Don’t take yourself so seriously. You’re just a monkey with a plan.
I’m not a great meditator. Sometimes I can go weeks without a sitting, and I have a lot to learn.
But still, mindfulness meditation has been a consistent feature of my life for eight years. It has helped me improve my focus and regulate my emotions.
And when it comes to activism, with all its frustrations and emotional pitfalls, I’ve found these skills can be particularly useful. And it’s easy to get started.
Some notes before we dive in:
- I won’t go into detail on my meditation practice itself – there are enough resources out there already. Long story short: I started with Headspace, then moved to Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, which I recommend. (Apps are great training wheels, and regulate the practice.)
- Meditation isn’t a superpower. It’s our default state: living without judgment, being in the present. You already know how to meditate — it’s in you. Modern life just evolved us away from it. Watch a child at play, a dancer in the zone, an artist in full flow, to see what I mean.
- Rid yourself of the idea that meditation is a bourgeois pursuit or an indulgence. Forget the ‘McMindfulness’ label and the weary cynicism around the topic. Anyone with access to YouTube or a book, and ten free minutes a day, can learn it.
Here’s what I’ve worked out so far about how meditation can give your activism the edge:
It’s a de-stressor for a stressful environment
If modern life is a fertile ground for stress, activism is… a greenhouse? (A Petri dish? A jungle?)
First, any activist project is by definition waging an asymmetric battle against power. Achieving your goal can often depend on factors outside your control. So the gap between expectations and reality can widen, fast.
Second (and assuming you’re not working alone), your team is likely composed of volunteers. And they're coming together because they believe in the cause. This carries with it several downsides, among them:
- you have no real leverage over your team’s performance
- they might expect to take decisions by consensus
- you won’t necessarily have competent people on board
Factor in political differences and passions can run high. Interpersonal dramas can take precedence.
The kinds of interventions and tactics we discuss here on SUBVRT are designed to mitigate these problems. But by default, activist projects and teams have explosive potential for stress — and worse.
Fortunately, meditation is a powerful quick-fix de-stressor. Stop, find a quiet spot, sit, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breath for a minute. The act of observing the sensation helps you step out of the stress loop. Even if you’ve never meditated before, you’ll feel calmer... and with a renewed focus on your Ultimate Goal.
It shows that you’re not your thoughts and emotions
I recently wrote about how identifying too much with the cause you’re fighting for can be a bad thing:
…be wary of ideas that hold too much emotional significance for you. Internally, these ideas can lead to bad management decisions. And externally, they can harm your arguments and cause the campaign to come across as melodramatic, hindering your ability to convince others of your cause. Runaway emotions are the enemy of strategic thinking.
Your rage at an injustice, your hope for a better future, are sound reasons to engage in any activist project. But if left unchecked, they could mushroom into something destructive. This can blind you to the best way to address your issue.
Thoughts are the fuel of emotions, and meditation puts space between you and those thoughts. You realise they represent your mind doing what it always does: trying to problem solve, to ensure your survival. And that these thoughts are actually no more relevant than a hiccup, or an itch on your arm, or the sound of a car passing.
Once you identify the thoughts that produce the emotion, both lose their grip on you. And so, again, you can bring your attention back to your Ultimate Goal.
It reveals the underlying motivations for your engagement
Rage at an injustice or hope for a better future are not the only reasons people engage in activism. Typically we will have other motivations, too — often, very personal ones.
The teenager posting anti-capitalist memes on Twitter does so because she believes what they say, but also becaue she’s signalling to others she’s politically aware. The man who runs for office does so to bring about change, but also to raise his profile. The woman who joins a progressive movement does so to fight injustice, but also because she’s looking for social connection. And so on.
These reasons are valid, too. We’re complex creatures. And our motivations for a given action always shift, intensifying and receding over time.
But these motivations are often hidden, lurking deep within us. Meditation can shine a light on them. The act of sitting with your breath, your thoughts and sensations, the process of observing consciousness, shows you what was buried under layers of abstraction. It helps you understand who you are, why you react in a certain way, or prioritise things over others.
Once you identify your true motivations for the project at hand, you understand your terms of engagement with it. You walk around it with open eyes. You’ll become less reactive. And you’ll do better work.
It provides a much-needed counterweight to optimisation
I’ve recently realised that my whole professional life has had an underlying theme: optimisation. About taking a single piece of a system and polishing the hell out of it, to the point where it keeps me awake at night and I’m tapping notes into my phone in case I forget them the following morning. (Yes, after eight years of meditation, I still do this.)
This obsessive tendency has served me well in some respects. But after a point, optimisation has diminishing returns. It can drift into perfectionism and anxiety, and become counterproductive, as I have experienced often.
The first time I did a media interview for one of my activist projects, for example, I was anxious about how the campaign — and I — would be perceived. So after completing the interview, I asked the journalist if we could start over… twice. He kindly met me on three separate occasions. It consumed a week. And I still wasn’t happy with the result.
Meditation is a counterweight to optimisation. Optimisation is about relentless focus and polish. Meditation is about stepping back, observing the whole. Optimisation says ‘make this piece work as well as possible’. Meditation says ‘wait, put it in context. It’s a piece in a system in a project in a life: yours. Here’s how it looks within all that.’ It’s like contrasting a laser with a radar.
But meditation also complements optimisation because it shows you, over time, where you’re focusing too hard. Or when you’re focusing on the wrong things. It can re-orient your activist project, and bring you back from the destructive cycle of perfectionism. The radar that guides the laser, if you like.
As Headspace’s Andy Puddingham put it:
Focus is a balance. There is that idea of concentrating very deliberately on one thing. But also, of giving the mind the space to relax. That way the focus comes naturally.
So, a summary.
- Activist teams are inefficient, ineffective systems by default, which creates fertile ground for stress. Meditation helps you get through it.
- Your activist project suffers when you identify too strongly with your emotions. Meditation allows you to observe your thoughts, so the emotions dissipate.
- You bring multiple motivations to your activist practice. Meditation helps you see the full stack, allowing you to work smarter and happier.
- Meditation as a practice acts as both a counterweight to, and a booster of, the optimisation that impact-driven activism needs.
Convinced? Got 10 minutes? Start now.