We live in a time of crises. Perennial challenges such as political turmoil and international tensions continue, now amplified by new threats such as culture wars, cyber wars, and weaponised social media.
But looming far larger than all these is something unprecedented: multiple threats to the survival of our civilisation and even our species. Pandemics have received most attention, but they are only a warning shot. Barreling towards us is a constellation of crises such as overpopulation, resource depletion, ecological collapse, weapons of mass destruction, and more. Collectively, these constitute what is called the metacrisis
of our time. Many thoughtful people are profoundly concerned about the possibility of civilisational collapse — a catastrophe so inconceivably huge that it would dwarf anything in human history, doom billions to death, and leave the small remainder scrabbling to survive.
If we don’t address the root causes, we’re just going to be doing first aid, forever applying social-global band-aids and not creating cures.
People’s responses to these threats vary widely. Most putter along in ignorance, consumed with the struggle to survive or by the busyness of modern society. Some angrily dismiss these threats as alarmist or fake news, while others tranquillise themselves with trivia with the aid of technological toys and media that pour forth a never-ending stream of insignificance. Still others have given up hope, and are searching for ways to survive in a drastically disrupted world, moving back to the land, building bunkers, or stockpiling weapons.
But the outcome is not predestined and our fate is in our hands. No matter how bad our crises are, our responses will decide our destiny. If that’s so, and it is, it raises one of the great questions of our time and of all time. How can we contribute most effectively to help heal these crises? Of course, beneath this lies another question: “How do we discover our most effective contributions?”
To answer these questions requires us to dig down to identify the deep roots, the source code of our crises, and to recognise what these roots reveal about what truly helps. For if we don’t address the root causes, we’re just going to be doing first aid, forever applying social-global band-aids and not creating cures.
Each of us is called to listen for and respond to our unique call.
This article suggests answers to these questions, but not by offering a one-size-fits-all prescription. Rather, by posing questions and offering principles which guide each of us to discover our own unique answers and our deepest, most effective contributions.
To do this, I invite you to ponder four questions and ten principles. These are particular kinds of questions, specifically, wisdom questions. The principles point to the deep roots of our crises, as well as ways we can address these roots to simultaneously free the world and ourselves from them.
What Can I Do?
This is the first question about contribution that naturally arises as we open to the suffering around us. Given my unique situation, my capacities and connections, what can I do? How can I help? It’s a beautiful question, which opens us to the world’s pain and calls forth our care and compassion.
What Do I Feel Called to Contribute?
This is a deeper question. It recognises that each of us is especially sensitive to some forms of suffering and inspired by some kinds of action. Some ways of contributing align with our interests and skills, and we’re much more likely to be energised and impassioned by responses that call and inspire us.
Some of us will feel impelled to be on the front lines, to pound the pavements, feed the hungry, or protest pollution. Others will be drawn to changing hearts and minds with art or music or words (such as these). Still others will feel called inwards — to meditate, contemplate, or pray — and then to return to the fray with a more open heart, a bigger perspective, a wiser response. Each of us is called to listen for and respond to our unique call.
What’s the Most Strategic Thing I Can Do?
There’s a deeper question than “What can I do?” and “What would I like to do?” The deeper question is, “What’s the most strategic thing I can do to help?” What kind of contribution will leverage my offering for the greatest impact?
Wisdom questions are more like Zen koans. Each time you ask them, they have the potential for taking you deeper into the question, deeper into yourself.
This is the art of trimtabbing: exerting influence at the most sensitive point so as to maximise benefits. “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough,” exclaimed the ancient Greek inventor Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” That’s what we’re looking for — our place to stand and leverage the impact of our contributions so as to move the world.
How Can I Live My Life So As To Be an Optimal Instrument of Service?
Deeper still is this long-term, actually life-long, question. Now we are looking, not just for a single contribution, but for a life of contribution. This means not only recognising our most strategic contribution now, but also exploring how to cultivate our capacities so as to see more clearly, relate more sensitively, and act more effectively throughout life.
What Kinds of Questions Are These?
The answers keep changing and deepening as circumstances change and we deepen, and there is no end to the potential for change or deepening.
To answer these four queries most effectively, we need to recognise what kind of questions they are. For there are two very different kinds of questions — knowledge and wisdom questions — and they offer very different kinds of answers.
