We had a ‘huddle’ here at the Temple last night. This is one of the actions coming out of the Women’s March that encourages small local groups to gather to envision a future together and to commit to specific action steps.
This gathering was simply one of the thousands of locally organized groups across the country that are doing just this. Rather than instructions from some centralized authority, these groups are the democratic response to what many of us see as the breakdown of our democratic processes.
Many of us are waking up from a long slumber to realize that our society is not what we thought it was and that we are needed to participate in ways we have conveniently avoided.
My two take-aways from our huddle: 1) clarify what it is you want rather than just focus on what you don’t want and 2) take action that energizes you.
This first point is one of the central perspectives of the coaching work I do with leaders and others. Clarifying where we are going creates an energy that supports our actions right now. We don’t have to know exactly what it is that we want. But we do have to name something that is important enough for us to be willing to be uncomfortable for. What is it you want to stand for? How do you want the country to look in four years?
The vision that arose for me came out of my discouragement on election night to see how consistent the gap is between the central and rural parts of our country and the urban and costal parts. We live in a country that is blue on the coasts and in small dots of urban areas and red everywhere else. So my vision is that in four years, the patterns is not so strong – that there is more of a dialogue between these two perspectives – that us urban intellectual types have a deeper understanding of what life is like outside of our bubble and that the rural heartland types are included in the conversation and feel that they are part of a country that is diverse and evolving.
My second inspiration from the huddle was remembering the importance of choosing our actions based not on what we think we ‘should’ do, but on using our skills and talents in a way that energizes us. This sounds like a privileged perspective, choosing what we do and don’t do, but it is also true. All of us, no matter what our circumstances have to chose what to pay attention to and what to do.
When we try to do everything, we exhaust ourselves in our necessary failure. Many people these days are saying this is a marathon, not a sprint. Our current situation that will be resolved or even dramatically changed by one march or one action. To counteract the forces of Trump’s disregard for the constitution and his calls to isolationism and blame, we need to be engaged for the foreseeable future. Since very few of the Republicans in Congress seem ready to hold Trump accountable to the laws and common civilities of our democracy, we must step forward.
So I have committed to keep writing, to call my more conservative sister and to organizing two workshop/discussions here at the Temple. What is your vision for our country? And what small steps are you willing to take to move in that direction?
On the immigration issue, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, reminds us that the way forward is not to determine who is right, but rather to appreciate the truth in both the conservative and the liberal approaches. The conservative approach honors the challenges of immigration while the liberal view appreciates the value and moral imperative of immigration.
When people with different customs, languages and world-views come into our communities, it reduces our level of social capital. We no longer have the automatic bonds of trust that come from common assumptions and behaviors. We have to work harder to see how our new neighbors are like us. The unconscious signals and meanings, so important to our sense of being at home with each other, have to be consciously recreated.
Over the past few years, Melissa and I have had the opportunity to travel in Europe, Scandinavia and Central America. We love these trips where we get to see other parts of the world and get a flavor of the local cultures and customs. We also have the privilege of leading meditation retreats when we travel. On these retreats, we get to see these differences melt away as we investigate the deeper currents of what it really means to be alive.
And as wonderful as our travel is, I must confess to a deep sense of relief when we come back home. Driving down Pleasant Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, I am flooded with a sense of familiarity. I am at home here and some deep part of my brain can relaxes. I don’t have to work as hard. Without thinking, I understand the signals and meanings of daily life.
One of the shocks of this election was the vivid awareness of the many people in this country who clearly don’t feel at home in the same America as I do. The cultural conversations about the unconscious power of racism, classism, misogyny and hetero-normative gender oppression make sense to me and feel to be essentially American. For many others, these conversations are simply for the urban intellectuals who sip skinny soy lattes and profit through the exclusion of everyone who does not live on the coasts or in a city.
It is the sense of alienation, disenfranchisement and fear that we need to address, even as we fight our new President to retain the foundations of our democratic institutions and our common sense of the verifiable realities that we share.
Immigration is a challenging issue for us all. I know very few people that say we should have completely open borders. There is a cost to immigration. There are dangers in bringing new people into our country. Even for those of us who see how much our country has benefitted from the energy, skills and vision of new citizens from foreign lands, must also publicaly acknowledge these costs and challenges.
Arny Mindell, the founder of Process Work and World Work, asserts that everything we encounter is part of our world—part of us. Drawing on Carl Jung, shamanic traditions and Eastern philosophy, he speaks of a world of reflective interconnection, where we are all part of a constant process of emerging. This ongoing becomingness of reality is the dynamic and ephemeral world in which we live and act. We cannot control what is happening, but we can join with the energetic currents of the moment to support the natural evolution of life.
Arny has worked around the world in places of deep and unrelenting conflict, bringing opponents together to speak what has not been spoken and to listen to what has not been heard. I have attended some of his trainings and I have never seen a human being so genuinely delighted with whatever is happening. His certainty in that the ‘arc of history bends toward justice’ is palpable as he works not to contain or smooth over conflict, but to find out the essence of the problem in the assurance that the current disturbance is exactly what reality needs to move forward.
This Process Work position is not so much something to be believed, but rather a perspective from which we can engage in our lives and the world around us. If everything we encounter is part of our world, it means that ‘the other’ that we wrestle with is part of us. This ‘other’ usually appears as an embodiment of what I am not. All of the qualities I do not see in myself, I project onto some person or group because I can’t admit to them in myself. Jung called this the ‘shadow’ – that part of ourselves that we have not fully integrated.
For more than a year now, Trump has been rousing crowds around the country with promises of ‘getting rid of the bad actors.’ He populates the world with dangerous ‘others’, then proposes to undercut democratic principles and processes in the name of necessary safety. It’s the Muslims. It’s the Mexicans. It’s the fictitious rise in crime. We are in danger and we must be strong. We don’t have time for the niceties of due process.
