Loretta Pyles

The Healing Justice Organization

Many social services and social justice organizations may, unfortunately and likely unknowingly, be replicating disempowering and destructive structures, patterns, and cultures. Indeed, most non-profit organizations unconsciously draw from organizational norms inspired by business and corporate values and practices, including emphases on efficiency, the bottom line, hierarchy, and accountability to the top, rather than the bottom. For many of the students and the community workers I educate, this results in a profound dissonance between the realities of what have been called “the non-profit industrial complex” (Incite!, 2009), and the values of empathy, human service, and social justice. Furthermore, recent cuts in social services organizations have resulted in regressive actions toward workers, such as converting work to part-time and contract work, and eliminating health care and other benefits for workers (Cohen & Hyde, 2013). Many organizations actually turn out to be hostile environments for workers who give their hearts and souls to their avocations. The term, burnout, does not really do justice to what is actually transpiring here. For many workers, it becomes a dizzying combination of dissonance, distrust, and disempowerment as they work to heal their communities at the same time they are hurting themselves.

All of this is transpiring in the same moment that workplace wellness programs are a growing trend in public, for-profit, and non-profit organizations across the globe. To be sure, these programs are resulting in a variety of positive outcomes such as reduced turnover, less work stress, and higher job satisfaction (Cox & Steiner, 2013). Human resources departments, along with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), are offering smoking cessation programs, workshops on work-life balance, mindfulness programs, group fitness challenges, and stress reduction programs. And yet, rallying cries for self-care by management and other leaders can fall on deaf ears when no changes are being made to the organizational environment, working conditions, work load, pay, and other tangible benefits. It’s a little victim blaming to say to someone “you should really eat a healthier lunch,” “be more mindful,” or “get some exercise on your break,” while otherwise maintaining a debilitating and disempowering stressful work environment. This puts the onus for self-care and indeed healing justice on the backs of workers rather than the people who have greater capability to actually make changes to work load, work culture, and other critical employee policies that could really make a difference. To be sure, making such structural changes are necessary conditions for healing justice.

Loretta Pyles

Eating with Intention


[The following is an excerpt from a draft of my new book, Self-Care for Social Change: A Holistic Approach for Changemakers, Oxford Press]

Eating with Intention

Mindful eating offers an antidote to the suffering that mindless eating causes, creating an opportunity for us to reclaim our basic wisdom about food. Zen Buddhist teacher, Jan Chozen Bays (2009), explains mindful eating in the following way:

Mindful eating is an experience that engages all parts of us, our body, our heart, and our mind, in choosing, preparing, and eating food. Mindful eating involves all the senses. It immerses us in the colors, textures, scents, tastes, and even sounds of drinking and eating. It allows us to be curious and even playful as we investigate our responses to food and our inner cues to hunger and satisfaction (p. 3).

We can choose to eat more mindfully by setting a new intention for ourselves. When considering eating as a form of transformative self-care, there are a few principles to keep in mind. First, bring the six self-care capabilities to your relationship with food - observe yourself without judgment and with compassion, get curious and use your critical thinking skills, and bring discipline and effort, but do it without attachment to outcomes. As noted above, Bays invites us to be “curious and even playful as we investigate.” So, just notice your eating patterns, e.g. what times of day do you like to eat particular types of foods? Warm, creamy and sweet in the morning? Salty in the afternoon? What is happening with you and your environment when you forget to eat, or overeat? What role do history, economics, culture, and family play in all of this for you? Remember too, that at some level, you have already been taking care of yourself and trying to create balance in your system. Intentional and mindful eating is an invitation to refine your practices so that you can feel more whole, and better able to offer your best self to your community and/or clients.

Also, notice what foods make you feel in balance and what foods make you feel out of balance. This requires mindfulness and refinement of the skill of interoception, asking you to feel into your internal processes such as your mood, digestion, and even your bowel movements in relation to the food you eat and how you eat. You may find it helpful to keep a food journal and track your daily intake of food and beverages, including the time of day, noting your thoughts and feelings before and after you eat. Some people may find enlisting the help of a friend or partner, support group, holistic nutritionist, or other medical professional necessary or helpful. You may want to create a mindful or healthy eating community in your social services or social action organization that you work or volunteer in. Remember to cultivate curiosity and non-judgment, as opposed to domination and deprivation.

Second, focus on adding in rather than cutting out. Our initial temptation in changing our relationship to food tends to be prohibitive. “I will stop eating x, y and z starting tomorrow!” This may be a little bit heavy on the side of effort. If you plan to make some changes in what or how you eat, you might find it helpful to add new foods or new behaviors rather than focusing on cutting out or eliminating certain foods or behaviors. For example, rather than setting an intention to never eat while watching television shows, consider setting an intention to eat one meal a day mindfully without any distractions. Or, rather than cutting out refined flours like white breads from your diet, consider eating one meal a day that includes whole grains, such as rice, quinoa, barley, or oats. As you sow seeds of wholesomeness, you may find that you want more of that which is wholesome, and, if you continue to investigate and be mindful, you may find that your desires for that which is unwholesome will diminish.

