Download a pdf of this Practicing Democracy Guide.
A fundamental value of American democracy is the common good: that which is beneficial for all members of the community. Upholding it entails placing the good of the country and its collective citizenry above our individual interests — a goal of advocacy and outreach work. Here are some practices that encourage democratic virtues like fairness, social conscience, service, and civic engagement. They can help us walk our talk in support of the common good.
1. Do a Self-Assessment
Whenever we embark on an advocacy or outreach project for civic engagement a healthy dose of self-awareness is helpful. Our self-awareness can start with acknowledging our feelings, underlying needs, passions, motivations, recurrent patterns/triggers, misconceptions developed in childhood that influence how we perceive, etc. Many spiritual traditions share a conception of an ego/lower self and a higher self — or a clay, i.e., earthly nature, and an angelic nature. Regardless of our religion, spiritual path, or lack thereof, we can benefit from considering which part of ourselves we’re coming from. We suggest periodically setting aside time to engage in self-awareness practices.
- Consider (or journal about) these questions:
- What am I feeling? Needing?
- Does this feeling and underlying need relate to something I feel passionately about? If so, what passions are at play here?
- Have I felt this way before? Rarely or repetitively? Does the present scenario relate to something in my past?
- Which of the following statements best fits my current state?
I want what I want.
I want what you want.
I want what we want.
I want what is in the highest for all beings.
- Given all of the above, what is my best sense of whether I’m operating from my ego/lower self or higher self? If I were to guess, would I say that I’m operating from my mind, my heart, or my soul?
- When you have a sense of coming from your ego rather than your higher self, set the intention to connect your ego with your higher self. Think of your ego as a dear friend — a friend who can help and support you, and who can also get you into a lot of trouble. Approach your ego as if you’re talking to this friend about where to go and what to do. Agree to something your ego wants, like eating a bowl of ice cream or watching a favorite show, and require in exchange doing something that feeds your heart and soul -- like fasting, sleeping/eating/talking less, going on retreat, or doing some other form of worship or spiritual practice. (Be honest with yourself about what feeds your heart and soul deeply, and give yourself that.) Take an action that helps calm your ego, while keeping in mind what your ultimate, highest goal is. Take an action that moves you toward that goal.
2. Examine Your Motivation
Do we approach advocacy for and outreach to others like a mission in which our sole purpose is to convert them to our beliefs and priorities? Or do we approach our work on behalf of the common good with a sincere desire to follow the example of our spiritual teachers’ humility and love for neighbors in a life of caring, selfless service? Whether we intend to focus on humanitarian aid, community activism, or simply fulfilling our civic duty, examining our intention for our actions helps determine whether or not we elevate beauty, harmony, and justice in the lives of those around us.
In Divine Therapy & Addiction, Father Thomas Keating, founder of the Centering Prayer Movement, points out that even with religious practices we can have “mixed motivation.” Before you take on your next advocacy and outreach efforts, reflect on your real motivation, the deeper intention behind your actions, words, and thoughts. Make your reflections a necessary part of your answering the call you hear for healing, transformation, and service. Make sure to repeat this reflection periodically, so that you are aware of any changes to your motivation and any adjustments you’d like to make. You might also offer a prayer along these lines, “O Beloved God, powerful over all things, please direct me toward what You like and approve of in my words, actions, deeds, intentions, and courses of action.”
3. Face the Fear
Fear seems to be back in the United States — fear of being replaced, of corrupt government, of pollution, of not having enough money, of high medical bills, of change, of threats to our beliefs or ways of life, of challenges to our identity, of the unknown or unfamiliar. To be effective in our advocacy and outreach, we need to be aware of our fears and how they influence our thoughts and actions. This self-awareness can be helpful in recognizing the fears underlying others’ behavior, too. In Sacred Laughter of the Sufis, interfaith minister Jamal Rahman suggests the following:
"On a piece of paper, make a list of individuals and authorities who have induced fear in you over your lifetime. Awareness is empowerment. In the next step, close your eyes and talk in the imaginal realm to the person or authority that generated the fear in you. With compassion for self and from a place of higher awareness, say whatever your heart desires. End your expression with an affirmation of letting go of your fear and release the person who induced it to the realm of Spirit. In the last step, burn the paper as an act of purification and release.
"Make a list of people in your life whom you consciously or unconsciously manipulate through use of fear. Reflect on ways you can minimize the fear tactic and replace it with something more life-affirming."
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh recommends focusing on the here and now as an antidote to fear. You might try his suggestion for getting in touch with the present moment — bringing the mind and body into synchronicity by concentrating on your breath as you breathe in and out.
