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Tara Brach: Radical Acceptance and Spiritual Activism

Tara, Weds class fm balcony

I was hoping to be in touch with Tara about the possibility of writing a brief blog post for Turning Wheel Media on the relationship between radical acceptance and resistance to oppression.

tara brach smallWhen [BPF Co-Director] Katie asked me to offer a blog post for Turning Wheel Media, I had just completed a two part series of talks [Part 1]; [Part 2]; about aversive judgment and how it is a form of violence that always leads to separation and suffering.

I agreed to contribute to TWM because since writing Radical Acceptance, it’s become increasingly clear to me that any true transformation and healing in our world can only arise from awakening consciousness. The below includes my own struggle with anger toward “the enemy” and a broader look at acceptance as the engaged presence that enables an intelligent and compassionate response to the suffering of our world.



Radical Acceptance and
Spiritual Activism

adapted from True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom
in Your Own Awakened Heart

fter the September 11, 2001 attacks, as many people feared an ongoing and vicious spiral of retaliation and global violence, a wonderful Cherokee legend went viral on the Internet.

An old grandfather is speaking to his grandson about what causes the violence and cruelty in the world. “In each human heart,” he tells the boy, “there are two wolves battling one another— one is fearful and angry, and the other is understanding and kind.” The young boy looks intently into his grandfather’s eyes and asks, “Which one will win?” His grandfather smiles and quietly says, “Whichever one we choose to feed.”

We do have a choice. Meditations that cultivate mindfulness and compassion directly deactivate the anger pathways in the limbic brain that propel our habitual and hurtful behaviors. Mindfulness is the “remembering” that helps us pause, recognize and accept what is happening in the present moment. Once we have opened fully to our living experience, we are more capable of acting in a way that is guided by our innate wisdom and compassion. This awakening is our evolutionary potential: For the sake of our own inner freedom and the well- being of others, we can intentionally feed the understanding, accepting, kind wolf.

Yet it is important to understand that our acceptance is not passivity. My book Radical Acceptance came out soon after the United States launched the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As I traveled from city to city, many people asked me whether we were supposed to be radically accepting of our country’s militancy. “How can acceptance and activism go together?” they’d say. It’s a good question. If we only feed the compassionate, accepting wolf, will we ignore the wrongdoing in our world? How will anyone be motivated to stand up against injustice, to speak truth, to stop wars and to heal our earth, if they don’t feel angry or outraged?

radical acceptanceI often responded with my own story. In the weeks before the invasion, I read the newspapers with an increasing sense of agitation. I couldn’t stop thinking about the men in our administration who were responsible for what seemed an inevitable next step in the global escalation of violence. Just seeing their pictures in the paper would arouse huge waves of anger and hostility.

Then I became increasingly aware of how creating an enemy in my mind was yet another form of violence. So I decided to start a newspaper meditation based on radical acceptance. I’d look at the headlines, read a bit, and then stop. In that pause I would witness my thoughts and allow myself to acknowledge my growing outrage. Then I’d investigate, letting the feelings express themselves fully. Almost every day, as I’d open to anger and feel its full force, it would unfold into fear— for our world. And as I stayed in direct contact with the fear, it would unfold into grief— for all the suffering and loss. And the grief would unfold into caring about all those beings who were bound to suffer from our warlike actions. My country was feeding the aggressive wolf, and the pain of that was heartbreaking.

Sitting with the feelings that arose in my newspaper meditation left me raw and tender. It reminded me that under my anger and fear was caring about life. And it motivated me to act, not from an anger that focused on an enemy, but from caring.

