Lessons from the USA


Just back from a training for trainers with the amazing Philadelphia based organisation Training for Change, Paula Haddock, who co-created our Mindfulness for Social Change course asks: What is the role of inner work in our efforts towards social justice and environmental sustainability? Why spend any time on working on the inside, when there is so much to do on the outside?


I’ve spent ten years working in international development and I find inner work is still largely unexplored and often undervalued in social change circles. In the last few years, I have been a co-founding member of a network on mindfulness and social change. The idea was to reach out and find others who were interested in the link between the two and were experimenting on training them together. This network now stands at sixty individuals across and is growing as more become interested in the links between the two. Ecodharma clearly values and promotes both inner and outer work for social change and we piloted a new course on Mindfulness and Social Change, which resonated well with people, and so we are running it again in October. But what about other social change organisations? How would they answer these questions?


In July, I invested in a training of trainers for social actors course, run by Training for Change in Philadelphia. Similarly to Ecodharma in Europe, Training for Change train activists and organisers who work on a range of justice issues including race, gender, disability and employment – mainly in North America. They believe in ‘direct education’ – a highly experiential approach to training, encouraging spontaneous learning, risk taking and challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Over the three-week course, one of the things that struck me was that this was not a standard training of trainers. Their experience of working in social change over decades has shown that greater attention is needed on ‘psychological content’ rather than curriculum content alone and so they focused on many of the areas that often get left out:


  • how to ‘read’ the group in each moment and help it move forward – requiring the trainer to pay close attention, use their intuition, and be driven by where the group are rather than where the trainer expects/wants them to be
  • how to identify and work with mainstream and margins in groups – noticing how power is being taken or given, how sub-groups are formed, and how group dynamics are playing out
  • how to cultivate creativity and encourage risk taking – supporting people to find out what helps them to think outside the box and see and challenge their own self-limiting beliefs
  • how to emergently design to the group as it evolves and its’ needs change – requiring an incredible amount of flexibility, patience and responsive from the trainer


In exploring these areas, we learnt from our own experience, that working on our inner realm – as well as the ‘secret life of groups’ was key to making any kind of sustainable progress on social change. In a similar vain to Ecodharma, we were supported to be authentic – and space and encouragement was given for our inner, emotional selves to be an accepted and important part of our learning experience. In this way, we could fully ‘show up’ – as complex and sometimes conflicted beings that we all are, and by ‘showing up’ the possibilities for learning increased dramatically.


The 23 of us on the course all had strong beliefs and values as you would expect. We had hopes and desires for the work we were doing. We were all highly motivated, committed, and hard working. We were also conditioned by our education, culture and class. We had ingrained prejudices, fears, and self-limiting beliefs. We were affected by difficult emotions – our own and others – and had all learnt our own strategies – for better or worse – for dealing with conflict. We had our own sets of mental boundaries, and we had anxieties of all shapes and sizes. Through the course, we were encouraged to notice how all of this affected our work in groups, both in the course, and at home. We were encouraged to ‘show up’ – even if that was challenging for the group.


This sometimes gave rise for more conflict which was accepted and even sometime encouraged as an essential part of our learning experience. After all, anything that takes us out of our comfort zone – which by its very nature learning does – will involve some degree of conflict and working with edges. For real change to take place, we often had to ‘unlearn’ as much as learn from scratch. We were given responsibility for defining and working on our own learning objectives with the support of peers and trainers. Through encouraging curiosity and learning to ask open questions, we began to see beyond the ‘lenses’ through which we see the world, paving the way for a shift of attitude and new behaviours and skills.


The trainers argued that inner work was critical. If we go ‘unchecked’ and unaware, we risk recreating the same systems that we are so keen to replace. Prejudices such as racism, for example, cannot be banished from work on external structures alone. As we see from history, it keeps arising despite the political progress, as many still struggle with a sense of ‘otherness’ – with people being ‘different’. As long as prejudice and resistance to diversity exists within us, it will continue to show up in the systems and structures around us. Privilege and rank are other factors which often go unacknowledged in groups and can lead to power imbalances. Our culture of individualism, competition and our sense of ‘resource’ and ‘time’ scarcity are further influences which affect the way we work. Social change must include both inner and outer realms to ensure that we do not replicate oppression, injustice and inequality.


It is also vital that we consciously invest in a positive vision for our groups, organisations and society as a whole. Anger, frustration, and fear will motivate us for a while but for greater change we need stronger fuel: compassion, non-judgement, creativity, patience, trust and courage. In the course, we sought to uncover and cultivate our sources of creativity and learn about our own positive ‘resource states’ which could refuel us when difficult emotions drained us. Mindfulness practice has helped me see how much I was conforming to social norms to do more, to judge, to compete and to seek recognition. This was hindering my efforts to collaborate, network and communicate. Courses such as those offered by Training for Change and Ecodharma are leading the way in helping those working in social change to do the necessary work to help us ‘show up’, involve our whole selves more – even when we don’t always like what we bring – and bring more acceptance to who we are and be stronger as a result.


The Mindfulness and Social Change course at Ecodharma, running for eight days in October, draws on secular mindfulness approaches to inner work, as well as Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, body based work, and nature connection practices, and Training for Change and George Lakey’s work on direct education. We will explore key skills for social change including communication, team work, conflict management, working with power dynamics, mainstreams and margins, and forming collaborations. I can’t think of an environment more striking and beautiful to learn in than at Ecodharma in the Pyrenees. Get in touch if you are interested in the course or joining the network. There is a lot of work to do and we’d love to hear from others working in this area. Email paulahaddock@hotmail.co.uk or info@ecodharma.com





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