Knowledge questions have a one-time answer. Is it raining outside? Look out the window and you have your answer. End of question!
But wisdom questions are more like Zen koans. Each time you ask them, they have the potential for taking you deeper into the question, deeper into yourself, and deeper into life. As they do, they unveil successively deeper and richer understandings, as well as more effective ways of responding. In short, they deepen wisdom. The answers keep changing and deepening as circumstances change and we deepen, and there is no end to the potential for change or deepening. Hopefully we will be asking these questions for the rest of our lives.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW TO CONTRIBUTE STRATEGICALLY?
While there are endless things it would be helpful to know, there are a few principles we need to know in order to contribute most effectively. The following ten principles provide a big-picture context for understanding our current dilemmas, unearthing their deepest roots, and revealing the deepest and most effective responses.
Principle #1: All Civilisations Face Recurrent Threats and Require Creative Responses.
Yes, COVID, nuclear weapons, global overpopulation, and ecological collapse are crises unique to our times. However, they are novel variations of a recurring story.
Civilisations are complex systems that demand enormous energy and ingenuity to create and maintain. Entropy is endless and the pull to decay and disintegration never ceases. New threats keep arising, so that overcoming them and preserving civilisation require constant ingenuity and innovation.
Civilisations are complex systems that demand enormous energy and ingenuity to create and maintain.
The historian Arnold Toynbee identified this as the recurring cycle of “challenge and response.” Each new challenge must be met by a novel response from a “creative minority.” This is the small group of people who first recognise a new threat, devise solutions, and then inspire the conventional majority to wake up, acknowledge the threat, and adopt the solutions. Effective creative responses therefore require a three-fold process of recognition, innovation, and inspiration.
Inspiring the slumbering majority to face reality and respond appropriately can be extremely difficult, as both history and the half-hearted responses to our current global crises demonstrate. The reasons for this mass inertia are many, and as subsequent principles demonstrate, reach significantly deeper than usually recognised.
Principle #2: People Tend to Regress Under Threat But Can Be Encouraged to Progress and Contribute.
If we are encouraging people to recognise major threats to themselves, our society, and our civilisation, we’d better know how people usually respond to threats. Sadly, they often regress psychologically. They tend to fall back on less mature ways of thinking and acting, becoming more egocentric and defensive, and adopting short-term thinking and tunnel vision.
There are multiple possible contexts, but the most helpful are ones which make the challenge understandable, point to a way out, and inspire people to act.
This is very helpful for fleeing a lion. However, it’s not so helpful for responding to complex, long-term, global problems that require us to consider all people and future generations. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that, given the right support, people can progress instead of regress. What’s the right support? It offers three things: a context, a purpose, and a means.
A context is a mental framework, a way of understanding and making sense of a situation. There are multiple possible contexts, but the most helpful are ones which make the challenge understandable, point to a way out, and inspire people to act.
The first principle described above provides one such context and way of understanding: “Yes, resource depletion (or ecological disruption or climate change or…) is a major threat. Fortunately, history offers some guidance. We know that all civilisations face threats, and what they require of us is that we come up with creative solutions and inspire people to adopt them.” That’s a valuable context because it makes sense of the situation, points to a solution, and provides a purpose.
Here’s another example of a useful context: “Yes, we have created a dangerous situation and we didn’t prepare for it. However, if enough of us commit to solving it and learning from it, we can turn the situation around, and also come out of it wiser and better prepared to prevent future crises.” By looking at it in this way, we have reframed the challenge and transformed it into an opportunity and a purpose.
Reframing is an extremely valuable skill. It consists of offering helpful perspectives or interpretations, and it’s perhaps the quickest of all psychological interventions. Resolving fears and defences can take months or more. Growing more mature can take years. But reframing can be instantaneous. Of course, skilful reframing is an art, but you can see its value in making sense of our contemporary crises and inspiring appropriate responses.
What if much of our suffering — both individual and collective — could be traced to our mental short circuits.
The third thing people need are the means: ways to implement their purpose. This is crucial because research shows that if people see an easy way to help, they will. But if they can't see a way to help, they’re liable to become defensive and denigrate the victims.
