By Heather Lyn Mann
“After years of working in conservation and running large programmes that attempted to halt destruction, I find myself in despair about the hopelessness of the task ahead, the lack of care, the ineffectiveness, and the failure. For the first time in my life, I am overwhelmed and despondent about the future and any ability to effect change. After years of feeling driven and energetic, I find myself without vocation and helpless.”
These words rise from my in-box and wrap my heart. The plainspoken account of the author’s pain opens old wounds, stirs compassion; I could have written the sentences myself once. But today, my stability and joy are steadied by years of mindfulness practice. I am able to see the writing not as a single cry from the wilderness but one of ten thousand voices from battle-weary advocates pummeled repeatedly by suffering. Climate change, ocean acidification, racism, a broken criminal justice system, poverty, slavery, war, and other forms of societal abuse increase the anguish of advocates. An intimate familiarity with this special brand of hurt, the insight of transformation, and a yearning to support those engaged in environmental and social healing led me this past spring to organize a Community of Mindful Advocacy.
Our community is a small collaboration of individuals from across the United States embodying both Buddhist leadership and lives of societal engagement. Each of us leads retreats and workshops on Mindful Advocacy and other topics; we also roll up our sleeves and work on the front line of suffering in our communities. We come together to take refuge in each other’s passion, wisdom, and friendship. United, we work to identify, develop, and test spiritual practices to enhance our own happiness and effectiveness, as well as that of others seeking environmental and social wellbeing. We do this work because it is our experience that traditional activism is often driven by anger and fear and advanced by strategies birthed in dualistic thought.
Our group is a blend of Buddhist traditions. Mary Aubry is a graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders Program of Spirit Rock in the Vipassana tradition. Anne Forbes is a graduate of the Three Doors Academy, a secular organization with roots in the Bön Buddhist tradition. Lorri Houston, Laura Hunter, and I are ordained members of the Order of Interbeing, a blend of Mahayana, Source, and Schools Buddhism; Chris Petit is an OI aspirant. Several of our Dharma teachers participate as ad-hoc advisors to the effort. By uniting diverse traditions, we aim to deepen understanding and find common language to more effectively serve those who seek to learn with us.
What Is Mindful Advocacy?
While our community reflects many traditions, I see Thich Nhat Hanh as the ideal Mindful Advocate. Inspired by Wake Up Schools initiative, I challenge myself to translate Thay’s teachings into loving and peaceful actions that are both spiritual and secular in nature, making the fruit of this effort accessible to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
Our teacher says insight begins when we accept suffering as the reality of now. When we deny what is and cling to a vision of a world different from the reality of now, we experience pain. Healing begins at the moment of acceptance. Mindful Advocates welcome reality; we train ourselves to breathe in suffering, experience it fully, and accept strong emotions as vital information. We then breathe out compassion for ourselves and others. If we forget to breathe mindfully and are swept into frustration and anger, we block wisdom and energy, create disharmony, and injure relationships. Alternatively, if we stay steady and attentive to our breathing, we can lovingly care for Mother Earth and her children with the skill and lucidness of doctors.
It is important that we prepare ourselves for the death of the world. If society is past the tipping point and life as we know it is doomed, then it is crucial that Mindful Advocates ease suffering with loving skill, like tender-hearted hospice workers. Only by accepting our loved one’s impermanence can we calmly bear witness to the beauty not even death can extinguish.
Acceptance does not mean Mindful Advocacy is passive. Warriors for justice exercise fierce compassion as we—without anger or hatred—prevent individuals from profiting from the suffering of others. This understanding stems from Thay’s Second Mindfulness Training. We are determined to do everything in our power to stop harm through nonviolent, holding actions—even if this means putting ourselves at risk. Then, looking deeply, we find ways to transform the root causes and conditions of degradation and inequity so opportunities to profit from another’s suffering no longer manifest in society. We seek not to fix problems but to transform them at the base with skillful means, loving kindness, and compassion.
In my twenty years working as an environmental advocate, I came to see wanting to change the world as a weak aspiration; instead, we must devote ourselves to justice. Too often, “Change!” is a battle cry for people fighting to restore or sustain entitlements or to maintain privilege. Justice addresses the needs of the voiceless and marginalized. As my friend and Zen Dharma teacher Kyodo Williams points out, justice provides for everyone’s safety, self-determination, and survival. I think “Justice” is the name of the raft carrying all beings to the other shore. Our commitment to the welfare of the whole—without discrimination—is reflected in the Community of Mindful Advocacy’s motto: “Where peace, compassion, and justice are the way and the aim.”
The motto also hints at methodologies different from traditional activism. Mindful Advocates do not exercise power over others, collect wealth, or seek to amass institutional stability or structure. While Mindful Advocates stay informed, we do not exploit science to indoctrinate others to our point of view, to fear what we fear and act as we act.
Instead, Mindful Advocates embrace diversity and learn from different points of view. We practice the middle way—through deep listening, loving speech, and skillful action—and wake others to their nature using strategies that create true happiness. Our methods promote self-care and nourish allies and opponents alike. Thay encourages us to consider the aspirations of our ancestors and the claims of future generations so that we may grow skillful in creating lasting benefits to people, animals, plants, and minerals. Finally, as Thay’s brother the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. prescribed, we prepare for nonviolent action with self-purification; we live simple, ethical, and joy-filled lives and invite others to do the same.
Why Emphasize Mindfulness?
In my experience, mindfulness is a powerful skill that cuts through misconceptions and clarifies my relationship to the world. It effectively releases anger, fear, craving, and the delusion of my “self ” as separate from others. Secular mindfulness exercises, when practiced by individuals or organizations, or in a community of change agents, stakeholders, clients, and those thought to be “issue opponents,” can wake people to a shared ethic and to their interdependency. It can help them to let go of rigid views and fixed outcomes. Through mindfulness, we discover a long-term perspective and find fresh ways to extend compassion and generosity to each other and future beings.
How Can You Get Involved?
Our Community of Mindful Advocacy is starting an online dialogue, and we’d love to hear from advocates of all stripes: environmental and social activists, resource managers, farmers, gardeners, chefs, educators, child advocates, animal rights activists, patient and health care advocates, immigrant rights activists, lawyers, politicians, business leaders, volunteers, engaged spiritual practitioners, and other concerned citizens. Visit www.MindfulAdvocacy.org, an online café for Dharma sharing, where friends and colleagues explore loving and peaceful action. Read and comment on ideas being discussed. Write us at mindfuladvocacy@gmail. com. Describe the practice methods that help you maintain joy and the ways you get spiritually bogged down in your effort to transcend day-to-day injustices. We’ll post your stories of success or struggle and share your questions.
Finally, consider creating your own Community of Mindful Advocacy, a gathering of friends where you can fi healing refuge; then let us know you’ve organized so we can be “Sister Sanghas.” There is a clear and nourishing path of loving, peaceful, and mindful advocacy. The way is joyous. Let us go as a river.
Heather Lyn Mann, True Lotus Peace, consulted with the Trust for Public Land, then founded the non-profit Center for Resilient Cities (ResilientCities.org) and served as its director for a dozen years. Heather newly launched the Community of Mindful Advocacy (MindfulAdvocacy.org) and blogs about a spiritual response to the climate emergency at www.HeatherLynMann.com.