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Archive for the ‘Conscious Social Change’ Category

Principle THREE: Restoring Balance

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This is part 4 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle THREE: Restoring Balance
Conscious change also requires change agents to remain grounded and discern when it is necessary to take a step back from their social change efforts to restore themselves. Just as attachment and aversion are the root of individual suffering, so can these extremes affect the work of change agents.

A common pitfall of change leaders is over-attachment to a single agenda or way forward. This can cause competitiveness between groups with a common purpose, diluting resources and rendering leaders blind to opportunities to collaborate. It can further lead to rigid organizations unable to examine changing priorities at the root level of their chosen issue. I’ll explore attachment further with the next principle.

Detachment, a form of aversion, is the opposite extreme. Advocacy-based organizations are always challenged by the attitudes of the general public that “this has nothing to do with me” or “that’s not my problem”. Increasingly, without renewal, individuals within their own ranks can experience burn-out and disillusionment. The need to restore balance exists among all who serve and bear witness to deep injustice or suffering, including humanitarian aid workers, trauma counselors, emergency first responders, community organizers, peace-keepers and others in service at the front lines. There are many contributing factors including dangerous working conditions, lack of resources to conduct work, repeated exposure to horrific scenes, stories and experiences, moral anguish, overwork and separation from family. These circumstances can result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or secondary (vicariously-experienced) traumatic stress, insomnia and other psychosomatic symptoms, anxiety, depression, compassion fatigue, and even depression. The impact of such stress indicators is broad, including not only high turn-over rates, but also higher rates of illness, poor decision-making, increased risk-taking, and higher accident rates.

Individuals and organizations can embrace consciousness practices that allow them to both foster a healthy balance and proactively address the need for renewal. A consciousness-based approach allows time for personal restoration so workers on the front lines can tap creativity and energy to continue to serve those in need.

Supporting Practice THREE: Self-Care
One of the most important things in preparing to do and continuing to do conscious social change work is self-care. This includes not only the personal transformation and self-awareness practices that have already been explored, but it means understanding and attending to our own needs for wellbeing. When we are not whole, we are doing a disservice to our work. While this would appear to be a “no-brainer”, conversations with activists and aid workers throughout North America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East indicate this is the easiest to ignore and first thing that is sacrificed in advancing their work. Self-care takes many forms and it is equally important to aim for a holistic balance between our physical, mental and emotional centers:

Taking Care of the Body: Our bodies are our sacred temple for being able to bring change into the world. It is critical that we take care of them so that we can draw on their strength when we need to. This includes getting exercise, good nutrition, deep rest and the medical attention we need to stay well.

Taking Care of the Heart: Our emotional center is what drives our desire to support others in need and in reaching their greatest potential. It provides us with a sense of harmony, interconnectedness, love, forgiveness and compassion. It includes the ability to bear witness to another’s suffering and to discern when to abstain from trying to fix things. Our emotional health requires that we attend to imbalances in our own relationships, that we learn how to give and receive gratitude, that we make room for creative expression, that we remember to embrace joy in our lives, and that we find the space and serenity to experience ourselves, our feelings and our natural surroundings.

Taking Care of the Mind: The mind can help us discern the truth and keep us open to new possibilities. The mind can also block these same abilities when we cling to the past, worry about the future and pass judgment on ourselves and others. Caring for the mind includes living with integrity in the present moment, investing in not only our accumulation of knowledge, but in viewing our experiences as opportunities to learn.

Principle TWO: Shadows and Fears

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This is part 3 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle TWO: Proactively Attend to Shadows, Fears and Distortions
As we begin to go deeper in our own self-awareness, we may find there are things we dislike in others or that we feel discomfort with in ourselves.  These are often one and the same, called shadows.

Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abram’s book, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature propose that “The shadow acts like a psychic immune system, defining what is self and what is not-self.” Poet Robert Bly offers an analogy:  When we were young and as we grew up, we had people around us telling us not to be a certain way.  Perhaps our parents said we should be responsible, so we carried this invisible bag behind us and put in the bag the side of us that wanted to be spontaneous and irresponsible.  Then our community said girls are supposed to be a certain way and boys are supposed to be a different way, and so we put those parts that were not appropriate into a bag. Then friends told us that we had to act a certain way and we put more things that we felt uncomfortable with in the bag.  By the time we got older, the bag was very big and heavy. And it still holds the parts of us that we dislike. When we come in contact with those aspects in another person, we will experience an emotional charge, including aversion, judgment, defensiveness, distaste or disgust, because we are still not willing to recognize the same in ourselves.  Unexamined, intense dislike that arises from our shadow selves may unconsciously lead us to create separation, act with prejudice and even resort to violence.

