Lou Hemmerman, a sustainable activism researcher and facilitator with Ecodharma, shares her learnings from 6 years of action-research whilst co-facilitating Sustaining Resistance: Empowering Renewal, a 10 day residential workshop for activists. Lou lives at Ecodharma, a land-based community and education centre in a wild and remote part of the Catalunyan Pyrenees.
‘Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’ Audre Lorde.
Self care is not a distraction from ‘real’ politics, it is politics.
There is something enduringly resonant and powerful about these words. I appreciate the affirmation that self care is a profound and transformative political act. I believe that self care is not a self indulgent distraction from the so called ‘real’ work of social engagement. Nor is it separate from social change work, something to be done on our infrequent breaks. Self care is integral to the ongoing success and sustainability of our efforts. As such, preserving our own vitality and resilience should be a core part of our activist lives.
Self care can energise us by making our work for social change a life affirming, inspirational joy, far from an exercise in sacrificial endurance. Truly transformative political action surges from the appetite to live with wellbeing. It incorporates our own liberation. In comparison, oppression can be viewed as simultaneous ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ experiences which negate our creative, connective and self-determining energy. In Sister Outsider (see right), Audre Lorde shows how self care has the potential to be anti-oppressive.
Self Care is connected to Self Worth.
Through my research work on identity and activism I am exploring social movements in which personal empowerment and radical systemic transformation are indivisible. I am looking at what they teach about burnout. The struggle to self care and self value is political in and of itself in these movements. As a black, lesbian-feminist poet and a passionate defender of the full, life affirming power of eros, Lorde warns women of the dangers of perpetuating oppression through the way they treat and view themselves.
Even if one is acting from a position of greater privilege, I believe this still holds. If one is committed to radical social transformation, then locating and dismantling the oppressor within ourselves, towards ourselves, is valuable political work. Indeed, it can support us to see more clearly how and why we oppress others. For eco-psychologist Andy Fisher, writing in Radical Ecopsychology ‘we are nature too’. As such the oppression of human and non human nature spring from the same dualistic tendency to separate self and world.
I believe that these authors speak warnings that contemporary activists would do well to heed. My research indicates that poor self worth is a frequent companion to burnout. Too many of us activists, particularly those of us facing up to our sense of culpability for the state of the world, alongside our privileged status, consider self care irrelevant and frivolous. We can get confused about self care in a consumerist world of manufactured need. Rather than dealing constructively with responsibility and guilt, some of us activists turn in on ourselves. We can feel we don t deserve care and support. Many of us engage in our activist work as if the world ‘out there’ matters more than ourselves. Quickly we can begin to feel separate from the world, as if acting ‘upon’ it rather than ‘within’ it. We can lose sight of benefiting from our own actions. We often scorn seeking our own liberation and wellbeing as part of the change we seek. Looking ahead with urgency and fear we act for the sake of future beings and lose connection with the vital potential of the present moment. Finally we also lose connection with ourselves, our life force, and our bodies. We burnout.
Self Care Requires Self Awareness.
Through exploring the relationship I witnessed between burnout and self/body disconnection I became interested in body awareness and ‘felt presence’ of self. In my current work I am consciously bringing into focus the dimensions of burnout related to embodiment and self view. In self view I include the largely unconscious cultural/attitudinal conditioning we embody, including our habitual relationship to our needs.
With the support of reading around somatics and change- (for example Strozzi -Heckler’s The Anatomy of Change) I am looking at how building mindful embodiment could empower us to break personal cycles of burnout. In the work about self presence I aim to assist greater resilience, flexibility and spontaneity in activist’s emotional and psychological relationship with their ‘self’ as an activist. Part of this is working with identification and attachment to our self views and cultural scripts about ‘being an activist’. I wholeheartedly agree with Sophy Banks in her editorial piece that burnout prone groups and cultures are influential. I share the view that activist culture frequently becomes imbalanced around doing/being and thinking/ feeling with the former being prioritised.
I also fully support what Sophy says about missing feedback loops and burnout. The most vital feedback missing or ignored is the feedback of our own bodies indicating something is out of balance in our energetic system. Burnout recovery involves re-learning a feeling for and response to these messages through, for example, meditative and focusing techniques. Somatic alarm calls are heaviness, frozenness, numbness, tightness, rigidity, blocked feelings and aching pain. Sensation tells us something about flow and vitality. For example, if we feel like we have to push, force, will our bodies towards an action, rather than energy flowing naturally into doing.
I am also exploring the link between burnout and less conscious, conditioned self suppression. For example muscular contraction in the belly could signal self restriction and fear of failure. Working to recognise and release these unique signals at an embodied level can be very powerful. It is hard to think ourselves out of self suppressive habits. Often we have to sense and feel our way to a new way of acting and existing. As well as meditation and reflective work, techniques such as Gendlin’s focusing, or Borcelli’s tension release work can be of great assistance.
At a more strategic level I think impactful activism requires that as movements we provide group processes that enable the full individuation and empowerment of movement participants. To support their full agency and engagement. My research suggests that if a sense of self direction is not fully developed in group members, subtle conformity and lethargy can creep into group relationships. Plus hierarchies solidify. Personal and group empowerment work supports social movements that manifest and live their values with integrity.
As such it is so important for each of us to bring into conscious awareness what we really want and need. To come into contact with an embodied sense of what it is right for us to do- for ourselves and others. In this way our social action begins to feel like an authentic expression of our deepest felt values and needs, rather than simply serving the often quite limiting social and cultural norms within some activist networks. I see such an approach as empowering us to integrate our personal needs and values within our work for social change- and allowing us to move away from work that has become obligatory or dutiful. To empower us to do the work we want to do rather than the work we think we ought to do, or copying what the ‘cool’ people do.
Radical eco psychology also supports this approach. It encourages us to draw upon our felt embodiment and intuitive/emotional needs to guide us in our social actions, rather than acting largely on the basis of the mental visions, self images and ideological idealisations we have identified with. To trust what feels right. I have witnessed and experienced time and again how allowing our own needs and interests to guide us in our lives and work facilitates true creativity, spontaneity and grounded, alive resistance to a deadening social and economic system. Working only from urgency and reactivity, in my experience, never does.
Taking care of ourselves and listening to our bodies enables us to act from a place of abundance and joy. By connecting us to and answering our deepest callings and aspirations self awareness gives strength to our vital energy. Valuing ourselves enables us to find and feel a sustained agency and power even when faced with oppression and obstacles.
It matters to integrity and effectiveness that our activist work does not reproduce the very tendencies we live to resist. For example austerity or self exploitation. In order to prevent an unwitting reproduction of oppressive tendencies in our socially transformative work, we have to really connect with our bodies, our hearts and our values, and learn how to live authentically with a life affirming attitude. As my friend and former colleague Claire Milne described in her recent blog: “My name is Claire and I am in recovery from addiction to activism”, this involves the cultivation of self care, self connection and authentic action. My vision of activism integrates our own empowerment and liberation with that of others and the earth. It is not an activism that saves the world for those of the future through the sacrifice of those who live in the present. Instead it embraces the transformative potential of everyday action. It aims to live fully what it believes here and now- not in the revolutionary ecological utopia of the future. Most importantly it supports people to grow and individuate in full embodied connection with their values and needs. A resilient activism demands that we open up to life and change in ourselves as well as in the world.