Activism from a Place of Peace

There are two ways to be an activist: from a place of pain—anger, self-righteousness, blame, or despair—or from a place of love and delight. The latter has long eluded me. In fact, it seemed ridiculous. How could I work for peace or justice or environmental healing without being upset? Wasn’t some kind of anger a prerequisite for doing the hard work, staying committed, and not giving up? And how could I look at what is happening in our nation, our forests, our planet without being horrified and furious, and periodically swallowed by grief?

Despair, however, did not actually make me that effective. It took a long time for me to see this. I would cry and cry, caught on the twigs of every instance of degradation or violence that I witnessed or heard about. One healer called me "the crying woman" after a Mexican mythological being who cried on behalf of the world. Another eventually asked me, "Have you always been this way?" Yes, I have. I thought my suffering made me one of the good guys. Even if I wasn’t really doing much to stop the oncoming catastrophe, at least I could see it coming. At least I cared. At least I loved the planet, and sided with its pain.

I’m not saying this grieving didn’t help me. It did. Crying made me feel better, and less hopeless, for little chunks of time. It kept me in touch with my longing to make a difference, to put my life in front of the train, to avert the global meltdown. It did not get me in front of the train, but it kept me from being armored against the news; it kept me from denial. It held me in the arms of my longing. It kept alive in me the questions: What shall I do? Where is the point of greatest leverage for me in this crisis? Is this a stoppable train? Where do I stand—where do I lay my life down for what I love?

To paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke: If you live in the question long enough, eventually you may live your way into the answer. I leaned up against my grief and despair until I found a way through. I still feel a little embarrassed about claiming this way of peace that I have found. I recall how superior I felt to people who said they had "found it"—found The Way. I knew it couldn’t be true: any path that claimed to have the answer had to be a limited one, had to exclude other truths and shrink from the immense, unnameable Mystery. A friend’s bumper sticker says, "God is too big to fit into one religion," and I heartily agree. So how could my discovery not be a betrayal of my earlier, reasonable skepticism?

I have found something big enough, because it does not involve believing anything. It is, rather, a path of inquiry—of questioning what I believe—of examining the effects of what I think. Gradually, the belief systems that used to bind and hurt me are unraveling, dissolving—letting me go. I am growing swifter, more nimble at recognizing stressful thoughts as they come into my head and stick there. I write them down, question them, and emerge on the other side with the kinder flavor of reality in my mouth. Doing this simple, quiet process of inquiring—hundreds of times now, on various thoughts— has left me with energy, hope, commitment, and delight where I formerly felt despair. I still see the same degradation and impending challenges for humanity, and they no longer mean to me what they used to mean. An astonishing person named Byron Katie taught me this method of inquiry, which she calls "The Work."

Here’s an example of an inquiry I did on a stressful thought that plagued me: If I don’t suffer, that means I don’t care. (Bear in mind that as I face these questions, I look for the answers somewhere deep in my body; it is a kind of listening meditation. You might say that I am letting my heart, not my mind, answer.)

1. Is that true?
Yes. It seems true.

2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
No, I guess I can’t really know that. I can think of times (for instance, with my children) when I care deeply about them but don’t suffer, even when they are hurting.

3. How do you react when you believe that thought—that if you don’t suffer it means you don’t care?
I suffer! I cry on behalf of prisoners, soldiers, women, starving children, people with AIDS, Native peoples long dead, gorillas, my descendants, and so on. I feel paralyzed with grief. I can’t figure out what to do because there is so much to care about. I eat compulsively. I turn off the radio whenever something too intense comes on, because I am tired of crying. I feel very tired, and usually have to take a nap in the afternoon. I tighten my shoulders and neck. I try to stay busy. I bustle around so that at least no one will catch me sitting still. I give money to Amnesty International because torture is the hardest issue for me; I cringe and am terrified at the thought of it, and I suffer. I identify with the victims of war, and feel righteous and justified at being angry at the oppressors. I take sides. I feel small and powerless and angry. I get comfort from being with people who agree with me, who agree that things are terrible and scary.

