Bare Witness: The Good and the Bad Sides of Activism
When I found this photo, it demonstrated to me why I was a terrible activist and why activism is often ineffective and unsustainable. I wasn't listening or seeing, and I was willingly fighting an opponent who was also deaf and blind.
I loved a good rally or protest, and afterward I always felt exhilarated and spent. I felt justified in my actions and couldn't wait until the next demonstration and another opportunity to anger and humiliate my opponent. I believed I was trying to create change and that it took an aggressive voice willing to expose hypocrisy, at the expense of someone else's feelings or beliefs, to accomplish that. It took me a long time, many years on the yoga mat and in therapy, to recognize that I was part of the problem and a perfect example of why these outdated methods of activism don't always work.
I came to realize that one of the reasons I loved a demonstration was because it allowed me to release my unresolved anger. I always felt better after a rally because the forceful shouting and fist pumping was an outlet that enabled me to shed my long-held tension. This tension was a physiological manifestation of the repressed anger, fear and sadness that I actually felt, though I wasn't in touch with. As a child, I always had issues around injustice and could never tolerate when I saw exploitation or experienced something I just knew was unfair. In the face of injustice, I would need to express my outrage, but at that time, I did not have the proper words or tools to communicate my feelings and truth, so I'd impose it forcefully through yelling. I never trusted I could get "heard" otherwise. I would rage myself into exhaustion. Truth was, what I was actually feeling was helpless and scared but had even less words to express that reality. Having no outlet to deal with my big feelings, I needed an opponent to fight so I could purge the tension, and therefore emotions. So as a young adult, I participated in rallies where there was much opposition. Women's and gay rights were my favorite. Fists held high, screaming out our agendas, both sides would push buttons and provoke. Each side feeling equally justified when the other eventually overreacted, affirming the beliefs that we/they were dangerous and exactly what was wrong with this world.
How "changing the world" can lead to burning out
Over the years, I have met many activists who have had this same need to change or fix intolerable circumstances, but also an unwillingness to look at their own issues, including what might be the motivating factors that are inspiring their interests. When we are not choosing to deal with our own inner life and take responsibility for our feelings, traumas and experience, often we will act out in order to run the currents of energy and to release the tension. Some people drink or do drugs; others, like me, protest. I've seen great and committed activists burn out as a result of their own need to fight. I've watched them blame, project, rage, insult, be arrogant, act superior, not listen or take responsibility. None of those behaviors create the necessary change, only more separation. This sense of "separation" is absolutely responsible for the dysfunction that is our global family today.
What I am about to briefly write I've said in prior blogs (What yoga has taught me), but I feel compelled to repeat it here because I don't want this blog taken out of context. Self-investigation, personal healing and spiritual unification are the driving force of Off the Mat, Into the World. As an organization founded on the primary beliefs of yoga, we believe that we are one and that everything is interdependent on the whole. There is no separation. Everything is connected. This is the principle of yoga. We believe that everything that is happening out in the world—including war, terrorism, rape, oppression and poverty—happens because there is a sense of separation, an attitude that creates "otherness," a feeling of an "us" being against "them." Yoga informs us again and again that there is no separation. We are all connected, linked together by a cosmic heartbeat and an infinite breath. Separation is an illusion, but one that is creating unbearable pain and suffering among us as a result. Interdependency or interseparation is what can create either peace or war. Everything hurtful that is happening is a manifestation of our collective thoughts, behaviors and actions, and if we are deeply committed to changing what is in the world, then our first course of action is to change the places within us that are separate from each other, the planet we share and God. We must engage, for that is what will ultimately unite. It is easier to rage at the world and try to break our opposition than it is to see that what we judge exist within us as well. It serves no purpose to point a finger at someone else when the other three fingers will always point back at you. (Try it!)
Seane responds to the backlash from a previous blog post
I'm not suggesting this is easy to do! If this approach interests you, you must constantly check in with yourself and be lovingly critical toward your limited beliefs, assumptions and fears. You must call yourself out in order to grow. You must own, expose and be willing to be wrong. This is often very challenging and humbling. Sometimes in the field, I will experience something that challenges me. I might be confronted by angry and arrogant people or be judged, attacked and criticized. Perhaps I will find myself up against challenges that are beyond my experience or expertise. Sometimes my initial reaction is to fight back harder, scream louder, insult more cleverly, but I know that this continues the cycle of dysfunction and is only motivated by the limitations of my ego. Nothing changes, except that we each get angrier and angrier, more self-righteous and therefore further and further away from the truth and each other. This is a game I am no longer interested in playing. So I breathe, take responsibility, engage, do my best, forgive me, forgive them and continue to serve.
