Sunday, October 21, 2012

Self Care and the Spiritual Activist

The following is from a post I just wrote on one of my other blogs. It's related to the material I tend to offer here, so I though I'd share part of it.

I recently went through another round of what might be called activist burnout. After several months of devotion to multiple aspects of the Occupy movement here in Minneapolis, I hit a wall. Having left a teaching job the year before Occupy started, I was running out of money, and the few potential options for income that had developed during Occupy hadn't materialized. I was flat broke. Getting concerned comments from a few members of my family and friend circle. And when I surveyed the group of folks who had stuck it out in Occupy, what I mostly saw were middle class, white Boomer activists and broke folks like myself. (There's definitely more diversity than this, but this is the makeup of the two largest groups.) And although there have been some amazing acts of mutual care, including a few Occupy members sharing homes and trading skills to get work done without having to hire expensive help - there hasn't, at this point, developed something like a culture of community care. Not a thriving one anyway. It's a minority viewpoint, the idea that part of revolution - a big part of it perhaps - is modeling what moving beyond the privatization of our needs might look like.

If you want to read the rest of this post, please go here. Given how important this topic has become for me in recent months, I'm sure I'll have more to say about it at some point. However, if it's not your cup of tea, feel free to wait for the next post. May you all be well.


Barbara O'Brien said...

Speaking as an old lady who has been observing and often participating in liberal-progressive activism since the days of getting Clean for Gene -- my longstanding gripe is that we leftie/libs don't know how to play the long game.

Right-wing activism is all about the long game. Today's movement conservatism grew from the John Birch fringe of the 1950s to taking over the Republican party and dominating American political discourse today because they are really, really good at the long game. That's partly because righties are better at following leaders, of course, and very much because the big money favors the Right -- the path to rightie utopia is generously astroturfed, and the Koch brothers will even provide chartered buses. On the other hand, we seem to be perpetually slogging through a forest of brambles.

But often leftie activists are their own worst enemies. Over the years I've seen us flock to one shiny object after another -- SDS, sit ins, consciousness raising, identity politics, and more recently Howard Dean, meet-ups, Cindy Sheehan, and now Occupy -- only to see the momentum quickly fade and and drift to a halt, sometimes in just a few months.

And, frankly, I've been watching lefties stand on street corners handing out fliers for the cause du jour for 50 bleeping years. I have handed out quite a few fliers myself in the day. I've never seen it make the least bit of difference. But what does make a difference? (to be continued ...)

Barbara O'Brien said...

(continued from last comment) Unlike righties, we lefties are impatient and disinterested in incremental change toward a long-term goal. we charge into new "projects" with unrealistic hopes and then become quickly disillusioned when our mosquito bites aren't moving the dinosaur establishment fast enough.

There is nothing wrong with incremental change, with fixing what's in front of us. Speaking as someone who has faced foreclosure, I say helping people keep their homes is a noble thing, even if you have to work within a system you don't like to do it. It's a start. You don't know what fruit may ripen a few years down the road. And the system will always be dukkha.

We lefties need to understand, first, that none of us are going to live to see the Promised Land. And we have to be OK with that.

Second, as individuals we need to be clear whether what we are doing really is serving the common good or if it's just a self-indulgence to make us feel good about ourselves. (A lot, though not all, of demonstrating and flier handing out falls into the second category.)

Third, we need to learn to sometimes put aside our own pet causes to support each others' causes. No more showing up at anti-war demonstrations with signs about legalizing marijuana, for example.

One of the biggest reasons the New Left eventually stalled is that we refused to form coalitions, btw. Back is the 1970s Gloria Steinem and others toured college campuses with the message that all "liberation" and "power" movements of the time really were one movement, and we should be joining forces and working together. Instead, New Leftism splintered into countless single-issue advocacy groups that competed with each other for money and attention. And mostly went nowhere.

Fourth, like it or not, the real change happens in the political process. Abandon that, and you are doomed to spend eternity standing on street corners handing out fliers.

