And all of a sudden, we are in the middle of a great political awakening. After forty years of cynical, apathetic clouds gathering in the West, here comes the storm of radicalization, just in time to confront some dire challenges. 2011, a year of global uprisings in Europe and the Middle East became 2012, with Occupations across the US and elsewhere. Now in 2013, Idle No More is the rallying cry for indigenous peoples across Canada and the globe, and anti-fossil fuel activists are springing up thick in all soil. And there’s a beautifully childlike enthusiasm to the political action here in America, like we are just learning to walk on our own; even marching against grim rights violations, it’s hard for us to stop smiling at the excitement we feel. But even with a head newly full of political steam, the learned helplessness of those latent years can be hard to shake without routing out its cause. Mindfulness practices teach me to dig deeply, lovingly, inside myself to better understand the world around me. And if I am to develop the stamina I’ll need to change the way I live, understanding my places of resistance and conditioning will be a first step in this direction.
The problem begins in the cereal aisle of the grocery store: what should I eat? When I see that vast array of products, I understand that one of these cereals is for me. I am one of these kinds of people. And if I buy it and I hate it, I have a money-back guarantee. I know how to make myself a problem at customer service if they don’t give me what I want. And if I slip and fall in the aisle, I may get pain and suffering compensation. And if it’s Trader Joe’s, the cashier will probably ask me how my weekend was. The possibilities for my experience have already been enumerated, it is just my job to pick from among them. Consumer choices are passive choices that discourage self-knowledge and engagement.
Say I see a problem for which there is no ready solution, perhaps a problem that doesn’t have to do with my own wants being met. Perhaps I’d like to know what happens to the food on the shelf when it meets its expiration date; do hungry people get it, or does it get buried in a locked dumpster, like so many edibles? Then I encounter the Middle Manager Problem of Obscured Humans. Regardless of an employee’s beliefs, he or she will almost always speak from the company policy position: “I’d have to ask the manager,” or “I’d love to help, but it’s our policy not to,” or, likely as not, “I have no idea.” We are learning and teaching each other that where we do business, we do not do social change. Employment hierarchies short-circuit personal accountability.
Which brings me to the problem of why am I trying to do politics in the supermarket in the first place? Or the coffee shop, or the Citibank lobby, or the Urgent Care office, or Forever 21? Well, because the public sphere is being privatized. How many public places can you think of where you can span time without spending money? Our everyday corporations have a meticulously apolitical appearance, and even small businesses often have a no-politics policy for fear of losing customers. So if all of our public spaces are actually private businesses, and private business owners are worried about offending the public and losing business, then their politics happen privately, and we are all walking around believing that businesses are not political, somehow exempt from the conversation about how people and money behave. When public places are privatized, we lose sight of our deep interrelation. We treat each other instrumentally, extracting value, instead of compassionately, sharing connection.
We can know that consumer capitalism is the big-P Problem, but it’s not just the problem that we’re facing, it is the stuff that suffuses us: the fuel, the fire, the smoke. Privatization both intensifies and obscures our need for connection. Work hierarchies either force or permit employees to disconnect from their own ethical autonomy, and put the business’s interest first. And living as a customer first, citizen second, atrophies our creativity in the sense that we don’t remember how to create, only to choose. I find I lack imagination in situations when the choices offered have been exhausted. I expect the same level of aesthetic finesse from my radical organizations as I do from my entertainment sources. Writing letters to politicians leaves me feeling depressed and powerless, because my ego believes that my actions are always big and should be noticed. But these are all manifestations of the illusion that things can stay unchanged, and the childish spirit is only part of my political consciousness. My spiritual disciplines give me space to remember that what I can see and understand is not all there is. Beyond my outsize will and entitlement, beyond my ironic defenses and fear of failure, is an electric optimism. And all I need to do is look to my dharma brothers and sisters speaking out around the world to remember that more is possible than I know.