Listening Is Sacred Activism

11/11/2015 04:38 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2016

Arthel Neville recently asked me a good question. I was on a panel with three amazing women of color activists, Alycee J. Lane, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, and Sister Peace talking about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in our ongoing struggle for social and racial justice. I had just been talking about the personal transformation I experienced after spending a year in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's mindfulness practice center in France. I had arrived an angry activist, recognizing anger was not working but not sure how to access or trust peace as the means to social justice. By the time I left, I had gained the self-awareness to notice when strong feelings threatened to overwhelm me and how this sabotaged my clarity. Most importantly, I had touched the depth of peace in myself, nurtured it, and felt its power grow to hold and transform the triggers of injustice that moved me to anger. I was a happier activist, able to continue the struggle without letting my fear and anger dictate my actions.

"Not everyone has the privilege of uprooting themselves to go off to France for a year," Arthel said. "...as a community activist in Baltimore, how do you take people who are understandably upset by the oppression and suppression they experience and offer them a piece of the calm that you have found?"

"I listen," I answered.

It's a simple thing, and it's powerful. It's sacred activism at work. How many times have you been able to take the time to listen to your fellow activists in the middle of a campaign? Remember those moments when it seemed like there just wasn't enough time to stop and listen, to ourselves or to others because we have to accomplish that goal, outreach to that number of people on the list, or attend that meeting to represent? In social justice work we often feel we are trying to catch up with something that has already happened or right a wrong that has already been committed by well-resourced people in power, coming, ourselves, from a place of little power and few resources--including time.

Just last week I was sitting in a meeting with another Baltimore activist focused on building a comprehensive platform for equity and justice when another of our members, Michael, walked in. The day before, he'd taken part in a sit-in at Baltimore City Hall during a meeting to confirm the acting police commissioner, Kevin Davis. In his late twenties, Michael was one of 40 young activists and allies demanding police accountability in light of an increase in police threat to protestors and black bodies since the Uprisings in Baltimore in April 2015--under the command of the very person about to become police commissioner for the city. The sit-in was organized by several activist organizations after the mayor and acting commissioner refused to respond to requests for a meeting to voice community concerns. Michael told us that he'd been up until the early hours. He told us that 16 people--including teenagers--had been arrested, under the surveillance of 200 police officers. He spent the morning working to gain bond for those arrested, protested again at City Hall to call for their release, and communicated with the media, hoping for accuracy, but knowing that their actions might well be mistranslated. He had not been home since the sit-ins, catching a nap in between the day's activities.

Michael was upset and exhausted. In retrospect, I would have liked to whisk him, then and there, to a retreat where he would have the time and space to stop, listen to himself, and heal. Instead, I listened with calm attention, bringing to the moment the peace I found during my time away. My mind and heart were there, focused, and open to hear what he was saying and not saying; a direct, embracing, and penetrating energy that was holding every word he shared, not bouncing it off some similar memory or offering some comment about what it reminded me of. When he was finished my only words were how proud I was of him--of all of them--and that perhaps sleep was the next thing on the agenda? But despite his exhaustion, he wanted to stay on.

Thich Nhat Hanh says the biggest gift we can give to another person is our presence. In this presence we offer a space of comfort, of connection, a soft place to land, as we listen not only with ears but with our full presence of body, mind, and spirit. Listening from a place of peace and solidity allows us to bring a peaceful and solid presence into these spaces of activism.
Two days ago I had the joy of joining eight students at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County as a guest for their Critical Social Justice Event. We began by co-creating a safe circle by naming what we needed to feel safe--open mind, trust, honesty, space for each to speak. Then I listened, and occasionally contributed, as students identified how best they could be activists regarding issues coming up on campus: a lack of awareness of racial injustice and its harm to students and the closing of a program for disabled students. The circle closed and we went on to the next activity, a panel discussion for the campus I was participating in with other Baltimore activists.

During the panel, a young activist involved in the sit-in shared about the inconsistent way the new Baltimore police commissioner had negotiated with them and the anger he felt from this. As I listened in that moment, everything else dropped away and the only focus of my mind was how do we create places for peace and healing for activists doing this difficult work of challenging corrupt and powerful systems of injustice. In effect, how do we create networks of peace across the different points of structural and individual challenge across the city--a network of peace and justice to help people like this young activist find the space and time to come back to himself and heal old and new traumas. After the panel discussion, one of the organizers of the event said to me: "We appreciated you spending time with the students in that way...it felt like it was one-on-one even though it was a circle...and they said it felt like you were really listening to them."

I smiled and said: "Yes I was listening deeply."

This act of listening deeply immediately creates an opportunity to connect with another, if we are fully present to the person; this is the sacredness. When we listen to understand another and we offer that person our full attention we are saying, in effect, "You are worthy of being heard, you matter; what you say is important." This way of listening brings about a feeling of respect and connection, a moment of human connection that can begin to build a network of respect between human beings.

Deep listening requires us to clear space in ourselves first, so we can offer that space to those around us. This spaciousness transcends our need to compare ourselves to those we are listening to, or to attempt to make the moment relative to our own experience. We don't say "I know what you mean," or "Yes, I have been there, too." Instead we simply listen, offering a penetrative and non-distracting attention. Our open heart and spaciousness while listening deeply opens the heart and creates spaciousness in those we are listening to, creating this human connection. In some magical way, though we utter no words, the other knows we are there for them, fully present without judgment. This is the listening and healing of sacred activism.