One Person at a Time. ~ Jeff Sher

Via elephant journal
on Nov 4, 2011
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Have you ever tried to talk to a yogi about politics?

Maybe it’s just me, but I expect a yoga practitioner to be all in favor of peace, opposed to violence in all its forms, a defender of the environment, strong on social justice and equality, against all forms of harmful discrimination, etc. and so on. Amen. And most of the time I find that to be true, except for one thing.

Many yogis have a serious aversion to politics. They see politics as dirty, corrupt and contentious. They see involvement in politics more as a sure-fire way to sully the purity of the ideals they cultivate within themselves than as an effective way to manifest those same ideals in the broader world around them.

With 15 to 20 million yoga practitioners in the United States alone, this turning away from the push and pull of politics may be depriving our deeply troubled world of a powerful force for advancement toward greater peace and harmony.

When you bring up the subject of politics with a yogi, you may hear something like this:

“There’s a great shift in consciousness occurring that’s going to transform the world.”

Fair enough, I agree that people are starting to get the picture. By now every human being feels it deep in the bones, if not consciously, that something is dreadfully wrong on our planet. Perhaps it’s our biological survival response taking hold as the environment changes around us, demanding that we evolve or …. well, what is the alternative?

Naturally I ask the next logical question, “Hey, that’s great, how do you see that great change happening?”

“One heart and mind at a time. That’s how change happens.”

Which begs the question, “WHEN do you see that happening?”

After all, isn’t it going to take a very long time to change the world one person at a time? Decades maybe. Generations. Don’t the leading climate scientists say we don’t have much time left to change our fossil fuel guzzling/carbon spewin ways?  Aren’t we quickly running out of oil anyway? Isn’t the environment already on the ropes from species extinction, pollution of the oceans, over-consumption of resources? Isn’t our nation dropping bombs from predator drones on innocent people every day? Wealth concentrates more every year; inequality, poverty and hunger grow; our education and health systems deteriorate.

I empathize with the response, “I don’t want to talk about those things. That’s so negative.”

I’m not just picking on the yogis. If you travel in any of the circles of New Age spirituality, you’ve likely heard all or part of this line of reasoning before. But I’m hoping for more than that from progressive, universally-minded, tolerant, empathetic yogis. I believe they want to see a different, kinder, more compassionate world. And they believe in the positive nature of the universe/consciousness/god. Don’t they? The shift has begun. Hasn’t it?

Now I understand that no good yogi wants to impose his/her own vision of reality on anyone else. The ego – our self-centered view of things – is something to be overcome. Right?  But how far does that notion extend?

How often have you heard something like this:

“Whatever happens, happens for a reason. God must have a good reason for it or it wouldn’t be happening. We may not be able to understand it, but we need to have faith that it’s all part of God’s plan and it will all turn out for the best.”

This is where I want to scream. “REALLY? What if it means the end of human life on earth? A severely degraded planet for your children?”

Sometimes the response is silence. Sometimes it’s, “Who are we to question God’s plan. It’s kind of taking it into your own hands.”

Exactly! That’s what we’re talking about. Taking it into our own hands. Agency.

I think there may be a bit of uncertainty in the New Age world about the idea of agency. Understandably so. This idea has confused good-hearted people for millennia.

What is our role in the Plan? Is it ours simply to sit back and let it all unfold, humbly marveling at the beauty and the majesty, not questioning what seems to be senseless violence and suffering? Is this the true meaning of detachment? Is this humility?

We may never understand the purpose of existence, but I want to suggest another possible role for us in the play of consciousness.

We are part of the plan. Our role is to help decide. God/consciousness has placed us here to express its/his/her will, and we do it through our own free will. We help create the reality we encounter, moment to moment, by our choices.  When we choose to act, we participate in the plan. When we choose not to act, we still are making a choice and we still are participating. We can’t disown our role in what happens around us. We are the actors. We are the agents. We are responsible.

Thirty years from now, when your children ask you why people didn’t make different choices back when they had the chance to stop the devastation of the planet, are you going to be satisfied to tell them, “We chose not to act because we thought it was God’s will.”

If you already know that the current structure is toxic to life on this planet, and if you already know the nature of the new culture you want to create, isn’t your knowledge and desire for change an expression of the will of God? If that is so, why is it necessary to wait for God to get it done? If people across the world were to rise up now for change, soon we would be calling that the will of God. So what are we waiting for?

