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Inner Activism: Three Tricks To Avoiding Burnout

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If you follow the present-day world, you will turn your back on the Way

--Zen master Takuan Soho

Like many who find all life sacred, I am dismayed and saddened by our nation's recent decision to send more of our young people to fight in a war where they will called upon to kill others and themselves die. Our hope, so buoyantly shared by other nations just a year ago, that a new administration signaled a new relationship with other peoples, grows dimmer with each new political decision.

Such disillusion is nothing new, of course. Few political leaders can live up to our hopes. But what continues to be disillusioning is how few of them even try. Ideals do not have to be practical in order for them to inspire and unify and even heal. Breaking the cycle of revenge will not ever be achieved by more violence that merely leads to the next call for revenge, no matter how practical such violence can be made to sound.

Farmers have to rely on the weather but know it will break their hearts sometimes. As citizens, we have to rely on our leaders but know they will break our hearts sometimes.

It is the downside of activism: The ever-present risk of burnout.

We give our hearts to a cause, only to find that it is rife with mismanagement or worse. We give our hearts to a politician, only to find that he or she follows precedent instead of blazing a new path. We give our hearts to righting a wrong, only to find that the countervailing forces are deeply entrenched and supported by the very decision-makers we are trying to approach.

How do we remain optimistic and active in the pursuit of our values without suffering the crash-and-burn syndrome that accompanies repeated disappointments?

The answer can be found by stepping back and moving the sphere of activism inside. We are more effective in our outer activism--and less susceptible to burnout--if we follow these three principles of righting wrongs without doing wrong:

1. Do no violence to yourself--If all life is sacred, then so are you. Feelings of anger, resentment, and righteous indignation are like trying to throw a scorpion at another: it stings you with its poison long before you let go. Likewise, feelings of guilt, shame, or remorse for having believed in something that let you down is like punishing yourself for having an open heart. Inner Activism is based on the simple fact that It isn't personal--it's about the greater good. When I dwell on hopes of victory and fears of defeat, I do violence to myself.

Should we not want to be remembered by others and cultivate our minds?

--Master Hojo Shigetoki

2. Find the balance between passion and disengagement--Passion and disengagement are like rain: too little causes drought, too much causes flood. Caring too much makes us hot-headed, caring too little makes us cold-hearted. Too much passion usually comes from focusing on others' wrongness and our own rightness. Too much detachment usually comes from a sense of cynicism or pessimism. Passion and detachment are inner actions that we can control by tempering them with each other. We temper our passion for causes by keeping in mind that we may not know all the complexities facing us, that there may be better ways to address the problem, and that we cannot decide the outcome of our efforts when they involve the lives of so many others. We temper our disengagement from causes by keeping in mind that all things are sacred and deserve equal opportunity to exist in peace and to thrive without undue interference. Inner Activism is based on the time-proven maxim that As I am within, so I will act without.

In all things, think with one's starting point in human nature.

--Lord Nabeshima Naoshige

3. Respect the need for opposites--If all life is sacred, then so are your opponents. The ebb and flow of history can be charted as a series of pendulum swings between opposing sides. These are not simply two static sides that can be defined easily. They continue to adapt to one another, causing each other to evolve and become stronger. It's a matter of the same principle of co-evolution we see between orchids and insects, snails and crabs, newts and garter snakes. It's a dynamic process of opposites working together to make each other develop more successful strategies. Feel respect for your opponents and act respectfully. Respect the part they play in your own evolution. Inner Activism is based on the straightforward principle that We cannot be trusted to change the world if we cannot change ourselves.

To overcome others is to have superior strength.

To overcome one's self is to be truly powerful.

--Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 33

Living with all the discordant distractions of the present-day does not mean we have to be swayed by it or dragged along with it. As the quote at the top of this post reminds us, to blindly go along with the concerns of the present-day is to turn our back on the perennial Way: We should not allow our lives to be dictated by the whims of fate but, rather, create ourselves in the image and likeness of the greatest good we can imagine.

If we want peace in the world, we need to be able to achieve peace within ourselves. If we want equal rights for all living beings, then we need to view them all equally within ourselves. If we want to change the world for the better, we must be able to change ourselves for the better.

As Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and I wrote in The Toltec I Ching--

As difficult as it sometimes is to believe ourselves capable of thinking new thoughts, feeling new emotions, and experiencing the world in new and more joyous ways, the time comes when all our planting, pruning, and cultivating bears just that fruit. Just as continuous pressure inevitably transforms coal into diamond, continuous effort to purify awareness inevitably transforms the troubled spirit into the untroubled spirit--and, just as the change from coal to diamond is permanent and irreversible, so too is the metamorphosis of the troubled spirit into the untroubled spirit.

This, of course, is the real point of Inner Activism--that by having as great a commitment to changing ourselves as we have to changing the world, we actually accomplish both.


The Toltec I Ching
, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

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