Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Contemplation Vs. Social Change

--by Brother David Steindl-Rast (Sep 28, 2009)

Brother David: You can’t really be a contemplative, unless you also want to change the world. You want to change yourself, and that’s where the struggle comes in. By changing yourself, you’re beginning to change the world. In fact, you’re changing the world much more by changing yourself than if you’re running around blindly, involved in one cause after another.

But the difference between what we call the apostolic and the contemplative orders, or vocations, is that the apostolic approach says, “We live in this world, we’re responsible for it, and we have to do something to change the world for the better.” The monastic answer is, “We are not strong enough to change the world in general. Let’s change that little spot where we are. And let’s put a wall around it and say this is as far as we go, as far as our strength reaches. And now within that narrow confine, let’s change the world, make it more what it’s supposed to be.”

That approach has its drawbacks, too, because it can become ingrown, its own private little affair. And the apostolic approach has limitations, because it can become so watered down that nothing spiritual remains. So we need the two; they are the poles of one continuum. People who are now engaged in apostolically changing the world need to come back periodically to a monastic environment where what they are trying to achieve everywhere is to a certain extent achieved already. And if the world could gradually become what a good monastery or Zen center is, that would be fine. The monastic communities can provide the strength, the encouragement to realize that true order can be achieved.

--Brother David Steindl-Rast

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On Sep 29, 2009 tarun wrote:

As my point of view, motivation is a dynamic factor.  If you have a motivation, you can't be nervous so that motivation is self developed and is very energtic. so without that motivation, you can't do the work .

In this story, motivation is explained well but problem is how solve problems.

On Sep 29, 2009 Tanis wrote:

When we work contemplatively, we are working in the energy field of unity consciousness. This is related to the power of prayer to effect change. When we work in social activism, we are working in the physical plane to effect change in the material world. We must change both to change the world. This is called sacred activism - working both inwardly and outwardly - to embody unity consciousness and the higher energies of spirit in the world.

On Sep 29, 2009 Joseph wrote:

Any change really begins by dropping the story of the self created by the ego-mind.  This change within then makes it possible for the collective story to be altered and awareness can bring about real change.

On Oct 3, 2009 Somik Raha wrote:

I found myself asking what the author of this piece really means by "changing the world much more by changing yourself." At a fundamental level, when doing deep contemplation, wisdom arises when I see my bad habits in slow motion, and develop a deep determination to break them. I start seeing that what I valued earlier was not really good for me, and there are more important things to value. In a sense, the value system gets an upgrade. When I go back to the world of action, I still try to be consistent with my value system. The difference is - I now have an upgraded value system. When I take decisions with this new value system, I am doing things that help me more truly. When I am helped more truly, the more truly I want to help others. Somehow it is the innate desire in all of us - that the more we receive and grow, the more we want others to receive and grow. With each upgrade of awareness, I start to appreciate different things - self-sufficiency, service, freedom to explore myself, and so on. And as I help others with these things, there is a direct change in the world. The world also changes in another way - by the idea of "monkey see, monkey do." We all hold someone or the other as an ideal to follow, and when that ideal sets an example in their own life, we try to emulate, resulting in change. It is important then for us to set good examples for we never know who might be emulating.

From the starting line of the post, the word "rebel" springs to mind. What am I rebelling against? I'm tested as temptations to resort to the old habit-patterns arise. That is where the idea of being a rebel is helpful - I need to rebel against the old habit-patterns.

Finally, an experience where all of this came together. I am part of a group which encourages service and random acts of kindness on a campus. Instead of following the traditional path of getting as many people signed up on admit weekend, we decided to focus on service. We came up with gifts for new students that we hoped would help them - an orientation guide and a wisdom scroll (which started off with Karma Kitchen and is rolled in Wednesdays). During the fair, the sign-up sheet started distracting us, so we turned it upside down. It made a big difference in our volition and we felt relieved that we didn't need to care about who was signing up. We just needed to focus on serving with our full hearts. The experience was transformational at many levels. Here is a writeup for those who are interested.

On Oct 4, 2009 Pancho wrote:

My family calls me Pancho and I'd like you to know that I love you all...

A few months ago, after a magic Wednesday in Santa Clara, a silent Monday and an inspiring email from hermano Viral, an indescribable feeling flowed through me to provide another piece in the puzzle of sustainable change. I channelled that energy, and with the help of many of my co-workers at the Metta Center, I drafted a document named: "The Earth Swaraj or The Independence of the Earth." This is an excerpt (with some updates) of that document that came to mind after reading this week ijourney's passage:

1. Outer Revolution.
2. Inner Revolution.
3. Total (R)evolution of the Human Spirit.

1. Outer Revolution

This approach is primarily outward-looking, seeking to transform the world through social, economic, and political change. In Gandhi's constructive program one works to create positive change in their own community, to change the conditions so that violence cannot take root there. In Satyagraha (what we call 'Obstructive Program') one ceases to cooperate with harmful situations and/or institutions. It is important to note that in the Gandhian sense, Constructive Program and Obstructive Program -- making up outer transformation -- work inextricably and in concert with the personal -- or inner transformation.

