Sunday, August 31, 2014

Wangari Maathai on Democracy

"All political systems, institutions of the state, and cultural values (as well as pathways toward, and indicators of, economic growth) are justifiable only insofar as they encourage basic freedoms, including human rights, and individual and collective well-being. In that respect, democracy doesn’t solely mean “one person, one vote.” It also means, among other things, the protection of minority rights; an effective and truly representative parliament; an independent judiciary; an informed and engaged citizenry; an independent fourth estate; the rights to assemble, practice one’s religion freely, and advocate for one’s view peacefully without fear of reprisal or arbitrary arrest; and an empowered and active civil society that can operate without intimidation. By this definition, many African countries—and indeed, many societies in both the developing and developed worlds—fall short of genuine democracy. Likewise, “development” doesn’t only entail the acquisition of material things, although everyone should have enough to live with dignity and without fear of starvation or becoming homeless. Instead, it means achieving a quality of life that is sustainable, and allowing the expression of the full range of creativity and humanity."
Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate)

The Challenge for Africa (Random House/Anchor Books, 2009), p. 56

The above passage is, in my view, the most eloquent, complete, and resonant definition of democracy as an ideal since the Declaration of Independence.  This is all the more remarkable since its author, Wangari Maathai, learned English as a second language, and other than her relatively brief time studying abroad in the US,  spent most of the rest of her life in her native Kenya, which was under British colonial rule in her childhood, and since independence in 1963, has been, at best, an unstable democracy, prone to corruption, dictatorial rule, and sporadic violence between competing ethnic factions. 

Wangari Maathai was a Gaian Bodhisattva--an enlightened being who saw clearly, and devoted her life to, the integration of ecological healing, empowerment of local communities and of women in particular, and the cultivation of real democracy. Her life work was the Green Belt Movement, which began with planting a tree in her own back yard, and blossomed into a mass movement of rural African women who planted millions of trees to restore the devastated landscapes of Kenya. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in 2004, and died in 2011. If you have some time, be sure to see the magnificent documentary that celebrates her life and career: Taking Root.


"Imagine all the for today..."
--John Lennon.

I'm quite sure that most people today consider John Lennon's iconic song "Imagine" to be little more than a naive and utterly impossible hippie fantasy, a piece of nostalgia to be indulged now and then, or, for some, a dangerous socialistic, heretical screed...another reason to stamp out "godless liberalism."

But I love this song for another, unlikely reason: because it is a luminous description of reality.  What??? you ask. Consider:

  • In actuality, there is no Heaven or Hell. These are not actual "places" we somehow fly to (or descend to) after death, but metaphors, at best, for states of mind.
  • In actuality, all the people do live for today, whether they know it or not. The past is gone and irretrievable; the future is just a mental formation, an imaginative projection. Neither actually exists--only the present moment does.
  • In actuality, there are no countries--the view from space discloses no actual borders between nation states. Nations, likewise, are collectively held mental formations.
  • In actuality, there are no possessions. Everything we "own" (including our own bodies) is just a temporary configuration of causes and conditions in transit between us and someone or something else, and is a product of ongoing interactions with their exterior. Without everything in the universe, there would not be anything in the universe--this is because that is, and vice versa, and all is in constant flux and transformation.
But what about "No religion too"? This is the line that provokes the most heated reactions, quite naturally. ("See? I told you--he is a Godless Commie who wants to suppress God's people," I can hear the right-wing zealots scream.)

In the spirit of the rest of the lyrics, I would suggest that Lennon is saying, or at least we can interpret, that no one religion has a patent on Truth; that it is "nothing to kill or die for."  And likewise, as with no Heaven, no Hell, and no national borders, and no real possessions, there is no such thing as "religion" in the real world--that is, in the "inescapable network of mutuality" that is Gaia. Religion, likewise, is a mental formation, without any actual counterpart in the real world.

That being the case, let's do a bit more imagining. Imagine what might happen if...

