Idealism, Conscience And The Spiritual Left

Rooted deep in the grain of American culture, the Spirtual Left has long acted as the progressive conscience of the nation, championing from the beginning causes like abolition and women's rights.
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Read not the Times, read the Eternities.
--Henry David Thoreau

"Damn it, you had them," the professor slurred drunkenly, grabbing my shirt sleeve to steady himself. "You had them on the ropes and you let them go," he accused, his voice dripping bitter betrayal.

I met his gaze like a receptive student. It was hardly my first inebriated prof, after all.

"Damn you," he muttered with finality, pushing me away and turning back toward the pub, shaking his head resignedly.

It was 1973 and I knew what he meant. Whatever the 60s were, they were over. And whatever promise they may have held for deep and lasting political change had evaporated like a forgotten dream.

I knew what he meant but he had mistaken me for someone else. I was the right age and looked the part, I suppose. But his stereotype of a generation was distorted by a glaring blind spot: many of us had already exchanged the social activism of the Political Left for the inner activism of the Spiritual Left.

The asphalt smelled of rain. The moon glimmered in a puddle. I lingered there in the parking lot a few minutes more, shrugged, flicked my cigarette into the moon, and strolled off toward 2010.

If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker--Albert Einstein, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima

The Spiritual Left did not, of course, originate with the 60s. According to Dr. Leigh Schmidt, it dates back at least to 1838, when Emerson and other Transcendentalists began their quest for a path "away from the old 'religions of authority' into a new 'religion of the spirit.'"

From Transcendentalism through Reform Jew and Progressive Quakers, New Thought leaders, and proponents of Eastern philosophies, people like Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William James, and Sarah Farmer sought a first-hand experience of the divine grounded in nature and community rather than institutionalized dogma.

Rooted deep in the grain of American culture, the Spirtual Left has long acted as the progressive conscience of the nation, championing as it did from its very beginning unpopular causes like abolition and women's rights.

The rise of the fundamentalist Religious Right in recent decades, and its support of the Political Right, argues Rabbi Michael Lerner, has created a right-wing mind-set that worships its own power, ignoring the groans of the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised, conducting business as usual as if no one were hurting and there were no groans. The Political Left, too, earns Lerner's criticism for its lack of moral courage and political savvy to stand by its ideals and resist a culture of authoritarianism in both church and state.

Because it lacks dogma and an authoritarian structure, the values--and even the membership--of the Spiritual Left is more difficult to chart than those of the Religious Right. With apologies ahead of time for excluding anyone, I will add here to those mentioned elsewhere: liberal Christian denominations not adhering to fundamentalism, such as Quakers, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalists; liberal practitioners among Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious communities; traditional Eastern philosophies such as Taoism; metaphysical and New Age schools of thought; and, indigenous spiritualities based on the sacredness of nature, such as those found among native peoples in the Americas.

Among the values that these diverse traditions appear to agree on, we can probably safely name these: progressive social change; egalitarian social justice; manifest tolerance of differences between individuals and cultures; an end to poverty, hunger, and violence; and, preventing further degradation of the environment and further loss of plant and animal habitat.

What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being?--Joseph Campbell

While many in the Spiritual Left are politically active, many others eschew direct participation in the Political Left because it remains locked in a destructive cycle of conflict with the Political Right. Destructive in the sense that conflict has become institutionalized in a way that seems complicit in the greater divide-and-conquer culture war tearing the nation apart. But not just destructive--unproductive, too, in the sense that real-world problems and solutions are no longer identified and addressed. Combatants in this conflict have come to react to one another instead of the common dilemmas we face together.

One of the perennial truths, common to many ancient wisdom traditions, held as axiomatic by the Spiritual Left from its inception is the interdependent unity of nature, humanity and spirit. For this reason, feelings and actions that contribute to division and fail to alleviate suffering are considered not just detrimental to others but to one's own inner being, as well.