4. Learn to Say No
In 365 Prescriptions for the Soul, retired pediatric surgeon Bernie S. Siegel writes about feeling overwhelmed:
"When you are feeling overwhelmed, stop and ask yourself why you find you are feeling that way. Who created the situation that you find overwhelming? If it was someone asking for your help, why didn't you say no? If you feel overwhelmed because of all the things you have undertaken, when will you realize that you have needs too?
"Becoming angry or resenting your family, co-workers, and the world in general will not solve anything. Only you can change things by accepting your humanity and asking for what you need. Remember that saying no to others is saying yes to you.
"No matter what you learned growing up, there is no reason to feel guilty about caring for yourself and your needs. When you do start to take better care of yourself, you will find much more peace with the world and the people in it. Instead of blaming them for your troubles, you will realize you are the problem and you are also the solution."
Siegel offers this solution: “Become more aware of your needs. Ask for the help you require, and say no when you need to.”
5. Recite Mantras for Loving-Kindness
In loving-kindness meditation, you start by sending loving wishes to yourself, then to loved ones, friends, supporters, etc., until you send loving wishes to your enemies and all beings. In Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place, Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein cites these mantras as examples for loving-kindness meditation: “May you be happy; may you be free of mental and physical suffering; may you live with ease.”
Goldstein reflects on the difficulty of wishing happiness for those who have harmed us. Rather than focusing on those whom we might want to exclude from wishes of happiness, he encourages us to consider what our wish is for the world. Then our wish for the world can include those upon whom we might have initially wished suffering. Goldstein offers his mantra for this sort of loving-kindness meditation: “May you be free of hatred; may you be free of enmity.”
Take some time to reflect. From the place of deep heartfulness and inner wisdom, ask yourself what is your wish for our country? For our world? What phrase can you use as a loving-kindness mantra to orient yourself toward this wish? Once you’ve created your own mantra, write it down. Put it in your wallet, on your refrigerator, on your computer, or wherever you’ll see it to remind yourself of what you’d like for our country and our world.
6. Recognize the Intention Behind Anger
Do you feel anger in response to the words and actions of people with different political views from yours? Sometimes overwhelming frustration? Perhaps even rage? When we enjoy the democratic value of popular sovereignty and endeavor to make sure our voice is heard, our feelings of anger can get out of hand, and then those feelings do inevitably hinder our effectiveness. Managing our reaction to others can start with knowing what type of anger we are feeling.
From a psychological perspective, there are many types of anger: assertive, passive-aggressive, chronic, self-abusive, volatile, etc. Recognizing how you regularly experience anger can be helpful. For example, identifying whether you internalize anger or direct it outward toward others, and whether you’re more prone to express your anger verbally or physically, can tell you whether you need to watch out for self-destructive behaviors or for what you say and do to others.
From a spiritual perspective, the types of anger include righteous anger, ego-/lower-self anger, and anger associated with a dark/evil influence. The first type of spiritual anger, righteous anger, is often an appropriate reaction to circumstances. Righteous anger can be good in that it can give us the energy and motivation to "speak truth to power" and to fight for justice. The second and third types often become intertwined and can be detrimental to our effectiveness. When we feel anger from our ego-/lower-self or "dark" anger, we often lose our self-control, or at least our sense of being centered, grounded, and aligned with our higher purpose. When we’re experiencing anger of this sort, it can easily build until we’re like a ball being bounced and kicked every which way.
From both a psychological and spiritual perspective, recognizing the intention behind the anger you are experiencing is also important. For example, if the underlying motivation for the anger you’re feeling is to punish or retaliate, you will want to take steps quickly to redirect your feelings toward a productive intention, such as to resist injustice, or to repair relations. The following practices may help us restore our sense of direction:
- Change your position. If you’re standing, sit down, and vice versa. If this change isn’t enough, change your location. If you’re in the conference room, go to your office, or go outside, etc.
- Go splash cold water on your face, or perform the ablutions associated with your spiritual path with the intention of purification and dedication to your highest pursuit.
- Start paying close attention to your breath. Exhale your anger. If you find it helpful, pair the exhalation with an internal mantra or a visualization of pushing the anger out of your body down into the earth. If this doesn’t work, give yourself permission to try other ways of releasing your anger, such as a physical movement (done in a safe way), through drawing/painting, or through sound in a suitable environment.