A. Constructive Program

Constructive Program is action taken within the community to build systems or resources that are positive alternatives to oppression. Constructive Program is doing what one can to imaginatively and positively create justice within one’s own community. Approximately 90% of one's energy can be used in creating the relationships one would like to have with other people, with animals, with plants, with the whole Earth Community.

Some examples of constructive programs are: Permaculture (e.g. Earth Activists Training),  Selfless Service (e.g. CharityFocus), Restorative Justice (e.g. Ella Baker Center), Green Jobs (e.g. Green For All), Preventive Medicine (an inspiring example), Independent Media (e.g. YES! Magazine , New Internationalist, Democracy Now!, DailyGood), Community Currencies (i.e. Reclaim your Currency!), Educational Initiatives (e.g. YES! for Students and Teachers), etc.

The movement is deeper than a solar panel! We need to install SOULar panels too! Enjoy this inspirational talk by Oakland activist, and former Obama adviser, Van Jones (20 min).

And by the way, we had a creative discussion about Constructive Program at a recent Hope Tank. :)

  • The “inner charkha“, a daily activity that everyone can practice in the planetization of the movement, is “being in receptive silence” (BIRS, see III. Inner Transformation).

B. Obstructive Program (Satyagraha)

Satyagraha can be understood as the vast inner strength required to perform nonviolent acts. Once we understand the problems affecting our communities, we can then understand that violence only exacerbates the fracture of community. It is important to remember that means are ends in the making (one of the 5 Principles of Nonviolence): satyagrahis stop the damage and honor the pain of the world, but always while paying attention to how one does so. Gandhi believed that a dedicated adherent to nonviolent resistance who works to uphold a just cause will inevitably reach the heart of the oppressor by taking authentic action to represent truth. When understood for its strength and courage, Satyagraha—also defined as ‘soul force’—is recognized as a positive and spiritually-based form of resistance that starts in the heart of the resister and inevitably produces creative action. And so one can invest 10% of one's energy in noncooperation: boycotts, civil disobedience, protests and rallies (UC Walk Out!), fasts and hunger strikes, etc.

Some inspiring examples of hardcore satyagrahis in action are: Third Party Nonviolent Intervention or TPNI (e.g. Nonviolent Peacefore, Peace Workers, Peace Brigades International, and Christian Peacemaker Team), Civil Disobedience (Pace e Bene, Gandhi's Salt March is a famous example, and scene of one of the most oft-seen pictures of Gandhi), Conscientious Objectors (e.g. the Schministim in Israel), etc.

2. Inner Revolution

In the past, many advocates of personal transformation have seemingly said "Don't be concerned with the world's problems. Look inwards and focus on changing yourself. The political, the economic, the social problems come after." It is worth noting here that every great nonviolent warrior we can conjure up off the top of our heads has been grounded in some spiritual/religious practice (e.g. Gandhi, King, Vinoba, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, César Chávez...just to name a few!). This is personal to each individual, so we will not presume to advise here -- but it is worthwhile to contemplate how one's spiritual or religious practice, whatever that means to you, relates to a nonviolent life.

Being in Receptive Silence:

“When one comes to think of it one cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the World would disappear if we, fretting mortals, knew the virtue of silence. Before modern civilization came upon us, at least six to eight hours of silence out of twenty-four were vouchsafed to us. Modern civilization has taught us to convert night into day and golden silence into brazen din and noise. What a great thing it would be if we in our busy lives could retire into ourselves each day for at least a couple of hours and prepare our minds to listen in to the Voice of the Great Silence. The Divine Radio is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to It, but it’s impossible to listen without silence.” M.K. Gandhi - Harijan, 24-9-1938, p.267

  • Vipassana. S.N. Goenkha. Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills, an art of living.
  • Passage Meditation. Eknath Easwaran. Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. According to Easwaran, the principle of meditation is simple: You are what you think. Recognizing this, he developed his method of passage meditation, which involves meditating on words that embody your highest ideals.
  • Seven Masters One Path. John Selby. 7 Masters One Path is another holistic, non-sectarian approach to meditation. The guided oriented meditation of John can be also reached at his latest website: iUplift
  • Contemplation of Nature. Walking in the woods, staring at the sea, watching the stars, whatever but to do something to foster the nourishment and awakening of the divine nature.

Aside from any religious practice one may or may not have, there are many other practices that directly relate to and support the practice of nonviolence. Here are some other avenues we are familiar with to help in becoming a more grounded nonviolent warrior.

  • Empathic Listening, part of Nonviolent Communication.
  • Healthy Entertainment and reading and reporting on nonviolent events. Some of the organizations reporting positive news around the Earth Community are DailyGoodKarmaTube, Smooth Feather, Free Range Studios and YES! Magazine.
  • Forgiveness. (see the story of Azim Khamisa: From Murder to Forgiveness: The Garden of Life.)
  • Fearlessness. One of Gandhi's main points was that there could be no nonviolence without fearlessness. The violence of the mind, shown in violent attitudes and feelings was, he said, worse than open, physical violence. It follows from that the most important aspect of nonviolence is inner nonviolence, which is not possible without fearlessness.
  • Gratitude. Thank you for reading through this document :-)
  • Compassion is a spontaneous movement of wholeness. It is not a studied decision to help the poor, to be kind to the unfortunate. Compassion has a tremendous momentum that naturally, choicelessly moves us to worthy action. It has the force of intelligence, creativity, and the strength of love. Compassion cannot be contrived; it derives neither from intellectual conviction nor from emotional reaction. It is simply there when the wholeness of life becomes a fact that is truly lived.
  • Random Acts of Kindness. Help Others. :-)
  • Stay Positive! Why? Well, many reasons...but the discovery of mirror neurons begins to scientifically explain why.

