In the Tigers Mouth


Joel Dignam reviews “In the Tiger’s Mouth: An Empowerment Guide for Social Action” by Katrina Shields.


In the Tiger’s Mouth is a foundation-stone for healthy activism. It’s a fantastic seminal read that could guide the practice of a new activist or help to renew that of an old hand. What most distinguishes it is its emphasis on three elements not often considered in other campaigning texts: self-awareness, collaboration, and self-care.


Self-awareness in the tiger’s mouth

Shields dedicates a chapter to the benefits of self-awareness for activists: “Insight into how our motives, reactions, and perceptions may distort and sabotage the best of campaigns is crucial if we wish to be effective.” Shields loves activists and activism, yet doesn’t ship from scrutinising their motivations, encouraging her audience to look within in an effort to be more effective. She resists the temptation to give activists a blank cheque because of their good intentions, nor is she too critical: she simply acknowledges that activists face the same subconscious drivers as others do.

Accepting this as the case, and the limitations of a book as a means to begin such introspection, Shields writes,

In making a commitment to sustained social responsibility and action, it is important for us to untangle our unconscious personal motivations and psychological issues from our conscious purposes.

She talks about projections, distortions of reality whereby we project our past on to the current situation, or our inner world onto the outer world. Giving examples of ineffective campaigning, Shields points out how the subconscious is at play, driving people in the wrong direction as they bump up against their own ‘stuff’.

In writing about self-awareness, Shields’ central thesis is that, in the words of Hugh Crago, “We can change others only indirectly; the direct change must be to ourselves.” In the Tiger’s Mouth puts a central and recurring emphasis on self-awareness, highlighting it as an essential inner resource for social change.


What motivates your activism?

Listening in the tiger’s mouth

Earl Koile, Listening As A Way Of Becoming:

Demanding clarity about thoughts and feelings before sharing them can be a real problem…What I need is to share my jumbled-up inner dialogue with someone who can hear, and in listening, can help me to hear myself. With help, I may find release from the captivity of my own words and touch delicate, frightening, or otherwise eclipsed feelings within me.

Shields bears beautiful witness to the transformative power of high-quality listening. She portrays it as a way for activists to look after themselves, to support one another, and to find common ground with putative opponents. “High quality listening”, she writes, “is potentially empowering for both the listener and the speaker.”

Koile’s quotation shows one way that high-quality listening can aid social action: by enabling a speaker to sort out their own ideas. When facing tricky decisions, or emotional complexities, it’s hard to figure it all out in your own head. One tends to best ‘think out loud’, which can go OK with a poor listener, but can be profoundly helpful when a talented listener plays their role appropriately: practising empathy, reflecting, and asking a small number of apt questions. The listener is a sounding board who should avoid giving advice, whose function is simply to help the speaker to make their own sense of their situation. Ultimately, the speaker knows their situation best, they just need somebody to help them sort through it.

I’ve experienced the benefits of high-quality listening myself thanks to some generous and skilled friends. Late last year I was facing a number of decisions about what to do in 2013, tossing up between a range of work and study options. I was discussing this with a friend and they listened astonishingly well: reflecting my sentiments, letting silences bloom, noticing. This helped me to figure out my situation, and also brought me closer to the friend. Such joy!

In a similar fashion, listening can enable activists to build connection with ostensible opponents. The purpose here is still partly to help somebody understand their own ideas, but also for the listener to understand the speaker’s position. Again, reflective listening and empathy are crucial here. In some cases this can help previous opponents to find common ground; even where that is not possible, it builds respect and greater willingness to engage with one another. It can be hard to realise that your opponents also have valid interests and needs, but it’s a realisation that deepens your own humanity and can make you more effective in your work.

Self-care in the tiger’s mouth

Part III of In the Tiger’s Mouth is “Preventing Burnout”. With the same practical folk wisdom that characterised Parts I & II, Shields writes honestly and immediately about the tragedy of burnout: “a stress-related disease producing a major life crisis from which [the sufferer] may never fully recover.”

Shields has been around the scene for a while and writes about burnout with a deep appreciation of how it is caused. She probes the reader, referring to her previous chapter on self-awareness, to help you better understand the forces driving you – and potentially driving you too fast. Piercing the ‘urgency of the moment’ mentality, she asks, “Do you believe that if you just work a little harder it will stem the flood of demands? Do you put life on hold until everything is cleared up? Unfortunately in most cases the demands are endless.” She is realistic about the limits we face. While she acknowledges the compulsion to push oneself harder, the pull that a needy cause can exert, she addresses the reader with compassion: “ask yourself whether you are aiming to be extraordinary in your work or are prepared to be more ordinary and relatively happy and healthy.”

I haven’t experienced burnout myself. My experience of it is second-hand, watching peers go too hard, for too long, stop enjoying what they do, feel overwhelmed. I’m glad that I’ve had the resources, inner and outer, to keep myself safe from such an outcome. While Shields’ above definition of burnout seems hyperbolic, it is warranted to adequately recognise how big and irrevocable the phenomenon can be. Burnout harms individuals, undermines organisations, and suggests a certain irony – to be advocating greater sustainability and compassion while failing to show the same towards one’s own self. It’s a terrible thing that goes on. Thus, In the Tiger’s Mouth does social activists a service. By focusing on burn out, Shields emphasises its notability as a barrier to effective activism. Her writing about burnout’s symptoms and causes, as well as ways of responding, is a helpful instrument in avoiding or beginning to recover from it.

Concluding in the tiger’s mouth

The rather odd title of Shields’ book stems from a drawing given to her by “a gentle Buddhist monk from Thailand”. A picture of a rampant tiger, it was captioned, “The best place for meditation is in the tiger’s mouth.” With this title Shields attests to the challenges, the global threats facing us as a species, as well as the unique challenges encountered by those of us who organise in the face of such threats. On the frontlines of social action, we can’t escape the tiger’s mouth…but we can get better at inhabiting it.

In the Tiger’s Mouth is a beautiful book, the practical effectiveness of which is belied by its translucent, almost meditative tone. It teaches us how to better know ourselves, how to better know others, how to better look after ourselves and thus, ultimately, how to better look after humanity.

A single quotation from the book perhaps sums it up best, so let me end with these words of Ann Herbert:

Large change doesn’t come from clever quick fixes from smart tense people, but from long conversations and silences among people who know different things and need to learn different things.

Yes, the state of the world calls for many extraordinary people. It also calls for – perhaps a little less loudly – billions of ordinary people, involved in activism, relatively happy and healthy. Even in the tiger’s mouth, one can thrive.


Joel DignamJoel Dignam is a passionate youth activist interested in community organising, volunteer management, and social media. He has worked (paid and unpaid) with collectives active on Environmentalism and Peace, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), the Oaktree Foundation, the Groupwork Institute of Australia, and United Voice Victoria. He is currently Volunteer Manager with the ACT Greens.


This review was originally published on Joel’s blog Scit Necessitas where he explores a range of eclectic topics including activism and relationships.