"When one realizes one is asleep, at that moment one is already half-awake."

— P.D. Ouspensky

Who We AreWhat We DoOur VenturesWhere We WorkOur ImpactOur InsightsMore

A Breathwork Practitioner in Haiti

March 24, 2010 by Gretchen

Barbara Johnson is a senior Breathwork Practitioner with the Inspiration Community (www.inspirationcommunity.org) in Baltimore, MD.  She traveled to Haiti as a volunteer with Global Grassroots for two weeks in March to offer trauma healing using breathwork to help women traumatized by the earthquake.  Following is a letter from Barbara to her family and friends.

Dear All,

I returned from Haiti early yesterday morning. I was and am so grateful for your support (financial, spiritual, emotional, all of it!) which was a touchstone during my amazing time there.

We arrived March 1 and drove to the site of the ruined Hotel Montana, which was, before January 12, the finest hotel in Haiti; a lovely site on a hilltop overlooking the city of Port-au-Prince and the sea. The site, now referred to by the search and recovery teams as “The Pile”, was my home for 12 days. Our camp had been established by Gretchen and Andrew Wallace and Gretchen’s brother Brian Steidle when they arrived a few days after the quake, to aid with the huge multinational recovery of the hundreds of victims at that site.

Gretchen and I went to teach a simple practice we learned last month from Dr. Richard Brown of Columbia University and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg of New York Medical College (www.haveahealthymind.com).   This technique has been shown to prevent chronic PTSD and has been used with victims of natural disasters, with first responders, and with war veterans.

When people suffer a traumatic event, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system engages. This “fight, flight or freeze” response, so essential to us when we need to escape or otherwise summon strength and alertness, often stays engaged, overwhelming the normal swing back to the parasympathetic branch (the “rest, digest, and recover” response). Symptoms people experience when stuck in the stress response include sleeplessness, nightmares, constant worry and vigilance, overactive startle reflex, digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression and numbness, anger and irritability, muscle tension manifesting as head, jaw or back pain, and shallow breathing. People who are caring for traumatized people often suffer their own trauma, experiencing the same symptoms.

The practice we learned has three parts; movement, Coherent Breathing, and group bonding. The movement piece is useful because trauma victims are often mentally dissociated from their bodies. The breath component, 10 minutes of lying down and breathing 5 breaths/minute through the nose, uses the optimal rate for engaging the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. The bonding piece at the end, which includes group sharing and singing, helps integrate the process into normal life activities and community.

With the help of a generous and gracious translator [working as the operations director for partner organization AMURTEL, http://amurtel.org] named Jayatii, we taught this technique to refugees, to aid workers, to Haitian community liaisons, to NGO employees, and to school children. Our smallest group was 6 people and our largest about 150.

When we described the stress response as a normal reaction to trauma, we heard, over and over, statements like: “I thought I was crazy”, “I thought I was the only one”, “I have been angry with myself that I can’t just get over this”, “I thought I was getting a bad disease”, and “I’m exhausted taking care of my grieving friend”.

After the breathing, many people shared the experience of feeling relief. We heard repeated versions of: “I feel like I have been born into a new life”, “I feel like a heavy weight has been removed”, “My headache is gone”, “My back isn’t hurting now”, “I haven’t felt this relaxed since the earthquake” “I feel happy that I have a way to help myself feel better” and “I’m going to show this to my grandmother”.

We told them they could use the breathing practice when they were going to sleep and when they were distressed, and that the relaxed breathing would become more easy and natural with daily practice. We encouraged them to share this simple method with their loved ones, and many told us they had been or planned to.

I was inspired and moved beyond the telling by these resilient, courageous, beleaguered people. I had expected to find a war zone peopled with zombies. The war zone was right, but zombies they are most emphatically not. They are vibrantly busy with the work of rebuilding their lives, businesses and communities despite nationwide grief, seemingly insurmountable devastation, terrible lack of food, water, medical care and housing, desperate poverty, and the prospect of being moved away from their communities into the unknown.

I wish to thank Drs. Brown and Gerbarg for their research, their work, and their teaching expertise, and for their generosity.  They donated a weekend to training us in their home and fielding many questions.

