Beyond Self-Care: Mindfulness and Compassion as Activism
It is so vital to take care of ourselves, and mindfulness and compassion practices can be important tools to support this. But these practices also have the potential to take us beyond the self; to fuel action for social and environmental justice, to support effective responses to structural violence, to deepen understanding of interconnectedness with each other and with the natural world. In this way, mindfulness and compassion can support activism.
To explain this more eloquently than I can, I’d like to share some of the books and teachers who have looked at the role inner practices can play in social change.
Fuel for Sustaining Action
Author and teacher Sharon Salzberg’s most recent book is called Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. In it, she shares that, “meditation would not be so important at this point in my life if it were just about me,” and explains how it is through her personal practice that she is able to cultivate resilience, transform how she sees herself and others and focus energy on what she most cares about.
Renowned activist Angela Davis puts it this way: “anyone who is interested in making change in the world, also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, themselves”. Davis uses examples of meditation and yoga as tools for this type of ‘radical self care’.
Put simply, if we do not have practices to care for our inner world then we cannot create as effective changes in the world around us. In this way, having a personal practice can be fuel for sustaining action in the world.
Dealing with Challenging Emotions
Mindfulness can be associated with cultivating calm, but in fact also creates space for dealing with more challenging emotions. Buddhist minister, author and activist Lama Rod has written a powerful book on this topic, called Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger. He explains that meditation practice can give space for the emotion of anger, and that we should welcome anger “as a friend, so that it teaches us”. In fact, he goes further, stating it is our “ethical responsibility to take care of [your own] hurt if you care about non violence,” because “if we don’t take care of hurt, the risk is anger will turn into violence”.
Anger – as with sadness or other forms of emotional pain – can be appropriate responses to the suffering we see in the wider world. Not only can we learn to process challenging emotions through sitting with them in mindfulness and compassion, but these emotions can further fuel our activism if handled effectively. “Anger is loaded with information and energy,” said respected author, feminist and activist Audre Lorde. Rather than getting overwhelmed by our powerful emotions, mindfulness and compassion practices can help us to hold our emotions and then direct them into loving action.
Another amazing author and activist, Valerie Kaur, puts it this way in her book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love: “Perhaps our tasks as human beings is to find safe containers for our raw, reactionary rage – and then choose to harness that energy in a way that creates a new world for us all”.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Beyond finding ways to process your emotions and giving fuel for ongoing activism, mindfulness and compassion practices can offer a window into new perspectives of our interconnection with each other, with all living beings, and with the earth. This may sound esoteric but is increasingly being proved as scientific fact, and becoming aware of this can influence the way we care for others. As Sharon Salzberg puts it, “nothing in life stands alone” and “if we respect interconnection it creates an unforced altruism”.
And ultimately acting in honour of this interconnectedness is vital for successful activism. We are more powerful when we see our connections, and act together. Valerie Kaur puts it this way: “Individual acts of love are not enough. We need to be part of movements that help us wonder, grieve and fight together”. A practice of mindfulness and compassion can be a gateway to deeply experiencing connection in ourselves, in our movements and with the natural world of which we are all a part.
Sustaining Hope in Challenging Times
Of course there are many challenges facing us in today’s world, and it can be easy to get caught up in traps of either denial or despair. Inner practices can help us sustain hope in these times. I know many struggle with the concept of hope as overly optimistic in the current global context, but in response I point to the important work of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, who refer to Active Hope, which “is not wishful thinking. Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by some savior. Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act.”
In my own work at the Network of Wellbeing (NOW) I connect with many people and projects who are embodying active hope. NOW is a UK-based charity with a vision of a world in which everyone can thrive within the planet’s natural limits. NOW’s mission is to connect, support and empower those working towards sustainable wellbeing, through events, network-building and community projects. I’d love to close this post by inviting you to join an upcoming NOW event, Hope in Action: Resilient Responses to Climate Change. This event will take place on Tuesday 9th November, as part of the COP26 People’s Summit and I hope it will offer us the chance to hear from some incredible changemakers about the inner practices which sustain their activism over time.
Flo Scialom works at the Network of Wellbeing (NOW) as Communications and Events Manager. She is a trained facilitator and mindfulness practitioner, with much of her facilitation focused on Active Hope and the Work that Reconnects. She holds an MA in Anthropology and Development from Leiden University (Netherlands) and a BA in International Relations from Sussex University (UK). She also writes her own blog on mindfulness and social change, called Mindful Change.
Angela Davis, Radical Self Care on Youtube.
Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Berkeley, California 1984.
Chris Johnstone, Active Hope. How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, 2012.
Joanna Macy, Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, Berkeley, California 1998.
Lama Rod Owens, Love and Rage. The Path of Liberation through Anger, Berkeley, Calidornia 2020.
Sharon Salzberg, Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, 2020.
Valarie Kaur, See no Stranger. A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, New York 2020.