A few weeks ago I read See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur and have been mulling over it ever since. It’s a powerful book about justice, love, joy, and healing. This week I’ve been thinking about this quote, “The self-help industry profits from ‘spiritual bypassing’- the belief that we are changing the world by investing in our own spiritual wellness, even as we continue to participate in the same systems that oppress people.” Of course, being the overly-conscientious person I am, I immediately began to wonder if I was encouraging this “spiritual bypassing” form of self-improvement or not. So I went back and read my own work, pondered this question, and decided to pull a few thoughts together here for you.
More than once I have talked about how working on your own “stuff” (your energy, your past traumas, your issues, your limiting beliefs, etc.) is both the best and only place you can start to change the world. I don’t want to rehash my previous posts, so here they are for you to read yourself: How Your Energy Changes the World and How to Change the World. In both I suggest that you can’t make big changes in the world until you have done your own work. Also, I say that small steps are the best way to begin. What I don’t explicitly say is why I don’t jump into the big world-changing stuff right away, so I want to fill in that gap now. The people I work with come to me because they are stuck. Many are physically exhausted or sick, while others are emotionally or mentally overwhelmed. For those of us who are living through experiences like this, it is really hard to get out of bed every morning and meet all your obligations. Your focus is on doing the essentials and figuring out why you feel so bad. Although many feel deeply about the needs of the world and want to help, it often feels impossible to do anything but get through the day. For those of you who relate to this, I want you to know that getting up every day and doing your own energy, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual work is helping the world. You may not be moving mountains today, but your work does affect us all on very fundamental levels. If all you do is sort your mail and clean out a drawer today, then you have done good work. If all you can do is buy Fair Trade food and more natural cleaning products, then you have done good work. If all you can do is release some old patterns from the past it is good work that helps everyone around you. Start where you are with the little things and don’t feel guilty about what you can’t do right now.
What I want to add, is that as you get unstuck and move toward living your life’s purpose (and presumably feeling better), your attention should be drawn more to active engagement with the larger issues that Valarie Kaur references above. Some of this will flow naturally out of your life’s purpose. In this post I talk more about why the world needs you to live your purpose: We Need You. Essentially, I believe that every single one of us has a role to play in bringing about a better world. If you are living your purpose in life, you will naturally be contributing to the healing of the world. However, that doesn’t give you a pass to ignore the systemic issues and assume you aren’t the problem while going about your usual life. As Kaur suggests, you can be living your life with the intent to love everyone and still, “continue to participate in the same systems that oppress people.” Sadly, understanding and working to change fundamentally unjust systems is not easy. It takes time, effort, intelligence, and intention to make good choices. The reason why systemic problems exist is because they are so integrated into how the world works that they’re hard to see. Learning to see them and, even harder, work against them is not the practice of a moment. It is, however, necessary if we actually want to change the world for everyone.
What are some of these systemic issues that contribute to oppression? Here are just a few off the top of my head:
Hate crimes. Both the crimes themselves and the (often) lack of justice for those harmed.
Rape, sexual exploitation, and abuse. Not just it happening but it being covered up, ignored, hidden, or condoned.
Putting the needs and financial profit of corporations before people by treating people as expendable (even though they’d never admit it).
Denying the humanity of everyone (particularly those of other religions, races, sexual orientations, etc.) or any message that treats another one of these as less than in any way.
Anything that controls the health or wellness of certain groups of people.
Any political power that is controlled by one religion, gender, or race. This inherently puts power into the hands of one group and excludes others.
Human trafficking and all the businesses that support it (and there are many more than you’d think).
Clothing, makeup, chemical, farming, manufacturing, technology, and so many other industries that make money off of the exploitation of people in impoverished countries.
Environmental degradation for the sake of profit. Or any other reason.
So many issues related to water pollution, scarcity, access, etc.
Even though this list is not exhaustive, you can see there’s still a lifetime of issues to deal with. What I’m trying to show is that there are a myriad of systems that maintain oppression throughout the world for billions of humans on this planet. Like it or not, while just living your daily life you are participating in many of these without even knowing it. The systems are so integrated into our lives that we usually don’t see them at all and definitely don't see how they affect others. We don’t realize that the chocolate we purchase as we walk out of the grocery store is part of a larger system that supports environmental degradation and human trafficking. It’s social injustice on a massive scale hidden behind the everyday things of life and it takes intention to learn to see it.
