Episode #45 The Path of the Trembling Warrior: Gill Coombs on activism, courage and resilience
Gill Coombs is a writer, coach, and facilitator. Her approach is rooted in her own long, colourful journey towards fulfilling work. In 2010, Gill left a corporate Learning and Development career to travel around the country on foot and public transport, leading workshops for communities on living in harmony with self, people and planet.
She is now an elder visionary with Extinction Rebellion and her own experiences of street-level non violent direct action led to the writing of her newly updated, and newly re-published book, ‘The Trembling Warrior: A Guide for Reluctant Activists” – building on interviews and conversations with activists of all kinds, she has created a resource for anyone involved in action of any sort – direct or indirect. With her help, we find the levels of activism that feel safe for us, learn how to build tribe and -crucially -learn how to resource ourselves, to avoid burnout and breakdown so common in the progressive activist movement.
In this podcast, we explore, deepen and expand on the themes of the book, to create our own resource for Trembling Warriors.
Gill’s Website book page
Double Down News
Thomas More: Dark Nights of the Soul
George Monbiot Article on Government Corruption
Earth Protector Communities
Embercombe – Dreaming the Wildfire (Forthcoming course taught by Manda)
Compass Think Tank
More in Common
Led By Donkeys
Manda: Today we’re going to be talking about your newly published book, Trembling Warrior, which was what first brought me to you. Many moons ago, somebody sent me an email saying that I should to interview Gill Coombs, she’s got this book called Trembling Warrior, and it’s a must for anyone who wants to be part of changing the world in any way, which is what Accidental Gods is about. And you’ve rewritten it since then. So I’d like to encourage everybody to go and read it. But before they do, let’s have a look at how you came to be a trembling warrior before you even began to write the book. And what does that mean for you?
Gill: Well, a Trembling Warrior for me is a combination of feeling tender, feeling sensitive, a little bit nervous or apprehensive, timid introvert, all of those words which suggests insensitivity, combined with a really strong flaming passion about all the injustices that are happening in the world and a really strong desire to do something, to bring yourself into action in response to whatever it is you see that you love being threatened.
And so for me, and I think for many others, these two energies can often bring up an inner conflict or an inner tension between the part of us that wants to keep our tender little selfs safe and protected. And the other part that really wants to get out there and speak truth to power and address the injustices that where we’re seeing, especially at the moment.
Manda: And there’s a concept of pushing one’s own boundaries. I’m thinking also that the adjective Trembling, is about our fear and our finding where our edges are and probably playing a little with those. Because even people who don’t consider themselves to be introverts or apprehensive are still going to have a point beyond which what they’re doing is frightening. And what I really took away from the Trembling Warrior is that everybody’s thresholds are different, some of them wildly different – there are actions that you mentioned in the book that are so far beyond my threshold that I would struggle to contemplate them. And yet people do them. And so we all have boundaries. And I am thinking that part of stepping into this sense of being a Trembling Warrior is finding where our boundaries are and bridging them; staying sometimes on the safe side and sometimes on the on the scary side. Does that sound fair?
Gill: Absolutely. Something about playing our edge. I was watching the Severn Bore coming up the river yesterday, I was noticing this edge and thinking this is what it’s all about, is not taking ourselves into a panic zone and something that is just way off our radar. But what’s what’s the step that we can take, whether we are introvert or extrovert or whatever it is that is holding us back? What might it be like to just take that extra step and have the courage to expand a little into something new?
Manda: Yes. And so in your own life, as I understand it, you were an activist, for which we will now transpose Trembling Warrior, from quite young. What were your first activist experiences, do you think?
Gill: I remember in my early 20s discovering how farm animals are intensively farmed. I just hadn’t known this before. I had vaguely known about factory farms, but not really thought much beyond it as an abstract term. And I remember a Sunday Times magazine with a picture of a chicken in its actual living space on the front cover. And that horrified me.
Manda: I remember. The front cover of the Sunday Times magazine was the amount of space that chicken had. And the And it was legal.
Gill: And the headline was cherished the rat, curry, the canary. Which kind of subverted the value judgements we make around different animals and how we treat them. So I read the article, found out about factory farming, and I think meanwhile had also found out about climate change at roughly the same time. I got involved in Friends of the Earth and through that met some people who were going on a protest march about exporting live calves overseas and in dreadful conditions.So that was the first march I went on. And that was my first experience of activism.
Manda: And was it scary?
Gill: Yes, it was. And in ways I hadn’t expected. So we marched to the MP’s house in Wiltshire and that was fine. We stood outside and then there was a faction who began to chant. ‘Your head on a plate!’ And suggesting to each other, ‘Let’s go and shit in his garden’ And suddenly I had this feeling that this wasn’t something I really wanted to be involved with.
