Leena: After the presidential election and the first Women’s March, I could see that things were going to get rough. All the early mobilization and organization fueled by extreme outrage was going to burn people out.
In many ways, the first Women’s March was a “powder puff” march—meaning that we would have to be continually out in the streets advocating for our principles, running for office, etc.
We were in an emerging disaster. We needed physical, mental, and spiritual stress resilience. We needed a big vision to sustain us in the darkest times.
I realized I was the perfect person to teach how to survive a national disaster of moral decline and the spiritual, mental, and physical consequences.
HTWAB: How so?
Leena: I always felt a strong connection to the vision of the Founding Fathers (and mothers!) in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. The USA is the only country founded on principles and mission, not just territorial boundaries or culture.
I was continually reading the pulse of the nation looking for emerging leaders and movements via Twitter and TV. I was a thriver of numerous disasters. I had disaster first responder training and chaplaincy residency, years of spiritual counseling and Interfaith ministry, political organizing, leadership development, principled negotiation. I was a yoga and meditation teacher.
HTWAB: Why “happy activist?” We never see activists looking happy. Was that done for effect?
Leena: When we appear to be experiencing continual cascading losses and challenges — a breakdown of our entire foundation of Government and governing principles — we can’t live mad all the time.
We will need to fire up our courage and energy reserves. We must learn to find the happiness and peace of each present moment.
I have always been at my happiest while volunteering to help others or standing up for what I believe with others who share the same principles. How wonderful it is to connect with tens of millions of people who all come out in the streets together worldwide on the same day!
In this spirit, I love the company of book authors. We are happiest when we speak the truth that we know and give our gifts and passion towards these times, these challenges, and these amazing opportunities for transformation.
HTWAB: The Happy Activist portrays spirituality as the key to sustained activism, and you show that many types of action that occur outside of organized religion are in fact spiritual, although people might not see them that way at first. How does your experience as a yoga teacher and an interfaith chaplain inform your views on the transcendence of spirituality?
Leena: The spiritual is evidenced by action. Action should be informed by spiritual or moral principles. I have many practical ways to be engaged even if you have only five minutes a day.
We need to work on all levels—spiritual, mental, and physical. This is why I love yoga practice.When yoga students first attempt balance poses, I see them wobble and fall with panic in their eyes. I hold the possibility of their potential to balance.
We talk about their fears that keep them from focusing on the intention to balance. I invite them to notice and simply shift their mind to the moment. At some point, the entire class is peacefully, quietly standing in tree pose.
As a chaplain, I witnessed excruciatingly traumatic experiences. There are often no words. You embrace the other’s sorrow—you may feel it, too.
To say, “I know there is a Divine purpose for your loss”—or—“this too will pass” or “it is God’s plan” is simply not helpful during the trauma. They do need you to hold that light of faith for them until they can re-light theirs.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. We cannot avoid pain in this world. We cannot control all circumstances. We can learn from life’s experience and use them for good.
Global humanitarian and Hugging Saint “Amma” says that we can totally control only one thing: Our mind. Thought, higher mind, can transcend any situation or circumstance. Grace comes in with seeming miracles.
HTWAB: In the introduction to The Happy Activist, you write that you envision people reading the book cover-to-cover as a manual, referring to specific chapters and exercises when faced with specific problems, and using the mantra around which the book is based. How do you imagine that longtime activists will use the book compared to people who are new to activism?
Leena: I think it is all an individual journey. I am offering tools, guiding principles, exercises and examples in a concept of angelic activism organized in a framework like a cookbook.
All elements of a complete meal are there. Readers can choose what attracts them, read cover-to-cover or use The Happy Activist as a reference.
HTWAB: The Happy Activist cites many inspiring examples of activists and movements, from Baynard Rustin to Emma Gonzales (survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018). What was your research process like?
Leena: Thank you. I didn’t intend to research. I watched a lot of MSNBC and spent hours a day scrolling through Twitter to connect with journalists, pundits, historians, candidate and elected leaders, movement leaders, legal eagles, CIA and FBI types, Constitutional scholars, and at least forty publications.
I heard about Baynard Rustin from his quote on “legions of angelic troublemakers” which was printed in the Indivisible Guide that went viral on social media and spawned more than 6,000 groups in every Congressional district. I looked him up
I heard Emma Gonzales’ “I call B.S.” speech, followed her on Twitter and was inspired to attend the first walkout for gun control at my alma mater high school. Her story came to me when I was making a point about a “no” being a “yes” for something else.
