“Mindful Activism” seeks to influence the adoption of policies that reduce the suffering caused by various injustices–and to do so in a compassionate, skillful manner.
Such activism, in order to be successful, must first be about “being” before moving into “doing.” The “being” has to be continuously nourished, lest the “doing” lead to burnout, discouragement, unhealthy or abusive relationships, and general ineffectiveness as an activist.
Let’s unpack this a little.
Mindfulness is a lifestyle forged through continuous practices that include mindful breathing, walking, and eating, among many others. This lifestyle is also nourished by quality relationships with other mindfulness practitioners, and through ongoing study.
I find it helpful to reflect daily on how I’m caring for myself (in other words, how I’m “being”) and others through the lenses of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls The Five Mindfulness Trainings (and Valerie Brown’s recent reinterpretation of these trainings through the framework of racial justice amid the COVID-19 pandemic).
The trainings align with Buddhism’s teachings on “The Five Precepts,” and make up the heart of “Right Action” on Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path. These short definitions of the trainings are my own summaries of Hanh’s and Brown’s writings:
- Reverence for Life: Eliminate all forms of violence against one’s self, other human beings, animals, and nature.
- True Happiness: Practice gratitude and generosity and avoid stealing from or exploiting others.
- True Love: Cherish and celebrate others and practice sexual virtue in romantic relationships.
- Deep Listening and Loving Speech: Practice active listening and kind, helpful speech in order to facilitate equitable and peaceful relationships.
- Nourishment & Healing: Eat and drink in a manner that avoids bringing toxins or diseases into the body, and consume media of all forms in moderation.
The trainings also dovetail with non-violent approaches emphasized by Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., some of the final words of Robert F. Kennedy, and the Non-Violent Communication (NVC) model.
Our “being” is the foundation of our “doing.” When identifying and acting upon an important issue that you want to influence, it’s helpful to apply Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. The interpretation just below is based on reading a variety of mindfulness practitioners on this topic:
- See the suffering being experienced by an underrepresented group.
- Locate the causes of the suffering.
- Identify solutions that will liberate the persons from suffering.
- Practice the Noble Eight-fold Path while pursuing the solutions.
Regarding day to day application of The Four Noble Truths in specific activism, here’s some helpful approaches:
- Research and Learning (Including Data Gathering): Make an ongoing effort to educate yourself on the facts, history, complexities, and nuances of issues that you care about. Keep links, notes, and data handy so that you can be informed when you interact with others or on social media. This tracker can help you with those efforts. (Tip: Stay organized and save time while reading online articles, by using the web clipping features of tools such as Evernote and OneNote.)
- Equitable Relationships with Members of Historically Underrepresented Groups (HUGs): There’s no substitute for getting to know and spending time with people who are different from you, especially those with less privilege than you enjoy. It’s crucial that these relationships are built on equal footing, without the person with more privilege positioning themselves as the “helper” or, worse, “savior.” The person with more privilege should also do most of the listening and a lot less of the talking.
- Speaking Against Injustices: When you hear or see injustice taking place, whether it’s right in front of you, explained to you by others, or observed through media, take a stand and speak out against it in a compassionate, skillful manner. These engagements can often be awkward, uncomfortable, or downright scary. Sometimes speaking out costs you a relationship or changes how people perceive you.
- Communication With Elected Officials and Signing Petitions: Regularly comment on posts from elected officials or others in positions of power, and create and share posts that address the actions of these individuals. Sign well-organized petitions that can influence policy changes by such elected or appointed individuals. And do so, again, with compassion, skill, and non-violence.
- Contributions of Time, Money, and Resources: Being an effective activist who helps to influence meaningful, sustainable change will cost you something. Contribute as much as you’re able to, depending on your individual circumstances and interests. This includes supporting non-profits that are doing effective work on issues that matter to you.
A final caution regarding becoming an activist.
Even if you’re intentionally applying the “being” and “doing” steps delineated above, you can still become overwhelmed and burnt out if you try to tackle too many issues at once. I recommend an approach that is working well for me: Do considerable research and learning for a while on several issues that fall under the umbrella of a major injustice (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, job discrimination, health care discrimination, etc.), and pay attention to the issues that create the most interest and passion for you.
Pick one of those issues to continue drilling into, and concentrate most of your efforts on trying to influence policies within that one issue. This doesn’t mean you totally ignore the other issues, but you’ll be more effective if you focus most of your energy on a single area where you can make a deep impact rather than merely skimming the surface.
For more, check out my post, “How to Use This Website.”