I was not alone. A growing interfaith peace movement was committed to feeding the wise wolf. On March 26, 2003, a week after the start of the Iraq war, a large group of us gathered in front of the White House. We carried posters showing Iraqi mothers weeping over bodies of wounded children; young American soldiers whose lives would be endangered; Iraqi orphans; men, women, and children from both societies who would suffer. After the designated speakers were finished, a mike was handed around so that anyone who felt moved could offer a prayer. A young girl perched on her dad’s shoulders spoke into the attentive crowd: “The Iraqi kids are just like our kids. Please, please . . . don’t let them be hurt.” We were a nonviolent protest, with poems, songs, and pleas to hold all humans in our hearts. The mood was contagious. When the police arrived to arrest us they were friendly, respectful, and kind. As we were loaded into the paddy wagon, I was given a boost and help with my backpack. In another van sat a bishop and a minister, both in their clerical gear. A policeman poked his head in and said cheerfully, “Ah, white-collar crime.”

TrueRefugeCoverThe choice of presence and acceptance— feeding the wise, compassionate wolf— fuels the evolutionary current that carries us humans toward peace and full spiritual freedom. In mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela, the world again honored the transformative power of a forgiving heart. Imprisoned in 1962 for his antiapartheid activism, he spent twenty- seven years of his life in jail. For eighteen of those years Mandela was held on the notorious Robben Island near Cape Town where prisoners were segregated, deprived of food, subjected to countless indignities, and forced to do hard labor. Yet during this time, he managed to befriend a number of his jailers. Mandela believed that people were kind at their core “if you could arouse their inherent goodness,” and he did just that: One warden risked his job by sneaking in Mandela’s new grandchild, so that, with tears in his eyes, Mandela could hold and kiss the baby.

When Mandela was elected president of South Africa after his release, he riveted the world’s attention by inviting one of his white jailers to the inaugural ceremony. His dedication to seeking understanding and reconciliation pulled South Africa back from the brink of civil war and allowed the country to make the transition from the racial tyranny of apartheid to a multiracial democracy. Mandela exemplifies our human and evolutionary potential: He stepped beyond the reactivity of hatred and vengeance, and responded to his world with an inclusive, forgiving heart. His capacity for radical acceptance was the very grounds of spiritually engaged activism.

We can feed the wise wolf if we care about peace and learn to pause. Mattie Stepanek, a thirteen- year- old poet who has since died of muscular dystrophy, wrote about this possibility on the day after September 11:

We need to stop

Just stop

Stop for a moment . . .

Before anybody says or does anything That may hurt anyone else.

We need to be silent.

Just silent.

Silent for a moment

Before the future slips away

Into ashes and dust

Stop. Be silent, and notice

In so many ways we are the same.


tara brach mediumTara Brach’s teachings blend Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices, mindful attention to our inner life, and a full, compassionate engagement with our world. The result is a distinctive voice in Western Buddhism, one that offers a wise and caring approach to freeing ourselves and society from suffering.

As an undergraduate at Clark University, Tara pursued a double major in psychology and political science. During this time, while working as a grass roots organizer for tenants’ rights, she also began attending yoga classes and exploring Eastern approaches to inner transformation. After college, she lived for ten years in an ashram—a spiritual community—where she practiced and taught both yoga and concentrative meditation. When she left the ashram and attended her first Buddhist Insight Meditation retreat, led by Joseph Goldstein, she realized she was home. “I had found wisdom teachings and practices that train the heart and mind in unconditional and loving presence,” she explains. “I knew that this was a path of true freedom.”

Over the following years, Tara earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Fielding Institute, with a dissertation exploring meditation as a therapeutic modality in treating addiction. She went on to complete a five-year Buddhist teacher training program at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, under the guidance of Jack Kornfield. Working as both a psychotherapist and a meditation teacher, she found herself naturally blending these two powerful traditions—introducing meditation to her therapy clients and sharing western psychological insights with meditation students. This synthesis has evolved, in more recent years, into Tara’s groundbreaking work in training psychotherapists to integrate mindfulness strategies into their clinical work.

In 1998, Tara founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC (IMCW), which is now one of the largest and most dynamic non-residential meditation centers in the United States. She gives presentations, teaches classes, offers workshops, and leads silent meditation retreats at IMCW and at conferences and retreat centers across North America. Her themes reveal the possibility of emotional healing and spiritual awakening through mindful, loving awareness as well as the alleviation of suffering in the larger world by practicing compassion in action. She helped create the Washington Buddhist Peace Fellowship and has fostered efforts to bring principles and practices of mindfulness to issues of diversity, peace, and environmental sustainability, as well as to prisons and schools. Recently, she co-founded the DC-based Meditation Teacher Training Institute to help address the growing demand for the teachings of mindfulness and compassion.

