Anger and Sustainability: A Self-Care Practice for Activists


In a training of more than sixty people, we were all asked the question in small groups, “What breaks your heart?” I answered with a shaky voice, “All that my community endures and inflicts again on itself.”

I was thinking about drama in my community, the struggles over politics and love, incarceration, abuse when the systems designed to “help” often perpetuate more harm, the harassment we endure for dressing how we do or holding hands with a lover.

I was thinking about unemployment rates among trans people.

I was thinking about homicides and suicides of queer and trans people and how routinely such news arrives in my news feed, inbox, or voicemail.

Seane Corn reflected to me in this moment that I hold so much for my students and want to protect them from going through what I have gone through. She noticed some martyr qualities and told me that this way of being is unsustainable. She told me that not only can I not hold all of this for my vast community, but that it’s not healthy to even try.

As we spoke with sixty onlookers, she helped me uncover the rage in my belly and burning at my temples, my chin jutted back, my voice shut off, holding it all in. My body demonstrated not knowing how to safely express anger at injustice and fear of the grief underneath the rage.

Seane asked me how I can let this rage out, and asked if I would like to scream. Being a generally quiet and soft-spoken guy, I reluctantly agreed, and then breathed into my belly and let out a loud, guttural roar that I didn’t think I was capable of. Seane asked me to do it two more times, and subsequently instructed me to go up on my roof in Brooklyn and yell as a yogic practice, in order to let out the tension and free myself from holding it all.

This lesson was a long time coming for me; I built my home with walls of anger for about a decade. Through my experience in social justice, part of my role and identity in being progressive and taking leadership is to be angry at injustice everywhere. I took up residence there, righteous, pointing fingers at family, friends, politicians, and corporations who were doing harm to people and the planet.

I felt I would be irresponsible or unaware of the important issues at hand if I were not angry, if I were not looking for more injustices to align my life against.

I had a bumper sticker on my car in college that said, “If you’re not angry then you’re not paying attention,” which is a phrase that I lived during a decade of social justice work, up to that moment with Seane. Fueling my anger was judgment—judgment of any behavior or language that wasn’t “on point,” not understanding or forgiving ignorance despite the fact that I had also been and remain ignorant of many particular sufferings.

Underneath anger is a broken heart. Once the anger has cooled, the task is to be present to the tender broken heart—the hurt, betrayal, disappointment, and grief.

Lama Rod Owens says, “The work to turn our attention back to the woundedness is this really intense, profound path of transformation, which doesn’t feel as good as just responding to the anger, because the energy of anger makes us feel powerful. Some of us, particularly if we’re coming from positions and communities where we feel marginalized or erased, use that anger to feel powerful, to feel valid.”

There is this vulnerability of being with the pain, and many of us have learned that vulnerability is a risk, potentially threatening our lives. The practice of being with pain is very tender. If we don’t tend to the hurt, we cannot transform it into something else. It will seep out. We work with the resistance to being with our pain, and we work with pain itself.

We need anger to ignite our social justice movements, but it needs to be balanced with self-care practices, with compassion and love for one another.

Sometimes anger is not a choice, as we need this fire for our survival. Anger is important: it tells us that something is wrong; it is a human emotion that we can’t remove or exorcise from our human experience. We need anger to ignite our social justice movements, but it needs to be balanced with self-care practices, with compassion and love for one another, and perhaps even with compassion and love for our “enemy.”

We need to fuel our movements with emotions besides anger.

I imagined that the goal of activism was to eliminate all harm, and that activists fail if we replicate harm. Perhaps eliminating harm remains the goal.

There are innumerable causes for my anger: the privatization and pollution of water; the state-sanctioned violence against Black, Brown, fat, queer, feminine, and disabled bodies; the US material support of harmful governments around the world; the homicide and suicide of queer and trans folks; the high incidence of childhood sexual abuse; the vast wealth disparity within the US and the history of that wealth disparity (stolen land, stolen bodies, stolen labor).

I honor my anger. Our world doesn’t have to be this way; collectively and individually, we could be making kinder choices with more integrity, placing people and planet before profit. My anger is a dreamer—it knows that another world is possible. My anger is a toddler—it wants that world right now!

The activist circles I was part of in my twenties had no patience for the transformation of one’s politics and practice. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about anger being a ball of fire we intend to hurl at someone else, but in the process our own hands get burned. We need concrete practices to be with and move through anger, or we will burn our hands, our households, our communities, our potential bridges and alliances.

What I have learned through yoga is that this anger is a fire that can eat me alive if I stay there. Anger is useful and motivating, and its passion is important, but we must uncover the immense grief, disappointment, and impulse to protect what is most sacred that lies beneath it and transform its fire into a sustainable commitment to justice fueled by love.

Tonglen Meditation

The Tibetan Buddhist tonglen practice utilizes the breath, thereby making the meditation a somatic experience. With the breath, we rehearse different phrases, shifting these phrases four times during the meditation; stay with each set for several minutes.

The Practice

Find a comfortable seated posture and concentrate on the breath to center your attention. Your eyes may be closed or downcast. Bring your attention to your breath and for several minutes simply notice the inhale and notice the exhale.

In this practice, sit for several minutes saying inwardly with each breath, breathing in love and breathing out love. On the inhale, breathe in the love that surrounds you, and on the exhale, return that love to the world.

After some time, shift the words you repeat inwardly to breathing in suffering and breathing out love. Here we intentionally turn toward suffering, let it touch our heart, and return love rather than passing on the suffering. Empower yourself to be in relationship with suffering, while being purposeful to breathe out love.

If you become overwhelmed at any time during this meditation, look around and find three things unique to the space that you are in, take a few deep breaths, and reach your hand to the sturdiness of the ground beneath you. If you feel steady enough to continue, please proceed. Or you may choose to just pay attention to the breath again without any words and come back to the meditation another time when you are more resourced.

If you choose to continue, begin to shift the words again to breathing in love and breathing out suffering. Breathe love into your body once again, and let go of your own suffering—any armor you are holding, resentment, fear, or anger. Allow yourself to let it go and, perhaps, to forgive.

Finally, return to the original words, breathing in love and breathing out love. The breathing in of love here is the practice of gratitude—beholding and drawing in the beauty and brilliance of this world. The breathing out of love is the practice of generosity—sharing what you love and offering your love, time, resources, and attention.

When it’s time to let go of the words, sit for a few moments with an awareness of your heart. Notice what is present. Take some deep breaths, open your eyes, and attend to the needs of your body. 

From A Queer Dharma by Jacoby Ballard, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2021 by Jacoby Ballard. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

About the Teacher

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Jacoby Ballard
Jacoby Ballard is a social justice educator and yoga teacher who leads workshops and trainings around... Read more