Reflections from the Engaged Buddhist Training

Last summer, we supported 16 participants from a wide pool of socially engaged backgrounds to explore what it means to be more effective practitioners, able to turn towards some difficult issues within their working environments and in the world at large. Below we hear from ‘AJ’, who has been working in humanitarian settings on themes such as protection and inclusion for six years. She shares how personal reflection and lucidity can help bring out the best in us for social engagement and how the experience fed back into her work.

“Don’t give up your power” a participant of the ecodharma’s Engaged Buddhist Training told me last August, whilst we were chopping vegetables for lunch. Of course, it made sense to hear this on a training for social change; don’t give up your power to the powerful, fight for your rights and for social justice. But at that moment, it meant something different. It meant don’t give up your power to your fears, your thoughts and your environment. It was an invitation not to self-deceive. That’s why I was there, to discover how I could best contribute to social change while staying true to myself. This sentence struck me and I have since repeated it to myself on different occasions.

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I heard about the Engaged Buddhist Training at a time when I was questioning my engagement with humanitarian aid. I was tired and a bit hopeless, unable to imagine a brighter future for the world. I was questioning whether humans can really find a way out of violence, fear, animosity and greed as, even in the aid and social change sectors, I was witnessing such behavior. I felt disillusioned with the sector’s shortcomings – its inability to embrace diversity, and its counter-productive competitiveness between actors; its violence also, often in human relationships relating to power dynamics, privilege, ego trips, cynicism etc. I had seen many committed, engaged people becoming exhausted and bitter and reproducing forms of violence – and I saw myself acting at times in ways I wasn’t proud of.

I am among the privileged few who have been able to choose their line of work. I want it to contribute to my flourishing as a person and not to be shaped, perhaps negatively, by it. I asked myself Can I change for the better or is it too late? Is the kind of change I aspire to even possible for me? My fear was to wake up one day not recognising myself, wondering how I had gotten so far from my aspirations. I knew I needed to take better care of myself but was struggling with the ‘mantra’, the social obligation almost, in the humanitarian world to think of others first and sacrifice oneself for the work as a proof of engagement for the cause. This dichotomy left me feeling guilty – whether to let myself down or to let others down.

Seeing the title of the training, I hesitated at the ‘Buddhist’ part. My knowledge of Buddhism was basically non-existent and the phrases it brought to mind were “think positive” and “accept whatever is”, which I related to a certain kind of naivety and passivity. Then, I read this quote in the training description, from Donald Rothberg:

“Our times desperately call for both spiritual and social commitments. Without spiritual development, well-meaning attempts to change the world will probably unconsciously replicate the very problems that we believe we are solving. … But if the path of spiritual transformation is not socially informed, it too is at risk. There is the irony of attempting to overcome self-centeredness through spiritual practice while ignoring the cries of the world”.

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This was my first “aha!” moment, abandoning a long-held belief that I had to choose between taking care of myself and caring for others. Discovering that considering my needs and personal growth can contribute and is even to the wider change, and how transforming the world around us invites us to be personally transformed was liberating.

At ecodharma I was given the opportunity to reflect on why I even wanted social change, to reconsider my beliefs about others, the world, and myself, and to deconstruct beliefs and reconstruct them in a fresh way. For this to be possible I needed to feel safe and equipped to fully embrace the challenge. I felt that together we created a space where I could let my mask drop and be seen and see myself more honestly. I could feel three concentric spaces, each one helping me to deepen and connect to my aspirations:

Firstly, thanks to the beautiful setting and its isolation, I was able to create distance from some of my habitual tendencies, my repetitive thought patterns, and also my responsibilities with which I tend to identify. In this temporary community, I felt freed of the responsibility of being my “outside” self. Secondly, with my small base group, I found a place of support and care when I was vulnerable but also a place to be challenged on the way I envisioned social change or myself. It highlighted my need for community or sangha to feel less isolated, but also it offered a fair but loving mirror with which to have myself reflected back to me. And finally, at the center of the concentric spaces was the space within myself, or rather, the space that “I” am – a space that contains thoughts and sensations but is not them. With the meditation guidance, I discovered and sometimes experienced the huge power we have to welcome whatever is present without judgement, but with lucidity and loving kindness. To identify my habitual ways of thinking and doing, and then dis-identify by realising that they are not ‘me’. I therefore discovered another dimension of “don’t give up your power” – giving it up to the mind, because I saw that ‘I’ was more than my thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

