Saturday, October 29, 2011

Change Inside and Out


Years ago, working with the Interfaith Communities United for Justice in Peace in Los Angeles, some of us took an opportunity to do some non-violence training with the Reverend Jim Lawson, the man who trained Martin Luther King, Jr. and his generation and so many who followed them. The man is 83 years old today and still teaching.

One point he stressed has never left me. He emphasized to us that a potent social movement is a journey, a process which does not only change "society" (the outside situation to which people are reacting), but also transforms the participants themselves.

This is also a Zen teaching point: "inside" and "outside" become one.

Some kinds of change, some of the most important ones, come from waking up individually as a human being, becoming aware of conditions and ideas that shape how we perceive our world, becoming aware also of our habitual reactions to "outside" things, and using our selves more consciously and freely. That is a fundamental step yet it is widely overlooked, despite the popularity of "mindfulness" and best selling books by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh. This is a lifelong practice and few stick with it that long.

Other kinds of important change come from being part of a family and a community. This is the basic link from the personal to the social. The way we are with our family and our community changes us and changes those around us. This is the power of human relationship.

Other kinds of change are in the political realm, and this where some people get uncomfortable. In the political realm, we confront disagreement and conflict, and deal with strong opinions and emotions. Sometimes Zen practitioners express an aversion to this realm of experience, viewing opinions and passions as snares to be avoided. But who makes it a snare? We can make decisions and follow through on them with wisdom and compassion rather than clinging and aversion. It just takes attention, honesty, and practice (see above).

Stepping a little further into the political realm (it's okay, come on in, don't worry), we should now address something honestly and frankly. It's about politeness.

Most of you are very polite people. I'm talking mainly to U.S. readers here: you like your political action brief, anonymous, and polite. You go to the polls on election day. Maybe you write a check for a candidate you like. You cast your vote. And you believe that is the true agency for correcting injustice and systemic flaws in society. You politely choose among the politicians who have been selected for you by the establishment of the two parties. Even if you vote in a party's primary, you are choosing among the well-funded and anointed.

You won't be found at a demonstration, at least not often or for very long; you would certainly not participate in a sit-in or block traffic or do anything so impolite. After all, you might get arrested. You see no need for this kind of agitation. You trust the police and the politicians, save a few bad apples, to keep you safe and protect your interests. You have wide open eyes and trust the system. You are probably white like me.

I love you, gentle citizens. I love your politeness. Yet some kinds of change do not take place at a ballot box.

Independence from Britain, not done at a ballot box.

Eight hour work day and the end of child labor, not at the ballot box.

Women's suffrage was not a polite referendum.

The end of Jim Crow laws was not won simply by voting in a new face or two.

There are more and better examples but this entry is getting long. Point is, sometimes citizens need to be a bit more brusque. Renegade, even. This is the realm of questioning authority and resisting it. If you are doing it right, authority pushes back and punishes you. When enough people stick with it long enough, absorbing the pain and suffering caused by this resistance, sometimes there is a tectonic shift.

It's just how it goes. No one is forcing you to do anything, but if you are wondering why people are being arrested and getting beat up by police around the world including many U.S. cities, it's because really, all is not well, and there is a need for this activity.

Still, see above. Hopefully we all stay clear amidst the struggle.

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