At The Inner Activist we are always asking, what is the relationship between privilege and inner work? In other words, who has the disposable income, the relationships, and the extra time to work on their ego, to heal their wounded child, to unpack their co-dependencies? Who can afford that 10-day meditation retreat? Who feels at home at the Vinyasa studio? Who able to find a therapist that understands their lived experiences?
If this is how we understand inner work, then it’s safe to say that it’s not meant for many of us. It’s definitely not accessible to most. But what if we fundamentally change the way we define inner work to include learning our ancestral language, engaging in mutual-aid, gathering to pray, harvesting plant medicine, making art, living with our elders, cultivating relationships across difference, and building solidarity with others who sit in the margins with us? What if we understood that the purpose of inner work is not so we can transform ourselves, but rather we do inner work because global transformation and our collective liberation depends on it?
We asked leaders in our community to describe inner work. The following responses highlight the necessity of equity and justice at the center of personal and collective growth.
“Inner Work is a process that supports me to work on building a world in which all beings - which means Earth in all of its ecological, cultural and spiritual diversity - are liberated from oppression and exploitation. This work is influenced by the patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving that have emerged from my relationships with my family, community, and personal and social identities. These relationships have caused both trauma and empowerment, marginalization and privilege. Inner work helps me discover and acknowledge my internal, relational and systemic patterns, drives, and blind spots, as well as skills to stay grounded in my values; to work and live in alignment with the change I want to see; to develop and maintain respectful, creative relationships; to nurture my energy so I can sustain my work over time; and to effectively and respectfully use the powers and privileges I have.”
~ Christine Fletcher, Co-chair at The Inner Activist
“It has taken my lifetime thus far to incorporate a holistic practice that allows space to compassionately explore my inner self, to name and heal trauma and to integrate my lived experience so that I can meaningfully share with others. Inner work includes an understanding that my physical, emotional, spiritual and mental wellness are connected to systemic oppressions, and has fueled my desire to create change. Some of my most vulnerable moments that have motivated my inner learnings originated from outer conflicts and oppressions. As a woman of colour, my lens is intersectional and informs all that I do as an activist. When inner work leads to the realization that we are interconnected, that we do not exist separately, it allows for infinite possibility for how we chose to be in this world.”
~ Natasha Tony, Co-chair at The Inner Activist
“I think of inner work as work in humility - the work needed to undo our own internalized sense of hierarchy and power. It is fostering the commitment to collective liberation and complex social relations over individual gain or ego. I think inner work can become self-absorbed and isolationist in ways that reinforce privilege, and must therefore be within the context of our responsibilities to each other and the land. Healing justice addresses systemic trauma and honours both our individual care needs as well as our ethical obligations to each other and the earth by recognizing that we are interdependent and that social relations are informed by power.”
~ Harsha Walia, migrant justice activist & author of Undoing Border Imperialism
"When I think about how I do my inner work with regards to community building and activism, I immediately think that I cannot do it well unless I think of the inner and the outer as intrinsically tied together. This is where connection happens, and without connections (to ourselves and others) life is brutal. I see it as a feedback loop, always working in unison to ensure that I have the capacity to work in accordance to my values and to do all that from a deep place of compassion and love, not only to myself, but in my organizing and relationships as well.”
~ Carla Bergman, co-founder of EMMA Talks & author of Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times
Building on this these thoughts and 15 years of our work that has led us to this moment in time, we offer our exploration of inner work with an intersectional lens with four teachings for the progressive sector.
Rage too comes from the heart. We have a tendency to shame and wrong feelings of anger and rage, especially when they are felt and expressed by racialized people, and particularly women. With an intersectional approach, we can situate these emotions within the context of systemic oppression and violence. When spaces stigmatize rage and anger, they inadvertently erase the experience of oppression and as a result make these spaces inaccessible and/or irrelevant for marginalized communities.
Spiritual estrangement is a root cause of suffering. The colonial process around the globe has deliberately disconnected people – particularly racialized people - from their spiritual and cultural practices and traditions. In many mainstream and white dominant inner work spaces, we see both the appropriation of these practices for the purpose of personal transformation, as well as barriers to access created for marginalized folks through commodification and whitewashing. An intersectional lens takes into account who gets to offer these teachings and who has access. It would also recognize that for many people their spiritual traditions including religious practice are at the core of their inner work process instead of prioritizing secular inner work spaces.
Trauma is always rooted in systemic oppression and violence. Reducing trauma to isolated or circumstantial one-off events experienced by an individual, fails to situate traumatic experienceswithin systems of oppression. Inner work in a community context needs to acknowledge how trauma is intimately related to the impacts of patriarchy, racism,capitalism, and colonialism.
Individualism is not a pillar of personal growth. For many communities, inner work does not happen in isolation and without witness. Effective inner work always connects individuals back tocommunity for the purpose of social transformation. In fact, sometimes the conditions for inner work require the outer work of social mobilization and systemic change which requires community connection.
These ideas may challenge your work view and set you up outside of your learning zone where your fears and feelings of guilt can produce more harm to marginalized folks. As social change leaders and progressives, we need to begin by taking a closer look at how these issues show up within our change-making communities and organizations. And this challenge requires inner work in order to give ourselves and others the opportunity to learn and grow.