Hannah Thomas: The Path of Sacred Activism


by Hannah Thomas, UK

This is an inspirational call to the brave and the hopeful to become love in action to create a better world.

Far from the warrior’s battle cry to arms of the past, this is a call to a particular form of activism, sacred activism. The term sacred activism was coined by author and Oxford scholar Andrew Harvey, and he defines a sacred activist as “a humble and divine agent of change to birth a new world of compassion, peace, balance, justice and harmony”. This is a far cry from the old paradigm of activism, which by definition is “the use of direct, often confrontational action in opposition to or support of a cause”.

One of the most intimidating things for an activist to face is the question “What can only one person do to make a difference?” Shifting from traditional struggle-based activism to the sacred activist approach is the single most powerful thing any individual can do to make an impact on a global scale. Throughout human history, we have been given living examples of single individuals who have reshaped our world by embodying the unyielding compassion of sacred activism. The lives of people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King bear witness to the massive impact of a human heart surrendered to something greater than itself.

So how does this peaceful attitude move mountains and if it is so effective why is it not more widely embraced? The popular paradigm of change through violent struggle has persisted for so long partly because it feels good. It feels good to be right. It feels good to be righteous. It feels good to release anger against wrong, and to bask in glory of having corrected a wrong. It feels even better still to apply this to our sense of self and define ourselves as one who fights for good. This dynamic has another side. To illustrate this, please take a moment to consider a time in your own life that you are not proud of. Imagine that at that time, someone challenged you angrily. How would you have responded? Ask yourself these questions, “Would I have felt shame? Would I have wanted to hide what I did or deny it? Might I have defended myself angrily? Or begged forgiveness? How would that angry challenge have made me feel?” More to the point, how likely would it be that such a confrontation would have changed the outcome in a positive way? After taking a few moments to consider this, picture a different scenario. Imagine instead that a good and trusted friend came and sat beside you. Putting a gentle arm around your shoulder, that friend lets you know that they know what you have done, they are worried about you and offer you help. You feel no condemnation from them, only deep sadness and genuine concern. How would this approach alter the outcome? Would it be easier to admit having made a mistake? Would you feel supported to take responsibility and to correct the situation?

The first approach is the approach of traditional activism. I’m not for one moment suggesting this is “wrong” as it has indeed brought about many positive changes. What I am suggesting is that the second approach not only offers a solution, but opens a door in the heart to make positive change, without cost to both sides. Of course it is not possible to sit beside everyone responsible for the changes we would like to make, nor is simply having compassionate concern for them likely to change their minds, but it does create a dynamic from which the desired result is more likely to be achieved. Peace can never be built upon a foundation of violence.

The Dalai Lama said it this way: “The more adept we become at cultivating an altruistic attitude, the happier we will feel and the more comfortable will be the atmosphere around us. But if our emotions fluctuate wildly and we easily give in to hatred and jealousy, even our friends will avoid us. So even for people with no spiritual beliefs, it is important to have a peaceful mind.”

The attitude of a peaceful mind is only one aspect of sacred activism. Another equally vital facet is that of positive focus. It is easy to complain against what we don’t like, but simply stopping something isn’t enough. It is what we create in its place that counts. When we present a firm stance, without judgment, focusing on what we want rather than what we don’t want, we set in motion the energy to create the outcome.

Emotions can get in the way. We are most likely to speak out against things which inspire an emotional response within us. That reactive response is usually negative, because we want to stop a particular behavior, such as cruelty to animals. Our emotional response is useful in that it makes us want to do something about it, but we have much greater power available to us if we do not react to our initial emotion. Instead, when we reach beyond the emotion and delve deeper into the issue, we find that not only is there more to every story, but also that there is a higher perspective. It is from this higher perspective that other options become available.

The human mind is a tremendously creative and resourceful tool. It is so easy to hop on a band wagon of complaint but it takes real thought and consideration to find solutions. If we began to harness our own creativity, we would affect change much faster. We already have absolutely everything we need to create a better world, and it’s inside us.

When we go out to eat, we naturally ask for what we want, and we (usually) get it. If we went into a restaurant and listed all the things on the menu we didn’t like, what would we get? The most likely outcome would be an empty stomach and an escort to the street. If we want to affect change in our world it is wise to apply the same dynamic. Sometimes this means getting creative.

Cooperation is not collusion. It is possible to cooperate to change something without condoning what we do not believe in. Cultivating compassion for someone we do not agree with does not mean that everything they do suddenly becomes ok with us. It means recognizing that they are human beings like ourselves, and that they want and need the same things in their lives that we want and need in ours. Compassion can be soft but it can also be fierce. The compassionate heart understands that if we could spend a moment in our enemy’s sorrows, we would have no enemies. Recognizing this opens a door of cooperation.

As we tackle the issues that are important to us, verifying facts is important not only to effective action but also to the credibility of our message. There are many “facts” circulating in the media and on the internet about various issues which have a sketchy basis in reality. A visit to the popular buster of urban legends, http://www.snopes.com/ shows just how virulent emotive half-truths can be. If our actions and message are to have meaning, we must first be informed not only of the deeper issues but of the beliefs of both sides. Always seek out the truth for yourself!

The path of sacred activism is perhaps the path less followed because it involves deep shadow work. One cannot walk this path without first coming to peace with one’s self. It is impossible to see through the short comings of another and recognize and honor the precious breath of the Divine in them as that which also moves through us, until we have realized it in a profound way within our own lives. It is impossible to truly forgive another until we have faced our own failures and forgiven ourselves. This kind of shadow work is not easy. It is not easy to let go of our victimhood, our righteousness, or any aspect of that persistent sense of self which is a construct of the mind and not our true essence. Indeed, it is only possible when we choose, in each moment as it arises, to die to our self and to allow that wordless Love which defies understanding to shine through us. That which is within us is more powerful than that which is without. If one heart surrendered to this can change the world, imagine what many hearts surrendered together can do!

If you are called to be love in action, visit http://heartrising.squarespace.com/heart-action-initiative/ . There is a list of useful websites and if you click on the tree, there are practical suggestions for making a difference.

Please take from these words only those which resonate with the wisdom of your own heart, for your own heart is your wisest guide.


  1. Interesting perspective, and it reminds me of a Buddhist disciple I used to read a bit of. Here is a quote by her: “We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. The whole right and wrong business closes us down and makes our world smaller. Wanting situations and relationships to be solid, permanent, and graspable obscures the pith of the matter, which is that things are fundamentally groundless.” -Pema Chodron

    That said, I think these are important philosophies in daily life. Not sure they apply equally when dealing with war criminals!

    1. Thank you, Berit, for taking the time to comment. You bring up a good point. It is a common misconception that understanding releases one from accountability. We are all personally accountable for our actions, whether kind or cruel, and being understanding and compassionate also means holding ourselves and others accountable.

  2. Great post. So few understand the basic principle that we must be peace ourselves before we can make a real and lasting peace. Pseudo-peace can be made by the peaceful, but lasting peace originates with those who have become peace. The work must take place within us before it can have affect what is outside us. “There can never be peace between nations until there is first known that true peace which… is within the souls of men.”—Black Elk
    Thank you for sharing your insights.

  3. Wonderful! You’re right. If one person can create significant change, just imagine what many could do. Hopefully as we go, more and more people will open their eyes and their hearts. Positive changes are long over due.

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