Talking or Tying Shoes?

By Robert Rabbin

I was recently speaking with a friend about Radical Sages. She is an energy healer who has been certified in various forms of counseling work, all of which aim to help people live more authentic and compassionate lives, in harmony with nature.

As I spoke, I put my usual emphasis on merging insight with action, of embodying and demonstrating universal spiritual principles, of needing to engage the issues of the day with wisdom and compassion--and also with strength and direct action on behalf of our spiritual values. In order to do this, I said we have to awaken to the world around us. I suggested we spend at least one hour a day reading independent media accounts of current events. I said listening to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! should be as much a daily spiritual practice as scriptural reading and meditation. I invoked Dr. Huston Smith, who said the goal of spiritual life was "not altered states, but altered traits." I asked her what an authentically spiritual, wise, and compassionate life looked like. How is such a life behaviorally distinctive?

"I don't want to get into the issue of abortion, or whether we should invade Iraq, or what we should do with our tax dollars. I don't want to polarize people or antagonize them by taking a partisan stand. I want to help them recover their soulful knowledge and respect for the Earth. I just want to call people to their higher self." So do I.

And I want to know what recovering soulful knowledge and respect for the Earth looks like in action. I want to know what calling others and being called oneself to the higher self looks like when it comes time to make a mindful, conscious choice.

On Tuesday, I gave a talk to members of the San Francisco chapter of Spirit at Work. I quoted a few passages from my book Igniting the Soul at Work. In one chapter, I recalled an experience that made me realize there is, in fact, a behaviorally distinctive quality to the higher self, to expanded awareness, to wisdom and compassion:

I once witnessed a spectacle of silence in the Berkeley Community Theater. Every one of the 3,491 seats was occupied. On stage sat Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Next to him sat a young woman. The monk spoke about mindfulness, about awareness, about respect for each other and all living things. He spoke slowly and quietly. From time to time he would fall silent, and the woman would pick up and ring a bell that rested on the floor in front of her. The reverberations of the bell could be heard throughout the auditorium and felt within each person's brain, stimulating perceptions of intuitive subtlety.

Thich Nhat Hanh's talk was less about information than experience. The words were like a tour bus carrying the audience to ancient sites of meaning and depth and beauty. Though the bus was still and unmoving, we traveled far and saw much. Anyone could have dropped a tack or a nail file, even a piece of paper, and the noise would have seemed loud because the silence was so great.

After some time, I felt the audience breathe in unison, a meditative breathing, a breathing that connected us together and to the awareness of which the monk was speaking. I thought I was sitting in the mountains at twilight, when life itself begins to creep from its hiding places like a deer come to drink from a lake of pentagrams and stars.

Even when speaking, the monk was silent, was silence. In order to hear his words of silence and the silence within his words, the audience had to be silent and become silence. It was a spectacle. We were embraced by silence and thus set free from agitation, from separation, from duality. It would have been impossible for any anger or cruelty to arise in that community. It would have been impossible for anyone to harm another in any way.

I cannot conceive of wisdom, compassion, or the higher self existing independent of such a behavioral display. Though we didn't get around to asking what his "stand" was on current hot button issues like abortion and war, I know he is on record as saying, "Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to life." That seems pretty direct and unequivocal to me. I cannot imagine the good monk not saying those words, even if they might antagonize someone who profits from harming humans and nature. Insight and action are as inseparable as flower and fragrance. I respect Thich Nhat Hanh for both his wisdom and his position on right livelihood. Actually, wisdom and right livelihood are not two separate things, but one thing, without separable parts.

I have been a student of mysticism almost my entire life. There was a time when I, too, thought it was enough to call people to higher ground, to inspire their innate goodness. I have noticed, however, that for most people, including many highly evolved spiritual teachers and healers, that behavior lags far behind rhetoric. We may speak in angelic phrases, but where do we put our feet? We may invoke higher consciousness, but where do we invest our money, where do we go to work, what products do we buy, and for whom do we vote?

A disciple was getting ready to help his Master get ready to deliver a lecture. His friend asked, "What is it about what the Master says that makes you go to so many of his talks?" The disciple responded, "I don't go to hear the Master talk. I go to watch him tie his shoes."

I love this statement by Ram Dass, "Science and religion both teach that we are all interconnected, and thus interdependent. And at the very core, we are all One. But how do we live as if we know this?"

How do we live as if we know this? If we are alive, we make choices. What are they? And, should we not, as spiritual beings seeking to heal a troubled world, put our own choices, our own behavior, on the line as examples of higher consciousness?

Robert Rabbin is a San Francisco-based writer and speaker. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and the founder of RealTime Speaking, an online hub of global spiritual activism. For more more information, please visit

Copyright © 2005 Robert Rabbin, All Rights Reserved