The other night I had a chance to sit down with Rev. angel Kyodo Williams, one of the foremost Buddhist teachers working on transformational activism today. We sipped on wine and she let me interrogate her about her work bringing the grounding practice of meditation into the activist world. As someone who has long advocated that meditation is a tool for inner change which can ultimately lead to social change, I was clearly fishing for some validation in her experience. She knew it, and eventually paused, looked me in the eyes, and said, "So why is it you do what you do?"
When angel asked me why I do what I do, I felt my heart break. I'm used to heart break, having suffered a pretty horrendous year of loved one's (plural) deaths, a broken engagement, job loss, and having my worldly possessions washed away in Hurricane Sandy. But this heart break wasn't about me. It was about my generation.
There are so many people in their twenties and early thirties that yearn for social change, but don't know how to do go about affecting it. They long for meaningful work but don't know how to focus their energy. They want to help others but spend most of their time struggling just to pay the bills. I travel frequently for my books and across America I meet these people, either when they are about to graduate from college or when they are a few years into the workforce, and talk to them about their quarter life crisis.
This quarter life crisis, this moment of freaking out about what you will do for a living, can be summed up in the question, "How am I going to have an impact in this lifetime?" On one hand, it's encouraging to see so many of my peers strive to live with purpose and considering that a marker of success. On the other, I see so many of them strive for that goal without any means to pursue it. That is where my heartbreak kicks in.
When my first book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar, came out I thought maybe one young person would read it and start meditating. Let's imagine that this young person is driven and smart. They get recruited by Goldman Sachs. They rise in the ranks and in 30 years they're the CFO. However, they have been meditating for the last 30 years and as a result have sown the seeds of mindfulness and empathy over that time. They wield the power of their position responsibly, with care for others in their heart, as a result of embodying the qualities of meditation. If that happens as a result of my books then I'll be thrilled.
This same motivation compelled me to start the Institute for Compassionate Leadership. Instead of passively offering meditation through a book I knew that we could use it as one of many leadership training skills. Having spent some time working on the Obama campaign I realized the genuine relationship building that took place in that environment was an effective way of creating lasting change within neighborhoods. If that authentic style of community organizing could be matched with the self-awareness and compassion practices of meditation it could revolutionize how we affect social change.
The notion of inner change actively being partnered with social change methodology excited me, and that's part of what I told angel. The rest was my concern around young people today finding work, and how the Institute has partnered with recruiters to aid in placing our aspiring change makers in meaningful employment. We provide aspiring change-makers with training in meditation, organizing, and leadership skills, support them with coaches and mentors who help them focus on a specific social change calling, and then put them to work in that field at the end of our program.
She understood. She nodded, hearing what I had said, embodying the deep listening that a good meditator or organizer would manifest. She gave me the gift of space. I felt encouraged to continue. I spoke of my dear friend Alex, who had suddenly died on the campaign trail, whose death pushed me to Ohio to continue in his stead, who was a compassionate leader himself. In that moment I realized that I started this organization as a way to honor the past and his legacy, but to work for the future and aspiring leaders like him. Finally angel looked up. "Sounds good to me."
I was heartened to learn more of angel's work, which seems to be constantly morphing and evolving to keep up with the needs of those she encounters. I aspire that my work will do the same thing. I know that there are others like us, bridging this gap between inner transformation and social change, and look forward to all of us working together to effectively aid a new generation of aspiring change-makers.
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