HTWAB: In The Happy Activist, you draw inspiration from an eclectic mix of sources, including religious texts, superhero movies, Star Wars, writings of the Founding Fathers, and the words of today’s activists. What do these different types of text have in common, and what unique elements do they add to your mix of inspiration?
- We need to be our very superheroine-angelic-warrior best today. We need many examples to continuously inspire us.
- A great teacher once told me that the most effective communication connects the heart and the head. Stories satisfy the heart—the emotions. The truth or logical teachings satisfy the head. Examples prove the validity of the teachings. Show and tell.
- I wanted to demonstrate the universality of principles and appeal to a variety of ages and belief systems.
- I wanted the book to relate to THIS time. One of the biggest stories was the success of the movie Black Panther.
- Many people today were not raised with a formal religious or spiritual/moral teaching so how do we teach the invisible principles which are more solid than the chair in which you are sitting?
HTWAB: You talk about social media (specifically Twitter) as a tool for informing yourself and getting inspired by fellow activists. What advice do you have about staying positive and kind on a platform that can sometimes be toxic?
- Commit to be positive and kind.
- Every once in a while you may need to put some people on mute. Bless them as you do it. When you are new to Twitter, you reach out and connect to many people on little information. It is like going to a new school or job or even a party. After a while, you learn with whom you want to associate. You start to spot the bots, the trolls (don’t feed them!), and the people who are hungry for recognition so they constantly spread dramatic negative messages.
- Observe yourself—are you getting into a downward spiral of snarky comments?
- Notice the difference between retweeting important (albeit traumatic or frightening) information and complaining. Stop complaining.
- Realize that everyone at some point reaches out with an exasperated rant of WTF’s. Breathe and offer some words of compassion.
- Be a force for offering gratitude, celebrating successes, and sharing innovative activism.
- Ask yourself: What is my intention? My original intention was to follow the Trump-Russia investigation because I always loved spy thrillers.
- Tweet the link to my book!
HTWAB: We will! In The Happy Activist, you describe a transformative experience when you were called to do crisis interfaith counseling over the radio on the day after the attacks of September 11, 2001. How has your experience working in radio influenced your voice or process as an author?
Leena: That day may have been the first time that I realized what my true voice or mission was, but at the time I couldn’t name it. I am just beginning to name it.
I was the Commercial Production Director for three radio stations. I would write commercials in the morning—perhaps a dozen by noon during the holidays—and record and mix them in the afternoon.
Radio is so powerful that even the professional radio association says that radio commercials are like practicing psychology without a license.
First, effective radio commercials create immediate vivid word and sound pictures and make an indelible brain imprint in 30-60 seconds.
Second, I learned the propaganda power of repetition. In my book I share the brain science.
I intentionally repeat many teachings in The Happy Activist to evoke the power of repetition.
HTWAB: The Happy Activist offers activists self-care strategies, resources, and suggestions for connecting with others. Do you find that many of these strategies are relevant to authors? Were there particular tools or strategies you mention in the book that helped you in writing it?
Leena: Yes, definitely. To keep on a writing schedule and then, the more rigorous editing, marketing, and book production side of creating The Happy Activist, I had to keep a regular schedule of walking and yoga.
I bought pre-made salads and sandwiches at Trader Joe’s or made bulk healthy meals to minimize prep and clean-up time. I had little social life. There is a sacrifce, too.
The month before the launch felt like exam week in college. I asked my mom to come visit for a couple months and (at 95!) she helped with cooking, laundry, plant-care and keeping quiet company.
HTWAB: What a great mom! Every author should have someone like that in their lives! In The Happy Activist, you write that there were times you became so upset by current events that it was difficult to continue writing. When that happened, did you use any of the techniques and reflective exercises from the book to help keep your resolve? If so, which ones?
Leena: All of them! Chanting mantras, self reflection, taking a break, breathing, having a good cry, meditating, walking in the redwoods, doing some simple yoga at home.
I’m big on bubble baths. I reach out to my mastermind partners.
Sometimes, just having a good cry and realizing so much chaos, destruction, lying, and violence motivated me to keep going because I knew that so many were hurting.
Upset frequently led to asking what was upsetting me which led to a master teaching which then inspired me!
HTWAB: Which parts of the book were hardest to write?
Leena: My bio. Honestly! I am a different person, now, than the one who started writing the book. It took weeks to take an angel-eye view of my life and try to summarize the essence—the life’s work—in 170 words.