I want to thank and acknowledge Gretchen Wallace of Global Grassroots for inviting me along and for  exposing me to her great courage, grace, persistence, sensitivity and skill in teaming with individuals and  organizations, and in working with people from other cultures.  Global Grassroots is investigating some exciting opportunities to continue serving communities in Haiti. I will pass these on as they are formalized. And I will be posting photos and videos of our work.

Thanks again for your interest!

Gratefully,
Barbara

What Would She Do?

January 12, 2010 by Gretchen

I was recently asked by a friend to participate in an exciting experiment.  The instructions?

You are responsible for creating an organization in which people offer their greatest gifts. Describe it.

The purpose?

The instigators of this experiment propose: “Women will revolutionize how we think about work and have clear ideas for change.  Women have the most to gain from a new organizational model, so it is up to us to take responsibility for creating it… An organization intent on leveraging people’s “greatest gifts” will, in fact, be more effective, efficient, profitable and fulfilling to all stakeholders.”  Over the course of 365 days, they will be posting the viewpoints of 365 women and then working to explore and distill the patterns that arise.

Check this out as it unfolds: http://www.whatwouldshedo.blogspot.com/

And here is my contribution:

My dream organization has its center in a simple office in a natural setting, where the wall-length doors slide open during warm weather and where large windows allow a constant connection with the earth and sky. A shared kitchen with an eclectic mix of chairs, pottery and produce, harvested from a common garden supports individual wellness. Members of this circle connect virtually or in person to collaborate, create, innovate and engage around work that is aligned by a common purpose and has a broad social impact on a global level.

The organization measures its success in terms of its capacity to create systemic transformation leading to a more conscious society. It is inner-driven and outer-focused: individuals engage in their own work towards deeper self-knowledge, while striving collectively to advance positive change for the common good. The organization’s structure, operations, services and outputs are all designed to maximize social value creation, while ensuring environmental and economic sustainability. There is a code to do no harm. The circle does not seek simple consensus, but invites a diversity of perspective and debate for innovation. It engages stakeholders and beneficiaries in ongoing dialogue and evaluation. As a tribe, it recognizes it is a member of a universal, living ecosystem, and thus is open to its own evolution and even its own dissolution if that is the highest need.

Individuals invited and drawn to this collective are given time to explore, identify, nurture and apply their greatest gifts, passions, and talents. Then they commit to making their unique contribution towards the organization’s vision. Though there is a leadership structure that guides the tribe, there is participation at all levels in setting strategy, goals and objectives. Teams are formed primarily on a project basis for a specific scope of work, while ongoing operational and administrative needs are handled through shared responsibility with a spirit of service.

The organization insists on an equitable investment in both inner growth and outer work. It encourages daily practice for personal growth, and provides for structure and coaching along a path for professional development. When its members need solitude for renewal, reflection or creative processes, they can easily access the adjacent healing/yoga/ meditation rooms, organic garden, library, walking trails, and a musical/artistic white space – or not come in at all.

Core operational values include: integrity, open communication, human understanding, shared knowledge, active learning, and experimentation. Time schedules honor an individual’s circadian and creative rhythms, and so the space may have occupants at odd hours of the day and sometimes no one at all. People are compensated based on their social value creation, which may change with each project depending upon roles. Performance is assessed by the whole community, and trust allows colleagues to challenge and support each other in pushing beyond their individual growth edges. Collectively, the tribe is both a microcosm of and an advocate for a whole, just and compassionate society.

Principle FIVE: Leveraging Inner Purpose to Create Social Innovation

October 12, 2009 by Gretchen

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

Principle FIVE: Leveraging Inner Purpose to Create Social Innovation
Have you ever been asked what you really wish you could be doing?  How many of us can say “I’m doing it!”  The final key principle in initiating conscious social change is to listen for an individual calling and then explore how to leverage it to create social innovation. Bringing this same presence to our social justice work allows for radical creativity. Clarity among conscious change agents allows for personal agenda to make room for the best ideas to move forward.  As an inherently interconnected and systemic approach, conscious social change invites collaboration with both the target population and the perpetrators. Finally, it ensures those working together are inspired by a common cause, and it energizes collective efforts by honoring individual needs for renewal.

