In the protest movement, as in all facets of life there are what I call Monks & Marines:
- The “Monks” are the more esoteric among us who work for change through consciousness changing and
- The “marines” are those who work with their bodies and hands.
In activism “Monks” refers primarily to the growing body of Spiritual Ecologists who see changes coming from within, while the “Marines” equates to the Direct Activists, the boots on the ground activists who will calmly stare down a log truck or face a baton wielding police line, both these and the Monks have validity, both have a place in modern Social and Environmental activism.
However, this article is written for the boots on the ground activist; those who put themselves in harms way day after day, time after time, to stop environmental damage, social injustice, war, and all the other maladies that plague modern society.
Whether sitting quietly on a tree platform in the middle of an beautiful forest, standing firm front of a log truck or storming the barracades at an action in the middle of the city, maintaining self-control and self-awareness is central to the effectiveness of every action; why am I here, what do I want to achieve, how am I going to reach my goal, how do I adapt my plan when the situation changes? Remaining focussed on your goal in the middle of an active, turbulent protect can be incredibly difficult and sometimes goals need to change.
I think few would disagree that the more an Activist knows and understands what, why, how and who our actions are directed at and the more strongly we can maintain our focus on the objective and so the higher the potential for success. Having a goal that Iooks at the consequence and possible actions and reactions for all parties is pivotal to positive results and effective activism.
More important though, is how well the activists know themselves, knowing our abilities, limits, skills and emotional responses is central to effective actions.
Actions without this knowledge and understanding are less likely to generate change and more likely to result in negative consequences for both the Activist and the movement including:
- unproductive arrests,
- unproductive personal and group responses
- unproductive media.
So, how do we maintain the sense of focus and purpose necessary to make these decisions calmly “on the run” and “in the heat of battle”?
While storming the baracades has its place and can be fun, is it the best political action at this time? This is the question that is often forgotten when the blood runs hot and someone is yelling for action through a negaphone and your answer to it can change the entire outcome of the action. Whatever your decision, it should be yours and you should carry it out in a calm and measured way.
We all know that there are as many agendas as there are people involved in any action. We all know that the powers that be have a history of using “agents prevocature” and yet, in the heat of the moment, we so often see people following the loudest voice.
Following the loudest voice is natural in Fight, Flight or Freeze, the decision-making part of our brain’s turned off and humans are communal animals so, when we’re in Fight, Flight or Freeze we naturally gravitate towards the group and the loudest, most confident speaker who tells us he/she has a plan.
The other risk factor is that we over-respond to police provocation or buy into “agents provaceture” thereby denying ourselves the positive effect our cause deserves.
I suggest that one strategy we can use to reduce this risk is to follow the Dali Lama, the US Marines and the “Monks”. It’s interestingly paradoxical that one of the wisest and gentlest men on the planet and one of the most effective killing machines on the planet have one thing in common – meditation. The Dali Lama meditates to be a better, wholer person and to improve the situation of the planet and everything on it, the marines meditate to be a more effective killing machine and because it reduces PTSD.
Mindfulness meditation has been well researched and its benefits in stressful and anxiety inducing situations has been well proven.
Firstly, to understand the benefits of Mindfulness in Direct Action we need to understand the Fight, Flight or Freeze response; in Direct Action I would expand this to “Fight, Flight, Freeze or Forget” because, as activists we all have the right to just walk away and forget it if we consider a particular action not something we want to participate in.
The Fight, Flight or Freeze Response is a universally recognised psycho-physiological response to stressful or dangerous situations and is as relevant and important today as it was thousands of years ago to people facing Sabre Toothed Tigers.
Fight, Flight or Freeze is that part of our unconscious mind that takes over when we are under immediate threat and we need to act without thinking; in the past it was activated when we were confronted by a Sabre Toothed Tiger or suddenly attacked by another tribe who wanted to steal our luxury 3 bedroom cave with ensuite. In Fight or Flight our system is pumped full of powerful, chemicals to give us the strength and power to face the immediate threat. When we faced the Tiger, there was a few minutes of Fight or Flight and we were either dead or safe; then the Relaxation Response kicked in and undid all the chemical changes caused by the threat.
The Fight or Fight Response bypasses our logical, rational, thinking brain and puts us straight into survival mode. While we’re in this state we’re much more likely to act impulsively, without thinking through action and consequence; our bodies and minds are primed for immediate defensive/offensive action.
Today the Fight or Flight Response is activated when we feel stressed or under threat, so in today’s fast paced world it’s turned on a lot more than it used to be. In the long term the chemicals that flood our bodies can have toxic effects, so when the Fight or Flight Response is turned on for long periods the negative effects can be significant.
In the activists world it is elicited whenever we face a stressful situation such as in a Direct Action. If we’re sitting in a tree sit, waiting for the log trucks or gathering in the city for a protest march, stress and the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response is with us; how strong its impact is, depends on our reaction to it and how well we understand and manage ourselves and it.
Our responses can vary — we might impulsively fight, escape the situation, freeze, or, with calm awareness, negate this urge to act impulsively and act with mindful thought.
While we are in a Fight, Flight or Freeze Response, because the thinking, analytical part of our brain is effectively disconnected, there is the potential for us to make ill advised choices or for people or groups to wittingly or unwittingy manipulate us into engaging in actions we would not otherwise consider.
Although we can never be certain how actions will go, or how we will respond to sudden changes in the situation. In planned actions it is always easier to assess and plan ahead for elements like: risks, stressors and other people’s reactions. However, even the best made plans of mice and men… Even the most meticulously planned action can go totally awry.
With unplanned actions, the risk of sudden changes and the need for “think on your feet” decisions the risk is even greater.
The third type of action is the spontaneous action; these are often emotionally based and led by someone else. These actions have a higher incidence of adverse results because they are guided by an emotional state either manipulated by others or in response to the emotionally led responses of others. These spontaneous actions have a high potential to turn into mob actions and be controlled basically by the loudest voice rather than the group itself or the most knowledgeable activists in the group’; this places the group at the mercy of the agenda of the person who has taken contol. There is considerable potential for actions of this type to turn into mobs rather than political actions.
This is where the Dali Lama and the US Marines can help us; both use Mindfulness to calm themselves and improve their thinking. The motivation may be different but the result is the same; clearer, calmer, more relaxed decision making.
It doesn’t matter what we’re planning to do on the day, through the use of Mindfulness, a simple technique used by Monks and Marines we can own ourselves, own the action and own the day.
When you face that police line or that log truck bearing down on you, the ability to accept the emotions that are welling up inside you and maintain your focus can only enhance your effectiveness and the strength behind your actions.
If you haven’t got one, form an Affinity Group who can work as a team at protests, supporting and assisting each other. An Affinity Groups surrounds you with people you can trust and whose agendas you can accept. Affinity Groups give you a firm basis to launch your actions from.