More PRO than ANTI

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,
and that is an act of political warfare.
- Audre Lorde

You have to do your inner work, y’all.
- Our late founder, Nancy Millner,
as recalled by Susan Wilkes



We’ve been talking about INNER WORK a lot these days, and what I mean by inner work is the deep introspection that gives you clarity about what matters most to you. I think the reason this definition is so appealing to me is that before I engaged in my own inner work, I used to try to do ALL. THE. THINGS.

In my mind, there is just so much work to do to create a just and loving world. I thought all of it was my work to do. I felt very strongly that your struggle is wrapped up in my struggle and my liberation depends on your liberation, so I made social justice my life’s work. 

I educated myself in the lesser-known histories of our country and our world that I wasn’t taught in school. I organized and marched with groups such as Anti-Racist Action, Food Not Bombs, Feminist Action Network, Women’s Advocates to Terminate Sexism, Richmond Queer Space Project, and Queer Paradise, just to name a few. I tried to start a city-wide needle-exchange program...on my bicycle.

At one point, I called my mom with the exciting news that I was now officially a volunteer with a local nonprofit I loved called the Fan Free Clinic. I heard her breathe in deeply, and with a sigh, she said, “Rachel, what do we have against fans now?”(They’ve since changed their name to Health Brigade. Sometimes it’s good when an organization changes its name!)

My mom’s assumption about being anti-fans was right on the mark...I was against a lot! I identified as anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, anti-war, anti-traditional family units, anti-republican and anti-democrat, anti-meat, anti-car culture, and anti-oppression. That’s a lot of resistance.

Oddly enough, this angry phase was when I thought I was starting to understand the world. I had already overcome my rebel punk phase, my escapist partying phase, and my selling-magazines door-to-door-around-the-world phase (what a weirdo!).

Let me tell you in case you don’t already feel my spirit crushing under the weight of all of my resistance: being against everything is exhausting. Actually, it’s not just exhausting -- it’s futile.

So it’s no surprise that I burned out, big time. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet the demands of everyday life. I felt the weight of injustice in comparison with my smallness. The message I told myself was: you’re not doing enough, what you do will never be enough, and YOU are not enough.

I fell into a dark depression. An I-can’t-get-out-of-bed depression. And I felt deep shame because of it. I felt deeply depressed because I didn’t think I was enough for my community and the problems were too big for me to solve. I hit my wall, and I’m so lucky I had the awareness to even realize that. 

I couldn’t find my resilience. I had no concept of self-care and no concept of spirituality, because guess what? I was also anti-organized-religion and believed that if you weren’t religious, you weren’t spiritual. 

Can I get a collective eye-roll (and maybe a hug) for young Rachel, please? 

Something had to change, and I could see only two options laid out before me: I could choose to live in mainstream society, or I could go off the grid. Find a lesbian commune somewhere where I wouldn’t have to deal with the weight of the world. I actually did scope out an intentional community that made hammocks and tofu, but it was way too much nature for me. For the record, I was and am totally pro-nature but I also had zero experience living on a farm. The whole thing was too overwhelming, so I decided to remain in the mainstream world. But what appealed to me about living in an intentional community is that the people there seemed so content and happy, and they appeared to have a deep inner stillness that I didn’t think I could have as an activist. 

I came to realize that I wanted to live intentionally.

I was living on $10,000 a year at that point, which I was able to do by riding my bike, growing food, and shopping at thrift stores. To me, THIS was intentional living. I was very careful about where I put my resources and making choices that felt ethical. However, as time went on, I began to acknowledge that it wasn’t possible to live on ten thousand dollars a year if I wanted things like a cell phone, health insurance, and a good haircut. So I began looking for actual career opportunities. With a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies focusing on what was then called Women’s Studies and African American Studies, my job prospects were bleak. After a year on the market, while working in data entry, I decided to go back to school for a Masters in Social Work. 

The MSW program at VCU surprised me with its huge focus on self-care. It was embedded in everything. Self-care first sounded like an indulgence, but my understanding of it shifted when I came across a quote from the late Audre Lorde who said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The more I dug into Lorde’s quote and began to explore it, I found that self-care really is an act of political warfare. It’s especially revolutionary when performed by people who are culturally oppressed by messages that tell them they aren’t valued or worthy. Audre Lorde, who was black, gay, and female said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” I could relate heavily to this. 

