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Many years ago, Katrina was gifted a drawing of a rampant tiger, exquisite, strong. The caption in beautiful script read: “The best place for meditation is in the tiger’s mouth”. The artist, Khemananda, was a Thai monk and social justice activist who was seeking asylum on the intentional community, Bodhi Farm, where she lived. As both an activist and meditator, Katrina found the metaphor equally apt.
Bobbi was simultaneously gifted Joanna’s book, Despair & Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (Macy, 1983), reading it during a forest meditation retreat, weeping with gratitude. We soon partnered with others to form ‘Interhelp Australia’ (1) and invited Joanna to visit. Pat Fleming, previously trained by Joanna in the UK, guided us in leading ‘Despair and Empowerment’ workshops across the country. These inspired and built networks, culminating in Joanna’s hugely successful 1985 Australia-wide tour which birthed the ‘Council of All Beings’.
The year 1985 was a crossroads moment for activism here. Australian post-war activism had ‘won’ on many social justice fronts – rights for women, workers, lesbians and gays. Activism had also removed our troops from the Vietnam War, protected the Terania Creek and Daintree Rainforests and Tasmania’s Franklin River.
As voting rights for indigenous Australians were won, and land rights limped onto the national agenda, for us it was also a time of realising more about the multiple and intergenerational traumas inflicted during the past 200 years of colonisation. We needed ways to reflect on our ongoing part in this as white people.
Meanwhile, individualist market-driven ideologies pushed governments towards economic and social policies that undermined previous social contracts, inflicting accelerating traumas on the earth, her creatures and her poorest peoples. As mainstream media took up the populist slogans of global capitalism, progressive movements and ideas faced stiffer headwinds.
‘Despair and Empowerment’ and ‘Deep Ecology’ workshops were enormously empowering, yet rarely allowed time to immerse in the Going Forth section of the work. What other ways could we sustain activists in ‘the mouth of the tiger’ across all domains of change from those campaigning on front lines, to those changing hearts and minds through cultural / spiritual activities, to those beavering away at lonely desks?
We discovered that it was sometimes our wounds which drew us to be change workers, or set the frantic pace of our work. We needed more ways to explore healing within our social context, to create a positive and sustainable culture of activism.
Katrina’s share house in the tiny Northern NSW village of The Channon became a fertile hub that supported social change. From here, our team published a quarterly magazine, Interhelp News, while collecting and distributing written ‘tools for social change’, as well as continuing to lead Work that Reconnects (WTR) workshops. We organised and facilitated seventeen annual ‘Interhelp Gatherings’ soon renamed ‘Heart Politics Conferences’2, which generated gatherings in other parts of the country, including Maleny where Joanna was the keynote speaker in 1997. Katrina published In the Tiger’s Mouth: An empowerment guide for social action (Shields, 1993), still a relevant resource for activist wellbeing.
Joanna Macy wrote in her preface to In the Tiger’s Mouth: “We need a recipe book that connects the personal with the political, the inner with the outer. We need a compilation of easy, practical methods for embarking on social action, and sustaining and enjoying it, so that it is no longer seen as a daunting, demanding exercise in self-sacrifice. We need pointers for finding our own deep sources of energy and vision, so that our work for the world runs like an ever refreshing stream through our lives….so that the greatest challenge of our time can also be our greatest joy – to join together in the healing of our world”.
The 4-day residential Heart Politics gatherings (2) facilitated experiential immersion in these and other ‘nourishing recipes’ for up to 90 participants each year. They were not-for-profit events held in nature-suffused, low-cost venues with a sliding fee scale to subsidise young people and those on low incomes. Fran Peavey, US Interhelp colleague of Joanna’s and author of Heart Politics (Peavey, 1986) was the keynote speaker in November 1989. Amazingly, especially to our two young German participants, the Berlin Wall fell during this Conference, to much cheering and joyful weeping.
