“Protest is my spiritual practice.”
– Lama Rod Owens
When I was a teen, in the Spice World of the late nineties, talking about feminism, socialism or white supremacy did not make one many friends. Two decades later, such words are the stuff of hashtags and t-shirts. The change in mindset has been thrilling for this old-ass millennial to watch.
Calls for change are everywhere. The collective sense that the status quo is unsustainable seems sharper, even inescapable to a lot of us. That’s true whether we’re talking about ending chronic injustice against Black and Indigenous people, fighting for trans and gender-diverse rights, stopping our planet’s crash course with climate catastrophe or all of the above.
At a time when taking action is so important — marching in the streets, moving funds to grassroots organizations, or mobilizing during an election — what role does sitting in stillness or core contemplative ideas like “acceptance” have to play? On the surface, they sound like exactly the wrong medicine for right now.
To activism, waking up demands that we declare that the violence being done to the most vulnerable in our society is not acceptable. The way we exist now is not okay. To contemplative wisdom, however, waking up demands that we accept, even welcome whatever is arising in our experience. Both the violence and the beauty around us are part of the totality of what is.
This radical, non-judgmental acceptance at the core of spiritual well being is supposed to unlock all the good stuff: lasting peace, deep tranquility, and the ability to let stuff go. It’s sometimes called equanimity. It’s not easy to master.
Among activists, though, accepting things as they are has a different term: complacency. It’s incredibly easy, and most people are masters at it by default.
This contradiction ate away at me when I was at my second residential retreat years ago in Niagara Falls with the teacher Shinzen Young, who considers equanimity one of his three central skills of mindfulness, alongside concentration and clarity. We were instructed to accept and allow everything to arise and pass away, from negative thoughts to the urge to scratch an itchy butt. After a while, this got easier. I noticed that if I watched any thought or feeling long enough, it would just go away. Freedom! But what if I got too equanimous? I was struggling to finish a provocative book about women’s sexual politics, and I was plagued at times with depression and low motivation to do much of anything — much less anything hard. Would equanimity make me complacent?
I asked for a private meeting with Shinzen. I sat down with him, trembling under the weight of what I thought was a huge paradox. But when I asked my question, he said, “Is that all?”
I had apparently stumbled over a common misunderstanding of equanimity. We were being instructed to accept sensory reality: to let the flickers of colour, sound, heat, cold, discomfort and enjoyment that make up moment-to-moment experience percolate up and fan out through the senses without either holding on to them or pushing them away. That didn’t mean we had to accept objective situations in the world. We could protest the brute facts of poverty and injustice while allowing our emotional reactions to them (rage, pain, sadness) to erupt and blossom even more fully, because we are allowing ourselves to be okay with those feelings. In fact, said Shinzen, our actions will be more effective because they’re not being secretly motivated by the chaos of repressed emotions.
This hints at what radical change might look like with a contemplative grounding. One of the most relevant dharma teachers thinking through the connection between personal and global liberation is Lama Rod Owens, whose new book, Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger, came out in June. For Lama Owens, who is returning to the CEC to guide another day-long workshop this fall, drawing on his lineage in tantric Buddhist practice, one of the shared aspects of both radical change and spiritual transformation is the fact that both can harness the energy of anger. Anger isn’t something you hear praised much in meditation circles — particularly not in the anodyne, detached, typically white world of Western mindfulness — but it is just as legitimate a human emotion to work with on the cushion as gratitude or lovingkindness. For Lama Owens, a Black and queer man living in America, anger is energy for change.
Anger is also a source of information. Writer Layla F. Saad says that one of the features of white supremacy is that it numbs white folks to the repressive violence committed in their name. When we begin to learn about the realities of systemic racism, misogynoir, sexism and, in Canada, the genocide of Indigenous people, anger, grief and shame are normal feelings. They shouldn’t be pushed aside. Lama Owens’s book teaches that we must get free not from anger, but from our “compulsory relationship” with it. We need to feel rage burn away our numbness, name it, welcome it, and then hit the pause button. What action – if any – is being called for?
When it feels like nothing we do is enough, grounding in silence and stability can ease activist overwhelm and make our labour sustainable in the long term. While some meditators and self-care types no doubt need to embrace more action, many folks in marginalized communities who struggle every day need to be supported to slow down. If you’re a member of BIPOC and/or LGBTQIA2S+ communities, taking space for self-care is a radical move in and of itself. Some are beginning to offer healing events that prioritize marginalized folks specifically.
Anything good or bad, watched long enough with non-judgment, will eventually go away. That’s impermanence. For people being actively harmed by oppressive policies, change needs to come much faster. Letting ourselves feel anger, grief and other emotions as they truly are may just help us engage more effectively to hasten those changes and create a more just society together.
*Sarah Barmak is a journalist and author of the book Closer (2016). She is working on a book about sexual consent.