Updated: Sep 21, 2020
When I use the word ‘activist’, I worry that the image coming to mind is of placard-waving, angry protesters, who may alienate people those with different views. Yet, change rarely happens when two sides stand in opposition, digging themselves deeper into their own world view. We need to stay engaged with the world around us, we need to act as skillfully as we can, and we can’t afford to burn out from anger. This is why I’ve landed on the title ‘Joyful Activism’, where we engage from love and joy and commitment to helping those in need, rather than from a place of wanting to punish and demonize those that are causing the harm. With joyful activism, we hope to inspire and draw people together around an issue, rather than to push each side further apart.
Not an Activist, just a Joyful Human
I sometimes wonder whether the most effective activists are actually those who would never claim to be. They just do their own thing, with no label; the lone wolf activists who live by their values and don’t worry whether other people become involved or not; the parents who focus on raising creative, adaptable children; the researchers who get after the truth simply because it fascinates them. Our style of engagement, or activism, needs to reflect our own personality, otherwise it just can’t be authentic.
Some people seem to be calm and accepting from birth, while others fight with life and those around them from the moment their eyes open. I remember a friend comparing his daughters: the first emerged peacefully, slept through the night and made her parents think that they knew everything about parenting; the second came out shouting, and has continued much in that vein ever since! Many of us can relate to that; one sibling just gets on with living their life, while another wants to change the lives of those around them. Some people project their own anger out onto the world, while others work first at understanding what internal processes are at work. Are there ways to change ourselves, not just momentarily, but from the bottom up; from state to trait? Can we train our minds so that even our thoughts are peaceful and our actions are wise?
The Science of Meditation: How to Change your Brain, Mind and Body” by Richie Davidson and Daniel Goleman. In the 70s, these young Americans traveled to the East, where they met lamas
and gurus who seemed able to walk at ease through the chaos of the Indian streets and could hear stories of tragedy and delight without being taken off course. The lamas’ contentment and self-contained demeanour got these two researchers to ask, “How do you get like that? Are you born with those qualities, or can you develop altered traits?” The lamas themselves had no expectation of starting a global interest in mindfulness, yet this has been the outcome. A few Western researchers made contact with contemplatives in the East, and over 40 years have developed a whole new academic field, that of Contemplative Neuroscience.
Joyful activists make the effort to train their own minds, while still engaging with the world around them. They are able to navigate skillfully between what brings them happiness, and what causes unhappiness for themselves and others, while finding a way for the former to alleviate the latter. Singers, artists and poets are so often great activists; feeling fulfilled by their own abilities to create, and using their chosen medium to share messages, or to inspire their audience into action.
The life of the creative takes a real willingness to be alone, though, an ability to take time away from our social group. This form of activism is not for everyone. For myself, I feel much more fulfilled amongst people, in a social group. My preferred focus for action has always been as part of a team, within a community setting. When I link up with people who feel the same way, there’s a sense of safety. When we are in agreement that harm is being, or has been, done then we pull together to alleviate that harm with a shared vision.
My favourite work has been community-based activism, where we have been able to see the fruits of our work. After the tsunami, we witnessed how donations, appropriately targeted, were able to heal and empower communities. At Maru-a-Pula School in Botswana, we saw how the orphan bursary programme gave children a step up in the world so that they had a choice of how to live their future, despite the tragedies of their past. Delivering soup each month, in downtown Johannesburg, I am able to hear stories of people bringing themselves back from the brink of despair, and finding their own independence again. And at the Tara Rokpa Centre, I witness people arrive, depleted and demoralised, and depart with a renewed centredness, groundedness and sense of hope.
These examples highlight, perhaps, the easier end of the activism spectrum, where the activist experiences as much joy, or even more, than the people who are receiving the support. This is where giving is often more fulfilling than receiving, as our brains register well-being when we are able to offer compassion and practical help, despite witnessing the pain of others.
The Long-Term Vision
The activists that I admire most are those able to hold a long-term vision. They know that they may well die before seeing the results of their engagement. It is their own conviction and belief that change will ultimately take place that motivates them to keep going each day, despite being constantly pushed backwards. The other day, I heard an interview about how the investigative journalists in South African toiled for months, even years, to dig up the evidence of the corrupt happenings going on in government and big business. I also recalled the journalist who died of ‘broken-heart syndrome’, where the threats, the abuse, the constant knock-backs were too much, while she was trying to reveal the truth. Yet her diligence, and the work of her colleagues in their search for the truth, has brought South Africa back to its current state of Ramaphoria. It may not last long, but it is worth savouring for now. It rebuilds trust in the legal system, and trust that when enough ethically-motivated people say ‘no’, then society reaches a tipping point and we can believe in humanity again.
Activism for Introverts
There are also types of activism appropriate for introverts, deep thinkers who feel viscerally when harm is being done, but who get drained of energy when they are out in the public domain. I watched a lovely TEDx talk by Sarah Corbett on her work in the UK. These people often provide the insights, research the evidence, and contribute to the overall whole, by playing their own part quietly and skill fully.
So often, when we feel like change is not happening fast enough, we get sucked down into a morass of despair and we need the vision of others to pull us out. The challenge for activists working at the structural, societal or global levels, is to keep their inner conviction and momentum through sustaining self-care practices and not get sucked into the stinking bog of overwhelm. Living in South Africa has given me insight into complexity and how we can never really know which of our actions will be helpful – we just need to keep trying, based on our inner compass. When a society has taken 100 years to deteriorate, we can be very sure that it will take another 100 years to pull itself back together. We may not be around to see the results, but that is no reason not to keep engaging.
I get angry – often – about racism, sexism, gender-based violence and corruption, yet I’ve seen that these are not the moments I am useful. My own anger just burns up my energy and depletes me. It is the times when I am joyful, enthusiastic and can connect with a bigger vision that others seem to gain from what I have to share. It surprised and delighted me recently, to sit in a cave, in th
e middle of a rainstorm at the Yoga Flow Festival, and talk about Joyful Activism. After the talk and practices were over, several people came to share with me their own heartaches and life challenges, and their commitment to use their personal understanding of suffering to help those in similar situations.
The Karmapa's invitation for us to 'change the world from the inside out’, always inspires me. This is the most manageable level, where we can monitor our own success in terms of how much joy we find in our work, and how much energy we have to keep going even in the face of complexity and
overwhelm. The quiet activist, the role model of peace and wisdom, is extremely powerful. And when groups of these quiet contemplative activists come together, they can make up a force that can withstand all challenges. Can everyone be an activist? I think so. We just need to choose the level we feel that we can contribute, and keep motivated by our connection with joy. So, there’s really no need to be a campaigning, protesting activist. Doing our best to be good-hearted human beings is enough to make an enormous change in the world.