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Group meditation at Occupy Wall St. / Photo: Velcrow Ripper

As the movement grows in New York and all over North America, Michael Stone believes we are creating a language to reimagine what a flourishing society looks like.

A MAN STANDS on a bench in Zuccotti Park on Wall Street and chants a phrase from a meeting last night: “We don’t want a higher standard of living, we want a better standard of living.” He’s wearing a crisp navy blue suit and typing tweets into his iPhone. Next to him, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, wearing a red t-shirt, is surrounded by at least a hundred people as he makes his way onto a makeshift platform.

Since the protesters aren’t allowed to use megaphones or amplifiers, they have to listen carefully to the speaker’s every sentence, after which the speaker pauses, and those close enough to have heard repeat the sentence in unison for those farther away. When Naomi Klein spoke three nights ago, some sentences were repeated four or five times as they echoed through Liberty Park and down Wall Street, passed along like something to be celebrated and shared, something newborn.

Slavoj Žižek said:

They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream which is tuning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scenes from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice. But it goes on walking. Ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street – Hey, look down!

We are awakening from a dream. When the Buddha was asked to describe his experience of awakening he said, “What I have awoken to is deep, quiet and excellent. But,” he continues, “People love their place. It’s hard for people who love, delight and revel in the fixed views and places of absolute certainty, to see interdependence.”

Over and over, the Buddha taught that what causes suffering is holding on to inflexible views. The stories that govern our lives are also the narratives that keep us locked into set patterns, habits and addictions. The same psychological tools that the Buddha cultivated for helping us let go of one-track rigid stories can be applied not just personally, but socially. Enlightenment is not personal; it’s collective.

The media love a good fight. In Toronto during the G20, those not involved in the protests were eventually distracted by the images of a burning police car in front of the banking sectors. With burning cars and young men breaking windows, there was suddenly a more entertaining target than the real issues of coming austerity measures and avoidance of policies that deal with climate catastrophe. With violent images prevailing, the protests lost momentum because the issues were forgotten in the media.

This time, even though there is a massive police presence at most protests, the movement is not giving the media the images of broken windows that they love. Instead we are seeing a blossoming of creativity and hope.

We need a language now that allows us to reimagine what a flourishing society looks like. Any meditator knows that there are times when the thoughts that stream endlessly through awareness can eventually grow quiet. But it’s only temporary. The stories come back. But they return differently. They have more space and they are –more fluid, less rigid. We need stories to think and make sense of a world – now an ailing world that needs us. A more convenient way to apply the Buddha’s message to the social sphere is to remember that viewpoints never end or dissolve altogether, rather we learn to shift from one story to another, like a prism being turned, so that the possible ways of looking at our lives can constantly change.

“If you see others as Buddha, you are a Buddha. You remain human. You no longer try to get beyond others. “

It’s time we adapt to our economic and ecological circumstances – uncomfortable truths we’ve been avoiding for far too long. This awakening is not just about economics, it’s about ecology and our love for what we know is valuable: community, healthcare, simple food, and time.

This process of dislodging old narratives is the function of both spirituality and art. Both ethics and aesthetics ask us to let go in a way that is deep enough that we find ourselves embedded in the world in a new way. If we think of this emerging movement as a practice, we’ll see that as it deepens and we let go of habitual stories, our embeddedness in the world deepens. Intimacy deepens. Relationships deepen.

In the same way that moving into stillness is a threat to the part of us that wants to keep running along in egoistic fantasies and distraction, those with the most to lose are going to try and repress this outpouring of change. They’ll do this with police, of course, but they’ll also use subtle measures like calling us communists or anti-American, anti-progress, etc. Our job will be to keep a discerning eye and watch for this subtle rhetoric that obscures what we are fighting for.

In the Lotus Sutra it is said that the quickest way to becoming a Buddha is not through extensive retreats or chanting but through seeing others as a Buddha. If you see others as Buddha, you are a Buddha. You remain human. You no longer try to get beyond others.

A student once asked Zen master Shitou Xiquian, “What is Buddha?” Shitou replied, “You don’t have Buddha mind.” The student said, “I’m human; I run around and I have ideas.” Shitou said, “People who are active and have ideas also have Buddha-mind.” The student said, “Why don’t I have Buddha-mind?” Shitou said, “Because you are not willing to remain human.”

This student wants to transcend his life. He imagines that being a Buddha is something outside of himself, beyond his everyday actions. If you have to ask what awakening is, you don’t see it. If you can’t trust that you have the possibility to do good, to see everyone and everything as a Buddha, then how will you even begin? Our Buddha nature is our imagination.

