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Compassionate Activism: Your Drop in the Bucket

By May 28, 2014May 17th, 2017No Comments

Drop in the BucketHow can compassion, and seeing the humanity of our “enemies” shift the way we engage in our activism?

In early May, my Rockwood co-worker, Sharon Price, and I attended a weekend meditation retreat entitled, Being Brave: Is Enlightened Society Possible?, that featured talks by Buddhist teachers, Ani Pema Chödrön and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. While the notion of “enlightenment” may bring up connotations of a grand spiritual path, the retreat was actually grounded in day-to-day human experience, and very much related to our work as leaders for social change. Similar to what I reflected on in my last post about social transformation being linked to our individual practice, we explored how to be more conscious of our impact on others so that, together, we can make choices that enable our communities to thrive.

During Rockwood’s Art of Leadership training, we provide social change leaders with tools to help pull them back to the present when they are under stress, or “triggered” like conscious breathing, creating an “anchor statement,” and bringing an image to mind.  Pema Chödrön talked about how to shift out of being triggered by taking a step back out of our situations and seeing a larger view. Your larger view could be an awareness of your mortality and how little time you have to waste being angry. It could be cultivating compassion for someone you want to attack, like a reckless driver who almost hits you on your bike, or the “evil” target of your organization’s campaign.

She also shared how deeply troubling societal polarization (when people are in such firm disagreement that they don’t connect with each other’s humanity) was to her personally. She reflected on how, ironically, by becoming upset with the people who contribute to polarization by making them “wrong” she is contributing to polarization herself. She said, “If it takes a lot of little, teensy drops of water to fill a bucket to the top, it takes a lot of people like me holding a grudge against other people to create a society that is polarized.” She made the bold statement that she has chosen not to add more drops of polarization into the world.

The image of the drops in the bucket struck a chord for Sharon and me as we thought about the ways we have the power to contribute, or not contribute to polarization, violence, apathy, and fear. We wondered if we could let go of things like:

• Wanting to be “right”
• Conflicts with friends
• Becoming discouraged after reading newspaper headlines
• Fear of making mistakes

The teachers at the retreat reminded me that even though our individual actions can feel small in the context of social transformation towards an “enlightened” society, the quality of each of our actions, no matter how small, does affect the whole.

So, I turn it back to you:

• What community/national/international/planetary challenges do you care the most deeply about transforming?
• What drops (e.g. a specific conflict with a person, a moment of frustration with yourself) will you choose to not add to the world’s bucket of challenges?

Wishing you and your community resilience and courage,


Flickr photo credit: Dripping Maple Goodness by LadyDragonfly.


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