From abortion clinic bombers to torture in the name of national security, from eco-terrorism to the outbreak of violent riots at peaceful marches, the line between non-violence and violence or oppression is easily crossed in pursuit of justice or morality, and very often driven by our unconscious shadows. Admittedly, the roots of activist protests begin with a fundamental sense of injustice and a vision for a better world. However, if advocacy campaigns lack avenues for leaders, if not all participants, to stay grounded in self-awareness, movements can easily move to demonize their opposition with an “us” versus “them” mentality that reinforces a hierarchy of inequality and claims of moral superiority. As frustration grows with the slow process of shifting dominant culture, anger at injustice is replaced by anger for the perceived enemy, and in many cases evolves into violence.   

Cultivating consciousness is essential for advancing social justice so that we do not recreate hierarchies of power, but defuse the fear-based prejudice and abuse of privilege that underlies oppression. A consciousness-based approach to social change fosters understanding of and compassion for the roots of suffering in ourselves and those who oppose us.  It embraces self-reflection to examine our fears, insecurities and the rejected parts of ourselves, so that we can more easily accept or at least understand others.  As Claudia Horwitz, community organizer and founder of stone circles, a non-profit and retreat center for activists, remarks, “If we engage in the collective without some practice of individual consciousness, we’re more likely to get caught up in group think and only use a fraction of our human capacity. Without consciousness, there is no choice.” 

Supporting Practice TWO: Transforming Reaction into Response
Conscious change invites us to look more deeply at the wounding that causes us to react to our emotions in unconscious and often harmful ways. We can repeat conditioned or learned behaviors if we are not conscious of them.  But even in milder ways those who think they are doing good may create harm from unconscious reactivity. A wonderful book called  The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, by Donald Rothberg provided the following perspective: Often we “pass on the pain” when we are angry, annoyed, disappointed – we feel terrible so we lash out or otherwise take it out on another.  Our pattern of action looks like this:

FEEL   ———> IMMEDIATELY REACT (unconscious)

Conscious change starts with a state of mind, and then affects our speech and actions. The key to transforming our unconscious reactivity is simply to lengthen the space between our feelings and our response:

 FEEL ———–> STOP, LISTEN, BE WITH WHAT IS ————->RESPOND (conscious)

The first step is to recognize when we feel an emotional “charge”.  This can be a rush of fear, anger, contempt, embarrassment, defensiveness, etc.  If we can stop ourselves from immediately reacting, then we can take a moment to pause.  A simple suggestion is to take three deep breaths. During this time, we can conduct a brief internal inquiry:  Allow yourself to explore what emotion is arising. Try to see clearly and understand from where they are originating.  Is this an unhealed place in your self? Are you noticing a part of yourself that you do not accept, so you find it distasteful in another? Is there a fear, aversion or attachment present?  What truth is arising for you?  Allow yourself to feel compassion for yourself and gratitude for your underlying instinct to protect yourself. Then ask yourself what response is needed to transform suffering for yourself and the other in this situation.  Respond and act with consciousness and with wisdom. 

A Story
This practice was shared with a group of women change agents participating in Global Grassroots’ Conscious Change Academy.   After a few days of participants experimenting with this practice in their own communities, they were asked to provide feedback on the impact it was having in their lives.  One woman raised her hand to share.  Having returned from class one day, she found that her children had completely messed up her home. She was furious because she had worked diligently before leaving for class to clean and straighten everything.  “Usually I just beat my children,” she explained without emotion. “But today, I closed my eyes and took three breaths.”  She then explained to her children why she wanted the house neat and asked that they return everything to its original condition before she again opened her eyes.  “And they did.  And I didn’t have to beat my children today.” 

This woman had been selected to take part in our course because of her commitment to ending domestic violence.  The discussion allowed for a broader dialogue about how we embody violence in our own lives and where we find it acceptable and not acceptable. As a result of this simple practice, this woman has completely changed the way in which she approaches violence in raising her children and engaging other couples in addressing violence within the family.

Change begins with our own ability to be present with suffering as well as unconscious patterns of action within ourselves.  It allows us to explore that which needs attending to, so that we are less likely to react and create harm.  It then enables us to cultivate a greater level of compassion in our social justice work because we know that other people who are causing harm are likely suffering inside.