Supporting Practice FIVE: Leveraging Gifts and Assets
I’ve actually posted this exercise as a downloadable workshop on this website under resources for Change Agents. The exercise is a simple method to engage teams in reenergizing the creative-problem solving process. Groups can work collectively to assess the specific gifts, capabilities, passions and assets the individual participants and larger community possess.  It can be used with youth, educators, organization staff, community activists, and change agents.  The first objective is to help participants see what tools they have to use in solutions-building by tapping into individual capabilities and passions. The second objective is to release the creative ideas of the collective body. By coming from a place of inner strength, the participants will be more likely to generate solutions that they will find inspiring and meaningful to pursue.  Having understood the gifts, capabilities and assets they bring to a solution, they then will be more likely to design solutions which will be sustainable long-term and which maximize social value creation.

Even without a structured exercise, you can take a moment to close your eyes and sit in silence.  As your mind quiets, then ask yourself a few of these questions and see what arises:

  • What do I really want to be doing with my life one day?
  • What am I seeking that I don’t have in my life right now?
  • What do I feel most passionate about?
  • What do I feel called to do right now?
  • What are my unique gifts?
  • What issue, activity, industry, type of work really moves me?
  • When do I feel most satisfied?

I do believe that we each have a gift or gifts that we can choose to cultivate and make use of in contributing to the common good.  When we do, in some way, we know we’re on the right path.  We feel more alive, we experience more joy and meaning, some people even reach those “flow” states.  Ultimately, we find out that we have everything we need to take each step forward.

But one of my teachers once shared a powerful teaching, that is worth keeping in mind:  You must practice deep listening to hear how you are called in every moment.  Because the calling could change.  It’s not about finding our single purpose on the planet.  It’s about listening to what feels like the highest truth or action (or non-action) in every moment.

If you are committed to creating change in the world, leverage this passion or gift to bring innovation, energy and creativity towards solving the issue you feel most passionate about.  I’ve met a number of people who have done this when they were horrified to learn about the Darfur genocide taking place.  Leslie Thomas, an architect and designer, saw a photo of a toddler who had been shot in Darfur.  Having a child the same age, inspired her to take action. She used her design talent and network to develop the Darfur|Darfur Exhibit, a digital photography exhibit about Darfur which has since traveled globally to raise awareness by projecting images on the sides of buildings.  Rebecca Davis, ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of the Rebecca Davis Dance Company, read The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur. She felt compelled to produce a ballet called Darfur, which offers a haunting and potent perspective on the crisis, and which is now touring college campuses.  A group of university students who loved video games designed Darfur is Dying, in collaboration with mtvU,which allows people to experience what it is like to be a Darfuri woman trying to escape from Janajweed militia members.  The possibilities are endless, when individuals combine deep personal transformation work, the cultivation of a gift or passion and societal transformation efforts.

Those of us who are called to advance a more just society, also have a responsibility to create change while embodying the same principles of integrity and justice we hope to see in the world. Conscious social change invites us to cultivate self-awareness for greater understanding of and compassion for suffering – even among our opposition.  It asks us work on the unexamined parts of ourselves that cause us to act unconsciously to avoid or end our discomfort. It necessitates that we engage in self-care to protect ourselves from fatigue and disillusionment.  It reminds us to use deep practice to stay attuned to the needs of those we serve before our own agendas. It allows us to transform oppressive structures by examining the underlying collective shadows. Finally, it opens us to our unique calling, and inspires innovation through an ever-deepening awareness. Thích Nhât Hanh, Buddhist monk and activist said, “Non-violent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity.”Consciousness-based approaches to social change, learned through direct experience, enable change agents to advance social justice more effectively, creatively and transformationally.

Principle FOUR: Attunement for Conscious Action

October 12, 2009 by Gretchen

This is part 5 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle FOUR:  Attunement for Conscious Action
I read a wonderful book in business school, surprisingly, about Deep Change.  We read two books by Robert Quinn, one of which was titled, Change the World: How Ordinary People can Achieve Extraordinary Results, where he examines the patterns of change agents who advance systemic change.  Quinn proposes that most of society embraces a transactional model that is “other-driven” and “inner-focused”.  In other words, individuals are driven to accomplish and attain what outer society values (e.g., prestige, knowledge, power, material wealth) and focused on results that benefit the personal good. In contrast, Quinn notes, extraordinary change agents work from an opposite, transformational orientation. They are “inner-driven” and “other-focused”.  In other words, they are driven by their own internal sense of purpose while focused on serving the larger common good. I’ve never forgotten this distinction.  And I believe, conscious social change advances the possibility of inner and outer transformation, by addressing two weaknesses of the conventional paradigm.

