It’s Time to Act!

I recently presented a workshop on Mindful Activism to the South African Guild of Actors (SAGA). The tagline of their organisation is “It’s Time to Act. What Role do You Want to Play?” which highlighted perfectly my own belief that mindful activism is activism for all, and for right now. It was a wonderful morning, attended by a group of open-hearted actors wanting to create meaningful change in their industry.

Jack Devnarain, National Chair of SAGA

Mindful Activism is a field I am exploring as I try to make sense of what is happening in the country and the world around us. South Africa has powerful examples of activists who made real change in the past, and improved the lives of many people, yet I am concerned that the country is losing this legacy. The world used to look to South Africa for inspiration, but not so much now. As a student in the UK in the 80s, I knew I was far away, yet felt very connected to the people who were putting the needs of others ahead of their own needs, and even their own personal safety.

In Buddhist cosmology, people who commit their lives to alleviating the suffering of others are called bodhisattvas. I can only aspire to emulating their skillfulness. However, the desire to help others has motivated me over the years, to become a teacher, to move to Botswana, to run a relief agency in Thailand after the tsunami and now to focus on supporting well-intentioned people of two types:

  • those who see that situations are harming others, and don’t know what to do, and
  • those who know what needs to be done, but are getting burnt out in the process.

For me, Mindful Activism is not something that other people do and we look on in admiration. It is activism for everyone – seeing the needs in daily life around us, in our families, our communities and the world, and acting in as skillful way as possible to ease suffering, and provide for human flourishing.

Yet we often hear the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, so we need to ensure that our actions come from a place of clear seeing, and a deep understanding of the issues at hand. This is the mindfulness component, which we explored during the workshop in an experiential way.

There are many challenges in the acting industry, at the personal and social level. Acting requires focus and emotional intensity. I remember a drama student I worked with during my doctoral research, who said, “We are taught how to get into a role, but not how to get out.” With long days on set, and the emotional nature of the creative work, actors usually head home exhausted, unable to relate in the way they would like, to their families and friends. Many get sick, and end up with weakened immune systems, digestive disorders and all the modern day manifestations of stress.

Then there are challenges within the acting culture – the relationships between producer, director, actor, cinematographer, and the power dynamics that are part of society, which get played out on set.

Many women in the industry do not feel physically or psychologically safe – and when they don’t feel safe, they shift into survival mode, and react defensively to things that happen around them, or even leave the industry itself. One participant in the workshop was blatantly told that she would need to sleep with important men in the industry if she wanted to make progress… and her story is one of many like it.

I was shocked to hear about the origin of SWIFT (Sisters Working in Film and Television), and how fifty women turned up to the first meeting at the Durban Film Festival a year ago. If that number of people are motivated to join an organization to address gender-based issues, then there is no doubt that there are very serious issues that need to be addressed.

So how can mindfulness help? Mindfulness means noticing what is happening within our inner and outer world, while it is happening, whatever is happening. It invites us to keep bringing our mind back to the present moment, rather than dwelling in the past or the future, or even operating on autopilot. When we feel unsafe, threatened or overworked, we shift into our reptilian, survival brain. We’ve all heard of the fight and flight response linked to our sympathetic nervous system. We may not, though, be as aware of our rest and digest, tend and befriend response, which is our body’s natural way of balancing. This is our parasympathetic nervous system.

Our brain has evolved in three distinct ways: reptile, mammal and human. With a mammal, when a threat has passed, they immediately return to their relaxation mode, find contentment and seek connection with others. Humans, though, have the extra brain capacity to imagine, visualize and think of future dangers, and whether a threat is real or imagined, it has exactly the same effects on our physiology. Our breathing shortens, our muscles tense up and the blood flows away from our digestive organs. Over an extended period of time, this has a very negative impact on our health.

Mindfulness practices help us to re-access the parasympathetic nervous system, so that we can relax and connect with a sense of ease. This means that we can see situations more clearly, without such a strong emotional charge. Yet is also means that we feel deeply, and use these emotions that connect us with others to motivate our compassionate action.

During the workshop, we tried out some breathing exercises to encourage deep, diaphragmatic breathing, we sampled the Three Minute Breathing Space and supported our own needs, using the Self Compassion Break. These can be found on my Soundcloud account.  Having shared experiences of the practices themselves, which allowed genuine human difficulties to arise and be held in compassionate attention, both from the individual and the group, we then explored how we could use these techniques in the world of activism.

Mindful activism allows us to find sustainable ways of effecting change, even when it feels like nothing can be done. It encourages us to use obstacles for our own personal transformation, and for the transformation of the world around us. Within the acting industry, the gender issues feel so deeply entrenched as a manifestation of South Africa’s patriarchal society, yet it was clear that when a group comes together to share their despair and desperation, human connections are able to emerge which give them the power to keep on challenging the harm that is happening around them.

Many activists run out of energy and hope doing their work. The work is emotional and draining, and when anger is their primary fuel, they often burn out. Feelings of powerlessness are prevalent, and they become susceptible to anxiety and stress. There is also a culture of blaming and ‘othering’ which prevents the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with the people responsible for the harm that is taking place. It prevents us from being able to differentiate the harmful actions from the people that enact them.

To quote Elina Penn from WakeUp UK:

“If we want to have a positive impact in the world, our actions should come from a place of clarity, peace, understanding and compassion. And that could only happen when we experience it inside.”

Archetype of the Mindful Activist – the bodhisattva

So how do we define mindful activism? The archetype of the mindful activist is the bodhisattva, who sits at ease and relaxed, receptive and open, and willing to act whenever action is required to ease the suffering of all sentient beings. This archetype is not something that is out of reach, it is the potential of every human being, and by training the mind, we can find ways to act skillfully and compassionately in the world around us.

Mindful activism involves a clarity of motivation and a vision beyond our own lifespan. There is a recognition of interconnectedness, a sense that what happens to others also affects us. There is also a rejection of dualistic thinking, the sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, as through mindfulness we realize that we all have the seeds of both good and evil within us. The seeds that we water, through the choices we make, determine the way that we lead our lives. As activists, we also need humility and compassionate self reflection, as we may make human mistakes. Our wish to act swiftly often means that we do not act skillfully, and without full understanding of the situation at hand. Mindful activism also requires sustainability, steeped in self care. Self care is not self indulgent; it is self preservation.

The Greek Chorus

We can each choose our circle of influence and act to alleviate human suffering within our families, our community or at a national or international level. And just like Greek Theatre, where the chorus support the main actors, each leading activist needs a community to support him or her, in order to maintain their strength and their ethical direction. Communities are vital, motivating and energizing. We find the sustainability to keep on facing what seems to be unsolvable, by making deep connections with the community around us. I was excited to feel that SAGA is offering that service to actors within South Africa, and delighted to have been part of the initiative to motivate ongoing engagement.

I sincerely thank Jack Devnarain, the mastermind behind the workshop, Carlynn de Waal-Smit, Sibulele Gcilitshana and Corine Broomberg for making it happen, and Masasa Mbangeni and Natalie Haarhoff for giving their time so willingly in preparation for the presentation. I can’t wait to work with this group again in future.

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