  • a Dharma Gaia movement took root, simply because people discovered the joy of meditating, and the mental and spiritual wholeness and joy of aligning the health, competence and resilience of their own bodies, minds, and spirits with that of their communities and their planet, and because none of this threatened their existing religious beliefs. The movement would not be a religion; there is no mandatory ideology. At its core is basic meditation practice, common throughout wisdom traditions of the world: Breathe - Observe - Let Go - Abide. To this it adds learning to identify oneself with one's community and planet simultaneously--or as Lao Tzu put it, "Taking care of everything (and everyone) and abandoning nothing (and no one)."
  • Dharma Gaia circles started springing up everywhere, adapted for the local culture--in schools, churches, synagogues, community centers, even places of work, simply because people enjoyed the practice, and derived such personal and social benefits of doing so. (In Christian churches, for example, where the word "Dharma" is often considered heresy and "Gaia" as a pagan earth deity to be stamped out, one could simply call it "the mustardseed project" after the Parable of the Mustard Seed.) There would be no Dharma Gaia hierarchy, no enforcement of orthodoxy, but there would be ongoing communication, through the Web, of ideas and best practices for healing self, community, and planet simultaneously among all the various self-organizing circles. Its iconography will be simply the photo-image of the Earth, which has already gone viral all over the planet.
  • As a direct consequence, local farm markets, tree-planting cooperatives, and garden cooperatives started springing up in communities throughout the world, as people reclaimed their food and healed the land, rivers, and topsoil that provides it.
  • In any instances where Glomart perversely persists in lucrative efforts to plunder the planet and enslave its inhabitants (i.e. clearcutting forests, mountaintop removal mining, fracking, blood diamonds, overfishing, etc.) Gaians would plan and execute focused and relentless Satyagraha campaigns to disrupt their despoliation, while simultaneously restoring democracy from the ground up by mobilizing voters to throw Glomart-owned politicians out of office, through a widespread Campaign for the Public Interest.
  • The net effect of all such efforts would be Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth--a global culture where everyone was well aware that humanity is a part of, not apart from Gaia, and therefore everyone is committed to honoring and nurturing the biological conditions of our existence--topsoil, air, water, and sunlight;  that "possessions" are borrowed temporarily from Gaia, not owned; that "countries" are simply administrative conveniences, and nothing to kill or die for; and that "religions" are fine as social cohesives, provided they reject toxic "my way or no way" ideologies. A world, in short, where it is common knowledge, as William Blake said, that "Everything that lives is holy."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Spontaneous Remission?

"We were talking/About the space between us all/And the people/Who hide themselves behind a wall/of Illusion..." --George Harrison.

Today, I was having lunch with two of my closest friends, Tench  and Michael, and we got into a lively conversation about the seemingly irreversible erosion of democracy into corporate oligarchy, and the apparent futility of any normal political channels for rectifying this situation--whether by mounting grassroots campaigns to elect honest candidates who would actually serve the public interest rather than their corporate sponsors, forming and mobilizing labor unions, or organizing mass demonstrations of popular opposition and protest, or whatever--given the overwhelming power of the corporate media for ignoring or suppressing us completely and brainwashing the general public into mindless consumerism, ignorance, and complacency. Indeed, Michael, taking his cue from Plato, feels that "Hoi Polloi"--the common masses--are hopelessly benighted and easily manipulated by advertising, attack ads, or appeals to boneheaded fundamentalism and patriotic belligerence, and thus could never be awakened to confront the beast of self-serving corporate power and Glomart consumerism directly.

By "Glomart" I refer to the Global Market Economy--that is, the entire global money-based complex (mal)adaptive system of multinational corporations, banks, and captive governments, based on an unquestioned logic of maximization ("More is always better") that has become the Cancer of the Earth, with nothing to lose and everything to gain from plundering the planet and exploiting and/or brainwashing its inhabitants--turning citizens into passive consumers and/or cheap labor, communities into "markets" and nature--all of nature--into commodities for quick sale...and then externalizing the costs of doing business--passing those costs onto the public--as pollution, ravaged landscapes, declining public health, and an atmosphere overloaded with carbon that is slowly cooking us all...

I am not entirely sure, however, that Glomart is invincible.   History has shown, repeatedly, that viral ideas, starting at the grassroots level with a new, self-validating and self-replicating mythology, have the power to undermine powerful empires and transform whole cultures in a remarkably short historical period. Three obvious historical examples are the rise of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; others were the power of Confucianism in China to transform chaotic warring states into the most coherent, highly organized, and efficient bureaucracy the world had ever known. Or--more recently--the Scientific Revolution and its power to undermine centuries of entrenched and repressive Medieval superstition and launch the rapidly evolving modern era of industrialization, innovation, and democratic freedoms.  All of these vastly transformative cultural movements occurred in times when communication moved at the glacially slow pace of letters carried on horseback; imagine what could happen today, with the instantaneous global reach of the Internet, if a similar viral idea captured, motivated, and transformed the imaginations of people today, in the way the Cross, the Quran, or the Dharma Wheel did in the past...

