seem a burden, those we do not like, we need compassion and human solidarity.  To work together. To share.  To love.  And to act from there and that space of relationship, of the awareness of the binaries inherent in life and of the need to abide in and act from the plane of unity, from the heart.

Pope Francis has also spoken of his concern for the poor, the sick and our planet and the urgent need for change, but he says he is not a Marxist.  He wants us to change our hearts and follow the example of the great sacred activist Jesus who came from poverty and cared for the oppressed and included them amongst his disciples.  And he cared for those who were rich, those who had privileges and included them amongst his disciples, like tax collector Matthew.

So activism can and does come from the deep awareness of the sacred, from the wellspring of the spirit within, of the unity or wholeness of life that flows through us. Sometimes it urges us from within to be still, be empty, receptive, and from that place of receptivity it may sometimes urge us to go out and act, do. And what we are asked to do may even seem like the regular political protests we hear about so often.  It, Life, is in charge not us. Not our egos, nor even our judging super-egos.

It is a human, decentred and subordinated to Life which includes and goes beyond Earth.  There is clearly something far greater in charge than we humans that causes us to be born, to breathe, to die and directs our lives here, though we constantly rebel and subvert it.

The external, the extrovert, violence, aggression, massive physical strength, harshness, huge crowds, grossness all too evident in our world are part of the sacred.  But does activism only come in that form?

The instinct to care, to be compassionate, are often enacted and associated with receptivity, great gentleness, what in some cultures is called the feminine, in others yin. The new born, the dying and the sick are vulnerable, they require tenderness and small slow movements.

The subtlest movement can lead to pain or relief from suffering.

Is there such an activism?  Could there be such a gentle, relational activism for our ailing, even dying, mother Earth that would allow all who need to – to participate? Is it needed?

Ecotheologian Thomas Berry wrote about how much we have become disconnected from ourselves and the planet and the deep need to re-sensitise ourselves to the Earth.  He wrote of the importance of women and all Earths’ peoples.  He spoke of the need once more to hear the voice of the winds and waters, so that once more we are sensitised to this guidance from Life itself and from there we can act with confidence.

We have become very disconnected from our bodies and feelings, we numb ourselves from the grief and anger – the pain –  in so many ways from alcohol, drugs and food to work, TV and computers.  The trauma of contemporary life whether from war and disaster or the multitude of incidents in daily life have also hardened us, keeping us shut away from each other and life itself.

But that ability to sense deeply, sensitivity, is so vital and can arise with connection to Earth and genuine spiritual practice.  Psychologist Elain Aron says that in the past it was the highly sensitive people in the community who were the priests, the shamans, the teachers, the advisors to royalty and tribal leaders.

But now it is not just the indigenous peoples who are facing extinction because of the accumulated effects of pollution, wars, and exploitation, Aron points out how difficult it is for highly sensitive Westerners to survive the pollution and harshness of our communities, environments and ways of life which does not value sensitivity as a quality. (1999)

So those of us who are gentle and sensitive are less able to participate, to be involved in activism and offer our gifts in confidence or offer them at all, the very gifts which traditionally have had a crucial part to play in the balancing and harmonising of human society and Earth and the continuance of life. These people, these gifts are excluded.

I once heard some Sufi women share dreams separately, but which were almost identical.

A meeting is going on in a large hall and there are lots of people at the front being very loud, visible and active.  All the attention is on them and the speaker in front.  They appear to be the important ones.  While at the back are people sitting still, silent, empty …  these are the serious ones, this is where the real action is going on.

Everything is needed and different forms of action are needed at different times and places for change to occur and life to flow.  Occupations and protests and meetings and speakers are only one form which may simply threaten most of us and be far too exhausting for many more.

Whilst the real action may seem to be in one place it may simply be a distraction so Life can do its work somewhere less undisturbed, while the busy ones are searching for the changes they are imagining.  There are many examples of this from political history of underground movements of resistance, the hidden actions like the French Resistance in World War Two.

And the sacred has whole other worlds hidden from the senses, inner worlds where it is said all action and form originates from.  Like the dream of the double helix that prompted the discovery of DNA.  Or the images and words that come to poets and change us at some deep unknown level.

Timing is crucial, we may have to wait a whole lifetime before Life needs us to act.

We need more gentle ways, compassionate ways, as the young woman asked for. The ways of gentle Jesus.

Like the Slow Movement, we  also need a gentle compassionate activism that is beneficial to our bodies, minds and souls and is able to be there in the same world as the ones receiving all the attention.

Gentleness is no longer valued in our society, sacred or profane.  It was once something to be a gentleman or gentlewoman but this gentleness was a mere veneer of social mores played out by those who through wealth and social position did not have to deal with, and even feigned an inability to deal with the harshness of life.

A gentle activism need not be in opposition to the often brave external acts, they can work together, they need to find a way together for the sake of Life.

Indigenous peoples have long understood this.  When warriors and hunters return to the village, rituals are enacted so their fiery active warrior energy does not come into the tribe and wreck it, but is received in ritual, often by women, and this gentling, ensures harmony in both inner as well as outer worlds of the community.  Gentleness and action go together.

Gentleness is subtle and does not neglect the small and fragile like the mice, the snails, the microbes, the babies, the sick, the frail, the elderly, that are so easily neglected, rejected, trodden all over and damaged. Slight things, hidden things, fine things, gentle like the breeze that seemingly hidden takes away the gossamer fine seeds of new life.  Or something so small and insignificant like the beat of the butterfly wing, that Chaos Theory suggests maybe all is needed to spark tremendous change.  So subtle we do not notice.  So slight we may never know what starts the change we are looking for

The big, the dramatic, the coarse, the obvious, the famous, the external and the known is not the only way.

There is so much we can do as we sit or lie or stand in a place simply of being, even if our beings are not integrated or whole, even if nobody else knows.  We can empty ourselves and pray as people around the world of all ages do and what is now being called subtle activism.  We can be like elderly people sitting at cafes fingering prayer beads, smile at a neglected child, feed a starving animal.

We can witness the pain and destruction around us, not just on the TV, and feel the grief.  And then pray, though everyone else may seem to have forgotten, just as we have forgotten our elderly, the sick, so many we do not see and when we do we see them just as burdens.  We can pray as we wash, as we walk and see the sad and sick and neglected or in gratitude for the beauty and abundance of our lives, of Earth and the skies.

We can sit silently attentively and listen and hear the cries few hear of our planet, we can walk slowly as though our very feet become hearts touching and caressing Earth.

As though sensing Life for the first time and once more…

We can love ourselves, love everyone we are taught to hate, love others though they may not know it.

We can slow down and become receptive, accepting, not knowing.  And love the old as it dies and wait silently, patiently, reverently for new Life to return so we may welcome it with gentleness, with gratitude and with love.

Yasmine Khan


  • Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses (1996)  Dalai Lama, Alison Anderson, Marianne Dresser, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA
  • Frosh, S  (2013) eprints.bbk.ac.uk Psychoanalysis, Colonialism, Racism
  • Thomas Berry www.thomasberry.org  The Great Work
  • Aron, E (1999)  The Highly Sensitive Person, Element
  • Llewellyn Vaughan Lee, seminar handout 2007.