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Impatient Social Activists and the Comparing Mind

Are you prone to comparing yourself to others? Do you find that this quality also bleeds into your social justice and/or service work? Have you ever found yourself at the end of a protest or social action, comparing it to some other event somewhere else, or to the ideal you had imagined beforehand?

I’ve noticed that the comparing mind is pretty active amongst social activists and those serving in the world. It frequently moves beyond skillful discernment and helpful critique to final judgments, whether positive or negative. Getting fixated on a particular outcome, or fruit of our action, is a major cause of this. But it can also be more generalized. Feelings that “we are winning” or “we are doomed as a country or a species,” based upon how things have changed from the past, or upon whatever knowledge we have gained about our particular conditions.

Peter Carlson, from the Orlando Insight Meditation Group, offers the following insights about all this:

“The Buddha said that the core of human suffering is derived from the false notion, the conceit, that there is a separate self, that is compared to others.

The mind’s normal, untrained mode of operating perceives an organizer, the self, that must be defended or gratified. This subjective experience compares, on a moment-by-moment basis, different ego states, judging one against the other. These comparisons can be on a large scale, i.e., comparing wealth, professional achievement, athletic accomplishment, or physical attractiveness-the list goes on and on. On a small scale, this moment of itching on the face is compared with the last moment of serene breath awareness, or this moment of peaceful clarity is compared with the prior moment of painful confusion. These moments tumble into one another, similar to the way dominoes, stacked on end in a line, can knock one another over. This results in a harsh internal landscape, one ego state competing with other ego states, with no respite.

This process is deeply conditioned in the human psyche. Infants are not born comparing on a large scale-they simply react to different sensory input. If the input is pleasant, they want more. If the input is unpleasant, they protest. This is comparing mind on the small scale. As the ego evolves, repeated exposure to our competitive and critical culture indoctrinates the child’s mind, building upon the pleasant or unpleasant reactions to create an elaborate process of comparing on the large scale. Comparing today’s experience to yesterday’s, my performance to yours, my status to your status creates an imbalance, and insecurity about winning and losing that can become as absurd and dangerous as road rage.”

Many of us can probably speak to infighting and/or activist group implosions brought on by snap judgments about actions (or inactions).  One thing I have also noticed, in my own life, and in the social activist world, is how easy it is for me/you/us to dismiss the tiny beginnings that emerge from our efforts to see the world differently, and then do something to take a different direction.

It’s like we are gardeners that only pay attention to the growth that has moved far above ground, and deems any slow rising little shoots as signs of future crop failure. Never mind the “invisible” growth that still lies beneath the surface.

I remember one year thinking in the middle of May that the previous year’s mint must have died out because it hadn’t returned yet. So, I went out, got some more mint plants, and plunked them in. About six weeks later, I was faced with a new problem. Not only had the old mint plants suddenly reappeared, but now they were fighting for space with the new mint plants I had bought to replace them with. In fact, the ones I thought had died ended up growing back twice as large as the previous year. Hence the space issue.

Impatience, unexamined assumptions, and a failure to pay close attention are all part of comparison mind. Focusing on the wrong things, such as the most tangible, immediate results, can derail our efforts – sometimes for generations.

When I think of recent social movements like Occupy Wall Street or Idle No More, it’s easy to get into this kind of thinking. Both are ongoing efforts, and yet neither really looks like they did in the beginning. In addition, while there have been some concrete “victories” coming out of each movement, it also is possible to dismiss one or both as mostly being “failures.” Because the general conditions we’re living under today basically suck as much as they did before the movements began. Systemic oppressions still abound, and colonialist patterns still seem to corrupt nearly everything, right down to the very water we drink and the air we breathe.

However, there’s a great element of “don’t know” present in all of this. We simply don’t know what has shifted as a result of these movements, nor when (or if) some pattern of grand scale fruiting will occur that transforms our societies. Even when you have clear awareness, and focus on the “right” things, there’s no guarantee you’ll get particular outcomes. Imagine if someone like Frederick Douglass had said “Oh, to hell with it! The ‘mint ‘ isn’t coming up. We’re doomed. I think I’ll give up on this racial justice garden, and do something else.” A lot of what he was working for didn’t happen until 75-100 years following his death. And some of his dreams, including school desegregation and education equality, still haven’t fully flowered, nearly 120 years later. But he kept on going all the same, offering what he could for as long as he could.

History is filled with examples of people and movements that planted seeds they’d never see blossom. Which is one reason why we need to be on guard for comparison mind, and its impatient insistence on evaluating (in a totalizing sense) our lives, and also the social justice work we do individually and collectively. Doing whatever we can do in a given situation, campaign, or movement, while also letting go of particular outcomes, can be quite difficult. But it’s really necessary, not only maintain some sanity, but also in order to see the long term picture.

Have you noticed comparison mind in your social action work? Or in the groups you are involved in? How have you handled it?

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Comments (10)

  • Algernon

    Thank you! I tried bringing a similar perspective to the work we were doing at Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace during the buildup to the Iraq invasion ten years ago, and it was most decidedly *not* welcome. Anger could only be discussed in reference to the enemy; discussing anger and impatience on our side was taboo.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    One of the tricky things with this kind of conversation is figuring out ways to respect where folks are at, and especially the deep injustices/sufferings that have led them to become so outraged and impatient – and also to point out how staying in outrage and short term thinking mode usually leads to more suffering and injustice. Somehow, both need to be done.

