The Spiritual Call to Protest: Shake Things Up, Shine the Light, and Turn Up the Music
Recently we shared Brad’s account of three consecutive and connected visions he had in the same night. Ultimately the visionary teaching was about our collective capacity to shine bright light in the world, but the beginning vision reflected the fear we personally have been carrying since Donald Trump became president. We shared the whole set of visions because taken together, they made us feel hopeful and inspired about life and humanity even amidst fear and dark times. Many people told us it deeply touched their hearts and gave them hope as well.
However, a few critics said we were being too divisive and just “feeding fear.” They were making the claim that diversity, peace, equality, and justice are somehow better achieved through not saying anything that might be construed as “too negative” or confrontational. We have seen similar accusations of “divisiveness” and “fear-mongering” launched against others who voice their anger, distress, and fear in response to recent actions of the Trump administration. In particular, some well-intended folks have suggested that in the name of taking the spiritual high road, emotionally-charged conflict should be tempered or avoided. We are inspired to address this view based on what we have learned about employing spiritual wisdom in turbulent times.
Socially speaking, it is unkind and disrespectful to quickly dismiss or meanly balk at anyone’s fear, regardless of whether we think that fear is justified. When another person says, “I’m afraid,” it is not an open invitation to immediately voice judgment on the validity of another’s experience. To do so is not only arrogant, but this knee-jerk dismissal misses an opportunity to wake up to a real danger of which we may be in denial. As important, we should consider that some people actually do face a danger we have the privilege of not facing ourselves. It’s easy to tell someone else to calm down and relax when we are safely removed from the line of fire.
Beyond issues of denial and inconsiderate behavior, there persists the idea that avoiding too much mention of division and fear is an enactment of high spiritual wisdom. We think it is worth exploring whether such a position might actually lack spiritual wisdom and worse, unknowingly contribute to the rising tide of oppression.
Fear can be an extremely challenging, paralyzing presence, and spiritual teachings about fear include warnings about letting it become all-consuming. However, wisdom is wisdom in part because it is situational, meaning its truth and application depend on the circumstances at hand. When people broadly suggest that it is unwise to sound the alarm on certain political actions and rhetoric because it “feeds fear,” they are extracting a piece of complex wisdom about managing fear and reducing it to a nauseatingly trite, new agey, self-helpy truism. Not only is fear blankly dismissed, it is pathologized as a symptom of our lack of ability to rise above or conquer it. All the while the person dismissing both the threat and the fear it brings stands separate and above it all, posturing as a harbinger of higher truth (whether they intend to or not). In one fell swoop, whatever wisdom the spiritual traditions might have contributed to the challenge of handling fear is diluted and trivialized by a trendy slogan used more as a tool of one-upmanship than transformative healing.
Fear was only one part of Brad’s vision. It was followed by the visionary lesson that even in the midst of danger and darkness, each of us carries a piece of the divine light that shines brightest and strongest when we bring those lights together. However, to rally ourselves to bring forth the light we often need an alarm to sound that wakes us up from any fantasy that all is well and we need not worry. Fear can be a resource, a necessary experience that opens our eyes and ears to what is going on around us. In general, big wisdom asks us to first respect and pay attention to whatever unpleasant experiences and emotions arrive in everyday life before immediately sweeping them away. These include fear, confusion, anxiety, anger, and all the rest of the challenges and suffering that come with being human.
There is unfortunately a pervasive misunderstanding that in order to shine a bright light we should always minimize so-called negative thoughts and expression. This view is perpetuated not only when we generalize that people should voice less fear, but also when we caution others against speaking out, engaging in conflict, expressing anger, or even lampooning the politicians. Actions of healthy protest are disqualified based on the truism that accentuating the positive and diminishing the negative will make the world a better place. It is this negation of the dark that actually allows darkness to march in and further surround us.
On Division and Conflict
Reducing wisdom to a one size fits all prescription too easily breeds the opposite of what that wisdom intends. When people too quickly launch an accusation of “divisiveness” they are in effect taking it upon themselves to shut down dialogue and blot out any important difference, often to assuage their own discomfort. Well-intended people should know, however, that the accusation of divisiveness is also being used as a tool of alt-right Trump supporters to frame his critics as the ones who are breeding conflict and unrest. Let’s think about that before suggesting that taking the high road means remaining silent or avoiding confrontation in this national and international conversation.
