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“A Living Example of Joy In Struggle”

August 11, 2011

by Emory Douglas

From Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, about her experiences as an agitator and organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) at the peak of its power, in the 1910’s:

Foster’s campaign against dual unionism was aided by Tom Mann of England, who came over on a speaking trip in 1913.

. . .

Never had I heard such a flow of fast-spoken, picturesque and colorful oratory, charged with tremendous fervor and fighting spirit.  It was a hot night and after he finished some English weavers took him away with them, promising to bring him to the railroad station to make an eleven-thirty train back.  They came rushing him along at the very last minute, bubbling with reminiscences of where they knew him and had heard him speak before.  We asked, “What did you do, Tom?” and he said cheerily, “They took me for warm ale.  There’s nothing like it after a speech.”  He was a living example of joy in struggle and proved that a light heart makes the road shorter and the load easier.  He lived to be over 80—oratorical, exuberant and vital—a great agitator to the end.

How do we nurture joy in struggle? For me, it’s a dialectical question. How do we struggle? Strategically, which courses do we choose? And how do we nurture joy? What traditions and methods do we adopt, adapt, learn, preserve, and transform? And how do we live joy in our struggles? And how do we live struggle through our joy?

Some seem to be able to do both simultaneously. Perhaps out of necessity. Lightness and strength, singing songs of revolution. Others, like incredible artist, Buddhist, and anti-nuclear activist Mayumi Oda, take time to heal in a protected space (both literally and metaphorically a fenced-off garden) before plunging into political work with a renewed sense of purpose, balance, and exuberance.

One thing is certain: having one without the other can throw us dangerously askew. As theologian Be Scofield wrote this week, positing joy (specifically spiritual practice) as struggle (in other words, a politically revolutionary or progressive act), à la Eckhart Tolle’s New-Earth-ism, is a serious mistake. Equally damaging and counterproductive are serious political movements that lack basic kindness, humor, or tenderness, and in which the dominant form of joy comes from smashing on other groups or tendencies, or celebrating only a very, very narrow subculture. (You know what kind of celebrating I mean? The kind with an edge, an undercurrent of judgment.)

For me, it’s an ongoing question. When I was living and working at the meditation center in Spain, joy came freely and easily. But that’s also the farthest from struggle that I’ve been in a long time. Now, things are more complicated. I am more spiritually adrift. Where can I find mentors: people who are doing the kind of political work I want to do, and infusing it with spiritual joy? People who are doing the kind of spiritual work I want to do, and grounding it in struggle? Am I being too choosy on one or both fronts?

Writing is difficult right now, friends. I’ll leave it at that.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 8:49 am

    Last night, a friend reminded me of a Queen song: “I want it all. I want it all. I want it all. I want it now.” :)

    I’ve struggled with this stuff on a not-quite-as-intense level, and reached something of a compromise/realization in putting lots of my energy into the East Bay Meditation Center. I wish that the community there was doing *even more* social justice work, but a lot of folks who *do* social justice work there depend on it for sangha, and I’m trying to support that. So, not quite the “joy is resistance/struggle” mentality, but definitely one step removed from being in the thick of everything. But that’s me–I’ve found that (so far) I can’t sustainably be in the thick of everything, so I’m trying to support the folks that can/do by volunteering and being involved in EBMC stuff.

    Anyway, just some thoughts on some of the in-between spaces that we can find to grow spiritually while helping the world become a better place.

  2. Momin permalink
    August 12, 2011 9:20 am

    Hey! That’s OSPAAAL! Do you know it? Cuban propaganda unit, active from the 1960s to 1980s or 90s, that has produced some of the most amazing design I have ever seen.

    Great archive at There’s also a book,

    Also, I imagine your blogging and racial politics-aware self reads colorlines, but in case you missed it, there’s an archive from UC Santa Barbara of 170 posters from Asian and Pacific Islander communities in 1970s SF:

  3. Momin permalink
    August 12, 2011 9:25 am

    Oh my mistake, this specific image is not OSPAAAL, but there is a poster on the OSPAAAL archive site by Emory Douglas and Lazaro Abreu, so I guess Douglas must have collaborated with OSPAAAL through Abreu.