- Practice forbearance, i.e., restraint, tolerance, and forgiveness. Start with imagining a sphere of merciful and loving energy extending from your heart to contain you and your feelings of anger; the hurt and other feelings, needs, and longings beneath your anger; your underlying motivations (whether positive or negative); etc. This is a container for holding, i.e., it isn’t for changing anything. Then visualize that sphere of merciful and loving energy extending from your heart to contain you, the other person(s) involved, and the overall situation. Practice restraint by not acting until your energetic heart is containing both you and the other(s). After this merciful and loving energy has expanded to contain all parties, practice tolerance of differences and disagreements, and forgiveness by letting go of the offense(s).
7. Practice Patience
Have you been to a protest when the person calling for civility was screaming angrily? Or have you ever been so impassioned about making your point that you forgot to stop talking so you could listen to what the other person had to say in response? Often, we bring passion to our activism and outreach efforts but fail to bring a healthy dose of patience.
We can draw inspiration for patience from our spiritual teachers, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has taught — and modeled — that our enemies teach us patience, that even in the most harrowing circumstances we can respond with compassion, forgiveness, and love. Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan taught that the foundation of patience is hope. Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine taught that patience is the companion of wisdom. Muslim judge and teacher Shaykh Muhammad al-Jamal taught that patience is comprised of faith and gratitude. Meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran notes that "when you are able to be patient with others, you can be patient with yourself, and that will give you all the inner support you need to persevere and make the changes you want to make in your life."
These perspectives on patience raise important questions for us. How much faith do we have in American democracy? In our citizenry? Have we lost hope for an America that reflects our democratic values and virtues? Do we remember all the things we’re grateful for about our country? Are we as impatient with ourselves as we are with others? Do we have the inner support we need to approach our activism and outreach with compassion, forgiveness, love, and wisdom?
Here are some suggestions for cultivating patience:
- Reflect on the questions above. Jot down your answers. Then spend a few minutes contemplating where your faith and hope is strong. Brainstorm ideas for what you can do to strengthen your faith and hope even further. Pick a few of your ideas and follow through on them.
- In your journal or on a notepad, write in one column the things in your life that regularly trigger your impatience. In a second column, write an attitude or action that could help you slow down in that situation. At the start of the day, make an intention to be more patient. See what hindrances come into your mind. Write those down too.
- In her book, The Power of Patience, M. J. Ryan offers some helpful suggestions on how to practice this virtue. Here are two of them:
- "Thank others for being patient when you've been the one fumbling for the right change and holding everyone up. It will defuse their tension and yours, and perhaps encourage others to do the same."
- "Ask for help. Lots of times we are impatient because we are overloaded. There's no prize at the end of your life for doing so much, particularly if you do it in a frazzled state."
- Finally, here's a practice from the Buddhist teacher Tenzin Palmo: "When the traffic lights are red in New Delhi, they display the word 'relax.' Every time you come to a red light, instead of grinding your teeth, try seeing [the red light] as an opportunity for practice. Connect with the in-going and out-going breath. Be one with the breathing." Once you’ve gotten pretty good at relaxing at traffic lights, start practicing the same breathing and relaxation technique when you hit the metaphorical red lights in your life — when your project keeps getting delayed, when you don’t get the response you wanted, when your candidate doesn’t win, etc.
8. Develop a Plan for Disaster Preparedness
Many of our American democratic values, like freedom, liberty, justice, and the common good, involve caring for both ourselves and our fellow citizens. A great way to practice democratic virtues like adaptability, caring, cooperation, courage, empathy, generosity, perseverance, and service is to make a spiritual practice of preparing for and responding to disasters.
Visit the disaster preparedness sites of your choosing (such as https://www.ready.gov/) to develop and implement your plan for disaster preparedness. Whether filling sandbags in advance of flooding, or putting earthquake kits together, involve family, friends, and neighbors, and offer a mantra, prayer, or hymn of hope, faith, and trust while engaging in your preparedness activities. Likewise for your response activities — whether planting trees or getting involved with your local humane society (or area animal disaster group) to help animals displaced by wildfires — involve others and offer a manta or prayer while you work, like "God be with all the beings in need and with those offering help."
9. Promote Equality
The democratic value of equality, as espoused in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, takes practice. It’s one thing to believe that all humans are created equal, but it’s quite another thing to strive to see that equality manifested for everyone. Here are our suggestions for practicing equality:
- Attend a protest or rally with the intention to go beyond the experience of two-sidedness to an experience of the inner oneness behind the outer multiplicity; rather than clutching a sign that depicts your side’s position, symbolize your intention to experience oneness by holding a basket, holding your hands open, or holding up your index finger.
