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Contemplative Engagement

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

If I reflect on what I most want in this life, it’s simple. It is to be happy. Yet I know that I can’t be fully happy, if the people around me aren’t happy. I live in Johannesburg, a city of extreme inequality, which means that there is not just a big disparity of wealth in society, but also a big gap between my reality and my vision. So I have thought long and often about how to bridge this gap in my own mind, without just giving up from a sense of inadequacy. And this is where my commitment to Mindful Activism arose.

I define Contemplative Engagement as the process of connecting with our own distress, the suffering of others and the world around us, and then acting with skill and compassion to alleviate it. This requires being fully present to the moment-by-moment experiences of our inner world, as well as opening to the outside world. I still get overwhelmed, yet I also find moments of invigorating joy and connection, and this keeps my trust alive.

What I have noticed, which initially seems counter-intuitive, is that when we seek to help others, we usually end up happier. There is a great deal of research on this from the neuroscience field, which I will explore in later posts, but as the Shantideva said so long ago,

“All the suffering there is in this world arises from wishing our self to be happy. All the happiness there is in this world arises from wishing others to be happy.”

This style of activism is not just for people who define themselves as ‘activists’. I’d love it to be activism for everyone, where we can each choose to engage with the people and the world around us, in a way that feels appropriate and sustainable.

So, to summarise what I say in the YouTube clip linked here,

1) I wish to bring together two fields I’m passionate about: mindfulness which are practices to train the mind to be more aware and compassionate, and social and environmental justice, which has guided my career choices for many years. Putting these together creates Mindful Activism or Contemplative Engagement.

2) Mindful Activism is for everyone who wants to live an engaged, meaningful and joyful life. So often activists are fueled by anger which may feel empowering and energizing to start with, but then leads to emotional exhaustion, and many activists get burnt out. This makes it hard to sustain the work of alleviating the suffering around them.

3) Mindfulness as an integral aspect of activism allows us to care for our inner world, as well as the outer world. Contemplative Engagement means that we gain clarity in how to act with skill and compassion; we develop practices that sustain our love for the people and the world around us, and we act from a standpoint of solving issues together, through dialogue and deep understanding.

4) There may never be a better time to engage. We are so aware of global injustice and inequality through the internet and social media, that we often feel overwhelmed and stuck, which can lead to apathy. So we need to choose the sphere of our engagement, and work at that level, whether in our family, our community, or for global issues, with a clear intention and acceptance of what is possible as an individual. The image that comes to mind is that each of us is a jigsaw piece, and together we can make a beautiful picture that brings healing and happiness to society and to the planet


When we all work together, on ourselves first and then address the issues around us, it feels possible to change the world from the inside out.

Artwork: <a href="">Deviant Art</a>



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