Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Journey of the Spiritual Activist: An Interview with Marisa Handler

"The world of activism, can be rigidly secular. It felt to me like coming out of the closet when I began talking about spiritual practice with my activist friends"--Marisa Handler

The more I write about organizations and individuals who are creating social change, the more I realize that to create true change, we need to change our inner world and our outer world.

Activist, journalist, and singer, Marisa Handler, chronicles her activist journey, and the role spirituality played in it, in her 2007 memoir, Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist. Loyal to the Sky received a Nautilus Book Award for world changing books.

Below is an edited transcript from a September 5th phone interview with Marisa for the Big Vision Podcast. When I heard Marisa speak at the Writing for Change Conference, she talked about discovering what our role is in changing the world by being open to what "calls to us." I asked her to talk a little bit about what she meant by this.

Marisa Handler: Essentially, I mean what Joseph Campbell meant when he said, "Follow your bliss, " which is that in order to discover our destiny, to discover who we are in the deepest and truest sense, we really need to go in the direction that speaks to us. To me, that means following the direction that represents beauty, and represents heart, and truth, and all of these grandiose words that essentially mean that it is something that moves us and that gets us excited.

I believe if we go in that direction, and our intention is to be true to ourselves, and also to remember our own interconnection, and the state that the world is in right now, that it will guide us to a place where the work that we are doing is actually helping, and has an application.

I think that there are as many different ways to be an activist as there are human beings on the planet right now. Your way may be starting an organic catering company, or painting about issues that are important to you, or getting out on the streets and protesting, or maybe working with policy; there are all kinds of different work.

Essentially it means that we don't always all have to do the same thing, and actually, that if we all do the same thing, that's not going to necessarily save the world. I think that in an age where what we're facing often seems very vast and faceless - huge institutions, corporations, or undemocratic governments - I think that the real answers don't so much lie in, they can, but not always, big ticket solutions. I think the real answers lie in the small, diverse, creative solutions we come up with ourselves in our communities, by ourselves, or with our friends, or with a global group. It may be a bigger group, but the emphasis is on diversity and creativity.

That's essentially what I mean, if we follow what speaks to us, we're going to be true to ourselves. We're also going to be true to what the world wants of us.

Britt Bravo: You talk in your book about how meditation and spiritual practices are an integral part of your activism. Can you talk a little bit about what role meditation plays in your activism, and in your creative process?

MH: It's been really crucial for me. It's been a foundation to begin with, and to return to. Certainly in terms of my own activism, it has really helped open my eyes. For me, meditation is a practice of sitting down for half an hour every morning, or whatever the case is, and practicing awareness.

What that means is that sometimes I start seeing things that I wasn't aware of before in myself, like my own motivations for things. I discovered at one point that a lot of my activism was very angry, and I started to have some insight - I think this has a lot to do with my meditation practice - into my own motivations for being there in the first place, for being out on the streets protesting.

A lot of it was positive. A lot of it was coming from a place of compassion, and wanting to help. But, there was also a good deal of anger motivating it. When I started to look a little bit more deeply, I was able to see that it was there in the first place, and that it was guiding my work in a way that was not necessarily constructive.

While my objective was to make positive change, when I came at it from a place that was angry, I saw - I think this has been visible to many people who have worked in social change movements - that my anger was not growing the movement. It wasn't bringing people toward us. Our anger if anything was driving people who did not already agree with us, away from us. That is an example of what I mean when I say that my meditation practice has been quite essential to my activism.

In terms of my creative process, I think when it comes to writing and to singing it's about letting go, and as much as possible moving myself out of the way, because when you're sitting down and practicing being aware, you start to recognize what's the self, and what's ego, and what may be running a little deeper than those things. In that sense, I think it has trained me in how to get out of my own way so that something deeper can come through me.

BB: Your whole book, Loyal to the Sky, is a memoir, and it's your entire path to becoming an activist and an artist. So, for me to ask you, what is the path that brought you to your activism would be to ask you to repeat your book, but, in a shorter form, you could tell the listeners a little bit about the path that brought you to activism, in particular to a more spiritual based, non-violent activism?

