Letter from the Publisher: Sister Abegail Ntleko, a Remarkable Sacred Activist
Since the founding of our Sacred Activism Series in 2013, the most common question I have heard is, “What is sacred activism?” The term sacred activism was coined by author, visionary, and series co-creator Andrew Harvey and represents a union of the drive for change and justice in the world with the mindfulness and compassion derived from self-awareness through deep contemplative practices and spiritual awakening. As Andrew explains, “A spirituality that is only private and self-absorbed, one devoid of an authentic political and social consciousness, does little to halt the suicidal juggernaut of history. On the other hand, an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions.” A sacred activist approach can help us achieve the highest level of effectiveness while remaining grounded in true compassion and selflessness.
In exploring this topic and working with the incredible lineup of authors in the series such as Charles Eisenstein, Matthew Fox, Adam Bucko, and Thanissara, it is clear that the key to understanding and embarking on the sacred activist path is self-awareness. This is achieved through a variety of practices that can be as diverse as the spiritual traditions on the planet. Yet in our modern age, religious dogma and conflict have created incredible cynicism and division with regard to spiritual practice and expression. As a result, many embrace secular materialist approaches to address the issues of our time. Andrew Harvey has said that activism that is not based on truth and compassion can not only lose effectiveness, but can exacerbate the divisions we experience. This then, reveals the great truth of what Gabor Maté shared at last year’s Niroga Mindfulness Conference: “Rage is the Achilles heel of so many activists.”
So what shift is experienced through these practices that allows for true compassion to become action? The practices of meditation, yoga, deep contemplative prayer, a meditative experience of nature, and many others allow individuals to shift their perspectives and experiences from ones that are ego-dominated to ones of inter-connectedness. This nondual worldview recognizes the shared experience not only of all humanity, but of all living beings. As American Catholic monk, author, and mystic Thomas Merton said, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.” This heart-opening moment of awareness is the catalyst for meaningful action in the world in service of others and the greater good.
One of the most inspiring stories we have published in the Sacred Activism Series is that of Sister Abegail Ntleko. In her book Empty Hands, Sister Abe shares the story of her life as she overcame extreme poverty in the KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, to receive an education and dedicate her life to service. In her drive to become educated, she had to overcome many hurdles including racial and gender biases, dedicating herself to becoming a nurse, which she was able to do at the age of thirty-six. In addition to the good works she provided as a nurse, she has adopted dozens of orphaned children over the years, many of them orphaned by the HIV/AIDS crisis that has devastated South Africa. Her ongoing work as a nurse in the poorest communities of her homeland was informed by her strong Christian faith. But as she shares in the book, she learned from many different faiths. She says, “I had the chance to experience benefits from other religions, such as Buddhism. Among the many insights gained from my Buddhist friends, there is one that has become very important to me: do not judge. A judgmental attitude closes the heart and mind. It builds walls between people and cuts us off from what nourishes us.” This quote exemplifies the sacred activist spirit that transcends the dogma and cynicism that we so often see and holds up compassion and understanding as higher standards.
Sister Abe is an inspiration to anyone who experiences her work or hears her story, and she has created a remarkable legacy of service. While she is relatively unknown in wider circles, she was honored by the Dalai Lama in 2009 with the Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award. I am thrilled to announce that through the support of North Atlantic Books and allies like Thanissara at Dharmagiri, she will be in the Bay Area for a series of free events toward the end of February and into early March. You can find the list of events and more details here. I urge you to consider attending one of these talks to experience a true sacred activist in person.
I want to extend thanks to a number of individuals who have contributed to the series and in particular to Sister Abe’s Empty Hands and her upcoming visit. A huge thanks goes out to Andrew Harvey for co-creating the series with us and for connecting us with such remarkable individuals. A big thank you also to Jurgen Mollers of Storyzon who published the first edition of Empty Hands and assisted with ours, as he continues to work selflessly in support of Sister Abe’s work. I also want to thank Thanissara, the author of the engaged Buddhist titles Time to Stand Up and Listening to the Heart with her partner Kittisaro, who first shared Sister Abe’s story with us and has helped with communications and logistics for Sister Abe’s travels. And finally, I want to thank all the staff who have worked in support of Empty Hands, with special thanks to Janet Levin who, after visiting Sister Abe at her Kulungile Care Center in South Africa, was so inspired that she has made it her mission to bring Sister Abe to the U.S. I am grateful for all the efforts to help share Sister Abe’s story and I hope you’ll take the opportunity to experience her warmth and compassion for yourself.
North Atlantic Books