First, conscious social change allows us to stay attuned to the changing needs of those we aim to serve.  For example, service-based organizations can easily become attached to their core programs.  Most organizations feel the pressure to demonstrate impact in terms of concrete, quantitative outputs, such as the number of meals served to the homeless. Progress is measured by increasing size and scale, which drives the need to keep the non-profit engine funded and ever growing.  However, organizations compromise their ability to generate transformational impact. If they are not closely evaluating their effectiveness and working to re-diagnose their priority issue, they may advance their solution without noticing the shifting, underlying needs of their target populations.

In a consciousness-based approach, the same principles of deep inquiry used for self-awareness are applied to identify, understand and transform underlying issues, such as the root causes for why homelessness and hunger continue to exist. In this approach, social value creation is maximized by using deep examination and analysis of the principles of suffering to help refine program offerings to achieve transformation more effectively. Though expansion may be necessary to replicate effective solutions and bring them to scale, ultimately conscious social change ensures organizations exist only for the common good, not for their own survival.

Second, conscious social change invites us to examine our role in the systems that uphold the status quo. As institutions become ever-more integrated with cultural practice and dominant culture, they too can come to reflect the unconscious shadows of their members and the very imbalances of power that they were established to upset. Practitioners of conscious social change, thus, must rigorously examine our individual and collective role in failing to live from a place of consciousness.

Supporting Practice FOUR: Cultivating Compassion and Setting Intentions
Compassion is derived from an understanding that we are all the same in our motivation to protect ourselves from suffering.  Knowing that when people cause harm to others they are acting to avoid their own pain, can help us understand our opposition’s motivation. We also can see the interconnection between inner and outer transformation, including how we are implicated in social problems through our own unconscious patterns of behavior.  From this inner-directed and other-focused approach, conscious social change supports a diagnosis of society’s ills at the most fundamental root level.

In every moment, as we make choices to act, speak and engage with others, we do so with intention.  Very often these intentions are unconscious.  This is true not only of individuals, but of groups of individuals, organizations and institutions.  Bringing awareness to our intentions helps to ensure we are acting from a place of wisdom and clarity, rather than reacting from a shadow or fear.  On an individual level we can ask whether we are helping others because it will make us feel liked, useful or powerful. Are we protecting ourselves or advancing our power? Individually, it is helpful to review our intentions whenever we feel a charge or find ourselves reacting. On an organizational level we can ask whether we are acting in support of our core mission, or whether we are making decisions that position us to achieve publicity or funding at the expense of those we serve. Organizations should always consider their intentions and decisions in light of their overarching mission statement. On a societal level, we can examine the ways the structures we endorse uphold hierarchy and exclusion. We can investigate how society creates structures that help us collectively avoid acknowledging the suffering of the marginalized, and how society encourages our attachments to personal gain. If intentions are set consciously from the ground up, it is more likely that resulting actions, structures and systems will support the optimal path for the common good.

Principle THREE: Restoring Balance

October 11, 2009 by Gretchen

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

October 11, 2009 by Gretchen

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

October 11, 2009 by Gretchen

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

October 11, 2009 by Gretchen

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.

Twitter for Social Entrepreneurs

October 10, 2009 by Gretchen

I am so excited to have been included in Social Edge’s “Twitter for Social Entrepreneurship: The Top 100 Tweeps to Follow”, especially within their list of 20 eclectic social entrepreneurs.  A huge honor.  And an exciting opportunity.  I feel I’m just getting my Twitter voice.   But the possibilities are endless – especially for social change. 

Twitter for me is not only a way of keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the parts of the world that I care about most, but also a way of tapping into some of the most innovative activity taking place in circles you might never come across through mainstream news.  Which in turn gets my own gears turning.   Just imagine the gears turning when you have millions following millions in this space. 

