How to do good without harm: on activism an inner peace

Winter wonderland and elves are gone, icy cold winds still blowing. Nativity scenes disassembled, fireworks vanished, the urban bats sink back in deeper torpor. Champagne corks and glitter cleaned up, a promising year has started. Shopping malls sober up from the buying and selling peak moment of holiday season. Introvert cats regain feelings of solitude after the marathon of family’s and friends’ visits.

I am breathing in and letting go the bewilderment of past weeks, pausing quietly. Re-centering and tuning into contentment, getting out of the wilderness of sights, touches, smells and tastes. There is a part in me that does not want to settle down for the mundane everyday tasks, waking up before the sun in the freezing winter mornings and following routines. But luckily there is part in me that finds peace and possibility to focus on here and now through the simple things. The nothing special mood is warm and peaceful. I recognized that I am feeling disconnected and not totally in control of my thoughts and actions in difficult times, frustrating situations and sights of injustice, long before I saw that being overly excited and obsessed by other positive strong emotions and events make me discombobulated as well.

It is the perception dominating me and pushing forward that bothers me in those situations. It happens also while reading books: the narrator takes the reader by hand and brings him places, makes him dive into feelings and finally captures his whole being leaving him either inspired, wrecked, crying his eyes out or whatever the intentions of the creator and the reader as co-creator were. I remember reading Jack London on school’s summer break, shivering under blankets while reading of huskies pulling the sled somewhere in Yukon. The novel “The Call of the Wild” just pulled me further into the suffering, exhaustion and rivalry of Buck, his fellow dogs and humans. The voices of my friends outside the window were inviting me to join but were unheard while I was perplexed by the encounter of wilderness and civilization, by the interplay of ignorance, ego, loyalty and love in such harsh environment somewhere far away. It is extremely good prose and it enchants my perception.

It is this bewitched phantom that looks like me but is not, that is dangerous. We interact with the world through perceived layers of impressions that have weird effects like unskillfully overproduced Photoshop images. Too high saturation of reds, too much contrast, zero green levels and alike. Moreover, in a world of constant personal drama and generous supply of entertainments we are spell bound most of the time. And it is quite natural not to act out of a well grounded center of peace and contentment. For passive people that might be no big deal but what about people who are constantly working on transformation projects on a bigger or smaller scale, for change-makers and social activists? I see so much activity that sprouts out of questionable conditions.

This question – how is the activism grounded in me? – has puzzled me over the last few months. And it is accompanied by question – what my actions plant in others. I can empathize with animal rights activists that save animals from suffering caused by human consumption patterns and ignorance.  But it is the means of telling their story, using the same fear, shock and repulsion triggers, for example, that make me label some of PETA’s campaigns as insane. Like the campaign “Behind the leather” few years ago, where customers go into a leather product store and open bags with pulsating animal harts and fleshy meat. The link to the compassion towards animals that they might want to instill on people is missing. So, the person, that was there or watched the video, felt those negative emotions and went on with his daily life carrying it with him. My social networks are filled with graphic content like that. Triggering shock, fear and repulsion and awaiting something good in return really relies on the individual perception not to react but to respond wisely and awaken to the animal suffering. If this campaign is aimed at people that have no inner capacity to react in the predicted positive way, then all what they have done, is spread some seeds of repulsion, anger, confusion, fear and shock. If we want compassion, compassion needs to be given. Of course, I understand that is quite impossible just to go to a slaughterhouse and politely ask to shut down their business.

And if simply asking for a better action is not enough action to have a result, then what is? Few months ago I got very frustrated when I read news about the joint plans to develop a green and underdeveloped part of city into high-rise residential buildings and offices. Allowed and regulated by municipality and offered investments from private sector, yet it stands against what I and many more felt as the right. In a democratic society there are mechanisms that can be used to voice my opinion without much anger and harshness. And something might work if the democratic system works well, but ours does not and bitterness and annoyance creeps in. Agitation develops, my righteousness joins and a temper tantrum builds up.

Change happens only when the right conditions have ripened. Adding force and pressure in the ripening process might work until about that moment when the best “growing” conditions are met. More sunlight to already perfectly lit seedling won’t do any good. After many times generating some harm while doing so called “good” has made me to think, how to actually do good without harm? How to avoid harm to others and ourselves?

 It is easier to remain centered and peaceful if social activism is in the form of charity, volunteering, education and other supportive means. Much harder is to act skillfully when confronted with power struggles and opposing views. In those clashes we easily harm our opponent or ourselves. It requires a level of practical wisdom to counteract ill will without same destructive attitudes and methods: “What is inevitable, like death, is accepted without rage; what may not be, like war, is the subject of action skillful and the more effective because, again, it is not powered and blinded by rage and hate. We may recognize an oppressor and resolutely act to remove the oppression, but we do not hate him. Absence of hatred, disgust, intolerance or righteous indignation within us is itself a part of our growth.” If activism comes from a divided “us” and “them” perspective, from our righteousness against their evil, we will generate harm by doing so called “good”. It is also absurd to try end violence with violence, all we get is more separation as a result of feelings of revenge and bitterness. And it is useless to fight power and win a position just to be eaten alive by the power minutes later. The real personal capacity for doing social activism skillfully needs to be re-evaluated. I go one step forward, two steps back and then sit still for a while.

“One should conquer anger through kindness, wickedness through goodness, selfishness through charity, and falsehood through truthfulness” (Dhammapada, XVII, 3).

It takes great deal of effort to sustain oneself through a blizzard or hurricane. People plan ahead, stock up supplies, build stronger houses, plan evacuation routes and leave the place if needed. We do not get any serious storms like that here so people are not prepared for natural disasters and tragic conditions at all. Likewise it seems we are not prepared for powerful confrontations at work or in relationships. We create so much unnecessary suffering. We falsely tend to fight anger with rage and extinguish fire with oil. Choose your battles carefully, moreover, your flags. Let go your phantoms, see the world for what it is. Go undercover, be simple, be honest and do no harm to yourself and others. Still, do good.

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