This is the transcript of a talk given by mindfulness teacher, Tony O’Shea-Poon of Mindful Me, at the Milton Keynes Vegan Festival 2019, on the topic of Mindful Activism. Some variation will have occurred in the spoken delivery.
Thank you for inviting me, I’m delighted to be here to talk to you about the topic of Mindful Activism.
My name is Tony O’Shea-Poon and I describe myself as a vegan, a peace activist, a teacher of mindfulness, therapist and coach through my company, Mindful Me. I’m also a partner in an online marketing company, 2Sprout. I’m a Buddhist and I practice in the Plum Village style, as taught by Buddhist Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn.
My experience of activism has included LGBT rights in the 90s, Children’s rights education in East Africa, supporting the Campaign Against Arms Trade and, more recently, vegan and animal rights outreach.
I live and practice in Broughton, Milton Keynes and I run classes and courses at the Quaker Centre.
Outline of Session
My aim is to answer 3 of my own questions on the topic of mindful activism and any number of yours that time allows
- What is activism and why is it necessary?
- What is mindfulness?
- Why should everyone, and activists in particular, learn mindfulness?
I also plan for us to have an experience of mindfulness together.
What is Activism?
To anyone involved in activism, this may seem like a basic question to start with. However, activism means different things to different people in different contexts.
Dictionary definitions differ quite a lot, however there are some common elements:
- Activism has a particular purpose or goal as its end point, a change or vision that those involved are trying to bring about
- That change or vision is substantial in nature – big enough to be defined as political or social
- Activism requires some kind of action or activity – it isn’t enough just to hold particular views or opinions
- That action or activity is also substantial enough to be noticeable
Much activism also involves groups of people working cooperatively together.
This definition includes a very wide range of activities. Taking vegan activism for example, it includes everything from talking to family and friends, sharing social media posts, chalking, attending public education outreach events, to boycotting, marching, disrupting, sabotaging, including unlawful forms of action.
Given This Definition – How Many People Here Are Activists?
All forms of activism are valid and it is incorrect to think of them as hierarchical; one is not better than another; all forms can have an impact and reinforce each other.
It’s important to keep in mind that activism has many ‘Causes’. Animal Rights and Vegan Activism is just one cause or group of causes. Broadly we can think about 3 big categories of Activism – Human Rights, Animal Rights, Environmental Rights – with many sub-divisions.
Why is Activism Necessary?
As humans, how do we live in the world?
One view of this is that:
- We are greedy and selfish – e.g. think of the corporate behaviour of Shell in the Nigerian Delta
- We consume more than we need – e.g. food waste; media consumption
- We are afraid and want to protect our own interests – Equality means sharing resources
- We are ignorant to the suffering of others – or aware to some extent yet close our eyes and ears to it
At a primitive level, our ego wants to assert itself in the world and we are fearful for our survival and recognition.
These characteristics exist in all people, not just those who perpetrate violence, suffering and discrimination.
In other words, we are all capable of doing terrible things and not acting when we perhaps could.
If we think of this as one force in the world, there is a countering force, made up of:
- Strong moral and ethical values
- The recognition of suffering in others
- The drive for social and environmental justice
- The capability to act selflessly and with compassion
These characteristics also exist in all people.
We are therefore all capable of doing great things.
Activism is therefore a necessary counter-force to injustice and inequity brought about by structural inequalities – caused by (as the Buddha would put it) our delusions, greed and hatreds, which he described as the cause of all suffering.
He also said, all suffering can be eliminated.
I firmly believe this to be true.
What is Mindfulness?
This brings me to Mindfulness
How many people have experienced Mindfulness? Or Meditation of any kind?
