The Activist as Contemplative: Resting for Social Change

The Activist as Contemplative
Resting for Social Change
by Steven Bonsey

Many of us dream of a different world. A better world. A world of healing and reconciliation, of justice and peace. A world where people live as we are meant to live. Many dream of it. Some dedicate themselves to its realization. 

This dedication can offer deeply meaningful and satisfying work, but those who work for such social change, especially those in leadership positions, are vulnerable to disappointment, burn-out, cynicism, or worse. The root causes of these threats reside not only in resistance encountered outwardly, but also in the psychological and emotional programs that drive us inwardly. 

As such, those of us who work for a brighter future must be equipped with the world’s ancient spiritual wisdom and traditions, which offer technologies of inward healing and transformation that can liberate us both from the domination of fear-based regimes outside us and from their corollary regimes within us. 

These spiritual technologies, as I call them, take the form of simple practices that are accessible to all and that can be taught without reference to religious doctrine or affiliation. Their practice over time changes us—our identities and motivations become less rooted in the ego programs that drive us and are then more connected to the transcendent source of the dreams that inspire us. We come to experience the hoped-for future as a reality coming into being in and through us, here and now. We learn that we can trust this experience, and in this trust, we find deep rest.

Jesus told a parable that speaks to this notion: 

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

- Mark 4:26-29 (NRSV)

The sleep of the farmer in Jesus’ parable particularly fascinates me. 

He has sown the seed for his crop, and he rises daily to tend it. The crop could never come to fruition without him, but his labors do not bring about the essential mystery of life. “The seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  He cannot cause or control the transformation of seed to stalk to head to full grain. “The earth produces of itself,” and the progress of the harvest is furthered as much by his sleep as by his rising.

I like to picture the farmer putting out his lamp at night, lying back on his pillow and thinking of the wheat growing in the field, his heart resting in wonder and hope, gathering strength for the day when the grain is ripe.

I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life acting on the illusion that I could push the wheat up from the ground—that is, that I could cause or control the change that I hoped to see in the world. In fact, I considered it my duty to manage the business of social change, and I often judged both the value of my work and the value of myself as a person based on the visible results of my efforts.

About 20 years ago, I took a part-time job as a campus minister. I had a vision for what could be and what would constitute success in growing the ministry. I wanted to build a community of students who cared sincerely for one another and for the world around them. 

The results at first were disheartening. I tried everything that I was trained to do and offered a variety of opportunities for engagement, but few students came, and those who came never seemed to connect with one another. I resolved to work harder. I tried to raise money to compensate for more of my time. When the money didn’t come, I worked longer hours without pay and still without improvement in outcomes. I spent long hours sitting alone at my office desk focusing simply on not giving up.

It was at this time in my life that I realized that I needed to learn to pray. I was an ordained minister and the son of an ordained minister, and yet, I had no practice of prayer that could ease the discouragement I felt. I wasn’t looking for prayers that would magically bring success. I was looking for some source of strength and encouragement that would not depend on what happened for better or worse in the world around me.

I made an appointment to talk to a monk. We sat in a small room with two chairs. “I need to learn to pray,” I said to him. If his robe had had lapels, I would have grabbed them. “Please! Teach me to pray!” I was desperate.

There are all kinds of prayer, of course. In time, I was led to the prayer of inner silence, the practice of praying without words—a practice that began to address my need. In particular, I was drawn to centering prayer. 

Why did this suit me?  I am a person who spends a lot of time in my own head, and my head is filled with words. I tell myself stories constantly—stories of what’s happening to me, what people are thinking about me, what I should be doing, and who should be. 

In centering prayer, I try for 20 minutes at a time not to listen to these stories. My mind babbles on, but I let the stories float by like boats on a stream while I sink deeper into inner silence. My attention embarks on the great 18-inch pilgrimage from my head to my heart, the energetic organ of subtle perception. I let my heart simply fill with love, and, gently, my heart opens.