    Anyway, the language used here is the standard OSPAAAL template, and if you enjoy such messages of solidarity (so simple, yet so powerful, saying that “we may not be able to help you, but we know of your suffering and it will not pass forgotten”) you’ll love the whole OSPAAAL corpus.

  4. August 12, 2011 10:53 am

    @jeffliveshere, what a fabulous song reminder! :) Thank you. Yes, I’ve been trying to remain aware of the perfectionism and impatience underlying some of my questioning and seeking. For my birthday I literally spent much of the day saying to myself, “It’s okay, you don’t need to do things perfectly; you don’t need to have your whole life path planned out right now.”

    I think your approach in engaging and supporting EBMC is a wonderful one. These days I volunteer there more than meditate, and both modes are infrequent. I’ve been wondering about approaching them about a once-a-month Radical Sangha night for folks to discuss together how the dharma plays out in their political work, given a critique of capitalism (incl. ableism, neocolonialism), heteropatriarchy, and racism. Last time I started hosting something similar in my home there was interest, but it was hard to coordinate schedules and I got too busy to keep it up weekly or bi-monthly. So we’ll see! Would you be interested in proposing such a thing to the Center with me? I feel like it could be a timely offering, but I don’t want to force it, either. Hope you’re doing well — it’s always nice to hear from you.

    Momin, thanks for the heads-up on OSPAAL and the API posters! Will definitely be checking them out. I actually don’t read Colorlines very often (truthfully, I don’t read many blogs very often), so it’s a delight when friends pass links along. What are you up to/into these days? Are you still @ Berkman? Many hugs. :)

  5. August 12, 2011 10:58 am

    “Where can I find mentors: people who are doing the kind of political work I want to do, and infusing it with spiritual joy? People who are doing the kind of spiritual work I want to do, and grounding it in struggle? Am I being too choosy on one or both fronts?”

    This is something I seem to wrangling with as well right now. Sometimes, I feel like the ideas I have and ways in which I want to be in the world are just too “far out and unrealistic.” Sometimes, I’m just plain afraid to do anything. And I have been involved in enough “social justice” work and actions to have felt the sting of failure, getting blocked, or realizing that your aims weren’t really helpful.

    And then there’s the social conditioning that just keeps us from tipping over the apple cart of oppression. How much of that is interwoven within me? What needs to be decolonized within me yet?

    And then I listen to where others are at right now – and consider what steps might draw people together to do something in a different way.

    Somehow, there’s a middle path in all of this. But it’s pretty muddy for me currently too.

  6. August 12, 2011 12:57 pm

    Sometimes, I feel like the ideas I have and ways in which I want to be in the world are just too “far out and unrealistic.”

    It’s comforting to know that you’re feeling similarly, Nathan. Thank you for sharing that. :)

    And even your phrase about “drawing people together to do something in a different way” got my wheels turning about various connections that might be made among people I know who are already doing good work, but possibly with different analyses. Like, what if the Disparaged CNA / radical health care workers started talking with the engaged Buddhist hospice and end-of-life folks?

    But yeah, overall, very muddy. Slow going.

    And as a writer, especially as a writer with turbulent employment (like me), I feel like you might encounter some of the same world-divides, where the discursive practice (writing, blogging) often leans more toward the middle-class spheres, audiences, communities, while on-the-ground, in-person practices encourage more material work that centers economic, political, and cultural questions on a practical level. Some of my favorite new people, whom I met through the East Bay Solidarity Network organizing, are basically not on the internet, and probably won’t encounter anything I blog about. (Though we could possibly read books together and talk about them; blogging is kind of a different animal.) I think about Jessica Yee’s statement:

    I don’t consider myself a writer at all – I work 24/7 leading the Native Youth Sexual Health Network across North America (the first book I put together Sex Ed and Youth: Colonization, Sexuality, and Communities of Color was my initial attempt in entering book world) so I’m new to all this you need to do A, B, and C to get a book out there because I often struggle with what books and blogs mean when shit goes down in real life (which is also why my online writing has stopped as of late)

    and to be honest it makes me feel a little ashamed of being a writer. Of wanting to be a writer. Maybe that’s not where the ‘real life’ work lies.

