Over the last week we have heard some extremely discouraging news about our irreplaceable planet. We learned that it would “require unprecedented changes” (40-50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and complete carbon neutrality by 2050) in order to prevent catastrophic climate change weather events. These events will affect every last one of us, but first and foremost those already living in poverty around the globe. Before that news, we saw sexual assault victims being disbelieved, blamed, shamed, and threatened, and we confirmed a supreme court justice who lied under oath and was very likely complicit in at least one of the alleged assaults. And, as a result of this appointment, women will likely lose the right to choose how to manage our pregnancies.
So that’s the bad news. Or at least part of it.
A lot of what I am doing these days is trying to stay focused on what I can do to help, rather than either ruminating and bitching about what’s wrong or getting discouraged and giving up. As adrienne maree brown says, “Resilience is our nature.” If you are also trying to stay afloat in these divisive and damaging waters, here are a few of my current resiliency practices that may be useful:
I was part of a woman’s grieving circle recently, which was incredibly helpful and productive. A group of eight of us sat in a circle. Each woman took her turn to light a candle (brought by one of us from her son’s recent funeral) we shared our grief. There is a history of women wailing and grieving and from a quick visit with Google, I found wailing women appearing over many cultural traditions. (That doesn’t mean we have to limit our grief groups to any one gender.) It was very healing to sit quietly and share our personal and shared grief stories knowing that, even when we actively resist injustice, we don’t have the power to end all suffering.
We shared our own and our daughters #metoo stories, the pain felt by Black and Brown people and women all over this country and the world, and the inescapability of our own and our ancestors’ complicity in it. We named the loss of our own dearest family and friends and our fears of what will happen to future generations on this planet. After grieving, I felt restored and energized to continue to resist injustice. A grieving circle with family or friends can be very healing and mending. While it’s important to do this grieving, it’s also important not to get stuck there. Keep moving on to the following actions.
The writing of adrienne maree brown has been instrumental in my ability to keep focused on the work at hand and not get mired in the despair. Every morning before starting my day, I read some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing as well as poetry and other spiritual texts.
I make it a point to learn from the people who are most affected by the current state of our world whenever possible, rather than the ones who have been in power for the past millennia. That means listening to and reading the first person stories of people who are directly affected by injustice, now and in the past.
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” — Audre Lorde
Get clear on what your work is and do it
In her book, Emergent Strategy, brown relates her social justice work to being a doula and working with parents and babies. She writes about how she knows what to do (I added the numbers.):
- “Ask myself if I am needed for this particular work. Support only as needed.
- Do absolutely everything that is needed (change the diaper, sweep the floor, rub mama’s feet, take out the trash — no task is menial),
- Make space for the natural order to emerge. “
Within this I read three distinct practices:
- Get clear on whether I am the right person to lead or do this work. As a white woman with wealth, I am not always the person who has the experience needed to lead social change movements, especially when issues are related to race or ethnicity. In those cases, I am usually the right person to give money or organize people to support a project. I am the right person to write about and talk to friends and family about the things I am learning from Black and Brown people. What work does your personal experience call you to support and how?
- Don’t be afraid of doing manual labor, or putting your body on the line for justice. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “Nothing is defied and nothing is immaculate.” Clean toilets, serve food or write blog posts; use your voice to tell stories of abuse, or bring your body to a march, whatever is needed.
- Trust that if we all keep doing our work and all of our work, we will get there.
Make and keep friends
As the Buddha said, spiritual friends are not just half of our path, they are all of our path. Nothing is more important in keeping our sanity and serenity than having community. My community starts with people I can text or call anytime when I am feeling angry, sad, impatient or excited and joyful. The ones that will commiserate with me, celebrate with me, share their own difficulties and the ways that they are coping.
Equally important are the groups I walk the path with. My meditation sangha (Opening Heart Mindfulness Community) is one such group, but I also appreciate being in groups where the focus is on unraveling my biased thinking more directly – groups such as Catrice Jackson’s work with white women and Making Visible, a mindfulness-based group learning about the people and stories often kept hidden. There are many many groups like this, if you ask around you will find the right group(s) for you.
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Keep your eyes on the prize.
The expression “keep your eyes on the prize” comes from an African American folk song, and, according to online sources, originated in the Bible. On a recent tour of some of the civil rights sites in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, I listened to men and women who had been on the front lines of the fights for voting rights, desegregation, and basic decency for Black Americans. Over and over again I heard them express the importance of persistence, patience, and faith. It reminded me of Brown’s practice of doing whatever is needed and making space for the natural order.
I learned from listening to these civil rights foot soldiers to stop distracting myself with my own outrage and complaints and instead simply do the work. It’s much less dramatic or self-grandizing to just do the work without a lot of emotional indignation. When I focus my attention on the work at hand, rather than constantly measuring the distance I need to go or talking about all the steps I’ve taken, the changes we need will happen a lot faster and with more ease.
Formula for resilience
In addition to these five practices, which are antidotes to despair and giving up, mindfulness practice is the foundation of all I do. Why? Because being aware of the three main truths of the world — that we are subject to suffering, that we and this world and our civilization are all impermanent, and that we cannot exist by ourselves alone because we inter-are with every part of the cosmos — is what gets me to the work in the first place.
“Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone. I am happy in the present moment. I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect any additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
So, one additional practice is to pause. Find time each day to sit and pay attention to the world and experience the truth yourself. Even though it’s all impermanent, it’s also real. Even though suffering will always exist, it still hurts when we feel it. And even though we are intimately connected, we can also act as one person to do whatever we can to cradle and soothe our precious world.