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Mnookin: A Meditating Activist

Last weekend, I traveled by bus to Washington D.C. with my 5-year-old daughter to attend the People’s Climate March. In crowds numbering more than 200,000, we marched with 350Vermont, holding a circular parachute banner that read “Vermont stands with climate justice, clean energy, water protectors, courage, workers, and bees.” When my daughter wasn’t running under the parachute, playing games or seeking shade, she was chanting into the megaphone about clean water, justice, and democracy. It was a powerful - and exhausting - weekend of collective action.

This was in sharp contrast to the 3-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat I’d recently attended in an effort to recommit to a meditation technique I’d learned at least fifteen years ago. In the intervening years, particularly since becoming a parent, my meditation practice has waxed and waned. This was a rigorous 3-day retreat, in which we woke to a gong at 4 a.m. and were expected to meditate for most of the hours until 9 p.m. bedtime. I hoped it would restart my daily practice.

Before the silent retreat began, a fellow meditator I’d met previously at an activist leadership training asked if my meditation practice and my activism seemed at odds with each other. As an inward practice, meditation is focused exclusively on one’s own experience in the moment, while activism is an outward process focusing on people’s collective experiences in the past with visions for the future.

I answered that despite the apparent contrast, these two parts of my life are interconnected. As many social justice activists have noted, change-making work is more like running a marathon than a sprint, and we need to pace ourselves for the long haul. Meditation helps with pacing: It requires me to slow down, focus on my breath, and observe changing physical sensations in my body. As I strengthen my meditation practice, I bring this awareness into my life as an activist.

My daughter and I were proud to join the masses on the streets of D.C. calling for climate action. There were glorious moments when it felt like we were part of an inspiring global movement. But, traveling with a 5-year-old was stressful - an overnight bus ride, closures on the Metro, and sweltering, 90 degree heat. It was reassuring to know my meditation cushion was waiting patiently at home.

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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