The practice is simple, but it is not easy. It is mostly a practice of starting over again and again as I become aware that I have boarded one boat of thought or another and am floating downstream on it. My greatest challenge in the beginning was learning to let go particularly of thoughts about whether I was doing the prayer correctly or not.

The practice has been challenging, but the benefits over many years have been immense. The exercise of letting go, again and again, of whatever is going on in my head makes it more and more possible for me to choose my state of mind. My mental and emotional condition in any given moment depends upon the particular spin I am giving to the raw data of sensation. The spin might be telling myself stories about what the world is doing to me or not doing for me—stories of frustration, resentment, or victimization. Or it might be stories about who I think I am—my triumphs or failures, my glorious future, or my pitiful past. With the practice of letting go through centering prayer, I may find myself feeling anxious or stressed, but I have learned to move through the feelings by releasing the stories that become attached to the more simple sensation of anxiety or stress. By releasing the stories, I am free to welcome the sensations of any given moment, whatever they may be, and to respond to life from a stable and open stance.

The practice also has a cumulative effect that goes to the root from which such stories emerge. I have come to believe that these stories have their origins in deep fear. Somewhere back in the dawning of consciousness the fact of my being in the world as a differentiated human being—cut off from the womb, as it were—filled me with the terror of my vulnerability. I am alone in the world! What will become of me?

In the face of this vulnerability, my fear built defensive walls. The stories I tell myself are the stones I have raised up, one upon another, to build and strengthen these walls. These stories, or stones, form my ego, my “small identity.”

For example, I have a deep fear of isolation: a fear that those I depend on will abandon me, and I will perish. I tell myself stories to comfort myself against this fear. If I am good, I tell myself, behaving well at home, doing a good job in school, or doing important and effective work in the world, then the people around me will see my value, and they will not abandon me. As the story goes, I will be secure if I can just succeed in being good and productive always. And so, I ask myself the anxious question, what good am I?

Obviously this inner program, while useful in driving a strong work ethic, can become problematic when the work I am trying to do simply does not yield the reassuring visible results that I crave for affirmation. True social change consists of the outward transformation of social systems, which, in turn, depends upon the inward transformation of human beings, and I am powerless to cause or control such transformation in other people. I can sow seeds and water them, but I cannot make them take root or grow.

I often think of my father, a parish priest who liked to spend his vacations doing home repairs. He spent his working days dealing with urgent human problems often with no sign that his work would have any effect. Give him a broken toilet any day, and that he could fix. 

You see my dilemma—the work of social change is not fixing toilets. The particular fear-based inner program that drives me requires the constant reassurance of results, but the nature of the work that I do will never yield results that are reliably linked to my efforts. Without any resistance from outside of myself, this deep inner battle leaves me vulnerable to discouragement and burn-out.

Through the practice of centering prayer over time, some inward space—a bit of maneuvering room in which I can experience a sense of myself that is not based on the stories I tell myself and not constrained by the walls of my inner defenses—has opened up within me. 

For 20 minutes at a time, I can experience what it is to perform nothing, to do no work—what it is to rest. And guess what? I don’t die. Not all is lost. I don’t feel abandoned, isolated, or vulnerable. Through some subtle perception of the heart, I know through the practice that the universe has my back. I am mysteriously sustained in life. Gradually, as each session builds upon another, I come to trust that whatever power brought me into being continues to sustain me and will never let me go. Very gently, this trust heals my fears.

There is ancient wisdom in seeking peace and wholeness through such soulful rest as I experience through centering prayer, and this wisdom lies at the heart of the biblical tradition of the Sabbath. The people of Israel, at the commandment of God, instituted one day of rest out of seven in the week. 

On the seventh day, no work was to be done, no buying and selling, and no fires to be lit. The people would remember that they were no longer slaves; they existed for more than mere production. The people would free themselves from the machinery of the market; they were not commodities whose time could be reduced to money. The people would do nothing to alter the conditions of things in the world around them; they were not in control of it all. And so, on the Sabbath, they let the world be. As they let go, they found that somehow the universe carried on of itself.

