Prison as intersection

The Florida prison strike, dubbed #operationPUSH by its organizers, is bringing a level of national attention to conditions in our prisons that I haven’t seen in a long time.

People who generally don’t give a thought to the issue are becoming aware that people in jails and prisons live under truly inhumane conditions. The practice of using prison labor to do work both public and private is being recognized for what it is: slavery.

Some people are even beginning to be willing to consider that we as a society should discuss ways to better solve the issues of poverty, crime and violence. As it becomes clear that most of our jails and prisons actually increase all those things, we are beginning to see that incarceration is not a positive element in society or even a “necessary evil” — the position most people tend to retreat to when faced with the facts about how horrible prison really is.

Intersections

The prison strike itself is bringing some clarity to my mind about a lot of these issues — issues I’ve been concerned about for a long time — because it’s helping me see the intersectionality of the issues. The question of using incarcerated people to do public work, from cleaning up roadsides to building facilities, is one thing (though I’d argue even that is a form of slave labor), but when it comes to leasing prisoners out to private interests, the moral ground is clear. We are enslaving them.

So I begin to see that when you step into a prison, you step into a place where many — perhaps most? — of the crucial issues of American society intersect. As with the original feminist idea of intersectionality, which describes how “people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers,” as a discussion on YW Boston  frames it, the incarcerated are often at the crossing of many vectors that keep them pinned down, locked up, and caught in a cycle of poverty and crime that they can’t break out of.

This “convergence of oppression” can be acute for an incarcerated  individual.

Toxic Prisons

Prison, and the system that creates, supports, staffs and fills it with inmates, is likewise a point where we can observe many of the toxic factors in our society coming together to create an environment that is soul-destroying and life-wrecking for its individual victims and ultimately corrupting for the society at large.

In brief form, this is what we do: we take people who the economy — which is itself racist, classist, sexist, ableist, etc. — has forced into criminality in order to survive, run them through a legal system that is biased in every way against them and dooms them with its confrontational model, lock them up for being poor, of color, and under-educated, and them put them to work for either the state that did this to them or private interests that are the reason the state and its enforcement apparatus exist.

So in this system, this process, we can see all the racist, sexist, ableist, classist elements of society come together to make it nearly impossible for an individual with several strikes against them to avoid getting caught up in this web. Those individuals who do avoid it usually have some unusual element, some person, some stroke of luck, some quirk of character, that sets them apart and provides the impetus that propels them beyond entanglement in its sticky strands.

Almost all of the current social and political issues are involved in one way or another in the operation of this system. By looking deeply into how it works in general and how it may impact any particular person, we begin to illuminate all of the issues that our society must deal with in some reasonable time frame, else it will descend into some kind of dark, near-feudal social order that gradually abandons all the ideals of an egalitarian, humane society.

Slavery By Another Name

I’m beginning to read a book I’ve had for some years that is helping me see and understand the origins of this system.

Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name is a detailed historical account of how the system of laws, law enforcement and incarceration we now take as normal arose in the South after the Civil War to deal with two things: the economic chaos that white folk found themselves in after the freeing of the slaves deprived them of cheap labor, and the fear of these freed slaves taking over the government and economy of the South.

As I read this book and think about what’s going on around me, I plan to write further on the subject. It helps me to grasp it all, to make sense of it. I hope it may help others to understand what we have done, what we are doing, and most importantly, what we must now do to rectify the sins of the fathers.

Tulsi Gabbard on N. Korea

Tulsi Gabbard nails the North Korea situation in an interview with George Stephanopoulos…

She accurately blames the US pursuit of Empire for the Korean nuclear threat. Just like most every other country in the world, the Koreans are more militarized and more dangerous to world peace because THEY FEAR THE U.S.

How anyone can seriously doubt that is beyond me.

We continue to de-stablize the world and then blame the victims.

Caitlyn Johnstone lays it all out here.

Tulsi Gabbard is probably the only member of Congress who gets Empire. She is also probably the most radical member of Congress. She’s not perfect on everything, but she’s certainly beginning to understand the realities of power in the world.

 

Finding peace in trying times…

These times do try our souls, as Thomas Paine said. Ole Thomas would have been aghast at what’s going on in our world today!

One of my Buddhist mentors, Maia Duerr, has a beautiful response to the general malaise and the current insanity in her Full Moon newsletter today, noting that the recent horrendous tax bill is is just more of the same, another example, certainly a more extreme one, of the power that greed, anger and delusion hold over our society.

She also says, as I’ve been saying for a while now, and just mentioned recently, that the wisdom of our indigenous cultures is an important source of help for all this insanity.

I felt a bit better reading her thoughts. She offers some positive suggestions for dealing with the stress it brings. Maybe others would also benefit from hearing her perspective on things:

This full moon snuck up on me… feels like the past 28 days went by so quickly! Have you felt that too? The quickening of time, along with the shortening of days…Feeling into the preciousness of each moment we have here in this crazy mixed-up world

Yesterday I awoke to the news here in the U.S. that the Senate passed a horrendous tax bill. As one friend said, there’s all kinds of evil written into it. The full ramifications likely won’t be known and felt for some time, but they will be huge. No doubt this is a further redistribution of ‘wealth’ of a certain kind upwards to those already have it, and a further marginalizing of those who already live at the edge.

