As long as we don’t burn out and give up, we really can change the world. Mushim Patricia Ikeda on self-care for activists.
“Monks, the All is aflame… Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.”
—Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon
All is aflame. The scale at which hatred and despair are spreading feels exponential to me these days. There is fear that democracy, never a perfect system, is being eclipsed by totalitarianism and fascism. Whether you identify as a social justice activist or not, if you’re alive, you’re acting in the world, and your thoughts and actions have consequences. How can we act in alignment with our spiritual values for the long haul?
If we’re feeling anxious, angry and fearful, we need to take good care of ourselves, so rest up and gear up, bodhisattvas, because this time of trouble won’t be over anytime soon. We talk about meditation, study, chanting, and bowing as Buddhist “practice.” Now is what we’ve been practicing for. Here are some tips that I hope may be helpful.
Clarify and Strengthen Your Intention and Purpose
Do you know your true calling, your deepest intention, the sturdiest reason why you go through the day and resist overwhelm and collapse? It might be the bodhisattva vow. It might be something else. Whatever “it” is, it has to become your body, it has to be in the marrow of your bones. It needs to be the first thing on your mind when you wake up and the last thing in your heart when you go to sleep. We carry our precepts and vows and, perhaps more importantly, our precepts and vows carry us when we fall down.
Just getting by and hoping we die without too much pain isn’t nearly enough, and if you spiral down into clinical depression, reach out for help. I remind myself daily that thousands and thousands of people have traveled the path of compassionate action, with great
purpose and determination, through the rise, rule, and collapse of many governments. Traveling this path is completely human and possible. We can do it.
Check in on Your Embodied Feeling of Being Alive
Ask yourself regularly, how alive do I feel? “We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive,” says Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in the New York Times science bestseller The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
In the current political mess, it almost always feels counterintuitive to slow down, to drop into the body, to connect quietly to something as seemingly obvious as the sensation of our weight pressing into a chair or the breath going in and out. But we need to begin establishing a sense of basic trust that being alive means that not everything is destroyed by despair. Impermanence means that things can improve, and we have agency. Limitation is real, but so is liberation.
Be Creative, Then Be More Creative
If you don’t want to burn out, do something, no matter how small, that helps you feel generative, juicy, and reflective today. Art feasts upon sorrows, distresses, and despairs, so let’s make use of them rather than be destroyed by them. We may not be great artists, but we can paint with the entire palette of whatever we’re given.
“Creativity is the opposite of trauma,” psychotherapist and dharma teacher Melvin Escobar likes to say. When we’re stuck in despair, our inner narratives are probably becoming more solid and intractable. Mindfully holding space for something new to be born is an affirming act of healing and of resistance to systems of oppression.
As a Buddhist teacher, I see some dharma practitioners who get stuck in expressing the same dissatisfactions, over and over. I’d love to see their self-care result in their learning a new song, cooking something new, making a drawing, or reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. There’s a joy that comes from adding something good to the world.
Be Strategic, Then Be More Strategic
Don’t waste time, breath, or resources. Don’t waste anyone else’s time, breath, or resources. Being strategic means being conscious of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how our daily actions take us forward to our collective goals, not as limited, isolated individuals, but in community and with community. The Buddha said to his students: “Go forth for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.”
Remember That It Doesn’t Need to Be Perfect
I’ve been waking up every morning with anxiety and sadness. As a mother, I can’t bear to hear the cries of immigrant children who’ve been forcibly separated from their parents. Then I remind myself: I can’t wait for the moment when the perfect teacher and leaders arrive with the perfect liberative teachings and strategies.
When I was doing my early Zen training in a Midwestern temple, I was standing by the dryer one afternoon, folding my clothes, when monks from our carpentry business suddenly appeared. They pounced on a couple of old refrigerators they’d salvaged from a previous work site. The refrigerators had since died, along with the temple-grown greens inside them. Using a mallet, the head monk pounded forcefully on the hinges of the refrigerator doors, ripped them off, and threw the bags of rotting greens on the floor of the basement. Then the crew carried the machines out, leaving the mess on the floor.
Seeing the expression on my face, the monk said three words: “Crude. Yet effective.” Then they all drove off in our ancient VW van.
He was right. What we do doesn’t need to be perfect, neat, or serene if it’s effective. Therefore, aspiring bodhisattvas, let’s figure out what we need to do, what we have the capacity to do, and what we need in training, backup, or motivation to do. Let’s get what we need and get to work.