Fifth, if we're playing the long game, the amount of energy we put into the effort has to be sustainable. That means getting enough sleep and otherwise making sure you are properly taking care of yourself. Younger people can live on cold cheese pizza and no sleep for a few days, in a crisis, but nobody can keep it up.

Ask yourself if you can keep on as you are until you are 60. If not, then ask yourself, what is the crisis? What is urgent now that wasn't just as urgent last year? If you can't think of anything, then get a hot meal and get some sleep.

Finally, accept that whatever it is, it will never be perfect. And help others understand that as well.

Nathan said...

I am with you about the long game, and parceling out our time/energy in a manner that reflects the fact that, as you said, we alive today probably won't see much of what we dream of. Perhaps we will, but the odds are against it.

And I also agree that with the point about shiny object hopping. It's so very true. Our current President's election in 2008 was another example of that.

I have a different take, though, on the issue of "realistic" and incremental change. My experience with Occupy has reinforced what I've said for a long time. Most of us don't really have any grand visions. For all the talk about peace and justice, most of us can't see beyond our noses, and what we've collectively been fighting for is rehashed pieces of what's already here. I don't mean to knock foreclosure work. It's needed, and does have a broader impact, even without a bigger vision. But you know, it just seems like a repeating wheel. The bankers and elite mess with the financial system, and create a housing crisis for many every decade. In poorer communities, it's almost one perpetual crisis.

So, I say we need both big visions - ones people think are completely unrealistic - as well as concrete, incremental actions.

Furthermore, another thing that has been painfully true about Occupy is that the desire to unite into a single, all encompassing movement got trumped again and again by a failure to recognize power imbalances,and historical and current patterns of oppression.

In my opinion, the activist right is effective in great part because they are simply tapping into the oppressive systems their ancestors created, and are ridding them with all the money, time, and energy they've got. It's a lot easier than trying to envision something new, and then stick with it without knowing if you'll ever see any results.

Finally, I disagree with your point about the political process being the locus of change. It rarely is. It's almost always been grassroots movements on the outside bringing about the major social changes. We've always been dragging the elites that we elect along with us, often kicking and screaming. There's a need to work with elected officials and elections at certain points along the way, but it's not the central locus of change. It's often a confirmation of the changes that have already been brewing in the society. There's no way you'd get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 without decades and decades of grassroots activism, civil disobedience, passive forms of resistance in workplaces, unionization, etc. The same goes for the best of the New Deal, such as Social Security and the WPA. Candidate Roosevelt ran on platform that featured cutting the federal budget, creating new regulations for banking and Wall Street, and ending prohibition. It wasn't until Union strikes and lock-downs in nearly every major city throughout 1933-34, that the heart of the New Deal legislation came to be.

Nathan said...

The activist right rightly targeted unions and have effectively destroyed that element of grassroots organizing. They saw the power large groups of every day people could have upon society, and they pounced. Occupy was pounced on as well. Very quickly. And primarily by Mayors and police forces in Democratic run cities. In my opinion, the corporate right has infected both major parties, which is all the more reason why large, intelligently sustained grassroots movements in different shapes and forms are necessary.

I think we both agree that it's gotta move beyond handing out fliers and the occasional street protest. And as you said, everyone would do well to let go of perfection narratives. We can dream big, but then we have to let go of the results. Easier said than done obviously.

Anoki said...
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Anoki said...

