Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring, and especially since the early days of the Occupy movement in the US, I have been following the wave of unrest that’s been sweeping the globe with great interest. I have visited the Oakland Occupation and participated in the general strike on Nov. 2nd. I have been writing about my amazement, my humility, and my concerns for some weeks. On the basis of all I have seen, heard, read, and felt, I continue to nurse some hope that this movement may be the beginning of transcending the legacy of separation and creating new social structures attentive to the needs of humans, other life forms, and the planet.
At the same time, if I imagine for a moment that the Occupy movement succeeds in replacing existing governments with some other form of governance, I am not so confident that the outcome will be what I most long for: a world that truly works for everyone.
I am fearful that the people who are now the 1% would be mistreated, shamed, incarcerated, or even executed. I am fearful that women will still have an equally challenging time having physical safety, full inclusion in decision-making, and the possibility of affecting the ways that decisions are made. I am fearful that racial and ethnic divides will continue to plague us, and that some people will continue to suffer poverty and human indignities. I am fearful that consumption will continue rampant and the march towards depletion of the earth’s resources will go on. I am even fearful that a new 1% will emerge, sooner or later, and what might be gained would be lost.
Prioritizing social transformation without attending to the ways in which all of us have internalized the very systems and habits of heart and mind that we aim to transform runs the risk of re-creating these systems and habits. From my reading of history, such lack of attention to the internal and relational realms has resulted in astonishing amounts of pain and suffering, sometimes for millions of people. On smaller scales, this lack of attention has meant that many social movements are plagued by vicious conflicts, resentment, cynicism, and despair even while doing inspiring and uplifting work.
I have a very strong desire for the Occupy movement to shift this historical pattern. One of the reasons I have such appreciation for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. is precisely the depth of their understanding about the personal changes that were necessary to make the movement work. Gandhi put it in simple words: “The very first step in nonviolence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, loving kindness.” (Golden Treasury, p. 41.) Here are some beginning pointers to what this work might entail.
The Means and the Ends
I have never understood the logic of separating means and ends. If people are willing to use violence in order to bring about peace, how would they suddenly, after victory is achieved, know to shift into peaceful modes of operating? If leaders of some movements operate in an authoritarian manner, how would they suddenly know to step down and participate as equals in creating a society of peers? If men in a national liberation movement ask women to set their needs aside until victory is achieved, how would they suddenly be able to shift priorities upon victory? Although I don’t pretend to know everything that’s ever happened on this planet, I don’t know of any examples of a victory magically creating such changes.
I have much more trust in aligning the means and the ends. If we begin to live now the values we seek to bring about, and if we create, now, the relationships that we want to see everywhere, I have more trust that there will be a natural continuity into the world of our dreams, where everyone’s dignity and needs are valued, including those who have done harm. I like this image much more than the prospect of a victory over some enemy or another.
The Irreducible Significance of Vision
I have already written both about how I see so much of what the encampments signify to be a model, on a small scale, of some aspects of how we could structure our lives, and in that way being a lived vision. I want more than an implicit modeling of the future. I want all of us who sympathize with, support, or participate in the Occupy movement to be able to articulate what we stand for. A movement can not continue indefinitely when all that unites people is what they are against. Again, if suddenly the movement managed to get everyone currently in power to step down, in the absence of a clearly articulated vision, what would be put in place? I am hoping that every single one of us would dedicate energy and time to exploring this question, alone and in conversation with others: what do we truly care about? What is it that we want to create in the world? How would we structure social life to attend to everyone’s needs? How can we address the human needs of those who are currently in power?
Finding Freedom Beyond Rebellion
My experience of being at the general assembly in Oakland, of reading notes from and about such meetings, and of speaking with people who have facilitated general assembly meetings is very mixed. On the one hand I am in awe of the commitment to a democratic process that provides room for everyone to have a voice. On a number of occasions I have been amazed by the depth of considerations that have gone into different proposals and have appreciated greatly how a decision has been made. I have been moved, repeatedly, by many specific choices and policies that have been adopted.
