Evolutionary Activism

by Terry Patten -

At the Integral Theory Conference a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel on Integral Politics.

During the discussion, I found myself outlining a 3-part strategy for evolutionary activism—using the metaphor of Bodhidharma, the bushy-eyebrowed sage who is said to have brought Buddhism to China from India and to have founded Chinese martial arts at the Shaolin Temple.

The question I was addressing was: 
How can conscious citizens effectively help bring about a positive future in the face of our current crises and stuckness? Do we have a workable strategy?
According to ancient legends, certain Emperors of China ruled wisely and well, guided by the advice of great sages—including Lao Tzu, Confucius and perhaps also Bodhidharma.

A Bodhidharma Strategy

Such stories suggest a broad approach that evolutionaries can adopt:

  • Become Bodhidharma.
  • Help create enlightened sustainable solutions— ‘spare parts’ for 4-quadrant systems redesign.
  • Gain the ear of the Emperor.

Okay, let’s unpack that a little. First, some meta-context:

Evolutionary Urgency, “Pre” and “Trans”

One of the problems with conventional political activism is that it can be so painfully egoic. Egos commonly experience anxiety, and on that basis they feel an urgency to take action. But anxiety-based activism tends to recreate the disharmony that motivates it. 

If you’ve ever volunteered in a political campaign or for a political cause, you’ve probably come across the incredible narrowing of vision—and often the incredible lack of understanding or compassion for the “other side”—that accompanies these efforts, even if the candidate or cause is otherwise just. 

That anxious urgency frequently leads to unnecessary conflict, emotional burnout and even a disaffected cynicism that gives up on the very possibility of meaningful change.

Spiritual development awakens people beyond such urgency, conferring a great sense of relief as we recognize, deeply and truly, that everything, in a real sense, is perfect just as it is. 

Since ultimately, everything is Spirit or God, nothing really needs be done. “Non-effort,” or simply practicing a peaceful attitude in everyday life, is held up as the ideal. And this is a valuable and legitimate way of being, as far as it goes.

But the process of spiritual development doesn’t end there. 

It then awakens us beyond mere contentment and freedom from dilemma. It liberates us into a profound enlightened commitment to serve, a passionate participation in life that is capable of great urgency—a trans-enlightened urgency altogether different from the ­pre-­enlightened egocentric, dilemma-based urgency with which we began.

Our Evolutionary Dilemma

The very idea of a strategy for evolutionary activism may appear naïve, grandiose—or even dangerous, considering how frequently such grand idealistic aspirations have fed totalitarianism. 

Nonetheless, the continued survival and evolution of human culture may now depend upon us making a critical transition to sustainability—one that’s not spontaneously emerging via the market’s invisible hand, nor the wise decision-making of our economic and political elites. 

 The hardwired motivations of “the selfish gene” aren’t designed to meet threats like the depletion of fresh water aquifers, the resolution of culture wars or global warming. And the transition before us requires evolved leadership and an organizing rationale.

Therefore, responsible citizens need a credible strategy for enlightened action. 

In most of the world, and egregiously in the United States, vested interests and political parties are locked in zero-sum power struggles between traditional, modern and postmodern value structures. To resist the abuses of one inadequate approach often seems impossible except by contributing to another.

During the George W. Bush presidency, for example, I repeatedly found myself stirred to political action only to the déjà vu experience of my voice being drowned out by the roar of disappointing “progressive” (postmodern leftist) rhetoric. Resistance often seemed futile.

Efforts to enact enlightened reforms are necessary and laudable—but often extremely frustrating. 

To enact an integral evolutionary commitment we need a vision of how we can get past (or around) the current political and cultural stuckness that seems to make adequate responses to escalating crises impossible.

A “Soft Landing” for our Overheated Global Culture.

What’s the evolutionary objective for our activism? 

I suggest that THE political issue of our time is doing what we can to create a path to sustainability with minimal catastrophic disruptions. 

We should focus on optimizing global human culture’s passage through an epochal adaptive transition.

Since our current social patterns and habits are overheated and unsustainable, the goal is to transition as quickly as possible to more sustainable modes of living, while minimizing traumatic disruptions—it’s especially important not to trigger cultural regression (small or large “dark ages”).

Preparation is everything. 

Realistically, most well-informed observers believe that big disruptions are probably inevitable — huge shocks, disasters, and crises seem not only likely but maybe even necessary to catalyze the political will for us to change human choices and behavior. 

