The Mindful Activist
“Things will always be left undone and unsaid, but seeing our activism as one of life-stages and phases, rather than as an endless pursuit of ‘things to be done’ right now might add some breathing space to our work in the world. And in that space, we might hear what can be done, right now, to create beauty and joy for those here and those to come.”
–Marie Goodwin, author, The Four Levels: New Story Activism
On this Inauguration Day for a new President that I deeply dislike, I’m thinking about activism. As a new Buddhist and someone who is retired, I’m also thinking about my commitment to mindfulness. Are mindfulness and meditation compatible with activism? This is an important question for me because I want to be a “mindful activist.” At a minimum, I want my mindfulness practice to focus on the pursuit of peace and calm within. After all, I’ve been distressed by the election results and distress is not consistent with mindfulness. However, I also think that it’s important to challenge and protest leadership behaviors that I don’t believe are consistent with our country’s values. Can my mindfulness /meditation practices contribute to meaningful protest or vice versa?
To address this question, I will refer to two individuals who speak clearly and personally about how mindfulness and meditation are consistent with activism. Michael Brownstein is the author of three novels and World on Fire, a book-length poem about corporate globalization and consciousness change. Brownstein’s article, Meditation as a Subversive Activity, (Arthur Magazine, No. 15, Feb. 2005) has informed me greatly. Marie Goodwin is an archeologist by training who is involved in modern story-telling and community-building. Her article, The Four Levels: New Story Activism & Burnout, www.resilience.org/stories/2016-08-17/the-four-levels-new-story-activism-burnout/ has given me a new perspective on what activism encompasses.
According to Brownstein, negative emotions, such as my distress, affect us, not the object of our emotions, whether the object is the presidential election, Monsanto, or poachers in Africa. It makes no difference to elephant poachers that we are angry at what they do. Staying mindful, or present, with our emotions means being aware of what we feel without becoming lost in reactivity. Mindfulness liberates energy that we need to work productively on the situation we want to change.
Meditation is one powerful mindfulness practice that can liberate the energy we need to be a dedicated activist. Meditation doesn’t require much but it is hard to do. All you have to do is relax, sit straight and breathe slowly, following the breath with your attention. The hard part is letting go of thoughts, emotions, or sensations as they arise. It can take months of dedicated, regular meditation to just be aware – without keeping score of what your mind is doing. Meditation requires us to let go of habitual patterns of thinking and feeling – habits that we have followed and reinforced our entire lives. According to Brownstein, awareness is usually obscured by our emotions. These emotions – love, hate, approval, disapproval, shame, envy, etc. depend for their existence on our reactivity, our attachments, our clinging to outside objects and conditions. Once we have separated ourselves from these attachments, we begin to take conscious control of our lives – and the best way to handle the new President, Monsanto, or the elephant poachers.
Brownstein reminds us that all of us have created this world. We are all part of the same narrow mindset. To change ours and others’ perceptions, we need to look at our own beliefs and assumptions in addition to looking at the acts of others. Becoming aware of our own ego is the spiritual dimension of activism. We will never achieve anything with activism if we don’t surrender ego. How does my ego cause the feelings I have toward the new President? What is the common ground I share with supporters of President Trump?
Goodwin described how she had to leave her activist work after complete and debilitating burnout. By creating a “levels of activism” model, she noticed that not only is working at all four levels at the same time an impossibility, but that whatever level we focus on most changes throughout our lives. Here are the levels of activism:
Level 1: Personal. We focus inward on both our demons and our joys. Goodwin explains that by age 50 or so, we feel drawn to this personal kind of activism. My blogging and spiritual study definitely fall into this level.
Level 2: Family. This level focuses on home, children, partner, extended family and friends. Traditionally the realm of women, activism at this level can be about voluntary simplicity on almost any front. Examples include reducing our reliance on others for food through gardening; or downsizing our homes and possessions.
Level 3: Community. Strengthening our community ties is familiar to many retired people due to our volunteer work. Church, schools, soup kitchens – there are countless examples. It also includes work done to preserve our “local commons,” such as green spaces, water or land.
Level 4: World. Goodwin observes that we are in transition to a deeper global respect for our planet and its inhabitants. Cultivating this new “story” is a pressing aspiration for activism. Climate change efforts and endangered species protection fall into this category.
Choosing a primary level of activism to focus on can be an intentional part of our mindfulness practices. What is your retirement life plan? What level is paramount in your life at this time? Many people imagine a focus on all four levels, calling it “balance.” This kind of reasoning may have been persuasive during our careers but it can now lead to exhaustion, joylessness, and poor health. Follow your breath. Disengage your ego and follow your awareness. Be present.
— from the poem, Hieroglyphic Stairway, by Drew Dellinger
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do