A Grizzly Bear searches for fish in a river in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada. (Photo: Greenpeace.org)

Sustaining Our ‘Moral Oxygen’ as Social Innovators
‘Breath is as important to making the world a better place as a sophisticated strategy or the latest social technology,’ says Al Etmanski

If we’re not careful while doing the important work of creating the conditions for social change, we can find our hearts closing rather than opening. So what’s the antidote?

Canadian social innovator and author Al Etmanski and consultant and activist Darcy Riddell offered a few starting points in answer to this question in a broadcast hosted by Tamarack — An Institute for Community Engagement earlier this week.

“Social change can be harsh and unyielding,” Al says. “It can breed distrust, frustration, cynicism. It can cause you to lose faith in people, in yourself. It can infect your emotions, your spirit, your relationships.”

  “Just as our bodies can’t exist without oxygen, our souls need similar nourishment.”
— Al Etmanski

The essence of Al and Darcy’s conversation was that tending to a spiritual dimension in our lives is vital if we’re not only to continue the work but thrive.

“Just as our bodies can’t exist without oxygen, our souls need similar nourishment,” Al says.

“Just as we must protect the air we breathe from contamination, so we must protect the source of our moral oxygen.”

The phrase moral oxygen is borrowed from Quebec philosopher Jacques Dufresne, who argues that unless we protect the source of our moral oxygen, we are vulnerable to heartache, burnout, addiction and cynicism. Jacques further argues that the loss of the soul is painless if that source goes unprotected.

So what does it look like to tend to the spiritual dimension of our lives or protect the source of our moral oxygen?


“I believe that breath is as important to making the world a better place as a sophisticated strategy or the latest social technology,” Al says.

A story of the power of taking the time to breathe comes from an experience in Darcy’s journey as a former forestry campaigner in which talks between opposing sides of a B.C. forestry issue, the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest, were at a gridlock.

“At a pivotal moment, one of the campaigners slipped the other one a note just reminding her to breathe and to find a way to open up the larger possibility of what was being advanced,” Darcy recalls.

“There were many, many moments like that,” she adds, noting these were the product of the campaigners seeking to approach the situation differently, often by applying spiritual and psychological tools in order to achieve a more flexible stance and deeper view on what was unfolding.

“In many moments in that campaign, people were able to set aside these kind of collapsed or contracted and righteous perspectives to sink into the deeper purpose and find a way to build something that now stands as a global model of conservation,” Darcy says.

Paying Attention

Tending to our spiritual dimension can look like paying attention to our blind spots or limitations, as well as to what nourishes and replenishes us, Al says.

Darcy also describes a whole-body kind of awareness.

“If we’re trying to transform the systems that we’re embedded within and part of, we absolutely have to do it with awareness, and that awareness comes moment to moment and that awareness lives in the breath and it lives in the body,” she says.

“We cannot crack that nut with our intellect — and I know because I’ve tried, I have a PhD in systems change. (The intellect) is a fine adjunct to whatever else, but it’s absolutely not sufficient to think that we can hold both the terror and the possibility in our minds.

“And so all of the contemplative practices and spiritual practices are getting at that when you sit in the stillness of your own awareness you realize that there is infinite love, space, possibility, and that can inform the next small action step.”

To access the entire bookinar which explores this subject in further depth, visit this page. There are also five related conversations in the series, all linked to Al’s new book, Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation.

What about you? How do you sustain your moral oxygen or protect your spirit and humanity while doing the work of creating the conditions for social change to occur?

You can comment on this story below, or e-mail michelle(at)axiomnews.com.