Evolutionary Activism — A Bodhidharma Strategy

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. Such stories suggest a broad approach that evolutionaries can adopt:

  1. Become Bodhidharma.
  2. Help create enlightened sustainable solutions— ‘spare parts’ for 4-quadrant systems redesign.
  3. 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 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 advisors, 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 & water use, but also to financial & 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:

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

Please share your responses and contributions below!


Hi Terry, I can't believe how

Hi Terry,
I can't believe how timely your email was regarding engaging in enlightened politics. I am currently enrolled in Craig Hamilton's Integral Enlightenment course and am engaged in group discussion about the evolution of political engagement. As a political and social activist, often frustrated with the dominant paridigm of protesting 'against' and reacting 'to', I am inspired by your ideas and would love to engage with other like minded souls sharing a similar journey. With gratitude,
Wendy Goldsmith
London (the little one) in Canada

Lha Gyalo! May The Deities

Lha Gyalo!

May The Deities Prevail!

[ Tibetan, a joyful shout one can hear in the Himalayas when a traveler has arrived at the top of a peak, or has reached his or her destination after arduous travel. ]

Best with Blessings,
Nancy Ash
Spiritual Evolutionary Collaborator,
The Land of Enchantment, New Mexico

An inspiring vision


You are creating a compelling vision for how integral can take hold and change culture. Loving it!

I agree with your observation about how activists "fail to become deep and wise." I have known activists to be enmeshed in the "activist" archetype - they seem to be more interested in activism than the actual cause.

As you so eloquently state - it starts with the individual's willingness to continuously evolve and become self-aware.

I am particularly juiced about your thoughts on leadership:

"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."

I agree - cultivating integral leadership is critical.

Keep going, Terry! I look forward to hearing your dialogues.

Well said...

Nice work, Terry.
I especially appreciate how this approach to politics and activism can be extended in so many ways, in so many areas.
Ultimately, I see your three injunctions as a way of being in the world, in whatever capacity we might find ourselves; a map of engaged participation in this very life.

Terry, Thankyou ...for words


Thankyou ...for words that clarify and make manifest concepts that sometimes feel exhausting and intangible these days. Timely, simple and expansive words that are deeply wise and beautifully practical.
I was at your workshop in Dublin, Ireland last year. That half -day opened the door to Integral for me and I found my home!
I have been working with a colleague on bringing Irish and Icelandic artists, leading edge thinkers and innovators together, as citizens, to look at our culture and shared experiences as countries who have experienced huge affluence followed by collapse. The project has been deeply informed by integral to date and your piece offers us a perfect 3 part strategy as evolutionary activists to proceed.
I would love to know a little more about No 2. "Help create enlightened sustainable solutions—‘spare parts’ for 4-quadrant systems redesign."
I would be grateful if you could direct me to more reading or you can expand on it a little more.
Hope you get back this way soon.
p.s Your description of becoming “Bodhidharma” lit me up! "Practice, grow, evolve, mature into the deepest, clearest, most powerful, authentically wise, trustworthy, skillful and persuasive human being you can be."


here we are then
the bickering of the news
the small daily job
the slowly confident selection of a communal future in which we comprehend our role.
we are humankind defining itself in our own life.

a friend in germany linked me to many youth in Kashmir on FB. they are under violent seige by Indian troops. Amnesty Int has asked India to not be so violent. we talk on FB a lot. i try to suggest moderation when the words are hate filled as some of them are - watching their civilian brothers and mothers and fathers killed violently - others chime in to agree that hate is not the way.

some of us are part of the next wave of evolution which will be the evolution of a cooperative intelligence. mankind has experimented with freedom - our next step is universal cooperation. we do not know the overall trajectory - only where we stand in the flow.


enjoyed you passionate rant once again Terry!
great to feel you livin' out your life so fully and benefitting others
in the process.
miss ya!

Add a point 2. Organize a loving sangha

Great point - and I will suggest that you add a point as number 2 to the strategy: "Organize a loving sangha".

For a number of reasons this is indispensable:
First: Who is today the emperor whose ear we want to gain ? The emperor is the organized majority of any population, of any board etc. And love is the only one thing, that can trump the fear that is so easily aroused now in the majority, or the greed that seems to fill all the spaces between the frenzies of fear.

