This talk was given by Ruth Rosenhek at Heart Politics held in Bangalow on June 28-29, 2003.

“Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself and yourself alone one question. This question is one that only a very old man asks...I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart?”
(Don Juan, in his teachings to Carlos Castaneda)

By a single thought that comes into the mind,
In one moment a hundred worlds are overturned.


Thank you to the organisers. It is an honor to speak here today. Thank you to all of you for creating this space for us to share together this weekend.

I acknowledge, honor and pay respect to the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of this Land.

Today I will be speaking about Compassionate Action but the subtitle of my talk is “Have a Heart”.

“Have a Heart” was the slogan we used on Valentine’s Day when Wiradjuri Elder, Neville “Chappie” Williams and supporters put forth a passionate plea to the New South Wales National Parks & Wildlife Services. We were asking National Parks to deny Barrick Gold of Canada’s application for a Consent to Destroy Aboriginal sacred artefacts at Lake Cowal in central west New South Wales where the company has plans for an open pit cyanide leach gold mine.

We visited National Parks offices throughout New South Wales where we delivered Valentine’s Day cards addressed to the Director General of National Parks, Brian Gilligan, asking that Mr. Gilligan reach into his heart to protect the rights of indigenous people and not allow such an utter desecration to occur.

We’ve been campaigning for a couple of years now to put a halt to this project that threatens not only the Heartland of the Wiradjuri Nation, but also a precious wetland and sensitive ecosystem, home to endangered, migratory and wader birds. Neville Williams has delayed the project a number of times by taking Barrick Gold to court over the destruction of this sacred place. We’ve attended and spoken out at Barrick’s Annual General Meeting in Toronto, we’ve written letters, lobbied, rallied and raised a ruckus to put a halt to this high risk project and this time we were appealing to the hearts of our state government.

As Uncle Chappie says, “Lake Cowal is our Dreaming Place and our Sacred Site. It is Wiradjuri’s past, present and future. There are many artefacts beneath the surface because Lake Cowal is very, very old. Our artefacts are not “relics”. They have not been abandoned. They are where they are meant to be, left there by our Old People…Our Old People were massacred at Lake Cowal.

“It is our right to practice our own spirituality and religion on our own land. Our culture, heritage and tradition are as old as time itself. Wiradjuri is one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world today. It is time we are given the Respect we deserve.”

In our quest for global justice, environmental, social and human rights, are we asking politicians, governments and corporations to “have a heart”?

Certainly if there was more heart in the exercise of political power and corporate behaviour, we would not see the dire living conditions of Woomera and Baxter and other detention centres worldwide, overwhelming numbers of young black men and women locked in prisons, so-called wars on terror that kill and maim innocent civilians, nor governments that don’t take seriously issues of child abuse, women’s rights, and more broadly the fundamental human right to clean water, air, food and shelter.

In fact, far from a compassionate heart-felt way, we live in a time when wars are being waged on a number of fronts:

a war against subsistence through the globalisation of poverty;
the war of borders and boundaries through Nation states and Nationalism;
the war against human security through Militarisation;
the war of exclusion through systemic Racism;
The war against forgotten wisdoms through the decimation of Indigenous people and indigenous way;
the war against women through Trafficking and lack of access to reproductive health;
and the war against the other in the Treatment of Refugees

…and on the list goes. Here in Australia, we now face a severe threat to human rights and the environment in the Australia Free Trade Agreement that may be decided by Federal Cabinet. If this Trade Agreement goes through, it would override Australian standards for film and other media, introduce genetically modified food with removal of labelling standards, privatise water and other natural resources, override environmental regulations, do away with the pharmaceuticals benefits program which currently provides low cost medicines to low income people. Plus American corporations could sue the Australian government for lack of access to any of these areas.

What we are asking for is a value based political system where policies and laws are based on justice and freedom, respect and caring.

Can economic, political and social systems act with compassion? Is it possible for a corporation to have a heart or only the people who work within? Can the Industrial Growth Society within which we are so deeply embedded act with loving kindness?

Or do the systems have a life of their own, beyond our grasp, somehow beyond our control?

American writer, John Steinbeck, captures this well in The Grapes of Wrath ("The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck, 1939, Viking, 42-45)

"The owners of the land came onto the land…And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves ... The owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were ...You see, a bank or a company ... those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it they die the way that you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so ... When the monster stops growing it dies. It can't stay one size... We're sorry, it's not us, it's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men [said the tenants].

No, you're wrong there, quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it."

Whether we can reform political systems and large exploitative institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund or whether, the “machine is a monster” as Steinbeck suggests and we must stop at nothing short of shutting this atrocity down remains an ongoing debate in the world of social and environmental change work.

Puttng that debate aside for the moment, we can call upon those who work within these systems to bring compassion to their work, to the decisions and policies they make. We can looks towards a new bottom line in which institutions and social practices are considered efficient or productive to the extent that they foster ethically, spiritually, ecologically, and psychologically sensitive policies and decisions that will foster a long-term life sustaining Earth Community.

One in which we stop stealing from the future for short term gains but rather give to the present for the sake of the future.

It is not nearly enough to ask that those in positions of power act with compassion. We too must do so. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” and he spoke of wanting the British to be forced to leave India, but to do so as friends.

To effectively activate for human rights and environmental justice, we too need to come from a place of heart ourselves. Not only as Martin Luther King said, is love the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend, we also need to transform ourselves if there is to be a global shift in consciousness, one that moves us from a life destroying society to a life sustaining way.

