Thursday, October 13, 2011

Some random musings about Occupy Wall Street

Unless you have been living under a rock or in a state of cryogenic hibernation for the last month, you know about the #Occupy Wall Street movement; a movement to take back America (and, perhaps by extension, the rest of the world) from the 1% who control a disproportionate amount of its wealth, and redistribute said wealth more equitably among the remaining 99%. Right now, the movement has spread to many North American cities, and many other cities around the world have either followed suit or are following suit.

I have been thinking about and trying my best to observe this movement from my corner of the midwest. I have so far hesitated to say anything about it on this blog, for a few reasons. First, I suffer from what might be called "observer's guilt". I thought that since I am not actively participating in the movement, anything I say about it would be at best lacking in street cred and, at worst, hypocritical. I mean, if I really passionately believe in something, I should be in the trenches (or in this case, on the streets), and not just commenting on it from the relative safety of my home or office, shouldn't I?

Secondly, I did not get the sense that the occupy movement had any clear objectives as to what exactly it is that they want to achieve, beyond bringing about an end to the current system of wealth and capital distribution. And I had always been suspicious of mass movements without a clearly articulated set of objectives. 

Thirdly, I hesitated to comment on what I saw as a sensitive and polarizing topic; I have recently become a little weary (and wary) of blog wars, preferring instead to blog only about things that pertain directly to Ashtanga yoga practice. Blog wars, in my opinion, serve little purpose other than to inflate a few egos and hurt a whole bunch of people's feelings. To what end?

But this last reason turns out to be quite unfounded. Over the past few weeks, I have observed that there have been relatively few posts about this movement in the yoga blogosphere. The few posts that did emerge (examples include posts by Roseanne at It's All Yoga Baby, Carol at Think Body Electric, and Yoga Dork) have received either scant comments, or downright snarky and dismissive comments which question what kind of a place yogis could possibly have in a socio-political movement like this.

Well, seriously, what kind of a place could yogis and "spiritual" people have in a movement like this? Here's one answer that Michael Stone offers in a guest post on IAYB:

"Žižek, the protestors [of Occupy Wall Street], 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.

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...

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 require a new imaginative response."

In short, if we believe that the sufferings of others are not unconnected with our own suffering, if we believe that true happiness and prosperity is not something that one can or should obtain at the cost of somebody else's preventable suffering, then we have a place in a movement like this. And the presence of such economic and spiritual imbalances is reason and objective enough for this movement. 

As Stone points out, we may not know at this moment what exactly will emerge from this space of protest. But I think that there are certain pivotal points in one's own life where one just has a very powerful gut feeling that something has gone terribly wrong and needs to be changed, and that some powerful action needs to be taken to bring about that change, even if one does not know exactly how that change is going to happen, or what will emerge as a result of that change. I think the same thing applies to the life of a society, and on an even larger scale, the world. Seen in this light, it is no accident that there is this collective "gut feeling" that has moved so many people from all walks of life into the streets of the major cities of the world, carrying on the non-violent work begun by people like Martin Luther King Jr.: King, incidentally, was in the process of planning a march on Washington D.C. to demand more equitable working and living conditions when he was assassinated.

Perhaps some people are skeptical about the movement because of the involvement of high-profile celebrity yogis like Seane Corne. I do not know that much about Corne's work (although I have heard lots of good things about it). But I believe that the more the movement is able to bring in people of varying levels of socio-economic status and wealth, the better it will serve the movement. In fact, I will even go so far as to suggest that the power and credibility of the 99% will be furthered bolstered if it is able to get at least a few members of the 1% to join its ranks. Because, as naive as this might sound, I think that this is the best proof of the power of non-violent assimilation. Because I personally think that this is the best alternative to class warfare and the violence that inevitably accompanies such warfare. 

Well, I need to be somewhere now. Maybe I'll write more later. So I'll have to leave you with the above thoughts, which are admittedly, rather hastily formulated. But at any rate, they are my honest thoughts. And that's perhaps what's most important, in the final analysis. I'll leave you with this final thought for now: As much as I still feel rather guilty about just writing and commenting about this movement from the relative comfort of my office, I figured that saying something here is better than not saying something (after all, didn't they say that the pen is mightier than the sword? ;-)). So here goes.


  1. You make a lot of good points in this post. As an active participant in Occupy MN in Minneapolis, I find it a bit disappointing that the old spiritual/political divide still seems to remain for so many. These issues impact all of us - even the 1% who are materially benefiting the most. I urge yoga practitioners - especially if they are not at all engaged politically - to seriously reconsider. Maybe you're not in the streets everyday, and maybe you wonder what all this "Occupying" business is, but as far as I'm concerned, spiritual practice is relational. We have to learn to work together, live together in more healthy, sustainable, and equitable ways. That's what this movement is about for me.

