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Waking Up Body, Mind, Culture

Year of the Snake Reflection: #7.

Check out Michael Stone's refreshing Marxist-Anarcho-Buddhist perspective on social change and activism below.

Michael Stone is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, Buddhist teacher, author and activist, committed to the integration of traditional teachings with contemporary psychological and philosophical understanding. His research and teaching explore the intersection of committed spiritual practice and social action. The following talk was recorded at W2 Media Cafe on Dec 2, 2012 in Vancouver BC. The event was a fundraiser for the upcoming short film REACTOR, directed by Ian MacKenzie and co-produced by Michael Stone. The short film covers their pilgrimage to Japan in the wake of the tsunami and Fukushima meltdown, as they explore the ways Japanese people are responding to the disaster. The following talk begins with Michael discussing his experiences in Japan at a Zen monastery in Kyoto before Ian arrived to begin shooting the film.

Some highlights below:

I thought I was going to Japan to help people, people who were suffering from the effects of radioactivity, or people who needed blankets and water, that our film would be a journalistic exposition about everything that was wrong with capitalism and nuclear power. But, kind of like how meditative practice works on you, you think its entering one part of your mind but actually its doing work on a totally different level. And very quickly I started to see that what we were really looking at was addiction.

Our culture is addicted to a way of life that we all know is unsustainable, and underneath "addiction" is a holding on to fixed and rigid narratives. In meditation practice, one of the things we all learn is to be able to see how stories operate and just see them – as stories, and how powerful it is to see that thoughts and narratives have no power other than what we invest in them. They're just a little more than air. Then I thought, how do you scale this up culturally? Because our culture is also addicted to stories and we also know from anyone who suffered from addiction that the opposite side of addiction is imagination. When we are addicted to something, because we are caught in a singular narrative, what's not possible is the free flowing of imagination. We can only imagine to a certain point.

We saw this a lot in the Occupy movement, we saw people trying to create a space where they were trying to just see the narratives of the culture. One of the things that was interesting about the beginning of the Occupy movement in New York is that they were talking about the way bankers had privatized profit and socialized losses and no matter what your political viewpoint is, you couldn't disagree with this. All people saw the truth of this narrative. But then what started to happen is people were trying to look deeper at this narrative, and then, just like it happens in meditative practice, you try and look a little closer beneath your story, you let go of the story, and then the ego comes in and creates a new one. So you've let go of a story and you think "Oh, I've just let go! I'm so spiritual! The ego hijacks the whole process and creates a whole new context for this. I saw this in the Occupy movement. People were starting to see through the grand narratives in the culture, and then the media would come in, which was like the super-ego of the culture, and the media came in and asked, "where's the violence" because the media needs the violence. The other thing the media wanted was, "well what are you going to replace this with? what's next?" Then it was very clear that one of the things we were seeing in the culture was a profound lack of imagination. We have these stories we haven't dropped, and out of the dropping of the story, imagination can flow, but we just weren't there yet. Everything the media was doing looked like what the ego does in meditative practice, trying to come in and trying to figure out what's next.

We went to Osaka and interviewed the leading nuclear scientists and he said to us straight up, "okay ill let you into my office and show you how the nuclear power works." We sat down in his office and he just said, "Nuclear power is so bad." It was just shocking what he started saying. He started telling us about how he was at Chernobyl, Japan sent him to three mile island, how much research he's been doing and how bad nuclear power is. This is a government employee. In Japan. Then he encouraged us to go to Hiroshima. We went to Hiroshima and interviewed women who were there on the day the bomb dropped, to see what their response was to what's happening in Fukushima. Everybody started saying the same thing, which is, we have no idea what to do. And, "we are in it". We are here. We are not going anywhere.

To me that was the same teaching the Zen teacher gave in the monastery. The heart of practice is just to take care of things. How do we take care of things? I was interpreting that as, how do we become deeply materialistic? We start to really care about the material world and we start to turn off what I think is this outdated ideology of transcendence. This idea that our practice is to get up and out of here. but actually to dig in and go to work on the interconnectedness that we all philosophically adhere to. but sometimes our actions aren't actually in line with living a life where we are really serving the whole net. We just keep redecorating the prison.