Principle ONE: Self-Awareness of the Root of Suffering

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This is part 2 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change

Principle ONE: Self-Awareness of the Root of Suffering
The first step in cultivating presence is practicing self-awareness. This begins by exploring the root of suffering. When we inquire into the nature of our own pain, anxiety and fear, we can better understand where it comes from in others. Every person suffers to some extent, mentally, emotionally and physically. For many circumstances, our deepest discomfort comes from simply wanting things to be different: we want what we don’t have and we don’t want what we do have.  

First, we’re always seeking what we don’t have – whether that is greater influence, personal relationships or more economic security.  These desires can even be rooted to our positive change work – a desire for more success, publicity or funding for our work.  We can easily become convinced that our happiness hinges on obtaining that which we want.  And yet, it is this grasping or “attachment” itself that causes our discontent. Through self-awareness, we discover our ability to withstand our anxiety, and we begin to discern between what it is that we desire and what it is we actually need.

Second, we all also go to great lengths to avoid pain and suffering. Whether we fear failure, inadequacy, a loss of power, embarrassment, physical pain, poverty or another unwanted condition, our efforts to protect ourselves are often at the expense of another. Again, it is the aversion to the situation – the “I don’t deserve this” thought – that causes us suffering. Through self-awareness, we come to realize we actually do have choice in every situation: acceptance or action, and we are empowered to pursue a path of conscious change with compassion, rather than unconscious action.

Supporting Practice ONE: Mindfulness Meditation
One practice that supports deepening self-awareness is mindfulness through meditation. Mindfulness is opening to the present moment whatever it is, without judgment, without attachment, without preference and without aversion. Just paying attention to what is. In order to be mindful in our actions we have to first cultivate mindfulness and presence in ourselves.

Meditation is a practice of sitting and practicing mindfulness of the self.  It is a mental discipline that helps us clear the mind so that we can achieve not an intellectual understanding, but a deeper wisdom or insight about what is in us.  Meditation trains us to be with our discomfort and pain without reacting or pushing it away. We just notice it, and we come to see that emotions are impermanent as they come and go. Mindfulness through meditation supports us in moving beyond all the blocks that separate us from others and dusting off the essence of who we truly are underneath.

A Story
On one particular day a few months ago I phoned a friend 30 minutes late for a scheduled conversation.  Everything was running over that day and I had all sorts of to-dos stacking up in my mental in-box.  I apolgized with a flurry of excuses and dove into an overview of our agenda until my friend stopped me and asked slowly, “How are you?” 

Her words were like a long deep breath.  She listened to my assessment of my current stressful situation then asked another question slowly, “Is there anything it feels like you need to do right now that would help take some pressure off you?”  I took a moment to meditate, empty my mind, breathe, relax.  A simple solution came to mind and quickly all other stress melted away. 

Ever since that afternoon, I ask myself regularly when I feel the tell-tale signs of stress taking over, if there is anything I feel I need to do, then I dive into a moment of meditation and breathing.  Without fail I always emerge in a clearer state. I think meditation and mindfulness of one’s emotional and mental state are powerful regulators of peace and balance, and are accessible anywhere, anytime. But they require practice, just like with exercise. The more I practice meditation in moments of solitude and silence, the better able I am to bring mindfulness into situations of chaos and activity.

5 Principles of Conscious Social Change

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I’ve been working to distill and articulate what I have come to define “Conscious Social Change” and its core principles and supporting practices.  In the next five posts, I will describe each of these five principles.  But first an overview.

CONSCIOUS SOCIAL CHANGE: A DEFINITION 
Conscious Social Change is a process led by responsible and ethical change agents, who engage in their own practice towards deeper self-knowledge and personal transformation, while striving to advance positive change for the common good.  When an individual chooses to serve as a change agent, the experience of making a unique contribution to a greater whole can be deeply meaningful and can also accelerate a person’s self-actualization.  In turn, when an individual interested in creating social change chooses to deepen their self-awareness, they have a greater likelihood of making mindful and wise decisions, undistorted by personal agenda or abuse of power.  These two components of inner and outer transformation are integral and essential for a whole, just and compassionate society.

Who needs to know this?

Activists and people serving the traumatized need to be able to know when there is a need for self-care and to reground self and intentions to protect against burn-out, disillusionment, attachment to agenda, abuse of power, demonizing the enemy and violence.

Women and those working on women’s rights need to be able to allow for deep inquiry around structures that have been established by patriarchy and which have come to legitimize or even tolerate violence against women by exploiting women’s inclination for self-sacrifice on behalf of community and others.

Social innovators have the opportunity to discover radical new innovations and creative possibilities through embracing consciousness and personal transformation principles, because they will be unobstructed by self-limiting paradigms.  

Why is it needed? Why does inner change and outer change have to happen at the same time? 