To look at it from another perspective, would it be so easy to be so accepting of God’s will if the predator drones were dropping bombs on our heads every day? I suspect the Afghanis and Pakistanis feel that it’s just as much the will of Obama as the will of God. And it is.

I don’t mean to suggest that passivity is simply an indulgence of the privileged (although we need to ask ourselves that question). No, people everywhere are yearning for a kinder world. If a leader or a clearly articulated vision of a better future were to emerge, people would gladly get involved. I think there are deeper levels to this aversion, this passivity, that need to be examined, influences that contribute to our collective inability to manifest leaders and solutions.

Our aversion is like a samscara – a remnant of present and past actions so deep in the psyche that many of us are not aware of it . Samscaras are why we don’t change our ways or our world. The work of the yogi is to burn off the samscaras that stand in the way of enlightened vision and liberation.

A liberal yogini friend of mine was completely serious when she said, “I don’t think politics and being politically active has ever solved anything.”

This is an expression of powerlessness, a belief that one cannot  influence what goes on in the world. Where does this belief come from? It is, after all, only a belief, even if a lot of people share it.

I suspect this feeling is closely interwoven with another notion popular today: “Government can’t do anything right.” This is an idea with which we have been relentlessly bombarded for the past 30 years. Although this belief is a fundamental proposition of regressive, right wing, free market ideology, it has become widely held by liberals as well as conservatives.

But what is government, exactly? Government is simply the way that we work together to solve our common problems. If you believe that government can’t do anything right, you believe in effect that we are not capable of working together to solve our common problems.

Free market ideology insists that society functions best through the marketplace decisions of individual actors acting independently. Each one of us is in competition with each other for scarce resources. We can’t rely on anyone else, and no one should expect to rely on us. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. While on the surface this view seems to honor individualism, it actually promotes a disconnected, disempowered individual.

And somehow this process is supposed eventually to lead to correct decisions for society. (This faith in the “invisible hand” of market forces is as fervently held as religious beliefs, despite the fact that this “free” market exists only in theory. In reality markets are dominated by huge corporations that constantly strive to limit competition and free choice and to influence government to establish market structures favoring corporate interests by further restricting market freedom.)

In an eerie way, the spiritual person’s idea that the world will change one person at a time is unsettlingly reminiscent of the free market assertion that thousands of individuals acting on their own somehow unerringly make the right choices for society, without ever coming together to talk it over. Both seem like a kind of magical thinking. Could both perspectives be equally skewed reflections of a wrongly held notion of American individuality?

Couldn’t we just as easily make the case that before we can solve the problems of the world we have to stop acting one person at a time and re-learn how to work together to solve our problems? That rather than working only on ourselves, we need to get involved in rebuilding a culture and a government that really works for the majority of the people and a tradition of the importance of public discourse by an informed and involved citizenry.

Maybe people get depressed when they talk about politics because in their hearts they don’t believe we can solve our problems. This lack of confidence is an expression of a very deep rooted cynicism.

How can you have faith in God’s plan, but no faith in humanity?  Aren’t we part of God’s plan? What DO you believe? Is God benevolent, or not? Is it god’s plan to create a defective human species only to exterminate it?

Here in the US, we’ve been told for generations that we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world, with the most perfect economic system ever devised. We’ve been told this is as good as it gets. Any other system that has ever been tried was worse than this one, and any other system we might devise is going to be worse than this one. No wonder people are cynical about politics. If you don’t believe you can do better, why would you try?

Some in the spiritual community say, “We’re building a new community, one person at a time, that will rise from the ashes of the old one.”  That idea sounds like this one: “Mankind will not change until there’s some kind of a catastrophe.” How many times have you heard that one?

Either point of view assumes humanity (or at least those “others” not part of the new community) are not smart or kind or selfless enough to change before their depraved and mistaken ways bring on the calamity.

Don’t worry. We don’t have to wait until 51 percent of everyone have had their individual transformations. Critical mass theory holds that if only a fraction of a group moves in a new direction (think of a flock of birds), almost instantaneously the entire group will adjust to the new direction. Among humans, now wired together by the internet nervous system, this should be particularly true, especially if that new direction proves to be successful. I contend that the desirability of ideas like peace and justice need not be proven. Ninety-nine percent of everyone on the planet wants these things. It’s in the intrinsic, profoundly good nature of human beings.