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences--Third Zen Patriarch

Although it is expressed in various ways, another principle informing many spiritual traditions is the axiom that we cannot proceed through the changing circumstances of life by holding to precedents and preconceptions--rather, we must respond to circumstances as we would administer medicine to a specific individual's illness. We would not, for instance, prescribe the same remedy or dose for an 80-year old and an eight-month old, even if they had the same illness. We cannot, in other words, rely on pat formulas for curing our ailments--we must start over each moment, willing to think in completely new ways and try completely new solutions. This model of enlightened response to circumstances, based on treating the present without being unduly influenced by past experience, requires that we both practice forgiveness for the wrongs done to us even as we seek to right the wrongs we have done to others. Such a practice of clearing our hearts of anger, resentment, and revenge even as we clear our conscience of guilt, shame, and remorse allows us to honor the past by fulfilling the dream of our ancestors that we live in a world of uninterrupted peace and prospering.

This ancient metaphor of administering medicine to the illness carries with it the admonition to act proactively to prevent illness in the first place and ensure the uninterrupted well-being of the community at large. It's not enough to govern by crisis management--we have to see problems coming and head them off to the benefit of all.

God has no religion--Mahatma Gandhi

One last example of the mind-set of the Spiritual Left: We are a world of nearly seven billion peers. None is intrinsically more deserving than another. Profound harm and resentment is born from the disrespect and dishonor heaped upon the weak and poor by the strong and rich.

Those who are more fortunate and do not share with those less fortunate cannot imagine the two-fold suffering to which they contribute, for not only do the less fortunate first suffer from their circumstances but they subsequently suffer from the sense that they are unworthy of aid from the more fortunate.

Idealistic as it may sound, to those in the Spiritual Left there is no longer any excuse for perpetuating a way of life that ignores the suffering of our peers worldwide. Not profit nor stockholders' interests nor national security nor democratization nor global competition nor outsourcing nor manifest destiny nor history.

If God lived on earth, people would break out all his windows--Hasidic Saying

Amorphous and anti-authoritarian, the Spiritual Left is perhaps best defined as a borderless association of leaders. Free thinkers and independent seekers of spirituality beyond dogma, its members engage in--and disengage from--political activism as a matter of personal conviction, not ordained groupthink. What this means to the Political Left is that it cannot take for granted the Spiritual Left's whole-hearted support of its candidates and policies. And it especially means that the Political Left cannot hope to tap the vast potential of the Spiritual Left unless it embraces ideals and values beyond power-sharing with the Political Right.

The meaning of life is not politics. The Political Left will need to return to the moral high ground of progressive American thought and give voice to the American conscience of compassion if it is to recapture the imagination and heart of its spiritual counterpart. It has to want to change the world for the better, not just get elected.

Which of course means that it may be inevitable that the Spiritual Left goes its own way as it long has. So long as the political right and left remain embroiled in the politics of mutually assured destruction, it may well be impossible for people of good conscience to commit their energies and resources to an ever-escalating culture war of polarization. Looking back over the course of civilization, there are many instances of Taoist and Zen sages, for example, who refused participation in political affairs. The Buddha, too, set the example by abandoning the privileges of the palace to become a wandering monk.

In this light, it is worth considering that the Spiritual Left is not solely an American phenomenon. It is much more an international worldview than is the fundamentalist Christian Religious Right. Idealism has become the new pragmatism: Only unreflective ideologues believe things can go on the way they are--practical people worldwide know that we must solve the problems related to health, hunger, potable water, and the environment if we are ever to fulfill our potential. So, it may be that the Spiritual Left is part of a global movement transcending borders and politics, a groundswell of nearly seven billion peers whose inner divinity illuminates a path carrying us all into the Golden Age of Humanity.

A nation never fails but by suicide--Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stroll back to 1973 occasionally and loiter in the rain-soaked parking lot to play out that conversation with the professor again. But things have changed. He quit drinking. I quit smoking. The pub is now a sushi bar. The war on terror gnaws at our freedom.

The moon, though, still glimmers in a puddle as it always has, reflecting the timeless ideals of people of every culture seeking the way of an enlightened government.