I consider myself a positive body image and self-love activist. For a long time, I was simply angry and mystified about the messages the general media perpetuates about what body type and way of being is sexy, healthy, desirable, or worthy of love.
Ranting and raving about all of the ways that such images are damaging girls, women, boys, and men in our society did not feel helpful or productive. Staying silent was simply not an option. Eventually, I realized that in order to make a real impact, I had to contribute to changing the conversation—kindly.
I now write and speak about positive body image, self-love, and activism regularly and work on both the global and individual levels with others who are wanting to heal from eating disorders, disordered eating, and all types of body image and low self-esteem struggles.
Getting loud, with compassion, has changed my life and is contributing to changing the world.
So, what sets you on fire? Is there a cause, situation, or perplexingly accepted practice that you are so passionate about changing that you simply cannot keep quiet any longer? I have asked three of my dear friends, each respected compassionate activists, to weigh in on what it means to be a compassionate activist, how to make an impact, and how to get started.
Andrea Boyd is an advanced certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher. She has been an integral part of the renowned Jivamukti teacher trainings for many years, teaches all over the world, and is involved in fundraising for amazing organizations, including Bhumi Sehat, The Haiti Clinic, Shyamdas Foundation, and Animal Mukti. With Ruth Lauer Manenti, Andrea edited and produced the books An Offering of Leaves and Sweeping the Dust and has produced seven albums called The Spoken Word Series featuring 3 of her teachers. Her lineage is Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Swami Nirmalananda, Sri Brahmananda Saraswati, Sharon Gannon, David Life, Sri Shyamdas, Ruth Lauer Manenti, and Jayashree and Narasimhan.
Sarah Swingle is the author of the blog What I Vegan and an animal advocate. She is pursuing her master’s degree in animal policy and advocacy. She is also involved with the work of the Humane Society and volunteers for local and national animal-protection groups.
Alison Sher is a writer/editor and the cofounder of beyoubesure.org, a multimedia capacity-building campaign for emerging adults. She is the operator of Epilogue Editorial and a staff writer for the nonprofit Journal To Save Your Life.
Why are you a compassionate activist?
Andrea Boyd: “I have been inspired to be, and I think it's exciting to take responsibility for creating what I wish to see. Compassionate action is having a concern and empathy for others, and responding through action or non-action, which is also action. I think one of the major compassionate activisms I am involved in is the recognition, regard, and respect for all the animals living with us on this planet. Animals, for the most part, are still perceived by humans as objects, from years of conditioning—as food, entertainment, lab experiments, "game," pets, clothes, shoes, bags, servants, slaves. Everyone in the universe will benefit from loving all the billions of creatures. The most courageous and compassionate activism in this time is to not eat animals.”
Sarah Swingle: “I'm a compassionate activist because injustice exists, and I can't sit by and just let it happen. As the famous quote goes, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ "
Alison Sher: “I think there are a few people who may read this right now and think I'm not so compassionate all the time. So before you make me toot my horn, I'd like to start by admitting my limitations as a human animal.
That said, if I've been recognized as a compassionate activist in my public life, it's because of the terrible things I've seen—first and foremost living with refugees in a camp on the foothills of the Himalayas when I studied abroad in India. I lived in a community with torture victims who endured severe brain damage and listened to their stories. I watched frostbitten women whose cheeks and fingers were frozen black look for the children they lost trekking over the Himalayan pass for 22 days by foot to escape the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the genocide of their indigenous culture.
So much pain. So much suffering. So much realness.
It makes you want to do something. Anything. I chose to relaunch a chapter of Students for a Free Tibet at CofC. I met Richard Gere outside of a bathroom at Barnard University. He encouraged me to it. That's when my compassionate activism started, and it has been a difficult, though meaningful, path.
All I’ve done is spread awareness. I have not altered the system in any lasting way. I have not swayed the decisions of the political and imperialist powers I observe causing the majority of injustice and oppression worldwide. At least that’s my impression. I’m still young and learning how to be effective.
In my latest project, called Be You Be Sure (sometimes known as The Be You Be Sure Project), I went around the country with a few other creatives, lived in a very, very old RV for a year, to interview and videotape a wide cross section of hundreds of 20-somethings across the US. We talked about identity and purpose, choice and responsibility, and the process of coming of age in America, the plight to build a life worth living in a frenzied world that makes little sense.
When I was in the Himalayas, I became preoccupied with the concept of compassion. I wasn’t really sure what it meant or how to embody it. I went around asking mystical person after mystical person cloaked in maroon to define it for me.
I met the lama and filmmaker Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in Bir. He told me compassion came with the understanding that every single person is projecting their own interpretation of reality onto a situation. We’re all doing this WHILE trying to navigate through this world together.
