Sit down, rise up: how meditation supports activism

The idea of Engaged Buddhism can seem like an oxymoron: how does fiery activism co-exist with the Buddhist philosophies of peace and nonviolence? Rebecca Hass tells the story of three people in Victoria, BC who use meditation to fuel their activism.
James Rowe (Rebecca Hass)

When James Rowe learned about the daily meditation that was part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, he was inspired. He formed a group called 'Meditation for Activists and Changemakers'. Rowe is part of a movement of social activists who are integrating mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, and chanting into their lives and work.

The idea of Engaged Buddhism can seem like an oxymoron: how does fiery activism co-exist with the Buddhist philosophies of peace and nonviolence?

In fact, mindfulness practices have powerful benefits for activists.

1/ Stop reacting, start choosing

Meditation helps you to widen the gap between what happens in the world and your reaction. As you meditate, you become more aware of they way your mind works, increasing your ability to choose how you respond instead of just reacting.

Louise Takeda is a practicing Buddhist in Victoria who is active in the fight against fossil fuels. Every week, she participates in peace and healing vigils outside the BC Legislature.

Louise Takeda and fellow Buddhists holding a peace vigil on the steps of the Victoria Legislature in British Columbia. (Rebecca Hass)

Takeda says the greatest challenges come when you confront people whose beliefs deeply challenge your own. She says her meditation practice has helped her to pause, listen, and have meaningful conversations.

"I've had conversations with people who have previously worked with the oil industry, and I will often refer to the 'tar sands' and he will get really angry and say 'it's the oil sands'. When I took this approach with him, it was so funny. Suddenly he was calling it the tar sands and I was respectfully calling it the oil sands."

2/ Prevent burnout

Ceaselessly fighting for a cause takes a toll. Rowe says vacations can recharge you in the short term, but the effects don't last. On the other hand, the benefits of a meditation practice are ongoing.

For eight years, Andrea Palframan divided her time between Salt Spring Island, BC and Lesotho, Africa. She worked with an organization in Lesotho called Phelisanong, which focused on helping orphans, people with disabilities and HIV. Her days were spent travelling to rural communities, helping to create programs, delivering health support and HIV testing. When she was home on Salt Spring Island, she spent her time fundraising for Phelisanong. Throughout that time, Andrea and her husband were raising two small children. Eventually, the work took a toll and Andrea crashed.

Andrea Palframan (Gary McNutt)

Her newfound yoga practice has added much-needed balance to her life.

"I suspected the whole self-care thing was indulgent and associated it with self-indulgence, and I got caught up in a bit of a martyr mentality… After my wild ride and after really valuing chaos as a driving force, to discover the usefulness, the practicality, of being calm and quiet made a huge enormous difference."

3/ Sustainability

Rowe says that most activists are fuelled by two strong emotions: hope for a better future and anger at injustice.

Palframan argues that while anger is a powerful inciting force, it flames out and doesn't sustain activists in the long term. Contemplation gives activists an opportunity to remember their deeper motivations.

"Oftentimes, we start doing things because we're looking for a way to live a moral life. But as [activists] grow and flourish and begin to succeed, it's because of the love and the relationships and the beauty that begins to bloom in your life because of meaningful activism. And being able to tune back in with that and reset with meditation, yoga, or mindfulness practices, tempers that anger and allows that long-term sustainability of a love-based activism."

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