I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I donate money to causes I support and occasionally take action, like serving on the board of a non-profit in my community. But I consider my work as a counselor my primary contribution to society. Here, one person at a time, I help my clients function at a more optimal level so they can make a positive difference in the world.

Conserving my emotional energy for my work in mental health is one reason I haven’t been more engaged in political and social issues. Another is that I’ve never believed I had the power to change things at the macro level. It’s difficult enough to change one person’s behavior so taking on governmental policies, cultural norms, and corporate greed felt overwhelming. And finally, white, heterosexual privilege insulated me from the immediate impact of many social issues. I’ve always had clean water to drink. I don’t worry about my 18 year old nephew getting shot during a routine traffic stop. No matter who gets appointed to the Supreme Court I will still be married to the person I love.

My perspective changed on November 8. The language, behavior and priorities of the incoming administration frightened me and didn’t reflect my values. After the election I did my best to stay focused on areas I had control over, but my one person at a time approach didn’t feel adequate for the circumstances. A week after the election I heard about the Women’s March on Washington. Its mission supported issues important to me and I decided to attend. To quote Gloria Steinem, I decided to “put my body where my beliefs were.”

On Saturday January 21 I stood for seven hours in one place, with four people I love, and surrounded by over a half a million others. The crowd was energized, peaceful and kind. I listened to impassioned speakers ranging from 82 year old Gloria Steinem to 8 year old Sophie Cruz. The entire experience was overwhelming and I drove home from from D.C. buzzing with the energy I’d absorbed. I was empowered! I could make a difference!

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I began the week calling senators, sending postcards and reading the news multiple times a day. The week progressed. Fueled by emails and Facebook posts telling me what was wrong and what I could do about it, I called my senators again and kept reading the news. By the end of the week I had difficulty concentrating and racing thoughts about the issues in my Facebook feed. I cried. Did I really have power? The energy I’d soaked up at the march was now scattered and unfocused, creating anxiety and helplessness instead of empowerment. I didn’t like this feeling.

How can I be an activist without sacrificing my internal peace?

I turned to someone wiser then me for help. The second core principle of Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation is: “We need a contemplative mind in order to do compassionate action”. He defines contemplation as “a panoramic, receptive awareness whereby you take in all the situation ….without judging, eliminating, or labeling anything up or down, good or bad”. I was not acting from a contemplative place but simply reacting to directives from my emails and Facebook feed. I was motivated more by fear of what could happen then out of compassion for those impacted. Behaviors motivated by fear, no matter how well intentioned, still ignite our stress response system and this is what created my anxiety, irritability and helplessness at the end of last week.

There are different strategies to reduce the stress response and create a contemplative, quiet mind and I’ve found that limiting my consumption of news, meditating and spending time in nature work for me. Thankfully I’m outside every day exercising and walking my dog so that’s already in my schedule. This week I’ve added 10 minutes of meditation in the morning and evenings. I’m also being selective about where I get my news and going to primary news sources rather then clicking on articles posted on Facebook. My next step is to set a time limit on when I read the news. Most likely this will be over breakfast and again early evening with time to decompress before bed.

Now that I’m spending more time in a contemplative mind state and racing thoughts aren’t clouding my judgement, I’m in a better place to decide what compassionate action to take. But how can I choose? There are a multitude of worthy issues to support. Jean Shinoda Bolen, Jungian analyst, provides some direction in her book, Like a Tree; How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet”. Here she says, “..it is important to take on what you recognize as your particular assignment and not something others say you ought to do. …You can recognize your assignment by your answers to these three questions: Is this meaningful? Will it be fun? (i.e. surrounded by good people; able to use your creativity) Is it motivated by love?”

Using Dr. Bolen’s three questions I will discern what issues are most important to me. From there I’ll use a combination of research, journaling and meditation to determine what action steps I want to take. It may be a call to my legislators regarding one of my top issues, attending another march, volunteering locally or writing a blog post. It may be as simple as carrying a peaceful and compassionate heart through my day.

A positive outcome of our current political environment is more people are standing up for what they believe in. My hope is that everyone will take time to first create a sense of peace in their own life and then choose how to act compassionately to promote their values. The more people (liberal or conservative) are focused on supporting what they believe in, rather then fighting against what they hate, the better our country and the world will be.

I will close with a quote from Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft. I return to this again and again when I find myself jumping between people and issues I want to help and support. “It’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift — your true self — is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.”

Please take time to quiet your mind, discern your priorities and take compassionate action using your unique gift.

This post was originally published on Medium.


Heather Cobham is a counselor and author. She is currently working on the sequel to her debut novel, Hungry Mother Creek.

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