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The Mindful Activist: Riding the Rollercoaster

"The Mindful Activist" journal is an attempt to share what I experience as my Buddhist practice converges with my political and social interests. If any fellow "activists" (also called engaged citizens, bodhisattvas, or humans) would like for me to explore anything, please email me suggestions: [email protected]


 This last month has been nothing short of trying.  A true roller coaster of emotions.  So many events have thrown me into every emotion possible:  

From the impact of Hurricane Sandy, where I've been witnessing an outpour of generosity within my network and across the globe… Yet, also greed and the lack of compassion by those fighting over free goods, attention, or the long lines at stores... The feelings of success when learning that a school abroad that I helped raise money for finally received their uniforms... and then feelings of failure by having no clue what, if at all, to do next for them. The Presidential elections, which filled me with much hope for a future with less racism and then with sadness and anger from reading the hate-filled comments after the decision was announced... The deep sadness and worry from the daily self-immolations from inside Tibet and the hope that arises as more of the international community begins to respond… The blood-shed and conflict in Israel and Palestine, Syria, Goma, the ceases fires, the recent historic Palestine win for UN statehood….the list seems to go on.

I've shed and seen so many tears of sorrow and so many faces of gratitude this month that at times my mind wanted to explode. I think we can all agree these are times when our practice truly becomes our refuge. It helps us to navigate the extremes with ease. However, it tends to be a time when I slowly back away from my regular practice. Yet, this time around, I couldn’t easily slip through the back door.  (I was haunted by the remnants of my mindfulness practice.) Each time I turned a blind eye to my meditation cushion or ignored my list of Dharma books or events, I found myself saying, “Ang…why are you sabotaging yourself?”

I began to think  of one of the talks at our last IDP Immersion & Instructor retreat, given by Sangha member Helen Carter. It was about the eight worldly dharmas.  This is a teaching that says our suffering is based on four aspects of the human experience; pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disgrace. She spoke of how we wax and wane between these extremes.

I kept this idea close at heart each time one of the situations I’ve been following changed its quality, say one from pleasure to pain. I would notice my reaction and how I would further reinforce it (i.e., with a text to a friend ranting about a recent politicians inaction, the urge to “unfriend” a news organization on FB, an overwhelming hope for change, or falling into complete avoidance mode, etc.). I wish I could say doing this made me stop in my tracks, but that wasn't always the case.


I’ve experienced this many times this last year. In these moments of overwhelm, I’ve begun to do what I call going "back to the basics”.  Which for me means, just sitting.  I set no timer, nor any expectations of what I will do.  I don’t agree to label my thoughts as thoughts or to bring my attention back to my breath. I only promise to breathe... deeply. Often it leads to tears, sometimes it leads to reciting my favorite prayers. At times, I sit for a while, or just for a few minutes. And sometimes I completely fail at even that.  

I then came across the following quote by Pema Chodron, thanks to her Facebook page. It gave me some insight into the roller coaster of emotion we often get lost on, especially when dealing with stories of extreme suffering, I've been contemplating it before I sit these last few days and in moments of overwhelm:

“As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty whenever we realize that everything around us is in flux. In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground-something predictable and safe to stand on-seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we're aware of it or not.What a predicament! We seem doomed to suffer simply because we have a deep-seated fear of how things really are. Our attempts to find lasting pleasure, lasting security, are at odds with the fact that we're part of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process." Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change

It reminds me that the situation tearing at my heart is and will always be in flux. And whether the flux errs on the side of less suffering or more for a country or people, it still will always be in process…and so will I. Simply sitting or going back to my basics gives me a chance to stop the running away from this uncertainty and into the arms of these extremes or "worldly dharmas". To breath and accept the nature of life, if only for a moment. It lessens the grip on my expectations of myself (and my practice) and others. While it doesn’t always lead to more discipline or less waxing and waning, it has led to navigating these extremes with a bit more compassion for myself and those around me. Sometimes that’s all you really need to survive this roller coaster.



Some things I wanted to take the opportunity to share, for those engaged in either of the following efforts:

Flame of Truth Rally

There have been almost 30 self-immolations and thousands protesting inside Tibet this last month. This coming Monday, December 10th, 2012, on Human Rights Day, there will be a rally held in New York to bring attention to this issue.

You can find information about the all day event here: http://www.tcnynj.org/events.html


“Hurricane Sandy is not over.”

IDP Member Zoe Adlersberg helped to begin a volunteer group called "Moms with Heart” that focuses on bringing warm meals to those still suffering from Sandy. Please “like” and follow their page for any information on ways to help the effort: https://www.facebook.com/#!/MomsWithHeart

 You can also make a donation to The Action Center, which is also helping with clean-up and rebuilding: http://www.theactioncenter.dreamhosters.com/


May each of you find your own healthy and sustainable ways to find ease.

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