There has been an enormous rise in social activism in the last few years. However, if we are not mindful activists, we may harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred and aggression all around us. We may experience depression, anxiety or trauma observing the divisiveness, misfortunes and confusion in the world. We may wonder if we can make a difference, and may experience hopelessness, helplessness or profound fear.
Current events can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured. Public allegations of sexual misconduct can trigger memories of abuse or harassment. Racism or gender inequality can trigger memories of discrimination. These memories can become so intrusive that they interfere with our lives and relationships.
These turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings. As the Dalai Lama has said:
“When people say that I have worked a lot for peace, I feel embarrassed. I feel like laughing. I don’t think I have done very much for world peace. It’s just that my practice is the peaceful path of kindness, love, compassion, and not harming others…. I am simply a follower of the Buddha, and the Buddha taught that patience is the supreme means for transcending suffering.”[i]
According to the Buddhist teachings, patience is the antidote for anger and aggression, and as the Dalai Lama notes, it can help us overcome suffering. One way to practice patience is what Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue,[ii]calls “Mindful Gap.” Taking a Mindful Gap allows us to slow down and pause Instead of reflexively acting angrily. When the first burst of anger’s energy arises, take a moment to breathe and feel the experience of anger in the body. Then, hold the experience, staying in the present moment. This allows us to look and see what the feelings are telling us. By taking a Mindful Gap, we can choose the most beneficial course of action, whether it be speaking or acting compassionately, or refraining from doing anything at all.
Seeing the world in terms of “us versus them” increases suffering. If we realize that we are all together in this boat called life, we can cultivate compassion for everyone – even those with whom we profoundly disagree. In the words of Zen master and social activist Rev. angel Kyodo Williams:
When I sit with a sense of the human being there, I don’t actually feel hatred at all. I feel a kind of grief for their circumstance and for the society that allows injustice to happen. They’re just as caught up in it as every other person who allows this to be the social order. It’s hard to accept, and it’s a really, really deep practice, but I haven’t discovered anything else to be true and actually workable.[iii]
Finding compassion for all being helps us realize that we all suffer. With this realization, we can approach others with a sense of curiosity and concern, rather than prejudice or aggression. Knowing we all suffer helps us feel less alone, and can alleviate anxiety, depression, anger or fear.
Balance and self-care are also keys for mindful activism. Activists may experience overwhelm, stress or burnout. If we are not mindful, the stress of activism can cause changes in the brain, increasing cortisol and adrenaline and the fight or flight response. This in turn can result in anxiety or trauma. Becoming familiar with our early warning signs of undue stress is important to prevent it from escalating. For example, when I become really forgetful, irritable and/or clumsy, I know it’s time to take a break and relax.
Here are some tips for being a mindful activist and not “lose your mind”:
- Take care of your physical well-being, including healthy eating, getting enough sleep and exercise.
- Reach out to fellow activists and friends to talk about your feelings.
- Maintain a sense of humor.
- Do something you enjoy every day, such as walking, listening to music, getting together with friends, reading a good book
- Be mindful of your thoughts.Let go of negative thoughts and negative self-talk, like leaves floating down a stream.
- Practice being in the present moment, moment by moment. For example, when you are washing the dishes, experience how your hands feel in the warm water, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap. When thoughts arise that take you away from the experience, simply come back to washing the dishes.
- Take breaks from the news, social media and your devices. Turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and take that time for quiet reading, journaling or meditation.
- Practice gratitude. Take time to appreciate the beauty of nature, others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.
- Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others.
- If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. Professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering, so you can go on being of benefit to yourselves and your world.
[ii]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.New York: Tarchin/Perigree.
© 2018 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.