The first section was challenging. What is the best opener? What is an angel? An angelic activist? How do I start the book in a compelling meaningful way? How do I share the very difficult truth that the US is in a disaster/transformation—and that our lives have changed? (This was nearly two years ago; not everyone knew what a pickle we were in.)
HTWAB: Were there any sections that felt like they wrote themselves?
Leena: The Aim, Assess, and Resolve sections flowed.
HTWAB: You started a book before. Would you say the initial book was practice for this one in some ways? Why do you think you were able to bring The Happy Activist to fruition fairly quickly, whereas you moved on from the first book?
Leena: My purpose became very clear after the presidential election: We had to rise up individually and collectively. It is imperative that we sustain our efforts for a lifetime without succumbing to overwhelm, outrage or apathy.
Since 9/11, I am an ardent follower of politics, leaders and movements. I participate in political campaigns. I relate to activists. Because I’ve thrived through many disasters and traumas, I could offer everything I know about embracing challenges, building resilience and summoning courage.
The first book drafts are still sitting there. They delve into yogic and spiritual practices that I share as an overview in The Happy Activist. I think they are more likely to be read after this book comes out.
I had been told that I have a gift for explaining complex spiritual teachings in ways that are easily understood. I have also been told that I have a gift for turning lemons into lemonade. And, a third gift: I have a gift for quickly learning, assessing, and integrating or applying that knowledge into my life. This book uses all these qualities.
HTWAB: In The Happy Activist, you mention keeping a journal, and many of the exercises in the book could be done as journal exercises. Are there ways that journaling as a tool for angelic activism intersects with journaling as a tool for your craft as an author?
Leena: Of course. Writing (journaling) is telling the truth. Activism (citizen responsibility) and journalism (authoring) come from one’s passion, integrity and what the world needs of you. The entire section called AIM has self-reflective exercises from several perspectives to support your clarity of mission. How mission expresses depends on the times. So you must assess.
The ASSESS section is practical for self-reflection (yoga-swadhyaya) for authors, for all who breathe. Present moment awareness is assessment.
Journaling documents your observations and assessment.
I speak about taking the “angel-eye view.” Authors must engage their senses, intuition, and imagination to give their readers to a visceral experience of a moment and then the entire landscape.
Citizens in a democracy have the responsibility and authority to keep their finger on the pulse of their community, nation, and world asking: “What is happening?” “What are my senses telling me?” “What are the gifts I have that are needed now in the world?” “How can I serve?” “Who and what do I trust?”
HTWAB: What tips do you have for our readers for writing, revising, and publishing?
- HaHa! It is all in the revising! Think of your first draft as a journaling exercise. Real writing begins after the first draft. I took my book apart—shredded it and reassembled it—three or four times.
- At one point, I cut out two/thirds of the writing because I realized I had the foundation for three—maybe four books.
- Lisa Tener edited The Happy Activist and handed it back to me after reading a hundred pages. It was painful for a day. I ate a lot of chocolate and boo-hooed. And I am so grateful. I shredded, reorganized, shifted the tone. I now feel I have a book that I would feel ok handing to Oprah—it is the best I can do at this time. I have since learned that this experience is normal. Hey, it is a birthing process. You wouldn’t want to deliver a baby before it was fully formed with all parts in the right place. One author told me that she regrets that her editor did not help her more.
- It takes a community to raise an author—coaches, committed mastermind partners, editors, proofreaders, formatters, graphic artists, social marketing gurus, etc. Don’t think, “I’ll get a publisher and then I won’t have to know all that stuff.” You need to feel good about your team. You need a clear roadmap of what is first, second, third, or simultaneous.
- Ask your target audience, family, and friends to vote for your title, cover, and more. Engage them. Then discern for yourself.
- Mission: When you get lost in the weeds, and you will, go back to your mission. Get as clear as possible on your aim that inspired you, your audience, and your market before you write. Clearly describe your reader-age, sex, income, interests, needs. And be flexible. Your mission and path will clarify.
- There is a point where you will know it is done. There is a balance between perfect and production. “Done is better than perfect.” Set a launch date and go for it. If you need to change it, do so.
HTWAB: Thank you! It’s so exciting that readers will be able to gain wisdom from this book starting this Friday, September 21 – The United Nations International Day of Peace!
Leena St. Michael is a happy activist committed to awakening the inner joy and warrior spirit in everyone. She is a yoga teacher in an expansive way—unity of spirit, mind, body, community, country, and world. She has honed tools to help herself and others overcome debilitating overwhelm, trauma and outrage through four decades of yogic wisdom and New Thought study and practice. Connect with her on Twitter.
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