It means we first need you to get unstuck and live your life’s purpose. As you get your stuff together, then we also need you to look around and see what others need in order to help them get unstuck and live their life’s purpose too. It’s kind of like trying to run for the first time. At the beginning you are just putting one foot in front of the other and making it to the finish line. As you get better you can improve your time or focus on techniques. Eventually you start to see others and how they’re running. Maybe you offer help and suggestions. Maybe you see how the trail you are running works well for you but isn’t great for others and start to wonder how you can improve it for everyone. Maybe you realize that not everyone can even run because they can’t get to the trail or can’t afford shoes. That’s the difference between investing in your own spiritual wellness and using your spiritual wellness to change the world. Investing in yourself is the best and the only place to start, but eventually you should start thinking about those around you.
In this post The Problem of Positive Emotions, I talk about how the “good vibes only” spiritual camp can focus so much on positive emotions that they ignore the value of the negative ones. This is also true for things in life that play into systemic issues. Some people simply want to eat organic vegan food, thinking that by focusing on the positive and healthy they are helping to save the world. In some way, yes, this is an important step in the right direction, but it ignores a lot of ugly stuff that needs to be addressed as well. This isn’t just true of the overly positive “New Age” movement, but can be just as egregiously perpetuated by the religious folks as well. If you come from a tradition that claims to be all about love but at the same time denies abuse, racism, climate change, or sexism, then your spiritual tradition is actively refusing to see serious systemic issues or, even worse, helping to perpetuate them.
So what do we do with all this? First, I want to say again that the best and only place you can start is with yourself. You must do your own emotional, mental, spiritual, energetic, and physical work if you are going to help us change the world. I talk about many ways to do that in the links above and other places on my blog.
If you are already doing your own work, but want to start understanding more about systemic oppression, then your next step is to start educating yourself. Pick a problem that interests you (you can read through my list above) and go find some good information on the topic. There are communities online to listen to, books to read, and discussions to join. I highly suggest that you read a number of sources from many people of different backgrounds before you consider yourself educated on any topic. For one thing, there is a lot of really bad information out there. For another, there are a lot of really strong opinions and skewed perspectives as well. This is just one of the reasons why learning about this stuff is hard. You have to be smart, ask good questions, and don’t make assumptions in order to sort through the viewpoints and propaganda out there. And if you belong to a religious or spiritual group, please do read some stuff by people outside your group! Sadly, religious and spiritual groups are just as prone to participating in systemic oppression as any other group and you won’t see it unless you step out of it. They are particularly good at coming up with excuses why systemic problems simply don't exist so that they don't have to deal with them.
Once you get interested in an issue, then start to think about what you can do about it. Will you change how you shop? Where you go? Who you send money to? How you participate in civic organizations? What media you will consume? How will you help break down the systems that oppress others? For some of you, these answers will be seismic and life-changing. You may find your life’s purpose is entwined with working toward justice in very front-line kinds of ways. For some of you, your answers will result in a more conscious way of living that supports better systems while you pursue your life’s purpose in another way. Each and every contribution is vital toward creating a more just world for everyone.
So you need to work on your personal spiritual life every single day. You need to do your own work and move toward greater love and acceptance for all. But as soon as you are able to, you actually need to take the next step and make that love a physical reality to create a better world for everyone on this planet. If you stop at the level of personal spirituality, then you are “bypassing” the best and truest expression of your purpose in this world. Valarie Kaur writes, " ‘Revolutionary love’ is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us. It is not a formal code or prescription but an orientation to life that is personal and political and rooted in joy. Loving only ourselves is escapism; loving only our opponents is self-loathing; loving only others is ineffective. All three practices together make love revolutionary, and revolutionary love can only be practiced in community.”
(Like Valarie Kaur, I think that joy is the foundation for living your best life in this world. If you are interested, I have also written about how to Follow your Joy in order to find your life purpose.)
As you get unstuck and follow your purpose in life, remember that we need you. We need you to be the best expression of yourself. We need you to be aware of everyone else on this planet who is struggling to escape from oppression and live their own purpose. Your spiritual, energetic, and emotional work is for yourself and also for them. It doesn’t matter if those other people are friends, neighbors, enemies, or strangers. As you learn and grow, make conscious choices to live your best life in a way that creates a world in which they can live their best life as well. That is revolutionary love.