On the other hand I hear facilitators say that they have been traumatized by the process. Some people have expressed fear about what would happen if they said or did some particular thing as a facilitator. Facilitators have been heckled. People who express certain minority positions have been silenced by others without facilitators managing to prevent that. Many people speak without regard for the process or for others’ experience. As an experienced facilitator, I have become used to being able to rely on a group to support the process and my own facilitation. I frankly don’t know how I would handle this level of chaos and insistence on no leadership.
Some months ago I wrote an entire piece about the alternative to submission or rebellion. Re-reading this piece now I see its relevance to this situation. When we rebel, we still operate under the terms of those in power. True autonomy, real freedom, involves making choices from within rather than in reaction to what happens outside of us. I very much hope that some participants in the movement who are on a spree of doing what they want because no one can tell them what to do will find sufficient grounding to know what they really want and find ways of going for it that are proactive and interdependent. Without deep engagement with self, without knowing what we want, without having sufficient calm to interact with others even in the face of differences and challenges, it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain the delicate balance of peace within the encampments. When exhausted people who’ve been at it for weeks at a time need to make decisions that are attentive to everyone and to interact with and even collaborate with people who are on drugs, or some that have sexually assaulted others or display extreme levels of rage, their capacity to choose from within and in line with their values is a vital asset.
For millennia, and especially in the last several hundred years, we have been raised to see ourselves as fundamentally at odds with each other, fighting for scarce resources in a hostile world. Although many spiritual traditions share a common teaching about the oneness of all life, our economic and social structures pit us against each other. We learn to come together against a common enemy, and know little about how to work side by side towards a shared purpose in the service of everyone. Unless we have consciously worked to transform this deeply ingrained habit, we are likely to polarize every time we experience any kind of conflict or disagreement.
Of all the inner resources that I see needed in these challenging times, none is more easily forgotten than the basic human faculty of empathy. Although people have a voice, no one is necessarily listening. When disagreements arise, separating ways of handling them are common in our society, and clearly appear within the movement as well. Anything ranging from debate to shaming and silencing has been known to happen. What would need to happen to support people in truly listening to each other across differences of tactics, preferences, or opinions?
Beyond the internal relationships within the movement, when it comes to the 1%, the level of us-them thinking is high. OccupyWallSt started with a slogan that tapped into a deep vein of meaning and ignited a rush of support and identification from many who are not necessarily participating. And yet, as time passes, I am more and more concerned about how the 1% are viewed. The level of anger, though I fully understand it given the decades and centuries of suffering, concerns me greatly. The only hope I see for a peaceful future lies in finding ways of embracing the humanity of all people. This is what restorative justice is about, which, on a national scale, can take the form of truth and reconciliation committees. Openness to the humanity of others is essential if we are to make something happen that’s not a repetition of all we know with different players.
Freeing Our Consciousness
Since I learned of Nonviolent Communication, I have been working steadily to free up my consciousness from the traps I have inherited. I relentlessly make the effort to remove from my language words that point to certain ways of thinking such as “should”, “can’t”, “have to”, “I don’t have time”, and all war metaphors. I make deliberate choices that are at odds with the addiction to convenience, an addiction whose pull I recognize within myself. I consciously choose to interact with people I don’t know so as to challenge the notion that anyone is a “stranger.” I reveal in public and even in writing aspects of my experience that are often tremendously vulnerable in part in order to affirm my continuity with others. I continually challenge myself to question anything that appears like accepting others’ deference to me because of the position of partial power in which I find myself. I regularly make a conscious attempt to understand people whose actions are incomprehensible to me to increase my capacity for empathy and my ability to hold needs with care. I walk directly towards emotional discomfort again and again so as to create true freedom in myself to live as I want.
Is this an act of social change? Absolutely not in and of itself. A commitment to inner work without a continued and singular focus on social transformation runs the risk of being adaptive to the ways of the world, as social structures have phenomenal power to persist despite significant personal awareness. I continue to engage in these and dozens of other practices, large and small, because it’s the only way I know to have some trust that another way is possible. Rather than waiting for some miraculous victory to begin to create some mysterious world whose contours I haven’t imagined, I want to know that I have done all I can, truly all I can, to move in the direction of my dreams in each and every moment, internally, and, with others, in the world.