Solidarity as a Spiritual Practice

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Greenfield, MA

My sermon is about solidarity as a spiritual practice.  Solidarity, a word that connotes unions and public activism is becoming my primary spiritual and intimate vow, and I’d like to share some of my journey to and through this vow. I‘m intrigued by the blurring of the political and the intimate –and the possibility that my spiritual and activist practices are in fact the same.

I learned how to dowse with dowsing rods about 15 years ago.  I’ve dowsed my way to many experiences and people. And now I’ve dowsed my way to this practice of solidarity –and my rods are quivering, so I’ve started to dig deep. I’m seeking luminous water.

My vow

I first started mulling over the meaning of solidarity in a spiritual context when I made formal vows to uphold the Buddhist precepts about 4 years ago.

Some of you are likely familiar with the general outline of the 10 Buddhist precepts –they are not so different from Judeo-Christian and Islamic commandments and other spiritual ethics. They include prohibitions on stealing, being stingy, lying, speaking badly or blaming others, getting angry, misusing sexuality, and using intoxicants.

I had a marvelous period of studying the precepts with my fellow practitioners. We spent a month studying each precept from multiple angles.

When we had a public ceremony to make our vows to these precepts, we also made 4 additional commitments which we had barely discussed. These 4 commitments come from the Council for a Parliament of World Religions and concern worthy things like equality between men and women, non-violence, tolerance and truthfulness, and, the one that most caught my attention, sustaining a culture of solidarity.

Let me step back for a second and give some context to these 4 commitments: In 1993, faith leaders from 40 spiritual traditions tried to see if they could agree on an interfaith global ethic and they succeeded, arriving at these 4 commitments that have since been signed and adopted by thousands of global religious leaders and congregations. I suspect for many congregations, they are something of an ethical appendix that remains more or less unexamined, as they were for us.

During my precept ceremony, I was fine making these 4 global interfaith commitments but knew I still needed to define for myself  the meaning of “a culture of solidarity.” I am protective of words like solidarity –and want to be true to their full power and not water them down- solidarity is a big commitment. Putting the group before the self, or even better dissolving the boundaries between the group and self. This commitment also seems like a rich portal for exploring the very nature of the bodhisattva path, the path of ending the suffering of others, and understanding the elusive phrase, collective awakening.  I had a feeling solidarity would point me somewhere I needed to go. And so I embarked on learning what solidarity means and on better understanding how I can fulfill my commitment to it.

Gestures and meanings of solidarity –gleanings

When I hear the word solidarity, union songs come to mind, “Union Maid,” in particular. “I’m sticking with the union…till the day I die.”

More recent images also flood me: Argentinean workers taking over factories and turning them into worker co-ops, as chronicled in the fabulous documentary “The Take.” Or Liberian Muslim and Christian women led by Leymah Gbowee, one of the women who got this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, coming together and saying no to war lords who were recruiting boy soldiers and raping and doing unimaginable violence and corruption. Working together, these women were a powerful and ultimately successful force of resistance. I learned about their movement in a documentary I recommend highly called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”

Solidarity is clearly about building the power of those who have not had power.

Solidarity also refers to the emotional quality that emerges when working closely with others towards a focused goal of collective power. Love happens, what is referred to in the Brazilian Landless Movement as mistica. This emotional quality, this mistica, circulates and mobilizes people and inspires humility and courage. It is a key part of the energy that makes this work so worthwhile.


When the Occupy Movement first emerged, I saw cardboard signs and heard people say that they are “in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.” This is a nice way for people to offer support, saying: We see you! We agree with you! We’ll send socks!

And yet I found myself initially feeling separate when I spoke this way-as if Occupy Wall Street was THERE in New York and I was HERE in Greenfield–I felt separation, and didn’t know how to really feel Occupy in my body. The solidarity I want is not peripheral, it is center. It is a practice of being. I am fed by connecting to Occupy, which to me is a huge rhizome-like circle of solidarity.  I AM Occupy. When I claim this, I light up a point on the circle. I expand the circle. I don’t put myself in a secondary role but rather step up, sustaining this big huge circle. Though of course I see that there is a time and a place for more local circles, a time to send socks. Now I know that I can do this more powerfully when I offer solidarity from a place of center, not periphery. When I AM Occupy,  my whole being lights up and affects my posture!


I have studied puppetry for a few years–puppeteers are taught to pay attention to essential gestures of a character. If solidarity were a character, it would include some of these gestures – a black power fist; the gesture of arms linked in a chain. Also offering bread on two open hands, providing the material support for those who are on the frontline. I want to suggest still another gesture, two hands cupped like parentheses making a circle that has an opening.  A circle that is created through truth telling and trust-building practices of communication. I have experienced this form of solidarity in council practice, which I will speak more about shortly.

These varied gestures raise an interesting question about solidarity –is solidarity an inherently separating and divisive practice, for instance, separating the 99% from the 1%?  I’ve heard a few people say they are sad about the oppositional energy of the Occupy Movement, preferring a movement for the 100%. Can we have practices that challenge unequal power and yet are fundamentally about connection and integration and widening the circle? I think we can –especially if the intention is set.

This is why many of us return again and again to study social movements rooted in deep religious practices –African American Civil Rights for one. And Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement in India.

Solidarity is power in the service of love.  Solidarity means working to make a group powerful with the intention of shifting the very nature of power.  It is a classic deconstruction. Strengthen the weaker part of the power dynamic in order to dismantle the dynamic entirely. I think Occupy has held this balance and this intention brilliantly. Of course there are many aspects of Occupy. But, I see a lot that moves in this direction of collectively naming the NO and enacting many YESES. There is a recognition of power –deeply entrenched institutional habits of control- and there is also an intention to create new systems of working together. Systems that for the most part are infused with gift-giving, democracy, and inclusion. They are powerful to experience, and they inspire mistica.