MH: I think in essence, what brought me to activism is the same thing that brings anybody to a place where they want to help, whether it's in their community, or in the world, and that is compassion. I think that it's natural for us to feel the suffering of others. If we're not feeling the suffering of others, then there's something blocked inside us. When we open to suffering, and there's a lot of good reasons not to open, it is painful, although I think ultimately it backfires when we don't open. When we do open, and we let that pain through, things can start to move and shift in a way that is very healthy.

Essentially, I came to activism from compassion. In terms of my own life, as I write in Loyal to the Sky, I grew up in apartheid South Africa. I was raised in a society that was very twisted, where white people pretty much had access to all of the resources, and the black majority, 80% of the country, was treated as the servant class and shut out of many of the privileges, many of the basic human rights, really, that a society should have.

I think that was where my eyes began opening to what injustice is. What is a society that calls itself Chosen? What does it mean to be the Chosen People whether you're the white population in South Africa, or, as a Jew, I was hearing from Hebrew school that we were the Chosen People. Clashing visions of who is chosen and who is not. Why do people who are not chosen end up out in the cold? What's going on here?

It was the process of that questioning, and not necessarily finding the answers that struck me as right, and then becoming more active as I grew older. When we immigrated to the States, seeing injustice in this country, which I had thought, at least superficially in comparison with South Africa, looked like utopia, certainly it looked like a racial utopia. And then spending more time here, and getting a bit more acquainted with the lies of this society regarding race and class and all kinds of issues.

Slowly becoming more active, but constantly looking for deeper answers than what I was often given. The deepest answers started to come from a place I would call "spiritual," reading books that were spiritual, and I went to India.

As I wrote in Loyal to the Sky, I spent about five months in India and Nepal right after 9/11. I was reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle on how things were fragmenting in that region. India is next to Pakistan, which is right next to Afghanistan, and the US had just gone to war in Afghanistan. At the same time, I was on my own spiritual journey, and did my first meditation retreat.

Ironically, while I was writing about the world falling apart after 9/11, and India and Pakistan were coming close to war, I went to my first meditation retreat and came into contact with what I see as one of the deepest truths underlying the nature of reality, which is that it's all connected. We are all part of a big web. We are all essentially, one, and we're all connected. The only sensible thing to do really, if we are all connected, is to come from a place of love. This in the face of people coming from a place of a lot of hatred, as I said, things fragmenting, coming into a place in myself where I saw the underlying unity.

From that place, I was really struggling to come to grips with the many questions that it brought up. Why are we destroying the planet and each other if underneath it all there is one unity? How do we go about getting to that place?

That is what I chronicle in Loyal to the Sky, my own stumblings and glidings through different landscapes, both geographic and internal landscapes, trying to come to grips with these questions, and the answers I came up with along the way, or that others came up with along the way.

Britt: During the talk that I heard you give last month, you said, and I'm paraphrasing, "If we have clear intention and faith, and keep listening to what is going on in ourselves and the world, we'll get there (to social change or to making the world a better place), but it might look different than we expect."

I was wondering if you could give an example of when you felt like you were listening to your calling, and to what you thought you should do, and it turned out differently than you expected?

Marisa: I really do believe that if our deep intention is there, if your intention is to act from a place of loving, if your intention is to help people in need, whatever our intention is, I think if we are coming from a place of strong intention, and we move forward and stay in touch with that, and have faith, and really pay attention in the process (blind faith is unhelpful), that we will get where we're meant to be.

Sometimes it surprises us where we end up. I think I can speak to that right now, because I'm speaking to you from Iowa City. I just moved from the Bay Area. I moved here a couple of weeks ago, and I'm in a program at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in fiction, which is not where I saw myself ending up. I feel like I've done a lot of different activism, and a lot of journalism, and the motivating force for all of that was to shine a spotlight on all the places of suffering, and to try to emphasize voices that often went unheard.

There has been a lot of questioning in myself about why it is, and how is this that I'm now studying fiction when there is so much more out there that's "real" to tackle. I'm at a place at this very instant that is kind of unexpected.

For me, the process of writing Loyal to the Sky, of writing my memoir, was very much a creative process. It is a memoir; it's non-fiction, but with a project like that, you choose what you put in, and I had my whole life and the many experiences I've had on many different continents to select from.

