This week I had a conversation with an old friend who asked me if I miss my human rights work in Israel: “You were involved in doing good for others, being influential and hanging people’s lives and society.”
I told her I do miss friends and parts of the work but that the truth is I never felt influential and I rarely felt that I am changing lives. I was mostly busy feeling how little I am doing, how big and undefeated reality is, wondering if what I do had any impact at all.
I often wonder if there is a healthy and sane way to be a political activist and, if so, what would be the golden path between being attentive to our needs as activists and staying centered while struggling with and for others. How can we find clarity and stability while working as a ‘firefighter’ living in a chronical emergency atmosphere. Why do many of us continue to work so hard while feeling that we are doing so little and what are the mental and political consequences of maintaining these patterns of work and struggle as they are?
I believe that the well-being of political activists and of aid workers has not been adequately addressed, neither on the theoretical level nor certainly on the practical and structural level. I do not claim to solve the matter in this short essay but I would like to share some insights from my life experience as an activist in Israel and as a yoga teacher today and then offer some ways to rethink these problems.
Activists might be divided into three groups: those who belong to the oppressed communities acting from within, international activists who come from western societies and those who come from the local privileged community. As a Jewish Israeli citizen, I belong to the third group.I started working at Physicians for Human Rights in Israel (PHR) from the age of nineteen, struggling for the medical rights of prisoners held in the Israeli prisons and later working with Palestinians living in the Gaza strip. I coordinated work with individual cases of patients and medical crews from Gaza who had difficulties accessing health services due to the military checkpoints and the siege over the Gaza strip. Later I joined Amnesty International where I worked with the African refugee communities in Israel, providing training on how to be activists in Israel and how to build a sustainable and effective struggle to promote recognition of their rights and of their cause.
Life as an activist can be very overwhelming. We are exposed daily to the life stories of people experiencing violence, torture and injustice on all levels. They regularly share their stories with us believing that we can do much more than we actually can to help them. Our apartments can turn into shelters for humanitarian aid and our phones become “emergency hotlines,” ringing 24 hours a day. The days are long and there are no boundaries between our private lives and our work. There is also no routine in our work life because government policies constantly change and we need to keep ourselves updated in order to learn each new regulation and adjust our strategies accordingly. Moreover, the nature of relations between the NGO’s and the foundations supporting them breeds competition over the limited resources, making it difficult to create a supportive and caring work environment based on solidarity in an ideological struggle.
We face all of these challenges while friends get arrested or deported, while more refugees enter the country and more emergencies arise demanding our attention. There is rarely any moment of rest, neither physically nor mentally. In this state there is little legitimacy to listening to your own needs nor even complaining about being tired. There are always those who are suffering more and who need you strong and functioning. After all, we are the privileged, the healthy and the free and we cannot afford to stop.
After ten years I left Israel for Berlin, left the world of politics and became a Yoga teacher.I am not a special case. There are many others who, in order to leave the political life, moved away to start over again. It is not that other places lack human rights violations, but maybe we need the distance in order to reposition ourselves, heal and find more constructive ways to live. I want to believe that this is not the only way to find sanity, health and creativity – that there is still a way to do humanitarian work and be a political activist while practicing kindness towards ourselves and taking care of our own well-being. I do not suggest that the kind of work that I did will ever become easier, but I do wonder if we as activists can adopt a different view of the things that we face – not in order to be more laid-back and relaxed about atrocities, but rather to be more stable and healthy when fighting against them.
What has yoga taught me?
I started practicing yoga when I worked at PHR. Having a healthy intuition, I knew doing
something other than work would do me good. I was not sure what it would be. After trying many different dance and movement classes I found yoga. It was a small studio in a private house of a married couple who were both yoga teachers – teachers who quickly became my guides and therapists.
Here are some of the things that I learned:
I have a body and it is healthy
I had been working for people with health issues and severe injuries, reading medical records of tens of people a day. For me the body was a place of sicknesses, of violence and of maltreatment. I used to recognize and remember people by their health problems, not by who they were. I was also feeling weak and tired all of the time, eating poorly and sleeping poorly. Sickness in a way was the normal reality of everyone around me.
Realizing through the practice of yoga that the body can feel good, can do incredible things, can get strong, stable and soft was almost a revelation for me. Moreover, as I got stronger and more familiar with my body throughout the practice, I also found that I am separated from the people who I help and for whom I advocate. That solidarity with someone is different from identifying with someone.
Acting from choice:
Cultivating a sense of well-being towards my body and separating myself from other life stories led me to understand that I am making a choice and that I am working from a place of options. During the war on Gaza in 2009 a friend of mine from Gaza called me. I was in the middle of a demonstration in Tel Aviv and, a bit proud of the timing of our talk, I told him I will call him later because I am busy demonstrating. He said okay, hang in there and take care of yourself. I confusedly asked him why, telling him that it is I who should be telling this to him. I’m safe in Tel Aviv. He answered that that is exactly why I should hang in there. I have the choice to do anything else with my life and he doesn’t. He is always trying to hang on. We do have a choice and we stand for those who have fewer choices if any at all. Remembering that does not make us greedy or insensitive to suffering but it requires of us to examine this choice, choose it every morning again
and also be thankful for what we are and what we can give.
When working in the human rights fields you often find yourself angry. You are angry at the world around you and you are angry at those who are not angry. You are always fighting against the mainstream, the racist policies and so on. I feel that many of us activists are afraid of losing this anger believing that it would make us indifferent to the world around us. We leave optimism and happiness to those “hippies” (with whom we are certainly not related) and we claim pain and the reality “as it is.” We use anger as the fuel that keeps us going. Practice has helped me to look into those emotions and thinking patterns, examine work from additional standpoints and stop relying on anger as a source of energy. This is not to detract from anger as a legitimate feeling but we can try and find ways to avoid falling into patterns that dictate how we should feel in order to change the world around us. When I was talking to a friend about this she added that when she was asked how she is feeling she was sometimes embarrassed to say that she is feeling okay or even good. She was expected by social convention to feel depressed and hopeless because this is how the reality around her looks and feels.
There are more people conducting the same search:
I used to hold a belief that yoga and spirituality can not go together with political work. I thought that yoga is about making you happy, content and laid-back regarding the world around us, while being an activist meant that you need to be strong and angry and find your elephant skin. It was a binaric opposition – Yoga connecting to the interior life and to your own well-being while politics connects to society and the well-being of others.
Nowadays I have been finding other activists around me in different healing and creative journeys. One is running every day, another started tai chi and my best friend just discovered the practice of yoga after too many years in the UN. We seek a third path – a path that might lead us to a more balanced and healthy way of working and of seeing reality, seeing what we are doing as activists and what activism is doing for us and to us.
I hope that part of our radical work will include these insights and practices, whether it is yoga or any other practice. And I hope that throughout these practices we can feel less small and defeated and that we can find more sustainable, effective and healthy ways to reduce suffering.
Naomi Mark grew up in Neve Shalom/Wahat Al Salam and is a dancer, yoga instructor and political activist now living in Berlin. In this article she offers insights about living between the spiritual and the political and between the work of the self and the work for and with others. She has worked with the Global Psychosocial Network to develop a pilot movement project for activists.