I have been working in marginalized populations in the United States and abroad for many years. Because of my own life experience, both my struggles and my privileges, I feel a desire to serve and be a part of the empowerment of my global family. I do this through Off the Mat and the seva (service) challenges that we've created. These challenges raise significant money that fund various projects to provide healthcare and educational opportunities to people in need of both. I have done service well, and I have done it badly. I have been patient and ignorant, resourceful and naive, present and disconnected. Regardless, I will not stop trying to engage and support developing countries and its people (or our own) because of negative backlash, judgment or fear (see responses from A Soul Enters The World), but I am always open to learning, growing and doing this necessary work better. What is the alternative? To continue to turn my back on my brothers and sisters who may be in need will only perpetuate the issues of lack and separation. To continue to engage with people from pity of even sympathy is disempowering and creates an unhealthy sense of hierarchy. The spiritual activist develops empathy. Empathy unites and creates understanding. The opposite of empathy is apathy, and any expression of apathy, which is the true "evil," can only manifest pain and suffering. Empathy is the key ingredient for the manifestation of peace and is developed when one is committed to the soul's journey and the reconciliation of the individual "you" and "I" to the universal, and therefore inclusive, "we."
Seane shares a story she admits is hard to tell, but will lead to growth
To preface this, before I visit an unfamiliar culture, I always ask God to reveal to me the places within me where I need to grow and to expose my limitations so that I can transcend them and transform them into wisdom.
Careful what you ask for...
It was on the very first day in Uganda that we did our first call to action. We visited the Achouli Quarters, a slum that houses thousands of displaced Northern Ugandans who had fled to Kampala because of the violence that was taking place. This impoverished slum is on the edge of a rock quarry where many of the men, women and children work tirelessly chipping away at the mountain of quartz with only a mallet and spike. I grew up down the street from a rock quarry in New Jersey and was always aware of the massive machinery and explosives that were used to dismantle the mountain into rocks and gravel and was sobered to see the workers doing everything manually. Instead of drills, they had mallets. Instead of trucks, the women hauled pounds of rocks balanced precariously in baskets on their heads. Instead of experienced, unionized workers in protective gear, they had children.
We were there to meet some of the more impoverished villagers and bring them food, including flour, sugar and beans, and medical supplies. We also brought clothing, toothbrushes and school supplies for the kids. The village leaders organized this day and let us know their needs. Many of the families came out to meet us and sang traditional songs, as is their custom. Thank God for Suzanne, a musician. With her help, we also came prepared to offer them a song in return.
Suzanne and I were walking through the village on our way to meet up with a particular family when a man, obviously drunk, came angrily up to us shouting and pointing his finger close to our faces. "When you come here, you look at each one of us in our eyes and you say, ''Hello!' You say, 'Hello!' We are people!" Suzanne and I were confused, but heard him out, figuring he was just drunk and we didn't want to get him any more excited than he already was. "We are not animals! We are not monkeys! How dare you!" Some of the other villagers came over and tried to make him hush, but he kept screaming, "We are people and deserve respect!" over and over again. As some of the villagers kindly led us away, he was silent for a moment and as we passed I turned to look at him one last time. Staring hatefully at me he spoke two last words. "F*** you."
What I'm about to tell you is a hard story to share, but a very important and necessary one. I'd rather not taint an amazing journey that will help support many people, but this trip is called "Bare Witness" purposefully, and if I do not share the good with the unconscious, then I am only telling part of the story and I'm denying you, and me, an opportunity for truth and therefore growth.
Seane is confronted with a racist remark from an unlikely place—her own group of volunteers
Monkey? This is a word that was, and often still is, used to insult, hurt and humiliate African people all over the world. This culture has known more than 400 years of oppression and slavery, chained in cages, beaten, raped and sold like animals. White people, like us, denied them their basic rights for profit. We traumatized and dismantled a culture as a result, often using not just whips, stick and chains to break these people into submission, but words as well. Monkey? There was no way. I shook my head, succumbed to massive denial, and thought that I must have heard wrong. I walked away.
Later, I saw the little girl skipping with some friends repeating over and over, "Monkey, monkey, monkey..."
A day later, Nikki, our assistant, and an African-American, pulled me aside needing to talk. She is a yoga teacher from Indiana, has a rich history of alcohol and drug abuse and is deeply committed to recovery. She is someone who has excellent processing skills, which is why she works so closely with us on these trips. I was surprised when she told me that she just had a nasty and public confrontation with one of the participants and needed to break it down for me. Nikki was visibly upset, ashamed by the way she had handled the situation, but she also felt justified under the circumstances.
