A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth
Roger S. Gottlieb

Spiritual teachings offer us peace in place of pain. Or at least they offer us a way to accept and be at peace with the inevitable distress that comes from being alive. After my first child died at the age of two months, I went through a period of shrinking from the sight of children. Yet I liked kids and didn't want to go through life feeling envious whenever I encountered them. I asked myself what I could do. "It's simple," I realized; "when I see a child and start to feel that gnawing bitterness, I will thank God that I have eyesight to see them. Some people, after all, are blind." This was a spiritual approach: it made me a better person and made me happier. It took nothing away fro! m anyone else, but instead increased the world's positive resources.

If we choose to follow a spiritual path, we face a dilemma. On the one hand, my awareness of the generalized suffering in the world--of the Holocaust and other genocides, and of the ecocide that threatens us all--makes me feel decidedly unpeaceful. I'd rather not be aware of them. Various forms of escape are so attractive, and seem so natural, in a world like ours. On the other hand, spiritual growth cannot be accomplished while I'm screening out the pains and dangers around me. This response will thwart my spiritual aspirations and leave me no better off than when I began. A way out of this dilemma requires that we face--and resist--that which frightens us the most."My own search for spiritual peace began as a child. I might come upon it unexpectedly on a brilliant spring afternoon, when instead of taking the bus home from elementary school I would walk the one and a half miles back to my house. Every tr! ee, flowering bush, and blade of grass of this well-kept suburban setting seemed wonderfully, almost painfully, alive. And that almost-but-not-quite pain mixed with enough joy to float my little body back to my slightly anxious mother, home wondering why I hadn't gotten off the school bus.

As I got older I explored Mediterranean islands, hung out in tiny tribal settlements in northern Pakistan, and trekked through the Himalayas. Living as a young man with no responsibilities, far from the industrial madness that seemed to be driving everyone crazy, I discovered an ever-deeper experience of serenity: that same wonderful, almost painful, sense of being alive; a simple joy in every leaf, in the glow of stars and moon, in the touch of my lover's hand. I was also helped by psychedelic chemicals that were conducive to deep feelings of peace, belonging, and openness. Under their influence, my heart opened not just to this or that leaf or river, but to the entire cosmos.

So I ha! ve known these moments, treasured them, and thanked the spirits for them. Yet at the same time there has almost always been a little voice that comes in somewhere during the experience and starts to ask painful questions. "Of course, this all feels wonderful. The world is beautiful: that tree, this piece of music, your lover's breast. But what about the Others? What about the people who aren't having such a great time?"My awareness of the Others has taken many forms. It began, I suppose, on train rides to New York from my home in White Plains. The last few miles, before the cavernous confusion of Grand Central Station, the track ran through the middle of Harlem's black ghetto. The blocks of tenements riveted me. I peered at shabbiness, dirt, laundry drying on back porches, peeled paint, tired old cars, junk-filled yards. And the people glimpsed casually from the train window against which my boy's nose was pushed seemed tired, old at any age, and beaten down.

It all! made such a contrast to the brilliant green lawns on my street, my friends' immaculate split-levels. I couldn't see any reason why my family and the other kids at school should be so much better off. It seemed obvious that the people in Harlem, crammed into those ugly buildings, lacking so much that I had, didn't deserve their fate. And it was simultaneously clear that my parents, my friends, and I didn't really deserve what we had either. As I passed through Harlem for those fleeting moments, I wondered if I was right to really enjoy what I had while these other people had so much less.

I couldn't figure out what I felt about a world that was set up this way; and I didn't know how to be thoroughly at home here, full of unmixed joy at all the goodies I enjoyed, when I couldn't help but see how different it was for others.

It reminded me of those who, having been spared in a car crash which killed four acquaintances, would say, "It's a miracle that I wasn't killed." "! Some miracle," I'd think, "you weren't taken and all the Others are dead. What kind of miracle is that?"We have feelings of peace or joy. These feelings, we want to say, prove how beautiful, how holy, the universe is. Or perhaps the feelings call up images of a more personal sense of the divine: of God the compassionate Father/Mother, of Jesus the Savior, of the Grace of Allah. The feelings then become signs of God's perfection and love, of the deep protectiveness with which a Guiding Force holds us.For me, in between these feelings of love or serenity and the assertion of perfection and God's love, there lies an often uncrossable gap: all I know about the pain, cruelty, and injustice that permeates this life, all the suffering for which I can find no justification, rationale, or excuse.

