Mysticism Meets Activism: Bridging the Gap Between Spiritual Heart and Social Change

Discover the intertwining of mysticism and activism. Understand the true essence of yoga beyond the mat, as a bridge to social change.

Connect Your Spiritual Heart and Your Activist Feet without Losing Your Balance


The Heart of Yoga and Universal Mysticism

The heart of yoga is mysticism, the universal experience of conscious communion with God or ultimate Reality. Mystics arise in all religions and spiritual traditions in all times throughout history. They are lovers of God, seekers of the highest Truth. We commonly think of mystics as yogis in the cave of samadhi, experiencing higher states of consciousness, or as saints from various traditions enraptured by direct encounter with God. We don’t often think of them emerging from their prayer chamber or meditation cave and walking right into the messy fray of public discourse let alone joining a protest march. Yet, we don’t have to look far to find them to draw inspiration from them. They shine from the West and from the East.


Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Mystic Activist

One great mystic who shows up as a model of socially engaged spirituality is Abraham Joshua Heschel. Read his writings and be introduced to the mystic heart: “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things… It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.” [1]

The iconic photo of him marching in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King and his commentary on that experience, “I felt my feet were praying”, demonstrates how our mystic heart can connect with our activist feet. Show up with a prayer in your heart and willingness in your feet.

A mystic bird perches on a tranquil, wet beach, embodying spiritual activism in its serene presence.

"I felt my feet were praying"

— Abraham Joshua Heschel

Paramahansa Yogananda's Stand on Racism

The great mystic yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, saw directly into the heart of Reality and recognized the truth that all people are emanations of one ultimate Reality. In light of that realization, he knew that racism was an outgrowth of ignorance. He didn’t hesitate to speak out against it, telling people that “Color prejudice is the most foolish of all man’s displays of ignorance. Color is only skin deep…To have any color prejudice is to discriminate against God, who is sitting in the hearts of all the red, white, yellow, olive, and black peoples of the world.” [2]

The Intersection of Contemplative Life and Social Action

For those of us on a contemplative spiritual path, finding the juncture of meditation, contemplative life, and social action can be a conundrum. When I talk to people lately, I find that many are concerned about social justice issues but shy away from engagement. Sometimes this is for good reason. After all, if we are sincere about cultivating a sattvic lifestyle and a peaceful mind, why risk losing our balance?

In an article, Let’s Stand Up Together, Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote about this reticence, noting several reasons why Buddhist practitioners might not enter the social justice arena. Among those reasons he cites seeing dharma as a path of personal happiness pursued in the privacy of meditation, fears that activism may disturb our peace, beliefs that getting involved with worldly events is ultimately getting entangled with illusion, or concern that we must not risk alienating others by expressing our convictions.

He issues a call to pay attention to the times and move beyond our resistance, stating, “We’re entering a turbulent time when it won’t be enough for us merely to adopt the dharma as a regimen of resilience, a means of maintaining inner balance against the shock waves rippling across the social landscape. We’ll need a bolder agenda, a program of collective resistance inspired by a radically different vision of human interconnection, one that affirms our duty to respect and care for one another and to maintain a habitable planet for generations yet unborn."

The Role of a Spiritual Leader in Today's World

Through my on-going efforts to lift up the power of nonviolence to bring forth positive change, I have stayed engaged in community and global activity over the years. Yet, it has been a while since I walked in a march or spoke out about injustice. Would I participate in the Women’s March? I went through my list of why not to do it. Then I came face to face with my conscience. For me, to not show up would be abdicating my role as a citizen and as a spiritual leader.

To engage in activism with a spiritual focus meant bringing the inner peace and insight I cultivate every day in meditation into the realm of social action. Isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t yoga about union? About erasing the imaginary line between the so-called spiritual world and our material existence? Once I surrendered to that call, I put my attention on how I would show up and on what I could contribute. That is where the poem, Forward Women, came from.