I, too, and entering into the "Activist Burnout" phase... I have been so utterly involved with my local Occupy since last October and have started up an at-one-time multi-city committee called OccupYrCorner ( that is still going strong, somewhat. But, being one of the few people left in my Occupation that has skills in balancing a work-life, a charity-drive, and a side-business, I also became the go-to-guy for anything designed: I've created tons of flyers, banners, large puppets, actions, and have endeavored to be absolutely crucial to so many events because of my organizational talents, that I am just burnt the heck out. Taking in the daily barrage of constant information to be pissed about: both from the "1%" and corporate-capitalist monstrosities and zombies that are quickly and calmly eroding our futures, as well as the egos and impossibilities of some choice mentalities who are left lurking around the original Occupation has begun to fully exhaust me. It's a double battle against the Powers That Shouldn't Be both national and local as well as the mini-drama of those who, as is cited in another comment, are arguing for the life of their personal pet projects, within and beyond Occupy. As I said to many the other day "When was the last time you said 'Wall Street' without 'Occupy' in front of it?" We have very easily become distracted with local issues, the police, and the motions of the Capitalist state without re-focusing on the actual head of the matter. I have found that going to Facebook and GAs LESS has really helped, and I am getting more involved with the local Socialist group, as it is refreshing to be surrounded by people with a more on-track goal with decades of knowledge and writings about the problems and solutions to back up the realities. The housewives, part-timers, and instant activists reacting to every latest Mother Jones article or to every call to act on some "#LetterNumber" date is more and more aggravating and draining then those who have seen this all before and see it all as recurrent symptoms of a larger, growing eventuality. It's been a relief as Occupy has turned more into an information dissemination situation to feel that all of this is not for naught since there are orgs and groups that have been focusing on this for a long time. That it's "not going to disappear" in a way. Also, there is much theory and writings about a long-winded connection between the BuddhaDharma and Socialist concepts, that comforts me. I also am joining a splinter Occupy group of somewhat "GA burnouts" that is focused on local Food Solidarity and Urban Gardening, which should prove calming. Connecting those concepts: my practice, my efforts, and reclaiming my own space have really started to help.

I'm happy I Occupied, I'm happy I'm still helping my local Occupy. But I'm happy to take a break, and that there's more to learn that has substance and history.

As for incremental change and using the system: these are truisms that are observed in much of my latest readings and thoughts... we must wait for the communal consciousness to be raised through struggle, suffering, and repetitive disappointment before true change and revolution can happen. We see this in other countries. (However, I'll still be voting for "We The People" instead of Robomney and just focusing on local props). In the mean time, we must take this moment to restock our options, self-educate with the long lessons of the past, re-group our practice, and repair the psychological damages that can befall us from taking Samsara head on...

Nathan said...

Hi Anoki,

I hear you about being a go to guy. I experienced some of that as well in Occupy.

"We have very easily become distracted with local issues, the police, and the motions of the Capitalist state without re-focusing on the actual head of the matter. I have found that going to Facebook and GAs LESS has really helped, and I am getting more involved with the local Socialist group, as it is refreshing to be surrounded by people with a more on-track goal with decades of knowledge and writings about the problems and solutions to back up the realities."

I do think that some of the local issues are completely tied to the larger economic issues and are worthy of being addressed as such. However, our local Occupy also got sucked into endless battles with the police and court system that, in my view, caused a lot of folks to quit.

One of the challenges I saw with our Occupy - which was probably commonly true - was the wide range of understanding of history, how successful social movements have worked, and what it means to work together across differences. Many folks knew next to nothing about how we've gotten to the place we are in today. And even amongst those who knew the history, the skills to work together - as opposed to pushing pet projects and grabbing for power - were often lacking. That's why I feel that figuring out ways to blend our practice with activism is so important.

Good luck with the food solidarity project. I'm hoping that the one I've been involved in that I mentioned in my post gets beyond it current struggles, and re-finds its way.

Anonymous said...

"The evolution of man," G. replied, "can be taken as the development in him of those powers and possibilities which never develop by themselves, that is, mechanically. Only this kind of development, only this kind of growth, marks the real evolution of man. There is, and there can be, no other kind of evolution whatever.

"We have before us man at the present moment of his development. Nature has made him such as he is, and, in large masses, so far as we can see, such he will remain. Changes likely to violate the general requirements of nature can only take place in separate units.