What some people generalize as divisive and dualistic is actually the capacity for discernment—the ability to draw a clear distinction and be willing to stand behind it even when things get uncomfortable or even dangerous. Big wisdom makes room for multilayered complexity, shifting realities, and situational ethics. This is not the same as suggesting that every view is equally true and that open-mindedness means “staying neutral.” We celebrate when people take the time to thoughtfully express—whether through essays, poetry, sermons, songs, or theatre—the crazy paradox of our inextricable oneness and the human capacity for divisive evil and violence. Deeply religious social justice leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this and other paradoxes and contradictions with depth and clarity. But if we do indeed oppose the discriminatory policies of the Trump administration, simply dropping into conversations with quick statements like “let’s not demonize anyone,” “let’s hear all sides,” and “remember we are one” do nothing to either strengthen the threads of human connection or stop those who are doing everything they can to break them.
It is dangerous to invoke spiritual principles as a means of insulating ourselves from emotionally-charged conflict. When we do so any big wisdom about love, non-duality, and human connection is reduced to small wisdumb no longer capable of drawing a clear enough distinction to point us back to the light when we need it most. The agents of darkness and purposeful political chaos welcome our retreat into silence. They benefit from our denigration of those who have decided to speak out or head to the front lines. The darkness spreads when we fail to enact and stand up for the very principles we claim to live by and want for others.
There are of course situations when conflict is best avoided or diffused. Sometimes it is good to exit a conversation that is going nowhere or interrupt a heated conflict so everyone can get back on track (thank god for the healing balm of humor). Or, we may simply need a break to keep ourselves healthy and sane. It’s true that in the midst of conflict people may slip into petty insults, tangential rants, and runaway outrage that loses touch with the big wisdom and big light. But this human dynamic is not a reason to avoid or shut down conflict altogether. Good street smarts and old-fashioned kitchen table wisdom can help us learn to pick our battles wisely.
Many of us are doing our best to figure out when and how to wisely and effectively act to promote values that expand rather than constrict the space for dialogue, democracy, and the global sharing of resources. This especially includes consideration of when to speak and what to say. Some of us are facing significant relationship strain with friends and family. On top of that, these decisions get all mixed up in the day-to-day challenges of living and taking care of our basic needs and one another. Even on our best days we are each a giant ball of contradictions, shifting emotional climates, and irrational tendencies, as well as good intentions, humor, clarity, and resourcefulness. We can’t get it right all the time, or even most of the time, and this is yet another reason we should avoid assuming our instincts to immediately calm everyone down or recite positive thinking slogans or even scripture are always going to be useful.
While there are some creative strategies that can help us navigate the tough situations in which we find ourselves with our familial and social relationships, addressing those require another essay. However, we unfortunately can’t just make a list of spiritual principles or interventions and then apply them to every situation as a way of keeping things easy. Such an approach doesn’t work with health, the environment, parenting, marriage, relationships, or basically anything involving humans. It certainly won’t work in response to dire political chaos. Michelle Obama’s inspiring slogan is a case in point: “When they go low, we go high.” Her words carry a truth that in practice begs for greater situational and strategic nuance.
Getting to the Big Wisdom Room
The question that really matters now is how do we stay in relationship to big room vastness – the place of spiritual wisdom – in a world of small room division and conflict? There are many ways to answer this question, but here is the core of what we have learned from our own experience and from some of the strongest and wisest spiritual teachers and healers we have known around the globe (Note: none of them have been interviewed by Oprah or Larry King, which is likely a good sign that they march to a higher drumbeat rather than spout a feel-good sound bite):
Good old-fashioned religion, which for us includes any spiritual tradition that facilitates being touched by the Big Love, welcomes brokenness, fear, anger, and bankrupted certainty as grist for the spiritual mill. Don’t be so quick to squash, still, or quiet the discord or uncomfortable emotions that arise. Instead, let them move and inspire us to build sacred ground that hosts a container big enough for others and all their conflicting thoughts and feelings. Big rooms, however, require us to resist the temptation to neatly organize the mess, resolve the contradictions, flatten the paradoxes, or tie up all the loose ends. Spirit is attracted to the ongoing movement and change fueled by difference, not the stasis offered by a fantasized oneness that is absent of discord.
We can’t fully wrap our minds around constantly emerging differences or the vastness required to nurture this complexity, and so we need to reach for the holy helping hand of someone who resides in the big room. We mean the truly holy hands—Jesus, the bodhisattvas, Mother Mary, the archangels, and so on. Doing so in times of need is not a way of spiritually bypassing conflict or abdicating responsibility for our actions, but an acknowledgement that we need divine direction and grace to lift us to a bigger space.