I am concerned that to achieve spiritual peace I will have to accept what should not be accepted: that I will be told to concentrate on myself, and forget about others; or that! I will be reassured that all this pain is encompassed by Forces and Realities that somehow make up for it. I cannot respond in any of these ways. I seek to live on this earth, without having to rely on promises of aid and comfort from Cosmic Forces. And I cannot forget the Others, or the threats to myself and my children. I don't see how I can accept the world, or approve of it, when these other realities are as genuine as any experiences of mystical delight or tranquillity I might have. To find a peaceful heart, I need a spirituality in which the world's unjustified pain is not denied, avoided, or forgotten. For me, the spiritual challenge is to combine moral and political commitments that direct us to respond to injustice and needless suffering with spiritual teachings about serenity and wisdom. In the act of resistance, I believe, an answer to this challenge can be found.

In Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, the contemporary American Buddhist teachers Joseph Goldstein! and Jack Kornfield put the spiritual challenge this way:

Wisdom replaces ignorance in our minds when we realize that happiness does not lie in the accumulation of more and more pleasant feelings, that gratifying craving does not bring us a feeling of wholeness or completion. It simply leads to more craving and more aversion. When we realize in our own experience that happiness comes not from reaching out but from letting go, not from seeking pleasurable experience but from opening in the moment to what is true, this transformation of understanding then frees the energy of compassion within us. Our minds are no longer bound up in pushing away pain or holding on to pleasure. Compassion becomes the natural response of an open heart.

The question is: what am I letting in and what am I keeping out? Isn't there a difference between letting go of my own desires, and letting go of my concern for others? Give up my own desires--for fame, higher salary, s! ome free time, more sex--this I understand. But what would it mean to "let go" of my hope that poor people might have a better life? or to "open my heart" to the realities of abused children or the dolphins suffocating in two-mile-long fishing nets? What might we have to screen out--and what might we have to add on top--to let go of them?

The well-known American spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said that for him the essential task of spiritual life, regardless of circumstances, is to "quiet my mind, open my heart, and relieve the suffering that I see around me." Supported by his belief that the universe is to be trusted, that it is worth our "faith," Ram Dass acts to end suffering while remaining unattached to the outcome of his actions. He writes:

Somehow I have faith in the universe--I'm not sure where it comes from--even with all the horror and the torture and so on. This is hard to say because it's morally reprehensible to even think that the people who di! ed in the Holocaust are, from a soul point of view, on an evolutionary path in which that experience was functional. That sounds too horrible to consider. But that's the part that isn't humanistic about the spiritual path. I have such a deep conviction about that, and it's part of what allows me to be in the presence of suffering. If somebody is suffering, even though I will do my best to relieve them, there's another part of me that trusts that the suffering is in the greater good and if I could see, I could understand.

The belief Ram Dass expresses here takes us far beyond the reality of the earth. He later admits that "certain things are not reversible--like what we're doing to the forests and species, which will disappear...." In the case of the irreversibility of ecological damage it's clear that even Ram Dass' own metaphysical view cannot accommodate the slaughter of non-human innocents. The human-centered view that sees the entire universe as a learning ! ground for people is a little hard to apply to species made extinct and whole ecosystems poisoned.

What is more poignant is that this extremely intelligent and generous man admits quite candidly that the core of his teaching--the necessity to open the heart to the world's pain--depends on his belief that we (humans, anyway) are all on a cosmic trip of spiritual evolution.

The pain is real, but for the "greater good."

What would have happened, I wonder, if he had lost that faith? Would he still have opened to what was going on around him? Is it truly openness if to sustain it we have to believe that the pain is somehow justified? That, like the irritability of the teething infant or the distress of childbirth, the suffering is intimately connected to a Greater Good? Ram Dass is no escapist. He has set up foundations to help the blind and sat in rooms with dying AIDS patients. But when we believe suffering is "all to the good," then it is damped down--as we might do to ! a fire burning too fast when we toss some water on it and reduce the air flow--by a metaphysics which puts it all In Perspective.

Of course it takes a certain kind of deep strength to accept that the world is the way it is. Denials, avoidance, hysteria, numbness to the pain involved, we might say, are ways of not accepting the facts. That is, of not having the emotional courage to be with the dark truths of our time. But acceptance that something is going on is very different from accepting the thing itself, approving of it, or feeling that a universe in which it takes place deserves our blessing.

