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Posts Tagged ‘activism’

TEDWomen – When and how do women act?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

This month I had my first TED experience. And it was a first for TED too – TEDWomen. Whether or not we still need separate events dedicated exclusively for and about women is a debate worth having, but that I will reserve for another post.

I went to TEDWomen out of curiosity in the intersection of innovation, ideas and women. I went to engage with and to explore the diversity of who attends such events – from artists to athletes to politicians to activists. And I went for inspiration and new possibilities for collaboration. I found all of the above, but I also left embracing the paradox of discontent that comes from a gathering of still largely well-educated, privileged Westerners celebrating their roles in the world, largely without the voices of the disenfranchised. Again I am asking the question – who and where are the change agents? I found several and I found several missing.

I was deeply inspired by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, who spoke of being both a mystic and a warrior and called on us to eliminate the orientation of “otherness”, which continues to enforce a paradigm of separation, of us vs. them. We need more examples of mystic warriors.

I was mesmerized by Joan Halifax, Engaged Buddhist and spiritual teacher, who spoke of the multiple dimensions of compassion, including both strength and a soft heart. She spoke even of the wrathfulness of compassion that does not tolerate delusion, and that calls upon us to witness and then act upon suffering in the world. Why are we not teaching our children compassion, voting on the basis of compassion, she asked. Why does compassion not drive us in every action?

And I was enamored by Caroline Casey, a legally blind elephant handler and social entrepreneur working on behalf of the disabled, who called on each of us to believe in the right thing and embrace your unique self.

During one particular session, I was delighted to sit between two significant leaders of change for women. We listened to a surprise speech by Hillary Clinton, where she proclaimed the empowerment of women and girls was a core tenant of her foreign policy. She explained that she saw it as a national security interest, because countries that embrace the empowerment of women were both more prosperous and more stable. While this is an important priority, I was dismayed that we still have to use arguments aligned with national security to uphold the human rights of women. Things have yet to change as far as needed, if that is still our primary rationale as a nation. Expressing this to my two neighbors, the NGO leader indicated her satisfaction with the argument so long as it enabled the outcome. The other, a long-time feminist activist, refused to stand during the ovation, and commented that the US was very good at putting its finger on the success of women in the world.

I mentioned to both of them that right then, while we were sitting in our comfortable auditorium in the exquisite International Trade Center, Lisa Shannon, activist for ending sexual violence in the Congo, and four other dedicated individuals were holding a 24/7 vigil for five days straight in the freezing cold out in front of the State Department. They were calling upon the administration to assign a special envoy for Congo and to work with the international community to spearhead comprehensive security sector reform to ensure the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice and women are protected. What if, I proposed, we could get a cohort of attendees, including some relatively well known women leaders, to take a quick cab ride over to the State Department and stand with Lisa in solidarity? The NGO leader responded with practical hesitation, albeit no precise objection, advising us to have a concrete call to action first. The other jumped at the opportunity to walk the walk of what we were there at TED to support, and quickly moved to create a flyer and press release, coordinate logistics, and mobilize people to respond.

As the two of us handed out notices between speakers, I was shocked when one woman muttered at me, “That’s so annoying.” Well, it’s also so annoying that women are being raped repeatedly in the Congo, I thought to myself after I recovered. I felt a momentary reprieve when later Madeline Albright declared that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” And then I recognized myself “otherizing” again.

After passing out 400 flyers, the two of us were able to mobilize just three other people to join us in a cab for a quick trip through traffic and a five minute visit to Lisa’s vigil, before returning to the evening session of speakers. I was so grateful for these four other women who felt a sense of duty and delight in responding to a simple call for action. I felt such disappointment that within a conference for and about women – where people had expressed their interest through an application process and paid thousands to attend – we could not convene more willing to take such a simple step. Then I reminded myself that we each have something we are called to do, and it is not always the same. And perhaps I should be aware of my own orientation when one declares an event on behalf of women – TEDWomen was not actually TEDWomensIssuesandActivism, after all.

As we jumped from the cab and crouched together to take a photo with Lisa and her colleagues, I felt a level of guilt sinking in my gut – what in the world did our brief action offer the cause, and why do we feel we even deserve a photo documenting our 5 minutes of attendance? Later, my new activist friend remarked with content that we have to be satisfied that for every one person that shows up, you usually reach 100 others with the message. I suppose that is the hard work of activism.

One of my mentors, a Vietnam Vet, practicing Buddhist and mind-body practitioner once told me: “It is not the magnitude of the task, but the intentions that matter most”. Joan Halifax says that we can have no attachment to outcome. The NGO leader I sat next to was willing to accept less than optimal intentions if the outcome was realized. And the activist was satisfied with the action and potential exposure, despite the outcome in numbers.

So what does really matter for change to happen? The intention, the action or the outcome?

The next day I went back to spend a few hours with Lisa and her colleagues. I asked her what she thought. She responded that she’s always been surprised by the outcome when her actions are in line with her beliefs and when she’s simply put her best foot forward. The results have always been so much greater than she ever imagined. Here, her theory was proven again. Though she was just one of five people who were camping out on the State Department steps, she had ended up getting a meeting with the head of the Africa Division later that afternoon.

