Mindfulness & Presence:
Activism in the Now
Goldstein Director, The
Women’s Institute at Omega
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Activism main page
Principle 5. Mindfulness and Presence
We cultivate mindfulness and the capacity to be present for others
so that our relationships and actions are coming from intention
People marvel at the way children live in the moment. Yet from
the time we are young we are taught to abandon our direct experience
and move lock, stock, and barrel into the abstract land of the
A reasoning mind is a great wonder! It helps us analyze, classify,
learn, and plan; it is key to our survival. Yet, the older we get,
the more lost in thought we become. We contemplate the past, we
dream about the future, we worry, we anticipate, we fantasize about
our lives. Our minds grow filled with an endless stream of chatter.
The Buddhists call this phenomenon the “monkey mind” because our
mind jumps from thought to thought the way a monkey jumps from
tree to tree. When you say, “Oops, my mind was somewhere else,”
that’s monkey mind.
As renowned spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle said in his landmark
book, The Power of Now, “The mind is a superb instrument
if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive.
To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your
mind wrongly—you usually don't use it at all. It uses you. This
is the disease. . . The instrument has taken you over.”
The antidote to monkey mind is mindfulness, a technique in which
a person becomes intentionally aware of his or her thoughts and
actions in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Being mindful
is having a big picture awareness that gives us a measure of objectivity
about what we are thinking. It helps us step outside habituated
responses and solve problems more creatively.
As a lawyer, trained to use my mind for analysis, it has taken
me a long time to understand that we can cultivate an awareness
that is beyond our mind; an awareness that uses all aspects of
ourselves to “know” what is going on. It is a different, more whole
and spacious kind of knowing than what we get from the mind alone.
When we are fully present in the moment and we quiet our dominating
monkey mind (which takes practice and discipline), we make room
to experience our lives through the rest of us— our heart, our
body, and our mysterious spirit. Presence opens the way to directly
experiencing our deep connection to the rest of the world. The
more we experience “unity” or “oneness,” the less of an abstract
idea it becomes. The goal is not to experience some fantasized
version of unity that is naturally harmonious. Instead it is to
fully grasp how interconnected everything is, which helps us bring
into focus that the consequences of all of our actions, big and
small, impact others and the planet.
Through the practices of presence and mindfulness we begin to
see how the process of our own activism for seeking change
matters. If we are using a peaceful process we are creating more
peace. As we become more aware of the impact that our own actions
have on others, we can become more committed to the whole and be
motivated to shift our activism approach away from the dominant
adversarial ‘us versus them’ framework towards a unifying ‘we’re
all in the same boat’ framework.
Presence and mindfulness also help us clear away our defensiveness,
negative assumptions, and habitual ways of seeing and hearing things,
opening new paths for dealing with conflicting points of view.
When we are opponents from the get-go, we can’t listen to each
other with a truly open ear. When we have made the shift to working
from the perspective of the whole, on the same team or in the same
family, trying to solve a problem we open up a world of new creative
possibilities for solving problems and living non-violently.
This is not easy, by any stretch. And it isn’t for every circumstance.
But inroads are already being made with this emerging approach
to social change. Early this year I attended a unique gathering
of women leaders from across the political spectrum convened by
Reuniting America (http://www.reunitingamerica.org)
to have a “transpartisan” dialogue on a wide range of pressing
issues. I didn’t know what to expect, but was intrigued to be in
a circle that included representatives of organizations I had long
The best thing about the meeting was the freedom to drop assumptions
and be fully present for the discussion. The ground-rules requiring
“openness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, and brevity,”
created a safe space for us to listen to each other rather than
position ourselves for a debate.
The goal for the meeting was not to create a new policy agenda
(that would have taken more than a few days), but instead to help
build a new foundation for civil discourse. We focused on the how
of our communication, exploring whether improving the quality of
our dialogue could improve our ability to work together as problem
solvers. While we had serious differences of opinion, I was encouraged
to find that we had substantial common ground.
The meeting validated my growing sense that our time calls for
moving beyond seeing each other as enemies when we disagree. Spiritual
activism invites us to cast off old adversarial habits and assumptions
and meet each other in the healing and creative field of presence
As Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the great western teachers of mindfulness,
says that being mindful, meaning, living in the present is “the
only time you ever have in which to learn anything or see anthything
or feel anything, or express any feeling or emoition, or respond
to an event, or grow, or heal, is this moment, because this is
the only moment any of us ever gets. You’re only here now; you’re
only alive in this moment.”
Many months have passed since I sat in that room with women representing
a full spectrum of beliefs and opinions, some of which I have lifelong
disagreements with. But in the process of breaking bread with them
and listening with a more open ear than ever before, I feel called
to do it again and again.
Practicing presence and mindfulness
You can bring your mindful attention to the present moment either
through a regular practice of prompting yourself to attention through
cues, following your breath, listening to the sounds around you,
focusing on each step you take…anything that is occurring in the
present that you can pay attention to. As the witness to your own
life, you can always ask yourself, “what’s happening right now?”
and allow yourself to come out of your monkey mind and into the
Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega's Director of External
Affairs and Director of The Women's Institute at Omega. Carla is
an attorney with 20 years of experience in public interest advocacy
and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues
related to women's rights, poverty, public health and social justice.
She has contributed to over 100 city, state and federal laws. Carla
has appeared on local and national radio and television and makes
public presentations to a wide range of audiences on issues related
to women’s empowerment and activism. Prior to joining the Omega
Institute, Carla was the VP for Public Affairsat Planned Parenthood
of New York City where she directed the agency'sadvocacy and strategic
communications work. She also served as the foundingdirector of
the PPNYC Action Fund, the political arm of PPNYC. For eight years
Carla was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College, where she
taught, “Law and Social Justice,” a course designed to empower
students to be effective advocates for progressive social change.
As part of Omega’s Faculty, Carla teaches “Spiritual Activism,”
a workshop designed to help people develop their activism in creative
ways that align with their values and lives.
Founded in 1977, Omega is
the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is
provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best
in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals
and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops,
retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside
of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.
Women’s Institute, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated
to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the
momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that
Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since
2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and
inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom
is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving
culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political.
The Women’s Institute provides opportunities for women and men
to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices
through unique learning and community building experiences.
For more information, visit www.eomega.org.