By Juliane Poirier (Norman Solomon on getting out there and doing something)
"We need to become agitators," says Norman Solomon, Marin County activist and co-creator of the Green New Deal for the North Bay.
"It's the agitator that gets the dirt out in the washing machine," he explains, borrowing an analogy from Jim Hightower. Solomon sees the wash cycle as a good behavior model for those of us who avoid political activism in favor of safe and lazy pondering over how much trouble the world is in right now. It's such a hassle to get involved with strangers and go to meetings. Can't we just whine to our friends about corporate greed and corruption in the comfort of our own homes?
We can, at high cost.
"So much is at stake for future generations and for the planet," declares Solomon, "that we need to be willing to organize as if our lives and the lives of those close to us depended on it." For Solomon, this means that as individuals and as communities we need to get more serious about our involvement with one another and with things we care about. "Getting involved is essential," says Solomon. "There's that saying, 'I'm not into politics.' I say, 'But politics is into you.' When you turn on the tap for a drink of water, that's politics."
For those who turn off like a faucet at the mention of political activism, Solomon's approach may inspire willingness to open up and flow. The secret seems to be finding out how "agitating" looks for each individual. (I can just hear Garrison Keillor asking, "What are the shy folks supposed to do?") Agitating can be direct or it can be as uncomplicated as pursuing something we love with greater gusto than we ever have before.
"One simple step," Solomon explains, "is to learn and to agitate." This means choosing something close to your heart, learning everything you possibly can about it and then becoming a source of information for others, the go-to font of knowledge in your neighborhood or community.
"People get afraid that they will have to do something they don't want to do. Everyone is different, and it's important that everybody engage at their level of passion and interest and capacity."
Can political involvement be something more uplifting than a dose of corporate-sponsored news each night? "People look at the news and are depressed, but activists tend to be less depressed," Solomon says. "There's something so enlivening that happens when you share your thoughts and feelings and ideas with others—people inspiring because of who they are."
A critical byproduct of all this social agitation is a changed relationship with power. "'Power' is a word that causes a lot of ambivalence," says Solomon. "For progressives, we need power to shape the future instead of just having it created for us. I know we will not like it if it is created by the most powerful forces that exist right now."
Referencing what one beloved agitator, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., called the paralysis of analysis, Solomon says we need to stop pondering and get out and do something, and as a consequence, we "get to find out what we are capable of." He believes that sinking roots more deeply into the communities where we live is part of a broad social movement that can take on corporate power. "These roots already exist," says Solomon. And because these roots feed the community in various ways, as we learn to become agitators, we allow ourselves to be more extensively nurtured by roots that already exist.
"Everyone cares about something," Solomon says. "Learn about it and agitate about it. If you care about it and you want things to get better, then you get with your friends and your neighbors, and together you say we can get this done, yes we can turn this around. Si, se puede. There are reasons to be engaged, because it's about the future. It's a cliché, but it's true, that if the people will lead, the leaders will follow."
What is at the root of our resistance to our best possible selves? Why is it that we seem to generate some pretty terrific ideas only to have them die in transit to action?
You know the story – you've got some thoughts swirling around in your mind about a topic for a compelling book you'd like to write or excitement with a new relationship that's taking off, musings about running for town council or a family relocation to some long-imagined exotic location. These thoughts feel exciting and inspiring … until they either come to a screeching halt or quietly slip away. Why does this sequence of events happen so frequently? Why do we end up resisting the very thing we long for?
Enter the Lizard or Primitive Brain – our amygdala “fight-or-flight” center. The primary purpose of this part of the brain near the top of your spinal cord is survival. When doubt or fear creep into our thinking, it opens the door to the room where the lizard lies sleeping, sometimes just a tiny bit. But a little is all it takes to nudge the lizard brain awake. Those creative, innovative ideas that were just percolating in your neocortex are now at risk. Fear is almost always the trigger.
It's a bit like having two brains that operate under opposing forces. The Lizard brain has an essential role (if you need to run from a T-rex) but can become a real barrier to positive life change. Because of its involvement in processing and storing emotional memories, it has the power to hijack or impede the thoughts and actions of the evolutionarily younger cerebrum. While our cerebral cortex is processing all sorts of cutting-edge ideas and contemplating risk, our lizard brain is trying to protect us and keep us safe. Unfortunately, our “safe zone” is not where personal growth takes place. So, what can we do?
The challenge is to cultivate awareness of this phenomena and develop strategies to lull your lizard back to sleep when not truly needed. Be on the lookout for Shenpa, a Tibetan word for the urge or hook that triggers our habitual tendency to shut down. Think of shenpa as the lizard response. In a rather obscure way, we feel a tensing or tightening, a sense of withdrawing, self-rejection or shutting down. And, that tight feeling has the power to hook us into blame, anger, guilt, envy and other negative emotions that might sabotage our best efforts. We get hooked in that moment of tightening and often get stuck there. We could call the everyday experience of shenpa “that sticky feeling.” Tibetan teacher, Pema Chodron, tells us “Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing.”
To get unhooked from the attachment of Shenpa, to tame our lizard fear that is trying to keep us safe but is actually getting in the way, we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learning to relax in that moment. If we can see shenpa just as we're starting to close down, when we begin to notice the tightening, we might catch the urge to do the habitual thing, and refrain from doing it. The ability to recognize and label the lizard's presence is the first step. This awareness provides the knowledge to begin re-patterning our habits. Next, remind yourself that the lizard likes to release adrenaline into your bloodstream in preparation for fighting or fleeing. Instead of allowing the flood of adrenaline, relax by breathing slowly and deeply. Close your eyes if it helps. Use self-talk to tell yourself that you observe the shenpa and are choosing to release it. Since you've been conditioned into shenpa for many years, it will take some time to learn to avoid your well-worn path and relearn the new awareness and habits. Consistent practice is the key.
We can restrain the "fight-or-flight" Lizard brain by counting blessings, committing to positive thoughts and acknowledging the beauty and love around us. Fear and self-protection sabotage our higher purpose but Gratitude tames fear. Just the posture of “being in gratitude” seems to disallow fear or anger because positive thoughts displace negative ones. The more you practice taming your lizard brain, the better you will become at sustaining consciousness and cerebral higher-level thinking that can move you forward in your life. Confronting our fear is less about pushing it away and more about acknowledging it for what it is and stripping it of its power. Of course, if you need your lizard brain to react to real, imminent danger, by all means let it do its all-important job. But, most often the sense of danger or fear is a misperception, a distorted amygdala hijacking, and could be preventing a real growth opportunity.
Survive or thrive – it's your choice.
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.