Caring For Each Other, Caring For Ourselves
A Conversation With adrienne maree brown
By Courtney Jines
adrienne maree brown (*her name purposefully stylized in all lower-cased letters) is a writer, social justice facilitator, speaker, and co-host of the How to Survive the End of the World podcast. She is the author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and the co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. Her writing outlines a glittering social justice of the future— embodied, interconnected, lively, flexible, capable of changing shape without losing impact. Capable of embracing diverse individual perspectives within a collective.
In her newest book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, adrienne encourages readers not to settle for anything less than a fulfilling life. Feeling good isn’t frivolous, she asserts, it’s freedom. And freedom feels good. We got to chat with adrienne over the phone about self care, balance, social justice, outer space, and yes, “Game of Thrones.” Read on, babes of the internet.
In your new book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, you write about shaping a future in which feeling good is the primary experience of all beings. Why do you think feeling good on an individual level is so important for creating sustainable social movements? And for society in general?
A lot of the way that I view the world is looking at things across different scales, and understanding that everything large in the world is made up of a lot of very small parts. And that includes our collective misery, right? There’s so many of us who have not been in any kind of rigorous practice of feeling good, of taking care of our bodies, and of feeling pleasure, feeling connection to each other. And so, I feel like we are now in a situation where, for a lot of us, our norm, and something that seems like an acceptable norm, is to be in a state of misery, or overwork, or burnout, or depression, or compromise. Pleasure Activism asserts that one of the first things we have to do is tune back in to the part of ourselves that can feel for boundaries— the part that can feel a “no,” and can feel a “yes.” Getting back in touch with letting that guide our lives, and understanding that oppression is the force that cuts that connection. We’re all born holding each other, loving each other, needing to be held, needing to be fed and cared for, desiring the touch of others. And then as we get older we slowly lose access to that very fundamental basic need of contact. And then you know, we lose touch with all the other things too. It’s like, if no one else is taking care of me, have I learned how to take care of myself? Have I learned how to listen to what my needs are, the way that my mother once may have listened to my needs? And I don’t want to prescribe that everyone has had the same kind of parenting. I actually think that the finer distinctions amongst parenting styles can determine whether you are set up for a life of a lot of ease and pleasure, or a lot of abundance and confidence, or a lack thereof. I think we all have the capacity in our lives to find joy, but we don’t all start out from the same place at all. But for most of us, the only reason we’re still alive is because someone loved us enough, and cared for us enough, to get us through those years where we couldn’t do it for ourselves.
When I think at a very large scale about a collective healing… that’s what I’m actually interested in. I’m not really interested in eight and a half billion people all pursuing their individual pleasure as the goal, but I’m very interested in the idea of a tipping point of human beings saying, “Our work is about caring for each other, and our work is about caring for ourselves. And none of us are here just to be in service of other people’s pleasure. All of us are actually here to be collaborators in creating a pleasure that’s large enough for all of us to have.” And when I say pleasure there, I mean contentment, satisfaction, learning how to be a satisfiable human being. Learning what enough feels like. Learning what joy can feel like in a sustained daily way.
So many of us have, at one time or another, felt disconnected from the “yeses” and “nos” you describe. What are some steps you have found useful for reconnecting with that kind of inner guidance?
Years ago I was invited to a course that generative somatics was putting together, it was somatics and social justice. Somatics became a part of my life path, and I now teach it as part of GS. Somatics is the study of the body in its wholeness, and the generative somatics model says we can’t disconnect the individual from the social systems that we exist inside of. I found that to be a really like… you know, just one of those earth shattering moments. I was like “Oh! I am of a collective body. And it’s a body that moves by sensation. How am I moving in relationship to other people?” A lot of that work focuses on: What can you feel? Where are you numb, and where can you actually feel sensation? So many of the things that I was wrestling with around power dynamics, around boundaries, around my sense of self and my own self worth, all those things—there were sensations tied to each of those feelings. They’re sensations that I learned to feel inside myself and then let myself be guided by. I’m a really big proponent for people finding a way to feel. Finding a place, finding a practice. I’m a huge fan of somatics. There are also a lot of other practices. A yoga practice with a good teacher can really help you drop into feeling. Aikido is a powerful practice for starting to really feel the force that moves through each of us and how to harness those forces. I often push people. I’m like, you know, how are you practicing feeling more? If that’s what we all need to do, how are you practicing that?
What daily practices do you keep to sustain your emotional and mental wellbeing?