Creative contributors will find their own way. Other people benefit from suggestions and encouragement, such as, “Here are some ways all of us can help. Which ones appeal to you?”
Principle #3: Our Usual State of Mind Is Dysfunctional and Delusional.
We often assume that our minds have their problems, but basically function about as well as possible. Yes, they (and therefore we) have glitches — quirks, cravings, and compulsions — but hey, that’s just the way they are and we are and have to be.
Contemporary mental health professionals have much to offer too, but the masters of mind training are the contemplatives.
But suppose our minds don’t have to be that way. What if they and we are actually functioning far less effectively than we recognise, and way less effectively than is possible? What if much of our suffering — both individual and collective — could be traced to our mental short circuits, and what if our minds could be healed and cultivated so as to relieve much of that suffering?
These are exactly the central claims of the world’s contemplative traditions: those disciplines at the heart of the world’s religions — such as Christian contemplation, Buddhist meditation, or Taoist yoga — which investigate, train, and develop the mind. These traditions draw on centuries of intense exploration of the mind, its problems, and its potentials. Contemporary mental health professionals have much to offer too, but the masters of mind training are the contemplatives.
What do these contemplative traditions tell us? A compelling way to summarise their insights is by sharing the core recognitions of the Buddha. This is the man who devoted himself to an unrelenting quest to understand life until, after six intense years, he finally saw so deeply into the mind, life, and suffering, that his insights changed the course of history.
What he saw was that our usual state of mind is dysfunctional. In fact, it’s deluded and out of control — compelled by cravings, clouded by uncontrolled emotions, hypnotised by wandering thoughts, and lost in endless fantasies. In short, we are only half awake and half grown up.
Worse, until we systematically explore our minds, we don’t even recognise how impaired they are, or how much healthier and happier they and we can become. We also don’t recognise how much suffering — both ours and the world’s — stems from our uncontrolled minds. In short, the Buddha recognised that untrained minds are uncontrolled and deluded, and that this is the unrecognised source of much of the world’s suffering. Therein lies both the problem and its solution.
Principle #4: We Can Wake Up and Grow Up
If contemplatives had only diagnosed our problem, they would have merely left us depressed. Fortunately, they also found a solution – a treatment for our flailing minds. For our minds can be trained, cultivated, healed, and honed. Perception can be clarified, emotions transformed, fear can yield to love, and egocentricity to generosity. It’s not always easy and it takes time. However, to wake up and grow up is one of the most valuable and beautiful things one can do with a human life.
We can only help heal the collective trance to the extent that we have awoken from our own individual trance.
Each contemplative tradition has its own way of doing this and its own unique constellation of practices. However, they all contain four core practices:
Ethics: how to live in ways that protect ourselves and others.
Attention training: learning how to calm and stabilise the mind.
Wisdom: clearly seeing the way things are.
Service: enhancing the well-being of everyone, including oneself.
Principle #5: Others Are Also Deluded But We Can Help
A moment’s reflection brings another potentially life-changing recognition: we are not alone in being deluded and entranced. We live in a collective trance and in the biggest cult of all: cult-ure. This is the usual human condition. This is what passes for normality, and this is the source of so much suffering and so many crises.
This is not a time to play small. Our society is in turmoil, our planet plundered, our civilisation at risk.
If that’s true, then what’s to be done? Obviously any truly effective response, any real cure, needs to include an awakening from our collective trance. This is where a truly radical investigation of the roots of our social and global crises brings us. To the recognition that these crises have deep roots in our own psyches, that our psyches are far more distorted and deluded than we usually recognise, and that healing our outer crises requires inner healing too.
This is a profoundly transformative realisation. For when we really let in how deeply our world is entranced, and how much it suffers because of this, we naturally feel compassion and the call to heal both the trance and the crises.
Principle #6: Healing the World Calls For Healing Ourselves.
We can only help heal the collective trance to the extent that we have awoken from our own individual trance. Therefore, an essential initial step is to work to heal and awaken our own minds so that we can more effectively heal and awaken other minds. And with that recognition we have rediscovered for ourselves one of humankind’s highest and most encompassing ideals, best known as the Buddhist Bodhisattva aspiration.
