Deeper Resources for Action

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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New Engaged Buddhist Team This Summer

The development of social change practice underpinned by the dharma is at the heart of ecodharma’s vision. We have been running our Engaged Buddhist Training course for almost eight years now, developing the theory and curriculum and widening the pool of trainers and groups we work with. This year’s team will bring two facilitators into the Engaged Buddhist work for the first time, and we are very excited about it!

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Joining Alex Swain, who has been living at ecodharma for almost 10 years and is a key voice in the development of ecodharma’s engaged buddhist work, will be Kathryn Tulip. Kathryn is a long standing social justice campaigner, and has been training and facilitating in grassroots movements for over a decade. Much of this work has been achieved as part of the Seeds for Change/Navigate collective, of which she is a co-founder. With them will be Eweryst Zaremba, social activist, trainer and member of SPINA and EYFA. Eweryst has been involved in a whole range of social and environmental struggles, and is currently focusing most of his energy on feminist, trans* and queer issues – writing, performing and training.

This has freed up Guhyapati to do more work with the ulex project, which is about to complete its first full year of programming, having worked with over 200 activists from over 20 countries. The project has run courses in a wide range of skills from activist resiience to movement level strategy. If you’re interested in following the progress of the ulex project you can sign up for our newsletter.

We can’t wait to dive into what promises to be a fruitful and inspiring collaboration, gathering the wealth of experience and wisdom within this team and creating something fresh and current. Come join us for two weeks of stimulating learning and exploration, as we collectively investigate: What does Action from Depth feel, sound and look like? And how do we get there together?

 

 

Adventures in Wild Therapy

The beginning of May saw our first ever Wild Therapy ecopsycology training. We we’re joined by Emma Palmer and Justin Roughly, who guided the group through a week of exploratory sessions together. Emma writes below about the experience, including some of the challenges that they faced as a group of learners with divergent therapeutic backgrounds and interests, and how this learning will inform future Wild Therapy trainings.

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For the first time this spring ‘Wild Therapy’ came to Ecodharma. I love Wild Therapy and I love Ecodharma – the place and community – so I was very glad to be bringing the two together. Wild therapy has its roots in the more radical origins and practices of counselling and psychotherapy, has emerged in response to the increasing ‘taming’ of beings (including therapists), and recognises the urgent need for us to realise our connection with the so-called ‘natural world’. A main intention of Wild Therapy is to bring therapy into the wild and wildness into therapy, so the week saw 14 of us moving between solo work, pair work and whole group work as we socially dreamed together, meditated together, explored different aspects of Wild therapy, and co-created community. And the learning goes on, as we digest and return home…

On the Wild therapy website it says that this way of working ‘seeks to rebalance therapy – and in the long run, human culture – with a good dollop of wildness, spontaneity, boundlessness and passion’. I certainly think that we managed at least some of this last week and I feel much gratitude to the 12 participants for bringing themselves so heart-fully, gut-fully and spirit-fully to the course and for forming strong bonds. For me the diversity of the group was both a strength and weakness. There was a tension between some wanting more content and some wanting more whole-group process and in future I would be drawn to offering this course solely to counsellors and psychotherapists, purely because in narrowing the focus of course participants, we may be able to go deeper. Having said that, I think it was the diversity of this particular course that made it wild – food for thought! Ecodharma already offers an amazing range of courses for people practising nature connection, whilst this is the first course for therapists, so that may be another reason for narrowing the focus slightly.

I’m used to holding Wild therapy courses in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Somerset, so it was amazing to explore this work in a landscape which is much wilder still, in the midst of the richness of the other than human and more than human life there. A big thank you to everyone at Ecodharma who make these life-changing events possible. And last and definitely not least, all the beings in la Serra de Carreu: the vultures, eagles, cuckoos, chuffs, deer, goats, the cowslips, tiny daffodils, and wild hellebores, and all the other beings. I bow deeply.