In addition to numerous articles, videos, and hundreds of recorded talks, Tara is the author of the books Radical Acceptance (2003) and True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2013). She has a son, Narayan, and lives in Great Falls, VA, with her husband, Jonathan Foust; their 2 dogs; and her mother, Nancy Brach.

You can learn more about Tara and her work at

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Comments (16)

  • Katie Loncke

    Grateful to be sitting with these words today. Just to let y’all know, Tara is on retreat right now so won’t be able to join us in the comment thread, but she’ll be back by the end of the month. How does her essay sit with you? Have you found it possible to act, “not from anger that focuse[s] on an enemy, but from caring”?

  • Richard Modiano

    Since Tara cites the example of Nelson Mandela’s radical acceptance the following anecdote seems to suggest that one can turn to violence without anger:

    “The late Aengus Fanning, editor of the Sunday Independent, another guest at lunch, asked ‘What advice, Mr Mandela, did you offer them [the Irish Republican Army].’

    “Mandela did not answer the question directly, but instead embarked on a long explanation of the position in which he found himself in South Africa on the same issue.

    “He outlined how he faced a wide spectrum of factions within the African National Congress, ranging from liberals, who said all guns should be handed over swiftly, to the mainstream, who felt they should be kept and that such a compromise could not be contemplated so soon.

    “Fanning repeated the question more pointedly: ‘But what was your position, Mr Mandela, on decommissioning weapons? And what advice would you give [Irish Republican Army leader] Gerry Adams?’

    “Mandela’s mood turned suddenly steely. He looked seriously and sternly at Fanning. ‘My position, my position… my position is that you don’t hand over your weapons until you get what you want…’

    “The editors around the table were stopped in their tracks. Here was the other Mandela, unflinchingly gritty, never to be taken lightly, who commanded the respect of a huge revolutionary force inside and outside his prison cell.”

  • bezi


    MANDELA – a man, and an ideal…

  • bezi

    “How does her essay sit with you? Have you found it possible to act, “not from anger that focuse[s] on an enemy, but from caring”?

    nice sentiments, but until I see it in real action – to where people of color are in actuality welcomed into sanghas as equals – it’s just ‘meh’. In my case, I’ve addressed the people who have gate-kept me with caring-moderated anger, even-toned, respectful truth-telling. And it hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. I’m still on the outside, with nobody to explain in any way, for anything at all. The conversation always ends with me waiting for a response that never comes. And to be completely honest, with the exception of Mushim and Jeff pretty much (hey y’all), it’s roughly the same here at TWM. And thurr you have it.

  • Richard Modiano

    I for one value your perspective bezi. I’m reminded of the Pledge of Resistance from the 1980s which eventually devolved into a “peace police” that leveraged radicals out and cooperated with the cops in “doing arrests”. This did not work out well for people of color. I don’t think it will happen here.

  • charles keil

    Since going to 12 step meetings for a dozen years this century, I have very gradually gotten clearer about ideas like “willingness” and “acceptance”. Concepts I did not have in my everyday spiritual tool kit in the previous century. Born in 1939 as World War II was shaping up, and looking at the pictures in Life Magazine during my first six years of life, I think I experienced the absurdity of war at a very young age. I also experienced in my late teens and early twenties many performances of the John Coltrane Quartet and I arranged speeches for Malcolm X at Yale and the University of Chicago that were cathartic and healing for me, as a white kid from an all white suburb of NYC. I heard and felt anger, grief, righteous indignation, fear for the peoples of the planet and myself, and witnessed how it was possible to “burn off” anger as source of energy for doing the next right thing, taking the next good step, helping to right the many wrongs of this world.
    From a position of “acceptance” it is possible to keep practicing the good principles for life without burning out!
    P.S. I don’t agree with Mandela on not laying down arms. Don’t pick them up in the first place. Read Emma Goldman
    on “Preparedness: The Road to Universal Slaughter” and take the “no killing” part of Buddhism very seriously.