Was this the longed-for end of The Cold War? Partially. But, as Fran later taught us to chant with a raised fist and her cheeky grin, “The People, united, sometimes win and sometimes lose!”. We learned that hard lesson in 2003 when 36 million people around the world, marching against the impending war on Iraq, were ignored by their leaders. With climate change looming as the greatest challenge modern humans have faced, we were certainly on this journey for the long haul.
Heart Politics gatherings were for anyone responding to their impulses for positive social change and environmental protection – from tentative beginners unsure of their contribution to seasoned activists in need of sustenance to isolated individuals working for change within system.
The four-part spiral of the WTR was an organising principle in the design of these process-oriented events; after our traditional ‘Welcome to Country’, we began with ‘The Milling’. We built a strong safe container for a holistic activism, welcoming the presence of strengths, vulnerabilities, creativity, sensuality and spirituality, as we explored our responses to challenges in the world and the roles and actions to which we were called.
An important part of creating that safety was an agreement that there would be no recruiting for causes or debating about issues. Participants came as individuals, not as representatives of an organisation. This was an opportunity to explore the personal dimensions of political and social action in its many forms, in an open-hearted way, with a strong emphasis on compassionate action (towards oneself and others) and non-polarising change methodologies.
Joanna’s three-part model was one of the frameworks for personal enquiry into our activist roles. Were we drawn to contribute via ‘Holding actions in defence of life’, or ‘Transforming the foundations of our common life’ or ‘Shifting our perceptions and values’, or a combination? Another helpful model we explored was Bill Moyer’s Four Roles of Activism (Moyer, 2001)– the effective and ineffective expressions of the roles of Rebel, Citizen, Change Agent and Reformer.
Storytelling and listening were key elements of the conferences. The beating pulse of our gatherings were the Heart Circles. They derived from the Truth Mandala and New Zealand Maori welcoming circles (4). Each participant spoke their heart truth in that moment. Between speakers, poetry or fragments of song were offered.
Spontaneous ‘Out of the Hat Stories’ were rich and moving. Each year, some participants’ names were drawn from a hat, an invitation to succinctly encapsulate a ‘success or challenge’ of that year. If your name was called, you could decide whether to speak or pass. If you passed, you had one more opportunity to speak before the next name was drawn out. Few people passed, and it was amazing how often a story was just the right one for that moment.
Many of us were trained in Playback Theatre (5), where our audiences’ stories came back to them as moving, funny and beautiful improvised theatre, illuminating the human condition while building empathy. Story-telling processes helped less articulate people to give voice and context to their hopes, challenges and successes.
Throughout the gathering, facilitators and/or participants offered short workshops, skill development or discussion groups. Sometimes pre-programmed, or using Open Space Technology9 where participants designed their own learning.
Daily support groups with trained facilitators were reflective spaces to process responses. A ‘Listening Post’ comprised of two members of the organising group and two participant volunteers offered yet another way to raise any problems or offer suggestions. The whole conference modelled creative processes interspersed with times of hilarity, relaxation, singing and sharing culture, inspiring healthier ‘ecologies’ in activist movements.
The ripples of participants’ experiences, the facilitation skills and tools learned, and particularly the deep listening ‘Heart Circles’ spread into many other networks and forums for change workers in Australia and New Zealand. This immersion in experiential learning and culture-building worked directly against the dominant culture that had taught us to solve problems abstractly, competitively and alone. Collaborative intelligence gave rise to fresh ideas, strengthening networks and generating surprising synergies. Many activists planned annual leave around this opportunity for re-inspiration, renewal and recommitment.
‘Support and Accountability’ groups and ‘Clearness Processes’ were another important way our Interhelp team sustained each other through ups and downs. We met regularly in groups of four or five, bringing good food and our intentions for positive participation in our communities and environments. Members’ helpful perspectives came from current experiences in activism on diverse ‘fronts’. Each person in turn held the focus, reflecting on directions, goals, effectiveness, rough points and growing edges. Our companions, taking into account all the dimensions of our lives, stood so close behind us, “the only way we could move was forward”; except for those inevitable times when we needed to fall back into supportive arms – and rest.
