“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”― Thich Nhat Hanh

Action is our theme for October at CEC. How do the skills of mindfulness help us act effectively in the world? Why do we sit still when there’s so much that needs doing?

There’s been a particular strain of backlash against mindfulness practice recently, painting it as a selfish neoliberal conspiracy that teaches complacency and reinforces the status quo. That criticism is far removed from what I see and experience as a meditation practitioner and teacher. The inner work serves the outer work. The world IS on fire, and practice helps us do the work that needs to be done. 

It doesn’t take much time on the cushion to figure out that there is nothing passive about meditation.  Knowing the present moment, and ourselves, is full of effort. It’s hard work to recognize and acknowledge the realities we’re faced with, to see them clearly and sit with the discomfort they bring. But this clear-eyed acceptance is the groundwork for meaningful change. Its opposite is denial; that’s what keeps us stuck. 

If I’m not careful, I can live in that stuck place, unable or unwilling to see what is going on, because it’s too hard to reckon with my own pain, too awful to see others suffer, too overwhelming to watch the world fall to pieces. The practice of mindful meditation helps me get unstuck, sensitizes me to the suffering and the joy that surrounds and pervades while increasing my tolerance to be with it all in real time. Deliberately cultivating acceptance, forgiveness and compassion, for myself and others, then lays the ground for skillful action.

As my self-acceptance grows, I’m less apt to derail when faced with my own messy, flawed humanity, to lash out or shut down. I take better responsibility for myself, acknowledging the ways I can hurt others in relationships, recognizing my own complicity in the systems of power and privilege that dominate our society, being more accountable for my actions. 

The benefits of my practice reach beyond my own life to strengthen my relationships and communities by increasing my capacity to work through conflict and difficulties. I’ve gotten better at holding space for others, as I learn to listen more deeply, to support where I can and recognize when I can’t, instead of trying desperately to fix everybody all the time. I’m making more thoughtful choices around what and how I consume, working to lessen my harmful impact on the planet.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou

Of course, personal responsibility and individual actions are not enough to engineer the kind of lasting change that this world needs. Sweeping systemic change is required. I’m inspired by the Radical Dharmaapproach, reminding us that the same contemplative skills that we use to examine our own internal world and break free of limiting beliefs can be brought to bear on the systems we operate in. We can use our mindful awareness to illuminate societal narratives that are rooted in oppression, and work collectively to shift these paradigms. I’m heartened by the community of engaged practitioners I’m surrounded by, using meditation to support their work in the world as activists, teachers, front line workers, policy makers, doctors, artists, scientists, therapists, parents…people who are trying to improve systems from within and others seeking to tear down the walls and build something better.

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free. ” ― Emma Lazarus

As we open our eyes to the mounting crises on this planet, we see all that needs doing, and all that needs undoing. It’s difficult to witness, the scale so great and the consequences so dire. Overwhelm is a great enemy to action. Where do I begin? What to do with the endless stream of information? Practice helps me slow down in these moments, take in one thing at a time, check in with my own internal capacity and create space to choose my best course of action. It helps me see when burnout is approaching, to recognize and respect the need to recharge and take care of myself so I can keep acting effectively in the long run.  

“(It) isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” – Pico Iyer

Meditation is not self-indulgent. It doesn’t urge us forget a world on fire.  Rather, it makes the pain of it ever more acute, but it’s the difference between running in circles  shouting “fire!” and knowing that to run back in with water, you first must breathe. There’s so much work to be done in this world to make a better, liveable future for all. Fortunately there are a lot of us. Ideally, we can all keep finding ways to tap into that place that Frederick Buechner described, “where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” and act from there. See you on the cushion AND in the streets!