There’s evidence that the great shift is already stirring around us.  From Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square to the indignados of Madrid, from Chile’s students seeking better education, to the Occupy Wall Street movement, to the push to end corruption in India, the young especially are already on the move. They are not willing to wait for the great catastrophe.

We can all contribute now to the movement to create a better world. We can change our hearts together – not just one at a time. The first step is dissolving the samscaras that keep us from realizing that we do have the power. We can create a better world.

Photo credits: My Way, Elephant-Donkey, The Road

Jeff Sher is a long-time yoga practitioner and a former environmental and political reporter who cut his teeth in the national forest land use conflicts of the 1970’s and 80’s. His most recent work centered around the politics of health care and has been published on


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11 Responses to “One Person at a Time. ~ Jeff Sher”

  1. Mark Ledbetter says:

    I’m new here, and feeling more and more like the odd man out. But are you all really interested in Buddhism/Yogaism? It’s not that I want to introduce conflict, but I see a real lock-step in thinking going on here about political activism that cancels out Buddha-like thinking.

    A comment on another thread said it best:

    “And in my studies of the history and philosophy of Buddhism I don't remember any reference to 'changing the system.' The Buddha said desire is the cause of suffering, not capitalism is the cause of suffering.”

    But let’s say this is not a Buddhist/Yogaist site but a political site. Actually, the “Active Citizenship” section is a political site even it it’s wearing Buddhist robes. As a political site, the attack on free markets ignores several things. (Listed in PART TWO)

  2. Mark Ledbetter says:

    The attack on free markets ignores…

    One. That corporatism (collusion between government and business, between Wall Street and D.C.) is not free market economics.

    Two. Looking to the govt for solutions means paying taxes to govt which means money for corporatists. I.E. money for bombs and bailouts. You think the money isn’t going to go for that if they have it?

    Three. And the relentless drumbeat about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer? The last twenty years have been the freest worldwide era of trade ever (as determined by low tariffs and trade barriers). During that time, 400 million people have risen out of poverty. You could easily call this the greatest material accomplishment in human history and sing for joy. And it’s accelerating. Big bad business is currently gearing up to serve the 2 billion they predict will rise out of poverty in the next 20 years.

    Four. You are all vague on how you will implement your solutions, but if you are looking to govt to do it, you are looking to a massive increase in authoritarianism. I.E. guns. Because govt has almost nothing except guns to convince people to do as it asks.

  3. irina says:

    i am not 400 million and not 2 billion. but I personally have lost most of my wealth in the last 10 years. but it's just me… i'm sure…

  4. kunga rangdröl says:

    @Mark: PART ONE) you're not 'odd man out' and you're not 'introducing conflict', but that's something you would only understand from a yogic/Buddhist perspective. I think you missed a lot of Jeff's message, you simply don't get it–and that's okay.

    there is delusion called "spiritual bypassing", in which some spiritual practitioners think themselves exempt from the banality of dealing with the dusty world. the Buddha had a transformation, and then he spent the remainder of his life getting his hands dirty teaching others (as have thousands and thousands of yogis). he taught: "Be a lamp unto yourself.." if you don't think this was an act of "changing the system", then you don't get it.

    yes, I also read that 'comment on the other thread' –and guess what? it was specious then, and it is now. capitalism functions upon desire, ignorance, greed, and delusion. how well it functions is debatable, but these are all conditions for suffering as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha–in fact, there are myriad causal conditions for suffering.

    PART TWO) corporate capitalism and the free market ideology are like my appendix and my wisdom teeth: they may have served a purpose at one time, but they have outlived their usefulness. when they are causal conditions for systemic suffering–which they are now–then we need to look at alternatives. if solutions seem vague, it's because we need to acknowledge the problem, and then take responsibility for it. this is where a critical mass is desperately needed for a Shift to occur.

    I don't know where you get the 400 million/2 billion glory hole stats from (???), but even Alan Greenspan said: "Inequality in the distribution of income and wealth amounts to a very disturbing trend.” (, 2005)

    Jeff did not suggest that the gov't has the answers, what he IS saying is that if there is going to be a Shift or a critical mass, then WE must stop waiting for it–expecting others to get their hands dirty–while we practice spiritual bypassing and do nothing else.