For all the good work we might do for global justice, unless there is a fundamental shift in values and beliefs across the board, including ourselves, there will be no glue to hold together all our good efforts.

Practicing compassion towards ourselves and each other is often not so easy. Afterall, we too are deeply embedded in these very same social, political and economic structures that are systemically violent, where our every move -- driving cars, turning on the computer, drinking a cup of coffee -- is implicated in the exploitation of land and water, indigenous peoples and local communities. We too are living in the contemporary War Machine.

Sometimes, we push and prod at ourselves to do this and to do that and then feel guilty or anxious if we don’t follow our own directives. These acts of self-flagellation are far from compassionate.

Thomas Merton, Christian mystic writing in the 1960’s, said

"There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in every thing is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his/her work for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his/her own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

A sense of guilt or moral responsibility is a poor basis for long term change work. Similarly, if we are moved by self sacrifice, our results may be less than favourable.

If, on the other hand, we are moved because our heart moves us to do so and because we know that this – refugees in camps, trees in the forest, homeless people on the streets – all this is us too, just like our limbs and organs are us, then our actions are strong, binding and courageous. We can show compassion to ourselves by not pushing ourselves to perform heroic feats for the sake of appeasing guilt and repressing feelings of grief and anger.

With so many activists experiencing burn-out, it is vital that we recognize the full importance of treating ourselves gently and with understanding of the cycles of being and doing, action and rest, that we move through on an ongoing basis.

Acting with compassion also means being kind towards those who we work with and live with, our friends and colleagues, families and lovers.

I heard a tale told about an elder monk whose disciple brought him his breakfast one morning. The monk, upon being interrupted, said angrily “How dare you interrupt my loving kindness meditation!”

Practicing compassion is not always in our own time and our own way. It requires a dynamic flexibility and openness to the situation, a fostering of patience, understanding, listening, acceptance and forgiveness to ourselves and to each other.

These sorts of attributes can be nurtured through a practice of meditation, mindfulness, or spending time in nature. The more we realise our interdependence with each other the more we will be able to act rightly at every moment, and when we do not act rightly at a given moment it won’t matter. We’ll just continue on without regrets and blame, with an understanding that the practice of compassion is an ongoing journey, not a discrete moment.

We can extend our practice of compassion to those who we see as the actors involved in injustices both locally and globally, politicians, corporate CEOS, head of the World Bank and so on.

This can be challenging at times. I’m not suggesting that we put aside the anger and outrage that we feel about the injustices and destruction occurring both locally and globally. For these feelings are valuable tools that can move us and energise us, bring us courage and inform us about what we most care about.

I am suggesting that we find the value in developing more understanding and compassion towards these same people who we tend to demonize. Even come to see them as a reflection of our shadow selves and the systems we live in. And that we see nurturing feelings of compassion towards these “others” as part of the healing that must take place on the planet if we are to have a true global revolution.

For the revolution is internal and ongoing. Our own personal growth is a good measure of how well the revolution is progressing. As writer, Ursula LeGuin says, we need to BE the revolution.

Plus as Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, we have no morally persuasive power with people who can feel our underlying contempt. As he stated in 1929, “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies - or else? The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

As the philosophy of Deep Ecology points out, we live largely in an illusion of separation in which we see ourselves as something separate from the Earth, what we call “The Environment”. The Earth and its resources are seen as something to be controlled, extracted and manipulated by us humans. Deep Ecology critiques anthropocentrism or human-centredness in which humans see ourselves as the centre of the web of life rather than as one strand in a complex biological fabric upon which we depend.

Furthermore, we see ourselves not only as outside of the natural system, but also separate from each other and even from ourselves. Albert Einstein called this sense of separation a delusion of consciousness in which humankind sees his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.

“This delusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty". (Albert Einstein)

Some of the ways we have put compassion into action in the past couple of years include loving kindness meditation circles at anti-globalisation and peace rallies. In late 2002, we sat in a meditation circle on an intersection in Sydney CBD when police on horse back thrusted themselves at activists protesting the policies of the World Trade Organisation. And then again the next day, we sat up against a line-up of police outside the mini-ministerial meeting while other protesters hurled themselves at the gate which separated us from the WTO delegates. What better place to pray for peace and open our heart to decision makers than here in the tiger’s belly?

We did the same again in the NSW State Forest office, at peace rallies and a week long Gandhi style Fast For Forests.

This sort of compassionate agitation has huge potential to unite people from all walks of life. Before the recent resurgence of the peace movement, activism was largely a marginalized sphere (To discount us, we greenies are often referred to as “insatiable greedy conservationists, rabid ferals, and tree-huggers. “Get a job!” shout passersby to protesters at rallies.) and the media often portrayed protests solely as violent affairs with protesters and police clashing violently.

These sorts of actions would not be attract many others to join in. Although many of us feel the same way about human rights, environmental and social justice, most do not take action in part because of feeling overwhelmed or hopeless but also largely because the movement itself has been portrayed so negatively and in fact, has often been rife with negativity.

Compassionate Action offers people a new way to stand up and speak truth to power in a way that has meaning in and of itself regardless of the immediate outcome. With a touch of compassion mixed with action, firm actions and firm lines that are set with heart and spirit, we can attract many others to join with us in waging a global revolution of compassion, in a beautiful prayer to end suffering across the planet.