One morning last week  I sat down to peak at my Twitter feed in between various tasks, trying not to get sucked in.  I saw an alarming tweet about riots happening live in Kampala, Uganda.  Two clicks and I was looking at a live map of the city, posting SMS text reports of where the riots were breaking out at that moment.  Memories of the Kenya election riots that involved widespread rape, and the horrific violence against women in Guinea last week inspired a new idea for use of such technology as an early warning system for women.  What if that live map could turn into active texts to women’s cell phones of when the riots were nearing their location, so that they would have time to bundle up their kids and get to some other form of safety?  Who could make that happen? A Grameen phone + crisis hotline + FrontlineSMS…

I think in the next few weeks I’ll start throwing out onto Twitter some of the random ideas that are filling up notebooks and going unused.  I’ll see how I can invite others to do the same.  Ideablob is one place where ideas flow freely.  Would love to start a little experiment and see if there is some way to track what gets adopted and how quickly.  But how do we reach the world’s most vulnerable who could benefit from such innovation, but who have the least access to technology?  Where are new technologies being leveraged for social change beyond economic progress?  What traditional networks exist on which we can overlay or integrate into social media networks?  For example, can women in parts of rural Africa be accessed at a local well for participation?  How do we include the illiterate?  I think one of the most critical questions facing change agents interested in advancing a liveable society globally is still how best to bridge the digital divide.  But that question is no longer about hardware – shipping computers to the developing world.  It’s about innovating for network expansion and inclusion.

Water for Women

September 27, 2009 by Gretchen

I have seen first-hand the horrifying and debilitating impact on women and girls of the lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation.

I work primarily in Rwanda, where women and girls rise every morning to begin the treacherous 3 to 4 hour round-trip journey down and back up steep hills to collect water from dirty creeks in the valleys. Not only does this mean young girls are missing out on a critical opportunity for education, as the author identified, but imagine the productivity gain if millions of women suddenly had an extra four hours every morning to attend to the myriad of other needs they and their family face.

In addition to the extensive health implications of drinking contaminated water, violence is often a more immediate risk facing women during this daily chore.  Throughout rural areas of Rwanda, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and other regions of Africa, women risk sexual assault as they travel to remote water access points.  And competition for resources further exacerbates this risk, by causing women to leave their homes in the middle of the night – sometimes at 2am or 3am – just to ensure they reach the water source first and do not have to spend subsequent hours waiting or fighting for the limited supply.

Even more horrifying is the alternative to this difficult journey.  Some of the women we are working with in Rwanda, who are elderly, physically disabled or sick with HIV and too weak to make this daily journey must turn to buying water from delivery men who bring them water on bicycles. However, their inability to pay leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation to meet the basic needs of their family.  As one woman told us: when your children are about to return from school for their primary meal of the day, and you have no water to cook rice – well, you do what you have to do to feed your children.  Further, the inability to cook meals on time due to the water collection process is often a trigger of domestic violence within families where women are seen as not meeting the needs of their husbands in carrying out their primary duties. 

The lack of proper sanitation facilities also often leads to violence, especially in primary and secondary schools where unisex latrines become a prime location for sexual violence against school children.  Furthermore, when girls reach the age of menstruation, they often leave school permanently so as to avoid the embarrassment of utilizing unisex latrines, which also do not provide them with adequate sanitation facilities to take care of themselves.

What is remarkable is that these same women are initiating their own solutions to create safe alternatives for women and girls.  Throughout Rwanda, groups of women are designing social-purpose water projects that allow them to provide water at no charge to vulnerable women, sustained by the sales of water to the remainder of the community.  Other projects are educating villages about girls’ reproductive health and then working collaboratively to build girls’ latrines at schools.  Global Grassroots has found that with less than $3000, a well-designed socially entrepreneurial venture can serve between 500 – 2500 members of its community.  When you think about the large-scale development aid that has yet to successfully address this global issue, I propose we redirect even a small portion of this aid to support smaller-scale entrepreneurial endeavors that can begin to protect vulnerable communities immediately.  These socially entrepreneurial projects – with the right training and advisory support – are demonstrating the opportunity for fostering systemic change from the grassroots level up.


GlobalGiving Top-Ranked Organization 2017   GlobalGiving Vetted Organization 2017  GlobalGiving Verified Organization 2017

Global Grassroots
1950 Lafayette Road
Suite 200, Box 1
Portsmouth, NH 03801 USA
Tel (+1) 603.643.0400
info@globalgrassroots.org

Facebook    Twitter    You Tube    Global Giving

Contact Us

© 2018 Global Grassroots 501(c)(3) Non-Profit