My daily life is not very routine, and I like it that way. Each day is a little different, and I go through periods that are wildly different. When I’m home in Detroit—my self care practices are that I go to a local gym with a swimming pool and a steam room and sauna. I swim for 35-45 minutes, sometimes up to an hour, depending on how my energy is, then afterwards I go sit in the sauna for half an hour. I feel like myself when I’m in that practice. When I’m in that rhythm it feels so good to my body. And then when I’m traveling, I have a travel yoga mat that I bring with me everywhere, I’ll lay out and get a yoga session in each day. And then I twerk. I’ve been teaching myself to twerk after years of feeling like “I don’t think I can. I think only cool dancer people know how to twerk and not me.” I was finally like, you know, I actually love dancing. And twerking, for me, feels very related to a liberation of my hips. A liberation of this part of my body that has experienced a lot of harm and a lot of shame, and just being like… this jiggles. This moves. So, every day I’ve been having some twerking practices. And then, no matter where I am in the world, every day I pull a tarot card for the movement, which feels like both a self and collective care activity that I’m engaged in. I also pull cards for myself regularly, especially in moon cycles. As the moon shifts its cycle, I check in with what’s happening in my life, what I need awareness around… oh and baths. I take a lot of baths. I got this little stand that, like, stretches across the tub that I can put my iPad on. Sometimes I’ll bring shows in there, and that helps me stay in a little longer. I like to get it really hot, like, as hot as I could possibly take it, and then get in and really get a sweat going. I like sweating, but not through working out, so I really enjoy it in the context of baths or saunas.
I know you love sci-fi, and Octavia Butler’s writing in particular has influenced your work, are there any sci-fi shows or movies that you’re nerding out about these days?
I really liked this latest season of the OA. There’s a lot of it where I was like “I really can’t tell what’s going on,” and I still felt compelled to stay in the story. I don’t think a lot of shows pull that off. A lot of them try, but it takes a lot to pull that off. That’s one of the things I liked about “Lost.” It felt very non-linear and unclear, but still compelling to watch. “The Leftovers” also did that. So, those are some shows that I’ve been really enjoying. “Game of Thrones” obviously, to me, is one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. In terms of building characters over a long period of time, but then not being precious about those characters. It’s like life is happening to those characters in the same way life happens to us. You know, they might lose an arm, or lose their lives, or lose something else, and then we get to see them continue. And I really love how they frame women as the heroes in almost every significant moment that happens. I get mad about some things that happen. This past week made me feel kind of morose and sad and angry, but there are only two episodes left now, so I’m like… ok. There’s going to have to be some hard times I suppose. There are certain places where I’m like, “Oh, I can really feel the forward thinking in who wrote this episode,” and then there’s others where I’m like, “That feels like we regressed.” But I just like that it’s a show that keeps me on my toes. And then, “One Strange Rock.” I’m such a fan of this show! I think it’s one of the sweetest things on television. I’m a big fan of nature shows. Sometimes I’ll skip the science fiction and just go straight for the science. I really could watch “Planet Earth,” or “Blue Planet,” or any of these shows. “One Strange Rock” is particularly sweet because it’s Will Smith being a nerd with astronauts about their journeys into space, and how that shifted their perspective on the preciousness of our planet. So it’s very much like, an environmental argument, but it’s done in really high quality gorgeous visuals. I keep recommending that show to people. You know, if you are someone who takes in weed products, it’s a great show to smoke a joint and just sit and watch and be like “right.” I think it’s important to put yourself in the way of wonder sometimes. Things can be really hard, and what you’re putting your attention on grows, so I like to put my attention on wonder sometimes. And just feel like “Ok. This is delight. And I deserve to feel it.”
One of the shows that has most successfully sparked that feeling of wonder in me was Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from the 70s. After watching it for the first time, I had this moment like “Wait. There’s so much out there. This is insane that we are here at all.”
Exactly. And I like that feeling. If you ever doubted how miraculous it is that we exist… literally rocks crashed into each other and started swirling around. And then some crystals came from outer space, it’s just like… what? The scale of time is also really delicious. All of that happened before the dinosaurs, all that happened before humans, and before religion, and before ideology, and before philosophy, and before wars. There’s all this wonder and magic that pre-dates all of the stupid stuff that we’re up to now.
Yeah. I think it’s important to attune to that larger time scale sometimes, and to realize that in your own lifetime, you’ll do as much as you can, but ultimately you’re contributing to something that will be carried on by the people who come after you. I think it takes a bit of the pressure off of us to get everything done right here, right now, in the right way.