Those of us who are called to be change leaders to advance a more just society, also have a responsibility to create that change with the same principles of integrity and justice we hope to see in the world – even with regard to our perceived enemies or opposition.  That requires that we work on the unexamined parts of ourselves that cause us to act unconsciously out of anger, impatience, disillusionment, resentment, fear, envy, or a sense of superiority or separation. Through our direct experience cultivating consciousness in ourselves, we develop a deep understanding of the path of conscious change, which we can use to advance social justice more broadly.

The overarching practice of the path of conscious change is being fully present in every moment.  There are five steps that change agents can take to cultivate presence, and it begins by practicing self-awareness. The more we look deeply into ourselves and listen to our emotions without reacting, we come to understand with clarity the underlying reasons for our anxiety, pain and fears. As we begin to see the root of suffering and the path of change in ourselves, we can find compassion for the difficulties of suffering and the challenges of change in others. [1]  

The second step is to be proactive in addressing our own wounding, fears, limiting beliefs and shadows that can distort our perspective and cause us unconsciously to harm others while protecting ourselves. The unexamined self has been at the root of many activist movements that have turned violent and leadership attained through oppression and prejudice.

The third step is using presence for self-care.  By committing to ongoing personal transformation practices, we can more easily attend to our own need for balance so that we avoid burnout, but stay whole, grounded and completely available to do our work in the world.

The fourth step is using presence to stay attuned to the changing needs of those we aim to serve, so we do not stay stuck on our own agenda or abuse our power. This presence also helps us determine the wisest response (which may include no action) in any moment so that we not only avoid harm, but we transform suffering.  This transformational paradigm is inner-driven with a focus on serving the highest common good.

Finally, the deeper we listen to our inner wisdom, the more likely we will find our unique purpose, which will guide us in manifesting change towards social justice and a more conscious society.

This overarching process of cultivating presence invites a balance of engagement with the outer world, which is always providing opportunities for learning, and an investment in inner inquiry, which allows us to integrate and utilize each lesson. The journey for consciousness is something that we must do every day of our lives, especially if we aim to advance social change for a more just society.

In my next five posts, I’ll go deeper in exploring the five principles and supporting practices that support consciousness and presence in social change.


[1] Rothberg, Donald. The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

Darfur not a “sideshow”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Several things this week have me thinking about Darfur. 

One – reports from the ground reveal that the Government of Sudan has begun bombing in Darfur again.  Though some Sudan experts suggest that the Darfur crisis is over, I fear that this has been only a lull in the storm and that as the rainy season ends, we will again see violence spike during the months of November – January as we have always seen.

Two – the UN General Assembly as been in session.  As the US takes over chairing the UN Security Council, I find myself delighted that Obama mentioned Darfur in his speech this week, and dismayed that we seem no closer to a level of effective intervention to achieve peace in Darfur and prevent the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement from falling apart.  At the same time, the outgoing commander of UNAMID is claiming the crisis is over and our own Envoy to Sudan questions whether it was even a genocide.

Three – my friend Rabbi Lee Bycel just returned from a trip to eastern Chad and a visit to Adam Musa.  Adam is a passionate advocate for his people and a tireless educator on human rights.  Adam is also a Darfuri refugee who has been living in a refugee camp with his family for 6 years now.  Four years ago when I met him, I promised him I would help him achieve his vision of creating a human rights library in his camp, home to around 15,000 Darfuris.  Various complications from regional violence to the requirements of the UN have prevented us from doing so.  But I am hopeful Rabbi Bycel will help us find a new partner on the ground in Chad who can facilitate making this possible. 

Four – A friend shared a post on Sudanwatch.blogspot.com by Sudan expert Alex de Waal, which critiques the Darfur movement, proposes that the crisis is over and that Darfur is a “sideshow” to the issues surrounding the CPA in South Sudan.  First of all, I highly respect Alex de Waal.  I do agree that it is a very strong possibility that Sudan will go to war over the South’s vote for indpendence next year, and that experts should be watching the deteriorating situation there very closely.  But I have to strongly disagree with his calling Darfur a “sideshow”. Though the intensity of the attacks that my brother witnessed in 2004-2005 has diminshed, Darfur is by far over.  In fact, reports that we have been getting from Darfuris on the ground report that bombing has begun again in Darfur by the GOS a week ago and continues.  Not all of the aid groups who were expelled have been allowed back in – the GOS has used this tactic before, allowing refugees to starve or die from disease in camps as a silent continuation of genocide. 