This isn’t new, though. It’s an intensification of what has been there all along, no matter which political party is in power. The seeds of greed, hatred, and delusion have grown into fully toxic monsters.

And yet the medicine is also here, hidden underneath the toxic overgrowth. I look to my Indigenous sisters and brothers for a blueprint on how to live a life that is in right relationship to each other and the earth… they’ve had generations of experience in doing that, and learning from mistakes. I look to teachings of simplicity and renunciation in my own tradition of Buddhism for similar gifts.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s not a matter of finding the best new technology. The way through this is what has been there all along… to not take more from the earth than we can give back, to respect each other, to be kind to each other, to respect earth and water and sky. And yet the way will be full of challenges and pain and suffering as we reckon with all this.

I think a lot of another friend’s gentle yet persistent warning — soon we’re going to need to feed each other. What will that look like? How can we get there, together? How can I opt out of this system that has caused so much harm to people and creatures of all kind and the planet we rely on for life? How can I be part of a community that truly cares for each other, and mindfully walks on this earth?

I don’t have the answers. I know it will take greater effort and creativity than I’ve given these questions in the past, and greater commitment on my part.

In the midst of all this, I’m trying to observe a 7-day at-home version of Rohatsu, the intensive sitting meditation retreat that Zen Buddhists do during this first week of December. I’m taking this as a time to slow down, stop, and sit with all these questions.

Nature is by far the best medicine during times like these. … I want to share this short video from a recent journey I took to a beautiful place near Santa Fe, Diablo Canyon. I invite you to take a half a minute to simply notice what you feel as you watch this video. I hope in the coming weeks you’re able to make time to visit a place that speaks to your heart and soul. If you do, I’d love to hear about it and even see pictures! You can always reach me by replying to this email or writing to me at maia@maiaduerr.com.
Maia offers a full range of consultation and teaching around these themes. Her website has links to most of those resources, and you can can sign up for the Full Moon newsletter. It’s always a joy and a solace.

The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
blessings,
Maia
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)

Ta Nehisi… again

Ta-Nehisi Coates may be the best social analyst and writer currently working in the American press. I am once again astounded at the clarity and honesty he brings to bear on the Obama presidency in his recent — long! — article in The Atlantic, My President Was Black.

Witness this passage, in which he says Obama’s speech to the DNC in 2004 belongs to:

… the literature of prospective presidents—men (as it turns out) who speak not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams. When Lincoln invoked the dream of a nation “conceived in liberty” and pledged to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” he erased the near-extermination of one people and the enslavement of another. When Roosevelt told the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he invoked the dream of American omnipotence and boundless capability. But black people, then living under a campaign of terror for more than half a century, had quite a bit to fear, and Roosevelt could not save them. The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities, besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials. Likewise, Obama’s keynote address conflated the slave and the nation of immigrants who profited from him. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.

While one might expect Coates to engage in apologetics for Obama, it doesn’t happen. Though he is honest in his baseline admiration for the man and the work he’s done, he steadfastly holds the Presidential feet to the flame:

Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.

These excerpts, though disconnected and probably disorganized, serve to show the remarkable depth of analysis and penetrating gaze that Coates brings to the subject. He also unfailingly puts it all into a social/economic context that makes it both understandable and sad. And he is unflinching in calling out the deep-seated racism in American history and society.

The mark of that system is visible at every level of American society, regardless of the quality of one’s choices. For instance, the unemployment rate among black college graduates (4.1 percent) is almost the same as the unemployment rate among white high-school graduates (4.6 percent). But that college degree is generally purchased at a higher price by blacks than by whites. According to research by the Brookings Institution, African Americans tend to carry more student debt four years after graduation ($53,000 versus $28,000) and suffer from a higher default rate on their loans (7.6 percent versus 2.4 percent) than white Americans. This is both the result and the perpetuator of a sprawling wealth gap between the races. White households, on average, hold seven times as much wealth as black households—a difference so large as to make comparing the “black middle class” and “white middle class” meaningless; they’re simply not comparable. According to Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University who studies economic mobility, black families making $100,000 a year or more live in more-disadvantaged neighborhoods than white families making less than $30,000. This gap didn’t just appear by magic; it’s the result of the government’s effort over many decades to create a pigmentocracy—one that will continue without explicit intervention.

……

When I asked Obama about this perspective, he fluctuated between understanding where the activists were coming from and being hurt by such brush-offs. “I think that where I’ve gotten frustrated during the course of my presidency has never been because I was getting pushed too hard by activists to see the justness of a cause or the essence of an issue,” he said. “I think where I got frustrated at times was the belief that the president can do anything if he just decides he wants to do it. And that sort of lack of awareness on the part of an activist about the constraints of our political system and the constraints on this office, I think, sometimes would leave me to mutter under my breath. Very rarely did I lose it publicly. Usually I’d just smile.”

