The Weary Advocate’s Guide to Happiness

The Weary Advocate's Guide to Happiness
by Heather Lyn Mann

For twenty-five years I worked on the front lines of environmental justice. Thirteen years ago I adopted Buddhism as a spiritual practice. In many ways daily meditation, Sutra study, and retreats with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh transformed my advocacy methods and goals, but the stress and emotional load of my work were heavier than I realized. When I finally stepped away from the non-profit I founded into a multi-year retreat into nature, post-traumatic stress set in. 

I grieved over what I had seen: short-sighted political power plays ending friends’ careers and gutting vital grant programs; the effects of corporate exploitation on inner-city residents; industries using, poisoning, and abandoning the landscape; city administrators shirking responsibilities to poor neighborhoods because, in their words, “those people don’t care”; and generations of disadvantaged families struggling for access to healthy food and quality education. 

My history isn’t unique. Colleagues working for justice saw similar things and worse. During my time out in nature, I slowly started second-guessing my level of professional skill. I began doubting my contribution, wondering if the totality of my service made a lick of difference because the health of the environment had so badly deteriorated since my career began. As a Buddhist, I knew it was important to be kind to myself, but memories of events I wished I had handled differently played in my head like looped videos.

In deep despair, one question rose above the rest: How can advocates cultivate happiness and effectiveness as we persist? For years, as I rested, the question drifted in and out of my consciousness. After a while, well-reasoned pat answers and snappy strategies to boost happiness lost steam, and the question shifted to something much larger. The question became a more spacious kind of wondering about how we are to be in this complex world. From this place, fresh insight emerged: It is the framework of understanding that every person carries—the “container” of beliefs that surrounds us and allows us to make meaning of events and circumstances—that informs how we are and, therefore, how we act in the world. As such, we must work on the framework—the container—that can hold and sustain us as we persist in our advocacy.

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THE FIRST ELEMENT OF THE CONTAINER: THE EXPECTATION OF PAIN

To explain, let me take a step back to the Buddha’s First Noble Truth about suffering. All beings feel pain—including enlightened ones. It is impossible for even the most mindful advocate to stave off unwanted feelings, thoughts, and circumstances. Great heroes of spiritual activism—Thich Nhat Hanh, His Holiness the Dali Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Christ—experienced pain as they worked for justice. Two of those heroes lost dear friends to violence and now live in exile outside their home countries; the other three were murdered at the height of their careers. 

Advocacy, by definition, requires us to become intimate with pain and suffering. Willingly, we put ourselves in harm’s way to cut off the causes and conditions of wrongdoing. We get hurt by opponents fighting to maintain their advantage as they lie, steal, conspire, exploit, withhold, break promises, and commit other forms of emotional and physical violence. The individual and collective response to our commitment to justice can feel ugly and personal. 

All of this said, in Buddhism, the reality of pain is an uplifting Noble Truth; that is, when advocates accept the push-back as a reality and avoid adding their own anger, blame, fear, and violence, there is space for transformation. Mindful advocates place pain in a larger container of understanding. 

The Second Noble Truth teaches us that individuals in society are reactive and driven by habit energies of craving and aversion, both of which perpetuate the cycle of pain. With this awareness, we can depersonalize the drama (even when it is directed toward us) by beginning to see conflict with an opponent as nothing more than a knee-jerk response to change. We can meet the reactivity of those who disagree with understanding. 

It gets trickier, however, because advocates operate under conditions of resource and time scarcity and because relationships with allies and colleagues can also be volatile. These factors create additional sources of pain. In my experience, fellow environmentalists, desperate to woo funding away from my organization to theirs, generated a slew of thorny encounters with allies. My own employees disagreed vehemently with organizational policies and strategies. Stakeholders frustrated by a project’s slow progress publicly challenged organizational commitment. Donors demanded timely results—or else! The stress of relating to opponents in addition to allies and co-workers in this way is extreme. In my thirties, I started taking medicine for an eroding stomach. A decade later, I added a medicine to stabilize an irregular heartbeat.

We advocates—being human—have our own habitual reactions to conflict that can compound the initial pain to create patterns of deep suffering. Bombarded on all sides, we may grow defensive and lash out, harden our hearts against issue opponents, double-down on our positions, emotionally distance ourselves from friends and allies, blame ourselves for a lack of skill or for being the source of conflict, or see-saw between outer anger and inner shame. For years I believed, for example, that the lack consensus around my cause stemmed from my not having enough scientific information. I dove into data, and my message grew emphatic. 

It took rest and meditation for me to begin to embrace these first two Noble Truths and to expand my container of understanding. To intentionally undermine old ways of thinking, I played with the idea of welcoming the reality of pain from all sides. This made it possible for me to view emotional and physical push-back as a precursor to transformation and to see how resistance emerges as people engage. Eventually, as the case for justice is made (over days, years, or generations), hostility, when met with acceptance, gives way to understanding and love. I believe that the truth of this societal capacity for transformation is evidenced in my lifetime in the movements for Civil Rights, disability rights, and same-sex marriage. 

While working toward transformation, the job of the mindful advocate is to help one’s self and others constructively frame what is happening in any given moment and shine light on opportunities for healing and nourishment. 

THE SECOND ELEMENT OF THE CONTAINER: FORGIVENESS

The framework of understanding in which we hold our advocacy needs something besides understanding of pain and suffering—it needs a hearty portion of forgiveness. Looking deeply, we see that none of us have a complete picture of reality, and, therefore, everyone is making mistakes. Even when we do our best to perceive the world with mindful attention, we perceive only a fraction of the forces at play because the scope of human sense perceptions is limited. 

