As if to demonstrate the power of regeneration, the final conference in the Regenerative Activism series imbued us with renewed energy just as participants needed it. Led by the Ulex Project in collaboration with Advaya, the session put regenerative practice into action by focusing on the multi-dimensional ways in which activists can build resilience. It offered a departure from previous weeks, moving beyond a deep dive into the interlinked symptoms of a system causing crisis and harm, to address the question: how can activists continuously resource themselves to respond? Five inspiring panellists spoke about the unique work they are doing forging resilience at the personal, socio-political and organisational level. They demonstrated that - in such uncertain times - it is imperative to learn how to improve our capacity to replenish individual and collective wellbeing. This left each one of us with a commitment to grounding our activism in relationship with each other, ourselves and the earth. In doing so, the conference has gifted us with regenerated vigour: the resilience to reconnect and reground ourselves, in order to breathe deep change to life.
PROBLEMATISING ‘THE PROBLEM’
In the context of the pandemic, the first three weeks of the Regenerative Activism Series brought together diverse panels to weave a story of both symptomatic distress and emerging action. ‘Deep change’ was used as a mode of analysis through which each interwoven strand could be followed to its root cause. We examined ‘the problem’; namely the destructive nature of our politico-economic and legal systems which – even when considered a force for good - can drive environmental devastation and social fragmentation. We then explored ‘proposed solutions,’ or the many strategies put forward for moving beyond a carbon-addicted system toward a just transition, that enables human and earth communities to thrive.
As a commitment to breaking down binary ways of thinking, I want to make an active departure from the structure of the articles to date vis-à-vis ‘the problem’ and ‘proposed solutions.’ The series itself was decisive in its commitment to avoid totalising narratives of societal ills, approaching discussions using whole systems theory. It examined the intersecting components of ‘deep change,’ which flow, merge and grow together, moving through the rupture of crisis like flood waters bestowing new and abundant life after a season of fire. By drawing on the creative capacities of speakers who recognised their responsibility as storytellers, discussions were animated by solutions-oriented focus. Naturally, the aim of this was to ensure that – both within the discussions and as a society – we do not become stranded in the present mode of crisis and inaction.
In this vein, this final article will not offer a detailed analysis of ‘the problem.’ It will not consider – as was explored in detail in the conference and previous articles - the interlinking socio-political, environmental and public health crises driven by an extractive capitalist system. Likewise, it will not provide ‘proposed solutions’ for effectively challenging systems of power that perpetuate harm. Instead, I aim to frame this article by using a concept I felt was nurtured and co-created throughout the course of the conference, which I coin here ‘mindful resilience.’ This is a spin on a concept that has repeatedly emerged in the literature on systems change, which authors such as Sean Chamberlin, Joanna Macey, Christiana Figueres and Tom-Rivett Carnac have called ‘dark optimism’ ‘active hope,’ and ‘stubborn optimism.’[i]
An inquiry into an eroded sense of relationship and wholeness, and the impact this has had on our emotional and psychological wellbeing, will therefore be framed by the concept of ‘mindful resilience.’ This is a resilience that considers not just the why but also the what we can do about it. It is a mindfulness that calls into being a deep understanding of our context and positionality, including where – both individually and collectively – we have come from. Rather than dwelling too long on how we have arrived here, it looks at this present moment as a point of departure: a reckoning as to how, as activists, we can show up. This ‘mindful resilience’ is about community, healing and action, and is something we must form together if we are to sustain ourselves in order to do the work that is needed. It is about holding space for multiple truths that fit within and around each other. To do so, we must recognise that our strategies for activism and personal growth are multifarious, nuanced, complex and flawed. Most of all, developing mindful resilience is about deepening our relationship with ourselves, each other and the earth. This will enable us to find the renewed energy and adaptive capacities needed for our activism to flourish and become truly regenerative.
