Finding Balance Vs. Metabolizing the Toxins of Empire

I’ve been thinking a lot about balance lately. I have always sought balance as a foundation from which skillful action could arise. That is to say, when I am not pulled to much in one direction I feel able to shift and move with whatever life throws at me better. I am more likely to land someplace I want to be and move from a balanced stance.

At first, this meant trying to balance what I take in with what I put out. Like many of us, I have tendency to over-consume. I’m not just talking about eating until I feel a little ill (though I definitely do that). I am also talking about reading too much, listening to the problems of others, watching too much t.v. or playing too many hours of video games. My brain hungers for information and always has. With the advent of the modern internet and gamification of all aspects of it, I have started to realize that I am addicted to the dopamine hits that come with shocking, illuminating or enraging bits of information.

I often have this feeling of being over stimulated. Where I have to stop whatever I’m doing, rest my eyes and not take in any more information. Its like my brain is over stuffed. Yet it comes with an interesting paradox, I lose initiative to do anything and yet sitting still and doing nothing feels like a non-option. Like there is this void of action while sitting in stillness. My body pushes me to do something, anything, to fill that void. It feels like I have been hiking for days with a specific weight on my back and my whole body has shifted itself to hold that weight. Once the weight is gone I feel too light, off balanced and insufficiently pressured. This is true no matter how over burdened with the weight I was carrying I find myself.

I realized this year that my response to this dynamic has been to not set down the pack. To keep reading and consuming and doing so that I was never left off balanced in that way. This is a way of moving through the world, and energetic embodiment, that I think our society rewards. The ability to ignore pain, discomfort and unease while continuing to produce is a deeply valued adaptation under capitalism. Not putting down the pack for so long had conditioned me into an incredible willful, purpose driven person.

It greatly expanded my ability to hold massive amounts of information. I could not relate to people who got overwhelmed in long lectures or reading too much in one sitting. At the same time, my brain never stopped. I never got to zero out on the anxiety meter so to speak. I was constantly somewhere else in my head making connections. So, it works if what you are trying to be is living embodiment of historical facts but doesn’t leave you with a lot of capacity to be present in your relationships (and when you are present its only really for deeply emotionally evocative-dopimine rich–moments of conflict).

This tendency only became clear to me as I pushed myself to be more present in relationships. Being with my partner and listening to her day isn’t a bonding experience if I am still looking for bits of information to analyze, process and act on. The more I tried to be present, the more I flexed those muscles, to more I was able to be overwhelmed. In part, this is because it required taking in more information that I couldn’t do anything with. I couldn’t file her daily emotional concerns into any useful archive to be retrieved later nor was there any problem to fix.

I think that moving to D.C really increased this tendency in me. D.C is mission driven city through and through. This is as true for white people coming to be interns for two years on capital hill as it is for the Black people East of the River who were born and bred in D.C. The city has a hustle to it where even people facing homelessness have business cards. Everyone has two or three side hustles, a relic of the informal and precarious nature of Black economics that is even more pronounced in the south. Yet these side hustles are pursued with a polished fervor of the mid Atlantic culture.

Side-note: While I know that not everyone focused on collecting information in the weird way that I do, I think most people in Western Educated Industrial Rich Developed (W.E.I.R.D) societies has a similar dynamic. There is something that you are innate drawn to, that thing gets praised by society in some way, then it becomes an expectation to live up to. Eventually it becomes core part of who you think of yourself as and part of your default strategy for navigating the world. You get so good at it that its easy to forget the cost it has for you.

I’ve seen this happen to people for anything from telling jokes to caring for other people. You become the comedian to care-giver and your world world starts to wrap itself around that social role. Often times the parts of you that are innate or happen so early as to appear innate that get rewarded are tied social expectations. People socialized as girls are more likely to rewarded for nurturing behaviors. A Black boy in family of teachers like mine is going to be rewarded for intellectual achievements (it also serves as a good bull work against stereotypes of Black intellectual inferiority.)I think in general, people are socialized to play roles that the society deems as important, the better they are at playing that role, the more supported they are in continuing to play it.