We don't gain the ear of that "Emperor" with sophisticated arguments or deep wisdom. We may gain it by demonstrating that the insight we want to share, is of practical value in the one field, that can make any person ignore fear or greed, and that is LOVE.
We must develop families or communities, where it is directly perceptible that this is a place so full of love, joy and laughter that it can make a majority of people want to to investigate it and join it or create something similar.

Second the growth of the Buddhidharmas is greatly enhanced, when it is mutual - That means supported, inspired and encouraged by a community.

Third, notice the word organize. Communities need organization, and there are techniques and models that need to be developed and articulated.
Todays dominating organizational models are outdated, rigid and counterproductive to the change we want to bring about. We shall develop and demonstrate new models of organisation on the small scale - in our communities - and we will inevitably notice if they succeed in helping love grow. And we shall show these new models to the mighty "Emperors" of larger populations, that need to see the pattern of new models of organisation, before they can let go of the old and rigid ones.
Frands W F.

Evolutionary Activism

Hi Terry,

With others, I've very much appreciated your Evolutionary Activism vision and practical blueprint for strategy. I'll be very keen to join the dialog.

As you know, (but for others here) I have recently started an Integral Life Practice circle in my rural home town and twinned it with the Transition Town movement (Rob Hopkins). It's going well and I look forward to chatting with you about it as the year unfolds. So much of your article resounds with my experience of the group, even though we are in embryonic form at the moment.

Cheers, from Australia,
Di Shearer

clear seeing

Terry, I've been digging into the futurist literature lately, and woke this morning pondering how to describe the leaders that would be ideal to engage in a positive futures scenario building exercise. Your metaphor of Bodhidharma is terrific!

Love how clearly you articulate the dilemma, the metacontext, and a proposed path--right to essence. Refreshing.

Thanks TP


Thanks for laying out such a clear and workable approach to a basic integral engagement. I have recently been caught in the mire of confusion, indecision & subsequent inaction, as I make a transition in my career. I have been hesitating on whether my full blown engagement would be at odds with my spiritual focus - falling prey to the second trap you point to. You have just helped me see through it, and I am now feeling galvinised to get on and do what must be done to 'gain the ear'. Many thanks and warm regards, DG

Integral Good Works: In Discusssion


I'm facilitating an ongoing, public Integral discussion group in Boulder, Colorado.

We've been covering several challenging topics over the weeks that we've been meeting, and I wanted to share with you what our discussion topic will be for a session planned in late September.

When you gave your evening talk at Boulder Integral on June 28th, you introduced the subject of 'Integral Good Works'. As a previous organizer of social activist programs, I took special interest in your questioning "Where do we find Integral Good Works these days?" Though expanding the awareness of the evolution of consciousness, as well as promoting the understanding Integral Theory, are certainly aspects of "Good Works", what's clearly missing are well-crafted, 4-quadrant, planet-positive programs undertaken by integrally-informed people. Such programs would be first acknowledged by their greater public benefit, and only later by their forward-looking philosophy behind them.

I was also inspired by this blog posting on Evolutionary Activism, along with your 'spare parts' metaphor.

So the planned topic for our discussion group session on September 28th will be focused on your question "Where do we find Integral Good Works these days?". I'm expecting this topic to spawn lots of great ideas, as we have a pretty creative ongoing group.

In this regard, I'd like to ask if you have any particular sub-questions or issues that you think would be beneficial to present to the group on that date.


Some thoughts

I'm delighted that you're taking the consideration forward. And in many interesting ways!

Among the directions of inquiry that intrigue me are three that go something like what follows:

1. "What are the limitations of the best Integral Good Works we know of? What could conceivably remedy those limitations? If that more comprehensive Integral Good Works were to manifest authentically, what are some of the ways it would begin?"

2. "How might we take action now without the momentum of that service causing us to lose touch with our broadest perspectives?"

That is, what is the sadhana, the spiritual practice of active world-service?)

How can we begin doing tangible bodily service in ways that develop our capacities to serve more essentially, more effectively, on higher and more inclusive and more sustainably transformative ways?"

