Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Looking on from afar

I have an annual tradition that I do around each New Year of publicly reflecting in writing on my personal experience of the year that just ended. Here is my experience of 2011.

The main general theme that I can think of that runs throughout 2011 is “looking on from afar”. The first half of the year I was looking on to my up-coming move to Minneapolis with great anxiety, uncertainty and anticipation. The second half of the year, after having moved to Minneapolis, I looked on to various places, people and situations of my past with nostalgia and sometimes yearning to see them again. My experience with life first-hand has generally been second-rate with thoughts of what might-be, what has-been, and what is going on over-there.

And this year, out over-there has been absolutely amazing! This has been the year of the Arab Spring with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and the uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. This has been the year of the big protests in Spain and Russia, the riots in Greece, Rome and England, and the end of the Iraq War, Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. Most strikingly for me as an American radical, this has been the year of the Occupy movement, something that I totally did not see coming and have been totally transfixed with.

However, all of those things have all been stuff that I have observed from afar, as a kind of politically engaged spectator of sorts. The Occupy stuff I have only marginally gotten involved with. I have intentionally kept my distance from it all since I do have some strong reservations about it. I have not really gotten deeply involved with anything this year. If anything this year has been marked by me getting more un-involved with stuff instead of involved.

There have been some things that I have gotten involved with this year, or rather, got RE-involved with once more. One of them is anarchism – I realized that I am now and have always been an anarchist all along ever since I first discovered the philosophy. I have re-gained my comfort with ideologically and socially re-associating myself with things A-word-related. It also became very clear to me as the year progressed how much disgust and aversion I have within me to mainstream contemporary ways of life.

Then there is Vipassana Meditation (as taught by S.N. Goenka). This year I sat another ten-day course, volunteered at another, and then volunteered at the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center during some periods in-between courses taking place. This is the most involved with Vipassana Meditation that I have been since 2008, which is the year that I first got into it. I have also publicly introduced people to Nonviolent Communication this year, which is something that I had not done for a long time.

There are some other things that I have more-or-less gotten involved with afresh, such as Buddhism. Now, Buddhism is something that I have already been interested in prior to this year, but this year I have studied the subject more than I ever have before in the past. I also took part in a short class on Buddhist history here in Minneapolis, taught by Rita M. Gross, the author of the book “Buddhism After Patriarchy”. That experience was very informative for me, and was quite mind-blowing at some points. Related to Buddhism I also got into reading the works of the Beat Generation, namely Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The first two were self-proclaimed Buddhists, though they had some different perspectives on the matter.

Gary Snyder’s perspective on Buddhism has been very influential for me this year, for 50 years ago (in 1961) he wrote an essay entitled “Buddhist Anarchism” (also known as “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution”) that I first read this year. Reading this inspired me to write two articles on the subject of “Buddhist anarchism,” to produce a pamphlet about it and to give a public workshop presentation about it. I have been very excited about the possibilities around this semi-new philosophy of “Buddhist anarchism”, yet I have also felt very wary and reluctant around it as well. This latter is because I am afraid of creating a big new Identity around it all. Building up and clinging to some self-constructed identity is what I have done many times previously in the past related to my identity as an “anarchist”. I know first-hand the profound suffering that can come with clinging to a particular identity (or anything else), and it would be of the utmost irony if this occurred related to something with the philosophy of Buddhism! The challenge for me here is to appreciate and cherish something without clinging to it.

I also have to say that all of these things are essentially about ideas – the reading, the writing, the theorizing. These particular ideas have not really impacted my own personal life that much. My actual real-life experience day-to-day this year has actually been pretty dull and bland for me. The dullness of my life has not necessarily been “bad”, it has all been rather nice, and keeping in mind all of the different horrors and atrocities taking place in our world I am very much appreciative of what I have experienced. I also feel very grateful for the continuing relationship that I have with Liz. However, I’ve also had very few close personal friendships with people this year, and these mainly have been with people who live somewhere else and who occasionally I’ve visited with for at most a couple of days. Some of these friends, and family members too, have had some amazing experiences and adventures this year as they traveled to different places and countries abroad. I have only been able to enjoy these experiences vicariously, mainly through reading written accounts about them online and imagining.

Looking back on it my own personal favorite experiences of the year, the ones that most stand out for me are ones that also involved traveling. They were the trips to Twin Oaks and Acorn communities in central Virginia with some other coworkers from Camphill Soltane in March, going to the New York City Anarchist Bookfair and tabling and co-facilitating a workshop there in April, going to the Christian anarchist festival, called “PAPA Fest”, in rural Pennsylvania and giving a workshop there in June, and visiting Camphill Village Copake in up-state New York in July. These were the experiences where I personally felt the most alive, the most free and in integrity with myself this year.

As the year ends I am left with a continuing sense of uncertainty, of not-knowing. In a way I have learned quite a lot this year, and in another sense I feel like I have learned nothing at all. I do not know what the up-coming year of 2012 will bring me or where it will take me. The very best thing that I can think of in terms of finding comfort with the uncertainty and peace with the not-knowing is the philosophy of Buddhism and the practice of Vipassana Meditation. These are some of the reasons why I like them so much and why they have been such important parts of my life this year. I feel grateful that they are there and reassured knowing that I can relate with this proactively instead of just reactively.

One of the things that I learned this year is that you cannot repeat the past when it is something positive and you try to intentionally re-create it. However, you can repeat the past when it is something negative and you unintentionally stumble upon it (again). This to me implies an additional lesson of the importance of going into things with a clear mind, free from preconceptions of “the way things ought to be”, and allowing whatever arises to be there. This way the not-knowing can be an ally and not a menace.

May all beings be happy, be peaceful, be liberated, for the coming year. :-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ian,
I'm glad I took the time to read this. I'm appreciating the coherence of it, the way you seem to be truly embracing what is as it is regardless of your preferences and at the same time to honestly express your preferences. A well-focused snapshot of yourself and the context you live in that conveys the tension of embracing the whole of that picture.