Our society, our species and our planet face a number of severely grave problems that threaten our survival. Social injustice, including all forms of hatred and oppression, along with ecologically unsustainable practices, dominate our lives. The number of people living in poverty is increasing. The levels of racism, sexism and other forms of structural violence tend to intensify as the economy falters. Climate change, pollution and the misuse of our natural resources have already devastated our planet’s ecology to such an extent that some scientists predict we only have a few years to turn the situation around.
While things look bad, all is not lost yet. We can greatly improve our situation and change the world through a relatively simple set of practices that I want to outline here. These practices are so elementary that we can use them in our everyday lives. Yet they can be so profound that they amount to a revolutionary spiritual awakening.
To do the right thing I sometimes stop what I’m doing out of habit, contemplate the (often unintended) consequences of my potential course of action and consider the ethics involved. When I change my behavior and put my values into action, I’m engaging a process philosophers sometimes refer to as praxis.
Praxis is an ongoing process of action-reflection in which our conduct is brought into alignment with our intentions. When we switch off that “auto pilot” that seems to run so much of our lives and act with conscious awareness, we have the ability to make the world a better place.
That awareness of our ability to create the world through our everyday actions is referred to as reflexive consciousness by sociologists, who also say that this form of awareness is not only uniquely modern but increasing. Supposedly earlier humans did not really grasp how the structural features of their social worlds were the direct consequence of their actions. The structured nature of their social worlds was simply regarded as “the way things are.” To borrow sociological language, society’s structure we’ve seen as “external to and constraining of their actions but not really meaningfully connected to them.
This leap in consciousness and realization that we make the world through our actions compels us to act with intention. When we re-evaluate our habitual actions and choose to change the way we do things, and thus put into motion our most cherished values and ethical standards, we are doing praxis based on reflexive consciousness.
Most likely, you are like me and hope to create a better world, a world that is more just, more peaceful and more sustainable. In this essay, I want to encourage people to engage these “scared processes” in which we consciously evaluate the fairness, peacefulness and sustainability of our actions. Social justice ensures as an ideal the value of fairness in social relations, such that all people are accorded dignity and respect; are treated fairly economically and as people.
Peace refers to more than merely the absence of violent conflict and refers to a way of dealing with difference with compassion and equanimity. Sustainability entails deep concerns for the long-term viability of our ecosystem through using renewable resources, recycling materials and implementing other changes necessary for our planet to remain healthy. My vision of a better world incorporates these values and others.
Before we engage in the contemplative processes necessary for praxis and re-evaluate the consequences of our actions, we need to:
» 1) Know our values.
» 2) Have a vision of what a better world would look like.
» 3) Have knowledge about how our current actions contribute to social problems, social injustice and ecological devastation.
» 4) Accept responsibility for the state of our social world and our planet.
I want to emphasize here the spiritual potential of the praxis process. These moments when we pause and contemplate the “right thing to do” are scared because:
» A) We consider the common good and well-being of humanity.
» B) We accept personal responsibility for the state of the world.
» C) We use the spiritual practices of prayer, contemplation and discernment to decide which should be done.
» D) We acknowledge out complicity with “the system,” and acknowledge how our simple habits of life reproduce a status quo in which oppression, in justice and ecological destruction abound.
» E) We affirm the reverence of life through our intentional actions.
The emergence of modern life has led to a rapid and massive loss of traditions. This loss combined with our grave ecological crisis present us with an opportunity to create new ways of living and ways of being in the world. We must seize this change to recast how to live, thereby bringing forth the unrealized potential of our species.
The moment is undoubtedly real. We must now act with intention as a whole special, not merely doing what is best for our kin or clan, but what is best for all of humanity and for all the species of the Earth!
What an adventure we face! The changes required are vast, no doubt. Everything in the system must shift, including our perceptions of it. Our connectedness to our brothers and sisters, to all living beings and to the planet must be awakened and realized. To reach our fullest potential we must acknowledge our responsibility for the common good. No other option is possible. The time to act is now. We must act with intention and immediately change our way of life and ways of being in the world. My suggestion is that we embrace praxis.
Take a moment to contemplate the next right thing to do. Know that nothing less than the survival of our species depends on it.
— Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D., is a Santa Barbara resident and homeless advocate.