Little by little I began to take ownership over the idea that self-care is also a radical act. I had to keep saying it over and over again to help myself believe it. I’ve come to understand that’s how neuroplasticity works: your brain can be taught to change with repeated behaviors that create new neural pathways. When friends asked me what I was up to, meaning “what movement are you organizing with now?” I would say, “I’m modeling self-care,” and eventually I could say it without flinching. 

About a decade later, I found Chrysalis and was overjoyed to become its Executive Director. When I say that none of my previous education compares to what I have learned here, that is not hyperbole. I found resilience. I found freedom. And I found my inherent enoughness. I don’t mean to sound like I’m done -- that I’ve checked all the boxes -- but it was the first time these things shifted for me.

The first thing I realized is that I’ve been a very spiritual person my entire life, but I had no language for it. So I  ignored, under-recognized, and belittled my own spirituality. My sense of connection to my community and to all beings everywhere, without distinction, IS my spirituality. With this realization, my life changed in my first few months on the job. The impact was profound.

I realized that God and religion don’t necessarily have anything to do with spirituality:  I am the author of my spirituality. My connection and affection with family and friends is a spiritual one. My appreciation of ripe tomatoes growing in my garden is spiritual. My relationship with nature is spiritual.

With these realizations, I felt my sense of self, my sense of purpose, my “enoughness” filling back up

My continuing mindfulness practice has helped me realize that I AM ENOUGH. I HAVE ENOUGH. THE WORK I’M DOING IS ENOUGH. I don’t have to do all the things, I only have to have the clarity to know which things are mine to do. Studying shadow work, a Jungian psychology concept, has exposed me to all that is still true from my anti-everything days. My shadow is a really important component of my spiritual inner work -- an inner guide highlighting what is most important to me.

And the work that I’m doing right now, in this moment, through connecting to you with my words, this is my work to do. Spreading the word to RVA about The Innerwork Center’s mission and vision is my work to do. We are a catalyst for well-being through programs that inspire curiosity, cultivate mindfulness, and awaken the spirit. We envision an individual and collective human experience rich with compassion, authenticity, and meaning, and that is my work to do. In this season of my life, that is what my activism looks like. And I reserve the right for my next season to be different.

So, I’d like to introduce you to a new Rachel.

I am staunchly pro-liberation. I believe in the interconnectedness of all life, and that compassion, not competition, is what makes humans survive and thrive. I am pro-art, pro-gardening, pro-self-care, pro-connection to the natural world. I believe in giving what you can, and taking what you need. I am pro-family, however you define family, and pro-spirituality, however you define spirituality. (Note to Mom: I am also pro-fans.) 

I’m no longer ANTI so many things, but I’m still an activist. My new activism is striving to be a good partner and a good parent. It’s raising my kids in ways that align with my activist values, but in a loving, encouraging, and gentle way that is more PRO than ANTI. My values and activism still share the same roots, they’re just growing and flowering differently now.

My activism comes from focused attention rather than chasing one activity to the next. I believe I’m actually showing up as a more powerful version of myself now than ever before. The old Rachel’s activism sucked away energy from me and the causes I was trying to could it not? It was fueled by resistance. Now when I show up, my work energizes me instead of depleting me. 

And that’s what this organization is all about; aligning your energy with your values and your gifts. It’s knowing what is yours to do in the world. This self-awareness will lift you up, which lifts us all. My mentor Philip Davidson says, “progress is an inside job.” Dr. Ram Bhagat says, “I am the work”. 

When I meditate, I get glimpses of the way that I want to be in the world. I’m pretty sure that’s called wisdom. I have moments of clarity when I can step away from the din and ask, “Is this mine to do? Is this where I put my gifts? Am I acting in a certain way because of self-doubt and insecurity and anger, or out of confidence and clarity?” And when I have that awareness, I don’t get caught up in my emotions. I have the freedom to choose where I channel my energy-giving work.

For me, that’s where commitment comes from. And once you have clear commitment to someone or something, you’re able to be courageous. True courage can only come from the heart. From my heart, and from your heart. It can’t be given to us from the outside, which is why you have to do your inner work, y’all!

I may have realized these things, but I haven’t arrived anywhere. I’m still a work-in-progress. I’m right here alongside you, doing my inner work every day. And THAT is my work to do. 

Rachel Douglas serves as Executive Director of The Innerwork Center, formerly known as Chrysalis Institute. Rachel holds AA, BIS, and MSW degrees, as well as multiple certificates, but they’re nothing compared to what she has learned through The Innerwork Center.

Elizabeth Smartt