Activism of the Heart

As you may or may not know, I used to be an activist. I spent many years (from ages 22 to my early 50s, at times much more intensely than others) in the trenches – organizing with like-minded people in living rooms and out in the streets on a wide variety of topics overlapping in years. I started out focused on environmental causes, then got sucked into the AIDS crisis, like many of us, and after that spent time as an anti-death penalty and prison reform activist, protested against every war, worked in the pro-choice movement, worked on food access issues, then finally, briefly and very peripherally, Occupy.

I stopped calling myself an activist a few years ago, because I didn’t feel like one, at least I didn’t take part in activities in the way I used to. And if someone would ask me a while ago why I left being an activist, I think the only answer I could give would be “I was tired, and burnt out, and wasn’t sure it was working anymore.”

But I have gotten a lot more clear in the last year or so why I’m not an activist, and what it would take to get me back into being one.

I’ve talked about this before, and I’ll spend a little time explaining things here. So we have this wonderful part of our brain, called the Amygdala. It is responsible for keeping us alive, which is, of course, a very good thing, for the most part. It’s basic function is to monitor whether our environment feels safe, and if not, to cause a cascade of responses, including secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, both of which have a whole host of physiological effects. In our brains, what happens is that the Amygdala “hijacks” our neocortex, and reduces our ability to use our cognitive, rational functions.

All (and I mean all) of our initial responses to the events that have happened in the last week have been mediated by our Amygdalas. That’s why we all feel so crappy.  And if we maintain ourselves in a state of anger and outrage, we’re operating from our Amygdalas. What does this mean? It means we actually, literally can’t use our brains to their best effect, besides the deeply negative effects on our bodies.  There’s a quote I’ve seen flying about lately, and it says, “If you’re not angry (or outraged) you’re not paying attention.” Actually, what’s true is that if you are angry or outraged, you can’t pay nearly as good attention as you would if you weren’t.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but this is just simply brain science.  And on the extreme end, if there is great mental distress or mental illness (coupled with access to guns,) activating the Amygdala means you pull a trigger.

So what’s happening now is that everybody is triggered, and few are talking about it (if they are, it’s in the context of “self-care,” which is important, but only a small part of the picture.) And no one really knows the fact that being triggered means that people aren’t at their best, they simply can’t be. You can’t get around it. When your Amygdala is in charge, your neocortex isn’t, even if you think it is. And, also, our Amygdalas can’t understand compassion, because they are too busy trying to keep us safe. As someone who is committed to a path of consciousness, operating in a context where everyone is triggered, and no one is talking about it, and no one is working to get untriggered before they act, just doesn’t work for me. But that’s what activism is now. In fact, some activism now is designed to keep people triggered.

I’m completely convinced that the change we humans have to make, in order to get ourselves out of the multi-faceted morass we find ourselves in, is to put brain science to work, and deal with our triggers, and deal with our fears deliberately and compassionately. And the thing is, we have the tools. Most every spiritual tradition has them, and if you aren’t spiritual, we have a ton of tools now that people have really been studying this stuff. This is one side of my idea of an “Activism of the Heart” – learning how to lead with our calm, rational, and, most importantly, compassionate minds, instead of leading from anger or outrage (thus, our Amygdalas.)

And for me, there is something else, the other side of an “Activism of the Heart.” Although there must be “tearing down,” I think more importantly now, there needs to be a “building up.” We must start creating the culture we want to replace the one we have now. How do we want to relate to each other, even if we disagree? How do we hold all of our differences with love and compassion? How do we want to live our lives outside of our capitalist stranglehold? How do we want to create communities where everyone is taken care of?

I think that we’re used to the model where we protest, and the government acts, and changes things. That worked for a good long time, but those were always band-aids on a rotten edifice. The edifice is dying, and if this election season isn’t a clue, I don’t know what is. As good an idea as, for example, changing the way police are trained is, it’s just one small part of the whole picture. We have to start figuring out what’s next – and we can’t do that if our Amygdalas are in charge.

What I would love is a group of people committed to an “Activism of the Heart,” who will do these things:

  • Spend time talking about our feelings about what’s happening from a self-responsible place
  • Teach each other tools to get untriggered, and teach each other to heal conflict
  • Connect our commitments to a higher purpose – something like the “Kin-dom of God,” or “The Liberation of All Beings.”
  • Spend time envisioning new ways of living and being in this decaying edifice called “America”
  • Addressing the current situation with actions grown from a deeply calm and compassionate, as well as rational, place.
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2 thoughts on “Activism of the Heart

  1. Ah, this post speaks to my heart-mind. I also was an activist for decades, and I am familiar with that sort of crisis mentality: Gotta be angry, gotta be stirred up and get everyone else stirred up, too. This leads to all of us walking around shouting (or shooting) and unable to listen.

    The skills of creating peace are harder for us to learn and require great courage and equanimity. Let us be brave in those new ways!

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