I wanted to stop live animal exports, but I wasn’t calling for aggression or violence because that was the very thing that we were seeking to stop. And so I discovered afterwards walking back and talking with others that around that time. And I don’t know if it’s quite so true now, but there was a group of people who would turn up for all sorts of protests and marches just because they wanted to kick back against authority or get involved in some opportunity to express their anger and aggression. And they probably were angry about something that I don’t think they were particularly angry about live calf export in the way that most of us.
Manda: Or they were police agitators whose job it was to try and turn every otherwise peaceful demonstration into something violent. We know so much more about these people that they were deeply embedded. I remember in London last year, at one point, some guy who was definitely trying to get us to be a lot more proactive and somebody said,’Where’s your buddy?’ And he looked a bit surprised. And then one of the facilitators said, ‘Everyone who’s got a buddy,sit down. And we all sat down around him. And it’s really hard to rile people up when they’re sitting down around you singing songs about loving the Earth. And then we later saw him sitting on a wall chatting to the police in a way that we wouldn’t have done.
And yet it has always seemed to me when you get a certain energy of a particular group together, whatever the original focus of that group, it isn’t hard to spark it into a high adrenaline or you’re moving from fright and flight to fight. I remember even being on Take back the Night marches in Cambridge back in the 80s and and being surrounded by women who in ones and twos were lovely and then they would start becoming aggressive and somewhere down about Parker’s Piece, I would think, ‘I don’t belong here anymore.’.
This is not what I want. We can take back the night without having to paint the walls red with everybody else’s blood. This is not what we need to be doing. So, having done that and having found the boundaries of non-violence within yourself and also presumably felt you’d achieved something – because we don’t do live cattle exports anymore, do we?
Gill: There are still live exports, but not live calf exports in the same way. So we contributed to changing something. And it’s ongoing work and it’s slow work. But everything we do, we don’t know what difference it will make. And when we just do it, trusting that it’s contributing to a bigger shift, I guess.
Manda: Every little bit of action has some impact. That’s really an important one. So let’s have a look at that. Just briefly, before we get to there, I wanted to think that was the days when the Sunday Times did genuinely radical stuff. I think it must have been before Murdoch bought it. Can you imagine doing something like that now? That was for its time, really quite edgy, I think, in terms of challenging the status quo. I’m kind of impressed. I want to honour the Times as it was when it was the Thunderer, way back.
It seems to me exactly as you said, more often than not, it’s an accumulation of actions that create change. Very few actions in and of themselves create change overnight. Even the demonstration against the Iraq war, which had over a million people on the streets of London, didn’t change that policy. But it has changed British foreign policy ever since.
And I’m sure that the actions of Extinction Rebellion in the two years of its existence have massively altered the ways that the narrative of climate change is progressing through our culture. And so in terms of looking at the wide range of what Trembling Warriors might be, each wanting to put their drip into the bucket as we try to fill it, could we have a look at all of the things we can do? Because we don’t need to be marching on the streets and we certainly don’t need to be gluing ourselves to bank windows. There’s lots of different ways of being a Trembling Warrior, depending on where your skill set is and and where your thresholds lie. Is that fair?
Gill: Absolutely. And I think it comes back to the idea of what’s just outside my comfort zone. And so, for some people, something that’s just outside their comfort zone might be having a conversation with their local retailer about whether they’re stocking factory farmed meat, for example. Or any kind of unethical practise, whatever it is that fires us up. And for others, it might be going on a campaign or dangling from a crane, who knows? We all have not only different levels of comfort and different fear thresholds, but we all have different stuff that we’re scared of.
And so we can do activism without Trembling at all. But when we’re being the Trembling Warrior, it’s all about taking ourselves slightly out of our comfort zone. So, for example, somebody who is naturally quite reclusive or hesitant about joining new groups may be a little bit shy – it might be about joining a group; that might be a big thing to do. And yet having cross that bridge and entered the group and being welcomed, the scariest bit sometimes is then crossed and people can work together and support one another.
Manda: And one of the things that really struck me reading the book was the essence of finding your tribe – understanding that we’re not in this alone, whatever this is. And the joy of the Internet these days, is that it’s not hard to find other people to share your own values. And if you can find them such that you can work together, then I think there’s a tremendous healing in the sharing of the activism and the sharing of our vulnerability and and how we are afraid, I think. That wasn’t a question. It was a statement.
So in our broad range, you have 12 different Trembling Warrior archetypes, if you like, in the book, and I don’t want to list them all because I do want people to go and read the book, but I’m wondering if we could maybe look at the extremes. What would you say was the least of the warrior archetypes of group?
Gill: The least is when we talk about self-doubt or the Hedge Dweller, perhaps. The least Warrior-like. And fight or flight. So self-doubt and fear: one chapter follows the other.
So self-doubt is when we begin to question ourselves, when we’re easily dissuaded from our own personal beliefs or knocked off course by other people’s opinions or criticism. And so the book then goes on to explore how can we stand strong in our own principles and remain open to other people’s views and opinions and prepared to shift, but also really clear about what is our own authentic truth.
