by Gabriel DayleyAugust 25, 2017
Decades after Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explicitly joined activism with mindfulness-based practices in a global spotlight, activists in pockets around the world have begun to incorporate techniques of mindful attention to the present moment into their movement activities. However, public and scientific interest in mindfulness has focused heavily on benefits to individual wellbeing, and applications of mindfulness to activism have largely been limited to preventing stress and burnout. This focus on individual wellbeing ignores potentially valuable applications of mindfulness-based practices for increasing the effectiveness of activists and strengthening their movements.
How might a formal mindfulness practice of sitting or walking with non-judgmental attention on the body and mind in the present moment enhance the effectiveness of activists and movements? Three areas are promising: maintaining nonviolent discipline, supporting movement integrity, and integrating personal and political transformation.
Maintaining Nonviolent Discipline
Mindfulness can support activists in maintaining nonviolent discipline, which according to Merriman, Pinckney, Chenoweth and Stephan, and others is crucial for movement success. By strengthening the mind’s capacity to attune to the present moment, mindfulness provides a powerful tool for working with fear, anger, and other emotions as they arise. When we lack awareness of our thoughts and feelings, they tend to grip us and control our reactions to the world. Anyone who has ever spoken or acted in a way that they later regret has likely experienced this. Mindfulness creates enough mental space between the initial feeling and the tug to react impulsively so that we can respond more skillfully.
Repression by security forces, for example, can stimulate our fight-or-flight instinct and reduce nonviolent discipline. In moments of chaos, maintaining discipline cannot rely purely on abstract strategy defined in a planning meeting hours earlier; rather, staying disciplined in difficult situations comes from “holding your seat”—holding the mind and body stably in our present experience just long enough to avoid an impulsive reaction so we can make a strategic choice about how to respond in the moment.
Supporting Movement Integrity
During a recent event at the United States Institute of Peace, panelists discussed how civil resistance movements can fail to build fruitful alliances or negotiate desired outcomes due to fear of being forced to “sell out.” In the case of Occupy Wall Street, observes James Rowe, the “failure to find a place between uncritical engagement, and a blanket refusal to engage more established institutions for fear of cooptation, was a fundamental barrier to the movement’s progress.”
To the extent that practicing being mindful of one’s thoughts and emotions can help people remain composed and confident in challenging circumstances, they may help activists stay grounded in their core values during negotiations. Here again the image of “holding one’s seat” is useful, conveying being stable and yet open to possibility at the same time. Mindfulness hones this capacity to be simultaneously strong and flexible and may help activists navigate a middle ground between succumbing to cooptation and rigidly rejecting negotiation. Cultivating this personal integrity can then serve movement integrity, which is key to securing desired changes.
Integrating Personal and Political Transformation
Finally, mindfulness can support activists in personally embodying the transformation they seek in the social and political institutions of society. Without deep introspective insight, even the most well-intentioned movements may inadvertently exhibit internally some of the same divisions and injustices that they hope to transform in society at large. Geographic segregation along race and class lines of the Occupy Wall Street camp was one example.
The Hidden Leaf Foundation, for example, attempts to address this inconsistency by promoting “inner awareness within social change organizations… to enhance the effectiveness of organizations working toward a just and sustainable world.” According to Hidden Leaf, mindfulness helps activists “align [their] values, thinking, and actions.” Activists can sharpen their awareness of harmfully replicating systemic injustice within themselves and among fellow activists, rather than perpetuating these patterns unconsciously. Practicing mindfulness also offers an antidote by which activists—particularly those coming from privileged groups—can shed light on latent forms of aggression and self-correct.
Practicing mindfulness and awareness is ultimately a tool for becoming more familiar with our mind, helping to cultivate greater mental and emotional stability and fostering insight into how we interact with others. In so doing, this practice provides a method of learning and training that can complement other tools and support activists’ effectiveness in the short- and long-run.
 See, for example, Paul Grossman et al., Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57, no. 1 (2004): 35-43; Bassam Khoury et al., Mindfulness-Based Therapy: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis, Clinical Psychology Review 33, no. 6 (2013): 763-771; Juliane Eberth & Peter Seidlmeier, The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation: A Meta-Analysis, Mindfulness 3, no. 3 (2012): 174-189.
 See Anthony Wanis-St. John & Noah Rosen, Negotiating Civil Resistance (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2017), 11-13, for a brief overview of why nonviolent discipline is strategically important for success of movements. See Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), especially chapter 2, for a more detailed discussion of the link between nonviolent discipline, mass popular participation in movements, and the likelihood of movements achieving desired outcomes.
Gabriel Dayley is the Executive Director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of Washington, DC and Chief Editor of The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics. He completed his MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University. Gabe works at ICNC in support of Global Field Initiatives.Read More