An important strand to our Engaged Buddhist work is the Deeper Resources for Action training, which offers systematic in-depth meditation training to social change makers looking to harness meditative practices to empower their action. Annabel Pinker, a Social Anthropologist whose research interests include grassroots social and political movements, reflects on her experience during last years training.
At the end of October last year, a small group of us brought our restlessness and dilemmas to the wintry Pyrenean valley of Abella de Conca. For two weeks, we slipped into a daily rhythm of sitting meditation, yoga and teachings, accompanied by the spit and crackle of the wood-burner, the sweep of wind and vultures’ wings above the canvas of the meditation space. Already less familiar to myself, I gradually submitted to the deepening quiet, nourished by good food, sleep, companionship, and the awkwardly intimate encounter with this ‘me’ that gradually seemed to lose its singularity, fracturing into uneven layers of tensions, surges of energy and emotion, images, achingly repetitive storylines. Such movements gave way at times, so unexpectedly, into far less familiar terrain – as if crashing all of a sudden out of tangled thickets of impenetrable jungle into a spacious moonscape, stretching way beyond the limits of sight, dissolving the jagged rushes of feeling, my tight witnessing gaze, my burning questions, my drive to get through to the next thing, whatever that was, into – something vast, benign and profoundly mysterious. Sometimes it was possible to dwell there for a while, even explore unknown strata; then all of a sudden, I would be popped out, as magically as I had found myself there, back into something like ordinary, familiar experience.
What do such minute encounters with the visceral, often boring and painful, occasionally delightful stuff of being a being have to do with activism? The collective experience of our group – a bunch of 20, 30 and 40-somethings from the UK, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, and Hungary – included training activists and humanitarian workers; providing policy, legal, and research-based support for non-profit organisations; organising protests and campaigns on climate, environmental, and socio-political issues; facilitating engagement with and between young people through music; working to establish an action-research cooperative for the promotion of socially just housing; and developing research and spaces of public engagement concerning energy transition. The versions of activism at stake were as numerous as the people on the training.
But beyond these roles, many of us were variously exploring the boundaries of more established understandings of activism. In one way or another, most of us had been drawn to Ecodharma because fighting the good fight in the old ways didn’t seem to cut it anymore. Some had experienced burn-out after particularly intense periods of engagement. What sort of transformation was being modelled if activists brought to their work the same kind of driven, productivist, disembodied or hyper-rational ethic that generally predominates in the West? Wasn’t that orientation just another instantiation of the world we wanted to change? Others questioned what activism really means at a time when the old dualisms – humans and nature; mind and body; individual and collective – no longer serve as descriptions of reality at a time when new ‘hyper-objects’, like climate change, have exposed how radically plural and entangled things are. It’s easier to act on phenomena when filed neatly away in compartments labelled, ‘politics’, ‘environment’, ‘social’, and ‘economy’. Less so when seen as interconnected parts of complex, overlapping, ultra-globalised systems in which we (as individuals, collectives and institutions) are profoundly implicated. Less so too when personal and corporate responsibility is routinely overridden by the right to consume conferred by the dominance of free market liberalism.
In short, all of us, in different ways, had discerned that scant transformation was available without turning our gaze back on ourselves. We had recognised that we were minute parts of these larger wholes, conditioned and shaped by them even as we railed against their injustices. In my case, my usual strategies for making things happen didn’t seem to work very well anymore, and – partly through my early experiments with meditation – I had begun to wake up to the frankly terrifying possibility that the political and social worlds that appeared to be outside of me mirrored to a large degree my patterns of seeing, thinking and feeling. The reassuring schism between my ‘inner’ life and a stable, objective ‘outer’ landscape that I could act on became more fragile. How far was I co-creating this outside that I had taken to be separate from myself? Patriarchy, black-and-white thinking, and bigotry – I began to experience as well as cognitively understand – had their ground in the rigidities, aggressions and fears that often registered in my body as critical thoughts, dark images and contractions in musculature. I uncovered a strong strain of puritanism in my critiques of the power structures we inhabit – a whiff of ‘I am on the side of the good’. The labour of sitting with my internal movements, the continuous work of gently pulling myself back from my tedious storylines, was humbling. Staying with anger long enough to experience the grief, vulnerability, or potent lifeforce that so often quivered behind it has begun, over the past few years, to demystify the righteous rage I had taken to be all about what was going on ‘out there’. What has come in its stead is something sadder, more ambivalent and – I think – softer and more humane. This is not the kind of change I have expected or wanted; when I set out on this path – which has taken me down the avenues of herbalism, body and energy work, though always with a meditation practice at the core – I envisaged some more transcendent, complete and victorious outcome probably, in keeping with the mind that started out on the journey. So far, I see no end in sight – just a constantly unfolding horizon of new terrain, whilst the old patterns are always ready to reassert themselves.
Of course, the inevitable – and legitimate – next question in the face of all of this is, that’s all well and good, but what about action? Injustice may be more complex and ambivalent than meets the eye, but surely retreat is not an adequate response. We are all familiar with recent wellness trends – which so often seem to prescribe yet another kind of commoditised hyper-individualism – one crafted around the desirability of a muscular body, zen-like mind, and kale-rich eating regime. Meditation has all too often been hauled onto the same ground. It is here that Ecodharma’s work has most deeply influenced me. I’ve heard no assertions from Ecodharma folk that meditation is the great panacea for social change, or that we just need to ‘do our internal work’ and then we can act. Instead, there’s an emphasis on a life of activism, collective living, and meditative practice all at once; it’s possible to live actively, contemplatively and communally, even if the nature of things is that one of these may dominate more at any one time. Whilst a high value is placed on best practice – and no doubt there’s some perfectionism in that – that this labour of living is necessarily imperfect, ambivalent, processual, and never complete is readily acknowledged. We’re not gods-in-the-making on a journey towards paradise; instead we act in the world and co-create with others to the best of our ability even as we courageously, haltingly explore our internal lineaments.
I had brought a question with me to Ecodharma: how to bring my work as an anthropologist into more active engagement with the closely imbricated spiritual, political, and ecological concerns that have come to play an ever more central role in my life? How to deploy anthropology for more generative purposes, for contributing to change, rather than simply as an extractive mode of knowledge production for academic audiences? Since first bringing this question to Ecodharma in 2016, allies have serendipitously appeared, and – after a colleague and I co-hosted a public conversation on post-oil futures in Aberdeen with a local arts organisation earlier this year – a small, but growing, local network of arts organisations and social scientists has formed with an interest in curating public dialogues, activities and events on energy transition in Scotland. The work is slow. I have no idea where it will lead. But it is an evolving process that is, for me at least, supported by a view that I began exploring more fully through my encounter with others at Ecodharma: that meditative and spiritual practices support the development of an activism that arises from deeper, more intuitive places in ourselves, that is willing to embrace mystery, rework old dogmas around what should constitute social and political action, and remake itself in tune with our times.