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No man is an island – Activism and Asceticism, Society and Soul.

Published October 25, 2013 by Katy J Went

Many self-development paths talk about the voyage of self, a transformational journey of our inner being which may be accompanied by external somatic spiritual practices, for example – meditation, yoga, abstinence. Ascetism disciplines the body so as to set free the spirit. The idea can be that as we grow as spiritual beings we become more immune from the chaos of the world around, we can find inner peace rather than need world peace.

To me, though, that becomes a path of transportation, not transformation – a worldview eschatology that is more escapology than soteriology – one that also makes us immune from care, community and connectedness, to anyone other than our own self or conception of any higher being. Our vertical path must be accompanied by a horizontal one – outward, as well as inward and upward.
Some, on an apparent path toward illumination end up in isolation, looking only inward. But as Jesus said:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others…” Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV).

True illumination gives light to others, and benefits society as a whole.
The modern twentieth century mystic Thomas Merton wrote a book No Man Is an Island and in the chapter on “Being and Doing” penned the words:

“what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection in our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts.”

Merton went on to express the idea that our acts are as a mirror to the soul, but an imperfect and impermanent one. He regarded them as “transient and superficial”, but to me this reeks of “so heavenly minded, as to be no earthly good”, even Jesus was eminently practical about spirituality, “not all those that call me Lord will enter heaven…but those that clothe the naked, feed the hungry…” etc.

Merton again, ponders the paradox that “Stagnation and inactivity bring spiritual death. But my soul must not project itself entirely into the outward effects of its activity. I do not need to see myself, I merely need to be myself.” (p.124)

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Drop Of Water by Jani Rava

Being fully yourself, should naturally overflow, not a glass half-full or empty but a glass over-full, spilling out, giving out… An ocean is never full, but always flowing. The drop that feels it has no effect still forms a ripple on a still sea or joins a wave in a stirred up one. We are not just drops of water in an infinite ocean of humanity, instead, together we are waves, eroding established structures, shaping systems and society. We can make a difference.

Merton was not the first to use the phrase “no man is an island”, the seventeenth century poet and thinker John Donne used it in his Meditation XVII:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
This reflection upon sickness, death and corporate humanity, has lines that have stood the test of time. We are connected, the death of one affects us all, “diminishes” us, as a piece of land eroded and washed away.

I have always struggled with belief systems and practices that separate faith and works, mind and body, self and society. To me, we are not good unless we also do some good, not in a guilt racked, works oriented, aid-based sense of charity – but a transformational change that spills out, from oneself, onto the streets, into communities, makes waves, affects structures, creates policy and which organically organises a better world for all not just for one.As Mr Spock said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn).

To Aristotle, the securing of one individual’s good is great cause for rejoicing, but to secure the good of a whole city or nation was a nobler and more divine result. The Star Trek Vulcan-human paradox of logic versus humanity means that it is also often the right thing to do for the many to sacrifice for the one.

Socially, I disagree with Jeremy Bentham’s assertion that “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.” Serving the majority is easy and far from right. Standing up for the “little ones”, minorities, the oppressed, distressed, disenfranchised, downtrodden or destitute – how we treat the disadvantaged is a far greater measure of ethical attitude.

Some people seek out solitude for an allegedly “higher” spirituality, others go there for refuge or retreat from the pain of the world. Simon and Garfunkel’s song I am a Rock (1965) describes an isolated existence, seemingly immune to pain and grief, but really rather lonely and protected.
I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me,
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain,
And an island never cries.
One of my favourite quotes comes from Steve Jobs:

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently – they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”, Think Different

In the new book The Bite In The Apple by Chrisann Brennan, his first girlfriend, Jobs is portrayed more negatively as having returned from a 1970s transformational trip to India and coming back “sexist” and beginning to “reject the feminine aspect as inferior to the glorious masculine”. Hardly pushing the human race forward. For all his technological genius and advancement, in the world of human relationships and equality, he sounds less evolved.

Bill Gates was the man to be hated as Microsoft grew and grew, but now his health research philanthropy could potentially transform the lives of millions and with even Warren Buffett trusting him to dispose of $billions as part of the billionaire’s pledge where 114 US billionaires are giving away between 50 and 99% of their fortunes. As Buffett has said, “Were we to use more than 1% of my … stock … on ourselves, neither our happiness nor our well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others.”

Transformative Social Change is a practical philosophy that combines the personal with the collective. The personal is political, true change effects change without as well as within, society is transformed when groups of individuals are. The “no man is an island” analogy, for me, means that spiritual paths that involve separation or escapism from our communities are elitist and in the end non-transformational, instead they can become, for me at least, selfish.

Author and trainer, Alison Clayton-Smith, writes that:

“One of the first issues I identify in my book about self development is that, well frankly, it can all be a little be self-indulgent. Ecclestone and Hayes have suggested that focusing on areas such as self-esteem risks becoming internally obsessed. Not only does this mean we stop wanting to do things for the benefit of the community but also we stop thinking about where society needs to change. I think that we can benefit from shifting to a view of the interconnected self. That is, I am not me in isolation of anything else. I am linked to everything that is around me, whether that be other humans or the rocks and soil. They affect my existence and I affect theirs. This is where ideas from ecopsychology, and systemic approaches, can aid our thinking…we can start to think of a more holistic self development, one which leads us to seek out opportunities to benefit the whole, not just the part of the whole.” http://www.growinginsights.co.uk/2011/12/self-development-moving-away-from-the-self-and-towards-the-interconnected-self/

To return to Merton’s “Being and Doing”, or St James’ faith and works, it is not that we are what we do, but that doing can reflect a truer state of our being, putting our spiritual practice into practice, to good effect, so to speak.

Neurologist Dr Daniel A. Drubach, has written books on the brain, from a holistic standpoint, and on the crossover between Jewish religious philosophy and the neuroplasticity of the brain. He writes that the path to psychological, physical and spiritual transformation, is a Jewish expectation, to constantly re-create ourselves, just as the brain does. In a 2002 journal article on “Judaism, Brain Plasticity and the Making of the Self” he talks about a key Jewish idea, that the “self” is created through action, just as the brain through repeated action, forms connections within from regular activity. Whilst Merton spoke of inaction bringing spiritual death, inertia can also bring mental or physical death.

The inspiration to write this article was seeing a 5Rhythms quote that “All this dance is bull-shit if we don’t take it out into the street”. The late Gabrielle Roth’s 5Rhythms dance movement philosophy is described as a “dynamic movement practice – a practice of being in your body – that ignites creativity, connection, and community.” It is this integrated, connected aspect that I love. Roth termed herself the Urban Shaman and took dance to the kids, the elderly, to New York rather than California, and to those that thought they could not dance, but realised they could move in an individual, unstructured way that expressed themselves rather than conformed to structured time or dance steps. Her 5Rhythms integrated body, heart, mind, soul and spirit; created connection within and community without.

We need psychological/spiritual exercise as well as physical exercise and to exercise ourselves on behalf of others.

The biblical path to illumination was once described by the prophet Isaiah:

“…if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:10-11)

The personal contemplative state can never be a fully enlightened one if it becomes separate from the connectivity we share with people and planet. It’s all very well looking at ourselves as the droplet of water under a microscope of self-analysis and development, but if we want to make waves then we need to fall from our solitary lofty intentions, become a drop in the sea and get rippling. Plop-psychology!

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