On Inner Work, Activism and Privilege

I used to think the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought with 30 years of good science we could address those problems, but I was wrong.

The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy – and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

– James Gustave Speth, former administrator of the UN Development Programme, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies


I have been writing a lot about social and inner permaculture. Lately I have even chosen to leave the word “permaculture” aside for a bit and focus on the need to work with ourselves and the way we relate to the world, without meaning that I have abandoned or plan to abandon food gardening or any other of the self-reliant and community-resilience practices I embrace and share through my posts and workshops.

Last year (2016) I also embarked in taking Life Coaching formal studies in parallel to studies that may not be recognized by mainstream academics or the corporate world, but which have given me a much more profound understanding of myself, others and nature and the need to re-connect with these three areas.

Those studies haven’t happened all at once or from a single source: 2016 was one of the most spiritually challenging (and changing) years for me, as I dove into the dark but precious waters of soul and nature connections and for it I’m deeply grateful.

Some of my “mentors” are unaware I’ve chosen them: Starhawk’s book “The Earth Path”, Carolyn Baker’s books “Navigating the coming chaos” and “Black Gold: the human shadow and the global crisis”, Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael”, Bill Plotkin’s book “Soulcraft”, Jon Young’s “Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature” and so many others…

The long commute I take to and from work each day (public transit) has helped me to find the time and relative solitude to read, listen to podcasts and take many online webinars and courses that have deepened my understanding and commitment with what Jon Young calls “reconnection”, Starhawk calls “magic” and Carolyn Baker calls “inner work”.

Since last November, I have also started to offer free life coaching to those who may need it (interestingly, most of these “clients” are from the permaculture and activist world and none from “mainstream” yet). The experience has been empowering for both parties involved, and I have no plans to end it here (actually, I am offering low cost life coaching through my other blog, “Ethical Pathways”).

But there’s a pattern I have noticed and posted about it in many permaculture and activist groups: in general, those practicing permaculture, social or environmental activism or even transition, are not involved in much inner work (there are a few great exceptions who happen to be my friends and/or mentors). As a result, people are hurt and many stay away and discriminated from these “movements”: some mainstream people see those involved in these causes as self-righteous, judgemental or even privileged and some in the movements leave because of the amount of stress on their relationships and inner lives the commitments bring: children, partners and other family members and friends may be neglected or even abused as activism and projects seem “more important”. Inner work is considered by many a “waste of time” or something nice for times of peace and abundance but with no place in today’s messy and needy world…

From all corners, I heard hurting words that talk about privilege, oppression, discrimination, colonization of the mind and institutions and the like. Instead of being caring and compassionate towards others, we call them deniers, consumers, numbed, etc., even the term “mainstream” may have negative connotations! Those who are not yet were we are (mentally, emotionally, action-wise) are looked down and made “other” which disconnect them even more from the causes and issues we care so much about!

I also hear those who deny privilege is even a thing and promise that we can change everything by only changing our attitudes and behaviours, as if trauma never existed, as if the structures and systems that create and support this disconnection are not there and don’t influence people and relationships. With this attitude and language, we lose and discriminate them even further, disempowering them even more.

Finally, there is an increasingly challenging chant from the corners of self proclaimed “inner work practitioners” or “spiritual” individuals and groups that seem to think that by embracing the light and ignoring the shadows all will be magically OK.

In all these groups there are people who still think technology and human ingenuity are the only thing needed to “save us”, but it is mainstream who proclaims and believes this the most, with an emphasis on some “saviour” coming from the outside: either we will be saved by God at the last minute or scientist will find a way out. “Someone will do something, but that someone is not me for sure” is their mantra “I’m too busy, too small, too powerless”…

What I have found through all the courses, readings, life coaching, being part of groups and projects myself and listening to people from all walks of life is that the source of all our predicaments is not to be found in history or any of the sciences (except, probably, in ecology) and that the “way out” is actually the “way in”: the ONLY reason we are where we are as a species is because our long history of disconnection: we have allowed ourselves to be deeply disconnected from ourselves, each other and Nature.

The “solution” therefore, is what Jon Young calls “culture repair”: reconnect with these three “pieces”, which is a challenging and life-long journey and requires our unconditional attention and commitment. By doing this, one by one and to each other and communities, we may (just may) have a chance…


But what this “reconnection” means?

Re-connection to ourselves involves truly listening, acknowledging and embracing all what we are: not only the “light” but also the “shadows”. Understanding our deepest traumas and wounds, as they are connected to our gifts: and once these gifts are discovered, sharing them with the world, as that’s the start of this culture-repair or changing the stories we tell others and ourselves about who we are and where is our place in the world. This reconnection us total: we cannot “just” reconnect with our souls without embracing and caring for our bodies, what we eat and how we use them.