In addition, research demonstrates that context—the environment of the perceiver—molds perception. We take in what we expect to see and altogether miss events for which we lack a pre-established framework of understanding. If our society or personal history hasn’t prepared in us a particular field of awareness, seeds of reality cannot take root. Therefore, expressing anger toward people with different points of view—those who “refuse to acknowledge what is in front of them”—is a waste of energy. 

An alternative to anger is forgiveness. Forgiveness—when generously applied to those who cause harm—gives advocates the spaciousness necessary for real communication. Forgiveness and communication cultivate new fields of awareness in the hearts and minds of issue opponents, and this allows previously unseen realities to be revealed. It is forgiveness that warms and maintains the fertile ground of transformation. 

We can only begin to cultivate forgiveness toward others, however, when we extend forgiveness toward ourselves. Too often we advocates turn anger inward and blame ourselves for things gone wrong. Given the purity of our aspiration for justice, we should instead extend forgiveness toward personal limitations: If we could have responded more skillfully in the past, we would have. Accepting and forgiving our own imperfections and limitations frees internal storehouses of energy and allows us to arrive whole to that which is manifesting in each present moment. Self-forgiveness also helps us to recover our humanity, waking us up to our brother- and sisterhood with all members of society. Feeling compassion toward our personal flaws, we go forth with tender, quivering hearts and increased determination to express love through action.  

THE THIRD ELEMENT OF THE CONTAINER: ETHICS

Finally, our advocacy container draws strength and resilience from ethics—the moral compass guiding actions worthy of our highest aspiration. In my experience, applying ethics consistently grows increasingly inconvenient as conflicts escalate. It can be tempting to think a noble end justifies harsh means, so we advocates are sometimes inclined to exaggerate our message or to provoke emotions by using anger or fear. Thinking we know what others will say, we may stop listening, deny people’s reality, or lean into the self-serving interests of our tribe. There is little time to stop and care for strong emotions as they arise, so we are all at risk of assigning blame and spewing harsh words or of ignoring an internal sea of confusion, impatience, superiority, inferiority, and self-criticism. 

Ethics are not sentimental niceties; they are like steel beams fortifying a healthy advocacy framework, helping establish guidelines and boundaries that can save us from hurting ourselves and others. Every spiritual tradition throughout time has offered ethical guidelines for similar reasons. Here I re-interpret Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Mindfulness Trainings into core ethical teachings for advocates.

  • I aim to transform harmful thinking, acting, and lifestyle choices in myself, my organization, and my community in order to protect the lives of all beings—human and non-human. 
  • I aim to let go of personal and organizational desires for wealth, recognition, and influence and to focus instead upon easing suffering of both allies and opponents by generously giving time, financial support, skill, and creative energy.  
  • I aim to lead myself, my allies, and my opponents out of difficulty and to cultivate reconciliation between people, organizations, and governments by listening with compassion, cutting off toxic thinking and speaking, and saying only truthful words that inspire hope.  
  • I aim to nurture happiness in myself, my allies, and my opponents by transforming strong emotions, anxieties, cravings, and regrets in and around me and by pursuing wholesome goals, methods, and funding sources.

It is impossible to overstate the effect of ethics on personal power and effectiveness. Advocates can find confidence in actions moderated by ethics because they are efforts born of compassion and delivered in service to humanity’s highest aspirations. In the court of public opinion, ethical action transcends the self-serving interests of the few, reveals a common ground between people, and aligns supporters. An ethical foundation to decision-making gives advocates and their organizations spiritual authority that money and lobbyists cannot buy or even imitate. Most importantly, ethical actions provide a way of being where justice is already alive and made manifest. With ethics, hopes for the future are born in the present. 

The Container Holds our Advocacy Efforts

Our ability to cultivate happiness and effectiveness as we seek justice depends upon the container in which we hold our efforts. Do we wrap our work in fear, anger, frustration, and intolerance? Or is our work strengthened and sustained by understanding, forgiveness, and an ethical framework? 

As I re-engage after my retreat and healing time in nature, I now know that pain is not a sign of ineptitude; it is part and parcel of our work. The wave of grief I experienced was a natural response to the reality I witnessed. Resting gave me time and space to transform strong emotions and regrets. I healed my body by accepting and refusing to amplify the pain I felt; I no longer need medicines for my stomach or heart. I have a clearer picture of the path manifesting justice in and around me in every moment. §


A PATH FOR MINDFUL ADVOCACY:    

Calm your thoughts
Become an expert on your inner workings through meditation. Awareness of the pattern of your feelings, thoughts, and experiences allows you to interrupt and redirect your habitual responses and reduce suffering. 

Deal with anger
When anger arises, stop what you are doing, accept the emotion, and choose not to react until you have the insight of forgiveness. Practices like breathing, walking, or taking in the beauty of the natural world can help you stop and uncover insight. 

Align actions and aspirations
Redirect organizational policies, practices, and your daily activities away from institution-building and toward easing suffering.

Understand others’ fields of perceptions
Listen deeply to what others are saying for at least twice as long as you talk. Be curious about others’ experiences.

Speak with care
Monitor and eliminate from your speech unkind words, unsubstantiated claims, unnecessary fears, and sarcasm. 

Temper ambitions
Establish goals and objectives, then loosen your grip on them to serve others slowly and mindfully in the present moment. 

Water seeds of well-being
Devote time each day to enjoying what is healthy and right in your environment, relationships, and society.


Heather Lyn Mann is a writer, Mindfulness teacher, and advocate for justice. Heather founded and directed the Center for Resilient Cities before joining her husband on a 15,000 mile sail in 2007; Ocean of Insight, forthcoming, is a memoir about that journey (Parallax Press—Fall 2016). In 2006, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh ordained Heather into the Order of Interbeing. On June 17-24, she will lead a retreat on Mindful Advocacy at Southern Dharma Retreat Center (SouthernDharma.org).