So self-doubt is one, but then the step up from that is actual fear, whether it’s fear of dangling from cranes or being arrested, or whether it’s fear of rejection or ridicule or conflict or dismissal. And the fearfulness for Trembling Warriors would be the fearfulness that’s the the beating heart or the lurching stomach or the the feeling sick.
Our body tells us when we’re fearful of something. And of course, we don’t have to do take ourselves into a panic zone to do activism. We can take ourselves just slightly out of our comfort zone into a stretch zone and work there and usually grow through doing that as well in ways that can be rewarding and unexpected.
So that’s the least, if you like, or the the most Trembling. And at the other end of the spectrum, the most Warrior and the least trembling would probably be Maverick and Fire, Maverick being the quality which subverts the dominant paradigm is a countercurrent and doesn’t care – is actually fine most of the time with being seen as different or unusual or coming out with strange things. And this Maverick quality is a fantastic disrupter. It has the ability to drop unexpected, seemingly upside-down concepts into a conversation and shift a whole perception.
Manda: Because they’re not worried about the views of the person they’re talking to, and they’re not worried about creating an edge space between them?
Gill: Possibly. Or don’t even aren’t even aware that they’re doing it sometimes. So the Maverick is almost like the quality of the archetypal Fool who is willing to step in and bring them to bring something different, to turn everything upside down. It’s a kind of Fool/Trickster, if you like, in terms of archetypes.
Manda: I’m thinking that you would be thinking perhaps of Roger Hallam, who is one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, who seems to me to be one of the Trickster archetypes in life. He seems to me utterly fearless. I see no Trembling at all, but he must have vulnerabilities and places where he does feel afraid.
Gill: Sure, we all do. And the Maverick will do too. I don’t want to generalise too much around this because obviously we’re all different and we’re all unique and we all have our different fears and trigger points and Mavericks will have their own as well. But the whatever the Mavericks don’t fear, it means that they’re able to very naturally and not self-consciously just present themselves as different and show up as, and make suggestions as, and act and speak as a countercurrent.
And that potentially takes some courage often for mavericks. I’ve experienced this, too. I can’t help it. I don’t make a decision to do something that’s countercurrent necessarily. It just emerges from my quite different way of being sometimes. And I’m surprised when people are surprised.
Manda: Yes. And I remember in our previous conversation, you saying that when you sat in the street and were arrested, that facing a column of yellow clad police officers was not frightening, which left me, I have to say, quite a lot in awe because I found that utterly terrifying. I realised I’m quite a law-abiding little girl at heart, really.
But then you said that you found that coming back and finding that your tribe had gone was far more unsettling for you – as you came back after having been arrested and processed and and held in the cell. Is that right?
Gill: Yes, exactly that. I was surrounded by my tribe [when I was arrested], and that, I think gives us a lot of courage. You know, I think any animal will do a lot more and have the courage – you know the way that horses will jump the big fence with other horses that they wouldn’t dream of doing on their own.
So there’s something about that being carried along by the tribe and being arrested was from within my tribe. And everybody was cheering everybody and supporting and holding everybody. It’s an extremely affirming experience. And so for me personally, being carried away, taken to prison or to the police cells and held for 24 hours – there was nothing in that that actually frightened me. I deeply disliked having my DNA taken a swab because to me, there’s something sacred about our DNA – this is our ancestry. There’s something sacred about that, but it wasn’t frightening.
When I was released. A lot of us came out at the same time and everybody was welcoming everybody else. And again, that was all very affirming. And I know that not everybody has this experience of being handled by the police: there are communities who experience, for example, institutional racism. And whilst that’s true, I think all of us agreed that our experience had been was OK. It wasn’t dreadful. It wasn’t scary. It was, if anything, boring and mundane and tedious at times, but not frightening.
Whereas after I’d come out and then we’d all dispersed and I went back to have a bit of a sleep where I was staying. And then I went back to the bridge and I couldn’t find anybody I knew. And then, unlike anything from the previous 24 hours, I suddenly had this sense of not quite knowing what to do. And I looked around the bridge and looked for familiar faces and couldn’t find any.
And this took me back. When we recorded the Hearing our Calling podcast, I was speaking about how when I was very small, I didn’t meet other kids until I was nearly five. And so I have a clear memory of going to my first small children’s party and just not knowing what to do or how to approach people – and all of that comes back: all of the childhood fears that we have laid down were very small. They sit there.
It’s something that I’m aware of and I’ve worked with over the years. But I know it’s still a trigger point for me. And so, yes, when I came back to the bridge, and I couldn’t find anyone, I grounded myself and thought, ‘I feel like running away here, that I’m not going to I’m going to approach people and just talk to them and just find my way back in’.