A Bodhisattva is an “enlightening being,” someone dedicated to healing and awakening themselves and others. The bodhisattva aspiration is the desire to awaken and heal ourselves as fully as possible in order to help awaken and heal others as fully as possible. This, say contemplatives in general and Buddhists in particular, is the way to help most effectively, heal most deeply, and cure most radically.
There are four levels of occupation: a job, a career, a calling (which is work guided by an inner directive), and a mission (which is a calling with a transpersonal goal that extends beyond our own individual wellbeing). Those who open themselves compassionately to the extent of the world’s suffering are called to become effective instruments of service; those who recognise the deep roots of this suffering take becoming Bodhisattvas as their mission.
This is not a time to play small. Our society is in turmoil, our planet plundered, our civilisation at risk. Why would we want to do anything less than heal the deepest roots of our multiple crises? And if that takes becoming a Bodhisattva, so be it!
Yes, we need to alleviate poverty and injustice, pollution and violence. However, we also need to simultaneously address their inner causes.
At first the Bodhisattva aspiration is simply an aspiration, a hope, a nice idea. However, eventually it becomes a recognition that this is what we most deeply want, since only an aspiration as encompassing and compassionate as this is enough to do justice to who we really are, to who others really are, and to the urgency of our situation.
Principle #7: Effective Responses Address Both Symptoms and Causes.
If we are to respond effectively to the many crises barreling towards us, we will need to treat both the symptoms and their causes. In fact, we will need to treat as many symptoms and causes as possible. In Aldous Huxley’s famous utopian novel Island, a visitor asks, “Where do you start?” To which the islanders respond, “We start everywhere at once.”
Yes, we need to alleviate poverty and injustice, pollution and violence. However, we also need to simultaneously address their inner causes, the individual psychological and collective cultural pathologies which keep creating outer crises. Otherwise, we will merely be applying band-aids, the inner causes will remain untouched, and the problems will recur endlessly, just as they have throughout history.
There will always be some suffering in the world and some foolishness in ourselves — that’s the nature of our human lives.
The goal is to foster healthier, more mature individuals, as well as saner, more mature societies to support them. Ideally, these will be metamodern societies which, among other things, take as their major goals enhancing the psychological health and maturity of their citizens.
Principle #8: The Bodhisattva Aspiration Is an Inspiration, Not a Destination
To heal and awaken ourselves, let alone the world, is not a minor project. So let’s acknowledge that the Bodhisattva aspiration is an ideal, and ideals can be used skilfully or unskilfully.
Used unskilfully, ideals become goals that have to be achieved and completed. But here’s a secret: profound ideals are rarely completed. There will always be some suffering in the world and some foolishness in ourselves — that’s the nature of our human lives. If we think we must attain some state of perfection, we will simply create more suffering.
Used skilfully, ideals are like pointers or compasses. They remind us, “Oh yes, that’s the direction I want my life to follow.” Then the ideal becomes an ongoing inspiration rather than an illusory destination.
Principle #9: The Art of Sacred Service: Healing and Awakening Both the World and Ourselves Simultaneously
When we examine our social and global challenges closely, we see that effective answers require deeper understandings and deeper responses than are usually recognised. It becomes clear that we need to address both the problems and their many causes, including the causes within us. To do this, we need to hone ourselves and our skills, working to de-hypnotise ourselves, to learn and to grow, and to develop our activist skills.
That’s a lot! If only there was a way to do all these things simultaneously. Fortunately there is: a millennia-old practice of sacred service that blends learning, awakening, and activism into a seamless whole.
This is the ancient Indian practice of karma yoga, the yoga which uses one’s work and service in the work for learning and awakening. It’s a way of taking any activity and transforming it into an opportunity for learning and awakening. It involves eight steps, which can be done during the activity, and so require almost no extra time, just extra awareness.
All these painful emotions are opportunities for healing and growth if we bring awareness to them and learn from them.
Sacred service has many benefits. It supports ongoing learning and healing, non attachment and generosity, effective service, and more. Its benefits flow from each of the following eight steps:
Stop before beginning any major activity. Give yourself the gift of a moment to stop, become present, and reflect on what you’re about to do and why.
