From a reader:
Something I've been meaning to ask you. No offense meant, but what you write about politics and power and authority doesn't match with zen rituals. Not talking about the meditation, here, but the formalities. All that bowing to people and teachers and silently "just doing it" doesn't seem democratic.
Bowing is indispensable to democracy.
That's one of the major reasons democracy is so difficult. That includes republican democracy. That includes even the tightly constrained democratic power we Americans have in the United States, which is really a plutocracy under a two-party system dominated by capital.
It was a major difficulty for Occupy Wall Street and its satellite "occupy" movements as well. It is, I would argue, what poisoned Occupy Las Cruces early in its brief life.
It's the reason democracy sometimes gets a bad rap for seeming chaotic and unproductive.
People can't bow.
Argument and struggle are important. And there are also times to bow. They are all essential skills and it takes wisdom, patience, and practice to know which one to practice where.
Even if we had an agreeable degree of democracy in our lives, a governance that served an entire people equally, we would still have to bow. We bow to election results. We bow to decisions by the judiciary. We bow to laws and a constitution. We bow to new information and data. (Facts.) The foundational concept in our Declaration of Independence, of "consent of the governed," implies bowing to a system of governance.
The ability to argue and to fight for one's interests is indispensable. Equally indispensable is the ability to reconcile and grant legitimacy to a decision reached by the process. This is, figuratively, what I mean by bowing.
It doesn't mean surrender and it doesn't mean complacency or obeisance. With respect to political struggle, it simply means the conclusion of a chapter and the beginning of a new process. We bow in one moment.
A measure of humility, even just the ability to let something go in this moment, can actually help sustain an activist's energy. It prevents burnout. I'm convinced of this. Successful social movements by people who did not have power, have succeeded only by sustained optimism and energy after numerous disappointments and setbacks. Bitterness and cynicism do not fuel such movements.
And once in power, how do we exercise the freedom and privilege that have been achieved? By arguing endlessly and refusing to compromise, ever?
A little bit of humility is very helpful. A bit of teflon on one's skin, enough to let the small stuff and occasional defeat roll off, helps a whole lot.
One way I've had an opportunity to practice that is by living in zen centers. Occasionally this has meant formalities such as bowing to respected teachers. Did I lose personal autonomy by doing so? Nah. I've also shoved those teachers, argued with them face to face, and beaten them at volleyball. It has also meant living communally, and bowing to the needs and comforts of my neighbors with respect to noise, cleanliness, and other matters. It has meant, at times, relinquishing my personal opinion so that a situation could move forward, and bringing up my concerns at a different time and place. (Which I did often.)
The time spent on formal retreats, which are held in strict silence with a regimented schedule and rules, help instill a sense of personal discipline that is quite helpful in life outside the monastery. Democracy without personal discipline is a melee where no consensus can ever be reached, and people inevitably give up and walk away from the process.
And what they do after that is very dangerous.
For instance, in this Bush-Obama period of American life, more and more I hear people say they would rather stockpile weapons, declare themselves "sovereign citizens," and withhold their consent to be governed because of rules and decisions they do not like. This is a withdrawal from politics into a bunker mentality. "I, my, me" with guns. At a time when (in my opinion) we need most of all to come together around a few very serious and difficult crises that threaten our civilization, we are fragmenting, building walls, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
A different way is possible but it requires social skills that are not always celebrated, and even more seldomly practiced. It requires a balance of skills. Knowing when to argue, when to table a debate, when to apply pressure and when to ease up, and how to accept a decision that doesn't go your way but might benefit people as a whole, all require wisdom and humility.
I would like to see more movies about people who do this, instead of one movie after another where a male hero visits explosive vengeance (usually as a vigilante) against wrongdoers interspersed with wisecracks, celebrating physical strength and armaments with no need for wisdom, diplomacy, or generosity.
I would like to see political rivals engage in honest debate and acknowledge each other with respect and generosity. Displays of animus should be reserved and dignified, saved for people who really have behaved treasonously. I would call it quite acceptable to stand and turn one's back on a government official who engaged in war crimes and did not have to answer for it.
I would like to see more adult education in civics, social science, and labor history.
There are cynical reasons this does not happen. There is a power structure in place that does not want to attract people like us into the political process. It's an ugly arena, to be sure, and some of the doors are locked; but not all of them.
It is still possible for wisdom and generosity to confront the ugliness of power.