Shelly Tygielski: Challenging Injustice Through Meditation

What is the relationship between mindfulness meditation and activism? Is there a way for our meditation practice to be transformed into work that can change the world? 

by Aidan Kennelley

Often, the act of “sitting” can feel individualistic and self-centered. But Shelly Tygielski believes this can be a powerful tool that enables us to ask the essential question “how can I help?”, allowing us to discover our roles as activists in a troubled world. Shelly recently discussed this sentiment in “Sit Down To Rise Up,” a conversation with Sharon Salzberg for the Garrison Institute. 

Raised in a devout Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem, Shelly developed a rather closed off worldview. Due to terrorist attacks on Jerusalem and a fundamentalist familial perspective, Shelly was led to believe that there was an “other” out there who wanted to harm her because of her religious and ethnic identification. She gave us two key moments that she recalls leading her closed off worldview to break.

The first moment occurred in Jerusalem at the age of 12 when she got lost walking to her aunt’s house at dusk. Alone and scared, Shelly felt a hand on her shoulder when she turned around to face a young Palestinian man. Initially petrified and convinced she was face to face with someone who wanted to harm her, she was quickly disarmed when he struck up a conversation about common interests with her and helped her find her way home. The second moment was a friendship she developed with a Palestinian woman as an adult in the Middle East. This friendship, along with the time Shelly spent with the woman’s family, went a long way in breaking down her preconceptions of their “otherness.”

Meditation also helped her break down her preconceptions of others. Shelly described meditation as a practice that allowed her to sit with the discomfort of categorizing and subdividing individuals into “others.” Often, we misunderstand meditation as a practice used explicitly for relaxation and down time. Shelly challenged this notion, praising meditation as a practice that could make her uncomfortable. In fact, over the past 7-8 years, she started to recognize her outrage at injustice specifically through her meditation practice, leading her to ask herself: What can I do about it? And, When I do take action, how can I do so from a place of love?

These questions, in conjunction with the practice of the RAIN acronym (recognize, allow, investigate, nurture—from Tara Brach’s bestseller Radical Compassion), allowed Shelly to make direct connections between mindfulness meditation practice and social activism. As a result, Shelly started Pandemic Of Love, a grassroots mutual aid community formed in 2020. Pandemic Of Love has grown into a huge program that has made more than two million matches (instances of direct assistance between two people) and has fundraised more than $57 million to help those in need. 

In addition to Pandemic Of Love, Shelly is promoting her new book Sit Down To Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change The World. This book specifically deals with the big questions of turning the seemingly self-centered or individualized practices of meditation and self care into tools that can be used to help the world at large. As Shelly put it in her talk, practicing mindfulness meditation can open our eyes to the injustices of the world, forcing us to sit with discomfort and practically address complicated challenges.

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Shelly Tygielski is the author of Sit Down to Rise Up and founder of the global grassroots mutual aid organization Pandemic of Love. Visit her online at shellytygielski.com.

Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and author of eleven books including New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness. For more information on Sharon’s work, please visit: sharonsalzberg.com.

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