Occupy Wall Street demonstrators carry a “false idol” to New York's Zuccotti Square
I was recently having lunch with a few of the ministers and pastors from our Interfaith community here in New York`s the East Village, and I was struck by how our conversation turned, like the force of a magnet, towards the practical matters of feeding and caring for the increasing number of homeless and destitute who were appearing in the Village.
I felt a certain disquietude as I listened. I didn't feel comfortable joining in their interest, and as I explored that discomfort, I returned to the disconnection still lingering in my heart between a bridge unmade.
My own compulsion to understand truth had previously lead from me the realm of social justice and activism to the realm of the spirit, and since that transition, I have been struggling to reconcile within my heart the bridge between these two worlds.
As I began exploring my feelings surrounding that lunch, another layer of truth hit me like a ton of bricks. The headlines I read turned towards a unique gathering in downtown Manhattan, which we all know now as the "Occupy Wall Street" protests.
In the past few weeks, I have been doing a dance in my mind and heart over how I feel towards this unlikely and unprecedented turn of events. I have gone from being quite eager to go down there and join them in their strange and colorful carnival, and I have also felt an equally strong desire to keep my distance.
Other monks in our ashram are feeling the same way, teetering between feelings of solidarity and skepticism, encouragement and discouragement. Yet it's something we can't ignore, not only because it's right down the street, but because it is speaking to a voice we know we all share.
What do you feel when you read some of these people's accounts? I feel the pain of my own parents' financial troubles. I feel the pain of so many people from the wasted city of Detroit, where I grew up and honed my roots. I feel the pain of people just like me, just like you, who have found that precepts of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", as guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, are a cruel joke laid upon them.
I look at many of the young people saddled with college and credit-card debt and I also feel gratitude for my current shelter as a monk, which has allowed me to keep a certain space from being plunged into that kind of angst, an angst which is visceral and existential all at once. I can literally say that "there but for the grace of God go I."
Most of all I feel that there are people who are done with being stuck with the survival of the fittest. Those camped out at Zuccotti Park near Wall Street are but the spearhead of what appears the emergence of a new zeitgeist, of a potential movement moving across lines of race (though not necessarily class), which is done with what Naomi Klein calls "The Shock Doctrine", or disaster capitalism.
The 99% are people who are sick of being manipulated and exploited by the 1% who, by all appearances on the surface and underneath, are rigging the system and benefiting beyond any sense of means and decency by a dependence on the inherent shocks and chaos programmed into the system itself.
In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Klein writes of the 1% and one of their "spiritual" preceptors Milton Friedman:
"This desire for godlike powers of total creation is precisely why free-market idealogues are so drawn to crises and disasters. Non-apocalyptic reality is simply not hospitable to their ambitions. For thirty-five years, what has animated Friedman's counterrevolution is an attraction to a kind of freedom and possibility available only in times of cataclysmic change-when people, with their stubborn habits and insistent demands, are blasted out of the way-moments when democracy seems a practical impossibility."
This is clearly a movement which is making the attempt to push back, to assert an essential need for decency, integrity, justice, and humanity. They are articulating a voice for so many of the voiceless. The desire of their heart is so sincere, and this is what is attracting so many of us to consider and even directly support their activism.
Yet, despite all these obvious truths, I still struggle to join my body, mind, and heart with their own. This is largely because I am a head-space person, and I am becoming more conscious of the "limits of my empathy", as articulated quite nicely in a recent NY Times op-ed by David Brooks, but the bridge between these considerations and actual action is also still unmade, and is the great conflict of my inner spiritual life at the moment.
There are practical considerations in any case. As monks, our distance from the world insures the space and freedom to cultivate the deeper spiritual reality which underlies and actualizes all potential solutions to the problems of this world. This distance allows a proper perspective and vision.
I can't help but relate to the similar struggle the great Catholic writer Thomas Merton also felt in trying to understand the bridge between his concerns for social justice and spiritual truth. He was careful to avoid the kind of zeal that warps sincerity, and which turns this sincerity into the violence of pride. From his 1962 essay The Seasons of Celebration he defines the zealot as an individual:
"who 'loses himself' in his cause in such a way that he can no longer 'find himself' at all. Yet paradoxically this 'loss' of himself is not the salutary self-forgetfulness commanded by Christ. It is rather an immersion in hos own wilfulness conceived as the will of an abstract, non-personal force; the force of a project or program. He is, in other words, alienated by the violence of his own enthusiasm: and by that very violence he tends to produce the same kind of alienation in others."
There is, of course, a fear in getting involved, of getting too drawn in when we are already in our ashram stretched to the max is so many ways. There is also a fear and hesitation based on simply not being familiar, on the ground, with the protestors, with who they are, what they are feeling, what they are experiencing. The only to this cure is a careful engagement on our part, to a sharing of our presence which also keeps us free from the winds of the chaotic and unformed aspects of this movement.
What the Occupy Wall Street movement needs, and what it is yearning for, is something more than a band-aid solution. They must solve the questions of leadership, policy, momentum, and a deeper integrity which will resonate with the mainstream. They must solve the question of how they are going to become truly transcendent.
Where do we come in to help them do this? Humbly of course, at first, not pretending to be the soothsayers who will guide them to victory, but as their servants trying to make them aware that they are on the cusp of a potential revolution in consciousness. We want them to understand truly what it means to come in like a needle, and out like a plow.
It is my own personal conviction that, as devotees and caretakers of Srila Prabhupada's mission, that we cannot live in a vacuum. We must offer, in some way, our presence, our association, our wisdom, our lifestyle, our love, friendship, and support. I ask for your blessings and your own prayers that we can perhaps all do this with courage and without naivety.
Bhakta Chris Fici is a monk in the Bhaktivedanta Ashram at The Bhakti Center, New York City