The Spread of Mindfulness
Mindfulness first reached the Western world through the translation of the philosophical and religious text the Bhagavad Gita into English by Charles Wilkins in 1784.[ii] This predominant text is just one way to trace the lineage of mindfulness from Eastern religions – with its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism - to its presence in Western science.[iii] In the last 200 years mindfulness has entered into popular consciousness at an increasingly rapid pace, where practices have adapted, appropriated and commodified, and in the course of doing so have formed the basis of many disparate disciplines. One of the biggest influences of bringing mindfulness form the East to the West was Jon Kabat-Zinn, who studied mindfulness under several Buddhist teachers and later developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This was one of the first major integrations of mindfulness into Western science and medicine, and is credited as the foundational practice leading to Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).[iv] An awareness of mindfulness has since become popularised in the UK by professors such as Mark Williams, whose work was a major influence in introducing MBCT to the NHS.[v]
The rise of medical mindfulness has meant that individuals who may have never been introduced to the ideas and practices of mindfulness are now accessing it through mainstream health services, as a supplement or replacement to other treatments. In this sense, mindfulness has been disassembled and repackaged for the modern Western mind, where it is now taught as an isolated practice taken out of its traditional philosophical context. Despite the issues of the over-medicalisation and commodification of mindfulness, writer and PHD student Henry Aughterson writes that ‘we must acknowledge the power that medical institutions have in helping to expand mindfulness’ as a means by which people can develop tools to support themselves and their wellbeing. Aughterson proposes that we avoid being swept up in grand totalising narratives about the medicalisation or Westernisation of mindfulness, as these can often lead us to overlook the capacity of mindfulness to support greater numbers of people in its many diverse forms.
Adding to this conversation about new forms of mindfulness are panellists Aesha and Dean Francis, who created the Urban Mindfulness Association to address the limitations they found within existing mindfulness-based practices. Aesha and Dean found that, within their formal training, any attempts to grapple with societal problems in the outer world was actively discouraged. It became difficult for them to reconcile working solely on one’s self and inner life with the reality of communities who were being hit hard by social and systemic injustice. They also saw shortcomings to the medicalised model of mindfulness, who’s detached focus on breathing practices - without being embedded in teachings of compassion – similarly avoids systemic and social issues.[vi] Their association grew as Aesha and Dean wanted to use mindfulness as a tool to further examine their agency to change the world around them. Their teaching was born from the concept of ‘relationship’ and considers the relational way in which we interact with ourselves, the systems we are positioned within, and those around us. As such they formulated a new definition of mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is about knowing how you relate to everyone and everything.”
Similarly, Layla F. Saad explores the importance of reclaiming relationship within mindfulness and the industry of yoga her Good Ancestor Podcast.[vii] With speakers Michelle Johnson and Kerri Kelly, she examines the way capitalism has conditioned us to accept transactionality: it is often not about centring and prioritising relationship but about what we can get from any given interaction. The speakers examine the way whiteness, like capitalism and colonial legacy, is based in ‘taking,’ or ownership and control. As the practice of yoga has in many areas intersected with capitalism - to become the industry of yoga – modern ‘wellness’ practices have become overtaken by and synonymous with whiteness. The dangers of this industry lie in the fact that spiritual bypassing – in the form of passivity and avoidance - when backed by a privileged perspective of spirituality can perpetuate harmful practices while giving lip service to ‘wholeness’.[viii]
As such, like the Urban Mindfulness Association, Johnson and Kelly see centring relationship as a way to heal and move towards regenerative approaches that are rooted in community, sharing and support. Central to this practice is developing a capacity for understanding in an embodied way how all things are connected. Both see curiosity as a skill for reckoning as it cultivates our capacity for being in complexity, enabling us to learn how to be in messiness: the grey area, the uncomfortable and the non-binary. This can be done by guiding people through levels of inquiry about habitual patterning, social conditioning and how these become manifest in attitudes and behaviour. In teaching how to actively and critically observe the judgement and preference processes inherent in the mind, mindfulness has the power to help us navigate relationships through a sense of difference and uncomfortability. Such practices enable us to better discern the limitations inherent in our institutions and systems, cultivating our ability to co-exist and form respectful relationships that effect change.
