Mindful Activism and Wise Action

Systems of discrimination and oppression are created by us. Our systems can be re-created by us.

This past week I’ve been making connections between what is happening in the US, the events of the last 7 years in Turkey, what is happening in Bolivia, Israel, and more. I’m having moments of wakefulness when I see some tragic patterns repeat themselves in seemingly very different contexts and places. It feels strange to be so globally connected, to grieve the losses of nations across oceans as my own, to celebrate their humanistic wins as my own, and to notice the same old patterns of how as humans we so horrifyingly destroy and so beautifully create. Interestingly, what I learn in one place very frequently applies to the other. I’m starting to believe that there is a very clear path to changing our world without losing ourselves in the process.

I’ve also been reflecting on the connection between our inner mindfulness practices and our wise action out in the world. They are so interdependent. Our inner work is a source of inspiration and nourishment for all the change we want to bring to the world. Our wise actions out in the world are fuel, fire and food for our deepest inner work.

There is a common misunderstanding of mindfulness as a passive and neutral stance. I suspect that mindfulness (and the ancient Buddhist tradition) are misunderstood in this way due to their emphasis of cultivating equanimity and a steady mind, but mindfulness is the opposite of passive and neutral.

Mindfulness is about courageously facing the reality as is, and responding to that harsh reality and to the hurt with a deep and compassionate presence. Compassionate presence doesn't mean weak, soft, passive or neutral. To the contrary, this kind of inner and outer care takes years to build and strengthen.  

I share some ideas below for how mindfulness can strengthen our actions and activism, and if you’d like to investigate these ideas more, I invite you to join us tomorrow June 10th at 19:30 pm Paris time for our community talk on Mindful Activism and Wise Action, followed by a meditation and a discussion of what these concepts mean to you.

1.  Tracking your window of tolerance

Maybe the most important part of initiating meaningful change in the world is ensuring that you are within your window of tolerance, in other words, that you are emotionally regulated. This is critical to your short and long term health and integration. Without having health and integration yourself, you cannot make the world a healthier and more integrated place.

Your window of tolerance is unique to you. What triggers you might not be triggering anyone else, and this is okay. You might take it a lifelong practice to discover the boundaries of your window of tolerance, and each time you notice you are overwhelmed or checked out, practice gently bringing yourself back within your window, where you feel regulated, supported, safe.

I invite you to begin tracking your window of tolerance now, even as you keep reading these lines. If you feel triggered at any point, you might take a break, turn off your devices, walk, stretch, stare at the sky, or hug someone you love.

2. Grieving

Activism turns into avoidance if we try to skip the difficult emotions and plunge directly into action. Our actions are meaningful and impactful to the extent that we are able to contact our anger, grief, and desperation. As Michele Obama reminded us this week, Dr. King was angry too. And so is everyone who faces violence and destruction. But as Ruth King says, “Anger is not transformative, it is initiatory.” Anger catalyzes us, it shows that we care, and the task is then to turn to the sadness hiding underneath it.

View this post on Instagram

So much has changed so quickly. And if any of you are confused, or scared, or angry—or just plain overwhelmed—I just want you to know that you aren’t alone. I am feeling all of that, too. And I tried to put together some of my thoughts—for the #Classof2020 and everyone out there using their voice to fight for justice right now. ⁣ ⁣ To anyone out there who feels invisible: Please know that your story matters. Your ideas matter. Your experiences matter. Your vision for what our world can and should be matters. Your anger—that matters too. But left on its own, it will only corrode, destroy, and sow chaos—on the inside and out. Dr. King was angry. Sojourner Truth was angry. Lucretia Mott, Cesar Chavez, the folks at Stonewall—they were all angry. But they were also driven by compassion, by principle—by hope. And if you hold strong with the same faith that carried all those giants before you toward real, measurable progress—you will change the course of history.⁣ ⁣ So what does that mean for our time? If you’re spending a lot of time hashtagging and posting right now, that’s useful, especially during a pandemic. But it’s only a beginning. Go further.⁣ Text everybody you know to join you in exercising their constitutional right to protest. Send all your friends a link to register to vote at WhenWeAllVote.org/register. And show up to vote in every election. ⁣ ⁣ This is how you can finish the work that the generations before you started. By staying open and hopeful, even through tough times. Even through discomfort and pain. Channel your feelings into activism and into this democracy that was designed to respond to those who vote.⁣ #Classof2020, and every one of you out there doing the hard work of progress, you all are exactly what we need right now—and for the years and decades to come. I love you all. I believe in you all. This is your time. @reachhigher @youtube

A post shared by Michelle Obama (@michelleobama) on

I was inspired by Mari Andrew saying that she has been holding black people lost to racist violence in her morning prayers. How can you meet your grief and anger in small, tolerable, meaningful doses every day? How can you make more space and time to sit with your emotions and listen to their deep intelligence?

A huge part of long term activism and wise action is a life long grief practice for all that we destroy and lose as human beings.

Please remember that the grief I mention here is the grief that is within your window of tolerance. You might be shutting yourself off to those difficult emotions because they are overwhelming, in which case, you might thank your nervous system for protecting you and look for additional support, like the presence of a community, who can help you stay regulated while you allow your sadness and anger.

