By Yuliana Lozano
It is well known that humanity is suffering from an alarming growth in the rates of mental health illnesses, especially related to activists (environmental, social, and animal defenders) who are constantly under risk situations or exposed to graphic violence. If we add that, in general, animal activists are characterized by their empathy and sensitivity to the suffering of other beings, and also that the problem of animal exploitation is the one that generates the most number of lives under pain and suffering conditions, and is at the same time the problem most ignored, discriminated and neglected, it is a perfect recipe for leading people dedicated to solving this issue to fall into situations such as depression, anxiety, compassion fatigue and/or burn out. Do you feel identified? Probably. Both the lack of information, as well as the stigma that exists around mental health issues, causes this problem to be ignored and thus there is no adequate prevention that protects people dedicated to activism. We shouldn’t forget that another serious consequence these illnesses have (besides the damage to the wellbeing of the human in question) is that the performance and productivity of the activist is affected, as they say “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” The matter of self care, then, is highly important, both for individual and collective reasons since these humans are part of the game changers that our society needs to solve our current challenges.
With almost 10 years of being involved in animal activism, I was not exempt from suffering these situations, particularly the last two and a half years in which I practically devoted myself 24/7 to the cause and neglected my self care combined with personal and work difficulties. In the search of recovery and future prevention, I introduced myself to the subject of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and endless information related to the topic of self care. That is why when I received the invitation to the Meditation Retreat for Animal Rights Activists (Fall 2019) it immediately attracted my attention and I thought: “a meditation retreat aimed especially at activists, what a better place than that to continue deepening into the mindfulness practices and also accompanied by people who know specifically and first hand the difficulties experienced in the Animal Rights movement? I need to go!” I applied and was fortunate to be accepted.
While I was planning all the logistics of the trip from northern Mexico to CA, US, I reflected about the event because additionally to the interest in continuing to learn about mindfulness, I also wanted to get deeper answers about the true root of the problem of animal exploitation, the possible solutions, as well as about activism and how we could improve our practice. So, I was full of questions; however, I didn’t set expectations, I did not leave room for disappointments, but instead I set a very clear intention: to be open to receive as many lessons as I could and see everything as a learning, and above all my main goal was to learn to strengthen my connection with the present moment, with the NOW.
When I arrived at Banyan Grove I immediately felt the warmth of the space and facilities, not to mention that it is surrounded by nature in a beautiful forest, and on that first night we were able to introduce ourselves briefly and know in general the dynamics of the event. In short, a group of people would live together for about 6 days and each of those days would consist of meditation practices, yoga, reflection and group sessions, individual tasks, and sharing food. Did I forget to mention that except for the question sessions, the vast majority of the event would be in a noble silence agreement? Humans are communicative beings, so seems that it would be a great challenge to remain silent for so many days–but the lessons that can be obtained from this exercise are surprising.
The days went by in beautiful harmony, from waking up early in the morning to the wonderful and comforting yoga class directed and planned in a successful way by Wendy, the various meditation sessions that included 13 different techniques guided mostly by Tashi, group talk sessions that allowed us to dispel (or generate!) doubts of all kinds, periods of individual reflection, rest or walk in nature, the intake of nutritious and delicious plant-based meals prepared with Kaia’s support, even the individual tasks to keep the living space clean and tidy, everything, absolutely everything represented an opportunity to get a lesson.
It is surprising the ease with which new ideas or even answers can be revealed by simply sitting quietly, hold still in a position, drawing attention to breathing, focusing on the Now, and by ceasing to identify ourselves with our mind and thoughts and recognize something beyond the material existence. Yes, I know it sounds airy fairy, but when you make room for clearing your mind, making a pause, easing ideas, something special happens, a feeling, a kind of connection with the inner (and paradoxically at the same time with the outer, with all) as if you could access to a higher understanding of life. Yes, again, I know it sounds corny, but it’s really what happens, or at least that is as I experienced it and as others have commented that they lived it.
During the week of this retreat that feeling was something very present, because the ideal environment was created to experience it. With the passing of the days, the challenge of keeping silent was easing or at least I felt it like that, and the absence of the bustle (which we have sadly adopted as “normal” in today’s society) was an enjoyment, at the same time we got more emotional, receptivity had sharpened, and there was an atmosphere of peace and camaraderie.