This brings us to an important teaching about spiritual engineering that comes from the ecstatic lineages: Spirit arrives on a syncopated rhythm, not on a meaning. Big rooms that host spiritual wisdom and transformation are not built by talk-saturated group process methods. We can’t make the divine hookup and proceed on a spiritual journey through dead words. Relying on words and concepts alone is how we end up reducing spiritual wisdom to simple cutouts, slogans, clichés, neologisms, and scriptural patter. We are all susceptible to this shrinkage simply because thoughts and words—though necessary and valuable—are always limiting and can only take us so far. And as we know from listening to the politicians, words are easily twisted to mean anything the speaker wants.
Brad previously said it this way in his book, The Bushman Way of Tracking God: “Your language-focused mind is an idiot; only spirit has wisdom. No matter how much book knowledge or street smarts you have, it won’t help with spiritual affairs. Spiritual wisdom is only voiced by spirit. You may be its instrument, but you don’t know jack squat. Get over yourself and allow spirit to take over. Easier said than done. And it’s never done.”
How do we let “spirit take over?” Consider following the radical and revolutionary know-how of the soulful wisdom masters, sanctified shakers, and Kalahari Bushmen healers: Take a full body, ecstatically electrified, music-filled plunge into the big room of high mystery as often as possible. To go past the talk, turn up the heat. We need to get cooked in the spiritual fire until we are out of our minds with divine ecstasy before cooling down and returning to the conversation table or typewriter. Here’s the recipe for big room activism: Ignite the spiritual fire, ecstatically cook, and then radically intervene. Repeat again and again.
How do we light the fire and fan the flames? Know this: it cannot be accomplished without sanctified music. Look to the spiritually-on-fire activists around the world who took a big room march in the name of freedom and equality—they were singing strong sacred songs. In the midst of any scary political mess we need to face the music, the holy songs that carry the spiritual current, divine breath, big wisdom, white-hot love, and healing balm.
In good times and in bad, these songs are a form of transportation. They deliver us from both fear avoidance and indulgence to the promised land where difference and discord are danced rather than squashed. Sacred music helps deliver everything, including the partial truths of mind and word, into the pulsing, changing, whirling, heartfelt whole of vast mystery. Songs born of hope and suffering carry us across troubled waters. They provide the spiritual bridge, highway, tracks, sea-parting, underground tunnel, and ocean worthy ship we need to find our way to the big room.
Also know this: a song will not be potent enough to carry us through unless we sing it from the depth of our hearts and souls. This means we can’t bypass the pain, conflict, fear, anger, and darkness within or around us and hope to generate a song strong enough to lift each other to bigger rooms and more sacred ground. We need all the longing, all the heartache, and all the existential angst in order for joy, absurdity, hope, and inspiration to wake up and rise again through sanctified song. Such a song can transform our suffering and empower our mission. Dissent is often the ticket required for us to be sent to mystery. Fear not the fears and tears that open our hearts to seek higher ground and make a soulful sound.
This spiritual wisdom has been practiced around the world for eons, though it is often forgotten when both the silence of contemplation and our talking heads get louder than our singing hearts. The deep stirrings that awaken sacred songs—redemption songs, songs of freedom—are a spiritual lifeline and a rope to God. Without a divine rope made of song, it’s too hard to navigate the fear, conflict, and violence we face from a place of big love and big wisdom.
We end this essay with another vision that gave us hope and pierced our hearts. This one recently came to a woman in our mentorship program. She dreamed of a big room without walls and a ceiling higher than the eye can see. It was filled with women of all ages and cultures of the world. They were a giant choir singing at the top of their lungs. In front of the choir there were three women making an unusually strong pulling motion with their arms in unison. Upon closer look, she saw that they were holding ropes that rose all the way to the sky. As the choir sang the women pulled on the ropes to the rhythm of the song. A loud voice thundered, “Let them teach you!” With each tug the women started to climb the ropes, higher and higher. The room was electrified with the holy spiritual current and filled with music and light.
Let us remember to let those who are singing and holding the divine ropes teach us, guide us, and show us the way. We are truly and sincerely afraid for all our relations as we open our eyes and experience the latest arrival of oppression and suppression sweeping across our land. We take this fear to the big room where sacred songs anoint both our dissent and our ascent to the highest place of love—an unconditional mama and papa love that both scolds and embraces. The prophets of old did not cower to the worshippers of prosperity whether they sat on the left or right side of the temple. They took a stand for a higher way where sharing with and caring for the suffering of everyone was more daring than surrendering to either a demand for unity or a call for war. – Hillary Keeney & Bradford Keeney
February 2, 2017. Image credit: Painting by Lucy Hunnicutt