Rather than ignoring social problems in the outer world, the Urban Mindfulness Association aims to bring together inner life with outer action in the form of activism.
Such approaches have their locus in the emerging concept of ‘sacred activism.’ This term was originally coined by Andrew Harvey to define the way in which traditional activism, when interacting and fusing with spiritual knowledge, can create wise radical action to produce systemic change.[ix] Author and speaker Bayo Akomolafe critiques the notion of sacred activism as a form of binarisation of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘ordinary,’ as it presumes actions of social justice the be devoid of the sacred[x]. He aims to break down and reassemble reductive, universalising ways of thinking and behaving, calling for:
“A redescription of the framework by which we make sense of what is problematic, what is agentic, what is useful and what haunts our earnest notions of justice.”
He invites us to practice not sacred activism but ‘postactivism,’ a way of being that considers our entanglement with the human and more than human world, through which we ask new questions about how we respond to crisis.[xi]
REGENERATION AND REGROWTH#
Merging the Inner and Outer
When we approach our activism with such mindful resilience, we may see results in the form of regeneration and regrowth. Such practices can play an essential role in healing our inner and outer worlds. If we recognise what’s going inside of us is linked to what is happening in the outside world, we notice patterns that can help point us in the right direction. Our activism can be improved by knowing how, when and why to act – an understanding that augments our ability to forge ‘right relationship,’ with ourselves, each other and the earth. As Sophia Benrud from the podcast Our Climate Voices states, in order to tap into a more fluid way of being that prioritises care, we need to first examine ‘the climate within ourselves (to) directly see how that is affecting the environment around us’.[xii]
Examining real world problems with a deeper appreciation of the influence of our inner worlds is a key focus for panellist Anthea Lawson, leader of the ‘Beyond Activism’ campaign at Perspectiva. [xiii] Despite many wins she has experienced during her long career as an international campaigner, she came to the conclusion that meaningful change would remain elusive unless activists first grasped that we cannot change society without also changing ourselves. When fighting against the international arms trade and campaigning against tax havens, she found her work was replicating aspects of the system that she was trying to overcome. By looking at the link between the inner and outer worlds, she was able to recognise the extent and depth that ‘we are part of what we are trying to change.[xiv]’ She is driven by the question:
What shifts when we acknowledge that we are part of what we are trying to change?
What she has found is that this question alters how activists engage with the social issues they are working against. They are less likely to approach their work in a polarising manner, and therefore more able to have effective conversations. In recognising the way in which habits of domination run within us, and especially within activists with white privilege, Anthea argues we can see more clearly when these are re-enacted. Like the Urban Mindfulness Association, she considers the root of bad policies to be in how humans relate to one another. She argues that recognising our interconnectedness or ‘entanglement’ is radical, as to look into both our inner and outer lives is to refute the duality binary demanded by the dominant culture. Most importantly, the communication between the two allows us to approach our activism in a conscious way, ensuring that we are mindful not to reproduce the very systems we are trying to dismantle.
Decolonisation and Regeneration
The habits of dominance that Anthea explores are expounded by speaker and learning facilitator Mama D. Mama D examines how coloniality has arisen from the imperial gaze and an over emphasis on the visual cortex or sense of sight.[xv] She looks at the role the language of Modernity plays in erasure and removal, in that humans are no longer considered as being part of nature or the earth. This has stemmed from the quality of naming, through which one ascribes meaning to something in order to claim ownership over it. Such thinking, which was exerted through the processes of colonial domination, has spread its universalising and totalising influence across the globe. This means we have become attuned to binaries, considering relationships in terms of ‘us versus them.’ The proliferation of these forms of thinking mean we don’t recognise subtleties and nuances of being. As we live outside of natural cycles, we are programmed not to be able to notice the disruption that this causes. There is a disorder under the surface of things, which inhabits every being in the form of inbuilt trauma. Our shame at ‘being out of the order of things’ becomes suppressed and arises as sickness in various forms.[xvi] In this sense, Mama D posits that decolonisation is, first and foremost, an inner exploration to unearth and begin ‘the regenerative work that rises when we have repaired our wounds and (the wounds of) our collective body: the earth.’ For Mama D an essential element of reconciliation is rediscovering and reintegrating ourselves into the patterns of nature, a reunification that will encourage ways of being that are naturally regenerative.