Re-connection to each other happens almost automatically as a result of this reconnection to ourselves, as the more we acknowledge our own shadows, the more we accept and embrace others. But it is also an active reconnection that happens when we look for anchors in our lives and become anchors for others, eventually mentors for the young and spiritual friends for our friends. The reconnection expands as we care and see the needs of our extended families, work colleagues, classmates and other communities where we belong.

But none of the above reconnections work if we don’t work on reconnecting with the Earth: acknowledging that she is not something “out there” were we go for fun or obtain our resources. We are the Earth: we breathe, drink and drink from her and through our bodies all of this is recycled and reused into her and her beings. In many ways, birds and bugs, fish and tigers are no different from us, we are not even too different from plants and fungi…this connection means much more than just hiking or camping, it means a deep involvement in being silent with it and in awe, but also being involved in regenerative work as well as the production of what we consume (permaculture).

So going back to the initial question that appeared today in Carolyn Baker’s podcast: is doing inner work an aspect of privilege? I would like to invite you to listen to her and her suggestions: only when we compartmentalize and use inner work (or any work such as permaculture or activism, I would like to add) as escapism or a way to separate and disconnect from others and the whole of reality is when this becomes a privilege.

On the other hand, we can’t forget the many (millions actually) who work so much and in such enslaving jobs that have no time to even ask themselves those questions. We cannot forget either the many who are so deeply disconnected that can’t find a way to reconnect (are not even interested or aware because are entrapped by centuries legacy and current systems and structures that keep them entertained or addicted or numbed or too upset to even see). This should allow us to see that there is a privilege in having the awareness, ability, time and resources to do inner work: just the fact that we are not starving or in the middle of a war-torn zone, suffering from a deeply disabling illness (mental or otherwise) or in need to work till we drop may be enough! With this privilege, then, it comes responsibility: the responsibility to start and join this work of reconnecting so we can reach those who are either sleep walking or trapped and instead of seeing them as “lazy”, “deniers” or some other disempowering way, we see them as what they are: sisters and brothers who need us as we need them.

My wish for 2017 is that you become more connected to yourself, others and Nature. That you discover your true gifts and start sharing them with the world. We all need it.

May 2017 be a year of re-connection in everyone’s lives.



“…when we “lose our mind” and “come to our senses” in the fullest possible way, the chattering, texting, e-mailing, twittering mind will eventually quiet down and almost silence itself. This is a sacred and connected silence…It’s like a deep, still pond reflecting the stars of the night sky. I believe this is the baseline for human consciousness, and I’m convinced that the birds are the best mentors in the natural world for bringing us to it.”
~ Jon Young, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World

We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface hidden tension that is already alive
~ Martin Luther King Jr.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Note: the bold in the above sentence is mine.

Resources to re-connect: http://8shields.com/ (there are many resources and training for those who can pay, for those who can’t, follow my other blog https://ethicalpathways.com/ and connect with me!

3 Comments on “On Inner Work, Activism and Privilege

  1. Silvia, I always look forward to your posts, knowing I will find deep, thought-provoking reflections. I appreciate this important and honest discussion about the necessity of beginning the journey of change by looking within and connecting respectfully with each other (as in all others without exception) and with the earth.

    Today I discovered a resource and I thought of you. I read a fascinating article by Maria Popova about a new book by Peter Wohlleben that might interest you, “The hidden life of trees: What they feel, how the communicate.” Here’s a link to her article: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/09/26/the-hidden-life-of-trees-peter-wohlleben/. I’ve ordered a copy of Wohlleben’s book and am anxiously awaiting it’s arrival. I’ll be working with a colleague to see how we can interweave this into the course on social justice we’ll be co-teaching this semester.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I would love to read that book too. I have read articles based on that and there is a botanist here in UBC who has specialized in tree life and talks about how trees care for their own and share…we have so much to learn from Nature!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s astounding how little we really know about the amazing magic of nature. There’s another book that I discovered in Popova’s article, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.” I suddenly find myself fascinated by science again, wondering why I ended up in social work. Maybe it’s to explore what humans can learn from nature.

        The observation in Popova’s article about the different lifespans of humans and trees intrigues me. Perhaps understanding the wisdom of living as nurturing inclusive communities takes centuries to evolve. Tress have had that time (sometimes) but humans haven’t unless they grew up in cultures close to the earth and passed down that wisdom in stories generation after generation. The willow in my front yard has probably lived more than 100 years, silently watching with plenty of time for deep and careful reflection. I wonder what it has witnessed – how much pain and joy it has experienced. Perhaps I will write about that someday. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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