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Activist or ‘Passivist’?

A friend of mine recently asked, “Why should we regulate our emotions with mindfulness? Looking at what is happening in South Africa, shouldn’t we be so angry that we all rise up and do not stop challenging corruption, crime and inequality until we have changed the system?”

Her question struck a deep chord with me. It is something I have asked myself so often, particularly now that I am living in a country with so much poverty, violence and trauma. In 2015 (, 147 cases of sexual violence were reported to the police each day, and as many as 25% of the victims had been gang raped. 500 cases of grievous bodily harm were reported each day, and many were cases of domestic violence. Imagine how many physical or sexual assaults are not even reported due to lack of public confidence in the police. Something certainly needs to be done to achieve social justice.

University of the Witwatersrand #FeesMustFall campaign, October 2015

Yet here I am, teaching people to sit still, in silence. It seems to go against every moving, doing, engaging bone in my body. A photo during the #FeesMustFall campaign shows a university student holding up a banner, “We can’t afford to be silent.” How can I teach meditation, when I actually want to be marching in solidarity?

I’ve always tended to view activism and passivity as opposites – the one good, the other bad. Yet, it’s never so simple, is it? Passivity and pacifism are not the same. Activism and wise action are not the same. As we have seen over the years, the most skilful activists are those with an underlying ethic of non-harm, based on a commitment to peace. As soon as we use force to put across our views, it leads to retaliation, and an endless cycle of conflict. This is not helpful. Yet nor is passivity. The skill might not even be to find the middle ground, which suggests a simple drawing in from both ends. The skill seems to be to hold both qualities simultaneously, so that the paradoxical tension co-creates clear seeing, from a place of stillness, leading to wise action.

Let me elaborate. Action motivated by rage is, indeed, the opposite of non-action rooted in passivity. An extremist orientation results in extreme actions. This is what we see so often when a riot begins, and people’s emotions heat up to the point that they literally burn tyres or burn down buildings. As Gabor Maté has warned, “Rage is the Achilles heal of so many activists.” Yet there must be skillful qualities possible at both ends of this dialectic.

Anger is a powerful and energising emotion; it contains fire and fearlessness. In Buddhist teachings, it is known as a mind poison, yet it is a poison that can be transformed for great benefit. It is said that when we take the ego-centric view – the I, me, mine – out of anger i.e. ‘This makes me angry’, “I need to do something about this”, then the energy transforms into mirror-like wisdom. This wisdom reflects a clear sense of knowing that cuts to the root of the problem, without becoming entangled in superficial conditions. When harm is happening, we act clearly and courageously, because there is no sense of an “I” that needs to fear the consequences of our actions.

At the other end of the spectrum, stillness is not always passivity. In Buddhism, the term ‘bodhisattva’ is used to describe someone whose entire life’s purpose is to help others. Yet, in order to do this work, the bodhisattva first commits to training his or her own mind by sitting quietly in meditation. This allows for a gradual purification from self-interest. And even if we do not consider ourselves to be a bodhisattva, these daily practices in mindfulness and compassion can really help us navigate the world in a more skillful way, causing less harm as we go.

If there is an unseen, or subtle motivation that our wish to engage is based on looking good, being praised or fostering a particular image of ourselves, then our activism is weakened. This does not negate the human need to feel appreciated for our contributions, but we can make every effort possible to reduce our egocentric frame, by being open to the possibility that we are not what is most needed. Even when others admire the work that we do, we can keep checking our inner motivation, with a compassionate understanding that we will make mistakes. Is our intention being subtly hijacked by our sense of self? Are we doing ‘good works’ to look good, to be admired, or is our activity coming from a genuine wish to alleviate the suffering of others, with little expectation of reward? The actions may look the same from the outside, but it is only through meditation and contemplation that we can reveal our inner motivation and ask difficult questions like, “Does this person need help? And when the answer seems to be ‘yes’, we ask, “Do they need MY help?” If yes again, “What type of help would most benefit them – simple presence, kind speech or decisive action?”

What will empower the person in need, rather than shifting that power back to the giver?

At the June 2016 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute I met three powerful, yet peaceful, activists: Brooke Lavelle, Rhonda Magee and Sharon Salzberg. Brooke, from the Courage of Care Coalition, gave a presentation on compassion for those involved in social change. A term she used that felt meaningful was “The Contemplative Activist”. It seems to unite both aspects of what I have been tussling with. It removes the misperception that we need to find a passage between two extremes, and rather allows the two dimensions to inform each other.

Rhonda Macgee. Law Professor at the University of San Francisco, spoke about, and revealed her commitment to, issues of social justice. She reminded us that, “We can be kind, but we don’t need to be nice.” We need to speak the truth, without a saccharine coating, when harm is being done. We need to be clear about what mistaken assumptions might lie beneath the sort of prejudice that incites harmful behaviour. Skilful activism requires ferocity and courage, yet with kind intent.

Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, recalled the story of a young boy who, after trying meditation at school, defined mindfulness as “not hitting someone in the mouth”. This pithy phrase acknowledged the emotion of anger at a time when he felt hurt, the wish to act, and then the moment of pause that allowed for a skilful response, which did not in turn perpetuate suffering. We need an understanding of the causes and conditions, the felt sense and emotional world that is triggered at moments of difficulty, and then a quality of discernment that is able to make an informed decision on the best course of action, preferably one that does not result in a cycle of indefinite revenge. And all this needs to happen in a single moment! Skill, and practice, are definitely required.

Skilful activism holds the commitment to the peaceful resolution of social and climate justice issues deep in its core. It is possible to speak out against injustice without solidifying around the hatred of the perpetrator of that injustice. Perpetrators certainly need to make reparations for their crimes, either through deep regret, time away from society, or some form of reparation. There are reasons why perpetrators do what they do, and reasons why people become victims. And more often than we might realise, the same person is both victim and perpetrator in the exact same moment. The greatest gift we can give to another person is to believe that they are able to learn from their mistakes and change their behaviour. As one of my students regretted, “I realise that I did a bad thing, but that I am not a bad person”. The seeds of transformation, for both the individual and society, are contained in this insight.

How can we be skilful, compassionate activists? The answer may well lie in our own diversity. We need to acknowledge our personality factors, social circles and skills, and work within those boundaries. Working mindfully with others allows a container for dialogue, understanding, and co-creation of new solutions. Most of all, we must sustain ourselves so that we do not become overwhelmed by the enormity of the work ahead, and trust that there is a vast network of others acting in quiet solidarity with us. And sometimes, although it pains my ‘doing self’ to write it, the most skilful action is non-action: silence, stillness and serenity. Silence prevents aggravating speech, stillness helps prevent our own reactive behaviour and serenity may be transmitted to others, so that they too can choose a response, rather than a knee-jerk reaction, to whatever situation is at hand. Our pacifism can still be imbued with activism. Commitment to a peaceful resolution of difficulties still requires that justice prevails.

The contemplative activist moves fluidly between practices that help to purify his or her own mind, and external activities that help alleviate the suffering of others, depending on what will bring most benefit, moment-by-moment.

30th June 2016

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