Humans are interconnected, social creatures. Yet it’s hard for us to get along long term. It’s quite the pickle, really.
He said when I find myself in conflict with others, if I can remember that my perception is mine alone, it's easier to react in a way that is peaceful. It’s easier to give people the space to be in their own process. If that means leaving—fine. If that means staying to preserve the union—awesome. Otherwise, I find it way too natural to want to become vindictive, to resort to blaming, to use control to eliminate the differences humans find so threatening. To turn the finger back at yourself—to realize it’s all about you and how you’re conditioned to respond to stimuli and to reprogram that—is an excruciating task.
Sometimes I fail. I’ve got to be honest. But I am striving, because I’m coming to realize this is probably the most powerful, realistic, and immediate action any of us can take to be compassionate activists.
That was a long response...I’ll stick to it.”
Violence, slanderous talk, and shock media are so prevalent. How does peaceful activism make an impact?
Andrea Boyd: “A beautiful practice of peaceful activism is sitting still in the practice of meditation. Learning about our minds and their habit patterns is peaceful activism. Through introspection, we learn how to communicate effectively and without hostility. A compassionate activist respects other people's innate ability to consider what is good and uses skills to converse, educate, inspire, and bring understanding amongst each other.
Understanding the laws of karma is crucial to peaceful activism because we reap what we sow; all of our actions, including thoughts and words, have an impact. Because we can't always see the impact, sometimes we forget. Peaceful activism is a matter of unveiling the root causes of problems, embracing less popular ideas, and celebrating Truth.
Something shocking yet truthful can be very useful not to instill fear—as shock is sometimes used to do—but to bring about a greater awareness. I recall a scene in the film The Witness that moved me tremendously, where an animal-rights activist named Eddie Lama took his van on the streets of Manhattan and had the door of the van open to reveal a television set showing rabbits and foxes getting skinned for their fur, and it showed the reaction of people passing by on the street who turned their heads to see the screen and the look on their faces, really throughout their entire bodies, was one of shock...which turned often into tears, which brought forth their innate compassion for these creatures. There is a great saying by Desmond Tutu, ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ "
Sarah Swingle: “I believe peaceful activism makes an impact because it comes from a place of love and not fear—unlike the violence, slanderous talk, and shock media you reference, which all originate in fear. People respond to love and want justice, and peaceful activism offers both.”
Alison Sher: “I think peaceful activism is the only balancing counterforce to the other messages you describe, which we are viscerally and subliminally assaulted by every time we turn on the TV, the computer, or walk outside. Peaceful activism is the minority of messaging we receive. So much so that people make fun of it, like it’s delusional and naive. Yet, if it weren't for those aspiring to provide an alternative to the violent, slanderous shock-talk commentary that permeates our media, there would be no ripples of hope to inspire us to be gentle, no other examples to show our children about what the world and people can also be like.”
What is your advice to others who want to create change in the world?
Andrea Boyd: “Keep going. Even if you feel like you aren't doing a good job, or there is so much more to do, or you aren't sure, or you're tired, or people get upset at you, or you're considered radical, crazy, weird, provocative...whatever might arise on your courageous journey to bring about positive change, you are a conduit! You're a channel for transmission, from the Latin conducere—"bring together." Bringing together, joining, connecting the dots, realizing the truth of the interconnectedness of life, living in the mystery...oh, and singing helps too:)”
Sarah Swingle: “Don't let the fact that you can't do everything intimidate you into doing nothing. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and wish somebody would do something about the injustice in the world. But we forget that we are somebody, and we can do something!”
Alison Sher: “Hmm. Take the time to dive deep within and identify your unique life purpose—even if it leaves you feeling “behind” in the quantitative, linear way the mainstream defines success. It may take years. I believe you can figure it out. The sooner you do, the better. And then commit to the journey. Do what you must to maintain the standard of living you require in the process.
The goal is to come full circle, to feel complete, the feeling of completion at the end/beginning of it all—at peace with what you’ve done and what’s been done to you, to maintain a sense of direction within yourself while an infinite number of opposing and seductive forces pull at you.
My wise friend Elisa Blynn once told me, “It's more sustainable to seek an enduring purpose for your life rather than an enduring form.” Because forms change. Purpose has the power to guide your way through the coming and the going and the fading we all fear.
Your bandmates will drop out and become lawyers. The projects you work on will flounder. True story.
However, purpose can propel you forward through it all so you never feel you are here suffering without a reason. Kierkegaard called it ‘will to meaning.’ Victor Frankl called it ‘logotherapy.’ It’s yours to uncover. How delicious! How exciting! And I do think at the end of this tunnel, most people find that peace activism is the highest human calling.”