November 4, 2011

One Person at a Time. ~ Jeff Sher

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 Counterpunch.com.

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