I approached three or four people and couldn’t really find that point of entry. People were busy doing stuff or they were all hanging out together. And I was already telling myself a story in which I’m four and a half again and that nobody wants to play with me. So after the 24 hours of being arrested not being a problem, suddenly I was standing on the bridge. I don’t have any friends. And suddenly I’ve got tears in my eyes. And and I did I did leave. I did go and didn’t come back till the following day.
Manda: Gosh, that’s heart-rending. We’re meant to be encouraging people that it’s wonderful to be a Trembling Warrior, and that’s just so painful.
Gill: But everybody on the bridge was being absolutely wonderful and it was all a very personal thing. And you know, we all have our trigger points. So and I think for me, this is the heart of writing about and encouraging Trembling Warriors. It’s about knowing what our own trigger points are, recognising that they’re real and that we have them for a reason. They’ve come from somewhere and then resourcing and supporting ourselves in dealing with them.
For me, that’s OK that this happened. I went away. I resourced myself, got in touch with my buddies, came back and carried on. And that’s the thing – to be able to be knocked off course around our own personal trigger points and to go, ‘OK, I know this one. You know, this is familiar. And I just need to get myself back from here into a place of being resourced and and ready to step back in again.’.
So while these things might be uncomfortable to talk about, it gave me something to talk about here. Because these things might be uncomfortable to talk about and maybe uncomfortable to listen to. But, you know, they’re very real. And I think if we’re to bring back in the sensitivity, the gentleness, that other deeper, more reflective wisdom into activism and into the public discourse, these are conversations that are really important to have and things that are really important to acknowledge and recognise and work with them.
Manda: Yes.And that will fit so well with last week’s podcast with Eva and Justin exactly about bringing empathy and compassion and that capacity for reflexivity – for looking in and seeing our own process happen as it’s happening and react to it – is how we’re going to change the world; is probably a key step to Conscious Evolution if we’re going to take ourselves back to the ground line of Accidental Gods – that we need to be able to have done the work to see our own process.
And that brings us also very neatly (Thank you. Well done. Good segue!) to the section of the book that talks about resourcing ourselves and gathering resilience, because it has always struck me with any activist group burning out is seems to be part of the process. In Transition Towns or any of the climate activist groups have been part of around where we are now or where I used to live, it’s always the same people whose predisposition is to to do stuff and make stuff happen and to try and change the world by going out into the streets or whatever. And yet they hit a threshold of burnout. And as I understand from the book, you did hit a threshold of burnout in a slightly different context when you were standing for parliament. Can you tell us about that?
Gill: Yeah, for sure. It was a slightly different context. And yet I consider that also to be activism. In politics, when we’re taking ourselves out of our comfort zone and stepping into something that asks and encourages all of us to change, to change the world, whether it’s standing for parliament or knocking on people’s doors, this is all the challenge. It’s all a challenge that stretches us.
So standing for parliament meant that I was pretty much running and embodying a high profile campaign in the Totnes constituency for about five months. What was great was that I didn’t get the level of abuse that you might expect the Green Party to come in for. And I imagined in Totnes constituency that we might come under some attack from the national press, but we didn’t. And women often get a hard time as well, of course, in politics. And I didn’t really have any of that or very, very little of it. And what there was, you know, I’m fine with people I don’t know, attacking me. When People I know challenge or attack me, then that might feel slightly different, but I can et it bounce off.
But for me personally in this might be different for other people with different sensitive areas -I’m quite the reclusive normally I need time to reflect and digest and I need downtime, time away from people. I’m the classic introvert. So doing this high profile campaign, which was high energy…somehow you become public property.
I was out there day after day, interacting, engaging and operating at this energetic level that was difficult to describe. There’s something about being in the public domain that is also energetic. I could sustain that. I sustained it for five months with some wonderful support, with a little bit of downtime. But nevertheless,
A bit like the Severn Bore wave I felt carried in a most extraordinary way, having committed to this piece of work at quite a what I would call a sacred or spiritual level before beginning it. I felt carried by community, by members of the local party, particularly by friends, through this whole process. But then when it got to the end, after the count, I remember when the Conservative MP had been announced as the returning member of parliament… we haven’t really spoken much throughout the campaign and she came round to the table where me and my little little gang were gathered and she sat on the corner of the table and it collapsed.
Because she was obviously quite triumphant and she’d come round probably, you know, in a very well-meaning way, I think. Anyway, without going too much onto her character and her politics, I think at some level she she was well intended in that.
But she sat at the table and the table collapsed. And I couldn’t help bursting out laughing after a very tense night. And then the Labour candidate came across and she was very lovely and said, ‘Look, this might happen. You know, at the end of a long and intense campaign, people do sometimes take a bit of a nosedive.’.
And I did. I went into one was probably two months looking backwards, not diagnosed, but what was probably clinical depression. I was spending a lot of time in bed, and I think I’ve described it before as when people have damaged a limb and they ask the limb to move – they might ask the leg to move and it doesn’t respond. I was asking my soul to move or my energy or my social engagement to move, and it just wouldn’t respond. It’s as if there was nothing there.
