The Hope by Andrew Harvey“What breaks your heart?” That’s a question spiritual author and teacher Andrew Harvey tells people to ask themselves if they want to be a “sacred activist”–a term he coined about aligning your “grounded spiritual vision” with your service to the world.

The notion of sacred activism reminds me a little of the old rally poster: “Fighting for peace is like f$%#!ing for virginity.” To truly serve we must come from heart and compassion, or else we’re just perpetuating conflict. It’s not new–this is what the likes of MLK and Gandhi spoke of and lived by– but this question (I think), is designed to cut through the modern-world overwhelm of “What should I do to help?” Because at least for me there are so many things that are broken, breaking, and in need of tending–global poverty and famine, environmental destruction, sex trafficking, torture, war, the Texas-sized blob of plastic in the ocean, etc.–that when I think about where to serve, I shut down like a little kid in the cereal aisle, dazed by the endless boxes.

But “What breaks your heart?” is maybe one way out of the cycle. Last night at an event for Buddhist Global Relief, a non-profit that gives grants to address world hunger, Andrew spoke about how the world is in crisis and we all need to kick our apathy to the curb and do something. Now. He’s not a total gloom-and-doomer, though. His latest book, “The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism,” outlines practical ways we can align our soul and spirituality with the service we give to the world.

In his lovely, activating, howling talk last night, he suggested that it’s possible to step away from “the collective false human self that has lost connection to our own sacred nature.” To take advantage of  an “unprecedented opportunity… to turn apocalypse into grace.” He said one way to begin is: Wake up at 3 am one night, and in the silence ask yourself: “What of all these causes breaks my heart the most?” And then “you will find the deepest, most radiant voice of your soul,” allowing you to then “join other people of like heartbreak and do something real.” 

I tend to walk away from such events swimming in shame. Why don’t I volunteer? Why don’t I give? Why am I such a total loser, so completely caught up in consumer culture, corporate-driven perfectionism, yadda, that I feel like I have no time or energy to give? This was no different. Surrounded by people who serve so directly, I felt like, “Um, well, I have this blog and I have a gratitude blog and I write articles on communication and yoga and love and, and, yeah. Um, squeak, don’t mind me as I take and don’t give.” And then I berate myself for self-indulgently wasting time stewing in those thoughts instead of signing up for something real. Oy.

When I told someone (ok, my shrink) about all of this today she asked, “Do you pick up trash in the street?” Well, actually last week I picked up a big hunk of glass on the sidewalk because it looked dangerous. “Ok,” she said. “That’s not nothing.” And she listed a bunch of other little things that I do that might just count as service, including my writing. “From this chair I see so many people devaluing what they offer,” she said. And this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote came to mind:

“The definition of success–to laugh much; to win respect of intelligent persons and the affections of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm, and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived–this is to have succeeded.”

Granted, in Ralph’s time the survival of the species and the planet itself were in nowhere near the shape they’re in now; he might’ve had very different things to say if 100 million people were starving and the rainforest was being decimated as we speak.

Yet like so many, my heart is so broken that it doesn’t know where to direct its remaining hope–outside of picking up the broken glass in front of me. I also feel helpless against the machine. It feels more manageable to distract myself with Zappos and magazines and 30 Rock. Except, when I peek out of the denial I cloak myself in to simply get through the day, I see it. I see we’re in trouble. Big time. I also see that the world is glorious and fine and somehow in the end this will all be ok even if it isn’t because I trust in something bigger.

Which, I think, is kind of Andrew’s point. That we get down with the light that lives in us that isn’t us and let it move us to do what we can and what needs to be done. So, we do what we can. And then maybe a little more. And we don’t give ourselves such a hard time, but we don’t let ourselves off the hook, either. We listen. We get still and feel that pulse and listen.

At the end of the evening last night after a discussion about apathy and spirituality and technology and activism, one man, a painter I had been talking to earlier, turned to me and said, “You know, you can just forget all this and listen to your heart. Listen to your heart.” He thumped his chest. I felt seen or lovingly busted somehow for my guilty liberal mishigas. And I think he meant, all this talk is nice, but always return to that essential place.

“But you know that,” he added.

“I do,” I said. “But I forget.”

“Listen to your heart,” he said again, with a firm nod and a knowing smile. “Listen to your heart.”

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