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Ed and Deb Shapiro

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Violence On The Street: How To Be A Good Activist

Posted: 09/29/09 10:04 AM ET

There is a lot of anger on our streets these days, against healthcare, racism and Afghanistan, which made us consider what is most effective: resistance or pacificsm? Activism is dedicated to fighting injustice and bringing about social change, but is angry activism really effective? Is activism different if it arises out of a contemplative and compassionate response rather than an irate reaction?

"Back in the eighties, I was an activist for a bunch of different organizations, but I was a horrible activist because all I did was project my rage," yoga teacher Seane Corn told us. "I was the one with a soapbox and mega phone telling everyone how to live their lives. But it didn’t serve anything. Rage just pushes away; it is a threatening energy that alienates, but the world changes by embracing, not by pushing away.";

The fire of fury may stimulate our motivation, but it cannot keep us going for long as anger depletes. Exhaustion is the inevitable downside. As Insight Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein says: “For many years, I taught many retreats for environmental and social activists and one of the major issues for people who are engaged in such action, often in the front lines of conflict, is energy burn-out. This is because the work is often fueled by anger at conditions of inequity and injustice, but anger is unsustainable. It is a motivation that literally burns us up. Compassion is a much more sustainable energy. It can motivate a lifetime of active social engagement.”

Where anger may be an initial motivation for protest, it does not often bring about the changes that are desired. Rather, it invariably creates more negativity. Anger is exclusive and calls for further exclusivity, rather than being inclusive and, therefore, working toward wholeness. Conversely, the more we give, the more we get to give with. There is no time where we run out of compassion.

Meditation is essential to this process, as it enables us to see the fruitlessness of anger. Then activism informs us of when and how best to use anger, rather than being used by it. Rama Vernon had to learn this lesson when she was dealing with the KGB:

 “There may be moments when we need to use anger, but it is not the same thing as being angry," Rama told is. "I have used anger with the KGB, as it was the right thing to do at the time, but I was responding with anger, not reacting. If we react with anger, it can actually fuel a situation and we become part of the problem instead of the solution. We can create change through anger, but we cannot create transformation through anger. The change will always revert back to something else. Meditation creates clarity of mind, and when we have clear thinking, our actions are more focused and we have greater power. If our minds are scattered, then whatever actions we take will only cause confusion.”

We usually think of activism as being against something, whether it be war, torture, or dictatorial government, whereas contemplative activism is being for something, such as fairness, freedom, and peace. Being for something shifts us from maintaining the negative to supporting the positive.

 “In my youth, I was fueled by anger," says international peaceworker Rabia Roberts. "Then I worked with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement for three years. What I learned from King was the beginning of nonviolent activism, that we are not here to defeat or hurt anyone, but to reveal the injustice that exists in the situation and see if we can come to a greater understanding. Like activism, meditation wants to reveal the reality behind the illusion. You begin to realize soldiers are not necessarily heroes but are victims. In the nonviolent worldview, there is no blame; you can hold someone accountable but there is no blame for what is happening. If you are full of aggression and agitation, all you are doing is adding that negativity to the mix. That is why war cannot bring peace.”

Meditation is also essential as it expands our awareness beyond our self-centered view. “First yoga changed my body; then meditation changed my attitude," continued Seane, who is featured in our book, BE THE CHANGE, below. "Then I realized that whether my practice was fifteen minutes or four hours was irrelevant because it was not about how yoga can change me, but how I, through this practice, can begin to change the world."

We would love to hear your comments, below. You can receive notice of our blogs every Tuesday by checking Become a Fan at the top.

You can pre-order a copy of our book at: BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You and the World. It will be published Nov 3.


Ed and Deb Shapiro’s new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors such as Marianne Williamson, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Beckwith, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jane Fonda, Jack Kornfield, Byron Katie, Seane Corn, Rama Vernon and Rabia Roberts, will be published Nov 3 2009 by Sterling Ethos.

Deb is the author of the award-winning book YOUR BODY SPEAKS YOUR MIND. Ed and Deb are the authors of over 15 books, and lead meditation retreats and workshops. They are corporate consultants, and the creators of Chillout daily inspirational text messages on Sprint cell phones. See:


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