Tenderness: A Spiritual Practice for Activists

Tenderness: A Spiritual Practice for Activists

By Sharon Browning

Early in the morning on the day Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, a friend closed an email note to me with this:

Let's keep our tender world in our prayers and good wishes today.

As soon as I read these words, inexplicably and surprisingly, I began to weep. Our. Tender. World. I was flooded with a profound sense of the world's suffering, vulnerability, and capacity for tenderness. This tiny phrase utterly moved me, cracked me open to a deeper sense of connection to every striving form of life on the planet.

All of it.

Our Tender World. I have been captured by this phrase, and so offer a brief reflection on what wisdom may be waiting for us in the concept of tenderness.?

I love the word tender; it moves something in me, or more accurately, when I am moved at certain times, I consciously register tenderness as the movement/response. Anything can elicit this response: a man limping through an intersection, seeing a work-weary Mom struggling with her toddlers while waiting for the bus, the frailty and desperation of someone mentally ill, the bravado and certainty of fearful politicians. Or innumerable encounters with the natural world: A spider on a glistening web, a fiddle fern about to unfold, the song of a bird.

I took this photo while visiting a Hermitage one cold March a few years ago when my soul felt torn and troubled. Not yet Spring, it was that liminal season of brown, grey, black, all the subtle, muted shades of winter. As I walked in the woods by a thawing stream, I saw a thin, fragile, vulnerable, winding vine with a few tiny, sprouting new-green leaves on it. It took my breath away. My heart expanded in my chest and I felt overwhelming love and, yes, tenderness for this tiny harbinger of Spring. Fragile, vulnerable, a survivor of tempests, this little shoot had endured, resurrected, lived to manifest its exquisite beauty. Like suffering humanity, like our Planet Home.

I find myself feeling tender about all sorts of things, and so when my friend wrote Our Tender World, it leapt up as a Truth of some sort. Cornel West has paraphrased the philosopher Theodor Adorno to say the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. Are we listening We are surely noticing all of the suffering around us, but are we deeply listening to it, letting it resonate deep within us, allowing it to tenderize and transform our own weary, hardened hearts Or are we allowing our sense of outrage and urgency to hook our egos into a frenzied need to DO Something

We are in the midst of massive, rapid paradigm shifts: the old world is falling away, and a New Earth is being born, in and through Us. Barbara Marx Hubbard described our era as a chaos-driven explosion of consciousness, the birthing of humanity into fully conscious participation in our collective evolution. Like the imaginal cells activated in the caterpillar's cocoon, we are becoming the butterflies we have always had the potential to be. But this requires the dissolution of old ways of thinking and being. The New Earth that is emerging is one characterized by collaboration, altruism, compassion, and empathy, and tenderness is an essential, integral dimension of empathy. To practice tenderness is to move our awareness beyond ego's relentless demand for separation , to be I, and into unitive consciousness the embrace of the we.

The true condition of our Earth Home is this: we humans and all life here are tender in multiple senses of the word. We are bruised, sore and wounded, tender-fleshed and spirited, vulnerable to all manner of illness, loss, and grief. As counterweight to this, we also have vast capacity for compassion, kindness, gentle concern and loving care for each other. We are hard-wired for empathy, but can only activate it if we deeply identify with and embrace the other as ourselves.

There is no more important work in these times of chaos and division: I suggest that cultivating tenderness is an essential element of our activism in any of the infinite, unique forms that can take. James O'Dea has observed: Immature activism gets caught in us vs. them scenarios and ancient versions of the good guys against the bad guys Activists who have not done the work to tame ego can demonstrate arrogant attachment to their own ideas as well as a self-righteous superiority about their mission.[i]

Too often we prioritize doing over being, the primacy of the head over the heart. Conscious Activism is characterized by what O'Dea calls activist equipoise. This is the marriage of head and heart, recognition of the rigorous inner work of the spiritual journey as a necessary partner to the outer work of planning and action. Without it, our activism is toxic.

Here are two small steps we can all take, spiritual tenderness practices to enlarge our hearts and empathy, expand our consciousness, and inform our activist impulses from the core of our being.

One: Recall a moment in your own life when you were gifted by the tenderness of another: The touch of a mother, or a lover. An unexpected kindness, or comment. The breathtaking beauty of small and vulnerable living creatures. Don't move away from the memory, but let it settle into and fill your whole Self. FEEL it. Then shift your awareness to some especially troublesome aspect of your life, your relationships, your circle, your neighborhood, our world, and bring the tenderness with you. Reflect on how this awareness changes your relationship to the individuals and situation, and how this greater insight and empathy changes your response, because it surely will.

Two: Set a mindfulness bell on your phone to ring periodically as you move through your day (There are free apps for this). When it chimes, summon your spirit of tenderness and use it as the lens through which you filter wherever you are and whatever you are doing at that moment. Stay in this awareness for as long as you can.

With practice, this becomes our default response. Rather than judgment of others, we develop relentless compassion for unskillful behavior.[ii] Be a tender activist. This is how transformation happens, one small shift of consciousness at a time. 

[i] James O'Dea. The Conscious Activist: Where Activism Meets Mysticism Watkins, 2014. P 137

[ii] Ibid.

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[Generative listening] requires us to access our open heart and open will — our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that wants to emerge.
-Otto Scharmer

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