- Attend a protest or rally with the intention of being for something you have in common with the "other side" rather than being against something. Practice honoring your personal experience as well as hearing the other side’s feelings, needs, and longings for themselves, their loved ones, and their community.
- For every person you see, repeat a silent mantra that affirms your equality, like “She is a holy jewel, just as I am,” “I listen for the voice of God in his voice, just as I listen for the voice of God in my voice,” or simply “She is just like me.”
- Think of some names for God that are meaningful to you, such as The Compassionate One, The Good Shepherd, the Source of Justice, my Beloved. Practice visualizing one of these names in the eyes and heart of each person you meet throughout the day, especially when you are involved in advocacy work.
10. Replenish Yourself
Citizens engaged in advocacy and outreach work may be some of America’s greatest patriots. At the same time, activists and outreach workers can focus on others’ experience of equality, freedom, liberty, justice, etc., to the detriment of their self-care. In her book Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, Dr. Joan Borysenko, a pioneer in integrative medicine and expert in the mind/body connection, offers numerous suggestions for recovering from burn out and restoring balance. She posits that burnout comes from “learned helplessness” and suggests the following to help us create flourishing and fulfilling lives:
- Reflect/journal on what motivates your work.
- Cultivate mind-body awareness. Practice “letting go” as a source of energy rather than pushing your agenda.
- Regularly schedule activities that bring you pleasure, such as dancing, dinner out, hiking, camping, and entertaining.
- Regularly reflect/journal on what’s going on in your life and how you feel about it. Then, reflect/journal about how you are using your energy — what drains you and what restores you. Make changes based on this self-assessment.
- Reflect/journal on a time when things were going well for you. Recall activities you enjoyed doing at that time of your life. Choose one and put it on your calendar.
- Identify your social support system and use it. “If you don’t have the support you need, make a plan to get it.”
- Reflect/journal on what is burning you out, who is burning you out, and why. Then imagine letting go of this what/who/why.
- Practice compassionate/loving-kindness meditation for yourself.
- Track your food and your mood for a week. Commit to eating foods that help you feel good and letting go of those that don’t.
- Consider whether you need professional help, and get it if you need it. Ask a family member or friend for help identifying appropriate professionals who you would like to be part of your self-care.
- Reflect/journal on what means the most to you and how you can bring more of it into your life.
- Take a personality test or some other means to help you understand your personality, needs, and motivations. Appreciate your uniqueness, and do your best to make choices that suit who you are.
- Remember when you felt joy, enthusiasm and passionate energy for something you were doing. Ask yourself how closely that situation fits with your present work and adjust accordingly.
- Practice being present throughout your day: focusing on the present moment without concern for the past or future (such as by concentrating on your breath).
- Write your own eulogy and epitaph as a way of giving yourself direction and focus.
11. Live in Someone Else’s Shoes
In 101 Exercises for the Soul, Bernie S. Siegel writes, ”to truly be an activist, you need to understand what others are feeling and sincerely care about them and their plight. What you do not experience can be difficult to fully understand. Tourists and natives live a very different experience. I know as a doctor that I did not truly understand my patients' experience until I was a patient. When you step outside of your own experiences, you broaden your perspective and begin to take on a humanistic approach to life.”
Siegel recommends the following exercise:
"Choose someone whose life is nearly the opposite of yours and visualize yourself in that person's place; become aware of how you feel and how the person might feel and why. What difficulties does this person face that you don't? How would you handle them if you did? When you acknowledge those with more troubles than you and reach out to help them, it provides your life with meaning. By becoming unselfish in thought and deed, you take the emphasis off your own troubles, and when you do this, you will be surprised by how much better you feel about your life.
"The next time you see or meet someone who is down on their luck, think of what that must feel like and how the person might have gotten there. Be kind. If you offer nothing more than your time and thoughtfulness, you will make a difference."
12. Act and Pray
In An Invitation to Christian Yoga, Reverend Nancy Roth suggests the following for bringing together our inner life with our outer actions:
"Look for connections between your actions and your prayer as you go about your daily activities. ... A prayer of cleansing and healing as you shower. Prayers of intercession for each member of your family as you fold their newly laundered clothes. Prayers of protection for the environment as you work in the garden or walk to work. Prayers of thanksgiving for the gifts the earth provides as you prepare food.