  • anon

    Taras statement is basically a rejection of activism per se. She has told us that acceptance is the point of contact with worldly engagement. Anything that may increase the perception of enmity or alloneness is to be abandoned. This leaves little room for traditional civil rights style tactics that are designed to heighten public awareness of injustice and create tensions which can only be resolved by addressing the problem. I would like to ask Tara how she might respond to a modern day King or Gandhi?

  • bezi

    RIGHT. And building on that:

    while I’ve got the totality of this in my mind and given what we celebrate today, let me say this.

    What I infer from the comments I get so far here (I could be wrong) is that there are white people who are in solidarity with me and other people of color. That’s cool. But there’s an appreciable difference, as anon sort of alluded to, between theoretical/emotional support and practical/material support. I don’t necessarily like to continuously refer to myself when I talk about these things but I often wind up doing so because my experiences are illustrative of broader trends. For most of my life I’ve been getting the equivalent of black power fists from well meaning whites. When I tried to organize a Buddhist-themed third party at BCC, I got the power-fist equivalent of support from my white professors, but little else. When I’ve gone into these sanghas and tried to reason and build community with my fellow dharma travelers, the talk was of solidarity, but as of today I’m still on the outside looking in. Why?

    I’m getting on in age out here. Maybe it’s generational. Maybe it’s ME. I’ll cop to that. As a young man I was quite angry. Buddhism has helped me incalculably in getting over myself. And my personal experience changing limiting beliefs and thought patterns, and then seeing different material outcomes lends, for me, some credibility to the Law of Attraction approach. But I wonder just how much inner work one has to do before they can begin to experience a tangible, perceptible, RESULTS-oriented (not shop talk) flow of solidarity in the social realm!

    happy MLK day *weak smile*

  • Katie Loncke

    just want to echo the wish to see compassionate action affirmed in, well — ACTION! :) beyond wise speech. i don’t think tara’s discussion here is inimical to action, particularly: she does talk about participating in public pro-peace demonstrations. and yet, i think what i hear bezi and other folks saying (please correct me if i’m wrong) is that certain nominal or symbolic actions may be easier to accomplish (a.k.a. the “power fist”) — but how are we actually assessing their impacts? especially in redistributing power and control? i’m super interested in these questions, including how they impact our sanghas and buddhist organizations, which you’re speaking to, bezi.

    and wow, charles, organizing speeches for Malcolm X! i’m noticing the arising of envy in myself. ;) i feel like that’s actually a really apt example, here, of ways to *act* to center the leadership of people of color — even those that mainstream entities may deem too radical or dangerous in their ideas.

    personally, i agree with you that acceptance is key to avoiding burnout. if i’m hearing you right, it’s the type of acceptance that doesn’t mean giving up, but realistically assessing situations, rather than wishing they were other than they are. a few years ago i wrote a piece about the buddhist ideas of non-resistance from a feminist standpoint — would be interested in your thoughts!

    an excerpt:

    “I’ll be the first to admit it, folks: non-resistance, one of the core elements of Buddhist or dhammic praxis, seems like a sham. On its face, non-resistance sounds like one or a combination of (a) weakness: a sort of rationalized fear of fighting back; (b) delusion: playing Mary Sunshine and pretending that there’s nothing to resist; or (c) apathy: leaving it to fate or karma or whatever to sort everything out.

    With a slightly more nuanced view of non-resistance, we realize that it doesn’t so much refer to external conflict or confrontation, but has more to do with our internal states, as a tool for reducing suffering. A British professor, a guest speaker I heard at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center back in September, cited as an example the moment you open a delicious-looking box of chocolates, only to find that they’ve all been eaten up — except the coconut ones, which you hate. The more we resist reality (by fantasizing about the missing chocolates; resenting the scoundrels who devoured them), the greater our suffering will become.

