Sacred Democracy-Living Democracy as Spiritual Practice (Or Vice Versa)

by: Posted on: June 08, 2013

This article is co-published with Living Democracy.

Editor’s Note: In Phil Damon’s second Sacred Democracy column for Read the Dirt he begs questions about the connections between spirituality and the practice of what he calls ‘living democracy.’

By Philip Damon


In my opening column, “The Moral Blueprint,” I discussed the interplay of the sacred and secular aspects of a living democracy, a subject rarely addressed, suggesting that the two are en joined at the level of every citizen’s heart. For my follow-up column, I am submitting this revision of a talk I gave recently to the Bellingham WA chapter of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Since IONS is an organization that concentrates primarily on consciousness and spirituality, my presentation to BIONS reflected that emphasis. This version, though, shifts the focus slightly toward the democracy side of the equation, while still emphasizing the “spiritual practice” theme that gives the secular its moral template.

By way of introducing the talk, which I read to them, I shared a bit of relevant autobiography. I told them I’d spoken at several Living Democracy events, including the launch of the Coal-Free Bellingham initiative in January of 2012, as someone who had abandoned hope for political action in the early ‘70s—turning first to literary and then to spiritual practices for over thirty years. I shared that it wasn’t until I’d heard the phrase “living democracy” uttered only a few years ago, that I began to fathom the moral union that exists between the twin impulses of self-betterment and the betterment of others.

I also spoke of my prior experiences of the “common ground,” as factors in my embrace of living democracy as an expression of the unity in all being. This inner ground is among the principle axioms of the “perennial philosophy,” which sees all religions to be founded on the same essential truth(s) that in their universality transcend the religions themselves. The philosophia perennis has existed in name since the 1400s, but is actually what has come to us through the millennia as our most ancient wisdom. It sees resonance at the core of all traditions and in the heart of all humanity, an insight I was well versed in as I bridged the apparent divide from the “spirit within” to the “spirit of democracy.”

Hopefully this revision retains the tone of an oral presentation, and since it was originally a talk, please forgive its greater length than my columns will normally be.

Democracy has to be among the commonest terms in our language, yet each of us defines it for him-or herself. Therefore we can only hope and pray that our personal feelings resonate with at least a few likeminded others—a tribal yearning that is worth considering, in civic as well as in psychological terms. Yet admittedly, we’re more used to hearing of “spiritual practices” than ones of a democratic, or any other secular variety. What constitutes a spiritual practice may not be so clear either, though, and thus a bit of demystification may initially be in order. Once you hear what I have to say in that regard, it should be easier for you to see what I’m getting at by a “practice” of living democracy.

First then, there are infinitely more approaches to spiritual practice than there are definitions of democracy—or even the number of ways it has been attempted. It would take but a few historians to count the ways on their collective hands. Democracy is new, governmentally at least, and is not yet fully realized anywhere in the world. Spirituality is old, is arguably the source of all human wisdom, and in its many forms has outlasted all known secular institutions. Nevertheless, when measured by certain very crucial criteria, the two impulses—the democratic and the spiritual—go together like love and marriage.

Secondly, I’ll be placing less emphasis here on specific spiritual practices than on what they tend to have in common. This insight likely reinforces our grasp of the paradox that says how things differ is what unites them in how they fit into larger patterns. While spiritual practices do range widely in their nature, they can be seen to belong to just a few types, according to whatever aspect of personal nature they’re designed to heal (or make whole) on any seeker’s path. A good example of this can be found in the yoga traditions.

The most familiar form of yoga practice is Hatha, which we know involves one’s physical nature. Karma yoga does also, echoing Buddhism’s “right action,” as a practice of selfless service. Other yogas involve more than physical “postures,” however. Bhakti yogis chant and meditate on the divine attributes of a diety, guru, or virtue, toward a self-cleansing of destructive emotions and a celebration of the feelings of love, reverence, and compassion. Jnana yogis practice concentration and mental discrimination (aka viveka), toward contemplation and clarity of mind. Yoga practices lead thusly not only to physical resilience and flexibility, but towards emotional and mental harmony and balance as well.

Mendicant siddhas in India have been known to specialize in a single posture for their entire lives, yet it’s hard to imagine a practice of balance and flexibility at any of our three personal levels failing to have a healthful impact on the other two. We’ve all heard the age-old secular admonition of a sound mind and a sound body, or the warnings of the harmful effects that unhealthy emotions have on the physical nature. Thus, appropriately, there is yet another yoga, which is the crowning combination of the basic three. Raja yoga is the sum of all practices, with evolutionary implications echoing the first five steps of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism: right livelihood, action, speech, intention, and view.