That’s right. I feel like when we actually turn and face our insignificance, it really helps us right-size our work for our lifetimes. Like “Oh, I’m not the size of Jupiter. I’m the size of… an ant. I’m like an ant. I’m less. I’m like a tiny atom.” I had a period in my twenties where I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here anymore. I was so overwhelmed by how hard things were. And the choices that my species was making. I was just like… “I don’t know. I don’t know about all this.” One of the things that really helped me was dropping into the idea that I really am a fragment of something that is so much larger than myself. And recognizing I need to surrender into that—into being a small, tiny, tiny, tiny fragment of something that is so big. So then, whatever I do, no matter how big it might seem in the moment, is really small. It’s really temporary. The majority of existence will not know that it happened. For me, there’s something in that that directly says “our work matters more when we’re in a collective work.” Like everything I do is going to be insignificant, but if I do it with lots and lots of people, that increases our collective significance. And the only way to actually be really significant over a long period of time is in ways that draw on more minds than just one. I really try to challenge the idea of the individual genius in the world. You know when we hear stories like “Oh yeah, this person was just by themselves in the lab.” Yes, but the only reason they were able to do that is because other people were taking care of them, and had taken care of them, and got them to that place. You know? Even for that individual mad person. If you look at a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, all these people who I look to like, “Y’all are my heroes.” All of them are only heroic because people believed in them, and moved with them, and felt that those ideas resonated inside themselves. Without those people listening, believing, and tying themselves into those visions and helping move them, sharing them, and expanding them, we’d never know those names.
Right? And that helps me with my work. If it’s not meaningful, like, if I’m just writing into the dark and it’s not touching people and changing people, it’s ok, it won’t get lifted up into the halls of history. I can still do my part. I’m not aiming for the halls, I just have to aim for telling the truth of my time.
How do you create a sustainable balance for yourself between writing, facilitating, speaking, recording your podcast, How to Survive the End of the World, and other projects you have in the works?
That’s a great question. I feel like… boundaries. Boundaries are the main thing that I have learned to get better at. I do a big kind of internal check before I say yes to things. And I feel like I’m getting better and better and better at being like “Oh, you know that’s great, but, I don’t want to do that.” Because I don’t want to be a reluctant participant in anybody’s vision. If you’re dreamin’ it, I want everyone who’s in it with you to be really enthusiastic about it. I’m someone who’s very actively moving some of my own dreams, and so when I meet people where those dreams are aligned it’s very exciting to me, and I’m just like ok, this can go. Someone like Mariame Kaba, who we interviewed for the podcast, her work is really around community accountability and transformative justice. There are folks like that where I’m like “Yep, I’m available,” even if my schedule is totally packed. When I am working with people who are directly working on black liberation, that’s when I feel the most joy and realization of my own visions, and that’s who I think most needs what I have to bring to the world. It’s that feeling of being in the right place at the right time. So, when people say “We really want you to come talk to this group, we’re doing this kind of work,” if it’s not tied into that, I’m usually a no. I’m not saying what you’re doing is not important, it’s just not my priority. So that really helps me balance.
The other thing that I’ve been doing that seems to work, is being very realistic about timelines for stuff. And letting something be organic. I worked for non-profits for a while, and I got into that sort of urgency based thinking and moving, and I realized that’s not the pace at which I do my work. Octavia’s brood was a five year project that happened alongside other work. I’m working on a tarot deck now that’s probably also going to be, by the time it’s all said and done, another five year project. We’re about two and a half years into ideating and gathering materials and all that. But I’m letting it move slowly, because I’m working with other people who are all building relationship with each other as we build something that we think will be a lot of magic for other people. The Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute, all of it, has been kind of organic and slow. There are people who came through the first round of offerings who are now a fundamental part of helping pull off the programs. I didn’t know they were a part of it, I would have never known that they were out there until I did the program. It feels important to me to always leave room for that kind of magic. The next person that your project needs, you don’t even know them yet. But you will. You just have to slow down and listen and feel for that kind of organic pace of the work.
What aspects of your work right now bring you the most pleasure and satisfaction?
Honestly, it’s the interdependence that is emerging in my new team. I have hired three people this year to help me. One person is the boss of internal magic, another is the boss of external magic, and there’s a queen of resources. They’re changing my life. It’s that feeling of, like, every time I take a step, the stuff that I’m looking for is there. If that makes sense. When I have a concern, they’ve already thought about it, and have been working on it in some way. I feel really grateful that I’ve found really good people, really trustworthy, powerful people to be in this work with. And that I’m not doing it by myself.
Thank you so much.
Illustrations by Morgan Hartsfield