The 1950s and 60s witnessed the birth of an important movement within the Roman Catholic Church in South America. People engaged on the coal face of day-to-day hardship re-envisioned the gospel message in relation to salvation from political and economic oppression. The Liberation of the Israelites from Egypt and the Gospel message of Christ were viewed as narratives of freedom whereby “the downtrodden were lifted up” (Luke 1:52). With the birth of Liberation Theology in the works of Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez et al, past dogmas were no longer sufficient, and the rigours of true discipleship were now to be measured in terms of deeds or “praxis”. As Desmond Tutu powerfully observed; “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
For many Liberation Theologians, the biblical exodus was seen as an exemplar of what personal, economic and social freedom might mean. The exodus is the central example in the Old Testament of salvation history, i.e. the way in which God is seen as intervening in the life of the Jewish people so as to demonstrate his on-going covenant with them.
For the Liberation Theologians the movement from oppression and captivity, through tribulation and wilderness and then on to the Promised Land, provides us with a critical paradigm as to what the Gospel needs to embody. To speak of salvation without there being concrete transformations at a practical grass roots level is to utter empty words. These insights were such a direct challenge to the wealth and power of the institutional church, that leading thinkers (such Leonardo Boff) were silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Led by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict).
While the metaphor of a journey is often something of a cliché in spiritual communities, I believe that we can still make effective use of it when applied skilfully to our own life situations. In the case of the exodus story, rather than it being based on new age meandering, it was a journey that first required a rather stark awakening to the profound discomfort and oppression that the Israelites had been subjected to. Like the Buddha being profoundly awakened to the impermanence of the Universe, for us to truly pursue change and transformation we need to view our current dis-ease with open eyes.
If you are considering a journey of change in your own life, you might want to try this exercise that makes use of some insights gleaned from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). As is self-evident from its name, this therapy (developed by Marsha Linehan) seeks to use Hegel’s thinking on how processes of change occur (Dialectics). DBT seeks to work with the difficulties that we can arise if our thinking and emotions become polarised and cut off from each other. The therapy’s goal is focused on developing skills that allow the less connected aspects of ourselves to communicate more effectively. In DBT, as emotions and reasons are allowed to inform each other, so we begin to cultivate the deeper wisdom of what Linehan calls “Wise Mind”.
Draw a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper and on either side draw a circle that has enough space to write inside. Inside of the circle on the left, use words or symbols to describe the current situation that you wish to change. Like the Israelites or the Buddha waking up, we need to view our situation with as much clarity as possible. Some people find it helpful to imagine themselves viewing the situation as if it were occurring to a close friend: what would we feedback to them? How would we describe the nature of the problem or dilemma? What aspect of the situation is most changeable?
In the other circle use symbols or words to describe the situation that you wish to journey towards. As you see it in your mind’s eye, what things are you doing? Are you wearing specific clothing? What are your surrounding like? These can be vital questions in order to focus your desire
to see things change. It will also provide you with a goal (albeit a visualised one) that you can measure your progress against.
On another piece of paper re-draw these circles as intersecting like this:
So this is where the rubber hits the road! If we have connected to the situation we are unhappy with, and also have a clear vision about where we wish to journey to, how do we use the insights gained to actually begin to make it happen?
The intersection between these two circles is the synthesising point where our desire for freedom needs behavioural expression. In the same way that Liberation Theology places a firm emphasis on praxis, so the behavioural aspect of DBT would insist that we gain the greatest benefit when our longings are translated into actually doing something. The beginnings of this journey will often start with small steps that, when they are added together, can cause significant shifts within the eco-system of our current situations.
For example if we want to ultimately reduce a pattern of habitual/addictive behaviour that we feel is damaging us, how do we start increasing the positive new activity that we want to experience more of? If I want to reduce my smoking in order to improve my yoga practice, I might increase my practice at home or attend a new class so that I can maximise my desire to change the target behaviour (the smoking). By increasing my practice at home I’m reminding myself of why I want to reduce my smoking and by going to a (good) class I’m using the practice of others to reinforce my new activity and to provide myself with inspiration. This then acts as a feedback loop (or spell!) that helps me reach my ultimate goal i.e. being more healthy.
There are many types of response that can be generated by mapping out change processes in this way. As we let the dialectical tension simmer between what we want and where we currently are, numerous alchemical realities can be generated. We might realise that the change we want is actually something less radical (we might redraw our circles with new goals in mind). Seeing our current situation more clearly may help fuel our motivation and get us reflecting on whom we might invite to join us on this journey (other people’s circles begin to intersect with our own).
A psychiatrist once had a sign in their waiting room stating “Either way it hurts”; i.e. it hurts to change, it hurts to not pursue change. To think about change is never without risk, but the alternative of not seeking growth can be a slavery that most Gnostic explorers would struggle to bare.