3. Total (R)evolution of the Human Spirit.
People have generally followed one or the other of these two conventional approaches: religious groups concerned with inner growth and inner revolution, and social activist groups concerned with social service and outer revolution. Traditionally we have created boundaries, and exploration beyond our home territories has been superficial. The social activists have staked out their territory, the outer life—the socioeconomic, political structures—and the spiritual people have staked out theirs—the inner world of higher dimensions of consciousness, transcendental experiences, and meditation. The two groups, throughout history, have shown contempt for one another. The social activists consider the spiritual inquirers to be self-indulgent, and the inquirers consider the activists to be caught in a race of activity, denying the essence of living. Some spiritual leaders have divided life into worldly and spiritual, and have at times insisted that the world is an illusion.

If we sanction violence in our hearts, we are going to cooperate with whomever is waging war. We are participants because psychologically we sanction violence. If we really want to put an end to warfare, we need to explore deep into the human psyche where the roots of violence have a stronghold. Unless we find the roots of violence, greed, and jealousy, we will not find our way out of chaos. Failure to eliminate their roots will doom us to endless miserable repetitions of the failures of the past. We must see that the inner and the outer are delicately intertwined in a totality and that we cannot deal with the one successfully without the other. The structures and systems condition the inner consciousness, and the conditioning of the consciousness creates the structures and systems. We cannot carve out one part of the relationship, make it bright and beautiful, and ignore the rest. The forces of human societal conditioning are powerfully entrenched; they will not be ignored.

The challenge now is to create an entirely new, vital (r)evolution that takes the whole of life into its sphere. We have never dared to embrace the whole of life in all its awesome beauty. Now is the time to embody a (r)evolution that strives for the soul of life in its totality: a total revolution of the human spirit.

From the progressive standpoint, it is obvious that evolution has been towards higher consciousness and deeper unity. Today there are many regressive forces concealing the inherent good sense and fellow-feeling of human beings everywhere, but those qualities can, and must nonetheless be contacted and brought to life. It would be hard to find a clearer description of the way we understand the world and our role within it than this beautiful statement of Albert Einstein:

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

As modern science has shown, the capacity for ‘widening our circle of compassion,’ for breaking out of the prison of separateness, is part of our evolutionary heritage. ‘Progressive’ literally means moving us forward, in this case in the direction of evolution from lower to higher consciousness, especially its power to reveal our connection with other persons and all life — with ‘the whole of nature in its beauty.’


The things that those who embrace life want to leave behind, then, are the things that drive us apart: injustice, war, prejudice, and so forth. The things that bring us closer together in a creative harmony are, conversely, justice, peace, nonviolence, and what Mahatma Gandhi called “heart unity,” or the ability to wish for another’s happiness even when he or she differs from us in race, gender, intellect, status, or opinion. This is how the Progressive Unity Project was born.


Another way to put it is that a real (R)evolution, that is sustainable change, will happen only when activists get spiritual and when spiritual people get active.


May all become compassionate courageous and wise.

On Jan 15, 2012 Tessa wrote:

Another inspiring story is about a woman named Aubrie Mindock who at 15 years old was well on her way to making the Olympic ski team when she took a fall that almost killed her. No one thought that Aubrie would be able to get back up on skis and race again because of the massive injuries she sustained. Despite being told that she would never ski again Aubrie was determined to get back up and go for her dream of becoming an Olympic athlete.

Aubrie ended up skiing her way to college and by 19 years old Aubrie was a serious competitor who very few people could beat. She was the girl to beat on the mountain but another accident at Winter Park in Colorado actually killed her. Aubrie took a fall during a race, fractured her skull, neck, arm, and leg and her head injury was so massive that she actually died.

Medics were able to bring Aubrie back to life and during her recovery she was told that she would never ski again. At the time Aubrie was well on her way to Nationals and getting the news that she would never ski was devistating to her and her family. Aubrie however, was not going to give up and with her strength and determination she got back up on skis once again and even made it to Nationals where she placed 5th.

Today Aubrie is an author of 3 books, "Back Up On Skis: My Journey Back to Ski Racing," and "A New Beginning: Fighting to get back up on Skis," as well as "Life As I Know It." You can buy her books anywhere. Her publisher is iuniverse and her websites are and Her story is so inspiring to everyone and will help you and your children find purpose in your lives.

On Jan 22, 2012 Bethany wrote:

I heard about this and I cannot wait to read her book. I heard great things about "Back Up On Skis" and my copy should be in any day.

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