The way it emerged was amazing to me really. It was a beautiful process. In the process, I felt like I came into contact with my own creative voice, and that voice wanted more, it wanted more room. Despite many objections, or criticisms, or judgments on a logical level around, "Why am I going to do fiction?" it just kept calling to me. It just called to me and called to me to move deeper into the realm of the imagination.

I think it is partly also about seeing the power of stories, which writing this book has shown me, just how people are so moved by stories, and how drawn I am to telling stories. Toni Morrison, and I'm not sure if she said this herself, or if she was quoting somebody, but she said the deeper you get into your own personal idiom, the more that you access the universal idiom, which underlies all of our narratives, really.

I feel like that is what I'm doing at this point, and I think that fiction has a very important role when it comes to its ability to connect us all to that universal idiom. But, if you'd asked me two years ago what I would be doing right now, the odds that I'd say I'd be in Iowa City would be very slim.

BB: What advice do you have for activists and social chang-y folks who want to integrate a spiritual practice, whether it's meditation or something else into their work?

MH: I say go for it! [laughs] When I went on the book tour, I got asked a lot about this, which was exciting to me, because it means that there are a lot of people out there who are trying to negotiate that connection, that are trying to understand how to bring the two together.

Of course it's been done before. This is what Martin Luther King was about. This is what Gandhi was about. But, we're attacking different problems today, so I do think we still need to come up with our own creative solutions.

For me, that meant being a different kind of activist than the kind I've been before, and actually organizing with different kinds of people. For example, I started organizing around Burma last year in solidarity with the profoundly nonviolent uprising in Burma. I started organizing with Bay Area Buddhists and Burmese Americans within the Bay Area community. It was really wonderful. We had a walking meditation down Market Street, and a meditation outside the Chinese Consulate to protest their support of the Burmese junta.

Things started to look different than they had looked previously, and I found myself working with different people. I guess what I would say is, it can be intimidating. I feel like often in the "spiritual" world, there is a little bitof disdain for applying inner work to outer work, which is service. Sometimes people just don't make that connection.

The world of activism, can be rigidly secular. It felt to me like coming out of the closet when I began talking about spiritual practice with my activist friends. All I can say is that if you're brave enough to go there, and keep going in that direction, you will find friends and allies; they're definitely out there. I've seen how many people are out there thinking about these questions.

You may be amazed about how things begin coming together, and who you meet in the process, and what kinds of visions you share, and the work you can do. I really firmly believe they need each other. I don't think we're going to really change the world if we're not coming from a profound place of interconnection and love; otherwise, the work that we do generally just serves to replicate the cycles we're trying to break.

In other words, if we're not coming from a profoundly nonviolent place, we're often recreating violence. I also think that we live in a time where it's not enough to just do inner work. The world really needs us; it really needs people who are coming from a place of wisdom, applying that wisdom to their work, to the world. The two need each other very desperately.

For people who are listening, who are already on that path; kudos to you, and keep it up. Be brave, and find people who are like-minded to support you in that process. In Loyal to the Sky, I'm very honest about my different pitfalls and where I've stumbled, or where I feel like I've managed to rise above things. It may help.

I feel like one thing I've also come into contact with is the idea that the "activist" is this "other person" out there. "I'm not an activist, because all I do is recycle and care about the world. I'm not necessarily 'doing' anything."

We are all activists. You'll get there in your time. It may be that the thing that you're meant to be doing isn't quite ripe yet, but it will be as you keep asking questions and listening -- listening deeply.

Related posts

Q&A: Marisa Handler explores global activist journey in memoir, Iowa Independent
Crusading For Justice & Peace: A Podcast Interview With Activist Marisa Handler, Intrepid Liberal Journal
Loyal to the Sky - Marisa Handler, Tiger Beat
The Revolution Within: A Review of “Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist”, The Indypendent
Notes on Activism and Loyalty, WireTap
Loyal to the Sky , Glued Blue Glass


  1. Wow I really needed this post. Thank you. I am encouraged to keep moving forward as I struggle to align my inner purpose with my outer works.

    Really enjoy your blog.

  2. Thanks for linking my podcast interview with Marisa last year. She's one of my favorite people!

  3. I'm glad it helped dancing b.a.g. lady.

    Robert - My pleasure!


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