Manda: So what did you do even for people who haven’t spent five months on the campaign trail with the stamina that that would require just leaves me breathless. But anyway, people who are feeling that they’re heading towards burnout or recognising that they’ve hit it, what are the key steps to resourcing that you found worked for you?
Gill: One of the things that worked for me was to just to go with it, to recognise, as I think I wouldn’t have done in my younger days, what was actually happening. So having read and felt resourced around that and thought I knew what was going on here – my body and soul were saying I needed some downtime, I needed to shrink it and just lay low for a while.
So I honoured that and I didn’t try and push myself into anything that felt unnatural or uncomfortable. It didn’t feel like a time for pushing myself, I’d been doing that for quite some time. And I spent quite a lot of time dipping back into one of my favourite books, which is Thomas Moore’s ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’.
He writes beautifully about how can we can resource ourselves in such times because in a way, in those times were invited to just collapse and let go of everything. And while that can feel frightening, what it also enables in the very beautiful way is a reassembling. And so we can grow back potentially stronger, more resourced and come out of the other side of these times with unexpected gifts. So that was one thing, was just a rest and relax into the process.
And then I took some advice from my friend Kathy, who when, after a couple of weeks of this, I said, ‘I think I need to get my teeth into another project’. And she said to me and ‘Gill no, you don’t. You need to just do delightful things for a while.;
Manda: And what was delightful? What did you find delightful to do?
Gill: Oh, walking by the coast without guilt-tripping myself, that I was taking a lot of downtime. Lying in the garden, in the sunshine, just watching the insects and the birds and the garden. Just watching very slow processes in nature. Walking by the ocean and walking in forests and spending time with a very small group of very trusted close friends. Not much time, but just enough.
Manda: And people who knew what was happening for you. So they were being gentle with you and honouring your process.
Gill: Exactly. And really just being a little bit ruthless about not getting called into or engaged in some of the other things that people were asking me. Post parliamentary campaign, people want you to do stuff and being very, very selective and quite ruthless about what I said yes to.
Manda: You’re very good with boundaries. I’m most impressed. I’m also really impressed. Two things struck me there. First is that it was the connexion with the natural world, as well as the small group of trusted friends that seemed to make a big difference. And also what struck me is that at the times when I have felt that life really wasn’t worth living, pretty much the defining feature of that is that I cannot find joy in anything, but possibly burnout and annihilating depression are different things. But it sounded like you were you were pretty close, but you managed perhaps because you have a lot of reflexivity and self-awareness to be able to slow down and perhaps coach yourself into taking joy in those things to begin with. Do you think I need to kind of go, ‘OK, I love oceans’.
Gill: At times. I needed to coach myself and to take myself there. To urge myself to just go and engage. I know the things that nourish and replenish me and even if I didn’t really didn’t feel like doing it, I would take myself there anyway. And sometimes I’d just come trudging home again. But nevertheless it felt important to to continue to do that.
And so I would move in and out of it. If you’ve been depressed for any length of time, you know, you may know it comes in waves and some days will be really just ‘I just don’t even want to get out of bed days’ and other days will be ‘Well, I feel a little bit more energised today and I think maybe I have enough energy to engage in this thing or that thing.’ And gradually being able to introduce more Soul Practises, such as being in nature or meditating or yoga or some creative acting. It is different for everybody but soul practises that reconnect me with my fundamental sense sense of being.
Gill: But as I’m thinking about this and talking about it, overriding it is a sense of really being familiar with and trusting my own process. So I can say, today isn’t a day to day stuff and that’s OK. Or today is a day where I’m actually feeling really energetic and I’m not going to accept that invitation to give a talk and go, OK, so I’m feeling that that’s OK, I’ll do it.
I did a talk for jellyfish in Buckfastleigh. Jellyfish is a lovely little enterprise that asks people to come in and talk about stuff. So I went to that and it was great and that was enough for me for another couple of weeks or something. So it’s the long haul and recognising the ups and downs in that and the ins and outs and staying with them, trusting the process and knowing that there will be an emergence on the other side.
Manda: I was talking to somebody local who’s worked a lot in renewable energy processes and two things came up for us. One was that people who are working towards climate justice, social justice, racial justice, gender justice, the whole sense of equity – have a tendency to feel consistently under threat. We are in mild flight or fright: sympathetic overload most of the time, which is not healthy in and of itself.
And that there is never going to be an end to this. It’s not that, for instance, we stop the calves being exported and therefore the world is wonderful. We stop the calves being exported, and next we have to stop the live horses and the sheep and the cows. In fact, we have to stop live exports and then we have to stop the whole of the entire industrial agriculture system. And then we have to look at the systemic causes from which it arose.
