Mindfulness and Political Activism

Even though political activism often seems to be characterized by conflict or confrontation, we could say that almost all of these movements have started with a good intention. At least originally, everything began with a good motivation––capitalism and what-have-you. But sometimes even though our original intention may be to help by starting a movement or being active in a certain area, we tend to get carried away.

When we get carried away, then we ourselves actually become one of the very institutions or privileged groups or institutions that we’re trying to change. We become pretty much the same except that we have different messages––we have different labels and taglines. But actually we’ve become very aggressive. We’ve become impatient. We’ve become part of the status quo. Instead of becoming the solution, we have become part of the problem.

But activism and social movements don’t necessarily have to go in that direction. We just have to keep the original motivation. That sense of when we first started it, like in someone’s garage or maybe around a bonfire or in a coffee shop. When we first begin such a project, there’s so much fun, there’s so much heart. There is so much enthusiasm and love along with that sense of desire to change something. There is a real sense of wanting to be part of that. Then later it becomes like a job where you just have to please somebody like your constituency, your boss, or your nonprofit organization. And then it loses the heart, the original motivation––that genuine curiosity and excitement.

Activist Burnout

Sometimes our actions can result in what is sometimes called “idiot compassion,” or other unintended consequences. When our intention is good but the result isn’t great, we may be tempted to place the blame on various obstacles. But ego is always a problem. The basic root of our obstacles is ego, the self-centered view. But in terms of compassion the main obstacles are a lack of confidence and a lack of skillfulness. Skillful means is very important.

In order for our compassion––genuine compassion, not idiot compassion––to manifest a positive result, it also needs to embrace skillful means. Therefore bodhisattvas’ training, the majority portion of Mahayana training, is in skillful means because the actual teaching is very simple, right? It’s teaching compassion, lovingkindness, this heart of bodhicitta, and so on. But the majority of the work is in action––how to do it, how to achieve it as well as how to make it effective.  That’s where the need for skillful means starts kicking in.

That’s why when we look at practices such as generosity, discipline, patience, exertion and so on, these involve a lot of training in skillful means. Learning how to be generous, how to be patient, how to be disciplined in mindfulness, engaging in the mindful discipline practices––all of these are aspects of training in skillful means. All of these things play an important role in our compassionate action. So as long as your intention is really clear, then sometimes you don’t really have to worry too much about the result. OK, it didn’t work one time, that’s fine. Let’s try again! We must try again and again. The most important thing is to check our intention, our motivation.

Cultivating a Positive Intention: An Exercise

1. Think of a cause that is meaningful to you. What makes it meaningful?

2. What is your motivation for engaging in this meaningful action?

3. What is the intention that fuels your enthusiasm? What is the positive outcome would you like to see as a result of your action?

4. What qualities are you willing to cultivate in yourself to help bring about this positive result?

5. What will you do tomorrow, or on a specific day within the next week, that will help you cultivate these positive qualities?

6. Take a moment to sit and envision yourself having all of the skillful means and qualities you need to be able to accomplish your goal––patience, generosity, diligence, and so on. Breathe, rest your mind, and relax.