"In order to understand the law of man's evolution it is necessary to grasp that, beyond a certain point, this evolution is not at all necessary, that is to say, it is not necessary for nature at a given moment in its own development. To speak more precisely: the evolution of mankind corresponds to the evolution of the planets, but the evolution of the planets proceeds, for us, in infinitely prolonged cycles of time. Throughout the stretch of time that human thought can embrace, no essential changes can take place in the life of the planets, and, consequently, no essential changes can take place in the life of mankind.

"Humanity neither progresses nor evolves. What seems to us to be progress or evolution is a partial modification which can be immediately counterbalanced by a corresponding modification in an opposite direction.

"Humanity, like the rest of organic life, exists on earth for the needs and purposes of the earth. And it is exactly as it should be for the earth's requirements at the present time.

"Only thought as theoretical and as far removed from fact as modem European thought could have conceived the evolution of man to be possible apart from surrounding nature, or have regarded the evolution of man as a gradual conquest of nature. This is quite impossible. In living, in dying, in evolving, in degenerating, man equally serves the purposes of nature—or, rather, nature makes equal use, though perhaps for different purposes, of the products of both evolution and degeneration. And, at the same time, humanity as a whole can never escape from nature, for, even in struggling against nature man acts in conformity with her purposes. The evolution of large masses of humanity is opposed to nature's purposes. The evolution of a certain small percentage may be in accord with nature's purposes.

"Man contains within him the possibility of evolution. But the evolution of humanity as a whole, that is, the development of these possibilities in all men, or in most of them, or even in a large number of them, is not necessary for the purposes of the earth or of the planetary world in general, and it might, in fact, be injurious or fatal. There exist, therefore, special forces (of a planetary character) which oppose the evolution of large masses of humanity and keep it at the level it ought, to be."

Barbara O'Brien said...

"Furthermore, another thing that has been painfully true about Occupy is that the desire to unite into a single, all encompassing movement got trumped again and again by a failure to recognize power imbalances,and historical and current patterns of oppression."

In other words, the young white guys hog the megaphones? Tell me about it. The last time I went to a big demonstration I got so frustrated I went home and blogged that white guys need to take a vow of silence until they are at least 35. They want to do all the talking but rarely have anything useful to say.

"Finally, I disagree with your point about the political process being the locus of change. It rarely is. It's almost always been grassroots movements on the outside bringing about the major social changes."

The grassroots movements get things activated through law. In other words, they are effective when they impact the political process. This has been true in civil rights, consumer and employee protection, you name it. I can't think of a single example of major social change that happened entirely outside the political process. The grassroots movements become effective by creating alliances between activists and politicians. Occupy was doomed from the start because it didn't understand that.

As far as the vision thing is concerned, that's what leaders are for. At the very least, you need a respected figurehead who can articulate a vision and who is given the authority to set some parameters for movement. Leaderless mass movements will never work.

Nathan said...

Barbara, I can't disagree with your general assessment of young white guys in Occupy. Although I'd add that some of the older white guys were just as bad. Male privilege. Race and class. All tangled together there.

As for grassroots movements, they do at least two things in my view. The first is, as you said, to work on elected officials and impact the political process. Very important, but not the only thing. The second is to create the cultural changes they want to see. To demonstrate how it could be on a mass scale by being it and inspiring it on smaller scales. The general public seeing people work together across racial lines during the Civil Rights movement was as important, if not more, than the lobby to get laws passed.

As for leaders and leaderless movements, I don't know. The trouble with movements that have a single leader, or handful of public figures at the head, is that those folks can, and often are, corrupted. Or they get submerged by the current elite, given some power, but in exchange for deeply weakening their message and agenda. At the same time, the leaderless aspect of Occupy led to unofficial leaders sucking up power through manipulation and coercion. But to me, the pivotal mistake was that it was assumed that everyone should have equal say in everything - all the time. Which is absurd.

There's plenty of space between a single or small number of people running the show, and the "everyone's a leader all the time" approach of Occupy.