Across the land there is a palpable yearning among people for a new consciousness to overtake and transform the world of politics. We hunger for something real and true to emerge in the arena of politics; not a politics that dishonors and degrades us, but a politics that mirrors our goodness and our highest possibilities.
I recently was speaking with a bright, articulate young woman, a spiritual seeker attuned to the world and current events. She told me that she’s not drawn to running for public office because it seems so incongruent with her values. She believes in the political process, in democracy, but she also believes that in order to be in politics you have to sell out and compromise on issues that you deeply believe in. Playing the political game, she said, is so far removed from her ideals that she simply refuses to do it.
By contrast, all my life I have been drawn to the political arena and for several decades have lived my life deeply in the two domains of politics and spiritual practice. I have been a legislative aide on Capitol Hill and in the California State Legislature. I have served as a county Democratic Party official in Silicon Valley, and on the executive board of the California State Democratic Party. As of December 2015, I am beginning my 26th year as an elected official in San Jose/Silicon Valley, as a Trustee for the largest high school district in northern California, the East Side Union High School District.
From two profound life paths of politics and spiritual practice, I have come to know that the personal and the political are one. There is no separation between the two seemingly disparate paths of politics and spiritual practice. To wit: Politicians can be real in the presence of harmony, approval, abundance, and clarity. You and I will err and lapse into unconscious, regressive behaviors when compressed in the crucibles of life’s challenges and conundrums.
The truth is, when baptized in the archetypal fires of Life, we are all spiritual beings and we are all politicians. Politics has a high purpose. It is the handmaiden to democracy, just as democracy is the handmaiden to the human quest for freedom and the soul’s yearning for liberation. Stunningly, 3 what politics offers at its core is what life offers at its essence – connection, communication, conflict, discovery, and growth. Politics, at depth, is a generative force. It propels us into contact with our human family and illuminates the diversity of worldviews in our midst. The massive convergence of energy in the public process, representing a spectrum of constituencies and beliefs, is combustive and alchemical. The stuff of politics – how we communicate, how we reach agreements, how we are with each other – is the very stuff of life.
There is a pathology in politics that is undeniable, but it is magnified to a degree that obscures the affirmative essence of politics, which is just as real. Politics is permeated with opportunism, unethical dealings, and lack of authenticity. It is distorted by special interest money and toxic campaigns. Yet, there is a vast faithfulness, decency, and appropriate functioning that is just as evident in the public process. Today we are mixing and confusing these two elements, the pathology of politics and its life-affirming essence.
A massive shift in consciousness is needed, not just in politicians, but among the people too. In the late 20th century we witnessed the beginning of a journey to wholeness in our culture, encompassing an integration of rationality with heart and spirit. Millions of “cultural creatives” emerged in our communities, people committed to universal spiritual principles and a more wholistic life path. The zeitgeist of the 21st century will take us further, toward an integration of heart and spirit with power. In the original Sanskrit, “sacred” and “spirit” derive from the same roots as “power.” We can rightly say that to be in the Sacred and in Spirit, is to be aligned with Power.
For spiritual seekers the embrace of power is like eating of a mythical forbidden fruit. Just as the ego is discomforted by paradox and spiritual practice, the spiritually awakening soul is discomforted by the practice of power in the real world. With that, we fall short as stewards and co-creators of a new world. Love is the essence of creation, but it is incomplete in the manifest world without our active participation as co-creators. Literally we are not able to be stewards of the earth, until we are stewards of the energy we call Power, until that is real in our person and our lives, personally and communally. The combined energy of Love and Power is a different consciousness, a new creative force. Expressed authentically from the Self, it is transformational, alchemical, mysterious, and divine; it transcends and transmutes seeming realities, facts, and circumstances. What does it mean to partake of that mythic, alchemical apple from the forbidden Tree of Life? Fundamentally, it signifies a loss of innocence. Love without Power revels in innocence; it lacks a fully formed spiritual and emotional body capable of greater co-creation in the world.
Power without love is self-serving and fundamentally in opposition to the evolutionary spirit moving us toward surrender, radical awareness, liberation, and transcendence. Lovelessness and powerlessness are at the root of much suffering in the manifest world. It is crucial, then, that we come home to a realization and integration of both love and power in our lives.
Needed: A New Cultural Story About Politics
We have a cultural story that says that being a politician is about manipulating others and eroding one’s ideals. We have a cultural story that equates power with corruption, often summed up in the quote: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lastly, we have a cultural story that says one must not compromise one’s principles, and that is what is required to be successful in politics.
These themes comprise a simplistic and destructive cultural story that is literally blocking transformational manifestations in the world by dissuading conscious, talented people from public leadership. We urgently need a new cultural understanding and a new mythos of political leadership, and even more so regarding the elemental energy of “politics” that manifests in all fields of human endeavor.
There is something quite beautiful about authentic political practice; it is enlivening, connecting and a basis for genuine growth. It operates on honorable principles of “Visibility”, “Mutual Regard”, and “Transactions with Others” that stem from a healthy self-interest and interdependence (more on this below). This practice doesn’t seek perfection or a utopian world. Rather it calls us to live from authenticity and wholeness in relationship with others, in the face of ongoing challenges and even escalating tensions. Increased participation with others brings challenges that are opportunities for personal and collective growth, for authentic communication, for the birth of mutual respect and partnership, and for genuine community. Provocative topics become windows to deeper insights, pathways to truth and wholeness, and a journey that unites both heart and mind.