In place of an acceptance that is passive, or that hides from the facts, we can offer resistance. In a spirituality of resistance evil is not avoided, wished away, or neutralized by a metaphysics that promises that it will be All Right in the End. In this spiritual realm we can fully experience the deepest of joys because we engage directly with unjust suffering by opposing it! . In the act of resistance, our acceptance of cruelty, injustice, and unnecessary death is made complete--we embrace them by seeking their end. Why is resistance so powerful? Because in the act of resistance we fully engage that which frightens and depresses us the most. What we would avoid, deny, submit to, or go along with is brought into full reality. We no longer have to feel that it is too much, that we cannot tolerate a world in which it exists, or that we have to let it command our obedience. We can open our hearts in full acceptance of the world, not by telling others or ourselves that there is some cosmic meaning for all this pain, but by seeking to do something about it.

Just what is resistance?

To begin with, to resist is to oppose superior and threatening powers in a context of injustice, oppression, or violence. When we resist we cannot be neutral, or tolerantly accept that everyone's viewpoint is equally valid. When we fight back against rape, or concent! ration camps, or environmental ruin, the lines are drawn.Nevertheless, while resistance means we take a stand in the face of a painful reality, it is not always clear exactly what should be done. Nor does it mean that the people we oppose are unredeemably evil (though they sometimes are). People may take part in unredeemably evil activities, even though they are more frightened, numb, or weak than they are outright ethical monsters. What resistance does mean is that I answer my students' question--"But who is to judge what is right or wrong?"--by saying "We are; each and every one of us." We make the judgment, even though the situation may be terribly complex. We oppose the evil, even as we try to have compassion for the evildoers.

To resist is to act with the aim of lessening the collective injustice, oppression, and violence we face. We are not resisting if all we are trying to do is get the pain shifted somewhere else. Working to have the toxins stored in the next town! over, or buying sun block when the thinning ozone makes the sunlight dangerous--these things might be prudent, or good for my health. But they do not really count as resistance to the massive forces of environmental destruction. Individual self-protection poses no threat to the powers-that-be, but seeks to accommodate those forces, to coexist with them.

Because the engines of environmental destruction, like many other types of evil, are strong, entrenched, and often mighty rich, and because we carry conflicting obligations, time pressures, and simple fatigue, it often seems easier or safer not to resist. Thus if we are to act, we will need to overcome the temptations of fear or laziness, of complacency and habit. These temptations, as I know very well from my own life, are continual. Unless we are in the throes of some extreme situation--the oil company at the gates of our little village, as it were; or unless we are heroes, or just plain tirelessly devoted--we will give ! in to those temptations.

But that is not what we always do. While the dominant social forces make it ever so easy to go along with business as usual, we may come to realize that these same forces are controlling, constraining, and limiting us. Since resistance involves throwing off limits, there can be an element of gladness, even joy, when we engage in it. Instead of conforming to the ways things are, living day to day with the gnawing feeling that something is not right, we refuse to go along. We attempt to halt or slow, if only in the most minuscule ways, the machinery of ruin. And when we do so we often experience the rush of feeling which comes from liberating the energy long buried by our suppressed awareness that we have been part of something we know to be wrong. In this light, the deep satisfaction expressed by some Jews who resisted the Nazis makes perfect sense. They chose to resist--and to just that extent, no matter what the forces arrayed against them, they h! ad become free.

In fact, the emotional and spiritual meaning of the Holocaust can be profoundly changed when we think of it not solely as the history of how the Jews were slaughtered but also of how they fought back. The images of victimization remain, but along with the piles of dead bodies we see resistance fighters. Auschwitz is identified not only with the millions who were gassed, but also with the organized network of inmates who blew up one of the crematoria. Poring over the historical record, we see that the Jews sang songs to celebrate their survival, smuggled forbidden food into the ghettos, blew up Nazi troop trains and at times expended superhuman courage and determination just to stay alive. These resistors show us that despite all the pain inflicted by violent oppression, freedom is always possible. Not freedom from the situation, but freedom within it.

In the same way, the despair engendered by environmental destruction--the self-caused cancer plagues, the! dying coral reefs, the newly dangerous sunlight--can be altered by our knowledge of the people throughout the world who are resisting that destruction; and our own spiritual life can reach its most profound point when we join our energies to theirs. Our sense of the ultimate meaning of the environmental crisis may change if we see it as a time of joyful resistance, a time when we can deeply penetrate the meaning of our existence.

