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Four Foundations for Restorative Activism

 Scott Brown
September 8, 2010

The following is an edited excerpt from Four Foundations for Activism in the Face of Collapse, an unpublished Master’s paper. That paper can be downloaded in full (25 pages) as a PDF here.

1. Truth Telling
Telling the truth is a basic measure of adulthood and yet there are many ways that most people deceive themselves and others every day. As we face the demise of industrial civilization we might begin by admitting that on a personal level we experience denial, blame, resentment, and anger, and that our lives have only just begun to be turned upside down. Joanna Macy calls the realization that humanity may not have a future, “the pivotal psychological reality of our time” (2007, p.18). Can we own that level of reality?
Macy (2007) noted that optimism is part of the dominant worldview and that our pain for the world simply cannot be banished by positive thinking. The fear that arises when we think and talk about things such as massive die-offs, extinctions, and the destruction of ecosystems is “a natural, human response to threat of harm,” it is serving a potentially vital purpose that should not be ignored (Baker, 2009, p. x1i). Telling and knowing the full truth is essential to responding in a mature and responsible way to the situation we find ourselves in. Macy and the despair and empowerment work she has popularized is a stellar example of the benefits of radical truth telling.
2. Expanding the Sense of Self
Macy maintained  “the crisis that threatens our planet…derives from a pathological notion of the self” (1997, p 152). By this she meant a narrow and limited sense of self, a separate self. Reconnecting with and cultivating the ecological self is an antidote to separateness. It is awareness and experience that transcends the egocentric sense of self and results in personal identification with the whole of the earth and biosphere (all beings, all forms, including soils, rocks, water, etc.). It is a revised view of the individual human’s place in the world and an acknowledgement of the radical interconnection of all things.
Macy referred to this expanded sense of self as a source of courage and “sustained and resilient action on behalf of life” (2007, p. 150). This is not an academic or theoretical shift, but a felt sense, embodied truth and experience unmediated by concepts. With this shift alienation subsides and one can come more fully home to the earth. Realization of the ecological self also empowers one to speak for the whole. Connecting with the ecological self can be a stepping stone to No Self, the experience of ourselves and everything manifest as ephemeral expressions of the Ground of Being, without solid form or permanence. Such a nondual view can help us relax and stop taking ourselves so seriously.
A specific practice that supports cultivation of the ecological self is place bonding – repeated visits to the same wild, or relatively wild, place at different times of day and seasons in order to become intimately familiar with it.

3. Mindfulness

Given that much of what drives thoughts and behaviors stems from unconscious and habitual processes, finding a way to bring consciousness to those patterns is crucial if we are to change them. Mindfulness is one of the best ways to do this. Ron Kurtz, the originator of the Hakomi method of psychotherapy, wrote that mindfulness “is a distinct state of consciousness, characterized by relaxed volition, a surrender to and acceptance of the happenings of the moment, a gentle, sustained focus of attention inward…” (p. 3).
Mindfulness connects one with what is true in the moment, the “felt sense” referenced above. The materialist paradigm that underlies the industrial growth society has worked to cut humans off from their bodies and the intuition and knowing that resides there. It has also separated humans from their larger body, the earth (at least intellectually). Mindfulness thus cultivates connection with our deepest truth and the ecological self, with more authentic ways of being. Well-known meditation teacher Jack Kornfield put it this way: “Mindful attention to any experience is liberating. Mindfulness brings perspective, balance, and freedom” (p. 97). Part of this freedom lies in the connection with basic goodness, an innate quality of every human being according to Buddhism. The Tibetan spiritual master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:
"If we are willing to take an unbiased look, we will find that, in spite of all our problems and confusion, all our emotional and psychological ups and downs, there is something basically good about our existence as human beings. Unless we can discover that ground of goodness in our own lives, we cannot hope to improve the lives of others….When we feel that our lives are genuine and good, we do not have to deceive ourselves or other people. We can see our own shortcomings without feeling guilty or inadequate." (1984, pp. 29 – 33)
Meditation is a time-tested technique for cultivating mindfulness. Meditation, according to Walsh and Vaughan:
"Refers to a family of practices that train attention in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and to cultivate specific mental qualities such as awareness, insight, concentration, equanimity, and love. It aims for development of optimal states of consciousness and psychological well-being." (1993, pp. 52 – 53)
Another specific practice that supports both mindfulness and cultivation of the ecological self is nature mirroring – taking questions or just openness into nature and letting nature provide answers or guidance. The more-than-human world reflects our experience of being alive back to us.
4. Being Adults
I have observed in my studies of psychology, psychotherapy, and spirituality, as well as in my activism, that discussion of what it means to be an adult and tools for supporting us in being adults are often missing. It’s as if being an adult isn’t important and, indeed, when we look around we see many people in adult bodies behaving childishly, not telling the truth, not taking responsibility, perpetuating divisions, separateness, and superiority complexes. The belief that caring for the earth is somehow optional and the exclusive purview of “environmentalists” is yet another example of immaturity that is so common it passes for the norm. In reality, care for the earth is one of the most fundamental traits of an adult (Plotkin, 2008).
Above the Line is the name of a simple map that can help us gauge whether or not we are in our adult in any given moment. It’s a kind of compass that is easy to use (and challenging to practice!). The basis of Above the Line is the following diagram:

Personal Responsibility
Accountability (to self and others)
Prioritize Relationships
Being in the Present Moment
Blame, Justification, Resentment, Need to be Right
Being above the line reflects the mindset of the adult. Below the line are some of the fundamental mental states and behaviors that manifest immaturity. Very few of us will be above the line all the time so the invitation is to make a commitment to staying above the line as best we can. Knowing what triggers us and drops us below the line, and working with practices that get us back above the line, are vital to the process.
Prioritizing relationships is the very essence of Restorative Activism. Once we make that commitment everything changes because nothing puts us “on the spot” quite like relationships. We accept that we will be continually challenged to move beyond habitual patterns of self-defense and apathy. Our relationship to the earth and all beings can also be prioritized with this commitment.
I believe that these four foundations form the basis of not only Restorative Activism but also a joyful life, a life well lived. I think they speak directly to an integrated approach that can make activism healing for the activist and healing for the world.
Carolyn Baker. (2009). Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse.
Jack Kornfield. (2009). The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.

Ron Kurtz. (1990). Body-centered psychotherapy: The Hakomi Method.
Joanna Macy. (2007). World as Lover, World as Self.
Bill Plotkin. (2008). Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and community in a Fragmented World.
Chogyam Trungpa. (1984). Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.
Roger Walsh & Francis Vaughan, Eds. (1993). Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision.

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