    I’m not saying this in hopes of easy reassurance. I’m sure there is a ‘middle path’, and obviously many writers have contributed invaluable touchstones and guides to material revolutionary work. But I also see a lot of truth to criticisms, and wonder whether you have similar thoughts or insights.

    Thanks for being someone I can talk to about this, Nathan! Sangha: it’s a jewel, as they say. :)

  7. August 12, 2011 5:26 pm

    Katie, I’ve been through the what’s the point of writing when shit is going down on the ground before. I’ll probably go through it again. Actually, I think it’s really important to have that jostling go on because otherwise, it’s easy to get complacent.

    Here’s a few more thoughts on that. If I didn’t have the writing of Myles Horton, bell hooks, Joanna Macy, Sulak Sivaraksa, Howard Zinn, Grace Lee Boggs, and countless others, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Trying to decolonize the mind/body alone is next to impossible, and those of us in the younger generations can and do benefit from the struggles and liberations of those who came before us. Even the Buddha spent several years immersed in the teachings of others that came before him before stepping off on his own.

    Another thing is that someone needs to record the insights, struggles, questions, and dreams of the day. In a manner that both clearly articulates with honesty and integrity, but which also allows others to enter in, and perhaps use that work as spring into future action. Or even personal awakening. Collective action and person awakenings are both needed.

    I followed some of the train-wreck of a discussion had about Jessica Yee’s book on some of the feminist websites over the winter. And my guess is that she wouldn’t have written a book if she didn’t think it had no value to the missions in her life. However, I also see the questioning and wondering about writing’s place in her statement above, which to me shows that she’s not out to be sensational and make a name for herself.

    The other thing is that, for me anyway, as for nearly every writer I’ve known – there’s some quality about writing that helps shape and reshape the world for us. That working through the mud happens partly through the writing. I did a lot of “activism work” between 2006-2009 around immigrant rights and adult basic ed. And although I’ve done a fair amount of work since then as my zen center’s board chair – I also have felt like I’m regrouping, re-energizing, and refining myself and the callings I have.

    I’m also in that writer with a “turbulent employment” status – great way to put it! And has all kinds of things thumping around within. It’s not always easy.

  8. August 16, 2011 6:07 pm

    Katie, Nathan… really appreciating your dialogue here…

    I’m in the middle of an intense training week with the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program — I don’t know how I managed to even take the time to look over here at your blog — but every time I do I feel so much respect for how you are living out your bodhisattva vows and grappling with the big questions.

    So, this will be brief, but just want to send both of you a very big bow and smile!

  9. August 17, 2011 8:35 am

    Thanks Maia. I feel grateful to be able to share a bit of the path with you and with Katie.

  10. August 17, 2011 5:29 pm

    >> Now, things are more complicated. I am more spiritually adrift.

    Sounds as if you are caught up a little in idealism?

    From my experience ideas are an irksome legacy of a time when ideas changed hands with significant values attached – Hinduism, Buddhism, Heliocentricism, Marxism, Empiricism, Capitalism, Post Modernism all had potential to change society, faith and economies but now I believe we are entering an era of consolidation and integration. There are only really smaller questions left for us to answer and to think that the world needs another paradigm shift and we are the people to catalyse it appears to be an illusion and a rather wearing distraction caused mostly by inequity, or more acurately – privilege?

    Too many perhaps are pursuing the aesthetic (ascetic?) of an engaged Buddhism when we really need to build on the pragmatic?

  11. August 17, 2011 10:08 pm

    Hi mat, thanks for your thoughts! I’m not sure I follow you on “entering an era of consolidation and integration,” and why that means that ideas or paradigm shifts don’t matter as much? I think I might actually agree with you, since I resonate with a desire to build pragmatic engaged Buddhism, but I’m interested to know more abt your thought process.

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