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Fighting burnout: mental health matters

Lifelong activist ROGER McKENZIE reflects on the importance of reflection — taking time to look at our actions and assess our emotions, rather than being controlled by them — and how it's helped him as a socialist

BLACK mental health really does matter. Black people all find our own strategies for surviving what feels like an unending brutal world of racism.

Sometimes we march. Sometimes we organise. Other times we litigate. Other times we just curl up in a corner and hope the racism just goes away.

I have used all of these strategies at various points over my life as, at times, I have struggled to survive.

I have always doubted that I had the discipline to practice a Dr Martin Luther King type of non-violence in the face of people threatening to kill me. I have rarely found it to be my first instinct when faced with racist threats.

But dealing with racism is really hard. It gets very tiring. Day in and day out having to deal with this nonsense. Sometimes from people who really should know and behave better.

I was reading a book about King many years ago and came across a photo of him standing next to a Vietnamese Buddhist monk called Thich Nhat Hanh.

I read that this Buddhist monk had persuaded King to speak out against the Vietnam War that was raging at the time. I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to find out more about Hanh. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to this until many years later.

I was raised in the Catholic church until my political activity and beliefs developed and took up all of my time.

As my struggles against racism and for socialism deepened, I often experienced real difficulties maintaining my mental health and wellbeing in the face of people who were doing serious harm — even some who claimed to be trade unionists or socialists.

Sometimes I could walk away from situations. I remember once literally leaving the building I was in — because if I hadn’t I really believe I might have physically harmed someone or myself.

Other times I was strong enough to brazen it out against the bad behaviour. Many black people will be able to tell of the challenge of never showing racists they have got to you and remembering all the ancestors you have at your back and what they went through so you could be here.

I rarely felt that I was in control of myself and at various times really was struggling. Without my family and very close friends and comrades in the Labour Party, such as Jeremy Corbyn, and many in the Communist Party, which I have never even been a member of, I honestly don’t know how I could have got through those times.

Eventually I learned about this thing called mindfulness and then Hanh came across my radar again.

Thay — Vietnamese for teacher — spent decades in France after being in exile from Vietnam. He went on to establish monasteries and meditation centres around the world in what was called the Zen Buddhism Plum Village Tradition.

Plum Village is a monastery in the Dordogne region of France where Thay established his first mindfulness centre, now one of a number across the globe.

Sitting still, closing my eyes and concentrating on my breathing all sounded a bit hippy dippy to me. I gave it a try and I am now part of a very lively and supportive sangha (community) in Oxford where I live. These are some of the most supportive people that I have ever met in my life.

Many people I have met who have claimed to be socialist or trade unionists, or both, seem to have an overwhelming desire to demonstrate their machismo. It certainly doesn’t apply to everyone but it’s an all too prevalent trait in the movement.

Many will tell me to take a look at myself and my behaviour over the years. I have done. That’s my point. I will continue to do so and for that I thank my Zen Buddhist practice.

I have never been good at being told what to say and what to believe. In Buddhism nobody has ever tried to do that. I’m often invited to reflect on my experience and things that might help me to be a better version of myself if I can.

Importantly my Buddhist practice also supports my activism. I doubt I would be practicing it if it didn’t. I feel much better placed to reflect on issues, challenges and my own behaviour and that of others. I feel more able to deal mentally with the racism that I experience.

Thay is known as the founder of Engaged Buddhism. This is a movement which tries to apply Buddhist insights, such as the interdependence of everything on the planet, into everyday life.

If my mindfulness practice helps me not to burn out then that must be a good thing.

I know some will quote back about religion being the opium of the people and so on. I understand that. However, this practice for me is much more than that. It’s a way of life.

It has also connected me to my African spiritual roots and to a better understanding of the ancient philosophy of Ubuntu — “I am because we are.” It also helps me to appreciate that everything, including racism or any other kind of oppression, is impermanent.

Hanh joined the ancestors aged 95 on January 22, 2022. I am so grateful for his life and mindfulness teachings.

Roger McKenzie is a journalist and general secretary of Liberation.

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