I suppose the formula is different for each change agent. Certain circumstances will move us, outrage us or motivate us, often without warning. And some will not. A vision of change for the common good will likely inspire and set our direction. Our role then, I believe, is to listen deeply to identify what our most unique contribution might be. Sometimes we don’t always have to act. But when we feel we must, we must also ensure our response is aligned with our highest intentions, and double check that our intentions are in service to that vision, not our own egos. Finally, we must let go of the results. For we are just one piece of a larger landscape of interconnected parts moving collectively toward an emerging reality that we cannot yet see.

Individual and Collective Conscience

Friday, May 8, 2009

I am so moved by Mia’s decision to end her fast and Richard Branson’s decision to step in. I really applaud Mia for deciding to do what is necessary to care for herself so that she can continue to lead this fight on behalf of the Darfur people. Too often I think people pursue social justice work to the ends of their limits and then, facing burnout, quit. Movements lose their energy, and individuals unintentionally become a disservice to their cause by not caring for themselves so as to ensure they remain strong. I am reminded of the words we hear every time we get on an airplane – if you are traveling with a child, please put on your oxygen mask first before helping someone in need. I’m glad that Mia has chosen to take a rest, affix her oxygen mask and renew herself. And I can only imagine that she does so with deep humility and deep concern for the million of displaced Darfuris who can no longer see a doctor, cannot end their hunger and cannot avoid the increasing probability that their children and families risk starvation.

I am so in awe of the power of consciousness within a collective body to move and inspire others. I am wondering whether we have or will have other spiritual or religious leaders, political leaders, business leaders and cultural leaders joining this fast. And I am comforted by the growing support of grassroots citizens and even whole communities that are bringing new awareness of Darfur to their neighbors. I am also continually shocked that in this day and age of technology it is so very hard to mobilize enough people, enough voices, enough political influence, enough media and enough power to reach the tipping point to end a genocide. There is no excuse. I sit here observing this extraordinary paradigm of deepest personal action and greatest collective non-action and just pray that the former will shift the latter.

A Breakfast Meditation

Thursday, April 30, 2009

This morning I decided that each day of my fast I would do two things – one personal and one for social change. I invite you to join me:

1) A breakfast meditation: During the time you might normally have breakfast, consider doing a 5-10 minute meditation. It will help clear your mind and bring awareness to your connection to those suffering in Darfur. Here is a short explanation on how to do a meditation. I will later try to record this as a video that it can serve as a guided meditation while you actually sit:

Sit cross-legged on a mat, pillow or carpet or sit in a chair with your two feet on the floor. Rest your hands with palms down on your legs or loosely together in your lap. Try to sit in a way that is noble, with your spine straight, as if there is a string pulling on you from the top of your head. Now, close your eyes. Draw your attention to your breath. Take a few deep cleansing breaths, and then relax your breathing. Try not to hold your breath or even pause between the in-breath or out-breath. Notice where they connect if you can. Take a few moments to bring exquisite focus to just your breathing. If a thought arises, just notice it. Say to yourself “there is a thought” and then let it go and refocus on your breath. Next, bring your attention to your body. Feel your sitting bones placed firmly on the earth or your chair. If on a chair, feel your feet planted squarely on the earth. Feel this connection with the planet and other people walking on this same soil. Draw your attention to your face and release any tension in your forehead and jaw. Next, draw your attention to your neck and shoulders and release any tension you find there too. Keeping your spine straight, release any tension in your back, arms and legs. As you sit relaxed and breathing, take note of what you sense in your immediate environment – the temperature, smells, sounds, any breeze passing over you. Now notice your internal emotional space. What are you feeling right now? Allow these emotions to arise and bring to you any wisdom or clarity. Do not try to push them away if they are uncomfortable, just be with them.

As you completely embrace your self as mind, body and emotions, allow your attention to consider the people suffering in Darfur. Drop for now all defenses and open to your knowledge of that suffering. Let it come as concretely as you can…concrete images of your fellow beings in pain and need, in fear and hunger, in IDP and refugee camps. Relax and just let them surface, breathe them in…the vast and countless hardships of our fellow humans. Notice how this affects your body, breathing or emotions. Just be with that awareness without too many thoughts. Breathe in that pain like a dark stream, up through your nose, down through your trachea, lungs and heart, and out again into the world yet…you are asked to do nothing for now, but let it pass through your heart…keep breathing…be sure that stream flows through and out again; don’t hang on to the pain…surrender it for now to the healing resources of life’s vast web. If you experience an ache in the chest, a pressure within the rib cage, that is all right. The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing. Shantideva, the Buddhist saint, guides us by saying: “Let all sorrows ripen in me.” We help them ripen by passing them through our hearts…making good, rich compost out of all that grief…so we can learn from it, enhancing our larger, collective knowing.

Now, as you breathe in, imagine that you are breathing in the brightest light into the crown of your head and down your spine into your sitting bones that are touching the ground. When you breathe out, let that light flow back up your spine again into your heart and then let it radiate outward to the people of Darfur. Let it radiate out to those who are perpetrating the genocide. Let it radiate out to the decision-makers who are paralyzed with fear, apathy or indecision. Continue this light-breathing until you feel a sense of peace and completion, that you no longer hold onto any anger, grief, pain or suffering. Open your eyes.

2) An act of social activism: Each day following your meditation, take the time to do one act of social activism for Darfur. Take a look at the Act Page of the Darfur Fast for Life website and then call the White House, text Secretary Clinton, contact the media or email your friends and family.

Each day approach this fast from the inside and the outside.


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