Shaw San Liu is the Lead Organizer for the Tenants and Workers Center of the Chinese Progressive Association. She leads the Tenants and Workers Center staff team in conducting low-wage worker/tenant organizing, grassroots leadership development, alliance-building, and services and advocacy work at CPA with low-wage workers. She was a 2012/13 Rockwood Fellow for a New California. In late 2013, she took a 12-week sabbatical after working full-time in social justice organizing for 12 years.
My journey around “self-care” and “sustainability” began many years ago, not long after I got involved in social justice work. When I left my job at the union in December 2004, I swore I’d never sacrifice my health, well-being and personal life in that way again. But not long after I returned from China and started working at Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), I found myself stressed and obsessed again with campaigns and work, often to the point of being snappy and not fun to be around. My work-life balance was not “as bad” as when I was at the union—but still not what I wanted. I had to recognize that maybe it wasn’t just about the union, or the campaign. Maybe it was me!
Since I began working full time in social justice organizing 12 years ago, I have made many changes to be more sustainable, but despite these changes, at the end of 2012 I was feeling pretty tired and frankly, a little burned out. I felt disconnected from my drive and passion, too aware of all my personal flaws and weaknesses as a leader, and often unsure of how the work I threw myself in to was truly contributing to transforming the world.
Seven years into my time at CPA, it was time for a break. I didn’t know quite what I needed or how to ask for it. I started by tentatively asking if I could perhaps start taking Fridays off some nine months down the road. While we don’t have an official sabbatical policy, CPA is blessed with a thoughtful and creative leadership team, and I was supported to think about what I really needed. Interestingly, as soon as I decided and was approved to take the sabbatical, it began working. Knowing I would be taking a sabbatical shifted me into a more productive, focused, and forward-thinking mode at work.
My sabbatical goals were to rest, care for, and reconnect with other parts of myself, enjoy and be joyful, reflect on my past and my future, and spend quality time with family, friends, and my partner. Over 12 weeks, I traveled to Guatemala, Mexico, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and spent close to half my time in the Bay Area. I stepped out from my usual day-to-day and experienced other rhythms of life and environments. I switched gears from a packed, structured schedule to openness and spontaneity; from constant action mode to observation mode, from responsibility for others to responsibility for myself. In many ways, it was a total shift of mind, body and spirit.
During my sabbatical, I accomplished less than I expected because as it turns out, a day goes by really fast…so I had to adjust my expectations. I learned that not working does not eliminate bad days and life challenges (but yes, it does reduce them!). I tried not to wig out over the overwhelming freedom of an open unscheduled day (I need a list, I need a list!), nor despair as my supposedly open calendar somehow filled up. I experienced waiting for my partner to come home from work with the chores done and dinner ready (I had some issues, but got over it). I wrote a poem about happiness on the plane back from Mexico (a first!). I also repaired a piece of broken pottery (with my sister’s aid), put my clothes away most nights and made my bed every morning. The things one can do on sabbatical. . . .
Despite my efforts to be relaxed about it, I couldn’t help but feel some pressure to achieve—to come out of sabbatical a wiser, happier, more whole person. Luckily this happened naturally. Some of my key takeaways were:
1. Taking a step back is good, and the world doesn’t end without me
It was priceless to unplug for a long time from constant goals, deadlines, change that came too slow, and influx of information. Not only did CPA not fall apart, but an exciting nascent campaign continued to blossom and grow, leaving no doubt that the world does not end without me (in fact it can thrive!). This basic truth, so clear when I take a step back, somehow often eludes me when I am deeply immersed in the work, planning a campaign, fighting the powers that be, trying to help build a movement, etc.
This reminder that I’m just one drop in the universe (best absorbed under a centuries-old redwood tree or while gazing into the ocean or stars) connects to the Buddhist practice of moving away from ego-driven thought, and stepping into “big mind”. My challenge now is how to detach from the self-aggrandizement of taking myself too seriously, while still living my passion and deep commitment to working towards collective social change.