This last recognition can be deeply humbling. Who wants to imagine that the world will do fine without them? This is the truth we would discover if it were possible to witness our own death—following a brief disruption, the world would carry on. 

In the Sabbath-rooted practice of centering prayer, by letting go of the stories that make up my fear-rooted identity, I can let my ego pass away for a moment, and, in doing so, I witness its death.  There is both rest and strength found in experiencing something of what it is to die before I die. My inner resistance to letting the ego pass is strong, but if I gently allow it, I find that I have nothing to fear. Through some subtle perception of the heart, I have come to know that if I cease showing up in the world as the person I think I should be, all will still be well not only for the world but also for me. Some deeper more authentic “I” survives and even thrives in a life of work and rest that is free from the grips of fear.

Returning to Jesus’ tale of the farmer, which is known as a parable of “the kingdom of God” or the time and place in which God’s gracious will is done here on earth, we note that the harvest, the time of “the full grain in the head,” represents the day of fulfillment. The farmer, looking at his fields, knows when the grain is full, and “at once he goes in with his sickle” to reap the harvest. He has prepared for this day through the mundane rhythm of sleeping and rising to his chores, but now he sees that the time for decisive action has arrived, and he is ready. 

The story of my erstwhile career as a part-time campus minister has a sequel that stands in my memory as an experience of “harvest time.”  I initially left the position after four challenging years but returned to it some years later. Everything was different. I was different, and the student community had changed. The Protestant Christian campus ministry world previously had been divided between liberal social action approaches and conservative personal piety stances, but when I returned, students had begun to articulate their desire for the best of both worlds. They wanted the grace of the ancient traditions, but they wanted them in fresh and new forms. They wanted to study the scriptures and have a living relationship with Jesus, but it was clear to them that following Jesus meant living and working in solidarity with the poor, the sick, and the outcast.

In short, I felt a readiness in the students I worked with and a readiness within myself to live into the vision of a new kind of ministry. Doors that I had pounded my head against in frustration now seemed to open of their own accord. I conceived our weekly worship service in an entirely new way. I set out twice the number of chairs, and they were filled with students interested not only in the worship but also in caring for one another and seeking together how they might care for the world. I spent less time sitting at my office desk and more time looking on in wonder as this new community came to full life.

The miracle of this harvest had its day. Soon, I was sowing other seeds and doing the mundane chores of ministry in another place with the usual un-dramatic results. But the experience left its mark on me, and it changed the way I carry out my leadership. I expect now to work within seasons of sowing, tending, reaping, and lying fallow. I have learned to be more patient with times of no visible results and also to be ready to respond when the moment is ripe.

How to know one season from another? I seek whatever data I can, of course, and confer with colleagues and the communities among which I work. I analyze what can be analyzed and listen as deeply as I can. But I also read the inward signs. Through the subtle perceptions of the heart, developed over time in my contemplative practice, I sense the presence or absence and the stillness or flow of energy within and through me and, in a mysterious way, within and through others and the world around me. I have come to know my heart as a place where discernment transcends the boundaries of our divided selves.

The farmer and his crops give a compelling picture, I think, of qualities needed to work for social change. The parable gives us a clear sense of our responsibility for sowing seeds of transformation and for tending to mundane daily work that often has little to show for its troubles. It enjoins us also to rest deeply in the spirit of Sabbath and to trust that the same Source which calls us into being and gives us the dreams that animate us will also sustain us in our work and move through us to bring the dreams to reality. 

The ancient spiritual technologies of contemplative practice, including centering prayer, can lead us into the kind of rest that opens the eyes and ears of our hearts and allows us to experience the movement of Source. These subtle perceptions will also give us the wisdom to recognize the seasons for patient labor and the hours for decisive action. As contemplative leaders, we will be proof against the threats of cynicism and burn-out; we will be more present in our work as our authentic selves; and we will be more effective in deploying our own energy and the energy of others in welcoming the day of hope that is the harvest time. §

Steven Bonsey has worked as a parish priest and campus minister for the Episcopal Church. He studies with Cynthia Bourgeault and serves as Chaplain for the Leadership Development Initiative (