These protests are reminding us that with a little imagination, a lot can change. We are witnessing a collective awakening to the fact that our corporations and governments are the products of human action. They aren’t serving anymore, and so it is in our power and in our interest to replace them.

We are not fighting the people on Wall Street, we are fighting this whole system.

Žižek, the protestors, the Buddha and Shitou share a common and easily forgotten truth: We cause suffering for ourselves and others when we lose our sense of connectedness. We are the 99 percent but we are dependent on the 1 percent that control forty percent of the wealth. Those statistics reflect grave imbalance in our society.

Of course people are taking to the streets. In the U.S. 44.6 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for over six months. Long-term unemployment at this level is unprecedented in the post second world war era, and it causes deep strife in communities, families and people’s health.

Love Always / Photo: Velcrow Ripper

This movement is also showing the power of non-violence. Non-violence, a core precept in my own Buddhist practice, is not an ideology. It’s the power of facing what’s actually going on in each and every moment and responding as skillfully as possible. The depth of our awakening, our humanness, has everything to with how we care for others. Our sphere of awareness begins to include everything and everyone. The way we respond to our circumstances shows our commitment to non-harm.

In meditation practice we can experience gaps between the exhale and the inhale, between one thought dissolving and another appearing. The space between thoughts is the gentle and creative place of non-harm. The meditator learns to trust that quiet liminal space with patience because from it, new and surprising ways of seeing our lives emerge. This is the inherent impulse of non-harm in our lives. It begins when we bear witness to the fading of one thought and the emergence of another.

These protests are exposing the gap between democracy and capitalism. The way democracy and capitalism have been bound is coming to an end. We want democracy but we can’t afford the runaway growth economy that isn’t benefiting the 99 percent. And if the 99 percent are not benefiting, the truth is, the 1 percent feel that. If there’s anything we’re all aware of these days, it’s that it’s not just twitter and email that connects us – it’s water, speculative banking, debt and air, as well. When the 1 percent live at the expense of the 99 percent, a rebalancing is certain to occur.

If we can trust in the space where, on the one hand, we are fed up with economic instability and ecological degradation and, on the other, we value interconnectedness, we are doing the same thing collectively that the meditator does on his or her cushion. We are trusting that something loving and creative will emerge from this space that we create. It’s too early to say what that may be. It won’t just be a rehashing of an ideology from the past. These are new times and requite a new imaginative response.

The people of Occupy Wall Street and now Occupy San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Copenhagen and 70 other cities are trying to do both: take over a space that’s being wrested from the people, and also hold the possibility of a new way of living. What’s been stolen from the people is not merely a physical space (their foreclosed homes, for example) but space to rethink how our society operates and what to do about the bottom dropping out. Even the media, looking for a hook, can’t find one. “What are your demands?” the media keep asking. The answer: “It’s too early to say.” Let’s see how much space we can hold, let’s see what our power is, and then we can begin talking about demands.

If we are going to fully express our humanity and wake up as a collective, we need to replace our youthful ideas of transcendence with the hard work of committing to the end of a way of life in which our work is not in-line with our values.

We’re demanding a fundamental change of our system. Yes, we all need to work through our individual capacity for greed, anger and confusion. This is an endless human task. We also have to stop cooperating with the system that breeds greed and confusion as it shapes our lives and our choices. This movement is the beginning of bringing that system to a halt.

From here, anything is possible.

Occupy Wall Street


About The Author

Michael Stone

Michael Stone is a Buddhist teacher, Yoga teacher, author and psychotherapist. He is the Founder of Centre of Gravity, a community in downtown Toronto integrating Buddhist practice, Yoga and social action. He is a voice for a new generation of young people integrating spiritual practice with environmental and social issues.

  • Bellaboscosauce

    Thank you Michael. “Education” would make a nice addition to the list of things we deem important.

  • Hal Amen

    strong piece

  • Ian MacKenzie

    “We need a language now that allows us to reimagine what a flourishing society looks like.”  Beautifully said – which is why we cannot urge OWS to make demands to early… the risk is to use old language for a process that is just now unfolding.

  • steve

    this is a wonderful piece of thinking and speaking.

  • Charbee

    the mayans spoke of a monumental change in 2012… some call it end of days… perhaps it was mistranslated and was more a complete change of days… a structural rethink of life on earth… that’s pretty substantial news from an ancient civilization. … ours to bee-lieve!

    • Mini

      I agree. It’s happening, and as a group, we’re finally starting to accept such tremendous shifts in the world!

    • Ian MacKenzie

      Check out the interview I did with the director of 2012: Time for Change

      • CharBee

        Thank you Ian. What a great article and interview you penned. Had not heard of this film. Thanks and to all others… Give it a read!