This culture (the D.C hustle) is very productive. At the same time, it can lead to lack of belonging between projects. Without work, your whole social world can dissipate precisely because the people you are closest to are the people you work with. It’s not that your friends stop being your friends once you get a new job. Just that D.C is a happy hour city. Everyone works so much that who you hang out with is often determined by who is free when you are free. So many “social” conversation end up being about work. This is especially true given the number of people for whom work is not just a job but a calling. Your industry is your social world, thus changing industries changes your social world.

I think that no where is this even more true that in social movement spaces. I realized recently that social movements highlight the more complicated aspects of staying in balance. It takes more the balancing what comes in with what comes out, its also how you hold what you take in. The point that really highlighted this for me was thinking about behavioral patterns that social movement tend to create in people.

In social movements, the relationships between the people you work with are some how both deeper and more superficial than in other work relationships. They are deeper because the culture of most modern social movements are deeply influenced by anarchism and feminism. This means that the political is personal and there is often a expectations that your personal story is a large part of what drives you into the movement. I think that there is a lot gained by this stance. The ways in which power show up in our daily lives in the basic content of the ream of life we designate as the political. Your boss harassing you and the ways that white people gas-light you when you bring up their racism are all part and parcel to how capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy work.

At the same time, this centering of the personal story can lead to a weird culture of reinterpreting your life through the theory of others. In this culture, your story is only relevant when matches one of the accepted narratives of political open wounds that seen as generally motivating political action. Stories of your childhood love of comic books or insects are generally not considered part of the origin story of your activism even if there are a big part of who you are in other ways.

So the stories you hear form your comrades are in this sense canned even as they are true and deeply personal. This culture of personal trauma sharing doesn’t hold nuisance or complexity that actually typifies the human experience very well. My love of comic books actually shapes my world view in profound ways, its literally the most common moral tales I grew up engaging with on my own. The story of how comics mixes with religion mixes with love of music mixes with growing up Black in Colorado is really really complicated tale that is far bigger than any check in. Most lives are more complicated than breaking us down into race, class, gender and ability and assigning “privileged” or “marginalized” to each part would suggest.

Lived experience changes and moves faster than political theory.

So we get the trauma story and often are there to see each other’s trauma play out in direct actions (another source of intense dopamine hits). This can lead to trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is usually reserved to talk about the unhealthy bonds between a child and an abusive caregiver. It often happens when the abuse is couched in support. When we get messages like “I’m doing this for your own good.” We can get so used to cycle of hurt and apology and emotional support followed by more hurt that we start to confuse hurt, reconciling and emotional support with each other.

In social movements, we see trauma bonding as activist escalate their campaigns and receive more and more push back. In the healing and debrief spaces after these actions or the solidarity we get from friends backing us up with a troll online, we get intense amounts of support. In certain highly politicized causes, the support that social movements can offer is truly amazing. Yet, its work and purpose focused mindset means that people are often not there for daily things that we need support for. Its much easier to raise money medical bill from the police hitting you with a baton than when you get into a run of the mill bike accident.

This can lead to deep investment in these “flashpoint” moments because the support we get in the aftermath is so life giving. We can develop our own abusive cycle of emotionally draining incident–life-giving collective response–emotionally draining incident. These bounds of trauma then become all we have. This is doubly true for those of us whose conditioned response is to come alive in moments of intense stress. Not only do we like the feeling of hyper-vigilance that comes with those periods but other people start to expect that of us. [Not to mention that complications that arise from the fact that many of us are actually in organizing and activism to find a sense of deep belonging that has been lacking in our lives. But there is no space for belonging just for being since social justice is so focused on doing…but that’s a whole ‘nother article in general].

The pull to be who we are expected to be in strong in everyone. Like most mammals, we are incredibly social creatures. When we have a moral story about how who were are expected to be is also who we need to be to fight injustice the pull is doubly strong. The push towards intense moments can come from all sides. We seek it because of the habit energy, we seek it for the dopamine response, we seek it for the aftermath when we are showered in solidarity and we can seek it because its how we engage with our friends.

