Mainstream media pundits have been critical of the Occupy Movement because it appears on the surface that there is no real focus to their ideas and actions. Occupiers have been described as muddled, confused, leaderless – some have wondered just what do they stand for, what are they demanding?
Two of the key message frames of the movement are – “We are the 99%” and “Stop Corporate Greed.” The meaning of the messages, in reality, seems pretty clear and simple – a small percentage of the population controls most of the wealth. The wealth is being leveraged to influence economic and social policy in ways detrimental to the interests of the vast majority of the population. Greed (a desire that we all have experiences with) is running amok on a grand scale and remains largely unchecked, harming both people and planet. If we work together (with open hearts and wise minds) we can change things. That’s the message in a nutshell, at least my interpretation of it.
But, why are they holding up signs about mountaintop removal, community violence, unions, the war in Afghanistan, and Mumia Abu-Jamal?
Creating spaces (both physical and cyber) to critique the current system, explore connections between social issues, and to envision and create new ways of doing things is the heart and soul of the Occupy movement. Buddhist environmental activist Joanna Macy and visionary economist David Korten have called this time that we are in (well before the Occupy movement surfaced), The Great Turning, a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a Life Sustaining one. There are three dimensions to the work of The Great Turning, according to Macy:
1. Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings
2. Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives
3. Shift in consciousness
The first set of actions concerns pushing for new public policy that can provide a palliative treatment for the damages that the industrial growth society is causing – like the tar sands activists who are trying to pressure President Obama to stop the Alaska oil pipeline. Perhaps we can call this karma yoga. The second set concerns engaging in collective inquiry about the issues and building consensus-oriented, non-hierarchical projects and groups to transform the issues. This means engaging in popular education or inquiry groups to address questions such as this one – How might corporate greed and the prison industrial complex be related? Perhaps we can call this jnana yoga.
The third kind of actions are shift of consciousness – this means regular spiritual practices that can stop the momentum of our individual and collective karma in its tracks. With practice we can begin to erase our negative samskaras and strenghten the light of Self-Knowledge. From this perspective, cultivating a serious yoga practice (such as hatha yoga or kriya yoga) is, in the end, a political act. Just by persisting with the beautiful yet challenging personal work of observing our egos and uniting with our divinity, we are contributing to this Great Turning. As we function at home and in society, this shift manifests and benefits others. If you are part of any kind of community group (a parent-teacher association, a book club) try sitting meditation as a group for 5 minutes before the beginning of every meeting and see what happens to the group.
The movement is not without legitimate critique. Indeed, amplifying “the 99% frame” is not without its ramifications. First, it fails to account for the fact that corporate greed affects people differently depending on their social location. Policies favoring the 1% have been especially devastating for the most vulnerable in our communities – poor people, people of color, women, and children. (This is a populist movement and while the “99% frame” masks some forms of oppression, it serves the purpose of bringing in greater numbers of people). Second, it fails to acknowledge that the 1% is part of humanity. As Seane Corne has said, we are all 100%.
I’m certainly not saying that Occupiers the world over are doing yoga and meditating individually and/or together before every General Assembly and practicing non-violent communication flawlessly. But, some are bringing their practices to the work and trying out alternative approaches; people of many spiritual persuasions are taking part and bringing something crucial to the table. And, it is undeniably possible to do the work of Occupation and the Great Turning with bhakti, pure devotion. In a secular society where the sacred is silenced, we can allow Love to Occupy our hearts and guide our actions.
Loretta Pyles, Ph.D., is a yoga teacher and scholar-activist-educator living in upstate New York. She is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the State University at New York at Albany and author of the book, Progressive Community Organizing: A Critical Approach for a Globalizing World (Routledge, 2009). She has worked as a community organizer and engaged scholar on issues of economic justice, gender-based violence, and disaster recovery. Her current research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a comparative study of disaster recovery in Haiti and the US Gulf Coast. She has been actively involved in various aspects of the Occupy Albany movement since its inception. Loretta began practicing zen meditation in the Korean tradition in 1999 and has also practiced dzogchen and vipassana meditation. Her practice today is traditional hatha yoga and tantra. She has studied the yoga of sound with Russill Paul and completed yoga teacher training with Senior ParaYoga teacher, Lauren Toolin. Her dharma is to explore how spiritual practice can advance social change endeavors.