Contemplation and good citizenship

How mindfulness fosters healthy civic engagement

Donald Rothberg at the Sky Creek Dharma Center, where he presented a workshop on Sunday (April 3) and a talk Monday evening, in addition to his talk at Chico State Monday afternoon. The dharma center talks were sponsored by the Heart of the Lotus Sangha.

Donald Rothberg at the Sky Creek Dharma Center, where he presented a workshop on Sunday (April 3) and a talk Monday evening, in addition to his talk at Chico State Monday afternoon. The dharma center talks were sponsored by the Heart of the Lotus Sangha.

Photo By robert speer

Catch him next time:
Donald Rothberg will return to Chico on May 21 to do a day-long workshop, titled “Equanimity: Finding Balance of Heart in a Turbulent World,” at the Sky Creek Dharma Center (

Can citizenship be a kind of spiritual practice? That’s a question Donald Rothberg often asks, citing as inspiration (among others) Walt Whitman, who speaks, in “Democratic Vistas,” for a democracy that “may come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs.…”

Rothberg was in Chico Sunday and Monday (April 3 and 4) giving talks and conducting workshops on contemplative practice and civic engagement. His goal, he said, is to explore how one’s inner, moral life can be brought into consonance with one’s “outer” work in the world and participation in society.

He’s a slender man, middle aged, with soft brown eyes and a kind voice. Professionally, he’s someone who trains people in how to be of service or to work for social change in their communities with grace and vigor and without succumbing to negativity or burnout. The key, he says, is doing the “inner work” of developing a contemplative, or mindfulness, practice that fosters a strong foundation of equanimity—the ability to accept things as they are and keep one’s balance even in the face of adversity.

Rothberg is the former editor of the journal ReVision and the author of The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. He is associated with Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, but he travels widely, leading workshops and retreats and giving talks like the one he gave Monday afternoon at Chico State to about 50 people crowded into a small room adjacent to Selvester’s Café and overlooking Big Chico Creek. Its title was “Mindfulness, Contemplative Practice and Civic Engagement,” and it was sponsored by the Mindful Campus group.

Rothberg has been a practicing Buddhist since 1976, but he was quick to point out that there’s a contemplative tradition in all of the world’s great religions, and that these contemplatives find it easy to practice together. “There’s more difference between a fundamentalist Christian and a contemplative Christian,” he said, “than between a contemplative Christian and a Buddhist.”

He mentioned that as a young man living in Kentucky he often visited the Abbey of Gethsemani, formerly the home of the great writer-monk Thomas Merton, bemused that he was “a practicing Buddhist of Jewish heritage who meditated at a Trappist monastery.”

As a Buddhist, Rothberg’s contemplative practice is mindfulness, which he describes as “giving sustained attention to one’s inner experience over time.” By meditating—that is, sitting still and focusing on the breath or some other object of attention—one can watch what the mind does and see all its tricks for distracting us from pure awareness of each moment.

From that pure awareness, though, comes the ability not to be reactive to events, not to be judgmental, to be grounded no matter what comes up in the mind. These are the kinds of “inner resources” people need if they are going to be effectively engaged with the world.

The impetus for civic engagement is the recognition that each of us is responsible in some way for the problems of society—that we are not separate from those problems, that we exist in a state of interdependence with the rest of society and, indeed, the entire planet.

Civic engagement can take many forms, of course, from volunteerism and community-development work to politics and advocacy. For some people, it’s what they do at work; for others it’s what they do outside work. Either way, problems inevitably emerge—difficulties with a colleague, fatigue and frustration, and even sometimes despair at the state of the world.

The key is to “make our lives whole, to connect the inner and outer,” Rothberg said. “All too often, the spiritual and the social have been separated, especially in the modern world.” But, as reformers like Gandhi and MLK and Dorothy Day have shown us, the two can nourish each other if brought together.

To that end, Rothberg has developed 10 guiding principles for mindful social engagement. They include, for example, maintaining moment-to-moment awareness; being open to the pain and suffering in the world and responding with compassion; taking care of oneself (and then the world); acting from equanimity; and non-attachment to outcome.

Conflicts always come up, and with them difficult emotions. Mindfulness, Rothberg said, “is amazingly helpful in those situations. A lot of the problem with conflicts is that people are very unskillful when they get upset.”

America’s founders had a vision of a spiritually grounded democracy, he added, “a sublime and serious religious democracy.” They saw democracy as a path to self-improvement, not only for nations, but also for individuals. “But we need to be trained to be contemplative citizens.”