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?