Spiritual practice relies inescapably on work one personally does at the most basic secular levels. Every monk works first in the kitchen, and every disciple “waxes on and waxes off,” even if during the week they work in an office at a desk. Their agreement is a determination to practice one of an uncountable number of disciplines in any number of traditions around the globe and throughout history until now, all designed to lead to the universal experience of personal—physical, emotional and mental—transformation. And whatever language they have spoken, they’ve always called it  “opening in the heart.”

Whether merely metaphorically or not, the mystical writings of all traditions have emphasized the heart as the gateway organ to a human spirit, that is unlimited by cultural conditions or tribal conditionings. As humanity evolved a capacity to generously act, feel and think, a compensatory tendency followed to do so on conditional terms only. We tend to ration our good feelings, and our not so good ones, according to the model sociologist Robert Ardrey called the “amity-enmity complex”—examples of which headline human history right up until now, before our very eyes. Partisans can thereby dismiss any truth from the perceived “other,” as well as any possible flaws in their own polarized positions.

George Orwell showed this ugly truth in fiction, nonfiction and allegory, and we know it’s in our nature from scientific tests using random subjects placed in oppositional groupings. Their willing alienation against one another has demonstrated an inclination to behave—and believe—in cruelly unfair ways. Noam Chomsky, the linguist, has shown us we are born wired with a blueprint-readiness to adopt any language that’s near at hand. Yet aren’t we born with a similar design to be fiercely loyal to whatever “tribe” we are “imprinted on?” (To borrow from one of the earliest insights in personal animal identity.)

So the big question, then, is: if we can learn to feel generosity toward our fellow clansmen, mightn’t there be a deeper level within us, from which we are able to feel an unconditional amity for all our fellow humans, as a form of “kinship with all life”? And if such a level exists within us, have the sacred traditions correctly located it in every heart? If so, then it puts a bit of backspin on the idea of living democracy as spiritual practice.

You’ve seen then what I’m getting at when I suggest that any practice involving physical, emotional or mental “yoga” (in the ecumenical, secular, self-improvement kind of way I’ve tried to present them) will offer us an excellent device for self-monitoring our attitudes. We express these attitudes—or postures, or asanas in yoga—as we act, feel and think about whatever crosses our field of awareness. So then, which among our attitudes can we call generous (based on a reasonable conception of fairness), and which may not be so at all, either from egoistically-oriented or tribally-conditioned biases in our personal perceptions? Plus if our judgments are biased, do they seem justifiable to us nonetheless?

The implications of these tough questions can be put to the test readily enough, as we apply the lessons of spiritual practice to our day-to-day practice of living democracy. Yet even so, a critical caveat must be kept in mind as we proceed with what are now for us parallel practices. If it feels safe to say our practice of yoga (or whatever name we give it) is on behalf of our self-betterment, it may be less clear what our practice of democracy is on behalf of. The “democracy equals self-betterment” ideal may beckon, ambivalently echoing for us the story of the archetypal missionary through colonial history: “He came to do good, and he ended up doing well.” In that kind of success story, there is less future self-betterment for anyone, let alone much, if any, likelihood of a living democracy.

Again, though, there is always the fail-safe mechanism at the core of all spiritual practice. Each of them is time-tested to move a seeker toward that spirit of unconditional love residing (it’s said) at the heart center of us all. Whether anyone of us becomes totally “enlightened,” awakenings are kindled by every practice, and these mini-enlightenments are what blur the lines between sacred practices and the attitudes that animate a heartfelt democratic outlook. And yes, it’s no secret by now that for me the spiritual assumptions run parallel to those that underlie the spirit of a living democracy. Not that I’m equating democracy with enlightenment. Both, however, are inarguably “love-born,” and given how elusive each of them has been to humankind, they can be said to share that as well.

Nonetheless, we rarely if ever think of democracy as anything we practice per se. We have a bi-party system that sorts its citizens into two ideological camps, from whose opposing positions comes a jostling for power, control, and the sweet spoils of success. Furthermore, we’ve been co-opted by that very process into abetting a code of laws that is stacked against fairness to citizens, communities and our natural habitat, for the benefit of a privileged few. Thus “democratic action” can mean service to a party, whose motives may ultimately be ulterior, with the intentions of electing a candidate in thrall to systemic unfairness—or it can mean idealistic activism, in heroic yet more than likely to be futile campaigns against innumerable constitutional injustices. What hope for democracy then, from voting to “do well” for ourselves and our own, or by acting to “do good” for us all?

Well we can certainly argue for the latter being at least akin to a heartfelt practice. Yet in a system as rigged as ours is in favor of the few, what happens in the heart of any wide-eyed idealist who runs smack up against the rigging? Can you say disillusionment?