3. What forms of Integral Good works can we imagine that fulfill as many as possible of the following criteria?

* That confer concrete benefits to real people

* That operate not only concretely, but also structurally and systemically, and meta-systemically ("changing fishing conditions altogether" rather than merely "teaching people to fish" or "giving them a fish")

* That require high level (vision-logic) to conceive
(probably by embodying high-level service at the level of action and consciousness while working to transform culture and systems)

* That can make a real difference to the human prospect relatively quickly

* That can be seen as doing so by others, and that can be recognized as operating in a way that is new and interesting

* That are expressed via a culture of service that is itself happy, fun, conscious, and transformative

Integral Good Works: In Discusssion

Hi Terry,

We finally had the BI dialog group session with the "Integral Good Works" topic on 9/28/10.

Your questions and points were helpful, and the discussion went much deeper.

Ultimately, the challenge of being able to suggest examples of Good Works or to brainstorm ideas of such, brought the group to questioning if the validity of such service can even be effective on an Integral level. In other words, from the holistic perspective of Integral's acknowledgment of all stages of development, how can any beneficial or compassionate service operate at a stage other than where the objective situation in need of help already operates at?

From the perspectives generated from this dialog session, I'm gravitating more to seeing that any Good Works that are specifically identified as Integral would need to uniquely function according to your suggestion as "Killer Apps". In other words, they may need to be limited to revolutionary information collection projects such as The Synergy Engine or the Holocracy Project.

However, I'm personally not willing to top there. I suspect that this issue of Integral Good Works likely requires a reworking of some terminology or Integral Theory interpretation, in order to open the door for such beneficial service to seem like a natural calling for the Integrally Informed crowd. And if that were to occur, I could then envision, particularly through the personal experiences of ILP and a truly spiritualized Integral emergence, that feelings of compassion, good conscience, and a desire to meet life via a caring and giving impulse, result in numerous new examples of Good Works becoming a significant part of this growing movement.

I look forward to more discussion on this topic, which will no doubt be gaining in relevance and importance.


Called or not, the Gods will be Present.

In politics as in everday life, if you're not aware of the underlying motivations, desires, drives, and forces of things, they still operate none the less. Therefore, one means of Integral Good-Works would be to reveal these underlying patterns, and make them conscious.

Where it (id) was, there I shall be.



Thank you for this wise and inspiring article. Like another commenter, I too find myself in the "either-or" struggle of inner versus outer life, as it seems so hard to develop them in balance. This post reminds me that "both" is always the sane solution, no matter how challenging or messy it may be.

You write: "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."

As a student of, ardent believer in, and nascent practitioner of integral approaches, I find the term "trans-enlightened" to be particularly problematic--not just here, but throughout the Wilber-derived integral canon. Can you please explain:
1. How one becomes trans-enlightened (or acts from a trans-enlightened view) without becoming enlightened first.
2. If, as you suggest, we need to develop all three steps simultaneously, assuming that the vast majority of us are not (aware of the fact that we are) Bodhidharma, what makes our efforts to create sustainable solutions or gain power and influence any different than any of the countless unsuccessful ones that have come before?

Many thanks- James


Great post, Terry! Thank you for outlining this so clearly.

PEACE for every day life.

Accept PEACE as blending of SCIENCE OF SPIRITUALITY WITH SCIENCE OF MATTER for practicing Buddha's principles in day to day life.Develop self-consciousness and develop empathy for all to be at peace.Put your MIND OVER MATTER AND NOT MATTER OVER MIND.Get rid of anger, jealousy,selfish attitude and replace these negativity with love,tolerance,affection, positive emotion etc to heal,purify and unify yourself with Absolute Energy of Consciousness so that you live in peace and provide an environment for others to live in peace.Always share and care for harmonious living.
I have authored two books published by authorhouse,Bloomington,Indiana,USA. If my dear friends, you agree with my views,I will share the books with you.
Prof.Fani Bhusan Das
Professor of Peace & Ekistics

Lost Traditions

I didn't know this "bushy-eyebrowed sage" did not bring Buddhism to China.. *laugh*. Chinese martial arts are however nowadays something very far away from the origins of Buddhism. Traditions are lost.. I hope not for ever! Warm R. Akanato

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