Mindfulness and environmental activism: events, reflections.
First, what happened in these last two weeks of climate protests with Extinction Rebellion (XR)? Well, most will have seen the overall picture on various news outlets – though it depends which outlet you engage with as to what sort of an impression you get. But, here, the perspective of a group of meditators from various religious and non-religious traditions….
We now have two Oxford XR meditators groups who meet monthly together to: meditate together; share our inner responses to the idea of activism and ‘illegal’ protesting; and then do some planning for the forthcoming protests or outreach events. These are both lovely groups where inner experience is valued as much as outer action and where all can feel their way towards the right kind of and the right level of engagement for them. In terms of joining in the protests we had wondered what our groups could offer in particular and we felt we could perhaps enable some kind of meditation to happen actually in the midst of the protests. Two members subsequently created a banner which read ‘Meditation here, now: all welcome’ in the hope that we might be able to do just this at some point in the days when we are there as a group.
Our group tends to be mostly second level rather than ‘front line’ with only one or two willing to risk arrest – so, really, really not the real heroes. But nevertheless there were a good many of us present at the first moment we started to occupy Whitehall just at the end of Downing Street. This was perhaps our most nervy moment as the police tried to hustle us out of the way before we had even had a chance to sit down. But sit down we did and thankfully there were suddenly enough of us sitting in the road for the police to realise they would need to back off as they just didn’t have the numbers to cope. (Even with thousands of extra police drafted in they were particularly stretched by our seeking to occupy 12 different sites).
So began a stalemate which lasted most of the first day. It was fairly peaceful for this period but still inner tensions are constant as you never know when things might change either with police moving in more forcefully or ‘rogue’ elements in our own ranks causing trouble – both of which happened later on in the day.
So, with two or three hundred occupying the road, mostly sitting and the police standing back for the moment we thought we would have a go at inviting people to meditate in the road. Two of us held the banner up, our group sat in a small circle and I invited anyone nearby to join us with some very basic suggestions about what meditation is. And, it seemed, quite a number in the vicinity turned towards us and closed their eyes for the 10 minutes that we sat. At the end someone suggested we do this every hour on the hour which we readily agreed to. This was then advertised at the ‘tension de-escalation’ talk and the next time we did it there were probably 30 people in the vicinity meditating with us – several saying how much they valued it and that they hoped to join us again in an hour. It was very moving to see and felt like a very tangible contribution to our regularly expressed intention to manage inner emotions and to continuously de-escalate tension so that our actions remain non-violent at every level of our experience. At one point a policeman stood close and listened in to my introduction to the meditation. I think maybe he was listening in to see if he could gain some information about our mischievous strategies. But all he heard was the injunction to remain peaceful and non-violent and to practice cultivating good-will both to our fellow protesters and to the police around us. I wonder what he reported back to his colleagues! On the Wednesday I received an appreciative text from a stranger asking where we would be meditating that day.
Our group meditating in Whitehall
A larger group meditating at Charring Cross station
The block in Whitehall lasted three days. Tuesday was much the same but Wednesday was much more tense as the police were arresting their last few people and were hoping they might then be able to clear the area. I was the only one of our group present so joined in the gently defiant chanting of the crowd until, in the midst of a bit of a melee, I was confronted directly, personally and quite aggressively by one policeman, who ordered me to move with threat of immediate arrest and so, sadly, I felt I had to leave the site. I felt quite unsettled by this, never having relished the experience of a stern telling off by a tall, aggressive, angry male but there was also a part of me that genuinely felt for the policeman in this very awkward role and the extremely long shifts they were being ordered to do. I quietly hoped we might meet again in more peaceful circumstances and recognise the goodness and humanity in each other. But still, at the time, even this minor confrontation meant I needed to sit down with a friend for a bit to get myself back together.
The only other day I managed to get to London was for the peaceful procession 20,000 of us made down Oxford Street on the middle Saturday afternoon. It felt good to engage in something a bit more celebratory and to feel the swelling numbers of those prepared to turn out even in the persistent rain. And, as I say, a good way to sign off having mostly only experienced stand off and tension on my other two days.
There is too much really to reflect on in a short piece so all I feel I can do is relate the various questions that have been arising in me through the two weeks.
The whole point of trying to link activism with meditation is to bear witness to the integrity of the inner and the outer life. Actually there is no divide and so we cause damage to ourselves if we act as if there is. Our outer actions should be an expression of our inner life and vice versa. Our inner peacefulness should have its expression in our action in the world. So what about this tension that is set up when peace loving people start breaking the laws of the land and, by our actions, inevitably create tension? And it does, indeed, feel strange – especially to those of us who are not actually natural rebels having been brought up privileged within the established order and, along the way, having learned that our privilege is dependent on our towing the line of the established order. Now we are breaking the very laws which have kept that established order (and our privilege) in place. And there have been many moments along the way where many of us feel the doubts within, so much is all this against our natural inclinations and personalities. But what keeps coming to save me in this dilemma is the constant stream of news stories and research which remind us that there is a much, much bigger picture and that we must look up from our narrow perspectives on life and start to see what really matters for humanity. Then we connect with a deeper moral code which may indeed include breaking the rules of a lesser moral system even if this does create tension.
….. ‘in my judgement’ – as my friend who opposes all we do reminds me. Yes, in my judgement. But then we are all making judgements. Only history will vindicate one judgement or the other but in the meantime we make choices with as much honesty, integrity and courage as we can muster. And if this entails one part of us acting in contravention to the instinct of another part, then there is quite some work to do to continue to hold the integrity of the whole person. This, for me is the vital work of both meditation and thoughtful conversation in the days after and I particularly look forward to reconnecting with my group in a couple of weeks’ time to do just this.
Other questions which have rightly emerged during this time are: when is meditation avoidance and when is it part of the rebellion?; and when is activism legitimate moral action for a better world and when is it ego fuelled nuisance?
The trouble is that there are no fixed answers to these questions. It only seems to me that it is important to keep on asking them in relation to every movement and in every action within that movement. A checklist from the Buddhist tradition is to ask three questions: is there right motivation?; is it a right action?; and is there a right result? These, too are questions we need to keep asking ourselves.
But I am left with the simple fact that some of the greatest peace-loving (and peace-making) figures in history have turned to direct action when they felt it was appropriate, including Jesus who, you could argue was actually more violent and more shouty than us in his challenge to an oppressive and exclusive religious and economic system. So the one thing I think we can’t do is rule out this sort of activism all together.
But we do need to keep on asking honest questions – and some of those questions will become clear only as we persevere with our simple intention to remain present to all that is through our meditation practice.
My fellow meditator: ‘seeding change, one breath at a time’.