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Reflecting on a Year of Occupy

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Day 31 at Occupy Wall Street (photo by David Shankbone)

This week marked the year anniversary of the Occupy Movement (aka “Occupy Wall Street”). I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s transpired this past year —

… from the heady days in September and October when it seemed like this was the vehicle to ride to social transformation…

…through the long, hard winter when some of our fragile alliances began to crumble…

…into spring and summer of this year as the movement grappled with finding new ways to connect and express itself.

To be honest, the first couple of weeks of Occupy, I was pretty skeptical and my skepticism was reinforced when I’d stop by local demonstrations here in my hometown of Santa Fe and found few people who could articulate why they were there other than, “I’m just mad… about everything!”

But the more I followed what was happening, and as I got involved myself, I could see something special was transpiring. I wrote about what I was seeing and feeling in this piece, “This is What Compassion Looks Like,” co-authored along with Roshi Joan Halifax. An excerpt:

Some have criticized or ridiculed Occupy Wall Street because it has not formed a list of clear demands for change. Instead, it has relied on a participatory, emergent process, even inviting the public at large to weigh in on what issues are of most importance.

What is really remarkable about this movement is that somehow it has raised the process of “how” change happens to being more important than the “what” of change.

The people on the streets in New York are in the process of being the change they wish to see, to use Gandhi’s phrase. They have organized to provide health care for each other, to feed each other, to clean up their space together, to deal with difficult situations using creative solutions. They have intentionally refused alignment with any political party in order to keep their message open to the widest audience. They are taking pains to use a collective decision-making process so that the voices of the marginalized are being heard and considered.

At the end of October, I went to Boston to spend a few days with the Occupy community there, and particularly with the nascent Protest Chaplains — about whom I ended up writing a whole thesis as part of my chaplaincy training at Upaya Zen Center.

Then during the winter, things got harder (as things so often seem to do during that season). Here in Santa Fe, I began to spend a little more time at the encampment (but nowhere near as much as some of my comrades, I want to be quick to acknowledge that). We sat around the outside campfire together as the weather got colder, made green chile stew together, and shivered inside the tent as we held GA’s and tried to listen to each other even as disagreements arose.

Sadly, fractures started to appear in the solidarity that had seemed so strong at the start, as many of us quickly discovered that Occupy did not magically remove all the issues and -ism’s that we carried before it all started. Racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, and more reared their ugly heads in spite of our best intentions. Maybe one of the big lessons of Occupy is how much more work we still have to do in this area.

Even so, there have been some shining moments and some glimpses of the “beloved community” (in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s words) and the “better world that we know in our hearts is possible” (a phrase from Charles Eisenstein).

One story that especially stood out to me this past year was one you might have missed. In late November, in Atlanta, two drivers who were dispatched by Chase Bank to collect furniture in order to facilitate a foreclosure that would have sent an elderly Black woman out of her home resisted orders. When they got to the woman’s house and saw who she was — a frail 103-year-old woman — they simply refused to carry out their job. As did the county sheriff’s deputies who were sent to enforce the eviction order. (You can see the story here.)

I found this act of resistance incredibly encouraging… ordinary Americans standing up for each other, across lines of gender, race, and age. This may or may not have happened ‘because’ of Occupy, but it surely made the news because the context had been created for this story to be important, for the narrative of corporate exploitation to be heard.

It also seemed that Buddhists found many points of convergence in Occupy, perhaps more than in any other movement or “protest” in recent history. In October last year, I collected a batch of articles written up to that point by dharma practitioners in this post.

I don’t have a whole lot of big analysis to offer here, and I have no idea where this movement will go next. But for all its faults… Occupy is really no other than us. We are human, we have flaws, we have much to learn and practice with. The movement — in whatever state it is in now and will evolve into — is simply a reflection of that.

I want to end with these words from my friend (and awesome graphic designer) Anoki Casey, who has been very involved in Occupy in his hometown of San Diego, and does a wonderful job of setting Occupy in a dharma context:

The thing that is beautiful about the Occupy Movement from a Dharmic standpoint is that this is an example of instinctive compassionate action incarnate in the human being… these people are divorcing themselves from their bodies, their projected delusions, their self-centered dreams, and their ingrained need to appease their neighbors’ status quo to fight for those who can’t or wont… who they may never, ever meet.

They are beaten down by weeks and months of hard work, new community building, dismantling archaic beliefs, unresponded efforts, and police baton just so that others can benefit from what the world really has to offer: Freedom to Be. Right here, right now… not lost in the fear of the someone else’s future or the dread from an unlearned from past.

Without even knowing the names Thich Nhat Hanh, Maha Ghosananda, Thich Quan Duc, Avalokiteshvara they are taking charge of leading the charge to remove the barriers between race, affluence, education, and creed to lay waste to a deception “that life is bad, life is evil, life is hopeless”.

As every blossoming Buddhist enters their first temple to find out what more life has to offer under the thin wraps than the dreary despair we’re fed, these activists—these hearts—are taking responsibility for the realization that “Life is Unsatisfactory” and working toward releasing the bonds of desperate craving to look the other way… sometime working to wrest that concept from the corporate hands that hold it the hardest and harshest, and realizing this nightmare can be “let go” for a better life for all.

Working together as a community toward focusing on their goal of equality and hope (Right View); letting go of the lie and committing to that struggle for all (Right Intention) changing the nation’s language and their own language to build new bonds and new bridges (Right Speech); creating a fresh way to work with others to discover new avenues toward the future (Right Action); leaving and condemning “me-first” methods of work that hurt and fester destruction between people (Right Livelihood); constantly, daily doing what is needed to open up their fellow people’s minds toward this better world (Right Effort); and taking the time to reflect and learn from their actions and efforts with others in committees, meetings, GAs, and themselves (Right Mindfulness) in order to keep their eyes somewhat passionately but positively on the prize that a “Better World is Possible” (Right Concentration).

Occupy drives home the Buddha’s lessons that Greed, Anger, and Delusion are the poisons that keep degenerating this world… and that innately, we each have the possibility to save every being from this repetitious, Samsaric cycle. It may not fit snuggly in a quiet Zennie temple, but as the Buddha’s gift to us is intoned through Osho’s words “My doctrine is not a doctrine but just a vision. I have not given you any set rules, I have not given you a system.” the fluidity, the vivacity, the creativity, and the possibility of his lessons shine through to me every time I hear “Occupy!” echoing down a street.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on Occupy and dharma as we move into Year 2. Please share in the comments below.

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

4 responses »

  1. Good opportunities for Right Action and Right Livelihood: I got to file for a temporary restraining order to stop the City of Madison from evicting Occupy Madison from its site on a prominent street. We lost, which was alsoan opportunity to let go of the fruits of actions.

  2. Pingback: Reflecting on a Year of Occupy | Shobogenzo Zen Center

  3. Pingback: Reflecting on a Year of Occupy | Zen Peacemakers

  4. Pingback: Reflecting on a Year of Occupy – Zen Peacemakers

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