There is obviously a significant amount of political negotiations, peace-building, security, and reconstruction that will be necessary.  But the underlying forces that resulted in the conflict have not disappeared. Though reports show small numbers of individuals killed each month, and I know the violence is significantly lower than it had been, we should also keep in mind that the violence is still likely underreported.  When my brother served in Darfur (Aug 2004 – Jan 2005) only 3-4 of the 80 or so reports they issued in 6 months made it through channels to higher authorities, and even the reports they did issue were diluted by the GOS members of the monitoring team. What will be terrible, is if the international community allows their attention to move elsewhere without ensuring a solid peace agreement, security for the millions of refugees that have been displaced (3.5 million?), and justice for the perpetrators.

I do agree with some of de Waal’s complaints about the Darfur advocacy movement and its creation of an engine that increasingly has to focus on sustaining its own need for money and publicity.  And to enhance its credibility and authenticity, it needs to demonstrate its connection with the people of Darfur more than its connection with celebrities.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “philanthropic imperialism”, as the underlying intentions of the leaders of the movement are good, and aim to support the people of Darfur and obtain a sustainable solution to the entire regional conflict.  I think the Darfur advocacy movement needs a way to transition to a Sudan advocacy movement or a broader genocide / atrocity movement. Those that have done so – Enough, Genocide Intervention Network, have a broader vision and understanding of the complexities of the political situation there.

But at the end of the day, I do not believe that Sudan alone can ensure a peaceful end to either of its conflicts, and I remain concerned with the ability of the UN to protect human rights before the national security and economic interests of its members.  I’m neither a leading Darfur activist nor an international policy expert, but I think that the whole of Sudan could benefit from a proactive, strategic and well-structured international coalition to operate in both Darfur and the South like the Friends of the Nuba Mountains and the role it played in reaching the CPA and monitoring the ceasfire.  Most of all for me, so long as my friends like Adam Musa are still living in refugee camps going on their 6th year and whose health and spirits are suffering each day, then our responsibility as global citizens to do what we can to seek a peaceful resolution remains.

Miracle Journals

Friday, September 25, 2009

I invite you to start your own miracle journal. It has the most extraordinary effect of helping one marvel at the beautiful, the coincidences and the simple things of every day that we so often pass by. And it has helped me see concretely how much the energy, perspective and sheer presence that we bring to every moment affects the way in which we experience that moment.

Let me share an old story of the Taoist Farmer: A farmer one day has his horse run away. His neighbors express their concern that this has been an awful event as he needs his horse to farm his land. He responds, “maybe”. When the horse returns with two wild horses, his neighbors come by and say, what great fortune for you. You are now a wealthy man. The farmer responds, “maybe”. In the process of breaking in the wild horses to help with tilling the field, the son breaks his leg. The neighbors come by and say what a terrible thing it is to lose his eldest son during the farming season. He says “maybe”. A short time later when the army comes through the village seeking to conscript young men but cannot take the son because of his broken leg, the neighbors say what a great thing. Again the farmer says “maybe”….

One thing this story means to me is that I should be mindful of the fact that much about what happens to us depends on how we perceive it. What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is opening to the present moment whatever it is, without judgment, without attachment, without preference and without aversion. Just paying attention to WHAT IS. Mindfulness allows us to examine our intentions that come from wanting to fix things. It allows us to pay attention to our feelings so that we understand where they come from and we don’t react and cause harm. Also, when we focus intently on whatever is happening now, we may realize the impermanence of life as we watch our feelings come and go. In fact – it is said we spend 90% of our time thinking about the past and the future, which means we are missing what is actually happening right now! If we miss what’s happening now, then we are missing our entire lives.

And so, an amazing first step in cultivating mindfulness and presence is keeping a journal every day of what you experience as miraculous. Whatever seems to you to be a miracle – a beautiful flower, a close call or a discount at the grocery store. Here are a few of my entries to get you thinking:

Saturday: I saw a moose while walking up a trail in the woods. It was a beautiful day

Monday: I had been trying to get a meeting with this one professor at Dartmouth for months and then I ran into her at the gym and we are now going to have dinner.

Wednesday: I noticed the beauty of all the colorful fresh vegetables arranged at the local co-op.

Friday: I called my friend’s office and the colleague who answered offered to volunteer to help my non-profit.

I’d love to hear who is inclined to start one – send me a miracle in response to this post and let’s inspire each other.

Exercising the Awakening Muscles

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I’m slowly discovering that this idea of structuring my day with half personal transformation and half societal transformation is a construct itself just like the 9-5 work day I wanted to reinvent.  When I choose to meditate, I’ve got neighbors coming over knocking on my door.  When I choose to work, I’m not getting things finished if I take time to meditate or breathe, or I’m running out of time to practice each day if I’m working to finish a project. I’m constantly feeling like I can’t find the right balance.   I’m realizing that the balance I’m seeking is a matter of moment to moment, not 4 hour block to 4 hour block.

