A few weeks ago I finished teaching my last practicum course for my mindfulness meditation teachers certification program. It was called Sheltering In Compassion, and the curriculum was focused on the Four Immeasurables and their application to the pandemic. Because of the wonderful company I keep, all the participants were committed activists, each of them improving the world in their own way. We spent a lot of time talking about the complicated roles that anger, outrage, despair, and fatigue play in an activist’s life, and I came out of the experience eager to find a way to refresh the passion and vision of activists and connect them, spiritually, to their values and dreams.

I’ve now spent a couple of weeks reading pretty much everything Joanna Macy has ever written, as well as the work that has come from her students and collaborators, and I am so impressed–it is exactly what I was looking for! The Work That Reconnects, formerly known as “Despair and Empowerment Work”, is all about honoring our pain and suffering as coming from our overall love of the world and deep connection to all living beings. It is such a deep, rich way to mill the difficulties and challenges in the activists’ path and engender hope and passion.

Too often, we receive well-meaning advice to draw boundaries, to leave our work aside, to numb ourselves to the pain we encounter. But this is very hard to do, and for people who come to social justice work with deep compassion, very difficult. It occurs to me that the challenges and fatigue is one of the reasons why activist groups bicker and splinter so bitterly (I’m going to write something about this in a separate post, as I’m now reading some social movement literature to understand it.) Even though lashing out at others seems to be an expression of anger and pain, it occurs to me that it is more often an effort to ricochet the pain and suffering away from us.

But the pain and suffering can be composted through expressing them–to ourselves and to compassionate listeners–and they can be rich soil for growing hope. This is where the four-step trajectory of Macy’s work comes in. The first step is Coming From Gratitude–acknowledging the beauty of the world and our commitment to it. Then we truly allow ourselves Feel the Pain of the World, which comes from how much we love the world and want to save it. Then, we See with New Eyes”–we understand our pain as reflecting our unity with everything that surrounds us. Finally, we Go Forth, allowing the unity to infuse us with vision and motivation.

If I have any non-family-obligation time left after grading, curriculum development (my fall teaching will happen online and I have some great ideas), and scholarship, I plan to spend it adapting Macy’s work to the law school classroom, so it can nourish and equip law students interested in social justice work with the skills they need to stay fresh, sane, and hopeful, even as they despair. I also hope to facilitate this work with activist lawyers.

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