It’s perhaps worth saying what Mindfulness isn’t – it isn’t the things we do all the time on automatic pilot; our reactions and habits and patterns – some of which help us, and many of which don’t
One Definition of Mindfulness is:
“…awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn, sometimes referred to as the ‘father of modern secular mindfulness’)
From this you can take it that Mindfulness:
- Is a practice that involves paying attention, concentration
- Uses the 5 senses of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste to help us be present – in the NOW (as Ekkhart Tolle would call it)
- Helps us notice our own thinking, emotions and actions and how to respond rather than react automatically
The most widely talked about benefits of Mindfulness practice are:
- Ability to slow down, develop a positive response to stressors
- Develop a calm and peaceful mind
- Develop greater self-awareness
- Develop clarity and comprehension in difficult situations
- Ability to manage and regulate physical and emotional pain
But I believe the benefits are far greater if we widen Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition…
“…awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally” … “…so that we can know ourselves and our connection to the world, respond to situations in the most helpful ways and liberate ourselves and all beings from suffering” (Tony O’Shea-Poon)
We can perhaps begin to see already how mindful activism may be more effective than activism alone.
How Do We Learn and Practice Mindfulness?
We can practice Mindfulness of anything: Mindful breathing, mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful movement, mindfulness of body sensations, mindful activism, etc.
In the Sattipatthana Sutta (Buddhist text), the Buddha identified 4 objects of mindfulness (4 contemplations), which provide the tools for systematically cultivating awareness and insight:
- The body (includes the breath)
- State of mind
- Mental contents
In Mindfulness practice, we also cultivate specific Attitudes:
- Beginner’s Mind
- Letting Go
It may be self-evident why we might want more of these attitudes in our lives and also why these attitudes might be particularly helpful to activists, but I will explore this further.
Why Should Activists Learn Mindfulness?
There are many good reasons, but I will summarise under 3 themes – before, during and after activism:
- Before Activism: Mindfulness helps us to increase our awareness of injustice so we are moved to take action:
- We learn to recognise our reluctance to see the true nature of things and open ourselves up to learning more, researching, talking to others, reducing our ignorance
- We learn to see the causes of our own suffering and recognise suffering in other beings so that we are moved to act with kindness and compassion
- We create positive intentions which leads to helpful action in the world
Example – recently I had the pleasure of visiting Vancouver but I was distraught one day to discover for myself the tragegy of the homelessness situation in the city. I had a choice, turn away and move on or confront it and do what I could.
- During Activism: Mindfulness helps us to regulate our feelings, emotions and actions during activism
- We recognise our frustrations and impatience and deliberately practice patience
- We recognise emotions such as anger and hostility and don’t let them overtake us; we practice extending loving kindness to all
- We ensure our words inspire others, rather than criticise them
Example – at an Animal Save event at a slaughterhouse last year, farmers tried to keep driving past me and even through me; I noticed my anger and didn’t let it overtake me, remembering their livelihoods and the impact of my distruption on their lives. I chose to smile at them kindly and it seemed to disarm them.
- After Activism: Mindfulness helps us to look after ourselves and others so we can be healthy, happy and continue to be active
- We recognise our self-criticism and self-judgement and practice letting go after activism
- We allow ourselves to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ for some of the time, without guilt
- We are aware of our needs and respond appropriately, we don’t ignore or push these away
- We are sensitive to how other activists are and support them as best we can
Example – I sometimes notice that those who are the most active are often the most self-critical – they can never do enough and they burn out. I tell them that they are doing more than most and it’s ok to take a break.
Questions from the audience
Mindfulness of breath, body and sounds
How to Learn More
- Mindfulness Foundation Class on Sunday 18th Aug, 3pm – 5pm, £20 fully refundable for those that sign up to do the Mindfulness Now course within 6 months
- Mindful Movement & Attitudes Class (on the theme of Trust) on Thurs 26 Sept, 7pm – 8:30pm, £10
- Mindfulness Now full course – 4 Saturdays, starts Sat 16th Nov, currently £150 early bird rate
- Private 1-2-1 teaching to help people manage stress, anxiety, depression, pain or to build confidence or make difficult changes
Further information and booking is on my website – please take a card!
Thank you for sharing this time with me and I hope you continue to be active and to practice mindful activism.
Enjoy the rest of the festival.