Third, make subtle changes with replacement foods. Imagine that you have a habit of eating an ice cream sundae at night after dinner and you are finding that this ritual is not serving you well. Drawing from the first principle above, you can begin to notice what need or desire that this ritual is fulfilling for you. What feeling or thoughts are present when you decide to move towards the freezer? Perhaps you feel like you need to be nurtured at that time of the evening and having something sweet and creamy is soothing for you. Consider if there is a subtle change you could make to this ritual. First, ask yourself if you are even hungry. If only a little hungry, see if rather than having this high sugar food before bed you could have something that would have a little more nutritional value, e.g. a smoothie made of unsweetened almond milk, a banana, and vanilla extract. At first, you may miss the sugar rush, but you may find that there are similar tastes and textures that can soothe you equally as well. This is the teaching of what Buddha called, the Middle Way. You are not depriving yourself completely but you are not over-indulging either. It is also what medical professionals call harm reduction. At some point, you may find that even the smoothie is not serving you well, and you may want to look into whether you might find the soothing and nurturing you are looking for in some other outlet. This may include snuggling with a pet or loved one, or listening to or making music. In Ayurvedic medicine, this time of night (6 pm – 10 pm) is associated with earth and mothering energy, so connecting with loved ones or a warm blanket can be a nice form of soothing. Or, perhaps watching a cooking show would be fulfilling, where someone is cooking for you, giving you a feeling of being cared for. The invitation is to practice being present with any uncomfortable feelings that might trigger unwholesome cravings in the first place and see what it’s like to be with them, learning about your own patterns, and then see what kind of antidote, if any, is skillful.

Loretta Pyles

Transformative Social Practice

I've been writing a book this summer that will be published some time next year by Oxford Press tentatively titled, Self-Care for Social Change: A Holistic Approach for Change Makers. The book is centered around the idea of transformative self-care, a notion of self-care that tries to move us through and beyond neoliberal narcissism, and instead embraces self-care as inextricable from social change making. Transformative self-care is situated in a larger practice, which I call transformative social practice. Certainly, many people have articulated similar ideas, but in the book I outline my take, presenting 6 points of transformative social practice, which I would like to share here. I would love to hear your thoughts and constructive feedback.

1)    There is a synergistic relationship between the personal and political. This idea was embraced in the early years of second wave feminist movements and recognizes that our individual experiences of oppression are manifestations of larger social forces. These systems socially produce who we are, reflecting the existing order, and cementing power for the privileged. Ideas from general systems theory, deep ecology, and neuroscience offer further support for this premise about the interrelationship between self and society. In fact, we are often co-creating or re-producing oppressive systems moment-to-moment. Importantly, the same logic applies to our liberation, namely that we have the capacity to co-create liberatory practices and spaces.

2)    We must work to change the structures and operations of oppressive social systems. Social change is not inevitable, nor is fatalism an option. Transformative practice requires us to do the challenging work of changing political processes, governmental policies and institutions, schools and institutions of higher education, and organizations of all kinds, including for-profit, non-profit, and public. This vision also invites us to take the risks of creating new and alternative ways of organizing ourselves in terms of economic activities, the environment, education, social services, and intimate relations.

3)    Moment-to-moment, we endeavor to de-colonize the spaces that we work, live, and take care of ourselves in. This means that we honestly look at the ways that racism, Eurocentrism, Islamophobia, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fat phobia, and every form of colonization of “the other” manifests in our thoughts, words, and deeds. This requires authentic participation in critical conversations, conducted with as much humility and love as we are able. But, we endeavor to meet each other where we are. It asks us to be willing to be with a wide range of our own and others’ sometimes-uncomfortable emotions and ideas. We also seek to decolonize the spaces where we care for ourselves, attending to issues of cultural appropriation, cultural humility, and inclusion.

4)    Attending to means and process is vital to our collective liberation. Living in a neoliberal order that is placing increasing value on outcomes, performance measures, and the bottom line, we have seen the ways that the practice of “the ends justify the means” have hurt both the people we work with and ourselves as workers. When we attend to process, we are better able to hear and see one another, bring our whole selves to our work, and critically analyze ideas and the consequences of our actions. We also must recognize that there are sometimes limits in our ability and need to attend to process.

5)    Oppression has a negative impact on our bodies, minds, and spirits. Oppression affects not only our minds but it also affects our bodies and spirits. Because bodies, emotions, and spirit are marginalized in the dominant culture, we must bring extra attention to these areas and the ways that internalized oppression and trauma impact these dimensions of ourselves. It is through careful attention to and celebration of these dimensions of ourselves that we can find our liberation.

6)    Personal and collective practices of self-inquiry, self-care, and healing are necessary for both sustainability and transformation. In order to transform oppressive systems, we must transform ourselves. This means we must bring compassionate understanding to our families, communities, and ourselves, and deepen our connections. We can learn about our habitual patterning and our strengths and orient toward our personal and collective growth and transformation. We can do so both privately, and in community, using methods that resonate with our personal intuition, as well as our culture and communities of birth and/or choice. Transformative self-care practices also help us to sustain ourselves and the organizations we work in, preventing burnout and promoting wholeness.