Nathan Thompson: Our Social Movement Need More Movement

Our Social Movements Need More Movement!

by Nathan G. Thompson

Gathering for Idle No More round dance outside Canadian Pacific Railroad office, Minneapolis, 2013

A little over a week ago, I co-taught a workshop with Mushim Patricia Ikeda at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s National Gathering entitled “Movement for Right Action: Yoga for Socially Engaged Buddhists.” Since then, I have been practicing what I preached there. Yesterday, for example, I opted to squat during part of a meeting at my zen center. When one of my fellow board members asked me if I needed a chair, I told her I was experimenting with what I talked during the workshop. The issues we were discussing required some flexibility and openness to not knowing, and I felt that shaking up how I was present – even if just for some of the time – allowed whatever wisdom I had to offer the situation to more readily come forth.

This is really just a small, everyday example. I can’t say that what I did end up offering to the conversation was pivotal or breakthrough quality. However, I’m still convinced that choosing to move more during the process mattered. Even if just to subtly give others permission to move more during the meeting.

When I reflect on the American social landscape, what I mostly see is a dominant culture that promotes various forms of dissociation from the body. Physical activity is becoming more and more restricted in public schools as classrooms are crammed full, physical education programs are cut, and “good behavior” is hitched to the ability of children to stay confined to the desks or tables they’re assigned to. The adult labor market is driven by increasing automation, a segregation of mind skills from body activities, and a privileging of mind over body (with a handful of exceptions, such as professional sports.) The prevalence of car-centric thinking still drives much of our urban/suburban planning, creating places where it tends to be safer and more efficient to be static (driving, sitting in a bus/train) than to walk, bike, or otherwise actively get from location to location. Meeting culture is dominated by talking, while sitting in chairs around tables. Even the average protest or demonstration is usually characterized by groups of people standing around, listening to speeches and/or attempting to gain the attention of some power broker or another.

In this light, even basic moving like walking or marching might be considered an act of resistance. And no doubt, the protest march is a common feature of our social movements, a visible, visceral experience that impacts both those involved in it and also those who witness it. However, I’d like to argue that marches are limited in terms of the kind of movement they tend to offer, and that in order to fully embody and reclaim the holistic wisdom we need to overturn oppression and transform society, our social movements have to overcome the mind/body split that is a feature characteristic of colonialism.

Here is what I wrote in the handout I offered to those who came to the BPF workshop.

Our movements need more movement! Body movement that is. Social activists can benefit greatly from body movement practices like yoga, tai chi, qigong, and more free form actions. Individually, these practices can help relieve stress, regulate body systems, quiet repetitive thoughts, and release toxins stored in our tissues. Given the often highly challenging nature of activist work, these practices can also help individuals cultivate strength, courage, and balance – all of which are direly needed, especially for those facing and tackling long standing systemic oppressions.

On a more collective level, our social movements could take another leap forward if body practices were incorporated more regularly in group activities. Doing movement practices during meetings and/or preparation periods before direct actions not only has the potential to increase group bonding and cohesion, but also might open up new forms of wisdom needed to create the conditions for social transformation. There also is power in employing body practices, or something similar, within direct actions themselves. The combination of unexpectedness plus unity through body movement – instead of voice for example – could bring surprising, and much needed results to marches, rallies, strikes, blockades, and other direct action activities.

Incorporating flexible, scalable movement practices into various activities of our social movements can also break down the tendency towards privileging able bodied folks. This is true not only when practices are offered that are either simple in form or fairly easily adapted forms (such as using chairs and props for yoga poses), but it’s also the case that by re-centering movement and the body, awareness of the body and differing needs comes more readily to the surface. In other words, in disrupting the narrative around what it means to “do the serious work” of confronting capitalism, for example, we not only give space for people to be fully appreciated as they are, but also, in the process, overturn the limits on how we do the work itself. Incorporating mind/body practices like yoga or tai chi, or simply adding time for people to stretch, move or dance, shifts from being see as extra or unnecessary, to being vital.

One of the most powerful demonstrations I was ever involved in was a round dance held in the Minneapolis skyway system during the height of the Idle No More Movement. As we sang, danced, and held our signs in the middle of the noontime lunch crowd, I noticed the stunned, confused looks on the security staff and police. Whereas usually they’d already be threatening arrest and pressuring us to leave, here they were just standing around, not sure what to do. Meanwhile, although some of the onlookers were visibly irritated that their lunch was being disrupted, others were clearly paying attention, enjoying the dancing, and/or offering direct approval to our pro-planet, anti-corporate ecocide message. In addition, it was palpable, the power of a multi-racial, multi-generational group dancing together.

What if something like this became a new social activist norm? Our visions, philosophies, and tactics would probably look different as a result. And in my book, that’s a good thing. A needed thing. Relying on the wisdom of words and ideas, and a set of tactics driven by them won’t bring the social revolution so many of us seek.

Our social movements need more movement! So let’s get moving!

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