  • Richard Modiano

    I’m in it for the long haul. Perhaps it’s a question of age and how long you’ve been in the struggle. Myself, I’m of the Vietnam Generation and I remember thinking that the revolution will come soon on the second Vietnam Moratorium Day in October 1969. I was living in Hawai’i at the time and there was a general strike that included City and State employees and the ILWU; the university was shut down, and around 30 soldiers took sanctuary at the Church of the Crossroads and other churches and temples in Honolulu. I was 18 years old, and revolution was not forthcoming.

    Later when I was living in New York City in the 1970s I met radicals from the 1930s who were still fighting the good fight. I’m not sure what to tell my impatient comrades of whatever age except stay the course.

  • Bryan Wagner

    Let’s test the comparing mind
    “White people are bad”
    “People of color are good”
    How weird is that.

  • Jay Garces

    Weird but true, you’re so right. But don’t go all NOI on us, man, summa my best friends are white!

  • bezi

    just had a conversation about this last night with a radical Jewish homie from Beyt Tikkun, coming back from Simchat Torah. Hag Sameah! He’s a boomer and I’m Generation X (aka the hip hop generation) but in our separate situations and contexts, the idea was the same. He was getting hated on for his teaching liberation concepts to inner city youngstas back on the east coast before he came out here. Somewhat analogous to Richard, my squad and I thought the revolution was nigh back in 1992-94 after Rodney King… and I definitely spat verses like it. Part of my reasoning for coming out here was that the Bay Area was considerably more radically activist than Boston was at that time.

    And the truth of this matter is pretty simple. If you really down for da’ cause, you’re in it for the long haul, take it from a dyed-in-the-wool long distance runner:!watch/422134

    how it’s on Hulu (of all places) and brought to you by BASF is beyond me but.. um.. whutevs!

    If HE can hang in there given the conditions he’s facing… I oughta be ai’ight.

    Alan Watts has brought a lot of useful game on this: ebb and flow, ‘now you see it, now you don’t’, a random, meaningless profusion of dots under a magnifying glass which miraculously transforms into meaningful ink text print when you pull the glass away, and on and on. It’s all in flux… and always in flux. Trees/Forest. It’s like me; I’m not marching, speechifying, trying to organize or anything at all outwardly activist. In THIS moment. Just trying to keep a roof over me head actually. But anyone who talks to me for any amount of time gradually starts sounding (off) and gesturing like a rebel (if they’re not already). It’s interesting and odd to watch…

    I don’t exactly and precisely big myself up for this btw… I mean it’s cool but it’s a pretty tough gig being a mutineer. People may wind up in hot water with their local constable or vicar (lol)

  • nathan

    My early activism really began with opposing the first Iraq war. I’m guessing we’re about the same age Bezi. the early 90s seems like lifetimes ago; and also a blink. I wouldn’t be here writing any of this stuff if I had given in to whatever impatience I’ve felt over the years. But no doubt, how it looks on the ground – what “I” am actually doing in any given period of my life – may or may not appear to be activism.

    Richard, it seems to me that it’s less about chronological age, and more about how long someone has actively engaged in some form or another. Firsthand experience not giving up (in an overall sense) despite setbacks, failures, or simply not seeing much manifest seems to key in all of this. And/or having knowledge of how long social movements have taken historically to get major breakthroughs.

  • bezi

    everything we do matters. The personal is mos def political. I have the utmost respect to the feminists for making this point.

  • Jeff

    That would make me an OG like Richard, comin’ up with the national liberation struggles in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I have definitely gone through some long periods of reflection and, frankly, retreat after various hard-fought skirmishes. Then, having taken a refreshing dip in the Dharma…

    I guess I keep getting back in it because I can’t not. Like most everyone here, my livelihood is continually being twisted away from its rightful purpose by mercenary schemes, so that goads me every day to think about and organize for change. In this and broader social contexts, my comparing mind keeps perceiving the discordance between what is and what could be. I do think we’re potentially on to something here at BPF by exploring the integration of spiritual practice with political vision. These conversations help me immensely.

    And thanks, Bezi, for the Mumia movie tip – I’ll check it out. Long cycles, like radio waves.

  • bezi

    yupyup… vibrational pulses. Seems to me some discordance, some mindfully managed dissonance, is a good thing. Bloody necessary in fact. Keeps a body on its toes. Starvation is all bad but a little bit of hunger lends some heat and urgency to things. Trust me (lol). I’m only now (as a middle aged cat) getting the balance right… but I think I got it. Was a time where I wished I could have been a young man during the 60s, talkin bout: damn! I missed ‘my time’. Um… no. That wouldn’t have been fly in the least. As dire and chaotic as it all is, I’m beyond glad to be what I am in THIS age. Humankind has simply never seen an epoch like ours… at every imaginable level.

    I have my grandfather, who died many years ago, talking on tape *gasp*, which I was listening to last night. Unreal. He’d stormed the beaches of Normandy, gotten home, and then didn’t get his GI benefits. Yet according to him a mighty freaking lot had changed in his lifetime, though some of it was def still the same. And he passed away before Obama!

    the long view is key is what I’m getting @ ova heaa…

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