But we really need new dance moves, we really need an imagination that is allowed to flow in surprising ways. I think that only comes when we can really look and bear witness to the way I am addicted, the way I have stories about what is meaningful - that is not helpful. This is what we are trying to show in this film. There is something so powerful about paying attention, yet we live in an attention deficit society. I have a 9 year old son and one thing I really see with him and his friends is that they have no idea how to be bored. They don't see in any of the adults around them - anyone ever bored. If you are ever bored, you have a devise around to take care of it. It's so powerful to learn how to pay attention to something in a sustained way.

In my early 20s, my practice was to become a monk. I just wanted to get enlightened and that was it. But my interests were also in political activism, and the you get involved in the activist world, nobody can pay attention to anything, it was so philosophical and so ideological, and because I'm an intellectual, so for me, I love big ideas. I love huge ideas. I love ideas that can change things, and at the same time, that's not what changes anything! Big ideas - we all have big ideas. What does it mean to be able to have big ideas but also to look really closely in a sustained way and to give things our attention. So many of us, I think, don't have the skill to do that. We're just constantly trying to find another narrative to fit another problem and those narratives tend to not be imaginative cause they are coming out of something we know already.

As a culture, we keep putting our forests over here, our corporations over here, pipelines over here - we have to exit that kind of binary thinking, and we have to do it ourselves. We all do it in our relationships. And in the last 700 years of major political revolutions, none of them have created a new kind of government that's been inspiring for that country. Look at Cuba, travel all over the world at look around. Look at Syria. Because we have in us this inner fascist, this inner hierarchy that can't drop grand narratives. I think that's the work that has to happen internally for us to have social change that's really meaningful.

I don't think we are really living at a time where we need any more ideology. We don't need another big idea about what's going to change the world. What we really need is a deeper kind of materialism. Maybe that's the ideology. But we need the ability to drop our ideology. To pay attention. To work with what's in front of us. And simultaneously, that's what brings about creative work. We all know this, I think. That kind of process really starts with ending compartmentalization inside of us, and the way that we see the world. I think it's possible.

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Comments on the article “Waking Up Body, Mind, Culture”

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Anonymous

Mmmh very interesting topic. But I can't see where buddhism, anarchism and marxism blend in him. Do you think his is a Marxist approach to social change?

Anonymous

True not much Marxism here, but there is at the centre, in the monk's comment that the bodhisattva path is to attend to "the great gaps between those who have money, and those who don't, those who are educate and those who are not". . .

Also there is a little bit of Marx circa "Thesis on Feurbach" . . . "philosophers have hitherto-fore interpreted the world, the point is to change it" . . . here the guy is saying that the point is not to interpret the world and get trapped in more ideology, but to face the world and only once you do those 3 steps he speaks of can you, "change" it.

His comments on Occupy, and ideology, were interesting and relevant. Thanks.

Jim Leonard

I like the article. However, while the author acknowledges the importance of adaptation over ideology, he doesn't seem to quite get it. Maybe that's because the World is out there and always moving in surprising ways and that's something no description can quite capture. We try to come up with the perfect ideology and the perfect plan but always fail to some degree. One reason is that, like the World, we, too are always changing and we can't anticipate our own learning before it happens. Love, really is the goal. But what that means will always be open to interpretation.

Eli Becuar

I find this article overly vague and with great mis- and over-use of the words: "narrative" and "ideology". But I agree with the author in some aspects esp. his views on pragmatism and the need to find "new narratives" (in the sense of trying to find new ideas to solve problems). To be a materialist is to argue that ideas only have effects once they are disseminated, circulated, and put into practice, but pragmatism fits here i think in a different way. Such as: we often talk about something instead of doing it; but sometimes we also do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them.

Anonymous

I find it absurd to tag the Marxist label on someone who rejects ideologies. I find this man's teaching very necessary, realistic and practical. Change the world by practice and example, something unheard of since the time of Mahatma Gandhi. Change the world by paying close attention to what's going on, whatever may be the level that you can deal with. Really revolutionary, no ideology needed here. Hoping this goes viral. Just imagine. Addiction v. Imagination, wonderful!

Anonymous

Imagination is the needle in the materialism haystack. I think there are enough people who agree with this article, but are too comfortable with the current way of life and too lazy to make the changes that our world so desperately needs

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