This opened up transformative perspectives, particularly around the theme of identity. I saw that the more I cling to certain identities to build a solid sense of self, the more I tend to push away those with different identities, creating an “us versus them” dynamic. The more I identify, the stronger the emotional attachment, and the rejection of anything that seems to threaten it. Identifying these ‘clingings’ helped me understand why sometimes communication was impossible, why I was reacting so strongly to certain people and situations, and helped me to recognise some of my typical reactions when I felt this identity was in danger or being brought into question. Imagine how different our organisations would be if each of us was able to look at our behaviors with compassion, even when acting out of bad faith (not recognising our mistakes or having prejudices), or fear (of rejection or of what others may think) rather than promoting good relationships or finding the most efficient solution.

I took this internal compassionate space with me when I left ecodharma. To this space, and not self-pity, is where I now go when I look at and speak to myself honestly about my shortcomings, without beating myself up for not being perfect and congruent all the time. I’ve also realised that this caring space can extend to others, who may not yet know how to create their own. And perhaps this, in turn, may help them to get in touch with themselves, without judgement.

As a newbie, I got a lot from the teachings on Buddhist principles. It offered new frameworks on themes around suffering, the self, and of time. The work around compassionate action also highlighted the relevance of Buddhist principles to social change and especially how I could sustain involvement without depleting my energy and losing hope. I had previously been quite skeptical about the term ‘compassion’ until I started to understand what it was pointing to – The ability to come close to life, to stay with one’s experience, even though it might contain suffering. I can relate this so clearly to the rage and profound sadness I have experienced sometimes; returning to Europe from a long work period abroad, and witnessing people and families living in the streets of wealthy cities. And the shame of not being able to sustain eye contact, whether I was giving or not, because the suffering was overwhelming me. Being unable to be with that suffering was making me a passive onlooker reacting with guilt rather than a meaningful actor able to more wholeheartedly respond. I’m far from being compassionate all of the time of course, but I feel more hopeful and committed now, knowing what to strive for.

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Overall it may be the training methodology that most impacted me. Witnessing the team sincerely enjoying what they were doing was a good reminder that work doesn’t have to be a drag! I also discovered that each one of us took from the experience what we each needed to learn. Most often, after an exercise, we would break into small groups to share our experience. I had so many “aha!” moments just by listening to others sharing their experience, realising how I tend to think and operate in groups, under stress or competition. The fact that there was no need in this setting for a formal ‘teacher’ catalysed a shift and gave me confidence that when good conditions are in place, we can see ourselves with lucidity and are more able to manifest the changes we seek for ourselves and others.

The training also triggered a shift from seeing my engagement from a position of ‘the saviour’, based on a fear of not making a difference in the world, to a more humble position of ‘contributor’ grounded in the joy of contributing to the wellbeing of others and to something larger. This alleviated the guilt that came with thinking “I’m not doing enough to change the world”. This shift in view came from a place of abundance, not scarcity – seeing oneself as a contributor also allows me to see others as such and to trust in our collective capacity to bring about change.

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Realising how clinging to my sense of self, although often necessary, sometimes gets in the way, I have started giving more attention to clarify my intentions when acting and to celebrate when I succeed. I aim to hold my sense of self more lightly, accepting that I change and that behaviors, beliefs or values that I may consider as being a part of me, can change too. Social change is an iterative process that brings both social and personal transformation. For me, this is especially important in fields like humanitarian work where we may not always be open to questioning ourselves because we are “good people”, who want to help others. There are much-needed discussions around power, rank, and privilege that would benefit from this non-judgmental approach.

With the different tools, exercises and dynamics I’ve discovered that I feel more confident to take part in a transformative group. I have integrated some elements into my current work, being aware and attentive that it may increase people’s uncertainties and feelings of vulnerability. My main challenge so far has been to discern how to come forward with these learnings. My field of work is based on value-for-money, is result-oriented and perceives itself as ‘realistic’. Speaking about personal development or anything that might be perceived as ‘spiritual’ is not easy. I’m navigating this carefully to find supporters and entry points, such as improving collaborative efforts, communication and conflict management.

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The journey isn’t finished but the Buddhist Engaged training did kick off something important. There is no easy path, no magic solution. But for those like me, who see no other choice than seeking meaningful ways to contribute, who cannot give up and look the other way, this may be a valuable step in sustaining or regaining our power.

The Engaged Buddhist Training will run from 1st to 15th September 2019.

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