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Achieving mindfulness in activism

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January 24, 2020

There are a lot of articles and posts on the Internet about self-care. After the mainstream popularization of the concept of self-care—and lots of companies glamorizing and capitalizing on certain methods of self-care in response—it was only a matter of time before meditation, coloring books, and bath bombs dominated the market. However, self-care for many can often be grittier than the treat-yo-self mentality that tends to be passed off as the entirety of self-care.

Not that treating yourself from time to time isn’t what you need. Via GIPHY

For example, self-care is a necessary way to recover for activists dealing with burnout. There are various articles written on this topic (including one written by the amazing Katerina, a fellow blogger for URGE). 

But I don’t want to rehash what plenty of others have covered. In this post, I want to explore how facets of the culture surrounding activism can contribute to burnout and a less commonly covered self-care practice to mitigate the effects of burnout. 

Via GIPHY

First, it’s widely known that activism can negatively affect activists’ mental health, but even more so for social justice activists. Jessica Kovan & John Dirkx (2003) explain that consciousness of injustice, such as legacies of structural racism, in a world where most people choose not to be conscious makes social justice activists uniquely vulnerable to stress, self-inflicted pressure, and social isolation—especially since immersion in such work necessitates emotional commitment. 

Burnout happens to be one of the most visible consequences of activist stress. As defined by the Global Fund for Women, burnout is the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. Another definition to consider is Ayala Pines’ (1994) consolidation of various meanings of burnout: “the end result of a process in which idealistic and highly committed people lose their spirit.”

Stress and burnout are even more pervasive for BIPOC activists, LGBTQ+ activists, or activists who are a part of other marginalized populations. On top of fighting systems of oppression, they must also personally face these same systems daily.

Burnout is further exacerbated by the culture of selflessness that surrounds activism. In 2010, Kathleen Rodgers noted in an article that 

“the ubiquitous discourse of selflessness pervades the internal dynamics of the organization, and in terms of the emotional culture of the organization, it means that displays of personal strain, sadness, or depression, while perhaps understandable are viewed by a considerable amount of the staff as unnecessary and self-indulgent.”

Oftentimes, activists’ mental health can be sacrificed for the greater good of bigger causes. It’s hard to acknowledge personal suffering when the issues others face seem to be much larger. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into and I know many other activists who experience this. It’s hard to talk about you, as a singular person, feeling hopeless when you see the state of the criminal legal system; it feels selfish like you haven’t done enough to warrant what you feel (which is not true, by the way).

Researchers have identified some causes of burnout linking back to the culture of selflessness and the related culture of silence demanded of activists, which of course results in many activists not taking care of themselves. 

Additionally, in trying to “further the cause,” activists may counterintuitively affect movements negatively due to burnout that comes from activism without the mental/social/physical/emotional support they need. With burnout, you deteriorate physically, emotionally and mentally, typically also becoming hopeless and disillusioned. When an activist becomes burned out, they typically cut back on or disengage from their activism, according to an analysis by Chen and Gorski (2015).

After all this information, you may be wondering: How can activists best navigate burnout and mitigate its effects?

Via GIPHY

Great question! Mindfulness is a growing practice that may be helpful to cultivate for stressed or burned out activists. 

As a component of self-care, mindfulness is about being aware of the present moment and your thoughts, how your body feels, and the environment around you in those moments. A key component of mindfulness is acceptance of what is happening at the moment, exercising observations without judgment. 

A professor of mine (Hi, Dr. Kris!) once asked me if I would say some of the judgments I made about myself and my actions to a friend. Short and long answer: Of course not. Be gentle with yourself as you would your best friend, especially since that’s what you should be. 

Mindfulness practices can include breathing exercises that help you focus on your breath and the current moment, body scan meditation, keeping a gratitude journal and even walking! Any exercise can be turned into a simple mindfulness practice when you engage your senses and apply attentive awareness of your actions and thoughts.

A great guide can be found here.

Research on mindfulness shows that it has a positive influence on mental health by lowering stress levels and acting as protection against depression and anxiety. 

Licensed mental health counselor Celeste Viciere agrees with mindfulness as a helpful practice for activists, saying, “One solution [to taking care of your mental health] is intentional mindfulness and awareness of one’s internal processes.”

Don’t just take it from us, other activists have affirmed the sentiment!

Cassady Fendlay of the Women’s March & Justice League NYC said in an interview, “I’ve learned to prioritize and make space for my mindfulness because it prepares me to show up in movement spaces in the right state of mind.”

While researching for this post, I also read a powerful quote by Robin Chancer that resonated with me. She’s a labor and immigration activist that notes to address other sources of burnout, we must promote 

“radical acceptance of our pain, then focus on mindfulness (which, in part, centers us on the present moment, instead of inhabiting some fantasized future). Neither strategy requires acceptance of, or passivity toward, injustice. Neither demands that we turn our backs on others who suffer. But they do emphasize specific techniques that allow us to cope with the chasm between a hoped-for future (perhaps one in which human rights are honored and upheld) and present-day reality.”

Final thoughts & takeaways: 

    • You don’t have to be a martyr. Don’t expose yourself to trauma or experiences you know will harm you for the sake of a “bigger cause.” 
    • Your activism is unlikely to be sustainable or healthy without taking care of yourself. 
  • What you do is enough. Your existing is enough.
    • Also, remember to exist in the moment while taking moments for yourself when you need it.

If I had to give you a one-sentence takeaway, it’d be this:

Be gentle, kind, and forgiving to yourself and your body—honor your limitations and attend to what you need, moment by moment.

Via GIPHY

Are there any specific mindfulness practices you have? How do you keep your mind in the moment? What are the best ways for you to be gentle with yourself?

Let me know below!