    Ok, understandable, but something still feels off. It was at that moment, when he pulled out the bonbon anecdote, that the thought occurred to me: This white guy has no idea of the weight of the words he’s using.

    Resistance. Struggle.

    These words carry a lot of meaning for a lot of people. How could he use them so blithely, so unawares?

    Now, it wasn’t just a matter of the professor: his explanation, language and vocabulary were also tied to the audience he was addressing: largely wealthy, white, college-educated, middle-aged. But there was also a larger context: the neighborhood in which this dharma talk was taking place. Area 4, poor and gentrifying, a long under-resourced and heavily policed area, with lots of homeless and near-homeless people of color.

    When talking about non-resistance, how often do we hear examples of irritation like sitting in traffic? Not getting a bonus or promotion at your firm? Undergoing chemotherapy?

    In my experience, A Lot.

    And how often do we hear examples of police profiling and brutality? Eviction? Domestic abuse? Racist education? Colonization? War?”


    looking back, i can see my irritation with the dharma teacher with the benefit of a bit more distance (smile). but, like you’re saying, bezi, our personal experiences can sometimes illustrate larger dynamics.

    to bring it back a little bit to Tara’s essay, i wonder if folks have examples where our political organizing work became *more* successful when guided from a strong place of positivity and caring? or do most of us experience “success” when issues are more polarized and people are pushed to make clear choices around “right vs. wrong”? real question that i struggle with…

    also just want to pause to appreciate that in this particular thread, we have vivid, intergenerational personal experiences; historical quotations to illustrate a point; firm yet kind disagreements… a far cry from the “digital dharma flamewars” that prompted one of my all-time favorite buddhist illustrations, by Stephen Kroninger for Tricycle magazine a few years ago:

    and, as much as i love the conversations that are possible here, i also want to own up that as you say, bezi, i’m not as present as i wish i could be!

    not because i don’t care — and not because i don’t *love* internet talking! lol — but since so much of my time goes to keeping the doors open for bpf, i don’t get to write (essays or comments) as much as i wish i could. thanks to y’all for holding it down in thoughtful dialogues. i always feel like i learn from them.

    thanks for reading, if you got this far. :)

    much love,


  • bezi

    okay, I had a flash of insight. Various constituencies seem to have gotten somewhat better at one-off solidarity: let’s get together and do an action of some sort. But longer term solidarity involving ongoing interaction is apparently harder to come by.

    *it’s kinda like Stevie singing on the radio right now – have we really come this far thru space and time / or is this a vision in my mind?*

    Yeah, it’s pretty much what you said Katie: easier to carry out symbolic short-term acts of solidarity versus perhaps tougher but ultimately more meaningful acts of long-term material solidarity. I mean, one of the things that occurred to me during these sangha jump offs is – do these folks realize that by holding me at arm length they’re stunting their OWN evolution? That trying to keep me or anyone else in the shadows amounts to walling off their own self from parts of their un-integrated psyche (shadow side)? Not to armchair psychoanalyze but… it is pretty Psych 101.

    Also I feel where you’re confronting this issue of language: words like “resistance”, “nonresistance”, “struggle”, etc. It’s very tricky, actually. I just have to keep it real here: black people are bad-assed. We all know it. And one of the aspects of that is that just to BE black in this apparent reality is to have your existence pre-sorted into dynamics of struggle and resistance. This is something which, while barefaced to us, is missed completely by some others. Any successful black person you could name, in any arena, can talk about ‘THAT moment’ – where they found out one way or another that there was one hurdle they hadn’t cleared: race. And yet we’re told we should banish the word “struggle” from our vocab. From a reality co-creation / law of Attraction perspective, this makes perfect sense. Terence McKenna insisted the world was constructed of language and as the days wear on, I suspect more and more that he was onto something. It’s all the more powerful that the banish struggle message comes to us from people of the First Nations (Hopi). But this poses a real conundrum! I can imagine Alan Watts with that infectious laugh of his: “what do you Do?”

