Remaining Human: A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street.

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By Michael Stone

A man stands on a bench in Zuccotti Park on Wall Street and chants a phrase from a meeting last night: “We don’t want a higher standard of living, we want a better standard of living.” He’s wearing a crisp navy blue suit and typing tweets into his iPhone. Next to him, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, wearing a red t-shirt, is surrounded by at least a hundred people as he makes his way onto a makeshift platform. Since the protesters aren’t allowed to use megaphones or amplifiers, they have to listen carefully to the speaker’s every sentence, after which the speaker pauses, and those close enough to have heard repeat the sentence in unison for those farther away. When Naomi Klein spoke three nights ago, some sentences were repeated four or five times as they echoed through Liberty Park and down Wall Street, passed along like something to be celebrated and shared, something newborn.

Slavoj Žižek said:

“They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream which is tuning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scenes from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice. But it goes on walking. Ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street – Hey, look down!
We are awakening from a dream.

When the Buddha was asked to describe his experience of awakening he said, “What I have awoken to is deep, quiet and excellent. But,” he continues, “People love their place. It’s hard for people who love, delight and revel in the fixed views and places of absolute certainty, to see interdependence.”

Over and over, the Buddha taught that what causes suffering is holding on to inflexible views. The stories that govern our lives are also the narratives that keep us locked into set patterns, habits and addictions. The same psychological tools that the Buddha cultivated for helping us let go of one-track rigid stories can be applied not just personally, but socially. Enlightenment is not personal; it’s collective.

The media love a good fight. In Toronto during the G20, those not involved in the protests were eventually distracted by the images of a burning police car in front of the banking sectors. With burning cars and young men breaking windows, there was suddenly a more entertaining target than the real issues of coming austerity measures and avoidance of policies that deal with climate catastrophe. With violent images prevailing, the protests lost momentum because the issues were forgotten in the media. This time, even though there is a massive police presence at most protests, the movement is not giving the media the images of broken windows that they love. Instead we are seeing a blossoming of creativity and hope. 
We need a language now that allows us to reimagine what a flourishing society looks like. Any meditator knows that there are times when the thoughts that stream endlessly through awareness can eventually grow quiet. But it’s only temporary. The stories come back. But they return differently. They have more space and they are –more fluid, less rigid. We need stories to think and make sense of a world – now an ailing world that needs us. A more convenient way to apply the Buddha’s message to the social sphere is to remember that viewpoints never end or dissolve altogether, rather we learn to shift from one story to another, like a prism being turned, so that the possible ways of looking at our lives can constantly change. It’s time we adapt to our economic and ecological circumstances – uncomfortable truths we’ve been avoiding for far too long. This awakening is not just about economics, it’s about ecology and our love for what we know is valuable: community, healthcare, simple food, and time.

This process of dislodging old narratives is the function of both spirituality and art. Both ethics and aesthetics ask us to let go in a way that is deep enough that we find ourselves embedded in the world in a new way. If we think of this emerging movement as a practice, we’ll see that as it deepens and we let go of habitual stories, our embeddedness in the world deepens. Intimacy deepens. Relationships deepen. In the same way that moving into stillness is a threat to the part of us that wants to keep running along in egoistic fantasies and distraction, those with the most to lose are going to try and repress this outpouring of change. They’ll do this with police, of course, but they’ll also use subtle measures like calling us communists or anti-American, anti-progress, etc. Our job will be to keep a discerning eye and watch for this subtle rhetoric that obscures what we are fighting for.

In the Lotus Sutra it is said that the quickest way to becoming a Buddha is not through extensive retreats or chanting but through seeing others as a Buddha. If you see others as Buddha, you are a Buddha. You remain human. You no longer try to get beyond others.

A student once asked Zen master Shitou Xiquian, “What is Buddha?” Shitou replied, “You don’t have Buddha mind.” The student said, “I’m human; I run around and I have ideas.” Shitou said, “People who are active and have ideas also have Buddha-mind.” The student said, “Why don’t I have Buddha-mind?” Shitou said, “Because you are not willing to remain human.”