In the freedom of resistance comes a unique and pure happiness. It may last for only a short while before it once again gets clouded by regrets for losses, confusion over strategy, and fear for the future. But for a precious time we are at one both with ourselves and the world. Life, usually so flawed, has become perfect. Feeding the world as it has fed us, we are at that moment like a bee pollinating an apple tree, like the salmon struggling upstream against the rapids to lay its eggs, like the hawk bringing back fresh kill for its chicks, like a maple tree offering soft red buds to the warming April sunshine.

Resistance takes many forms. In any given situation, we can see that there are choices to be made: between living in denial, and living in the truth; between accepting the way things are and saying "no" to them. We can speak up, act up, share our concerns with others, give money, teach our children the truth, confront political candidates, write letters to the editor! , join groups to keep indigenous peoples from being slaughtered, hug trees to protect forests from bulldozers, shut down the local polluter, nationalize the oil industry, and overthrow the government. For a start.

Consider Diana Steck, a housewife from Yukon, PA, who confronted the relation between the chronic illnesses of her own and many of her friends' children and the nearby dump that contained chromium, cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury, and other toxic chemicals. She struggled with condescending government officials who promised an investigation and did nothing; and health "experts" who told her she didn't know what she was talking about. Refusing to give up, she and some neighbors became a group with a name, received training in grassroots environmental politics, got arrested for sitting-in at a state office, and took over a crucial public meeting when public officials tried to dodge the issue. Friends and relatives were shocked when she was arrested or tried to stop ! trucks from going to the dump. But Diana had become a different person, one who wouldn't get stopped by her own fears or others' judgments. "All this," she said, referring to countless illnesses in her town, "happened for a reason. Otherwise we'd still be out here, just stupidly working and making money, oblivious to the world around us. We wouldn't be the people we are today. We wouldn't be as complete."

In my own community of Jamaica Plain, a racially and economically mixed section on Boston's southern edge, people banded together to protect our treasured Jamaica Pond: an actual lake--one and one-half miles around--within the city limits! The Pond is bordered by a thin belt of trees and graced by sea gulls, Canadian geese, ducks, exotic-looking cormorants, snapping turtles, and imported swans. Its marvelously clear water attracts joggers, strollers, baby carriages, dog-walkers, drummers on hot summer nights, old Chinese ladies doing Tai Chi, and couples of various sexual ! persuasions dreamily holding hands.

When you stand at the little boathouse where popsicles and popcorn are sold, you can look across the water and see the sun set over wooded hills. These hills, which border the park but are not actually part of it, were sold to a builder who wants to replace the old trees with luxury condos so that proud owners can enjoy the vista of the Pond while the rest of us can view the sun setting over expensive apartments.

A local social worker spearheaded the opposition, raising 4,000 signatures demanding that the local development board forbid the project and the city or state acquire the land. On the coldest night of the winter of 1998, 350 people jammed a local church to make their voices heard--to say that this spot was not only lovely, but also sacred. Each of us at the meeting could have found something else to do that evening; could have left the effort to others; could have felt, "Oh well, you can't fight the developers." But we didn't,! and in the end the project was stopped.

As we resist, we look for allies, and sometimes find them in unlikely places. Melody Chavis, a writer and community activist in Berkeley, faced a neighborhood increasingly dominated by the drug trade. She watched local kids grow up to be pushers, junkies, and gang members, and offered something better. She connected them to a local organic gardening center, where they learned to work the land with their own hands, and to take deep pride in the ecological quality of what they were growing. For a number of kids the healthy connection to the soil meant a viable alternative to the polluted options that surrounded them.Our allies can be from the neighborhood, or from very far away. In an ecological age, "Love your neighbor" includes the whole world. Consider, for instance, the way international activity has been mobilized in response to the Narmada river valley project in India. Called by critics the "world"s greatest planned environment! al disaster," the project envisaged 30 major, 135 medium, and 3,000 minor dams throughout central India. If completed as planned, it would displace close to 400,000 people, destroy wildlife habitat, and flood some of the last remaining tropical forest in India. As early as 1977, local opposition formed when people realized that there was in fact no land available for the local people who were to be displaced--that they would simply join the millions of other "refugees from development." During the next decade and a half, opposition grew and took a variety of forms: road blockades, hunger fasts, demonstrations at state capitals, and massive gatherings at sites which were to be flooded. What is crucial here is the way a ring of international solidarity has formed around resistance to the Narmada valley project. Japanese environmentalists persuaded their government not to advance money to it, while American activists pressured the World Bank. In 1992, facing reports that the enti! re project was colored by fraud and incompetence, legislators in Finland, Sweden, and the United States asked the World Bank not to lend any more money. The International Rivers Project, located in San Francisco, organizes financial and technical aid to the continuing struggle.