    Well – you take each moment for what it is, AS it is. Is there really any other choice? Earlier today in this foolish desiccating heat for the middle of winter, with news of radiation on the shores of California, TPP, toxic chemical spills, GMOs etc., I was feeling very despondent. Then a speech the Right Reverend made about Ghana and freedom came on the radio and I was lifted right up and reinvigorated. Bam. Every moment passes and the following one is an opportunity for something completely different.

    You’ll do what the situation requires when it requires it.

  • Katie Loncke

    “Earlier today in this foolish desiccating heat for the middle of winter, with news of radiation on the shores of California, TPP, toxic chemical spills, GMOs etc., I was feeling very despondent. Then a speech the Right Reverend made about Ghana and freedom came on the radio and I was lifted right up and reinvigorated. Bam. Every moment passes and the following one is an opportunity for something completely different.”

    Yes! The not-knowing, which can be scary for some of us control freaks, can also be a reasonable counterbalance to despair. We just don’t know when we might be re-invigorated, or when we might learn something important. Reminds me of the saying (I think it was Suzuki Roshi?) “Enlightenment is an accident. Practice makes us accident-prone.” We don’t know when important lessons or political breakthroughs will come, and we can’t always force them. But we can try to create the conditions for political development, and keep our hearts and minds open.

  • Jeff

    Whenever I hear a Buddhist say something like “true transformation and healing in our world can only arise from awakening consciousness” in answer to the plague of global violence, I get angry.

    Nah, not really, but I do have to wonder. When confronted with war, poverty, racism, and worldwide social brutality, why is it that many of us reflexively see the problem as one of “too much anger” and posit the only solution as mutual understanding and forgiveness? My perception is that, overwhelmingly, violence is visited upon the angry and despairing many by the coldly calculating few. Decisions to launch state terrorism and austerity are not made in some kind of Strangelovian paranoid fury, nor are they reversed by sincere appeals to the humanity of rulers or by charming the police into kidding around as they’re arresting you. If anything, they are reversed by sustained mass pressure and disruption of business-as-usual. Mandela knew that, as Richard points out, and did not extend the olive branch until apartheid was torn down by less-than-kind means.

    While I am totally supportive of (and personally inclined towards) nonviolent engagement, I also share the concern of others that defining the only truly positive political action as universally accepting and unfailingly polite is exclusionary and simply ahistorical. Many peoples have had to resort to aggressive confrontation and even armed struggle to defend themselves against vicious colonialism or class oppression – are we really saying that their inner “angry Wolf” is more of a problem than the real Wolf chewing at their legs? Is their progress, however limited, just a sham because they chose to fight back?

    Bezi said it: to overcome violence and social divisions, we have to develop love and solidarity in practice, not merely words, both in our sanghas and in progressive movements. Me, I got Big Compassion for everyone from flower children to angry militants. Hopefully we can make a revolution together. Prolly someday I’ll sit down to tea with the Wolves of Wall Street. They’re sort of human, too.

    Katie – coconuts, you’re funny! Good question, though. I would say that successful organizing requires a lot of things, among them that issues are clearly defined rather than nebulous, strategies are based on experience and fully account for all social forces at play, tactics are creative, flexible, and inclusive, and outreach speaks to the real needs of the people we serve. Oh, and we take care of each other! ;-)

  • Richard Modiano

    In the real world any kind of popular struggle will have all sorts of people involved, and some layer will be inclined to violence, so it seems to me that some of us should be committed to non-violence. In my opinion, this is the only strategy that addresses all aspects of the situation. It challenges unconcern; it attacks institutions and confronts people as well. It personalizes the conflict so that habitual and mechanical responses are not easy. It diminishes strangeness. It opens possibilities for the narrow to grow and come across, instead of shutting them out. It interrupts the downward spiral of the oppressed into despair, fanaticism and brutality. Most important, it is the only realistic strategy, because it leads to rather than prevents the achievement of a future community among all the combatants. We will have to live together in some community or other. How? In what community? We really do not know, but non-violent conflict is the way to discover and invent it.

