Spiritual Activism: Co-Creating the World We Seek

By Carla Goldstein, J.D., and Co-Founder, Omega Women's Leadership Center
Originally published at feminist.com.

For decades I have considered myself a women’s rights and social justice activist. The word “spiritual” wasn’t in my vocabulary, and I still trip on it. The public often labels a “spiritual” person as either rigidly religious or involved in occult hocus-pocus. I didn’t think of myself as either. As a young boomer I learned about activism from the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war movement—all groups that had to fight for power and rights. I carried that model into my own life as a lawyer and professional advocate, learning to trace a social problem to its source, which always had at its center a villain—a political party, a corporation, an ideology. To me, activism meant organizing with others to fight the villains to fix the problem, the operative word being “fight.”

After almost a decade of fighting for reproductive freedom in the pro-choice movement, I realized that approaching our social disagreements through extreme polarization and name-calling was not a winning strategy. As my activist frustration and sense of ineffectiveness grew, I began to search for another way. Then, at age 41, I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. I had to dig into resources I didn’t know were there—my own and those around me. In my two years of grappling with diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, I discovered the incredible power of love. It started to show up everywhere: in the pharmacy, at the grocery, in the parking lot; wherever there were people, there was support. I told my friends that one shouldn’t have to get cancer to make the amazing discovery that the world really does run on love. The combination of my battle fatigue as a pro-choice activist and my journey with breast cancer led me to reevaluate how viewed I activism.

What I came to deeply understand (though I had known it all along) is that relationships are central to everything and really matter. Process matters. While an adversarial approach can often be effective in the short-term, in the long-term, we are perpetuating that which we are fighting against. When we are purely adversarial, the very mechanism we use to bring about more peace, compassion and justice, ends up creating the byproduct of fear, insecurity and anger. While the fighting model served an important historic purpose and may still be necessary in some circumstances, we need a new transformational framework that evolves beyond the ancient cycle of anger and war.

The possibility for real change is one of the potent legacies of the sixties, which created groundbreaking social and economic liberation for millions of people. For almost half a century we have been building consciousness, psychological understanding of the self and others, material wealth, and technological tools that can now be used to dramatically shift the way people relate to each other. We have created the insight and human skills to allow for grace, forgiveness, generosity, healing, respect, and appreciation for diversity; all the things necessary to allow us to cool anger, cultivate compassion, and create better methods of taking care of one another.

Spiritual activism is based on the holistic understanding that we live in an interdependent world where the parts and the whole are in dynamic relationship to each other. The old mechanistic Newtonian view of the world that allowed us to isolate and identify the first spark in a linear chain of cause and effect is replaced by the view that there are an infinite number of complex, chaotic, and sometimes mysterious interrelated causes and effects that shape our world. As “people parts,” we are both cause and effect of things seen and unseen, imagined and unimagined, all in a circular relational loop. No action is too remote or inconsequential to matter to the greater whole. Therefore, everything we do matters to everyone and everything else and vice versa!

This emerging model of activism incorporates the valuable aspects of the old framework and grows beyond it in several important ways. While the old model relied on creating legal and economic rules as the primary mechanism for liberation, the new model asserts that more is needed. Below is a list of emerging principles in this new model of spiritual activism.


  • We take action that is born out of awareness, compassion and love, not out of reaction, fear and anger.


  • We see relationships to others and the world in the context of our interdependence. We no longer see the “enemy” or “other” as isolated from ourselves. This does not strip away our ability to recognize and name injustice, but helps us understand that the root of both suffering and joy ultimately circles back to us because of our unity as a whole organism.


  • We use power to empower others rather than to dominate over others.


  • We bring the intention of love and compassion equally to the means and the ends, understanding that relationships are central to process.


  • We cultivate mindfulness and the capacity to be present for others so that our relationships and actions are coming from intention and awareness.


  • We accept paradox and mystery, which allows us to see that the truth can be ambiguous, complex, contradictory or unknowable. This, in turn, relieves us from the need to always classify into either/or, right and wrong.


  • We seek balance in our lives to bring healing to self and others; balance between our inner and outer lives, and between our mind, body, heart, and spirit.


  • We open our hearts to suffering rather than isolate ourselves from it so that we can cultivate self-understanding, empathy with others, and benefit from the wisdom that we gain from seeing reality as it is.


  • We take responsibility for our actions and assume a duty to others that stretches beyond our capacity to anticipate consequences.


  • We live from our values consistently across all of our social roles, including in both the private and public sphere of our lives.

Spiritual activism provides an integrative framework for daily living that allows us to bring our unique gifts into our shared journey. By developing daily practices that increase our ability to be more compassionate and loving, we can help co-create a world that brings us out of the cycle of competition and war and into a new age of cooperation and peace.