I went to a powerful speech by Sandeep Kumar in White River Junction, VT sponsored by the Transition Town Project – an amazing project that is applying the principles of conscious change to transform an entire town into a sustainable community.  Sandeep has been a practitioner and advocate for integrating personal and societal transformation in his own life in India.  After his speech, I asked him his thoughts on finding balance between the discipline needed for deep personal practice and the lack of structure needed to respond to what is always new and arising in every moment, especially with relationships and work.

First of all, he explained that we ourselves are not static beings in a dynamic world.  We are in a continual process of transition as individuals between the ego self and divine Self.   He also explained that there is no duality between the two extremes of which I am seeking balance: discipline and flow, effort and effortlessness, self and other, solitude and relationship.  He said, “When we are working on ourselves we are always with everyone and when we are with everyone we are still in our selves.  Fixing things with just discipline will not work because then we can’t evolve spiritually.  Even relationships are formed from within you.” 

I am realizing through this sabbatical experience that the key to balance is bringing consciousness to every moment.  This openess allows me to grow continually through life’s experiences, while allowing that ever-deepening inner awareness to inform my outer response.   It is my commitment to personal practice that fine tunes my ability to listen and strengthens my ability to be present.  It is the quality of that presence with the messy flow of life that will determine the intention, clarity, compassion and wisdom with which I can act. My spiritual teacher, Jessica Dibb, equates all this to exercising your awakening muscles.   

I’m also learning that there is a natural balance between solitude and relationship. And if I tune in, I really do know when I desire to be with others and when I need to be alone to renew myself.  We need the outside world and our relationships to teach us what we need to learn to continue to evolve.  We need time alone to reflect and integrate these learnings. But consciousness is not something we only do in a quiet room on a nice pillow.  It is something we can bring in every moment to every relationship to every action.  The key is staying conscious when our plan is disrupted and not getting pulled back into unconscious reactivity.

So then, what of discipline?  I still need to exercise those muscles so I can live from a place of presence in every moment or notice when I am not. One of the practices I share with Global Grassroots change agents in Rwanda is to notice when a “charge” is arising in you -  this may be a rush of feeling in reaction to a situation – annoyance, anger, embarrassment, repulsion, impatience, etc.   We’ve all had these situations – someone cuts us off in traffic and we’re furious, or a boss or colleague criticizes and we want to act quickly to defend ourselves.  The first step is to stop and notice the feeling that is arising first.  To do so, I suggest practicing taking three breaths.  Notice what is arising, see clearly what is underlying this feeling.  It may be fear, discomfort, anxiety, a feeling of rejection, or something that reminds us of a past event that upset us in a similar way. Rather than reacting from that feeling and redirecting that pain on someone else – snapping at them, cutting them off, etc. – our three breaths allow us to discern instead what conscious response may be necessary. 

Let me share a story.  I teach this simple practice of three breaths for conscious response to our students in Rwanda and then encourage them to practice this in their own lives.  A few days later I ask how this has had an impact, if any, outside the classroom.  One woman raised her hand one day.  She said, “When I returned home after class, my kids had messed up my whole house.  And I had cleaned it completely before I had left.  Well, usually I just beat my children.  But today, I took three breaths and closed my eyes.  I then spoke in a calm voice and told my children why I wanted the house clean. Then I asked them to clean it up while I sat with my eyes closed.  And they did…  And I didn’t have to beat my children today.”

In Global Grassroots work in support of women’s rights for a more conscious society, the way in which we embody consciousness is so critical to ending cycles of violence.  This woman was, in fact, working on a project combating domestic violence.  Suddenly she realized how much a role violence already influenced the way she was raising her children, especially her boys.  A simple act of conscious practice around reactivity helped transform not only the way this change agent approached her own children, but now the way in which she approaches her work on domestic violence within the community.

Presence in every moment.  We never know how deeply or how broadly that one unconscious act or conscious act may ripple out and impact others.   My task is cultivating a higher quality of presence and ability to listen in every moment, not just 4-6 hours a day.