    Non-violence is aggressive. Since the injustices in society are mainly in the institutional system even though the personal agents might be innocent or even quite sympathetic, it is necessary to prevent the unjust institutions from grinding on as usual. It is necessary not to shun conflict but to seek it out. So Gandhi, A. J. Muste (who pioneered war tax resistance) and King were continually inventing campaigns to foment apparent disorder when things apparently had been orderly.

    Naturally, aggressive massive non-violence is not safe. (Gandhi lost thousands, and hundreds perished in the civil rights struggle.) If only mathematically, when there is a big crowd some will be hurt – sometimes because of one’s own hotheads, more usually because the police panic and try to enforce impossible restrictions in the name of upholding Law and Order. On the other hand, actions of this kind are far less likely to lead to a massacre. In the present climate of cold violence armed with a lethal technology, this is a major concern.

    I do not think that non-violence is incompatible with fringe violence or flare-ups of violence, so long as its own course is steadily political, appealing to justice, self-interest, and commonweal, and if the political object of the campaign speaks for itself. Gandhi, of course was a purist about avoiding violence, though he
    said that it was better to be violent against injustice than to do nothing; Muste and King were willing to co-operate with violent groups if they did not try to take over. Psychologically, indeed, it is probably an advantage for a non-violent movement to have a group in the wings committed to violent self-defense, since this quiets down the more rabid opposition and makes a calmer zone for real political and economic confrontation. (Sometimes it doesn’t work out so smoothly.)

    Finally, to quote an old poet, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day,” it’s a long road. I’m 63 and I’ve been walking it since I was 17, so I hope you young people don’t tire out however long takes. I know this is a Buddhist cliche, but the path is the goal.

  • Katie Loncke

    “While I am totally supportive of (and personally inclined towards) nonviolent engagement, I also share the concern of others that defining the only truly positive political action as universally accepting and unfailingly polite is exclusionary and simply ahistorical.”

    Yes yes and yes, Jeff.

    Little alienates me quicker than dharma teachers just assuming that all the students in the room agree (obviously!) that nonviolence (clearly!) is the only real solution to oppression (of course!). Like, dude, it’s fine if you think that, but at least state your case? And appreciate that others may have legitimate disagreements?

    Richard, I hope we don’t tire out, either! :) Sometimes I wonder, though, whether people who appear to tire out actually transition into other forms of engagement that are less “sexy” and visible. Doing more community care work, coat drives, relief efforts, meals for the sick, and, basically, forms of feminized labor. The media selects its heroes, its Gandhis, its MLK’s, its Mandelas (not to minimize the work of any of these people), and leaves others in the shadows, right? I was talking with a friend the other day who schooled me about the group Tzu Chi, a Buddhist organization that does a lot of relief efforts. I’m not sure they’ve ever come up before in the many conversations I’ve had about engaged Buddhism…

    Anyone else know more about them, or maybe volunteer with them?

    Anyway, appreciating so much of what’s being said. Keep the wisdom coming, please. :)

  • Laurence Cox

    Katie, (somewhat tangentially) on your longer comment:

    “to bring it back a little bit to Tara’s essay, i wonder if folks have examples where our political organizing work became *more* successful when guided from a strong place of positivity and caring? or do most of us experience “success” when issues are more polarized and people are pushed to make clear choices around “right vs. wrong”? real question that i struggle with… ”

    I often experience, as an organiser, that one of the biggest difficulties we face is an absence of acceptance … of the realities of things like capitalism, patriarchy, the racialised global order, the neoliberal strategies of elites, processes of oppression, exploitation, cultural stigmatisation (etc., etc.) as actually-existing (NB: not natural or inevitable) features of the world we live in.