  5. Mark Ledbetter says:

    The 400 million are not in the countries where most Ele or Occupy people live so you won’t see them by looking around yourself. Many here in the “1st World” certainly have lost a lot. Don’t blame the free market, though.

    One: Govt helped financiers and home buyers by artificially lowering interest and guaranteeing loans

    Two: which led to rocketing housing prices

    Three: which led to a housing collapse

    Four: which led to massive loses for bankrupt lenders and borrowers

    Five. which led to massive bailouts (for the politically connected lenders only, of course!).

    This is Wall Street-Govt collusion, not free markets. (Greenspan was in on it, by the way)

  6. Mark Ledbetter says:

    The 400 mill stats are all over the place. The most recent I saw were U.N. figures that had large percentages of people rising out of poverty throughout the entire “3rd world.”

    Kunga: “capitalism functions upon desire, ignorance, greed, and delusion.”

    I’m with you there, bro! (Or sis?) And as soon as you can find a non-authoritarian system that DOESN’T function on those things I’ll be with you there, too. (non-authoritarian: one that doesn’t depend on govt guns to work)

    Voluntary non-authoritarian systems dependent on minimal greed sometimes work on a small scale. Unfortunately, most people aren’t interested in joining those communities.

  7. Mark Ledbetter says:

    If you want to transform the larger society, you can try to recruit larger society to your ideas. When that doesn’t work, you have two choices. Recognize the reality that most people just simply aren’t into Buddha and Yoga. Or you can call on govt to bring out the guns.

    If there’s a third way that leads to massive voluntary renunciation of greed, all y’all are gonna have to give up vagueness and explain it to me because right now I can’t see how you are going to do anything without using the raw power of the state.

    If you CAN make that third way work, I’ll join you for sure. But I think Buddha understood human nature well enough to understand that desire/greed drives us. The only exceptions are that tiny group that works on divorcing themselves from the illusion to work on the killing of desire. I see no possibility for that third way in larger society. Most people are just simply not interested.

    For them, free markets are the best and most non-authoritarian half-way house.

    For Peace and Freedom.

  8. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Okay, ladies and gents, I’ll be signing off here. My gut feeling, I am injecting ideas that are not part of what people here want to talk about. I feel inspired when I am typing out these ideas, but I feel bad once they’re up.

    Just a short explanation… I don’t actually believe I am right. My point of view is this… Anyone who is sure they are right on these kinds of issues does not have a deep understanding of either human nature or history. So, I’m wrong, you’re wrong, we’re all wrong. But, as part of the process of ecological/evolutionary development of a free society, the interchange of wrong-headedness is part of the process. That being said, gut feeling again, I don’t feel good about interjecting my ideas here.

    So that’s it. G’ day to you all!

    For Peace and Freedom!

  9. kunga rangdröl says:

    Mark~Sorry you don't feel good about commenting here, no one has demonized your ideas; I take it you are not a spiritual practitioner. it's not about "right" or "wrong", it IS about consciously being 'part of the process' rather than apathy, cynicism, or aversion (spiritual bypassing).

    as John Lennon once said: "if people wanted peace instead of more televisions, we'd have peace."

    ::it's all practice~yoga, meditation, prayer, loving, commenting on a blog, participating in a democracy, life::

  10. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Kunga, I feel no demonizing of ideas at all! Nonviolence is pervasive here, which is why I like it. Problem is this. I’ve advocated an alternative view which puts me in conflict with the ideology here (and there IS an overwhelmingly dominant Ele ideology). I feel like a purveyor of negativity. It’s just not a role that I want. Thus, I “signed off.”

    Am I a spiritual practitioner? Absolutely. World is illusion. Spirit is real. I try to escape the illusion for the real. But so long as I’m here, I want to make the dream a nicer one rather than a nightmare. So I deal a bit in political philosophies and systems.

    No, it’s not about right or wrong. We’re in total agreement, bro. In fact, over on the “Awkward protester” thread I agreed with the author by saying:

    -War is an idea, the idea that “I am right, you are wrong.” And it covers the full spectrum of human action, from those large scale encounters that we actually call war, all the down to two-person encounters composed of nothing but irritation. It’s all war and it’s all the same.-

    G’ day to you all!

  11. Trapper says:

    Jeff give me a call dont have your phone #