With yesterday’s big protests in Berkeley, the continuing unrest in Syria and Egypt, and new demonstrations in Russia, it seems that the planet is now fully perinatal: something new is emerging from the world’s womb.
The self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi on Dec. 17th, 2010, set off a wave of revolts in North Africa and the Middle East. Dubbed the Arab Spring, it soon spread to Europe and the West. Youths rampaged in Britain, the Middle Class marched on the Kremlin, and the “Occupy” movement bloomed in America from New York City to Flagstaff, Arizona.
Right-wing critics of Occupy bewail the indirection of the movement, but as one Egyptian professional in the Tahir Square protests said, “I know what I don’t want.” Americans are angry about the skewed distribution of wealth in the country and the business-as-usual aftermath of the mortgage crisis–among many other things.
A positive new vision hasn’t emerged, but that often happens when change is demanded in a society, or a relationship, or a life-path.
First we say, “no!” then we create new dreams.
A swami in Rishikesh, India’s north, listened for months to a voice that told him to go to Bangalore. He talked over the move with his brother disciples but got no support. “What is in Bangalore?” they said. “It’s a city of money.”
But the messages still came and eventually, trusting spirit, he traveled south. He expected that a guru would appear in his life, or a disciple, or a situation, but when he got to his destination, nothing came to pass. He idled for weeks, not knowing what to do.
This is sometimes how protesting the status quo works. Protest is usually a destructive act. It is a shattering of standing relationships. It is a “yes” to change—the change from something is often sure, but the change toward something is sometimes vague. In every case, “Something is rotten in Denmark” and the stench drives us forth. We end up with less at first—a life on the road, a day without a job, or a bed without the one we loved.
Change may be hard, so we hesitate. We put up with less, saying, “It’s alright,” as we recoil from rocking the boat.
One night, I was walking the streets, taking a break from deskwork, and I passed a man who walked slowly, breathed heavily and had a profound stoop in his shoulders. I’m a yoga teacher, and when I see bodies closed by habits of emotion or diet or movement patterns, I feel called to help. Usually, I mind my own business, but that night I felt a sharp obligation to say something. “Have you tried yoga?” I asked as I walked beside him. Without looking at me, he said in protest, “I’m breathing!”
So it goes in the pre-change world.
Things are alright.
At least we’re breathing.
But when it gets harder to inhale, that’s a common preamble to protest. Things “as they are” feel constrictive. That urges us toward a new pattern of choice.
Things might be lousy, or they might be just alright. Or it might be enough to “just breathe.” We’re hanging tough, but we might also sense there’s a better way.
When I was in Junior High, I wasn’t a tough kid, but I stood out in my own way, and found myself in fights from time to time. In one squabble, a kid named Steve Anderson who’d been insulting me for months threw a textbook of mine into the trash in our locker-room, and I’d had it. I shouted in his face, “fuck you, Anderson,” and he duly challenged me to a fight. He was bigger than me and a better athlete, and I’d been trained to avoid conflict from my life as a preacher’s son. I matter-of-factly refused him. Disregarding the rules of masculine of engagement, I just said, “I’m not fighting you, Anderson. You’d kick my ass.”
That pretty much ended it.
Sometimes we protest, and that’s it. The change is internal and the external situation changes spontaneously. Anderson never bothered me again.
The “no” we make creates a new map of experience. A new perceptive frame, a new self-concept, and new pattern of choice can be enough to shift things. Sometimes a simple “no” is enough to eradicate evil–because the evil outside us depends on the weakness we cultivate inside–and evil is rarely as strong as we make it out to be.
Sometimes the act of protest comes easily, but more often it comes after great courage and sacrifice. As John F. Kennedy phrased it, it is a “long twilight struggle, day in and day out.”
Change is often undramatic. It can comes from simple daily re-commitments to shift a habit. The great poet, writer and compiler of the first English Dictionary, Samuel Johnson, re-committed himself all his life to the simple, but constantly unmet goal of getting to bed early. If our foe is worthy, the business of protest may be life-long. Chronic problems require chronic resolutions.
As Krishna cried out to his chela (student) Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “fight!” Though a junior high pacifist, when I said, “Fuck you, Anderson!” I was already fighting.
The protestors in Tahir Square encountered the police and army again and again and—even now—with Egypt’s President Mubarak in jail, and elections in progress—the military still bullies and kills Egyptians. And people still fight.
Our Occupy movements don’t seem to have changed the status quo too much yet, but this is just a testament to the worthiness of our adversaries and the unchanged portion of ourselves. Protest is an ongoing event for societies and individuals. To grow requires resistance, focus, and dull work.
At the end of the day sloth, habit and comfort are our most trenchant adversaries.
In the 1980s, I had a favorite synth-rock band called the Human League who cut a track called, “Comfort Kills.”
It’s a good message to keep in mind when the notion of protest enters the head, and the contrary urge to stay in bed, or say “yes” to evil one more time, or to avoid acting for fear of the unknown comes for a visit.
Sometimes it is time to say “no” regardless of what waits on the other side.
Sometimes it’s time to fight–and it seems we find ourselves in one of those times today.