This student wants to transcend his life. He imagines that being a Buddha is something outside of himself, beyond his everyday actions. If you have to ask what awakening is, you don’t see it. If you can’t trust that you have the possibility to do good, to see everyone and everything as a Buddha, then how will you even begin? Our Buddha nature is our imagination.

These protests are reminding us that with a little imagination, a lot can change. We are witnessing a collective awakening to the fact that our corporations and governments are the products of human action. They aren’t serving anymore, and so it is in our power and in our interest to replace them. We are not fighting the people on Wall Street, we are fighting this whole system.

Žižek, the protestors, the Buddha and Shitou share a common and easily forgotten truth: We cause suffering for ourselves and others when we lose our sense of connectedness. We are the 99 percent but we are dependent on the 1 percent that control forty percent of the wealth. Those statistics reflect grave imbalance in our society.

Of course people are taking to the streets. In the U.S. 44.6 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for over six months. Long-term unemployment at this level is unprecedented in the post second world war era, and it causes deep strife in communities, families and people’s health.

This movement is also showing the power of non-violence. Non-violence, a core precept in my own Buddhist practice, is not an ideology. It’s the power of facing what’s actually going on in each and every moment and responding as skillfully as possible. The depth of our awakening, our humanness, has everything to with how we care for others. Our sphere of awareness begins to include everything and everyone. The way we respond to our circumstances shows our commitment to non-harm.

In meditation practice we can experience gaps between the exhale and the inhale, between one thought dissolving and another appearing. The space between thoughts is the gentle and creative place of non-harm. The meditator learns to trust that quiet liminal space with patience because from it, new and surprising ways of seeing our lives emerge. This is the inherent impulse of non-harm in our lives. It begins when we bear witness to the fading of one thought and the emergence of another.

These protests are exposing the gap between democracy and capitalism. The way democracy and capitalism have been bound is coming to an end. We want democracy but we can’t afford the runaway growth economy that isn’t benefiting the 99 percent. And if the 99 percent are not benefiting, the truth is, the 1 percent feel that. If there’s anything we’re all aware of these days, it’s that it’s not just twitter and email that connects us – it’s water, speculative banking, debt and air, as well. When the 1 percent live at the expense of the 99 percent, a rebalancing is certain to occur.

If we can trust in the space where, on the one hand, we are fed up with economic instability and ecological degradation and, on the other, we value interconnectedness, we are doing the same thing collectively that the meditator does on his or her cushion. We are trusting that something loving and creative will emerge from this space that we create. It’s too early to say what that may be. It won’t just be a rehashing of an ideology from the past. These are new times and requite a new imaginative response.

The people of Occupy Wall Street and now Occupy San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Copenhagen and 70 other cities are trying to do both: take over a space that’s being wrested from the people, and also hold the possibility of a new way of living. What’s been stolen from the people is not merely a physical space (their foreclosed homes, for example) but space to rethink how our society operates and what to do about the bottom dropping out. Even the media, looking for a hook, can’t find one. “What are your demands?” the media keep asking. The answer: “It’s too early to say.” Let’ s see how much space we can hold, let’s see what our power is, and then we can begin talking about demands.

If we are going to fully express our humanity and wake up as a collective, we need to replace our youthful ideas of transcendence with the hard work of committing to the end of a way of life in which our work is not in-line with our values.

We’re demanding a fundamental change of our system. Yes, we all need to work through our individual capacity for greed, anger and confusion. This is an endless human task. We also have to stop cooperating with the system that breeds greed and confusion as it shapes our lives and our choices. This movement is the beginning of bringing that system to a halt. From here, anything is possible.