Could this happen, given today's vast population, and the torrent of information flowing electronically around the world--and given the sophisticated control of mass media by the ever-watchful guardians of Glomart to make sure no truly subversive idea ever penetrates beyond a small coterie of discontents who mostly talk to each other?  I would say it can, but the viral idea, to succeed, must be sufficiently innocuous to the guardians of the Glomart money machine that by the time they catch wind of its transformative potential, it has already spread beyond their control, and all they can do is scramble to adapt to it.  That, and the viral idea must be of the sort whose beneficial effects are immediately obvious to those who hear it and practice it, so that it quickly self-replicates and spreads to others.  Finally, that viral idea, like any good virus, must attack Glomart where it lives and is most vulnerable. And of course, it must have its own mythology--its own imagery and iconography--to facilitate identification and acceptance.

Here is one possibility. Pass it on.

Where is Glomart most vulnerable?  Very simply, Glomart thrives entirely by their success in parting us from our money--if they cannot get our dollars, corporations will quickly fail. This is why they invest billions in pervasive advertising, everywhere--to ensure that we continue to buy their products and services, for by this alone do they survive, no matter how big and powerful they may be.

We must take our cue from this simple fact: Glomart eats and breathes money, and needs our money as much as we need oxygen. What would happen if we simply withheld that money from them, spending it instead on locally grown and marketed produce and products, whenever we could?  They would try, of course--they are already trying--to mimic local enterprise in order to reclaim the hold they once had on our wallets. We already see this in the fact, for example, that the new Glomart pseudo-cities that are springing up, like Hampton Town Centre, here where I live, are now boasting that they, too, will have "Farmer's Markets" on weekends, to exploit our growing appetite for real food, rather than Glomart-produced junk foods. Naturally, with their cash infusion, these ersatz "farmer's markets" will look more glitzy, and thus attract more customers than real farm markets...

So we need something more than appeals to "buy fresh, buy local" to subvert Glomart domination, however commendable these recent trends may be.

The Revolution may begin in our wallets--seeing every dollar as a vote for either Glomart or Gaia, and voting for Gaia whenever, however, and to whatever degree we can--but in order to gain a foothold, it will have to be rooted more deeply, at the core of our being.  In short, we need some serious mind-training, as the Buddha (and Jesus and St. Francis and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Wangari Maathai knew very well...)

I have launched my own experiment along these lines.  I am teaching my students--all my students--how to meditate, by starting every class with a short Qigong sequence followed by 3 minutes of meditation using a simple 4-step mantra:  Breathe - Observe - Let Go - Abide. Each is correlated with a natural phase of the breathing process: Inhale (Breathe); Pause (Observe); Exhale (Let Go); and Pause (Abide).  It is very easy to learn, does not threaten their belief systems (they don't have to "believe" anything in order to practice), and--most importantly--as they themselves acknowledge, it feels good.

Once they get the hang of this very basic practice, we are moving to the next phase: teaching the Dharma.  First I instruct them to associate these four phases with the cycle of life: Birth and childhood (Breathe); Adulthood (Observe); Old Age (Let Go) and Death (Abide). Next, we correlate these four phases with what Buddhists call the "Four Brahma-Viharas" (Abodes of God) but which I translate and demystify as "the Four Adaptive Attitudes:" Gratitude (Breathe); Compassion (Observe); Joy (Let Go); and Equanimity (Abide). Then I start introducing them to other Dharma teachings from the world's wisdom traditions, such as Chapter 16 of Lao Tzu ("Empty yourself of everything...") so they can see that the Dharma is, indeed, ancient and universal--that it can be found in every religious culture on the planet, in some guise.

The next step, of course, is to teach them, as George Harrison puts it, to "see beyond themselves"--that is, to extend the basic mantra into the Tenfold Dharma Gaia Mantra for self-transformation into a planetary healing agent, by the following:

  1. Reclaim the moment:  Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide);
  2. Reclaim the day: Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch (Abide)
  3. Reclaim your life: Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.
Finally, they are instructed to make the connection, in every decision they make, between the health, competence, and resilience of themselves, their communities, and the planet simultaneously.

In this way, ordinary people can be transformed into Dharma practitioners, and Dharma practitioners into Gaians--that is, into agents of Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth, seeing themselves in all others and identifying with all of life, in everything they do.

Glomart may never know what hit them...