  • Kellyrobbins89
  • Ali

    A beautiful piece written with such peacefulness, this feeling exudes from the page.   I would only add that instead of “what we are FIGHTING for..” may be better stated as what we are WORKING TOWARD (feels more peaceful for me to actin this manner vs fight).  Peacefulness and Clarity of Vision will be important for those leaders who will emerge to have in order to create any real change.  Right now, it feels a bit like a child having a temper tantrum and no one can really hear what he/she has to say when there is so much noise.  When the noise stops, then the change can begin. 

  • Sally Weber

    Thank you Michael Stone!  I am studying the Buddhist Precepts with Frank Jude and have been wondering what is this “occupy” movement.  Thank you for helping me see it more clearly.  It feels so right!  Now to join Occupy Tucson!

  • Lisa Carnicom

    This is one of the best articles I’ve ever seen on Matador.  Thank you for writing about interconnectedness because one of the challenges of changing times is to obviate the “Us vs. Them” duality.  100% of people want to feel happy, safe, loved, and healthy.  In this sense, there is no 1%/99%.  Your article spoke to this very well.  We need to remember this as we “dislodge old narratives”.

  • Jonathan Brown

    I must agree that this is probably the best piece I’ve read on Matador.  Insightful thinking that I will share with friends

  • Joao Costa

    A new way to say NO to this system, but will it be enough?

  • Lauren Leonardi

    A very lovely piece, Michael.  I respond especially to the part about non-violence.  I’m a wholehearted supporter of the movement, and yet I’m troubled by certain moments of conflict between demonstrators and police, because I see the opportunity for more peace, and with it more power.  I’ve been wanting to do a piece on this for awhile, and yours has inspired me to get on that!  Thanks for that.  :-)

  • Nightelf

    If OWS were in fact a Buddhist movement I wouldn’t be so concerned. I believe the majority of protestors do not look to spiritual solutions but to political action, as yet undefined. The slogans are all over the map, (many anti-Semitic) but are mostly Marxist in tone as far as I can see. Communists, Islamists and neo-Nazis, among others, are supporting OWS. Marxism and Buddhism don’t mix, as we see with the destruction of Tibetan culture by the Chinese communists. Buddhism has never won converts by mass political action. Neither is the constant scapegoating of ‘the rich’ and blaming human suffering on Wall Street or the ‘system’ consistent with Buddhist teachings. Stone says:

    “This movement is the beginning of bringing that system to a halt.”

    Can’t you see that ‘bringing the system to a halt’ could harm a tremendous number of ordinary people? Do you imagine that destroying existing institutions would automatically bring a utopia into being like a phoenix from the ruins? Idealistic attempts to create a perfect world through political action often end in tears and sometimes in violence and mass murder. You think this time it’s going to be different? I wouldn’t bet on it.      

    • Ian MacKenzie

      I think this time it is different because, despite the mix of support from different groups, it is rooted in the dawning of inter-dependence.  Divisive slogans are subject to face-t0-face intimacy… which they cannot withstand.  Instead, what arises is love… the expansion of the self to include another.   As Adyashanti says, “an indiscriminate love”

    • AdrianWillamson

      Neo Nazis and “Islamists” do you have some proof of this?
      And as for Communism and Marxism why not borrow concepts from them that work?
      Who said anything about sticking strictly to one political or economic system?
      And the Chinese communist’s destruction of Tibetan culture does not mean that
      there is not some merit in the ideas themselves.

      Bring about a Utopia? Did anyone in this thread actually say that? Mass
      murder?  And the reason it will be
      different is because we are LEARNING from history.

  • Vinny R

    Thank you very much for this article! I am very happy that there is this level of consciousness expressing itself publicly.  Beautiful article

  • Sadee Whip

    Really well written, beautiful article.

  • Loring Palmer

    Yes, “We’re demanding a fundamental change of our system.”   Michael, you identify a pathology that inspires us to look deeper.  Create a space [OWS] for contemplation of a new lens of perception to deal with life conditions in our culture.  However, will “remaining human” be enough of a solution to deal with the stagnation and corruption of our economic and political system?  Will Buddhist practice and insights provide the skillful means?  Because from the perspective of evolution, everything’s happening as it should.  

    “In summary, it is the contemporary life conditions of the stagnation of social progress brought about by an increasingly bitter culture war, looming global disasters, and the failure of postmodernism to offer realistic solutions to the problems it identifies that serve as the push, the pressure that is resulting in evolutionary development toward the integral stage of development.”
    [Steve McIntosh, INTEGRAL CONSCIOUSNESS and the Future of Evolution, p. 78]

    Thank you, Michael, for your stimulating article.

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