In 2017, I attended a meditation session at the Animal Rights National Conference. At the end of the conference, I said it was the most fulfilling part of the conference. I had been meditating for many years and attending the conference for ten years, but what made this special was meditating with a community of people who sought to develop serenity and resilience and make systemic change for animals. I have found that my calling is to develop and organize this further.
I can look back at my life with this new lens on healing and animal advocacy. Here are just a few examples of the struggles that I have faced:
- In 1998, while co-founding Compassionate Action for Animals, I found myself in unhealthy interpersonal relationships with other co-founders. I had neither the skills to develop healthier ways to work with other people in the group, nor the tools to find peace in myself. So over the next few years I left and came back a couple of times. In this case I was struggling with engaging with others in the group in a constructive way and also creating an organization that is a powerful voice for animals. After those first several years, I placed more attention to developing healthier relationships within my animal advocacy work. This led to greater group cohesion and more powerful advocacy.
- In 1996, following the lead of my dear friend Kenny Feldman, I began my involvement in social change. Three years later, Kenny died by suicide. I faced the greatest sorrow of my life in the wake of his death. Many of my closest relationships have been with people involved in justice work. Tending to the mental health of myself and my fellow activists has been key to continuing and sustaining this work.
- In 2015, a friend of mine, Alec Neal, raped his ex-girlfriend, Sarah Super. She went on to launch Break the Silence to give survivors of sexual violence a voice and to advocate for supporting survivors. I was working full-time in animal advocacy but I also felt a powerful call to also engage in anti-sexual violence work. I wondered how to bring my concern about gender-based violence and exploitation more fully into my animal advocacy belief system and practice.
As these stories illustrate, I have found many ways in which my own personal development, health, and well-being are connected to powerfully engaging with making social change. I now have clarity that I want to bring these together. I believe this will bring a more powerful movement because:
- by learning healthy behaviors, activists can be involved for a long time! Movements (usually) take time and we need people to grow in their skills, connections, and advocate over the decades
- activists who can tap into their compassion and love can inspire others to follow their example
What will I do? I have ideas to help develop animal activists’ mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical health:
- The humans involved in non-human animals face challenges because of their identities, and I hope to challenge that. For example, women/femmes make up most of the animal protection movement, but leadership roles are often filled by men and women/femmes have suffered from sexual harassment. This has inhibited the growth and success of the movement. I intend on hosting a workshop for men in the movement to help us learn to be better about gender issues.
- Grounding work like meditation. I included meditation in the wellness day I hosted last spring, and I have been hosting monthly meditations for animal advocates. Grounding work could include other practices like prayer, connecting with nature, or free form dance. When we cultivate acceptance and gentleness with ourselves, we find ourselves both able to sustain for a long time because we feel peace and love as we do it.
- Preventative medical practices like good nutrition, regular exercise, mental health breaks
- Creating nurturing cultures within organizations that we advocate for. Ultimately we don’t want wellness to be something where we have to recover from our activism; we want activism to be nurturing.
- Healing from trauma. Everybody carries trauma from their life experiences. Providing spaces to heal gives us the opportunity to grow, live our lives to the fullest, and engage in animal advocacy in an integrated way.
- Nonviolent communication, a system of communication that is based on the understanding that each individual is autonomous and seeks to meet their needs. It asks to provide empathy to everybody Including ourselves!) to discover the needs and the emotions that follow when those needs are or are not met.
Many healing practices such as eating well or meditating are currently more accessible to those with wealth privilege. People who need to work 70 hours per week to make ends meet rarely have time to meditate. An aspect of our work is to challenge wealth inequality so that wellness is accessible to more people.
Meditation has been central to my healing and wellness work in animal advocacy because it’s easy to organize. At the core of destructive habits, people are coming from a place of spiritual dysfunction, full of blame. People need to embrace love and compassion that flows. And that will help people make change. But I realize meditation is not for everybody.
Wellness is sometimes thought of as a calm response to social turbulence. That is not my goal. I want to help create turbulence, too! Injustice persists when people feel comfortable with unequal power dynamics. Right now animals are ruthlessly tormented and killed, and I believe it is as important as ever to stand up and resist this injustice. My hope is that by bringing healing into the movement, we can do this with skill and persistence.
Some questions I’m asking:
- What are all the aspects of healing and wellness? Which are the best to focus on?
- How do we pull this together in a sensible way?
- Every person needs something different to participate in the animal protection movement in a healthy way. How do we do our best job and accommodating different needs? How do we do this collectively?
- As people go through life transitions, whether it be romantic relationships, children, living in a different location, they need to find new people to work with. How can we provide wellness for people through all their life stages?
- How do we bring healing into organizations?
- I do not consider myself a specialist in healing and wellness. How do I organize the specialists and the resources to serve the movement?
- How do we continue to witness animal suffering and death so we can be aware of the challenge that we face but also provide enough space to heal from being a witness?
- Some people need to do much of their healing alone, others in groups. How do we provide space for both?
I recently attended a mindfulness direct action training at Common Ground Meditation Center. I knew both of the facilitators, and I was struck how they said they were bringing together two long-standing interests of theirs in a new way. I am also listening to Healing Justice Podcast. There are others that are doing similar work!
I have been hosting meditations for animal advocates approximately monthly. The next meditation is on Dec. 2 at my house. You are welcome to attend. Ask me for details.
Next month I will be attending a week-long meditation retreat for farm animal advocates in California to deepen my practice. I am grateful for the opportunity to grow with others in this healing justice work.