Of course, this isn’t everyone in social movements. But I would posit that most people who have taken on some leadership role in movement has gone though multiple periods of being caught in a similar loop. It is a major driver of burn out and a lot of the toxic behavior patterns that we see in movements. Yet it has been my experience, that we tend to criticize those leaders who display the toxic behaviors as being individually toxic or overburdened.

Rarely do we recognize how our expectations and asks of each other contribute to that. Rarely do we try to set up leaders to succeed, especially when so many people think that it is power that is toxic and not the material conditions and social expectations within which we build and wield it! It was in thinking about this fact, how movements churn through leaders who are tossed aside when we think they are “toxic” that I realized there is more involved that simple balancing what you take in. Leaders in front line struggles often don’t have the luxury of choosing what they have to deal with.

Through hard won experience I have realized that trying to subvert the world order is a process that creates toxins. There is no way around it. Like the body pushed to brink, producing acid when its needs for oxygen go unmet, communities that fight empire are going to generate toxins. Rather than shaming the leaders who have spent the most time in those toxins or praising the people who have stayed of the fringes to avoid those toxins what if we tried to metabolize them?

This idea, of metabolizing the toxins or as tantric Buddhist would say, turning the poison into a medicine, has animated a lot of my thinking recently. I think it is a crucial part of finding balance. In my daily life, I can step back from facebook or contracts in order to find balance. But ultimately, doing nothing is its own path to unwellness. You have to find a way to process all the toxins that engaging with the world as it is brings into your life.

So from this perspective, finding balance takes on two components. There is matching intake with out flow; this could look like writing more that you read or doing more activities that fill you with energy than those that drain it. The principle here is akin to what we already call self care. It is about replacing what is taking through rest and healing. The second aspect, metabolize toxins, is really different idea. It means finding the practices and rituals that metabolize the toxins into something else, not just releasing them.

This runs counter to our culture of self care which often suggests that simply leave that which is toxic. Avoiding toxicity or managing toxicity are both strategies deeply tied to social mobility and lack of marginalization. If much of the system is built for you (even if it doesn’t always serve you well) it is possible to avoid the parts that toxins. Yet if the same system that feeds you is also killing you and your people, avoiding toxins isn’t enough, you have to metabolize them. You have to turn them into something else.

[This might be more true in this present moment as covid-19’s global spread in face of decades of systemic disinvestment in public health is a physical embodiment of the toxins of Empire.]

This means actually facing those toxins, naming them and examining their impact on your life and making the conscious decision about how you will transform them while being transformed in the process. How can you take the hate your receive and turn it into fuel without all the spiritual complications and harm that comes form being driven by your wound or being fueled by your own hate. To metabolize is not to internalize, which is to say to transform something is not the same as making it apart of you. It is a subtle but important difference. Metabolizing toxins changes you, but that change does not come by incorporate toxins into your body so that you are toxic.

What if we say burnt out leaders as not needing rest or worse, being supported to continue to work, but needing take part in a collective ritual to metabolize the toxins that they have been engaging with. What if their anger and lashing out or systemic avoidance and becoming small are actually signs that we have toxins within our midst and in our bodies that we need to burn off or transform?

What if this is true for all of us in social movements and by extension, the world. What if the real problem we face is our inability to metabolize the toxins of empire which is hampering our ability to build communities stronger enough to rise up and destroy it?

Where this hits home for me is that fact that I find both the world and social movements to be toxic. I don’t know how we can change the world without social movements and I don’t know how my spirit can remain true to who I really am within social movements. I don’t think I am alone in this.

So this is my question: What rituals exists for communities to metabolize the toxins that arise when confronting empire and what material conditions support and enable those rituals? How can we normalize those rituals? How can we bring those material and social conditions to scale so that whole movements can be built by people with conditions and ritual knowledge to metabolize empire?

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