3. Cultivating wisdom

I love the Buddhist term “wise action” for how it emphasizes the “wise” part. We live in a global culture that constantly pushes us to acting now, right away, without further ado. We go from deadline to deadline, from task to task, from meeting to meeting. We show up to the betterment of our global systems in the same way. Our attentions are as scattered as the news cycles, our hearts are somewhat disconnected. We rarely listen to our deep wisdom before acting.

There are different ways of cultivating wisdom. The first is to listen. To sit quietly and to observe what emerges from your own depths. To pour your mind out on the pages of a journal and look for highlights.

The second is to educate yourself. The new information and perspectives you add to yourself will marinate and resurface as wise action in time. You can make learning a daily practice. In our age, a daily learning practice can be as simple as following some educational social media accounts and lingering on one insightful post a day. It can be googling new terminology. It can be reading 10 pages from a book.

The third is to investigate. Which broken system most matters to you and why? What are your unique skills and your most meaningful contribution to the betterment of our global systems?

4. Maintaining a slow and steady pace over time

When we start meditation we learn that maintaining 10 minutes of meditation per day is more difficult than practicing in bursts. We also notice that even a few minutes of practice per day or spreading mindfulness into our lives with informal practices (for example, washing the dishes mindfully) keep the practice more readily available to us in times of need.

Similarly, we don’t all have to put our life’s work to causes that really matter to us and that change the systems of our world; there are many seemingly small actions we can take in the public arena every day. These “small” actions are most of the time the only thing that make a true difference anyway. They make a difference because we don’t do them alone - we do them with millions of other people. The most obvious one is voting. (Local elections are coming up in Paris!)

Other ways of participating in public life can be protesting, supporting public organizations with your time or resources, or inviting your private organizations (such as the company you work at) to participate more meaningfully in the local and global public life. You can be the person who creates a volunteer group at work, who decides not to work with a racist vendor, who revolutionizes your company’s hiring practices, who gently mentors a young black employee out of college.

The key is to make sure you don't burn out and you keep taking wise action every day, or on another frequency that feels doable to you.

5. Practicing generosity

Sharon Salzberg, one of the most beloved senior mindfulness teachers, talks about a generosity practice in her book Lovingkindness that has stayed with me and that I practice to this day. Salzberg invites us to look at what goes on in our minds when we think about giving (anything). There is first a thought such as “Oh I could give this!” and this thought is very swiftly followed by other thoughts such as “Oh but maybe I shouldn’t”, “Maybe I should wait”, “It may be better to give that instead”, “I may not be suited to this task”, “I would become poor if I donate all my money”. In other words, the mind follows the noble tendency to give with its natural anxiety about the future or doubts about the self.

Salzberg invites us to commit to giving if the initial thought of giving ever crosses our minds. This means that you can observe the anxiety and doubt of your mind with a loving smile and say “Thank you mind, for all your input. I am going to go ahead and give this because I am committed to that first thought that crossed my mind.”

This generosity practice fills me with joy every time I do it. It makes me laugh too because sometimes the excuses of my mind are completely ridiculous. When I manage to stay committed to that initial noble intention to give, however small it may be what I am giving, I am immediately filled with gratitude, hope and love.

The large discriminative social systems we are trying to change require our generosity. I invite you to take their existence as an opportunity to strengthen your generosity muscles.

6. Turning to art

If you make art yourself, or if you did in the past, that moment of feeling helpless against a system of discrimination and oppression might be the best moment to pick up your tools again. Go write. Draw. Paint. Act. Sing. Collect. Build. The art we create carries a power of its own. It is often the best remedy to our pain, what helps us grieve most effectively (see point #2 above) and what helps us face our reality (which is the aim of mindfulness practice).

If you don’t make art, consider starting! And always, engage with the art of other artists. The past week for example, I’ve been soothing myself with the silky voices of Etta James and Nina Simone.

This quote from Nina Simone explains the importance of art and artists perfectly: "My thing...what I hope to do all the time, is to be so completely myself...that my audiences, people who meet me, are confronted. They’re confronted with what I am, inside and out, as honest as I can be. And this way they have to see things about themselves, immediately."

7. Cultivating hope

Remember the negativity bias of the mind? Well, this bias weighs in when we are facing complex social systems as well. We pay more attention to what is lacking than what is there, done, won. One of the things we must do is cultivate hope, by paying an intentional attention to the progress we see within and around ourselves.

Start making a list of all the ways in which you changed your mind personally in the past 10 years. Start making a list of what progress you see in your communities. Follow the leaders who are legislating, executing, judging in the direction you believe we must go. Practice gratitude for what is already here. Then let this progress sink in, and reflect on how much further we can go if we have already come this far.

One thing that cultivated my hope this week was the #erkekyerinibilsin campaign in Turkey. The levity and ingenuity of this social media campaign helped a lot of men wake up to their own sexism and discrimination against women. This was important to celebrate in a country where many women are violently killed, raped, harassed every single day.

Reflection Questions

  1. What are some of the signs of your body that show you are outside of your window of tolerance? In those moments, what do you do to find regulation?
  2. How could you make space to grieve on a more regular basis?
  3. How could you listen, learn and investigate more to cultivate a deeper wisdom?
  4. Which public efforts would you like to participate more in?
  5. Do you also observe that your mind creates reasons why not to give? Would you like to commit to that first noble intention of giving?
  6. How could you make more art or soothe yourself with the beautiful art around you?
  7. How could you practice celebration and gratitude on a more regular basis?