Even though ozone depletion and acid rain make everyone "neighbors," we should remember that if the dam goes through, the writer and the readers of this book will not be displaced, and people in India will. We are not all affected equally by everything that takes place in the world. Martin Luther King's claim that we are bound by an "inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny" must be read in the most general of ways, or else we will paper over the differences between the drowned and the saved. Yet it is also true, I believe, that similar forces are at work in crazy dam projects, unnecessary condo building, and leaking toxic dumps. Monoculture, big money, blind indifference! , and shortsighted thoughtlessness carry their weight everywhere. For that reason, resistance to one is resistance to all.

At times acts of resistance will demand everything we have. Chico Mendes was murdered for defending the rainforest and the people who live there. Ken Saro-Wiwa was hung by the Nigerian government for resisting the toxic effects of oil extraction in Nigeria--these and countless unknown others have put their time, money, energy, and even their lives on the line.

However, some acts of resistance will involve doing just a little more than we are doing already. We can make one extra phone call, toss a few more dollars towards the organization that is doing good work, not buy the chemicalized food, take the trouble to ask the office manager to use the organic bathroom cleanser. Returns on such actions won't be as grand or dramatic as those times when we manifest a greater devotion. Still, they can be essential parts both of a worldwide environmental moveme! nt and our own, most personal, spiritual life. Like a short but heartfelt prayer, a daily ten minutes of meditation, a brief reading from Psalms, each act of resistance can be a small but loving acknowledgment of our yearning to join the best within us to the best for others.

Finally, in resistance we can keep up our hope. Optimism is not always easy to hold onto, especially as we become more and more knowledgeable about what is really going on. But our knowledge should include successes as well as failures, our moments of grace as a species and culture as well as our moments of degradation. We can read of Gaviotas, a tiny Colombian village that re-claimed seemingly barren land with sustainable agriculture, democratic decision making, and an inclusive economic structure. Its windmills convert mild breezes into energy, its solar collectors work in the rain, and children's seesaws power its water pumps. In the shelter of the Caribbean pines planted as a renewable crop, an anc! ient rain forest is regenerating. We can marvel at the growth of the organic food industry, the resurgent forests of the American northeast, the return of the wolves to Yellowstone. We can marvel at the growth, in about a decade, of an environmental justice movement that includes groups from Texas to Massachusetts, from California to Georgia. All these examples of resistance can inspire our own. They are precious opportunities to know, as deeply as we know anything, that the environmental crisis is a time of great courage as well as great loss.

If spirituality means, among other things, moving beyond my isolated ego (and this is, indeed, the way it is frequently portrayed) then resistance is that movement. For in acts of resistance I go beyond my isolation, my self-concern, my very sense of myself as fully separate. And that sense of moving beyond my ego takes me not only into connection with the suffering Others who are human, but with the more-than-human as well. I can wa! lk over to Jamaica Pond, pat the trunk of a sugar maple tree I pass along the way and say, only half believing I won't be understood: "You and me pal--we're in this together. Best of luck to us both." I can know that my kinship with the beings of this earth is essential to who I am; and that I will not let them be wantonly destroyed without some defiance. Paradoxically, if I put some of my soul into resistance, I will occasionally be able to put down my burden of selfhood and responsibility, that searing sense that I must make it all better. There will be moments when I realize that I am merely a brief flower of mind and feeling in this vast meadow of existence. At my best I will try to be a true flower and not some plastic rose that doesn't bloom and will not wither for a hundred years. I will have offered myself to all the other flowers, to the life and health and blossoming of the rest of this garden we call the earth. Having done so I will then be able to feel the full swe! etness of the springtime sun, the evening rain, and even the approach of the chill winter morning of my own natural, fitting and joyous death.

Excerpted from A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1999). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Roger Gottlieb teaches philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His next book, Spirituality and Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth, will be published by Crossroad in the spring of 1999.

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