The “silver lining” is that these crises will punctuate our current deadlock and stuckness. Each will present “windows of opportunity” for more fundamental systems redesign.

In October 2008, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke, facing a liquidity crisis that threatened a meltdown of the world financial system, had an opportunity to consider heretofore unthinkable policy moves — even nationalizing the nation’s biggest banks. But they had to act fast.

That’s the way it is when a crisis hits. 

All of a sudden, huge changes are possible but urgency and fear are off-the-charts and there’s little time or bandwidth for deliberation.

What if, among Paulson’s and Bernanke’s circles of respected advisers, there had been a network of enlightened thinkers who had already thought long and hard about these issues? 

What if they had written white papers describing the kinds of solutions that could be considered, and what if they had thought deeply not just about how to successfully address the short-term crisis — but how to do it wisely, with a view toward long-term transformation?

What if, using grounded, well-informed, complex, nuanced, higher vision-logic, they had looked for solutions based on the following key criteria?


  • Seek policy solutions that would gradually move the US and world financial systems—at least incrementally—toward sustainability, increasing the likelihood of smoother transitions.
  • Avoid approaches that would merely delay key moments-of-reckoning, increasing the likelihood or inevitability of more disruptive adjustments.
  • Do so in a way that’s politically feasible given the current climate, but also pushes the body politic (and media) to grow in its capacity for more profoundly sustainable approaches to our most challenging problems.

With all that context and meta-context on the table now, let’s unpack the simple 3-part summary of the strategy outlined at the beginning of this post.


1. Become “Bodhidharma”. 
Practice, grow, evolve, mature into the deepest, clearest, most powerful, authentically wise, trustworthy, skillful and persuasive human being you can be. 
This is the essential foundation and it will last all of our lifetimes. 
Part of that life of practice take place in relationship to others. Help to co-create a wiser integral evolutionary culture—a conscious community of practice and civic responsibility. To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, the next Buddha—or Bodhidharma—may be a Sangha. This, too, is an essential foundation. 
Notice, it is not necessary to be Bodhidharma or “radically enlightened” but only to be authentically aligned with and engaged in the process of becoming that kind of being. 
2. Help create enlightened sustainable solutions— 
‘Spare parts’ for 4-quadrant systems redesign out of which we can gradually build more sustainable societies and that decision makers can draw upon as elements of responses to crises. 
This step includes a diverse array of “spare parts,” projects relating not only to sustainable energy or land and water use but also to financial and monetary policies, organizational governance, political reforms, as well as clarified higher values, culture and spirituality.
A key point here: Many individuals don’t self-identify as “leaders.” A truly integral evolutionary culture (rather than a merely intellectual movement) can contribute directly or indirectly to the process of developing them, including cultivating qualities of leadership even in individuals who may not be in conventional leadership positions. 
3. Gain “the ear of the Emperor". 
By this I mean, become credible, expert, influential, and powerful in the cultures and institutions with the greatest influence over high-impact decisions (or even moderate-impact decisions—we need engagement across all scales). 
If it’s not your dharma to become a decision-maker, become an advisor, a teacher or influencer of them—or an advisor to such advisors—or just serve such people. 
It may be your path to simply be a deeply conscious human being who helps create an integral evolutionary spiritual culture that nurtures and supports others who do this work. 
In any case, you can live a life that expresses a fierce evolutionary commitment to enable sanity and wisdom to guide human affairs. 


This 3-part strategy is simultaneous, not sequential.

You obviously don’t have to get enlightened before you work on sustainable solutions to practical problems, nor do you have to have enlightened solutions in hand before you gain access to power and influence.

If your intentions and behavior are deeply guided by all 3 of these injunctions, you won’t fall into the errors that have tended to thwart enlightened activism.

Activists generally make two errors: They fail to become deep and wise; and they tend to react against the abuses and errors of the powerful rather than guiding them skillfully. 

On the other hand, those who embrace the spiritual path make their own species of errors: They tend to avoid working “in the trenches” to forge detailed practical sustainable solutions; and they cede power to benighted egos for whom it is the only focus.

For enlightened responsibility to awaken in the human system, a new kind of responsibility must awaken in each of us—in me, and in you. 

We can’t delegate it all to elected officials and CEOs. The process will inevitably be messy and imperfect, so no single strategy sums it all up. 

But these 3 injunctions can guide us to good effect. To reprise them:
  • Become Bodhidharma.
  • Help create enlightened sustainable solutions—‘spare parts’ for 4-quadrant systems redesign.
  • Gain the ear of the Emperor.

Bookmark and Share