Demons in the Sacred Circle

Monday, September 14, 2009

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape.  It is a powerful book of wisdom from a meditation retreat she led in Canada.  Today’s reading titled “Taking a Bigger Perspective” offered the following to me:

People often say, “Meditation is all very well, but what does it have to do with my life?”  What it has to do with your life is that perhaps through this simple practice of paying attention – giving loving-kindness to your speech and your actions and the moments of your mind – you begin to realize that you’re always standing in the middle of a sacred circle, and that’s your whole life…Everyone who walks up to you has entered that sacred space, and it’s not an accident.  Whatever comes into the space is there to teach you…Our life’s work is to use what we have been given to wake up…to let the things that enter into the circle wake you up rather than put you to sleep…You can leave your marriage, you can quit your job, you can go where people are going to praise you…but the same old demons will always come up until finally you have learned your lesson, the lesson they came to teach you.  Then those same demons will appear as friendly, warmhearted companions on the path.

Yesterday my husband joyfully came to tell me that he’d invited some good friends to dinner.  I immediately felt a rush of disappointment.  Though I truly appreciate these friends, I had been carefully attending to my personal practice, had planned my Sunday to encompass time outdoors, time alone meditating, working out, reading and numerous other things that did not allow time for entertaining guests, and the shopping, straightening up and cooking that it would require.  I wanted to protect the introspective time I had committed to, but I wasn’t sure how to compromise – we couldn’t retract an invitation and I certainly couldn’t hide in my meditation room during dinner.  This whole scenario hampered my mood, which then lingered on to affect my day’s joy-intended activities.

Reading Pema Chodron’s teaching came at a perfect time.  I realize that this whole situation was a growth opportunity for me, a chance to wake up.  My husband and I both had underlying good intentions – his beautiful spontaneity had responded with joy to an opportunity to connect with friends – my commitment to inner practice wanted peace and tranquility.  But I was trying to separate and isolate my introspective time from the rest of the world.  Instead, as I shifted my perspective to see this whole occasion as events entering my sacred circle as a teaching, it became clear that my attachment to my own agenda was what was causing me angst, not my husband’s sociability.  With a broader perspective, I saw as well that I was sabotaging my own desire to have balance between inner and outer, self and other.  You can’t just disappear into a cave and shut out life.  Well, I guess you can.  But the key lesson and practice for me is how to bring the peace, harmony and introspection INTO life – how to integrate it. 

I can’t separate them, because they are not separate.  To live a life that embraces consciousness in every moment, you cannot depend on being able to go deeply within and inquire only when the circumstances are perfect – still, quiet, alone, on a soft pillow.  Every moment means every dynamic, messy moment.   While quiet and solitude are restorative and important, we do not have to disengage as a condition or requirement to find clarity and reconnect with ourselves in each moment.   

In the end, our friends decided not to come to dinner for entirely other reasons.  And though my day was cloaked with unneccessary angst, I now express my gratitude for the lesson that entered my sacred circle, which now walks with me as friendly, warmhearted companions on my path.

Forest dancing

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I’m now embracing the fact that each day will not be structured perfectly with 4-6 hours of personal transformation practice and 4-6 hours of productive social justice work.  But I’m finding that simply by bringing a bit more intention to my day that it naturally encompasses more balance because I’m a bit more attuned to what I need in each moment. And engagement with nature has offered some of the most powerful opportunities for renewal too.

Take yesterday, for example.  I was working away again intensely, when I looked up and noticed that the sun had finally warmed the fall air that has begun to arrive each morning.  I felt inspired to go jogging.  I grabbed my iPod and shoes and headed out onto my dirt country road.  It was gorgeous out and I might not have noticed if I hadn’t looked up. 

I felt an amazing surge of energy and ended up going further than I have in a very long time, abeit with a mix of jogging, walking and stopping to admire the view.  I took a detour through the woods and just as I neared my favorite spot – this little mossy glen - Osho’s Kundalini Meditation series started playing on my iPod.  If anyone is familiar with Kundalini meditation you know that it starts with extremely dynamic movement.  I literally ended up dancing in the middle of the woods by myself for another half hour.  It was truly invigorating, and I felt exquisitely alive.  

How often have you danced in the woods by yourself?  I highly recommend it.  You’ll find your priorities start shifting as the beauty and scent of nature infiltrates.   And then the minute your mind empties of the to do lists and the planning process, the most creative and innovative ideas arise.   I’ve had similar experiences weeding my vegetable garden or hiking.  I end up feeling calm, full of wonder about things like soil and pine cones, rebalanced and solidly grounded. 

I’m sad that we’ve lost touch with the Earth in so many ways.  But the most important thing we could do for ourselves every day is to stand outside facing the sun or the rain clouds and just breathe the air for 5 minutes.  If you’re so lucky as to be outside a city and can get to a place where you can also smell the leaves and soil, then you must.  Or stand on the grass with your bare feet before it gets too cold to do so.  And if you’re brave enough, despite who’s watching, add a little wiggle or a jig.  You’ll be amazed at how great it feels.