A New Mythos of Political Participation
I propose the concept of the “sanctity” of politics based on a deeper meaning of participation. At depth, participation in the public process is about encountering the self and engaging the other in the context of Life Itself. When we meet each other in the public square, it is in the context of our soul’s journey in the labyrinth of life. At depth we are souls-spirits, yes – and we are ego personalities as well, enmeshed in psychological patterns, defenses, and shadow energies, consciously or unconsciously seeking wholeness and atonement (atOnement).
As we engage one another, we project archetypal energies and psychological dynamics into the domain of others, energies that are combustive and alchemical in nature. No matter how conscious people are, friction arises in group dynamics (more so with increasing scale and complexity), just as it does in personal relationships. When we fully grasp the reality of these archetypal energies and psychological dynamics, and their expression within us and in relationship with others, we will realize that we’re exactly the same as politicians and politicians are exactly the same as us. We have universal human responses when confronted with tension, looming conflict, vulnerabilities, challenges, and conundrums. We have universal human responses when we are in the presence of approval, support, clarity, abundance, safety, and love.
A new mythos of political participation calls us to live from an orienting spiritual precept, the innocence of our souls. Even when we lapse into unconscious behaviors and relate from fear and deep-seated psychological patterns, we’re still ultimately innocent and worthy of acceptance and love. Everything in relationships is expressing love or a cry for love, no matter what behavior is manifesting in the moment. Our archetypal and psychological energies will come into play at all levels of engagement with others – whether as partner, friend, or family member; or in more complex, public institutional spaces and societal arenas. These inner forces are activated because they have an evolutionary purpose.
This purpose is expressed in the second spiritual precept of a new mythos of political participation: politics is an alchemical cauldron of relationships that serves our soul’s journey of awakening to our deepest nature, our truest Self. Something intrinsic in us and in the design of Life wants to engage us, befuddle us, break us and defeat us, for a high and noble purpose. Life’s radical and loving purpose is to awaken us through ordeal to a mysterious, universal essence and power within us. We cannot know this if we are “in charge”, if our personal will and power is what prevails on our life path. Seen in this light, the intensity of challenges and conundrums inherent in politics offers an unparalleled field for personal and collective transformation when engaged consciously.
As we venture outward beyond ourselves, we will encounter greater levels of complexity, tension, challenge and conflict. Our ego-mind will reflexively want to use it all to judge and separate, to defend and protect its position, and to fancy itself as right and superior. Yet, at the level of Spirit and universal consciousness everything is unfolding in the realm of grace. Spirit seeks to use everything for our awakening, for a journey of ego death and spiritual rebirth, and ultimately for the emergence of the true Self within us.
What is missing in many visionary approaches to politics is a grounding in Life Itself, where conflict, power, and compromise are seminal, transformative forces. The reality is that the 6 political, public policy arena is filled with difficult, intractable problems for which there is insufficient public consensus. The public process is constantly bringing people to the table on issues about which they have reasonable and passionate disagreements.
Ultimately, participation with others is about taking a radical stance of love-in-action, which is the third spiritual precept of a new mythos of political participation. An authentic politics makes love real and personal; it is an ongoing challenge of relationship and communication in an arena where you have to truly love people as they are. In turn, we are gifted with generative experiences as we allow others to truly touch us with their truth, their life experience, their humanity, and their essence, and as we respond in kind.
A New Civic Literacy
Democracy is more than a system of government and more than politics. Democracy is about the emancipation of the human spirit, the culmination of centuries of the evolution of human consciousness. It calls for a higher, more authentic form of political practice arising from greater literacy about the arts of political leadership.
In the modern public square we relate with one another from a distance, rarely knowing each other directly and personally. Rather, we are known to one another through the reality-distortion fields of the media. We end up with caricatures of ourselves and rarely truly know who others are. A new civic literacy is needed based on invoking communities of mutual regard that connect the leaders of community constituencies at a much deeper level of relationship.
An authentic politics is based on three core practices in the public process: 1) Visibility, 2) Mutual Regard, and 3) Transactions with Others. People who are not visible to others in an arena of action, who do not extend regard to others or receive regard from them, and who do not transact with others, are simply irrelevant in the exchange and accumulation of local goodwill (i.e. political capital), and in the exercise of community influence and political leadership. Self-evidently, it is not unethical to be visible, to extend regard and receive it from others, and to transact with them. A community fabric is woven through these practices, and a web of relationship and life is established and sustained.
The principle of “Visibility” says that in every area of the public process there is a civic village of public process practitioners, a discernable, human-scale community where you can deeply know others and be intimately known by them, providing alchemical possibilities for partnership and change.
The principle of “Mutual Regard” says that we are ALL worthy of recognition and respect, even those with whom we passionately disagree. This does not support self-righteousness or demonizing others.
The principle of “Transactions with Others” says that life is about a constant give-and-take. Robert Bly, in Iron John, quotes Jung: “Jung remarked that all successful requests to the psyche involve deals. The psyche likes to make deals.” Transactions, agreements, and “deals” yield community goodwill and generate political capital, which is the coin of effective political leadership.
If truly the path of salvation in our time encompasses public policy and politics, then a contingent of conscious servant-leaders needs to embrace the disciplines of this path, persevere over time, acquire genuine regard and influence within the community of political practitioners, and ultimately leverage their positions on behalf of a higher order of public policy and political leadership. It would signify our transition from advocacy to governance, from petitioners to policymakers, and from simple visionaries to leaders and co-creators.
Ultimately, an authentic political practice needs to be integrated with the truest expression of Power, the power of the innate within us, revealed as Spirit essence arising to meet the moments and circumstances of our personal and public lives. This would herald the re-birth of Spirit in the public square and the full emergence of Love and Power as a creative force for the transformation and stewardship of planet Earth.
Excerpted from J. Manuel Herrera’s forthcoming book, “The Reconciliation of Love & Power.”