So it was in the fifties with Joe McCarthy and ‘Communists’. So it was with almost every wave of immigrants into our country – the Chinese and Japanese, the Irish, the Italians, the Poles. Every group is initially seen as ‘the other’ – almost sub-human. It is essential for us to see the perennial appeal of this response to anxiety: blame someone else.
But I can’t recount this American history without going further back. The very foundation of our country rests on a hatred for and extermination of ‘the other.’ Our great nation, which we claim is based on the principles of liberty and justice for all, has its roots in the extermination of native peoples and the enslavement of black people on an unprecedented scale. You and I did not do this, but we must begin to take responsibility for the racism and violence that is woven into the fabric of our great democracy.
Our work to preserve the foundation of democracy in our country in the face of Trump’s daily assaults must to include a new awareness of and work to undo the ongoing structures of racism and economic violence that have been conveniently hidden from many of us.
Human beings are tribal. We are hard wired to identify with a limited group of people (who are ‘like us’) and against everyone else who is ‘different.’ The ‘different ones become the ‘other’ the ‘enemy who we must band together to fight. In his wonderful Ted Talk in November, Jonathan Haidt describes this tribalism as ‘Me against my brother. My brother and me against my cousin. And all three of us against the world.’ As this description suggests, tribalism is not a rational, analytic position, but a visceral and instinctual response to danger; real or imagined.
This basic human tendency to create a common identity in the face of external dangers could easily have given some early humans a survival advantage. ‘Us against the world.’ might have allowed small bands of people to act quickly and powerfully together to deal with real dangers to the group. Members of the tribe might be filled with strong emotions that gave them powers and the fearlessness to risk their lives for the sake of their tribe. Groups of humans that were more laid back and welcoming to the world may have lost the struggle to survive and did not pass their genes on to the next generation.
Throughout history, finding a (or creating) common enemy has always been a way of bringing people together. On a personal level, we do this when we gossip about one another. We bond together when we discuss the real or imagined faults of others. The ‘truth’ of what we are saying, the degree to which it corresponds to a verifiable reality, has no impact on the closeness we may experience in the activity itself.
This observation about humans tendency to organize around a common ‘other’ or common ‘enemy’ is readily apparent these days in the activities and spirit of the liberal part of our country. Many liberal commentators have called this activation of the left, the silver lining in Trump’s Electoral College victory. I myself have been uplifted by the Women’s March, the protests against the Immigration Executive Order, contributions to the ACLU. Suddenly people who share my worldview are caring enough to do more than talk.
Trump himself is a master at activating these tribal tendencies. He effortlessly and constantly speaks of ‘the others’ that we need to protect ourselves from. His focus on the wall he wants to build between the US and Mexico is a perfect illustration of this point, as is the Executive Order on immigration. The reason many Americans are feeling economically stressed and left behind is that there are too many people not like us in the country and coming into the country. We must unite against ‘those people’ who are taking away our security and prosperity.
When our anxiety is channeled against one person or one group, we actually feel some relief. We are no longer alone. The problem is not us, it is ‘those people.’ We turn shoulder to shoulder to join together to take action.
How do we use the energy of our tribal arousal to take action against Donald Trump’s very real threats to the democratic foundations of our country while not being carried away in the very thing we are fighting? (to be continued…)
Five thirty-three a.m. here at Blue Spirit resort in Costa Rica. Mostly dark. I sit in shorts and t-shirt by the pool deserted pool. Most of the others sleep while the strong breezes push the big palms. Their naturally tattered leaves rattle and flutter with practiced ease. A faint lightening of orange creeps over the eastern hills.
Nearby, the howler monkeys practice their strange vocalization. These small arboreal creatures sound like the monster from the deep come to eat you up – but really are happy nibbling leaves as they effortlessly traverse the canopy overhead.
Everything, still in silhouette, moves with the breeze. The repetitive dark lines of the palm fronds stick up over the horizon line in the mid-distance. Nearby, the sound of water running constantly over the edge of the infinity pool.
We are all infinity pools – moving bodies of liquid – always spilling over. Not really stopping at the skin line, though that is the fiction we live by. Helpful enough to persist, false enough to cause lots of trouble. Each of us is always overflowing – always sending off messages to others of our kind: in our movements and our stillness—our expressions and lack of expressions—our voices and our smells.
Looking right, about forty feet off the ground in the small branches of a large tree without leaves, I see one of the smaller howler monkeys. A small dark and furry animal with a long prehensile tail. Prehensile (according to Mirriam-Webster): 1 : adapted for seizing or grasping especially by wrapping around 2 : gifted with mental grasp or moral or aesthetic perception. So with his tail he stabilizes himself as he goes from branch to branch. He is not in a hurry, and shows not the slightest fear of the height or precariousness of his position. Clearly height and tenuous grasp are not concepts he understands.
I love the second definition “gifted with mental grasp or moral or aesthetic perception.” With the tail of our mind we grasp thin straws to make a coherent and opinionated world which appears to reside completely outside us.
The eastern sky, now turning robin’s egg blue. A wispy pink cloud floats ambiguously above. The wind still blows hard in gusts, rattling the surprisingly tough leaves. The howler monkey ascends higher – now leans out over empty space, effortlessly finding the next branch. He seems to especially like what’s on the end of the smallest branches and is willing to lean out to get it.
Today, back home in Worcester, Massachusetts, a blizzard.
In this dream-life, I walk up to the pavilion to fill my high-tech travel cup with Costa Rican coffee and a little ‘letche’, before heading to the deserted beach for morning qi gong.