I have another association in the context of solidarity that just won’t go away.  It goes back to my first experience of hearing a real sermon –it wasn’t in a church, it was in a university classroom 20 years ago. A professor spoke and for the first time I felt my world had been named.   She spoke about the lines between the intimate and political. She spoke about truth telling –and the way North American girls start to disconnect from what they know at adolescence. And most adults conspire in this to perpetuate a disconnected culture. Adults for the most part do not make a safe space for voice, and so voices goes into hiding.  In the absence of resonance, voice recedes into silence. The professor was Carol Gilligan, and this work is beautifully described in her book, The Birth of Pleasure. Her more recent book is called Joining the Resistance and is about the importance of listening and speaking in ways that allow for truth telling –I find this work so powerful. It links democracy and love. Gilligan says voice and relationship are antidotes to personal and cultural disassociation.

I see this as relevant to the practice of solidarity, because it is a practice of love – coaxing someone’s truth out into a space where it can be held with care. And sharing our truths. Truth telling is inherently relational. And we surely need the full force of relationship to resist power abuses and to develop healthy new worlds.


I want to tell a personal story that embodies my current practice and understanding of solidarity. It’s a story about creating power in service of love and about a space and technique of truth telling and relationship.

Almost every Saturday I sit on the Greenfield Common at noon for Meditation-Occupation, one of the projects loosely affiliated with Occupy Franklin County.  A group of us started showing up for this regularly in October and without making any kind of formal commitment, we just keep showing up week after week, regardless of weather.

Yesterday was a typical scene from the past few winterish months -to avoid the cold ground, eight of us pile onto the picnic bench. This week we left our usual bench on the border of the street to sit at the bench that is in the center of the common, under the eagle’s wings and the marble obelisk. We huddle close. Lance is our timekeeper, keeping an eye on the Greenfield Savings Bank digital clock. We sit in silence for 30 minutes, signs propped against us that say Occupy Everywhere! We are Geenfield’s 99%. One No, Many Yeses.

The wind is fierce, signs are flying. One flies right back up into Jeff’s hands. We sit exposed and together. Even sitting cross-legged on top of the picnic table I feel grounded. My legs are wrapped in my sleeping bag. I become bigger than me. I am an eight person being on that bench. There is warmth even if we aren’t physically touching.  I have a deep feeling of mistica, that emotional quality of solidarity.

After we sit in silence for 30 minutes, we shift into a circle and do council.  The Arts Block Café kindly offers us a table for this so we’ll be out of the wind this week. Council practice means speaking and listening from the heart –not speaking back to one another, not needing to agree, but sharing our voices. Each week our theme for our council is simply “meditation occupation.”   We use my bracelet as a talking piece, and we lean back and make a resonating chamber between us.


While I value all the Buddhist precepts –my commitment to help create and sustain a culture of solidarity is my primary vow and practice.   As with any vow, I fall short often. And I return to it, just as I return to my breathe when I get lost in thoughts during meditation.

I vow to help create a culture of solidarity. In my lineage, we say after making a vow: Will you maintain it? Will you maintain it? Will you maintain it? Yes. I love the repetition, the deepness of what it is to make a vow. I vow to create a culture of solidarity.

And this is how I maintain it:

Meditating –building concentration, being in my body, centering my power.

Being part of listening and speaking circles in council and other practices of deep listening, resonance, and truth telling. The circles need to keep expanding until they include everybody.

Naming and grieving spaces where I cannot tell the truth, and, if I choose to stay, finding creative ways to stay whole and subtly shift the space.

Working with others to build power in a group that does not have an equal say at the table. I approach this by trying to deeply feel and embody the connection I have to the group or issue, moving from emotional periphery to center, grounding any oppositional work in the service of love.

With my dowsing rods and my digging, I have caught a quick glimpse of the luminous water I am seeking.  I suspect I will need to keep dowsing my way back to that source again and again. Back to luminous water. The play of sunlight on water. The play of spirituality and activism. Becoming intimate with the underlying dynamics of all human struggles, facilitating truth telling, and when possible, building collective power in the service of love.

Closing Words for the Service

El Mundo Zurdo (the Left-handed World)

The pull between what is and what should be. I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world, that traveling El Mundo Zurdo path is the path of a two-way movement -a going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world, a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society….Only together can we be a force.

-Gloria Anzaldua

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2 Responses to Solidarity as a Spiritual Practice

  1. Sarah Bliss says:

    Karen, thank you. Reading your words of truth, I find a place of breath, a place of meeting and remembrance. Remembrance of What Matters. What it looks like to take the time and do the work to make a life of both personal and social meaning. Thank you for listening to your wisdom telling you that you needed to learn to dowse, and then for choosing over and over again to dowse. For picking up the stick and trying again when the path becomes unclear, for believing that you will find the way.

    Thank you for modeling courage, commitment, and love.

  2. lea tenneriello says:

    Yes Gloria, this weaving in and out of self and the world is essential for me too. I am equally inspired by the Occupation Movement, I have visited several and found a wonderful collection of reflective, non violent young men there. It was a joy and privilege to be a part of it, to write about them and support them in the vision and practices of a new/old way of being: sharing and taking right action. I wrote a piece about how the practice of meditation and activism are natural allies for me. It’s available if you e-mail me.

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