Taking Time for the Self

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The more that I do my personal growth work, the more that I believe it is an essential part of my social justice work in the world. Each time I emerge from a powerful breathwork session or sitting meditation, not only do I feel refreshed and full of energy, but I have more clarity for the decisions I must make. Going further, I often realize how my own fears or unconscious patterns of behavior and thinking have limited me in my perspective or choice of action. The deeper I can go in my own transformation or cultivation of consciousness, the deeper I can go into a place of wisdom and Essence to inform my work in the world.

One day it occurred to me: what would it look like if I divided each day evenly into personal growth work and social justice work? What if I spent 4-6 hours each day in deep consciousness practice? How might that affect my productivity the other 4-6 hours? How might my perspective change about certain priorities? How might I manage stress and balance in my life? What would it look like to take time for the Self – and I’m talking Self with a capital “S”. Not just taking time for myself, but taking time to connect with the inner, life source beneath everything else.

So, I’ve decided that if I am working to advance this concept of Conscious Social Change – I should walk the walk. I have chosen to take September as a sabbatical to do just that – to embody a balance between personal transformation and societal transformation; inner and outer; Self and other as an experiment. So here we go.

I’ve decided to set a few ground rules and goals, but I’m also not eager to structure everything so that I can respond to needs, inspiration and the unknown that might arise. But here is the vision and loose commitment I am holding for this time:

1. I will spend time outside each day to reconnect with the Earth, which has so much wisdom to offer.
2. I will meditate and breathe each day in a sacred space.
3. I will read and reflect each day – I have chosen Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape, as my readings and teaching each day.
4. I will ask the teachers in my life for guidance on personal growth areas.
5. I will sleep or rest as long as is needed each day.
6. I will drink lots of water.
7. I will exercise or do yoga and take vitamins each day.
8. I will eat vegetarian meals that I prepare using as many ingredients as I can from my own garden and local farms.
9. I will set aside time as a priority for my husband and close friends.
10. I will draw or play music each week as I feel called, to embrace artistic expression.
11. I will speak my truth with loving-kindness in relationship with others.
12. I will play with my animal companions (1 dog, 2 cats).
13. I will laugh.
14. I will try to read that stack of 5 books I have been wanting to read.
15. I will complete my research and writing I’ve been eager to do.
16. I will invite this process to help inform the strategic direction of Global Grassroots.
17. I will design new Conscious Social Change workshops to be offered in the US to help generate interest and revenue for our work in Africa.
18. I will not get caught up in responding to emails every day as they are received, but choose to dedicate my time to the highest priority in every moment.
19. I will continue my mentorship with those who need me.
20. I will work on my relationship to money and fundraising.
21. I will blog every day.

The minute I wrote these all down, they felt like 21 rules, which started to make the whole liberating idea of a sabbatical sound just like work. So I threw out blogging every day and so I’m now writing for the first time on September 12.

So how is it going? Big lesson on day 2.

The first day I slept in – pure luxury. I often espouse the need for people to work according to their own circadian rhythms as opposed to the social construct of a 9-5 work day. I feel so much better working that way, and tend to write with the clearest mind at around midnight.

I was very disciplined the first day. I spent a few hours in the morning conducting a clearing ritual for the start of my sabbatical, and meditating and breathing on my intentions for this time. I went for a jog, weeded my garden, walked in the woods with my dog, read a bit, had dinner with friends and accomplished a few creative work projects. Very refreshing.

The next day I was so obsessed with completing one of my work projects that everything else went out the window. No meditation, no jog, no outside, no glass of water. When I caught myself – like when you catch yourself thinking during meditation – it was already late into the evening. I noticed. I allowed myself to inquire. Tried not to judge.

I realized I have this unbelievable, unquenchable drive to complete a task, to accomplish something. I forget to eat. I get irritable if someone should think to call my cell phone. And if I do get derailed, I can’t stop thinking about what I need to get done. This inclination to be productive (while a very valuable trait, mind you) was sabotaging my ability to find balance. What’s up with that?

My first instinct was to feel frustrated that I couldn’t stick with my plan for investing in personal growth work each day. Oops, there I am judging. Then I committed to being more disciplined at setting that time aside. Oops, there’s that need to accomplish popping up again. Arrrgh! I found myself trapped in a circle of self-reprimands and new plans.

And then I realized I was in the lesson. How quickly what we need to work on will arise. If only we notice! Stop trying to fix it. Just be. Breathe.


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