Tova Green, another US Interhelp member, attended several Heart Politics Conferences, becoming part of our organising team while living in the share house. The above quote is from her book Insight and Action.10 Fran Peavey’s excellent activist tool, ‘Strategic Questioning’11 is also in this book.
We later formed The Social Change Training & Resource Centre, providing activist groups with training in good meeting skills, conflict resolution, strategic planning, strategic questioning, and more. Other workshops continued the theme of activist support and burnout prevention, using WTR processes: ‘How to ‘Burn without Incineration’, ‘Taking Heart in Tough Times’ and ‘Our Power and Our Passion’. These introduced elements of the WTR to participants from professional groups, NGOs and Government Departments, reframing language to make it contextually relevant but equally powerful. We validated pain for the world, introduced systems thinking and networking across ‘silos’, helping people ‘see with new eyes’ while embedding empowering processes for going forth.
Few significant systemic problems and traumas are solved in one lifetime. Generational perspectives help long-haul social activists persevere through many setbacks. A lifelong effective activist friend says, “We can live to change the world for the better. Even if you could convince me that we are doomed, it would make no difference. I’d still do my work because I derive more satisfaction from acting for positive change” (Carson, 1998). Resilience is even more necessary now when immediate coronavirus-caused chaos is backgrounded by the slower deeper crises of climate change, calling even more urgently for us to ‘hear within ourselves the sounds of our earth crying’ (Hahn).
Crises present opportunities for our collaborative intelligence to discover emergent possibilities we can’t see alone, giving form to impulses to help and heal, directing tentative steps towards regenerative life-sustaining systems.
Whatever your journey on this uncertain terrain, we hope you find good comrades to share it. Tell your stories, support each other’s highest values, share your knowledge and skills, ask questions, listen, learn together, grieve losses, celebrate every small success and remember to have some fun! While the state of the world calls loudly for billions of ‘ordinary activists’ to step forward, it calls equally strongly for giving caring attention to activists’ wellbeing. Even in the Tiger’s Mouth, we can thrive.
1.Interhelp USA – https://interhelpnetwork.org/about-us-2/the-history-of-interhelp
2 The term Heart Politics Conferences had more resonance, as the New Zealand network discovered.
3 Members of the core organising team came and went over 17 years some not already mentioned are Simon Clough, Stu Anderson, Ken Golding, Carol Perry, Michelle Wainwright, Barbara Worthington, Ellie Wilson & Garth Luke.
4 The Heart Circles are described in more detail by Vivian Hutchinson, a co-instigator of the Heart Politics Conference in New Zealand: http://www.jobsletter.org.nz/hpx/hpx02.htm
5 Playback Theatre https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playback_Theatre
9 Open Space Technology developed by Harrison Owen: https://en.wikipedia.or./wiki/Open_Space_Technology
Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the earth crying.” https://oneearthsangha.org/articles/spiritual-ecology/
Green, Tova & Woodrow, Peter, with Peavey, Fran, Insight and Action: How to discover and support a life of integrity and commitment to change. (1994) New Society Publishers, PA.
Macy, Joanna. Despair & Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, New Society Publishers, 1983.
Moyer, Bill et al, Doing Democracy (2001), New Society Publishers, or see excerpt: https://commonslibrary.org/the-four-roles-of-social-activism/
Peavey, Fran with Levy Myra & Varon Charles, Heart Politics. New Society Publishersm 1986.
Peavey, Fran, https://commonslibrary.org/strategic-questioning/
Shields, Katrina, In the Tiger’s Mouth – An Empowerment Guide for Social Action, 1993, New Society Publishers, available in hard copy or e-book from The Change Agency: https://thechangeagency.org/
Quoted in: Carson, Lyn (1998) Towards a Politics of the Heart: Reflections of an Activist, New Renaissance: A Journal for Social & Spiritual Awakening, Vol 7, No 4, Issue 23, UK.