He laughed, then continued, “The reason I say that is because those are the times where sometimes you feel actually a little bit hurt. Because you feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?’ ”

……

The thought experiment doesn’t hold up. The programs Obama favored would advance white America too—and without a specific commitment to equality, there is no guarantee that the programs would eschew discrimination. Obama’s solution relies on a goodwill that his own personal history tells him exists in the larger country. My own history tells me something different. The large numbers of black men in jail, for instance, are not just the result of poor policy, but of not seeing those men as human.

The most recent Congress boasted 138 members from the states that comprised the old Confederacy. Of the 101 Republicans in that group, 96 are white and one is black. Of the 37 Democrats, 18 are black and 15 are white. There are no white congressional Democrats in the Deep South. Exit polls in Mississippi in 2008 found that 96 percent of voters who described themselves as Republicans were white. The Republican Party is not simply the party of whites, but the preferred party of whites who identify their interest as defending the historical privileges of whiteness.

…..

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

I encourage everyone to read this wonderful piece of journalism.

I liked the article so much, I subscribed to The Atlantic. And sent them a letter saying I did it because I liked the article. Hope they appreciate it!  🙂

A miracle at Standing Rock

Yes, a miracle is what we need, what the world needs. Charles Eisenstein suggests that the miracle could begin at Standing Rock. The miracle of action out of compassion, seeing the Other as oneself, opening one’s heart to the realities of all beings – a miracle of love.

The halting of the Dakota Access Pipeline would be miraculous simply because of the array of powerful ruling interests that are committed to building it. Not only has Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the pipeline, but a who’s-who of global banks has committed over $10 billion in lines of credit to ETP and other involved entities. Those banks, many of whom are facing financial stress of their own, are counting on the profits from the loans at a time when credit-worthy capital investments are hard to come by. Finally, the United States government has (in its estimation) a geopolitical interest in increasing domestic oil production to reduce the economic power of Russia and the Middle East. To hope to halt the pipeline in the face of such powers is in a certain sense unrealistic.

But, Charles says, things could go differently this time, if we all stay off the warpath, as the elders have advised the Water Protectors to do. “… at Standing Rock, something different is possible. It is not because the Dakota Sioux have finally acquired more guns or money than the pro-pipeline forces. It is because we are ready collectively for a change of heart.”

That’s pretty strong. This is an opening not seen in a long time, and one that could stand as a non-violent model for all the confrontations we’re likely to see over the next four years or so. If the pipeline is re-routed, it establishes a precedent – we can affect even these huge corporate projects if we stay focused, unified and nonviolent.

It will be a victory whether to pipeline is stopped or not: “This has already born fruit: if not for the resolute nonviolence of the resistance, the government would surely have forcefully evicted the Water Protectors by now, justifying violence with violence.”

Each of these invitations onto the warpath also presents an opportunity to defy the enabling narratives of violence and to take a step toward victory without fighting. It is an opportunity to employ what Gandhi called “soul force.” Meeting violence with nonviolence invites the other into nonviolence as well.

Beyond that, this action has the potential to awaken the world:

… when we choose love in the face of enormous temptation to hate, we are issuing a powerful prayer for a world of love. When we refuse to dehumanize in the face of atrocity, we issue a prayer for universal dignity. When thousands of people sacrifice their safety and comfort to protect the water, a powerful prayer issues from their gathering. Some day, in some form, it will be answered.

Charles’ essay is very much worth reading:

Standing Rock: A Change of Heart

Metta for All Beings

In these dark times, times that demand such awareness and commitment to strong action, we need to build each others’ heart strength for the suffering we will encounter, for the hard work we will do, for the long struggle we must endure.

One way of building this strength is to send out heart-felt messages to others, spoken and unspoken messages that come from the meditative state and have power to spread encouragement and support. In some Buddhist traditions, this process is known as metta, which is usually translated ‘loving kindness’, but goes far beyond that when part of a deep practice of compassion and compassionate action.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel composed this poem, whose words speak to us so strongly in light of recent words and actions, in the spirit of that powerful form of metta:

 

For All Beings

May all beings be cared for and loved,

Be listened to, understood and acknowledged despite different views,

Be accepted for who they are in this moment,

Be afforded patience,

Be allowed to live without fear of having their lives taken away or their bodies violated.

May all beings

Be well in its broadest sense,

Be fed,

Be clothed,

Be treated as if their life is precious,

Be held in the eyes of each other as family.

May all beings

Be appreciated,

Feel welcomed anywhere on the planet,

Be freed from acts of hatred and desperation including war, poverty, slavery, and street crimes,

Live on the planet, housed and protected from harm,

Be given what is needed to live fully, without scarcity,

Enjoy life, living without fear of one another,

Be able to speak freely in a voice and mind of undeniable love.

May all beings

Receive and share the gifts of life,

Be given time to rest, be still, and experience silence.

May all beings

Be awake.

The poem was published in Turning Wheel by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 2009. May it be spoken, heard, understood and enacted throughout the world.

Metta!