"Then connect your prayer to your life in further ways, through simple actions. Express your love for the earth by planting a small organic vegetable garden or growing some herbs in flowerpots on a window sill. Express your solidarity with the poor by volunteering to work in a soup kitchen one day a week, or by refusing to buy food items that are produced in dehumanizing conditions. Express a sense of human community by writing a "thank you" when one is not necessarily expected, or by telephoning a lonely acquaintance. … Express joy in God's creation by going for a walk and really noticing things around you. … The prayer that inspires action and the action that inspires prayer will become a 'yoga,' as they intertwine in an ongoing rhythm of unity in your life, expressing what you know of God's life within you and within the world."
13. Volunteer Your Time
In How to Be Happier Day by Day, author and lecturer Alan Epstein advocated volunteering as a means to joy. Epstein had this to say on the topic:
"There are an infinite number of organizations or services that would love to have you spend a few hours helping them, so pick one and pay a visit. Think of what you would like to do to help the organization and feel good about yourself at the same time. Is it sitting with a few elderly people and listening to them tell you about their lives? Delivering supplies for a homeless shelter in your community? Or answering the phone for a local fundraising project? At any given moment, a project that you would like to see become more effective could use your help. If you only have an hour to give, then give an hour. If you can devote some time on a regular basis, your cause would find that most welcome."
When you volunteer, think about how much pleasure you are deriving from your efforts and how much they are appreciated. Volunteer at the same place, or spread your time around many causes, whichever feels right.
As Epstein wrote, “there are an infinite number of organizations or services” that would benefit from your time. Here is a list of possibilities to get you started.
- For an accessible and invaluable toolkit for fighting institutional racism, visit this page.
- For help practicing social responsibility in how you spend and invest, visit this page.
- For a catalyst to use places of worship to provide sanctuary for immigrants and refugees, visit this page.
- For counsel on the importance of justice regarding the source of your food, visit this page.
- For a pathway to building your network for social action, visit this page.
- For ideas for strengthening democracy through water-focused civic engagement, visit this page.
- For a catalyst to respond to the U.S.’s income inequality with democratic values like common good, equality, and justice in mind, visit this page.
- For ideas for designing a service day to benefit your coworkers and community, visit this page.
- For proposals for bringing your work together with your favorite causes through employer donation programs, visit this page.
- For suggestions on listening to the exploited and persecuted, visit this page.
- For encouragement to connect your hobbies with the causes you support, visit this page.
- For a call to use faith community property for a community garden, visit this page.
- For observations on recycling and how to take our efforts a step further, visit this page.
- For encouragement to discover the indigenous story of your neighborhood and to honor and preserve Native American culture, visit this page
- For inspiration to march or demonstrate on behalf of the groups and causes you support, visit this page.
- For a call to participate in ensuring corporate ethics, visit this page.
- For urging to provide health care advocacy, visit this page.
- For provocation to consider your part in pollution and to make the changes that reflect democratic values, visit this page.
- For a prompt to consider advocating for affordable housing, visit this page.
- For a prompt to review and implement Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and human ecology, visit this page.
- For motivation to contribute to prison and detention center reform, visit this page.
- For encouragement to use the Earth Charter for action guidelines or resource, visit this page.
1. To see how the spiritual practices we have suggested in this guide, as well as others from your own experience, relate to Democratic Values, Virtues, and Spiritual Practices, see this chart.
2. For more resources related to the Practicing Democracy Project, visit this page.
3. To download additional Practicing Democracy Guides, visit this page.
4. For stories about how individuals and groups are practicing democracy, visit our blog.
5. For a Student Activist Starter Guide, visit this page.
6. For more on fear, visit this page.
7. For more on loving-kindness, visit this page.
8. For more on anger, visit this page.
9. For more on patience, visit this page.
A collaboration between Spirituality & Practice and the Fetzer Institute, The Practicing Democracy Project offers resources to strengthen and deepen the way we live out democracy. These spiritual practices help us do the work both in ourselves and in relationship with our neighbors and communities. Some practices enhance or support the essential civic virtues and qualities of American democracy, such as respect and service. Others help us deal with problems and obstacles that depress democracy, such as anger and rigid thinking. The Project offers spiritual practices and resources for all of us — from advocacy and civic organizations to congregations and companies.
This Practicing Democracy Guide is copyright ©2020 by Spirituality & Practice (SpiritualityandPractice.com), a multifaith website presenting resources for spiritual journeys as part of the Practicing Democracy Project. The guide was researched and written by Habib Todd Boerger, a 2018 - 2019 Practicing Democracy Fellow. Democratic values, virtues, and spiritual practices chart researched and created by Habib Todd Boerger.
Cover photo credit: iStockPhoto.com
For more information on the Project, visit PracticingDemocracy.net.