Offer the activity and its outcome to a higher source or purpose. Traditionally, the activity would be offered to God. If that works for you, wonderful. If not, consider offering it to some higher purpose, such as “To the wellbeing of everyone touched by this activity.” What’s most important is that the offering be to a transpersonal source or purpose larger than one’s ego.
Attempt to do the activity impeccably. Do the activity as whole-heartedly and well as you can.
Be mindful. Bring as much awareness as you can to all aspects of the activity—your behaviour, your feelings, other people’s reactions, and the outcome.
Explore and work with any reactions that arise. Inevitably, we have a flow of inner reactions as we proceed. There may be reactions to other people, such as frustration and annoyance, emotional responses such as anxiety or hope, and egoic appropriation such as pride or embarrassment.
When we let go of our attachments to the way things turn out, we become less reactive, less egocentric, less caught up in our emotions.
These painful emotions and reactions are feedback signals pointing to our attachments, especially attachments to the outcome. For example, we fear we won’t get the outcome we’re attached to, become angry with people who stand in our way, get embarrassed if we’re not looking good, or feel depressed if we give up hope. All these painful emotions are opportunities for healing and growth if we bring awareness to them and learn from them.
Release attachment to the outcome. It’s this step which makes the sacred service of karma yoga such a profound practice and which cuts through egocentricity. Usually if we’re doing something worthwhile, especially something as important as global activism, we naturally get attached to things working out the way we think they should. Yet that’s a recipe for suffering, and all of us have probably met far too many burnt-out social activists.
Good hearted people also worry that if they let go of their attachment to the outcome, they’ll no longer be motivated to serve. But that’s based on a painful underestimation of ourselves. It assumes that we can’t trust ourselves to do what’s right, and that we’ll only do it if we’re attached and addicted. Happily, that’s simply wrong. When we let go of our attachments to the way things turn out, we become less reactive, less egocentric, less caught up in our emotions, and therefore able to see more clearly and act more skilfully.
Sacred service allows us to become the benefactors and beneficiaries of everyone.
Reflect: After completing the activity, reflect and learn. What can you learn from this activity, about yourself, others, the mind, and how to be more effective?
Offer the benefits of the activity for the welfare and awakening of all. This paradoxical final step is based on a profound understanding of the way the mind works. It’s based on the recognition that what we intend for others, we tend to experience and strengthen in ourselves. Therefore, when you finish by thinking, “May the benefits of this activity serve the welfare and awakening of all,” you are intending the highest good for the greatest number, and your mind naturally echoes that intention by filling with expansive feelings of generosity and warmth. Sacred service allows us to become the benefactors and beneficiaries of everyone.
Principle #10: Service Serves Us Until the Universe Serves Itself.
Our culture thinks of service as self-sacrifice. However, wisdom sees service as enlightened self-interest. For service produces multiple benefits, beginning with an immediate “helper’s high” — it just feels good to help others — and research demonstrates long-term health benefits too.
Sacred service strips away selfishness and egocentricity, nourishes virtues such as kindness and compassion, and gradually unveils our True Nature. This is the mind-boggling discovery that we have spent our entire life suffering from a case of mistaken identity. We are not only more than we think; we are more than we dared think. In fact, we are more than we can think. This is the profound secret of life that the world’s contemplative traditions point us to.
When doing sacred service, we go deeper into ourselves in order to go more effectively out into the world, and we go out into the world in order to go deeper into ourselves.
Once this deeper, truer Self is glimpsed, first in ourselves and then in others, everything changes. For having seen its and our magnificence, what else would we want to do except help awaken ourselves and others to it? What else would be a worthy expression of who we are, or a worthy offering to who others really are? And given the extent of needless suffering in the world, what could be more appropriate or satisfying than devoting ourselves to alleviating this suffering?
Suddenly the Bodhisattva aspiration makes total sense. This is simply what one aspires to when one recognises who we and others really are and how much of the world’s suffering stems from not recognising this. At this stage, the Bodhisattva aspiration is simply a natural, spontaneous expression of who we now know ourselves to be, and a natural response to what the world deeply needs.
When doing sacred service, we go deeper into ourselves in order to go more effectively out into the world, and we go out into the world in order to go deeper into ourselves. We continue this process of learning, awakening, and serving until they become spontaneous expressions of our True Nature, and then the universe learns, awakens, and serves itself through us.