And I think particularly in the area of the climate and ecological emergency, this is it for our lives. And therefore planning such that we don’t constantly feel we’re running up Everest is quite important. Giving ourselves down time before we burn out is probably quite useful. You can’t do that, I’m sure, in an election situation. But the rest of the time we can plan to take breaks and plan for things that will nourish us during those breaks. And as you said, what nourishes each person is different.
Gill: I know a lot of activists who would find that concept incredibly challenging to plan ahead and to build in breaks and downtime. Not just activists, but actually I’m thinking about people in workplaces, organisations I’ve worked with. There’s something about being human that makes it quite difficult for us sometimes to anticipate and to act now thinking of the future. We’re quite reactive species and often don’t do what we need to do until the alarm has been raised. I saw something today that said one of the American presidents has said, well, I’ll act on climate change when there are signs of climate change, which, of course, is exactly which is just the same concept of saying ‘I’ll act on burnout when there are signs of burnout.’
By then, it’s too late. And I know many, many activists who are really committed. And this is the other quality that stands alongside Maverick, whic is Fire. These are the activists, the Trembling warriors who have fire that they can unleash and boundless fire that they want to take forward into the world and make a difference and speak truth to power and give their everything to it
And I see people doing this day after day after day and and then collapsing in a heap, much in the same way that I did. But you’re right,during a parliamentary campaign, there wasn’t much opportunity for downtime, though I did find some. But activists can do this. They can step back and let others step forward for a while. Many of us feel that we have to be on everything. We have to sign every petition. We have to go to every meeting. We have to take part in every action in order to be an activist. And of course, we don’t.
In fact it’s far healthier for us and for the whole movement that we step in when we feel that we’re resourced. And maybe it takes a bit of a stretch, but when we’re almost sufficiently resourced and ready and then know when to step out as well. So it’s more like a tidal rhythm of managing our energy, an ebb and flow and going with that rhythm rather than pushing ourselves and forcing ourselves to keep going when our bodies or our souls are just screaming ‘No!’ to us. It’s a key part of knowing our own process and knowing how to just check in and be still for a while and recognise what phase are we in of that ebb and flow, what do we need to be doing right now?
Manda: That’s beautiful. I love the ebb and flow metaphor. And it’s bringing up for me something that Eva and Justin said last week, probably because I just finished doing the transcript of that before we recorded – along the lines of learning to come to a situation as people, not as the role that we identify with.
So not coming, say, as the chief operating officer of a company, but coming as a human being. And in activist circles, coming as a human being, not even with the label activist or leader of a movement or I’m the one who always does. I don’t know, the leafletting or I’m the one who’s going to be the Red Rebel this week, because, that’s a whole subset of Extinction Rebellion activism.
Letting that go and just coming as a person and seeing what arises and then the entire group having the emotional literacy to accept that someone who took a role last week and the week before does not necessarily have to take that role this week. And I think that’s one of the conversations that tends not to happen, certainly in the groups that I’ve been in, just because everybody is feeling slightly harassed, everyone’s somewhat too busy, there is an end point of of this bit of action that we’re all aiming towards, after which there will be another and another and another… and it’s hard when they feel and we feel as if they’re somehow reneging on a contract, whether or not there was a contract. And it should be fine for everyone to say they’re burning out a bit and therefore they’ll man the phones this week because that’s that’s still useful.
Gill: In some areas of Extinction Rebellion that’s held really well. And in others less so and not through intention. But I think there are different types of Warrior. We have the Warriors who as I’ve heard one friend say don’t want to do all the emotional stuff, they just want to be practical people. And so the question is how do we navigate how their needs, and are able to have those conversations to make sure that everyone can engage in their own at their own energetic level and get the emotional support they need, whether they recognise it or not?
And this is where I think the Trembling Warrior and the Trembling Warrior’s voice and presence in activism is really important and really vital at the moment. Activism has traditionally been about the fire and the fury, the passion and the dedication and the real narrow focus. And in a way, it balances with the dominant paradigm that we see in the world of politics and industry, where there’s an emphasis on being definite, on being loud, on being fast, on being clear and not doing the emotional stuff.
And so it feels to me that in both in business and politics, industry and in activism. It’s probably more than time for that more gentle, reflective wisdom to be able to have a seat at the table, to be able to be involved in decisions and to bring that attention to relationship emotion, soul – all the things that can get pushed out and the the frenzy of practical action.
It’s almost returning to old ways of council where the Wise Sage or the Visionary or the Healer would have an equal place at the table with the others, with the Warrior and the other know all the others of the community, and all would hear each other and respect each other’s wisdom equally. So very many aspects, – tender, reflective aspects: you could call it the feminine maybe – have been dismissed and pushed out. And for me, activism at the moment, a huge part of what’s happening in the world is about reintegrating or welcoming back in that more sensitive and gentle and slow and reflective wisdom. We’re missing it. And that’s why we’re where we are.
