That humanity faces monumental challenges needs no more proof than a scan of the daily news outlets. A deeper look reveals that the cause of our problems is not just political dysfunction, which gets most of the attention. Nor is it economic injustice, or racial and ethnic bigotry, or ecological ignorance, or greed, or educational failure, or any one thing. It is all of those together, and more. It is also a spiritual failure.
For the generation that came of age in the 1960s, this is as disconcerting as it is tragic. I was a student radical back then. I worked for civil rights and marched against the war in Vietnam; I raged against injustice and the ills of capitalism. I wanted a better world, and I believed that changing “the system” was the way to achieve it. As for religion, I was with Karl Marx: it was the opium of the people.
At one point, however, I started to become disillusioned with leftist ideology, revolutionary rhetoric and the behavior of my more radical comrades. On the personal level, I was a confused, desperate young man in the grip of an existential crisis that neither Marx, nor Freud, nor Darwin, nor any of my elders could resolve. I could not find satisfactory answers to the Big Questions of life.
My search for truth, meaning and happiness led to the spiritual traditions of the East. The philosophies and cosmologies resonated with me, and the methods of inner transformation were just what the doctor ordered. I dove into the study of Buddhism and Hinduism, took up meditation and set my sights on enlightenment. Before long, I came to believe that meaningful social change could come only from the inside out. Now I saw politics as the opium of the people.
I became a spiritual activist. I trained as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation and set out to save the world one mantra at a time, convinced that if more and more individuals found inner peace and grew toward higher consciousness society would naturally evolve in the right direction. I was far from alone in that conviction; in the 70s and 80s, the ranks of yogis, new agers, meditators and mystics were filled with former social activists.
In time, practices like yoga, meditation and mindfulness became mainstream, and the way Americans understand religion and practice spirituality changed radically. Now doctors routinely recommend meditation and Christians and Jews routinely engage in contemplative practices. This is a development worth celebrating. But the world did not evolve the way many of us thought it would. Violence, injustice, environmental degradation and other manifestations of ignorance and selfishness continued relatively unabated. Spiritual practitioners started to realize that inner work, no matter how transformative, does not impact the broader social landscape as strongly as we hoped it would.
And yet, that inner work is indispensable. As Einstein purportedly said, “We can’t solve problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” One can add that we can’t solve problems with the same hearts, the same perceptions, the same maturity, the same egos or the same collective consciousness that prevailed when the problems were created. The evidence suggests that genuine spiritual transformation raises the level of all those attributes. People on authentic spiritual paths tend to become less greedy, less materialistic, less obsessed with acquisition and consumption, less attached to opinions and ideologies. They tend to grow in mental clarity and out-of-the-box thinking, and also in the capacity for compassion and empathy.
We all know exceptions, of course; there is no shortage of self-inflated narcissists in spiritual circles. But it’s safe to say that the arc of inner transformation bends toward wisdom and goodness, and that can only be a plus for society. Personal enlightenment without proper action may be like singing a great song in the shower instead of a concert hall, but action without big minds and open hearts is bound to produce bad notes and dissonant chords. The activists and the contemplatives need one another. Appeals to conscience and morality are not enough. Nor is legislation based on wonkish policy analysis. Nor are citations from scripture or passionate entreaties to be loving and compassionate. If those were enough, history would be vastly different. In short, we don’t just need political reform and educational reform and economic reform; we need consciousness reform. Without it, other reforms will be limited at best.
When I make this argument, people often try to pin me down on policy and get me to take a position on some left-right debate, as if I were running for office. My entire point is that we need to transcend that level of thinking and open ourselves to insights and ideas we can’t anticipate at our present level of awareness. It is reasonable to think that transformative spiritual development might provide an elevated platform from which to see the world differently—a place where creative, innovative ideas can merge with compassion and skillful action, unimpeded by ideologies, labels and past conditioning.
Maybe that platform is located in the transcendental field where Rumi wanted us to meet him, “out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.” It is there, after all, where our essential Oneness is not just imagined or proclaimed but directly experienced. Maybe that is where we can spiritualize social action and activate spirituality.
Philip Goldberg is the author of American Veda and numerous other books; a public speaker and workshop leader; a spiritual counselor, meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister. He is the co-host of the podcast Spirit Matters: Conversations on Contemporary Spirituality. He lives in Los Angeles.