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anonymous Nov 30, 2011 1:36pm

[…] […]

anonymous Nov 1, 2011 5:50am

I agree Sara, Great article Michael.
And I'm also in the process of writing why Christianity is important for Occupy Wall Street 🙂
I'll post the link once complete.

anonymous Oct 18, 2011 11:49am

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anonymous Oct 18, 2011 9:15am

Great article, Michael. It inspired me to write about an acupuncture perspective on Occupy Wall Street 🙂 Here it is:

anonymous Oct 18, 2011 8:30am

[…] heard from the Buddhists. We’ve heard from the foodies. Now it’s time for an acupuncture perspective on Occupy […]

anonymous Oct 17, 2011 3:37pm

[…] Remaining Human: A Buddhist Perspective on Occupy Wall Street. […]

anonymous Oct 17, 2011 2:15pm

Wow, what a beautiful essay.

I had previously noticed a few media soundbites in which the OWS protestors are
cited for not having a "main message" or "clear cut demands." I enjoyed Stone's
interpretation–that the protesters don't have these things yet, but that it is

I'm going to take that one step further; if the protesters can get the
media/powers to just stop and pay attention for a second, maybe it will get them
to think for themselves for once? Imagine if the media and economic stakeholders
employed a bit of introspection and were able to hear the echos of the
protesters' complaints within themselves?

anonymous Oct 17, 2011 7:52am

[…] […]

anonymous Oct 14, 2011 8:49pm

If everyone who agrees that change is essential for the forward evolution of our system into a more honorable and equitable form would vote for an alternative party of their choice, instead of being afraid to "waste" their vote, it would be possible for both of our major parties to be overcome by those who see the better way. There are certainly enough people who are thoroughly dissatisfied with the present system to make that change. Turning our backs to it and/or not voting is just an abdication of our responsibility to actively participate in order to make democracy work. The best place to start is usually at a basic local level. Look around. Opportunities are everywhere. Do the yoga of participation.

anonymous Oct 14, 2011 11:19am

[…] […]

anonymous Oct 14, 2011 7:38am

where in the text did Slavoj Žižeks words end? The rest of the text or just that paragraph?
And just out of curiosity, isn’t Slavoj Žižek opposed to buddhistic views?
Otherwise, great text.


anonymous Oct 14, 2011 7:09am

A thought challenge from an interested outsider. Part Two.

Ever considered libertarian solutions?

Libertarianism: “Non-aggression against non-aggressors.” That makes not only bailouts of Wall Street and corporations unthinkable, it makes support of foreign wars and the military-industrial complex impossible. To libertarians, most Elephanteers would certainly be a far-sight better than neo-conservatives but still way too militaristic and authoritarian. Libertarianism is the way of peace and freedom, about the closest you can get to a Buddhist perspective without giving up the world.

Yes, libertarians support capitalism. But what they mean by capitalism is a whole lot different than what OWSers or this article mean by capitalism. If you are attracted to real meaning, you can overlook semantic differences and give libertarianism and Austrian-school economics a serious look-see. But if words are more important than the meaning, I guess that word “capitalism” will keep you away.

G' day to you all!

anonymous Oct 14, 2011 7:09am

A thought challenge from an interested outsider… Part One.

Nightself says above: The Buddha said “desire is the cause of suffering,” not “capitalism is the cause of suffering.”

Nightself hits the nail. The Buddha’s Way is the higher way. I can’t see that it involves OWS-type movements at all.

There are many, like myself, who, sadly, are not yet firmly on the Way. We still want and try to change the world, illusory though it is.

Many OWSers and most denizens of the Elephant are probably a lot like me: sympathetic to the Way but still tied to the world. Tied as we are, we look for enemies and solutions. The enemies for OWS and Elephant would seem to be on Wall Street and the solutions in the halls of government.