    An immediate practical consequence is that people who lack this acceptance push for strategies which trivialise the scale of the problem, and imply that it could be easily resolved “if only more people knew about it”, by networking with elites, through policy work within reformist political parties, by creating good examples, through individual acts of consumption or whatever. (Which is not to say that there are no problems which cannot be addressed on this relatively easy scale – thankfully – just that there is a serious political problem when people want to offer a quick-and-easy solution to a deeprooted structural problem.

    Obviously there are good-faith reasons for this kind of lack of acceptance (e.g. lack of life experience, not having access to the necessary kind of analysis etc.) as well as less good-faith ones (involvement in organisations whose reason for existence is all about reformism, personal collusion or privilege, etc.) Either way, very often acceptance *in this sense* – that society really is structurally unjust, and hence the big things are not going to change without serious collective struggle led by the losers – is a necessary precondition for genuine change.

    BUT (coming back to your point) there is a real distinction between a clear-eyed recognition of how things are and projecting our own emotional responses as if they were analysis. That might be a bit vague, but a simple example is the distinction between a sensible analysis of the likelihood of effective police surveillance and how to manage it, and descending into personal or collective paranoia of a kind that disrupts any ability to work effectively.

    Steven Wineman’s book Power-under (via is good on some aspects of this. Because so many of us have been traumatised – individually as children or as adults – or rightly horrified by the scale of suffering around us – we are often carrying almost-unmanageable emotions which we can “act out” politically, and that certainly is unhelpful.

    One particular case which I struggle with, in myself and others, is the need to describe a situation which we are trying to change in terms that make change seem impossible: for example, by finding so deep a structural reason for the problem that no agent of change is really conceivable, or by attributing so much power, omniscience and strategic ability to the opponent that our chances of winning are non-existent. One obvious reason for talking in this way, I think, is that we are asking other people to agree with our own emotional assessment of the universe – which probably derives from experiences much closer to home than the Big Historical / Social / Political Picture.

    In this sense, I think there is a real link between the effectiveness of our action and the emotional place it comes from, but in a more complex way than is often suggested. (It is a magical kind of thinking to propose that if we are individually moral in our action or whatever that all will be well on the big scale). It takes quite a lot of experience, reflection and confidence to combine a clear-eyed acceptance that there are deep-seated structural issues and powerful agents supporting the status quo with the ability to think seriously about how to change those power relations, starting from the movements we have but going beyond them.

    I think – for what it is worth – that that emotional place has historically tended to be a collective rather than individual achievement: it is about the development of large-scale, complex movements with the ability to reflect on their own strategies and situations, their own educational and communication structures and a supportive internal culture.

    Which probably means that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: if we are not lucky enough to live in a time and place where such movements already exist, we have to do the best we can from where we are, including all the emotional and intellectual pressures from outside that make it hard to develop a sustainable and effective movement.

    All of the above is probably culture-bound in its own way. There are two good feminist studies available free online which tackle related questions. One is Jane Barry and Jelena Dordevic’s book “What’s the point of revolution if we can’t dance?” at (URL sometimes changes) which asked women human rights activists from around the world how they managed to keep going.

    The other is Marina Bernal’s “Self-care and self-defence manual for feminist activists” at, which is more how-to in tone. Both books tend more towards a sense of pre-existing community / family in struggle than a situation where people are having to create both at the same time, and of course nobody can choose what situation to find themselves in.

    But they share this sense that asking about what is a healthy psychological state and personal situation to act from is not a distraction but a necessary part of activism (without for a moment suggesting abandoning organising until we are sorted).

    Put at its simplest, if we go into a struggle thinking that there is no real conflict or no enemy we are in for some nasty surprises. Equally if we go into a struggle thinking that there is no way we can win, that is likely to be reflected in how we organise and what our real (as opposed to our verbalised) aims become over time.

    Finding that place of recognising the rooted reality of the horrors of the world while being able to think strategically and intelligently about what might work (and being aware of the actual history of different movements in different places, not just recycling myths about them) is a non-trivial part of being able to actually win. But I think it is very hard to achieve individually.

    That was a bit longer and probably more repetitive than I intended it to be – sorry, late at night over here. Keep up these discussions – they are important ones.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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