Eweryst Zaremba, social activist and trainer from the Ulex Project, is another panellist whose activism is grounded in relationship. Eweryst runs a psychosocial resilience program for LGBTQI activist networks across Western Europe. Their activism has a strategic focus on climate justice and the rise of populist and nationalist regimes in Europe. Their grassroots organising fights against the impact of repressive anti-LGBTQI policy, such as new laws in Hungary prevent someone from changing their gender.[xvii] Ongoing work on the frontline meant that they began to shut down and experience burnout. The level of burnout across movements is extremely high, with one study demonstrating 73% of human rights activists had suffered deteriorating psychological and emotional health due to their activism.[xviii] This impact is compounded for frontline LGBTQI human rights defenders who are at additional risk of harm.
When considering burnout, an important distinction was made during discussions between those who are fighting on the frontlines and from a place of lived experience, versus those from a privileged background who choose to do this work. Burnout is understandably experienced differently for each group, as those coming from a position of privilege and putting their weight behind the struggle can choose to ‘tap out’ or stop showing up. A recent study of the Standing Rock struggle provides further insight into this important distinction. Authors found that notions of allyship and solidarity within anti-colonial social movements in Canada are often conflated.[xix] Identifying as an ‘ally,’ while well intentioned, can position one as ‘innocent,’ attempting to relieve feelings of guilt or responsibility without actually giving up power or privilege. In this sense, cultivating ‘mindful resilience’ as a way of overcoming activist burnout is as much about understanding when to relinquish power as it is about self-insight and self-care. It is about checking one’s privilege and letting go of notions of altruism, demonstrating solidarity only after we have considered our own self-interested motives. Building stronger relationships is key to opening up communication and developing understanding about how to show up, which requires ‘learning to be in a space that it still unsettled, messy, and an ongoing project.’[xx]
Community in Collective Action
When considering resilience within the context of solidarity, the question arises: what is the relationship of self-care to collective care? Collective action is about prioritising taking care of our community alongside taking care of ourselves. The benefits of activism that centres community has been experienced by panellist Jyoti Fernandes in her work with the La Via Campesina. La Via Campesina is an international peasant farmers movement that represents 200 million farmers across world, including indigenous and fisher peoples, migrant worker, and peasant farmers.[xxi] The movement defends food sovereignty, campaigning against structural inequality that prevents peasant farmers from having access to land, water and resources. It is made up of many different constituencies and types of organising, where competing life experiences can frequently clash, but are overcome through core values and consensus decision making. While much of the work that Jyoti does for La Via Campesina aims to overcome tensions by unifying groups across a common vision, the success of the movement lies in diverging from totalitising narratives. Jyoti believes that to keep movements alive, you need to accept those you are with and hold space for their multiple ways of being, in order to work across difference. This transformational shift has the power to steep activism in collectivity and community. It is across this difference that we can learn to transform systems, developing a sense of the human family, so that all may live in a truly dignified way.
Whatever form ‘mindful resilience’ may take for each of us, key to bringing about deep change is centring relationship. This work is about reforging our relationship with ourselves, each other and the earth. This imperative – which can both guide and energise our activism - is both a personal and collective one. Merging our inner work with our outer actions as activists can resource and empower us, thereby enriching our capacity to effect change. Before harnessing the individual and collective power of activists, a first critical step in this work is forming ‘right’ relationships. These relationships have the power to guide us within the untidy space of learning across difference. Such connections must be grounded in solidarity: a solidarity that is based on an ongoing commitment to acknowledging and relinquishing privilege. To do so successfully, we must become comfortable with the uncomfortable.
To conclude in the words of Layla F. Saad: ‘growth comes from a space of dissonance.’