Living Out the Tension: Spirituality, Self-Care, & Activism in Action by Chris Ash

“Great art is not a matter of presenting one side or another,
but presenting a picture so full of the contradictions, tragedies, [and] insights of the period
that the impact is at once disturbing and satisfying.” – Pauli Murray

 Christy CroftMy spirituality is inherently creative. Deep in the creative process, I open more fully to awareness of what is flowing around and in and through me. When I can get there – to that place of fully giving myself over to Spirit as a channel, vessel, and embodiment – creation itself becomes an act of prayer, of devotion, of intense ecstatic ritual to honor, grieve with, or celebrate the Ground of Being behind all expression. I craft, dig, carve, build, dance, drum, and sing. Mostly, my art involves words – spoken and written – to create moments, spark feelings, paint pictures, or shape ideas. Words carry tremendous meaning, unconsciously as well as when we use them consciously, with intention.

My spirituality is inherently personal. While I’m a mystical thinker prone to the kind of abstraction that finds beauty in universal connections and layers of thought and cosmos, the questions that always draw me back into Self are these: How does this grow me? What am I learning that helps me be a better person for myself, my family, my community? How does this enhance my well-being, bring me contentment, or give me tools or strength to expand beyond the trauma, grief, and sadness of paying attention – really paying attention – to the world around me? Does this fill me with more to spill out into the world? More love, more beauty, more passion and fight and solidarity?

Canvassing against NC's Amendment One in 2011
Canvassing against North Carolina’s Amendment One in 2011

My spirituality is also inherently political. What good is my well-being if I cover my eyes to the pain of others, or bar my own doors against those seeking shelter from storms and terror and oppression? If we are of one essential substance – each of us a complex fusion of skin and Being and love and fear and carbon and stardust – then we must take to heart Lilla Watson’s recognition that our liberation is bound up in each other’s and heed Marsha P. Johnson’s insistence that freedom for some rings hollow without justice and liberation for all who are oppressed and marginalized. While part of my personal spiritual practice is beautifully, lovingly selfish, and I regularly seek ecstasy and contentment for the immediate impact they have on me, spiritually and psychologically, I also seek and crave a theology and practice that leaves me empowered to fight for my own freedom and yours. The alternative is to believe in a higher power that loves me more than you, some of us more than most of them, and the powerful more than the broken, wounded, kicked, and discarded. If we are one substance, then that which hurts and harms the marginalized hurts and harms all of us, even when we think we’re the ones in power or that we have the majority.

This is true for our words as well, in the way they shape ideas and carry meaning. It is true in the way our words are acts of creation – creating love, laughter, hatred, tension, or acceptance. We know better, most of us who fancy ourselves enlightened and socially aware, than to use discriminatory slurs. Still, words rooted in oppression have worked their way into our language in subtle, less overt but potentially harmful ways. We may not be aware that using words in these ways desensitizes our culture to real problems faced by real people, or maybe we’re still working to break habits, or maybe we simply don’t know what to say instead. Still, we can listen, and we can learn from others.

It is true in our actions – the outer expression of our inmost beliefs, thoughts, and ideals. The enmeshed nature of the path towards justice holds true when we hold vigil for loved ones lost or abused, when we vote, when we march, when we organize, and when we are disobedient in the most urgent and fierce and tender ways. It is true when we reach out from our own brokenness and pain to link arms with others whose experiences are unlike our own, each of us fighting for each other and ourselves. It is true when we listen to what we are being told by people who face different forms of discrimination than we do, without dismissing, justifying, or talking over.

Labyrinth activity at a retreat in Miami, 2003

My spirituality is personal, creative, and political, acknowledging that we are no less connected in matters of social justice and liberation than we are in conceptual ideals of love, oneness, and compassion. My spirituality has room for visualization, thoughts, prayers, candles, rituals, positive thinking, and holding myself and others in the light. It also has room to present and receive the kinds of truths that disturb us and shake us loose until we shiver and ache with desire to act up, get loud, and rage on. It has room for expansive bliss and ecstatic oneness and exquisite joy; it also has room for the kind of holy discontent and sacred grief that has historically propelled the bend in the arc toward social justice.

For those of us who pursue mystical union but also remain committed to confronting the very real beliefs and behaviors that contribute to power-over, poverty, and pain, there may always be tension between inner and outer. There will be times for preserving our well-being through self-care, gentleness, or refusal to engage with those who come at us to batter and belittle. There will be times when we take our rage and heartache with us into whatever rituals heal and soothe and comfort us in our woundedness. And there will be times when we push back against injustice with a mighty power that far exceeds our own human strength. I pray each day for the wisdom to know when to expand and when to contract, when to protect myself and when to fight like hell.

Author: Chris Ash

Chris Ash is a writer, teacher, and leader whose practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. They have facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, parent, and friend. Their research interests include spirituality, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy. They live just outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, surrounded by academics who think they're a hippie and New Agers who think they're a nerd. They remain fully committed to being both.

4 thoughts on “Living Out the Tension: Spirituality, Self-Care, & Activism in Action by Chris Ash”

  1. “My spirituality is inherently creative.” And very well-worked here and innovative your meditation, regarding the outer expression of our inmost beliefs, thoughts, and ideals, thanks so much Christy. I think just making art can be an act of peaceful resistance — so important to our world, so helpful. It’s absolutely true, that saying by Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.


    1. Thank you, Sarah! I do feel like some of my art is for me and me alone, but so much of it can be a healing act of resistance. These words, written last week, are weighing heavily on my heart today in the wake of new acts of violence — how to find that balance between inward-focused spirituality and activist and social justice oriented spirituality. They’re both so important for me. They both have such an important role in cultural and communal healing. Thanks for being a part of that dialogue.


  2. This is a beautiful piece, thank you! Your second paragraph about personal spirituality resonates deeply with me; and I love the questions you pose because they are so familiar. Blessings!


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