Giving up on democracy is an option that’s been offered by credible thinkers, and I did so myself for several decades. But what if democracy isn’t just a fairytale system for a society steeped in a fantasy of freedom? What if it’s an ideal that burns inside each of us, even if only a flicker? If so, if this ideal of fairness is part of our own inner makeup, then how can it ever allow us to abandon its appeal? All sacred traditions remind us that no matter how difficult, the path to enlightenment is impossible to abandon, as it refuses to give up on us. Then what if the spirit of democracy refuses to give up on us also? What if it is the same singular reality, whispering to us of its own kind of enlightenment? What if it’s that very same ideal? Disillusionment looks now like the abandonment of illusion.

Is it a reach then to say the spiritual and the democratic impulses both arise from a common root? And while the reach of each practice may seem to exceed its grasp, would the twin spirits be so alive in so many of us if that were truly the case? Can we imagine a society of citizens somewhere, acting, feeling and thinking in ways beneficial not only to themselves, their kinsmen and tribesmen, but in the spirit of open-hearted fairness that includes every other citizen? If so, we can know there is a level of reality, if not yet in our hallowed halls of government, where unconditional fairness is the medium of exchange.

Finally therefore, by way of moving from the hypothetical to the actual, I’d like to close my talk by drawing your attention to my own personal pantheon of heroes of living democracy. Perhaps tellingly, all six are products of our modern era, as they succeeded against inhuman odds (having been subjected by oppressive regimes to incarcerations, exiles, and worse) to infuse spiritual values onto the secular stages of their national and international ranges of influence. Each of their stories is as unlikely as it is inspirational.

We do know that from Socrates to the Nuns on the Bus, the sages of the ages (and of the corners of the world) have been consistently in tune with the perennial philosophy, as they intuited, proclaimed, and often paid the price, that a synergy existed between the essential aspects of the democratic and the sacred attitude. It’s hardly a surprise that such individuals rarely if ever aspired to political power and leadership, even in pursuance of a just and fair, democratic society. Rarer still are those figures who have consciously and conscientiously accepted the mantle of citizen leader (whether of a major movement or an actual country), and seized the opportunity to apply the values of raja yoga, let’s say, however culturally diverse their expressions of it may be. And that is what distinguishes my six heroes—from almost as many continents—as practitioners of living democracy.

Some have been heads of state, some have caused states to tremble or topple, and some have done it all. Yet each is widely honored for championing the sacred as a factor in their secular policy, whether foreign or domestic. While it can be argued that they’ve done so with mixed success, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, the Dalai Lama, and Aun San Suu Kyi have been practitioners of a sacred democracy. How many of us have not been affected by at least a few of these figures?

Quite a few, it appears, which is a topic for further discussion. Meanwhile the six all share a litany of resonating practices, from Hinduism, Black American gospel, South African Episcopalianism, East European mysticism, to Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism. Gandhi brought the non-attachment of the Baghavad Gita and the non-violence of ahimsa to a potentially bloody colonial revolution. King applied Gandhi’s principles to his own reading of the revolutionary Jesus, as he extended the blessings of a loving fairness to the poor and the suffering of all races. Mandela left prison with a spirit of forgiveness, and under the tutelage of Bishop Desmond Tutu presented a policy of truth and reconciliation to all South Africans. Havel brought a playwright’s sense of human compassion to his post-Soviet presidency, while pleading for a worldwide embrace of our common sacred bonds as the only hope for a sustainable future. The Lama went into exile as the only head of state remotely capable of leading a nation without a country, and has countered that sad reality with an honoring of the inner dharma of all humankind. Suu Kyi spent almost two decades in forced confinement and emerged free of bitterness as a practitioner of “desirelessness,” and she still tells the world that the ultimate revolution is of the spirit.

While of course there’s a kind of spiritual family tree implied by the chronology of these moral giants, making Gandhi the godfather of all who came after, it is easy to see that the roots of their wisdom grew from the core of their own sacred traditions, however distant they were in space and time. This gift of perennial wisdom, from sources external or internal to them personally, truly made them spiritual leaders. Yet even more crucially, perhaps, they all became exemplary citizens, else how could they have become leaders of democratic populations? Herein, alas, lies the irony in our understanding of democracy.

If good citizenship is marked by one’s obedience to the prevailing values of their society, then each of the six individuals I’m calling moral giants would likely fail the test. All but the Dalai Lama have been jailed, and he barely escaped arrest by trekking across a huge part of the Himalayas to India. What kind of citizens can they therefore be? Well, that’s what we have to be asking ourselves in times like the present. Obedience in a living democracy would be one thing. Obedience in a dictatorship, or in a democracy in name only, has to be a totally different thing. Each of the six followed an inner light to a similar point and became a subversive in their native land, with a price on each of their heads. So when is the subversive an enemy of democracy, and when is he or she its loyal defender?

For me, it all comes back to the issue of spiritual practice. Can any but the citizen him or herself know their own inner motives? How much physical, emotional and mental balance is reflected therein? Obedience to unfairness may not be “citizenship” any more than disobedience to fairness. Conscientious objection obviously takes a clear conscience.

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