I think that my companiors and I agree that the community we created during that week was something remarkable. Despite almost not communicating with words, I had the feeling of knowing them beyond the superficial. It was cute and even funny how with a simple look or gesture we could convey a message or request. The collaboration I experienced with them was something that also left me with a beautiful feeling–it was very nice to see the dedication with which each of them did the work they selected (and also help others) to keep Banyan Grove in good condition. There I could see that “in giving is receiving” and that without a doubt the practice of such a beautiful value like generosity is not only necessary to create a world in harmony, but that it is healing for the individual process. To my feeling when acting in search of the common good, our inner being flourishes and manifests itself in its splendor, automatically a sense of well-being and bliss appears in our lives. I suppose there is a whole scientific explanation of what happens in those moments of generosity regarding the biochemistry of our body; I hope you can understand what I mean with these simple words.
I experienced the latter particularly at the end of a meditation in which I couldn’t concentrate at all. Sitting silently from out of nowhere hurtful thoughts of the past and distractors began to invade me, immediately my conscience watched that mind stuck in old patterns and vicious cycles and thought inside me phrases like “it can’t be that after several days you fall back into these mistakes”, as if I was scolding or punishing myself for not meditating perfectly when everything around me were the ideal conditions to do it; the dialogue continued until I decided to “let it go”, breathe, flow and return to meditate with my attention in the Now. Finishing that session I went to help with the kitchen cleaning, and what I felt at that moment surprised me: when people approached me to ask for help to clean their dishes, and I just nodded generously with a smile in silence and saw the gratitude they showed me, a reaction in my body happened, a state of calm, well-being and peace invaded me. I felt a very vivid, healer and comforting feeling inside and I immediately forgave myself for the distraction during the past meditation. Recognizing myself as imperfectly human, liable to errors, made me understand life is that an infinite and continuous process of learning, and that every time the journey was difficult I should only reconnect with my inner being and its true nature, generosity and gratitude, which turn out to be a cure for the disconnection that governs today, and those are guides to return to the Unity and understand that everyone and everything is interconnected and that we are interdependent from each other to thrive and transcend.
At this retreat, the meditations and group sessions for questions were perhaps the parts of greatest learning personally. Regarding the meditation sessions I’m very happy with everything I learned, and that we were given a menu of options to choose the one most appropriate and beneficial for us. I can’t deny for me it was tired to sit and meditate many times during considerable periods, but what you get during this exercise is simply an almost magical gift: peace, so easy to access. I recommend to everyone reading this to practice the art of sitting in silence, quieting the mind and simply breathing attentive. On the other hand, the group sessions were very fruitful, it was a space to get more information, ask questions, get insights and reflect, then ask again, and so on. Perhaps in the end more than obtaining answers you get the ability to ask yourself more and better questions. It’s certainly through this habit, questioning everything, that one really manages to better understand the things, the life. The latter will certainly help me to improve both as a human and as an activist.
Again, from the collaboration and kindness with which each member fulfilled their individual task such as preparing food, cleaning the bathrooms, the kitchen, etc., going through the yoga positions that were heavy at the beginning but then became light and when I achieved them not only broke down physical but also mental barriers, until each of the meditations and sessions of questions that led me to a deeper experience and with that to get more answers and ask myself new key questions; each part of the agenda of this retreat seemed a specific piece to fit into the complete puzzle, feelings, ideas, actions, each part was complementing each other and were strengthening the sense of understanding, the ability to recognize and reconnect knowledge.
The feeling with which I said goodbye to this retreat was undoubtedly GRATITUDE. I thank each of the parts of the event: thanks to all my companions that we help to create a very nice environment and community and thanks for share your wonderful energy, thanks to the continued support of Rachel and Tessa who kindly kept an eye on the logistics of the event and our doubts and needs, thanks to Wendy for the vibrant practice of yoga, thanks to Tashi for the guide and wisdom shared as well as the time for doubts in the one-on-one session, thanks to Kaia for the blessed meals, thanks to Banyan Grove for opening the space and filling it with beautiful messages and details like sparks of love and inspiration, and thanks to Philip, Ari and all the organizers and people who generously make this event possible. It seems to me that implementing in our daily life everything learned in this retreat will be very positive for our personal human growth and at the same time for our impact as activists, managing to create better strategies and devise innovative solutions that help us overcome the global challenges to which we face, but above all, making sure first of all that we are truly “the change we want to see in the world” and enjoy our life with practices that help us to be good with ourselves so we can be good for others, with daily activities that will help us to keep our wellness cup full so we can serve (literally) to others.
If you have the opportunity to participate in a meditation experience like this, don’t miss it; it will be revealing. In any case, meditating is something we can do in less than 5 minutes and anywhere, so there is no excuse not to implement this practice in our lives and also to share its benefits with our social circle. I’m pretty sure that if all humanity experienced attention in the Now, clarity, peace, compassion, empathy, kindness, generosity and gratitude in their daily lives (which, I reiterate, you can develop through meditation), we can recognize ourselves as ONE with our surroundings and therefore we would put Love into our actions, and thus the world would be very different. Let’s make it a reality!