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Politics and Practice: How we Face Social Injustice. Occupy Wall Street.

There is a lot to write about. A few weeks ago when Troy Davis was executed, I wanted to write about the death penalty, but didn’t feel I had anything substantial to offer the dialogue. It is obvious to me that 99.9% of Buddhists do not support the death penalty. The situation is Dukkha times one million. The death penalty is wrong.

So this week I want to say something about Occupy Wall Street, in my case Occupy Seattle.

Two of my roomamtes are from New York City. Last night as they discussed the protests with that NY-love for political debate, the need to make our voices heard, to understand every angle of a thing so common in some of my best friends there, I had nothing to say. I sympathized. I empathized, but I had nothing to add. One part of right speech is not speaking unless you can improve upon silence. In politics, I often feel it is best if I stay silent. Last night was not the first time I have noticed this. It has been going on for a while. Is it since I became a Buddhist? No, but perhaps being Buddhist did answer a certain ambivalence I have always had about politics, even in the days when activism was very important to me.

I have always dwelled in an especially heightened internal emotional state. Emotions and internal discourse have been the way I learn, the place where I hone my intuition and sometimes wisdom. My intense emotional life is also the reason I have found it very easy to have empathy for the suffering of others. It is why political injustice is so easy for me to spot, but it has not made me a political person, even if my family thinks I am a socialist, actually I am just a regular person, disheartened by politics. I work with youth because helping people become healthy, empowered individuals seems to me the only way to get us out of this mess.

Popular protest is another way to do this. I have seen my roommate so enlivened by the opportunity to share with people at Occupy Seattle, sleeping there on these rainy nights. He says not everyone agrees, but the commonality of intention, to oppose corporate abuse of power is inspiring. His energy is contagious and I am very sensitive to the energy of others.

In Mexico I studied and witnessed first-hand large-scale public occupations by sociedad civil. They inspired me. Campesinos traveling from their villages to sleep in the streets of Mexico City or Oacaxa in the face of a much scarier unchecked police force and an entirely unsympathetic right wing government. In NY, I have dutifully attended the protests against both wars in Iraq, against everything Giuliani did, against the WEF, the RNC. I love being around my fellow citizens in our quest for a decent society, but my heart isn’t always in it. I have often chalked this up to my addiction to the internal emotional sphere, my self-centeredness. Fundamentally I am having an experience of disempowerment. I can’t control politics just as I cannot control my emotions. Meditation has offered me a way to merge both.

The personal is political, a crucial fact to the way we understand politics nowadays, especially for women and the LGBTQ community, both very important in my life. So I will barrage you with personal questions which express confusion, but intend to arrive at complex clarity. I apologize in advance for the way that a person’s emotional landscape can muddy the water of political fervor. I believe that we have to find a way to interrupt injustice and a way to do this as creative individuals. We have to learn when it is skillful to cut through our emotions by caring for others with selfless acts and we have to learn how to just sit in the midst of painful chaos and not pick a side, just hold space.

When we protest, what is the collective experience, that makes us feel good? Does this experience empower us as a political collective? Does it empower us spiritually? Is that emotion, intellect, or both? Is this a more evolved form of love? Does it move towards the unconditional? What is the place for unconditional love in politics? Aren’t idealizations of political movements as romantic as my bedroom fantasies? As Buddhists, how do we protest and avoid solidifying a self? As Bodihisattvas, how do we protest and avoid the irresponsible selflessness that would prevent us from a sustainable practice of compassion (which requires self-care)? How do we keep our intention clear, remembering the mundane reasons to be present as well as the grand political causes?

There is alot to say about this, so much that I feel on the verge of exceeding appropriate blog length. Not only that, it is easy to drown intention in discursivity and doubt. One thing I have learned from Buddhism is to be clear, skillful, and compassionate about the intention.

Regardless of my ambivalence about how-why-when-where-who, sometimes you just have to SHOW UP. So I want to shout out the folks in NY and Seattle (and many other cities) who are showing up to protest another obvious one: corporate abuse of power. Freedom, on a relative level, means looking at power.

In Buddhism we talk about sanity. The imbalance of wealth here is so clearly insane. Here are some examples of sanity:

In response to unprovoked violence by police Occupy Wall Street says:

While we vehemently condemn these abuses of power, we urge all who read this to remain focused on our intended message. Abuse of power is abuse of power. Whether perpetrated by Wall Street bankers or members of the NYPD, it is the duty of all citizens to oppose injustice. We condemn the actions of unprofessional police who used excessive force in subduing a peaceful march. But we are foremost here to oppose the growing power of the ruling class.

And something from my friend and teacher Ethan Nichtern:

Wealth is a beautiful thing, but only in the sharing of it.

I offer a Lojong slogan that I hope will be helpful:

Perform all activities with one intention

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Troy Davis

Just a comment on your mention of Troy Davis: every few years one of these situations seems to arise where there is significant doubt as to the guilt of the person facing execution. Everybody agonizes about this and talks about the death penalty. The way I see it the problem isn't the death penalty - it's the justice system. There ought to be a way that new evidence can be reviewed by an independent panel (like a Grand jury) instead of by a judge, as it now is. This man was convicted of killing a police officer. The police usually will not tolerate any re-evaluation of a case when an officer is involved. They want an execution, not endless court cases. I am familiar with this because I have followed the case of Mumia Abu Jamal for years. The police in Phila - 30 years after the actual killing - still protest whenever this case is discussed. Police pressure the court and judges are reluctant to go against them. If there was some kind of independent review a person like Troy Davis (or Mumia) might have a chance at a new trial.

Well said.

"One part of right speech is not speaking unless you can improve upon silence."

Well said.  Another question to follow up -- who is the judge of whether or not it is an improvement? 

Loving your posts lately Mer. 


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