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Engaged activism

author's note: This talk was written and delivered shortly after the 2016 Presidential election, in the hopes that those who are working for a more kind and engaged world have the tools needed to not only be effective, but take care of their mental, emotional, and physical well being, also.

Politics. From the Greek “politika”, meaning “affairs of the cities” Miriam Webster defines politics as

a : the art or science of government

b : the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy

c : the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government

I’ve often thought that politics was the word we assign to hide the fact that legislative decisions affect people's basic human rights. Arizona, for example, passed a truly horrific reproductive rights bill that, to be honest, scares the shit out of me. We take those measures that are indescribably harmful and label them “politics”. I can call a cheesecake a kale salad, but that doesn’t make it true.

Right now in the U.S. people are recognizing more than ever that politics and our daily lives aren’t separate things. That government does indeed affect quite a bit of your daily life. Your health. The safety of you, your children, and your friends. The increase in awareness and individual involvement is a good thing, borne of a bad thing.

As empathetic people who pay attention to what’s happening in the world, we spend a lot of time angry, confused, frustrated, and just plain scared shitless about the way things are going. We feel that we’re not far off from the Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Some Liberals (for lack of a less polarizing word) post snide, nasty memes and comments about government officials. This is the opposite of the golden rule. For the entirety of the Obama administration, liberals were incensed when people posted the same types of comments and memes about President Obama. And yet somehow we figure that doing the same is going to make some kind of difference? We don’t realize that we’re making the problem worse. Angering and alienating the very people whose minds we wish to change. Does that work with us? When we are ridiculed and made to feel like we are lesser for our beliefs?

I recently watched a documentary called Accidental Courtesy, about Daryl Davis, a black musician who befriended members of the KKK and is the only black person welcome at their rallies. Once, they had rented a bus to go to a rally, but it broke down and they heard that he had one - being a traveling musician - so they called him to rent it. He gave it to them at no charge and just said to return it with a full tank of gas. When they showed up, they were surprised to see that he wasn’t white! That was thirty years ago, and he still goes to the rallies, talks with people, listens to them. He doesn’t agree with their policies or beliefs or methods, and they know that, but he understands that the only way to create lasting positive change is to TALK with people.

I watched an interview of a woman who was a retired CIA agent and she said that if she could give law-makers and activists one piece of advice, it would be to talk with your enemy. Learn what their fears and goals and roadblocks are, and do as much compromising as you can without causing harm. When I have this conversation with people, they will sometimes say “But that person is a JERK! They suck! They can’t be reasoned with” Yep, that will sometimes happen. Because sometimes people act in a very jerk-like manner. And sometimes, using compassion tempered with wisdom, you gain a little ground. NOT talking with people gains no ground at all.

This business of “I’ll stand over here and throw my hate rocks at you because you are hurting people” is what keeps wars going. It’s what continues the cycle of injustice, harm, and what maintains our inability to forgive and more importantly, keeps us from taking effective action. Using someone else’s nasty behavior as an excuse for our own is both childish and ineffective.

Glenn Sensei is always telling us that Buddhism is a philosophy of action. Sitting on the cushion and feeling peaceful and then getting off the cushion and acting the same way you always have is useless. Do you feel a sense of peace and calm when you’re on the cushion? Then take that out with you and radiate it out to everyone. To your co-worker who just will not shut up. Your cousin who always has some crisis. Strangers who look sad. Your lover who is always nagging you about something. Communicate. But most importantly, communicate with compassion.

In the larger realm of activism and politics in this country, we do feel impotent. We are enraged. We feel helpless. We cry for people who are killed, ignored, suppressed, and have no access to even basic care. We scream because we feel helpless. The solution to these feelings is ACTION. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, you know that getting up and doing even one small thing helps your mood immensely.

What can we do in the face of all of this? It seems like a giant unstoppable monster. Every single day more idiotic, scary things happen. This is what we do. An eight step plan.

I’d like to re-iterate a point which comes up frequently here, which is that yes, it is absolutely OK to feel depressed and pissed off and mad as hell and incredulous. Get on your cushion and feel that stuff. Examine the roots of those feelings and then let them settle. Saying that we shouldn’t act out of reactive emotion and saying that we shouldn’t feel those emotions are two different things. Emotional maturity is being able to see things for the way they really are. Being able to say “This sucks. It’s harmful. I hate it.” And then move forward with the best action you can take.

Lastly before I outline the plan: So many times I’ve seen or heard something on the news and said “I can’t believe this. Who would do something like that? I CANNOT believe this.” We have to get past this stage. Things are the way they are, and our denial of prevents of from taking steps. Because acceptance is the only place where change can begin. Remember, the Pragmatic Buddhist motto is “Awareness, Acceptance, Action”

  1. Think about your area of focus. What's most important to you right now? Health care? Clean water? LGBTQ rights? Reproductive rights? You can’t fix everything by yourself. You have to sleep sometimes. Pick one or two.

  2. Think about your gifts. Do you have a degree or experience in organizing people? Do you know how to write a grant proposal? Are you a good public speaker? Do you have two hours per week to mail out flyers? Can you walk in a march? Can you make some phone calls? Can you make a donation?

  3. Think about your schedule, your limitations, and the amount of physical and emotional load you are able to carry. Be honest with yourself.

  4. Do your self care. Bubble bath. Wine and Netflix with a friend or loved one. A long run where you yell and holler because you’re so damn mad. A funny movie and giggle session. Cultivating joy and recognizing it as vital to your health is VERY important if you’re going to help others.

  5. Take a media fast. No one can handle listening to what’s happening in the world every single day. A person isn’t designed to operate well under those conditions. Doing this makes you feel impotent, frustrated, and scared.

  6. Make a plan. Letters one day. Emails later in the week. Date night in between, etc.

  7. Check in with yourself and update your plan as necessary. What’s working? What needs to go?

  8. Don’t give in to despair. Keeping joy in your life is a fundamental part of this process. We have the right to experience joy.

  9. Remember that if you’re not able to do all of these things all the time, just being your authentic, weird, silly self who is nice to everyone and brings happy energy wherever she goes is enough. You are enough. The fact that your glorious self who is aware and who cares and is gentle and kind is ENOUGH.

In the book of joy, Bishop Tutu talks about how some stories are news because they are bad. Good things happen every day. People are good parents and teachers every day. Good people work hard to protect us every day. It's just not news. Remember that the ratio of bad to good in the world is heavily favored to good. We can be part of that good - and take care of ourselves and lead fulfilling lives full of presence and joy, too.

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