Keeping our wits about us is no easy lift, certainly not now as we all shelter in place and anticipate the impact COVID-19 will have on our lives. And yet, doing so will allow us to organize and live from a place of power and grace.
Crises like the one we face today create incredible danger. At the same time, they lay bare our failing systems, and open up the potential for change that is long overdue. To mitigate the tremendous dangers and seize the opportunities we need to invest in keeping it together.
Our best won’t come from simply working harder. I think most of us have tried this already! But it might come from building up a centeredness from which we approach all that we are doing.
Last fall, the board chairs of People’s Action and People’s Action Institute, Lizeth Chacon of Colorado People’s Action and Maria Elena Letona from Neighbor To Neighbor in Massachusetts, flew to Chicago to meet with me. They strongly encouraged me to take some time off. As two of my favorite organizers, and people I am accountable to, I took the message seriously.
I used the month to refocus on having a practice. Most of us have had practices at different points in our lives – that could be a meditation, prayer, reading, pausing, ritual, or simply a routine that works for us. I can remember vividly periods of my life when I really stuck with a practice. They are among the most balanced and graceful stretches of my life. I can also picture times when I didn’t have a practice – a markedly different experience.
As a result of this refocus on practice, I’m in as good a place as I’ve been in years, and at just the right time. I’m sharing this reflection in hopes something that’s working for me can help others in a period when being a hot mess is a pretty natural state.
It makes sense. We are dealing with significant loss of life, historic loss of livelihood, and a generalized anxiety that sits beneath every minute of every day. Some of us have lost people we know, almost all of us have people close to us who have lost jobs, been laid off, and are uncertain about what will happen in terms of food, housing, and more. And each of us are cut off from so much of the life we know.
To top this off, as organizers we have the blessing and responsibility that comes with knowing we have agency to impact how this all turns out. This agency is a beautiful thing, and it can be a weight. And yet, simply doing more tasks, putting more hours in, often from a place of not feeling like we are enough can mean leading from a place of anxiety and chaos.
I was trained as an organizer in Chicago, where part of the practice was organizing 70 hours a week, with the remaining time protected for telling organizing stories at a neighborhood bar. And yet, one of the expectations was writing a weekly reflection about our own learning and development. It wasn’t a practice that we always wanted to do, but we knew it made us better organizers.
What I describe below is just a bit of what’s working for me right now. To be clear, there are days in which I don’t pull this off. But when I stick with it – despite external and internal messages to skip it – I am happier, calmer, and better at everything else I do.
I’m getting up early enough to get 30 minutes alone to center – this often means giving up 30 minutes of sleep because like many of you I have a kid, a partner, and a demanding job. I start with 10 or so minutes of meditation. Meditation may be a strong word for what I’m doing: sitting in whatever position is comfortable, quieting the mind a bit, and noticing, without judgement what arises. I’ve decided there’s no upside to worrying about whether I am truly meditating or not. If I am being more mindful than usual, and noticing what comes up, I’m winning.
While I am tempted to view this time as a luxury, I’ve learned that sitting with your thoughts takes courage. Busyness is often a way of avoiding what’s really going on – and can masquerade as selflessness.
Then I spend some time thinking about something good. One day I might do a practice called Metta, where you simply say these words while thinking about specific people in your life, or people generally. “I wish you to be safe, I wish you to be healthy, I wish you to be happy, I wish you to be at ease in the world.”
One way to do it is to think these words about your immediate community, broaden it out to the city or town you live in and out to the broader world. You can also think these thoughts and picture the people you will interact with over the course of that day.
Metta is just one practice that is helping me tune into compassion, gratitude, and joy. Another is to take some time to feel gratitude for all the little things that happened the day before through the night, and until I sat down that morning. It could be a nice interaction with a co-worker or family member, a better than usual night of sleep, a moment I caught the light in just the right way, an act of kindness, or a success big or small.
And then I try and read, and by reading, I mean from a book. My goal is ten pages every morning. I’ve been toggling between books that are spiritual or about personal development, to ones about history and political analysis. Books from this latest stretch are These Truths by Jill LePore, How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram Kendi, and Resilient by Rick Hanson. I would recommend all of them.
This morning practice gives me a reminder of what it feels like to be mindful, tunes my brain into some good things, and provides a little insight before heading into a day that will surely not be what I expected.
Gratitude, Gratitude, Gratitude
At our house, we do a gratitude practice every night at dinner. We go around and share something we are grateful for and we say why. Some nights we go around multiple times – it’s just three of us here these days.
Sometimes these are really deep, and sometimes, Addie, age 8, says “waffles.” We ask why, and she says “they taste great.” And we’re like, well damn, that’s hard to argue with - come to think of it we’re grateful for waffles too.
We’ve been upping our gratitude practice lately, doing it whenever we can. Often Ai-jen and I will do it as we are getting ready for the day. We are noticing a cumulative build-up of gratitude because we do this practice so often.
After dinner, no matter how cold or wet, we take a family walk. It’s a thing we’ve built into our routine since shelter in place became a thing. Last night we took a long walk to a park we rarely go to and had fun conversations along the way – we’ve been intentionally walking to areas we don’t often visit. I’m now curious where we will walk tonight. I feel pretty sure these walks will be one of the good things we remember from this period.
There’s lots more to share, but that feels like enough for now. I mainly want to encourage folks who feel they need a practice to invest in one, fight for one, and if you have one, to do all you can to protect it.
I have a hunch it will help you as a human on this earth, and as an organizer in this moment of crisis and opportunity.