  2. Great post! Glad you spoke out. It's time people we all speak up I think. Even if we don't know quite what we are saying. Something is not right, and many people feel this way.


  3. i think these "random musings" are wonderful, and not that random. it feels like you've been thinking about all this for a while. i appreciate your astute observation about the silence in the yoga blogosphere about the movement. even seane corn's appearance didn't seem to get much of a reaction from people.

    i also agree with your observation that seane corn's alliance with the movement represents socio-economic diversity. i think that if other high profile teachers were willing to speak out (i haven't heard any, other than her and michael stone), the yoga community might be more receptive to the idea of mixing practice and politics.

    thanks for the insights!

  4. Nobel, loved the post. I have been following the movement too, I am amazed at how much traction it has gained.

    Having lost home, car, job in 09 I completely support the movement, I am with them, I feel their pain, something is not right!

    But I struggle to come up with what a viable solution could be.

    I loved Marianne Williamson's talk here in wall street, she said"keep it smart, kept it peaceful, kern it going"....

  5. Excellent points. I'm so happy you wrote about this. One per centers with no public profile are involved at the park, as well as those with high public profiles. It is totally worth it to get mocked on cyberspace or in the media, like Sean Corn, kanye West, Depak or Russell Simmons. Movements need nutrition just like practices. I want to point out that Adbusters, a magazine from Toronto, came up with the concept OWS and that Michael Stone is based in Toronto. God bless Canadians.

  6. Nathan, I have great respect for your efforts on the ground in Minneapolis. Yes, you are definitely right that if 99% of the country is not doing well, the security and well-being of the 1% is at best temporary and illusory. I suspect that at least a few members of the 1% are starting to see this point, that "we have to learn to work together, live together in more healthy, sustainable, and equitable ways."

    Thanks for commenting, Tara. Yes, I think it is important to speak out, even if one does not know exactly what one is saying, or what action will follow. But perhaps speaking is a kind of acting.

  7. Thanks, Roseanne. And thanks for the guest post by Michael Stone. It's really insightful.

    Thanks Claudia. I'll check out Marianne Williamson's talk.

    sereneflavor, I totally agree that "movements need nutrition just like practices". And yes, more power to Canadians!

  8. I don't think you *need* to be on the ground to prove that you stand with the 99 percent. Just writing this post and generating discussion about it is doing your part, and yes, the pen is definitely mightier than the sword. And we are all affected by this movement, 99 percent/1 percent/53 percent/47 percent or whatever...

    Joseph Stiglitz wrote this piece in Vanity Fair in May 2011 during the Libyan uprising. His thesis echoes Michael Stone's message of connectedness too:

  9. Thank you for your encouraging words, savasanaaddict. Btw, I hear that some folks in our homeworld (Singapore) are planning to stage an Occupy Raffles Place tomorrow. I wonder how many will show, and if they will get arrested by the police. I should pray for them.

    I'll check out the Stiglitz piece.

  10. I support this movement and the core issues that they are trying to address. However, I have not seen any focus on an anti-war message. War is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about anymore. The major reason the economy lies in tatters is because of the prolonged invasion and occupation of other countries. Most of the money is going for defense spending which is the major problem.There are no winners in war and the youth need to hammer this message home to the govt. and the privilaged few who have suppoted these war.

  11. Hello Anonymous, I totally agree with you that the amount of money charged to the national credit card for defense is the single biggest reason why our economy is in the state it is in. There are no winners in war, and the military industrial complex benefits no one but its leaders. I'm guessing that the reason why there hasn't been any focus on an anti-war message thus far is because the movement is trying to garner as broad a consensus as possible. But this is, of course, a risky strategy in its own way: If one's consensus is too broad, one ends up not standing for anything concrete and accomplishing nothing. But I think it's still early in the game, and the signs so far give us reason for hope.

  12. A protest was planned but - perhaps in true Singaporean fashion - no one turned up!

  13. Savasanaaddict, I just read the WSJ article you linked to. I really don't know what to say: Maybe people's lives are too good in Singapore (frankly, I doubt it, but what do I know? I haven't been there in 10 years...)? Maybe people over there think that there are more effective ways to bring about change?

    I have also noticed that the turnout in other Asian cities is also very small. I wonder what this means...

  14. I think alot of it is cultural. Asian societies are used to being told what to do, instead of expressing their wants and needs. Life in Singapore is not that great really (unless you have the right degree and a well-paying job). The income gap is widening and with the influx of immigrants in the past four years (the population increased by a million between 2007 and 2011), infrastructure hasn't kept up the pace and there's a lot of resentment and tension between locals and immigrants.

  15. Savasanaaddict, I think you are on to something with the idea that the whole thing may be cultural. I have heard quite a bit about the immigrant problem as well.