Photo credit: tjmwatson
I am reposting a series of writings on the intersections of Buddhism and social justice during the Occupy Movement of 2011. These mindful practices are timeless for supporting the challenges and rewards of our roles as organizers and activists.
Not Working As Planned
“I’m planting seeds. Planting seeds.” I was muttering to myself again, speed walking up Mission Street past Yerba Buena Gardens. I was trying to catch up with the march that had a 10 minute head start on me, thousands of San Franciscans protesting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and people around the world on October 15. I had folded up the banner I was carrying, since it was too big and unwieldy to carry by myself.
I wasn’t planning on marching alone that day. I had made plans to meet up with two different people, and had put the call out to a thousand more. I really could have used a day off from organizing, but people seemed interested in marching and I wanted to support any glimmer of interest in Buddhist participation in the Occupy movements locally in the Bay Area.
But here I was, alone, feeling ridiculous that I couldn’t even carry the banner in a way that people could see who I was with. I felt like a failure, like I was wasting time and money and energy on a lost cause.
“When planting a tree, if you want to do it the right way and get fruit from it, how should you go about it in order to have a relaxed mind? You do that which is your responsibility. Getting hold of the sapling is your job; digging the hole is your job; planting it, fertilizing and watering it, and keeping the insects off it is your job. That’s it. Stop here. How fast or slow it grows isn’t your job. Let go of this part.” – Ajahn Chah in Being Dharma
Some days, it is so hard to remember my job as a community organizer. Fostering the conditions where people can come together, can show up, can take on leadership – this is my job. Ensuring people show up isn’t my job. How much leadership they take on isn’t my job. Wrapping up my ideas of success around having a certain number of people show up, or having people take over leadership, or having an intensely powerful experience – this is all out of my control.
How Do I Let Go?
This is where I’ve learned to be a better community organizer by studying Buddhism and meditation. I can say over and over and over again – this is not my job! Do not be attached to outcomes. Just don’t do it! But how do I actually do this? How do I practice letting go of outcomes over and over and over again until it feels easy?
In Buddhist practice, we don’t do it by starting with the hardest things. We don’t start with letting go of the outcome of an event that we’ve poured our heart and body and mind into.
We start simply. We start on the cushion, watching our breath move in and out. We watch our mind do what minds do which is THINK and PLAN and TELL STORIES and CHATTER. We watch how we are attached to certain outcomes of meditation. My mind should be quiet! My breath should come easily! I should be feeling peace instead of panic!
We look at these attachments first because there’s so much less riding on it. It is just us with our minds and bodies. No one is depending on our breath being a certain way or our mind being quiet. No one can see what’s going on inside, whether we are still or a tornado.
If Practice Is Hard, Taking It to Our Work is Harder
And yet it is still SO HARD to let go of these attachments about how our meditation is going. Especially when they are enmeshed with guilt and shame, with a running commentary about how we should be better, smarter, more relaxed. About how we are inadequate and unworthy. How we are a waste of space just sitting here, not even able to sit still correctly.
If all this is happening when we are simply sitting, imagine how much more is happening when we have other peoples’ needs also at stake? When we’re sure that others will judge us by how many people come out, who attends, whether it’s a transformative experience? These voices of shame and inadequacy scream louder and louder.
I feel like when I was an organizer without Buddhism, I found ways to cover up those voices. I would hush the stories of inadequacy and tell myself other stories about how I was adequate and worthy. I would fake confidence until I felt something that looked like confidence. I would work harder and faster, trying to quiet the voices by demonstrating just how hard working I could be.
And these strategies worked for awhile. People judged me to be successful, and I felt proud of what I could accomplish.
But these nagging doubts lingered. Patching over inadequacy and unworthiness was like putting a towel over an infected wound. I don’t see it anymore, but it doesn’t heal. Instead it gets worse. As I felt worse, I also had less capacity to manage my work, as I was depleted by all the faking, all the working harder and faster. Things unraveled.
Practicing New Practices
During the march last week, I tried out some other practices. There was a lot of breathing as I walked fast to try to catch up with other marchers. When I got anxious, I returned again and again to the words “I’m planting seeds” to remind myself why I was there. When I finally caught up with the march, I found a way to stretch my arms wide enough so the banner was mostly visible. I walked with pride, in connection with others marching even though I felt lonely.
After letting go of this outcome, I was happily surprised to not be alone for long. A nearby marcher who practices with an allied organization saw me and offered to hold the other end of my banner. She ended up marching with me for the next two hours. We eventually met up with the other two people who I had plans to connect with, who helped our contingent feel a little larger. A few others came up and thanked us for being there, glad to see our presence.
Whether people connected with me or not that day was no longer the point. Some days people show up, and some days they don’t. Some days people jump at the chance to lead. Other days everyone averts their eyes when you ask for help. Whichever day it is, the task is the same. Keep planting seeds.