At a snail’s pace – patience and discipline in social movement and activism

I’ve just spent nearly six months living in Mexico (including a few weeks spent visiting Guatemala). I have plenty to write about in relation to that experience and how it has influenced my thinking on social activism. I’m thinking a lot about, for example, the relationship between the individual and the collective and the relationship between spirituality and activism. However, before I can start writing regularly about these topics, I’m finding myself want to write about another space – my own mental wellness. While in Mexico, I unexpectedly experienced a lot of anxiety. Anxiety is not new to me, but this time it hit sideways – nothing major triggered it and it was very persistent. And it was a pain in the ass, frankly. It was disruptive to friendships and to my being present in where I was. The biggest lesson I took from it is that I’ve been lacking discipline and patience. Perhaps this is the result of my US upbringing – even though almost my entire adult life has been lived outside the US. That is, instant gratification or at least “Results-pretty-damn-quick, please!” seems to be part of my wiring somewhere. 

What is the relevance of patience and discipline to social movements and social activism?

I’ll try and answer this question by extracting from my personal life. My baggage got pretty weighty in 2007 and I decided to do something about it. In the last five years I’ve done the rounds on intensive processes to help me work through emotional weight. I think, for the most part, I’ve chosen wisely in the various workshops I’ve done. I have acquired great insight where my behavior patterns come from and learned helpful tools to help me navigate my way through the world when certain unhelpful old behaviors start wanting to make an appearance.

As did anxiety, in Mexico – rearing its very ugly head.

Just before I left Mexico, I had my first flash of insight. In a moment of mental stillness, I found myself thinking: ahh, what I need now is not more workshops or healers (where I was in Mexico has no shortage of people claiming to be healers of one sort of another and I was tempted to seek assistance from them). Rather. What I needed was to be more disciplined on a day-to-day, moment by moment basis in using the tools I have to work with who and how I was feeling and being – agitated, indecisive, thinking in circles.

Particularly – as anyone who has suffered from anxiety will know – trying to be disciplined when you are in the thick of it can be challenging.  In those moments, it feels like a catch 22, like my inclination to use the very tools I have to challenge disruptive behavior patterns is blocked by the patterns themselves. Which is why, it becomes all the more important for me to be disciplined on a daily basis to use my set of tools to maintain a relative state of equilibrium – rather than get to a point where it feels very hard to use the tools.

What are these tools I’m talking about? The usual – in the sense that they are increasingly becoming very popular in our fear-filled, anxiety-ridden, depression-fueled, consumerist lives: mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercise, cognitive behaviorial techniques, etc. What I reckon happened in my case is that I got slack on the discipline of using these tools daily – thinking in particular that one intensive workshop I had been on in March 2012 had ‘sorted me out.’ 

This workshop definitely played a role in helping me shift a lot heavy, useless baggage – especially a lot of anger I had been carrying around with me. Yet, I had not understood fully that the tools they spent enormous amounts of time practicing with us would need to be used on regular basis for some time.

I’m writing this post from London. One of my first days here, chatting with a friend of nearly twenty years, I had a ‘ping’ moment of realizing that it was unrealistic to think that a number of intense workshops were going to unravel beliefs that I’ve been carrying – let’s say – since I was a child. Let’s say nine years old. I’m forty-two. That’s a long time. Some of my patterns and the underlying beliefs are deeply etched. It became so clear to me that the person who has the power to change me, is me. And the way I will change is slowly and with persistence and patience.

And with tenderness and love. Yes, the “L” word. I think it is hugely entwined with having patience – asking of myself what is realistic to ask and with kindness. Doing this rather than being impatient and castigating myself for mistakes and for change that is coming more slowly than I would have liked. At the same time, I’m also aware that being loving – kind – to myself includes being firm with myself – that cliché of Strong Love.

I’m writing all of this with “I” and “Me” – but of course the reality is that I was not alone in my anxiety – my friends witnessed it, were affected by it and some did what they could to help me through it. The friends that supported me the most had that balance of loving-kindness which is tender and soft, yet had a firmness about it. They refused to indulge me and the habits I was playing out.

I have power – but that being able to use that power relies in part on my ties to others – on support and connection.

So, what does all this have to do with social movements and social activism? My starting point when it comes to thinking about social movements and social activism is that social change is a collective creative process. Part of this process might be driven by impatience – the desire to express rage and demand change NOW. This stage of the process, of the journey, serves a purpose for sure. It is, after all, what leads to the toppling of dictator governments. The next stage, however, the one where we are creating anew in the space where we have dismantled the old – this one is the space of transformation. Some aspects of it  – as in the case of individual transformation and creation – will happen quickly, easily, readily, smoothly. Others – will prove to be a bit more difficult.

You see, I’m inclined to think, that the way our collective creative journey/story unfolds mirrors the way our individual journeys/stories unfold. The challenges an individual faces in trying to change his or her self and create a different kind of life, give us a roadmap to the challenges that we – in collective – face in trying to change our world. And right now, I have just gone through an intense experience which has brought to my awareness the importance of daily discipline and patience. I add, as well, the importance of connection – the support, inspiration and loving kindness of friends and family has been crucial to me in what has been a challenging time.

Hmmm, maybe this subject of my period with anxiety isn’t as far removed from my me being in Mexico as I think. After all, I was staying in Chiapas – home to the Zapatista movement. This movement uses the Caracol or snail as a symbol. As I understand it, the reason for this is to emphasize slowness – it is in our busyness, impatience and obsession with moving forward that we often get lost and lose sight of our way. The snail also refers to community/collective – by drawing attention to the conch shell that historically has been used to call people together to meetings in small communities. Finally, the spanish word caracol, can also refer to zig-zagging movement. And, well, my individual journey certainly has been full of zig-zag rather than some linear movement typically called ‘progress.’

Creating a different life for myself and working with others to create a different lives for all, at this moment invokes for me the following: Daily discipline. Patience. Slowness. Zig-Zag. Community. Collective. Loving kindness. Loving Firmness.

What does your personal journey with change and transformation tell you about the dynamics of social movement and social activism? 


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