"So," Nikki said speaking about the same participant I mentioned earlier, "I'm sitting on the bus and I hear her say 'What sweet little monkeys!' so I turn and look out of the window and see a small group of African children playing." "What the f***!" Nikki thought, and then went off on the woman. "Are you out of your f**king mind? Did you just call those black children monkeys? That is absolutely racist, unbelievably offensive, and I am shocked that I am hearing this come out of your mouth!" Instead of apologizing, the woman was confused and got defensive. She said she had no idea what Nikki was talking about. "I always call children 'monkeys,' all children. It's just an affectionate term I use. It's what I call my own children." Nikki asked incredulously, "You're telling me you don't know how horribly racist that word is?" And the woman said no, and she didn't think it was. "And you've been referring to the children this way since you got here?" Nikki had to walk away afraid of what she might say, or do, next.
Seane confronts the woman about her racist comments
As Nikki shared her story, it suddenly made sense why the man in the slums attacked Suzanne and I the way he did. His outrage made perfect sense. I felt incredibly ashamed that instead of coming into their homes to provide support and aid, we had instead violated them on a deep and primal level. I suddenly imagined this woman moving through the village ooh and ahhing the children and calling them monkeys, much to the disbelief and horror of the villagers. Inadvertently, we perpetuated the continued racism and separation that affects so many people in their lives everywhere. This was the last thing we ever intended to do.
I pulled the woman aside later to speak with her. She was still defensive, and I was truly shocked that I had to explain to her why calling black people in Africa, or anywhere, "little monkey" was offensive. I had to go into detail about why that word would have a negative association. I spoke about the history of African oppression and what had been done to the people and how, as a result, there still might an inherent lack of trust toward foreigners. I explained to her what had happened in the village with the man, his attack and venomous outrage. Her casual use of that word triggered within him hundreds of years of deep trauma, violence and pain on a very tribal level. She ignited that explosion, and he was justified in his reaction. As I spoke, I could see her begin to understand what she had done, and she was horrified at what her words might have created. She kept apologizing, saying she truly didn't know how offensive it was and would have never said it had she been aware. Which I absolutely believe.
Seane's life-changing realization
This is not a story I wanted to expose. I struggled with writing it. It is unconscious and cruel and flies in the face of our intention in being here. But even as it was happening, I knew that I must share it. If I shame it, I avoid the opportunity for growth and healing. It was a profound teaching and certainly revealed much about my own assumptions. I will never again assume that either the group or myself is infallible when it comes to making the very mistakes we are so committed to healing. I can't assume that because someone does yoga or is educated exempts them from being ignorant or sheltered or even sensitive to the realities and complexities of racism or culture.
Our commitment in taking these trips is to dignify the human experience and serve from love. Instead, we insulted the very humans we came to serve. How ironic. How perfect for God to expose my own naiveté and arrogance. I asked spirit to show me where the holes were. He did. I asked to be shown my own limitations and inexperience. He did. I asked to be given the opportunity to cultivate wisdom. He certainly gave it.
Sometimes God has a bizarre way of answering our prayers.
I'm hopeful you don't vilify the participant. She was ignorant, not intentional. She also supported me in wanting to share this story on Oprah.com. She rightly suggested that there must be many other people like her who don't know the power of that word to hurt when used in certain context, and she is hopeful that this story can raise awareness as a result.
Beside creating educational and healthcare opportunities, our intention in bringing people into these different cultures and introducing them to population perhaps so utterly foreign to their own, is so that we can transcend our fears and presumptions, see beyond color, gender, sex and economics and discover the places within, beyond culture, where we are deeply connected. It is an opportunity to learn about each other and heal. It is to truly see the connections and similarity of spirit, not the differences of race or culture. I am certain that spirit wanted me to have this experience so that I dropped any idealism I had about the challenges of bringing people into foreign cultures and work even harder at shining the light on ignorance. Mostly my own.
So this is what sustainable activism looks like to me. You tell the truth and expose lies, your own and others; only do so with respect and compassion. You respond when others might react. You listen deeply and are mindful of your words. You honor both the light and the shadow aspects of the human soul. You don't shame, judge or vilify. Instead, try to bridge chasms and find a language that supports various points of views. You do not make someone wrong so that you can feel right, but also don't withdraw and become passive in the face of a challenge. You share own your feelings, speak honestly and respect others. You work hard to confront your own limitations and take responsibility for the outcome of your choices, both good and bad. You see the connection that exists within each being and allow that truth to motivate every decision, choice and action. You allow empathy to express and love to lead...and finally, know fully that the only true stand to take, the only right action necessary, is to do whatever you can that will manifest peace and honor deeply the God that exists within...and within all. This is how spiritual activism can change the world from the inside out.
Building a birthing center in Uganda
Seane helps deliver a baby
How Seane came to believe in God
Seane Corn is an internationally celebrated yoga teacher known for her impassioned activism, unique self-expression and inspirational style of teaching that incorporates both the physical and mystical aspects of the practice of yoga. For more on Seane Corn, visit SeaneCorn.com.