I wrote the poem, Forward Women, to help us take an empowered view of the many steps toward equality that women in our country have taken over time and the importance for us to keep moving in that direction. To not turn back.


Forward Women

We know we can do it

backwards, and in high heels

We can, but we won’t

dance backwards, ever again

Not to the back of the bus

Because Rosa took her seat

Not to the back of the line

Because Dolores walked in front

Not to be held down, even by gravity

Because Sally soared in space

Not to sit on the sidelines

Because Billie Jean won

Not to keep silent

Because Anita spoke up

Not to quit, not ever to quit

Because Hillary kept going

We do not wait for the lead

We will not follow

what is out of step

with freedom’s dignity

We do not wait for your lead

Wait to feel the pressure

on our open palms, or the

pull at the small of our backs

Now the lead rises within

The ache in our hearts

Clarity of our minds

Fire in our bones

We step forth,

Forward women.

We do not wait for you to lead

With sons and with daughters in hand

With husbands and with wives

Lovers and friends by our side

We march, forward women.

We do not wait for you to lead.

We are the lead.

Ellen Grace O'Brian

January 2017

Yogacharya Ellen Grace O'Brian speaking at the Women's March in San Jose, CA in 2017

Yogacharya O'Brian speaking at the Women's March in San Jose, January 2017


Embracing a New Era of Social Responsibility

A new book of my poems, The Moon Reminded Me, has been published. Many of the poems, and the book itself, are about bringing the light of our mystical hearts to shine into our everyday life. Mending a relationship, caring for the natural world, learning how to play, mourning the loss of a loved one, all the while paying attention to the divine presence that permeates our days. Mystical hearts, compassionate hands, activist feet. We can do it. We must.

I was honored to read my poems at the Women’s March in San Jose. Among those thousands of people, it was not difficult to experience the awe that Rabbi Heschel described as “an intuition for the dignity of all things.” It helped that the march was a rainbow of humanity, an ethnically and religiously diverse group including families with infants and elders in wheelchairs. Talk amongst the marchers was often punctuated with “excuse me” if someone needed to pass by or inadvertently bumped into you in the press of a crowd of thousands making their way through the streets on the way to Cesar Chavez plaza.

A front cover of Moon Reminded Me book of mystical poetry written by Ellen Grace O'Brian

As a poet, and an introvert, one of my favorite experiences of the march was reading the many handmade signs that people created. Many were calls to love and not hate, some were forceful calls to resist, others were obvious political opinion, and a few were really clever. My favorite was: It’s so bad, even the introverts are here. I could relate.

Next time, I may bring one that says: It’s so important, even the mystics are showing up.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1935), Chapter 5.

[2] Paramahansa Yogananda, from the article “Uniting Our World Family,” in Self-Realization magazine,(Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1992) p.5-6

Related Content

a photo depicting mystical poetry
The Power of Affirmation: A Daughter's Journey with Her Mother

The profound impact of affirmation unfolds as a daughter cares for her ailing mother, revealing deep spiritual lessons.

a photo depicting mystical poetry
Spiritual Poetry: Unveiling Enlightenment Through Verse

The profound interplay between spiritual poetry and daily life comes to light in this engaging conversation.

a photo depicting mystical poetry
Fire and Grace: Mystical Poetry Melds with Mesmerizing Music

The "Fire and Grace" event spotlighted Ellen Grace O'Brian's "The Moon Reminded Me," where her mystical poetry found a perfect harmony with live musical brilliance.

a photo depicting mystical poetry
Mysticism Meets Activism: Bridging the Gap Between Spiritual Heart and Social Change

Discover the intertwining of mysticism and activism. Understand the true essence of yoga beyond the mat, as a bridge to social change.

Stay Connected

Enter your email below to receive Illumination – inspirations, insights, and more from Yogacharya O’Brian to support you on your path of awakened living!

Questions? Comments?

We'd love to hear from you! Contact Us.

© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian