Self-Care for Activists, Community Leaders, and Volunteers

Help-the-Community

I’ve been involved in community-building work for most of my adult life, but it took me a while to realize the importance of developing a consistent self-care practice. Those of us who work with non-profits, activist groups, and community organizations can have a tendency to place more value on others than on ourselves.

I feel very strongly in the worth of every single human being, even on my most frustrating days. Yet, why is it so difficult at times to treat myself with the same care and compassion with which I treat others? Perhaps a part of the problem is due to the societal expectations that we should place ourselves last.

I’m not going to argue that we should prioritize our own selves in such a way that we cause harm or neglect to others, but I do believe that we could collectively do a better job with self-care in these arenas. I internalized this during the years of my mother’s terminal illness, when she lived with me and I served as her main caregiver. I realized that I could not possibly care for her unless I also took care of my own well-being, as even a common cold had the potential to put her safety at risk.

At that time, I justified that my self-care routine was necessary because someone I loved was dependent on my ability to care for her. In hindsight, I wish that I had been able to see my own inherent self-worth as part of the scenario, but back then, I felt that my health was important mainly in relation to how it contributed to the well-being of others. 

I have since accepted that my self-worth is not dependent on my accomplishments or my ability to help others. Along with this acceptance, I now focus on self-compassion in the ways that I care for myself.

Some of the obvious ways that I care for myself include eating nourishing food, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep when possible. Another component of my self-care routine involves a regular meditation practice. I have found that meditation helps to reduce my stress, which enhances my overall health, and I’m less reactive in how I relate with others. 

I want to be clear that, when discussing the benefits of meditation, it’s important to be careful not to use it in a way that shames others. There are some health issues that cannot simply be “cured” with meditation (or other practices such as yoga), and a meditation teacher is not a replacement for a physician. That being said, there are many instances where meditation can reduce the impacts of stress-related health problems, including heart disease.

It’s for this reason that I’ll be teaching a meditation session as part of a Community Care Day program that we’re launching at Flatirons Political Art in north Boulder. The modality that I teach is called Neurosculpting®, which founder Lisa Wimberger  describes as: “a method to enhance self-directed neuroplasticity through the union of neuroscience and meditation practices for the purpose of down-regulating chronic CNS [central nervous system] arousal states.”

The meditation component of the Community Care Day will involve one or two guided meditations, plus time to discuss how the brain neurologically wires to stress as well as higher-order cognitive thinking. We’ll also talk about ways in which a meditation practice can be supported through other aspects of our daily lives.

In addition to self-care, I’m increasingly aware of the need to cultivate community support. In a panel discussion at the recent Front Range Bioneers conference, every single speaker emphasized the importance of relationships for the development of sustainable communities. Because we live in shared spaces, we must nurture relationships with the friends and family who live around (and with) us.

The Community Care Day will provide a space for us to celebrate each other by caring for ourselves and each other. We’ll begin in the late morning with Qigong, led by Jessica Van Antwerp. Then we’ll share in a potluck lunch before moving into the meditation session. The day will end with a co-creative activity there in the art studio.

Please join us even if you’re unable to be present the entire day. We’re gathering at 11am, and we’ll be finished by 4pm. We are asking that everyone bring a potluck dish or $10 to contribute to the food, but we won’t turn anyone away due to an inability to contribute financially.

If we’re going to bring about the changes we’d like to see in this world, we need to design communities that nurture ourselves and each other. I believe that self-care practices are important because each of us matters on this planet. The added benefit is that caring for oneself allows for us to do more for others. And most specifically, stress-reduction in activist, non-profit, and community-engagement environments is crucial to staying grounded for long-term sustainability in the midst of high-stakes advocacy.

On be-ing Cynthia

Yesterday I found myself standing with a sign in a one-woman protest on the corner of Central Expressway and SMU Boulevard down in Dallas. It’s not the first time that I’ve been involved in a protest, but it was a little unusual to be out there alone.

I had thought that I would be joining a larger group, but when I arrived, most of the others were in the process of moving to another location where they would be for quite some time. My reason for participating in the protest didn’t really make sense in the context of where they were headed, so I decided to stay put. A few others contemplated staying with me but then headed home instead.

So there I was. Alone. On the access road at an incredibly busy intersection. During rush hour. With about a dozen police officers watching me from the other side of the access road. No problem.

Methodist for Peace

My protest sign

I held my sign and smiled at passersby, including the many who waved or otherwise cheered me on. I recalled a time when my Grandma had launched her own solo protest (at the age of 80), chuckling about how this sort of thing must run in the family. Then a man in a business suit crossed the street to talk to me. I smiled and politely asked him how he was doing, and he introduced himself as a sergeant for the police department. He explained that I was within my legal First Amendment right to be there, and then he proceeded to tell me a few rules for standing on that corner (most of which sounded like “rules for not getting run over by a speeding car”).

He asked me how long I would be there, and I said that I didn’t know. I made an innocent remark about how I would have brought some bottled water if I’d known there would be so many officers present, and I said that I hoped they were all comfortable. He laughed, thanked me for my concern, and said they were doing well. I guess he decided that I didn’t require monitoring from quite so many officers because most of them left after that. Two stayed behind, and to be quite honest, it felt more like they were watching out for my safety than anything else. A bit surreal.

I’m telling this story because it relates to an aspect of myself that it took me a long time to come to terms with. When I was younger, I had a rather romanticized view of activists, mainly from movies. I also loved to read about transformative movements such as the Civil Rights Era and the women’s suffrage campaign. I fantasized about living in other historical eras and felt that I was out of my element in my own surroundings.

During once such phase, I declared to my mother that I should have been around in the 1960s because I would have been an excellent hippie. She responded by saying that I would have hated the lifestyle because I valued my alone time too much to live in a commune or travel around on a bus. I wasn’t about to admit it, but I knew deep down that she was right. Yet, it looked so glamorous in the movies: dancing around in fields to “San Francisco” (I loved to wear flowers in my hair), protesting the Vietnam War, and risking the possibility of going to jail for my principles.

As an adult, I’ve learned that I simply don’t have the personality to be a radical activist. I soooo wanted to be one, but I’m not very good at it. Although I participated in debate throughout high school and still sometimes enjoy the challenge of “winning” an argument, it usually exhausts me now. I want everyone to get along. I don’t like war, but my dreams for world peace extend to inner peace. And when pushed, I’m more likely to become rude and say things that I end up regretting, which doesn’t help with the whole inner peace thing.

I will still join in public protests when I’m able (I love the energy of community and collective action), but then I’ll balance these group gatherings with solitary activities such as blog writing and artistic expressions.

Blackout poem

A blackout poem that I created on the 9th anniversary of the war in Iraq. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Now, the most important thing I’ve realized with regard to this aspect of myself is that I’m not better or worse than anyone else because of my method of engaging with the people around me. For so long I felt inadequate because I’d watch friends do all this really cool stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. But there is really no reason for me to feel inadequate.

I can admire some activists’ willingness to capture lots of people’s attention with their bold, aggressive actions and appear regularly in the media while recognizing that I prefer to maintain a lower profile. Conversely, I’m not going to develop an attitude that I’m somehow superior to others because of my more gentle approach to social and political movements. We’re all striving for a better world, and when we work together, each drawing on our own gifts, we can accomplish amazing things.

What I’d like to encourage others to do is to get to know yourself. Learn what your strengths are in terms of advocating for a world in which all people are treated with dignity, live in a safe environment, and have their basic needs met. Then find a way to insert yourself into spaces in which you can make a difference. It’s OK (perhaps even good) to get angry sometimes about the injustices and violence in this world, but don’t let anger consume you. Find balance with compassionate people and with activities that make you happy. Treat yourself with grace, and don’t beat yourself up for being different from others.

Also remember that some people will be able to dedicate more time and energy to social causes than what you might currently be able to do, and that’s OK too. We’re all on our own journeys. Be proud of what you are able to accomplish, and hold onto this wisdom from Mother Teresa: “Peace begins with a smile.” Smiling is something that almost all of us can do, even when it’s only on the inside.