Mindful Activism: Q and A with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

I spent a few hours getting to know the dedicated, passionate folks at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity this week as we talked about activism, mindfulness, and self-care.  Here is a Q and A from that event.

Are there any follow up studies on activists better managing stress?  

Per your request, I found the following study, “Relieving Burn-out and ‘Martyr Syndrome’ Among Social Justice Advocates: The Implications and Affects of Mindfulness.”  It is a good read.

Here are three ways that the 14 activists in the study who had experienced burnout and used mindfulness practice as a rejuvenation tool stated it had helped, “(1) helping them find balance between their activism and self-care without feeling guilty about doing so, (2) helping them slow down and see the ‘‘big picture,’’ letting go of the pressure to eliminate injustice instantaneously, and (3) helping them more effectively manage the stress and anxiety of their activism” (2015, p. 707).

In the introduction, however, Gorski states, “…  little heretofore has been done to evaluate the actual impact of specific strategies or sets of strategies for mitigating activist burnout and fostering activist sustainability” (Gorski, 2015, p. 697).  So there is work to be done, and this is an area for potential.

Additionally, if you would like to read the original study I shared, here is a link to “Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications.”

Similarities and differences between mindfulness and religious activities- like prayer?  

One thing I love about mindfulness is that it can be practiced any time by any person and requires no particular belief or value system; it is all inclusive, secular, and can help anyone.

This being said, when I do more in-depth work with people through a workshop series or a full-length course, I have discovered through their written reflections that many participants connect formal practice to their individual spiritual and/or religious experiences and practices, prayer being one example.  The difference between prayer and mindfulness is that mindfulness practice is about focusing attention on a particular stimulus and is a kind of brain training, while prayer may have many and varied forms and purposes (brain training not being one of them).

Anecdotally, religious people who have taken courses with me have said that mindfulness enriches their chosen religious path and practice, including prayer.

(Answer originally appeared in this post, “Mindfulness- A Super Power: Q and A with Grandview Heights.”)

How do you start a formal mindfulness practice?  

The quick answer is that you can start by using any of the resources that are suggested here or start how I did with Sharon Salzburg’s book Real Happiness.

Once you have a good idea of what the practice includes, however, no resource is needed. Sitting with the silence is the best practice, and a goal I think everyone should work to in the long run.  Here are some basics to consider, excerpted from the book on which I am currently working,

1 Posture and Place: Find a quiet place to sit either on the ground or in a chair.  If you are in a chair, make sure that all four corners of your feet are planted firmly on the ground and your arms are in an open posture, hands resting on thighs or knees.  If you are on the ground, you may want to place a pillow under your seat for comfort.  Once you have found a sitting position that works for you, imagine that there is a string attaching the very top of your head to the ceiling (or sky).  I tell people they can imagine this string and sway their body slightly under it to begin.  This keeps you relaxed but also steady and upright.  If you would like, you can set a timer for your practice.  I suggest beginning with five to ten minutes.      

2 Become Aware of your Breath: Bring your awareness to your breath.  Don’t simply notice your breath, but instead feel it.  You might become aware of how your breath feels in your nostrils, alternately warm and then cool.  You might become aware of how the air feels in your lungs, first expanding and then contracting.  You might become aware of how the air feels in your abdomen, gently rising and falling.  Wherever the sensation of breathing is most prevalent for you, rest your awareness there lightly.    

3 Accept Your Experiences: As you engage in this practice, you will notice that thoughts and feelings occur.  Know that this is ok, normal, nothing you need to change.  Just gently bring your awareness back to the breath over and over.  If it helps, you can use a technique described by Sharon Salzburg in her book Real Happiness.  Imagine your thoughts as clouds in the sky.  They are present, but they float through your experiences.  You don’t have to invest in your thoughts.  Simply let them pass.  This same process can be used for the emotions.  Above all, remember to be gentle with yourself, no matter your experiences.  There is no right or wrong way to think or feel.  You are simply being present with whatever unfolds.    

(Answer originally appeared in this post, “Mindfulness- A Super Power: Q and A with Grandview Heights.”)

Other advice I always give: start small, chart progress, and make space.  Spend five minutes a day of formal practice followed by a few minutes of journaling on what you have noticed, both in your practice and in daily life.  This will give you an achievable goal and also a record of your progress.  Making space is realizing that you set priorities by how you spend your time.  If mental and physical health is a priority, you have to both reserve and protect the space your formal mindfulness practice will need.  Ten minutes a day is small, really, for all of the many benefits gained.

Also, remember to be easy on yourself and practice self-compassion.  There is no way to “be bad” at mindfulness.  It’s just about being with whatever is present.  In addition, if you make mistakes while establishing a habit, try not to shame yourself, but instead see it as an opportunity to learn and experiment with what works and what doesn’t.

What do you do when tried and true stress management strategies no longer work for you?  

It depends.  One thing I try to do is to force myself to stop and slow down, even if it is painful at first.  When I get really overwhelmed or too into a project, it’s actually really hard for me to take a break and I need a lot of wind down time, some of it unpleasant at first, until my body slows with me.  Eventually, however, I find that I needed the time, and it gets easier to spend it.

Another option, if there is a pervasive feeling of stress and/or anxiety no matter what tools are used, is to consider counseling as an option.  There are times in my life when my coping skills don’t work, and I know I need extra help.

Do informal mindfulness practices provide the same benefits as formal mindfulness practice?  

There is a lot of research on the benefits of formal mindfulness practice.  There is also some research that suggests formal practice provides benefits that informal practice alone cannot accomplish.  In my personal experience, I have found that my formal practice encourages the informal experience of living mindfully in daily life.

This being said, being mindful, generally, has it’s own benefits. This TEDTalk by Matt Killingsworth called “Want to be Happy? Stay in the Moment” describes the massive happiness study he conducted and the inverse relationship between happiness and “mind wandering.”  The talk is ten minutes. Well worth the watch.

As a last resource, here is a Q and A I did with Equality Ohio, and there were some questions asked from the activists perspective there that I thought might be helpful here, too.

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Questions?  Additional thoughts?  Feel free to add to the conversation.  

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