But aren’t the halls of government the sources of artificial bubbles that make speculators rich, and then the sources of bailouts that preserve their riches? Aren’t OWSers and and Elephanteers going to the cause of the problem to beg for a solution? Ain’t gonna work.

anonymous Oct 14, 2011 6:25am

Thank you David for offering this dharmic perspective on OWS. May we all continue to practice the intelligent strength of non-violence, may we do the work that is necessary to make deep and lasting changes, and may this movement take human society forward and up, to new levels of social and economical balance, in order that may we create a better world for all. In love and gratitude. -Craig

anonymous Oct 13, 2011 2:55pm

Wonderful take on Occupy Wall St. It is a consciousness raising event. It is not about destroying capitalism. It is about recognizing the limitations of our current system and asking for needed change so that all people have decent work at a livable wage and time enough to pursue spiritual development. The current system does not provide this and must be modified. Building a parallel system that is humane to all sentient beings is a very real possibility that could come from these efforts.

    anonymous Oct 14, 2011 8:37pm

    So true, so true… there are so many "working poor"… they make 'too much' for any government health insurance or other benefits, but not enough to pay for those things. Some even live in their cars.

anonymous Oct 13, 2011 11:34am

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anonymous Oct 13, 2011 7:28am

[…] This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Absurdity for Kids […]

anonymous Oct 13, 2011 1:57am

Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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anonymous Oct 13, 2011 1:57am

Beautifully written and so very inspiring!!

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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anonymous Oct 13, 2011 1:10am

very nicely written. 🙂

to respond to the other jennifer, i loved a statement from one young woman at OWS: "We do not have demands, because we do not expect anyone to do anything for us. We are doing this ourselves. We are creating what we want, what we need."

anonymous Oct 12, 2011 9:49pm

amen brother. this is beautifully, skillfully, nonviolently written. And I can align with what you say. Thank you.

anonymous Oct 12, 2011 3:52pm

I've been reading some of the pictures of protest signs. All of them tell beautiful heart wrenching stories, but all of them are also definitions of what a person is. What if instead of posting our problems we posted what we need to receive or what we are willing to give? What if instead of waiting for the government to direct our help we become brave enough to ask for and receive what we need? For example, "I'm homeless, I need a place to stay and a winter coat." Or on the other side "I have more money than I need, who needs help with rent?" I know it seems simple, but maybe then we would make progress.

anonymous Oct 12, 2011 2:06pm

Inspiring! I love the feeling of this movement, and wish I were there to take part in it. Keep on peacefully keepin ON, people!!
-Alexa Maxwell

anonymous Oct 13, 2011 8:18am

If you cannot see the direct link between capitalism and desire, we can't help you.

anonymous Oct 14, 2011 8:33pm

Everyone needs a home of some sort, however modest. Needs can bleed into desires, but there are always the basic needs, including respecting and being respected.

anonymous Oct 31, 2011 11:14am

Republicans happened.

anonymous Oct 13, 2011 7:28pm

The Occupy movement is not "against capitalism" – it is against corporate influence on the government, which keeps it from doing it's job…namely protecting its people and the environment. Yet even this is just part of the much much wider agenda that is emerging from the movement. It is a re-imagining of our entire society and conception of self.

anonymous Oct 14, 2011 9:30am

Reflect on our toxic conditioning……strip away all the layers of toxicity that has conditioned us and awake to a rebirth of thought and being. Reconnect with this earth and reclaim an organic existence. Simple thought, tough reality.

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Michael Stone (Centre of Gravity)

Centre of Gravity is a thriving community of Yoga and Buddhist practitioners integrating committed formal practice and modern urban life. We offer weekly sits, text studies, yoga practice and dharma talks. Retreats, guest speakers, online courses and audio talks deepen the feel. Each week Michael Stone dishes a talk, often on primary texts by Dogen, Patanjali, and the Buddha, that are collaged with today’s headlines and psychological insights to produce an engaged shape shifting dharma, at once historical, personal and political. Notes on these talks by Mike Hoolboom form the heart of this blog.

Michael Stone is a yoga teacher and Buddhist teacher. He travels internationally teaching about the intersection of Yoga, Buddhism and mental health. He has written four books with Shambhala Publications on ethics, yoga’s subtle body, inner/outer pilgrimmages, and the sometimes uneasy blend of social engagement and Buddhism. Please check out the website at .