Manda: Yes, definitely. However, we label it – I get very twitchy around gender labelling of that. But you’re right.
Gill: So it’s feminine rather than female.
Manda: Or heart mind rather than head mind. Because it’s our particularly our culture’s tendency for head mind to dominate everything. And for that to be our measure of success – how fast we think, how, how we can think our way out of problems instead of allowing ourselves to sink into our feelings selves and and identify the huge discomfort that may be underlying the thinking process.
So, you mentioned quite a while ago as we were talking about burning out and your process of going inside and then moving out, that you might emerge from the the very still place of what we’re loosely calling burnout with unexpected gifts. And I was just curious to know if that was a personal experience that you had come out with unexpected gifts or whether that was a concept for you?
Gill: Oh, it’s a real thing. And it’s the thing I see with clients as well, that passing through these times, if we do it mindfully, accompanied in some way by the by literature or a trusted friend,if we have some kind of thread to the overworld that we do, it’s not guaranteed, but very often emerge with gifts and they might be immediately apparent.
WE might emerge and think we’re I’m liberated from this old self limiting belief or we’ve grown and stretched and done the things that we didn’t realise we could do- and then we see it and are ready for the next challenge. Or we might not get it immediately, but we might look back and think, ‘Oh, and now I see that this whole piece of work, or this whole new perspective or approach or creativity was probably being composted, being nourished in my soul while I was in that dark place. And I just didn’t know it at the time.’
Manda: Beautiful. Yes, because. Because everything is a spiral with any luck at all and exactly that – out of the out of the stillness and the winter arises a spring that new flowers.
So we’re heading towards the end of our time and I’m thinking that what I’d like to do is offer people listening who, if they’re listening, have care for the trajectory of humanity and the planet together. And maybe looking for ways that they can begin to access their own inner Trembling Warrior and things that they can do that are perhaps not marching in the streets and handing out leaflets or whatever.I don’t know why I picked those as my two, probably because I’ve done both of those and they’re both quite scary. And I take a lot of time and and a lot of energy. And when one is feeling energy-less, they’re quite daunting.
But one of the things that struck me recently was the conversation I had with Jozette Khimba about the Earth Protection Communities and the concept of signing the Earth Protector Pledge, which is a very straightforward pledge that does have legal weight, and then of persuading, let’s say, for instance, your children’s school. All the pupils could sign it. All the teachers could sign it. And the school becomes an Earth Protector school.
And in the UK, I gather it is now illegal for teachers to teach anything that is suggesting that there might be a good alternative to Capitalism or that white privilege is a thing. These are all illegal. However, it is not yet illegal to suggest that taking care of the earth is a good thing. So this is something that whole communities can do. We can get our parish councils to sign the Earth Protector Pledge and then the town councils and then the county councils and then having signed it, it gives everybody a baseline from which to work.
So it struck me that this was one of the ways in that people who want to do something and are struggling to know what to do, that’s a straightforward one. You go to EarthProtectorCommunities.net, don’t let you download the Earth Protector pledge – I think you pay one one input of around five pounds- and that’s you: you’re an Earth protector.
And then you can talk to other people about it, because I think often each of us is the pebble dropped in the still pool and we don’t know how far out the ripples will go. But if we just talk to random strangers in the street, the people we meet in the supermarket queue about this thing that we’re doing… I went to a sports physio – I was trying to put my back together – and we ended up talking about this and she went, ‘Oh, yeah, I could be a part time activist!’ She’s got she’s a single mother with a young son, but she’s really keen and is WhatsApping all of her friends about this and and that particular pebble dropped completely at random in a still pool has generated a huge amount of interest. And so I’m wondering if you have other thoughts of things that people can do that feel doable for the average person in the average life and yet will have impact?
Gill: Oh, there are so many. And when you’re we have choices every day. So they start with, for example, just asking questions about the food or the stuff that we’re buying in shops.
When we actually ask questions, retailers and caterers get to know that people actually care rather than the usua. ‘Oh, it’s a bit rude to ask whether this chicken’s free range or whether this other thing has been ethically sourced.’ And that might feel quite scary for some people.
One a little bit like the Earth protectors, something else we can join and sign up to as a group I’ve come across recently called More In Common, They’re looking to bridge that gap between the schisms and the political divides and the polarisation that we’re seeing at the moment. More In Common are looking to set up conversations and studying how divisions happen and and to draw people together.So joining More in Common is another lovely way that people might get involved.
Something I’ve been doing recently, which is fairly low key is social media. I rather resent when I’m on Twitter getting adverts for things that I don’t want. And yet my creative response to getting ads on my Twitter feed is to think, OK, ‘So here’s somebody advertising a plastic fish as a toy. So I’m just going to go into the comments and suggest that if we really love the oceans and really love fish, we probably don’t want to be buying plastic fish. We want to be taking our kids diving or at least pond dipping or something.’.