4. Who would you be without the thought?
Hmm. It’s hard to imagine, but it seems that I would be a lot lighter. I’d be free to care about people without being in pain myself, and I might actually be able to help them more. I wouldn’t feel so sad and small. It definitely feels better, a big relief.

5. Turn the thought around to its opposite.
I can care without suffering.

6. Does that seem as true or truer?
It seems a lot truer, actually.

7. Can you give some examples?
If I’m sitting with someone who is sick, I am a much better visitor if I am not suffering, and remain open, so they don’t have to deal with my suffering as well as their own. I’m a better listener, too, to my children or friends or clients, when I’m not suffering. My own stuff doesn’t get in the way, and I can be present to them.

8. So, Tina, is it true that if you don’t suffer, it means you don’t care?
No, I can see that it isn’t true. I am of more use when I’m not suffering, in fact. That feels a lot better.

Byron Katie, who formulated this process, had an immense breakdown and awakening experience 20 years ago, and she says that when she awakened out of her own rage and depression, she "woke up as The Work." She saw that when she believed her thoughts about reality, she suffered, and when she didn’t believe them, she was free. She now teaches The Work all over the world, and is almost always traveling—from Soweto, South Africa, to the Occupied Territories to Los Angeles to Amsterdam—wherever she is invited to come and offer this simple, radical method of opening up to the wisdom of life beyond beliefs.

There is something amazing about asking these questions and really listening inside for the answers. It can be tempting to shortcut and jump right to the turnaround, but "working" a thought and questioning it is what helps to dissolve it in a way that going right to the turnaround does not. If I believe, for instance, that the world is scary, then making an affirmation by trying to believe the opposite—the world is not scary—just does not have the power to convince me. The mind is too clever for that. Deep, open questioning can enable one to let go of a thought when an affirmation or turnaround would not.

So what does this process specifically offer to activists? What has it offered me as an activist and as someone committed to peace? It can offer activists a tremendous gift: the possibility of doing our work without dragging around our pain. Questioning thoughts such as, "I need my anger to motivate me"; "We’re doomed"; "Those warmongers are so wrong"; and others like them can free us to move and help without discouragement and bitterness.

I see this as a process or an undertaking to commit to like any spiritual practice. I certainly have not questioned all my stressful thoughts yet. I’ve done The Work for a couple of years, almost every day, and I expect to continue doing it. After two years I notice that I have more energy, less desire to blame, less sense of victimization, less sense of superiority or inferiority, less need to be "right," more confidence, a greater capacity to listen without judging, more creativity, more humor, and more kindness. What a relief!

Two other important things have changed for me. First, I have more hope. This doesn’t mean I think that things will turn out the way I want them to. I don’t know how they will turn out. What is new is that I trust that what happens will be in the great hands of the Mystery and is not my business to manage. This enables me to keep going, to trust and engage without despair, and to do my little part.

And second, I feel big enough to endure pain. I have room for whatever pain people bring to me because I know the way through. I have touched the ground of benevolence, and that has given me the confidence to walk through the darkness with people who are shocked and confused by their pain. I know there is a way through, so their distress and mine no longer scare me. Together we will question what we think. It is as simple—and as vast—as that.

Being at peace, it turns out, does not leave me with less desire or energy to work for peace, but with more. I don’t know if the train is stoppable; I no longer even know for sure that there is a train. But I do know where to stand: in the love of each person who faces me, and the planet that has brought us miraculously into being. I will follow, as Byron Katie says, the kindest thought that leads to action.

Tina Tau McMahon

Tina Tau McMahon is a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oregon. She is a founding member of the McKenzie River Gathering, a social change foundation in Oregon. For 25 years she has been on the board of Northwest Women's History Project. She has been a volunteer with American Friends Service Committee and served on staff at Pendle Hill, John Woolman School, and Hidden Hill Friends Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. Byron Katie's website is