2. Love has to start from within
I am fortunate to be surrounded by many open-hearted people, especially my partner, who constantly teaches me by modeling true openness and generosity of spirit. But the greatest lesson has been how to be open, generous and loving towards myself, and how this anchors my relationship to all others in the world.
As it turns out, even on sabbatical, I am still me, and many of my same strengths and challenges dog me wherever I go. (Except for my tendency to take charge. I had almost no desire to take charge of anything!). I had a lot of time to reflect on this, and to learn more about myself outside the context of work. Whether it was my tendency to worry, over-plan, or aim (too) high, I could see how the same qualities that I criticized myself for were the dark edge of my strengths. With the stakes lower, it was easier to see how I jumped to criticize myself, to hear the internal judgments, and to shrug or laugh instead of beating myself up.
As my mind slowly opened up to thinking in different ways, I realized that many decisions in my life were framed, and often limited by thinking about what I should do, what others thought or did, or what was needed of me. I had set up invisible barriers to my imagination, unconsciously telling myself that my own needs, joy and beliefs were unimportant or even irrelevant.
This awareness struck me in a new way, creating new resolve to give myself love, as simple and as difficult as that is. As Pema Chodron, one of my favorite Buddhist authors, said, “When you have made good friends with yourself, your situation will be more friendly too.”
3. I want to live life with choice
As my sabbatical drew to a close, I started getting anxious about going back to my “real life”, and worrying how my “post-sabbatical life” would be. Then it dawned on me: I have only one life, and it’s actually up to me how I choose to live it (the fact we have no control over life notwithstanding!). Nobody is forcing me to go back to some concept of a “real life” that looks and feels a certain way, even if movement culture, American society and my own personality have shaped my life in a specific manner.
My partner’s mom’s stroke was a stark reminder that much of life is outside our control. But sabbatical space helped me to see we have choices in how we move through it. I decided that I didn’t want to draw lines in my life: sabbatical and post-sabbatical. I had the privilege to choose the work I do, and now, choice exists every day, with every action and attitude I take. I am more convinced than ever that I want to live life to the tune of my own intentions (in balance with those around me), not only in answer to external needs and expectations.
4. I want to live life awake
During my last week of sabbatical, I spent three days at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center near Muir Beach, CA. It was the last activity to check off of my sabbatical wish list and I looked forward to a quiet personal retreat in nature. Somehow, I had forgotten that it might be a spiritual experience as well. Practicing meditation and mindfulness in a sacred residential setting crystallized many sabbatical lessons. I may never know if it was the 5 AM meditation sits, washing dishes every morning in silence, the 11 previous weeks of decompression, the Zen writings reminding me of the greater connection of all beings and the universe, the woods surrounding us, or the bow of honor before every action (or was it the delicious bread?).
But over those three days I started to experience mindfulness in a whole new way, as if I was living life in extra sharp focus. I felt through my entire body a new clarity that I don’t want to race through life obsessing and worrying about the past and future. Getting “Zen-tered” (as my partner called it), I felt a powerful desire to release worries and my tendency to cling or obsess, in exchange for fully being awake to life in the present tense. I left my roll of butcher paper mapping out my life and future unopened, and opened up my mind and spirit instead. As I learned on the meditation cushion, my “monkey mind” hopped away with thoughts, with every breath came an opportunity to try again. It struck me that I could approach life in the same way.
An offering of intentions
The truth is, I could have told you all these “lessons” before I left on sabbatical—I have been learning to live life for over three decades now, and have read enough self-help and Buddhist books to be brimming with advice and deep quotes. But 12 weeks off opened me up in a different way, helping these learnings find deeper root in my body, mind and spirit. I share these reflections first and foremost to help myself process and continue grounding myself in the fruits of my time off. But I also share them in the hopes that my journey can intertwine with, inspire, and deepen from the journeys of others so that together we might strengthen our quest for authentic, interconnected lives.
Here is my intention for this next phase of my life, which I wrote at the end of my sabbatical:
To live life awake,
with choice, joy, and love for myself and others
Shaw San Liu
To respond directly to Shaw San about her piece, you can email her at shawsan [at] cpasf.org.