One of the things I talk about in the book is Culture Jamming, which is just a very gentle way of dropping a pebble into something that’s established. So where people are having conversations about plastic fish just dropping something else in. And for me, that feels like a creative response due to advertising that I don’t want.
Manda: And I remember from the book you mentioned, the Led by Donkeys group who do the extraordinary culture jamming work in Britain, and I’m sure there are similar groups in other countries.
Gill: And therea re things like flash mobs, you know, kind of going along and taking part in a flash mob thing. But you can be quite anonymous. And it’s quite an exciting thing for introverts to do because we’re not solely talking about introverts, but anybody who feels like they might not want to do something public just to leap up and do something, take part in some action which is seen in a shopping precinct and do it anonymously or in some kind of disguise because they’re looking to do that. Could also be a lot of fun. Using art as a form of activism, like Banksy stuff, doing similar stuff to him. There are loads of ways in which artists, writers can shift the discourse in a way that’s beautiful and creative and peaceful and doesn’t involve any conflict or fear at all. And art shapes the world arguably as much or more than politics.
Manda: Yes. Poems on the underground; they are amazing. Yes. And even if you aren’t feeling poetic, you can help to fund the people who are doing these thing, like More In Common or Led by Donkeys.
Gill: That reminds me of another thing: supporting subversive journalism. The media is dominated by wealthy billionaires in cahoots with the government. But there are, for example, Byline Times and DoubleDown News who at the moment publishing loads of stuff that wouldn’t normally be seen otherwise. And that’s where it seems to me that the courageous journalism is going. And of course, they need funding. So if you don’t feel like you can have a voice yourself or way of bringing it forward, if you want to support funding, DoubleDown News or the ByLine Times, that’s a way of supporting the truth and getting out there.
Manda: Or if you’re on the left and consider yourself a libertarian, green eco socialist, Novara media is also rather good. I’ll put links to all of these in the show notes definitely. And More in Common is lovely. I like it a lot because I believe the phrase came from Jo Cox (who is the Labour MP who was murdered by the far right activist) who said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons, ‘We have more in common than that which divides us’, which I thought was beautiful.
But there’s also a group called The Alternative, which are in the UK and in Denmark endeavouring to create alternatives to political parties. And Compass also is endeavouring to bridge various of the gaps. So there’s quite a lot that I know of in the UK and I’m sure there are similar things all around the world where there are really very thoughtful, intelligent people endeavouring to change the way that the system works. I think we need a whole new system indeed. But in the meantime, we will probably won’t get to that unless we change the way the existing system works.
Gill: And George Monbiot has just published a wonderful thing about PPE and the dodgy government contracts recently. And I read this and thought it is powerful, it is angry, this is wonderful and it’s true. And yet it’s by George Monbiot in The Guardian. Who is actually going to see this?
Manda: It’s in the echo chamber of people who read the Guardian on Twitter.
Gill: And so my suggestion on Twitter was that supposing we all took this article or found this something like it and emailed it not in the social media bubble, but emailed it to one of the beloved Tories in our lives: our families or or our friends who we may still have or we may have connections with Tory voters, people who just don’t know about this stuff. I’ve spoken with people who just had no idea about these contracts. And so that’s just another way of doing activism.
Manda: I think probably talking to them rather than handing them something printed from the Guardian or sending an email would work best. Because my experience is that they would respond to that much the way I respond to them when they send me something from Breitbart, which is that my eyes are going to fall out of my head before I can read this. I’m really sorry. Give me a précis. And already I know it’s wrong because it came from Breitbart. Which is really bad and totally against everything that Schmachtenberger talks about with sensemaking. So I do need a lot more work on that. But it’s going to be a while before I could read something from Breitbart without feeling that my eyes were going to roll over my head.
And I do have the AltRight members of our family who I believe feel exactly the same about The Guardian. But I will put that link in the show notes, because he starts off with ‘If you are not incandescent with rage, you don’t understand what’s been happening.’
Gill: And that’s a form of activism, having these conversations, having the conversations with the people who just don’t get to see this information, who haven’t yet realised what’s going on and aren’t yet incandescent with rage.
Manda: And finding the common ground so that we’re not lecturing them, that we’re right and they’re wrong. That we’re finding the places, what do we all care about and and how can we make it better rather than you expletive deleteds voted the wrong lot in. And we just need to vote the right ones in and everything will be fine.
Gill: Exactly. That’s the energy we don’t need. We need a non-violent way of communicating, and a suggestion I make in the book is starting with talking about, ‘What what am I scared of? What broke my heart? What keeps me awake at nights?’
Manda: Yes, because shared humanity is what is going to get us through everything that’s coming down the line. So I think that’s quite a good place to finish. Did you have anything else that you wanted to say other than we should go and read your book?
Gill: I don’t think I do, Manda thank you. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you as always today and sparked loads of new stuff for me as well.
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