Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Encircled By Paradox

There is a vast paradox that I find myself living in. On the one hand I identify with many things. On the other hand, I identify with nothing. I simultaneously see myself as a part of many things, while at the same time I also see myself as apart from everything. This applies to many things in my life, and it has been going on for a while.

To give some examples here, let’s start off by dropping the A-bomb: “anarchist”. On the one hand, I very much identify with that word, the philosophy and history that is behind it and the social scene of people and projects that surrounds it. On the other hand, much of the philosophy, history, people and projects that are generally considered to be “anarchist” I find to be boring at best, and appalling at worst.

On the one hand there is Alexander Berkman’s “Anarchism is the most beautiful idea that humanity has ever had.” And on the other hand there is Eugene Gendlin’s sentiment “When I think of an ‘anarchist’ I think of a ‘violent asshole.’” This label is one that I would both go to my grave defending as well as one that I would take great offense in if someone were to associate me with it.

The other A-bomb that is usually associated with the first, the “Nagasaki” to the anarchist “Hiroshima”, is the term and concept of “activist”. On the one hand, I love activists and activism. I like the fact that people give a damn about the world and what is going on in it. I like the fact that people are actually paying attention to what is actually taking place, that they want to change things, and that they are not willing to let injustices and atrocities continue happening. The “activist” mindset, to me, means not being content to just living in a small little bubble and pretending that everything outside of that bubble is either not happening or is not important.

On the flip side, I hate “activists”. There is a kind of self-righteousness, arrogance, and the habitual riding of high-horses that I find to be quite nauseating and is associated with the whole “activist” thing. Not everything that one thinks about, talks about, or works on is really all that god-damned important in the greater scheme of things. “Activists”, for all their great proclamations of taking a bigger perspective on the world, actually lack a lot of perspective on life. Activism is prone to falling into the same kind of narrow tunnel-vision focus that “normal” non-politicized people fall into, except instead of obsessing about one’s own life, family, job or how one’s favorite professional sports team is doing, one is instead obsessing about various activisty and organizery things. It all gets tiresome either way.

Going from ‘A’ to ‘B’ now, there is “Buddhism”, a label that I use and that I think of when I refer to “a bigger perspective on life”. I love this word, it is the latest addition to the pantheon of labels that I associate myself with, and I intend on learning and studying more about the various concepts associated with this term as time goes by.

And at the same time, I am not at all a ‘Buddhist”. For one, I have no “Sangha”, no group of Buddhists that I feel that I belong to, practice or study with. For another, that term has associated with it a kind of nitty-gritty sectarianism that I personally do not subscribe to. I am not a this-kind of Buddhist or a that-kind of Buddhist, there is no particular tradition that I am coming from or defending, and I have no teacher that I can point to as my one big Teacher. I am kind of a ‘Buddhist’, and I am kind of free-floating thinker, which makes me wonder, am I really a Buddhist?

Going from ‘B’ to ‘C’, while maintaining somewhat of a ‘spiritual’ vibe, there is the ‘Camphill’ movement. I spent about two and a half years living and working in a Camphill community, I have visited other Camphill communities a bunch of times, and I’ve studied some of the underlying philosophy behind Camphill as well. When all is said and done, I really dig it - I like the Camphill village model, I like the approach of “Social Therapy” towards supporting “those in need of special care”, and I excited about the potential of developing these things further towards addressing the various needs of people in the world today.

On the other hand, I have seen, heard and experienced enough things in the world of Camphill to have completely discredited the whole thing. I do not believe in the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, I am not particularly excited by the fact that most people get involved with Camphill through Americorps, and the general trajectory of depersonalization towards greater professionalism leads me to think that “Social Therapy” is just a nice label to use for PR purposes and that has no real meaning beyond that any more.

Sticking with ‘C’, lets go to “communism” now. I love communism. There, I said it. I like the idea of completely doing away with capitalism, private property, markets and money. I like organized intentional sharing. I like the idea of people living and working in “communes” and I like the idea of all of humanity living and working in a larger world-system that is based on these principles.

On the other hand, “communism” is a term that is often associated with Marxism (that I find mildly interesting), class-struggle stuff (that I find boring), and Leninism (that I find appalling). Why would I associate myself with a word like that, something that has such strong connotations as it does?

How about “egoism” then? With “communism” being such a collective and social thing, “egoism” is a philosophy that emphasizes the individual, personal freedom and self-empowerment. Egoism, as articulated by Max Stirner, is one of the most exciting and liberatory philosophies that I have ever come across, and I am glad that it has never gone away after all these years.

However, there is also the fact that none of this is real. We all live in and are dependent upon a web of social relationships, our desires are socially constructed, our whole fabric of who we are and what we are about is so contingent upon and connected to outside influences that the whole foundation that egoism rests upon, “the authentic self”, evaporates into nothingness.

Then there is “Nonviolence”. I like Nonviolence, I think that it suits me very well. The idea of people doing things together peacefully just seems wonderful to me. However, anything beyond that which is associated with this word seems to be horribly tarred and tainted. “Nonviolence” usually implies a kind of religious dogmatism, passive-aggressive manipulation, and/or Liberal statism that is blind to the various kinds of systemic violence that surround us all. No thank you.

How about adding on “Communication” to the “Nonviolent” piece? Again, a whole world of messiness then enters the picture. There is the commodified buying and selling of “NVC” goods and services, there are professional “trainers” promoting their spectacular careers, there are people talking like robots in the desperate hopes of resolving their complicated life conflicts, and there are a whole lot of middle-aged middle-class white women with Liberal politics.

Nonviolent Communication itself is an outgrowth of the “Person-Centered Approach”, which itself was started by the famous humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Much of what is wonderful and helpful about NVC in fact came out of the “Person-Centered” movement that preceded it. Rogers himself was a cool guy, and an inspirational charismatic leader as well. Like most groups and movements that are centered around a charismatic leader this scene has lost much of its coherency and momentum after Rogers died. The “Person-Centered Approach”, as it stands now, is mainly a bunch of aging clinical psychologists and academics who talk a lot about how cool things used to be. This is not exactly my scene.

In recent years, one scene that I have spent a lot of time in is the “Vipassana Meditation” scene, which is based on the teachings of S.N. Goenka, who is himself following a particular tradition of Theravada Buddhism. This all has been very helpful for me, the practice has definitely benefitted me, and working at these Vipassana Meditation places can, I believe, approach the kind of “Social Therapy” environment that the Camphill movement talks about. At the same time, there are a lot of rules, regulations, and constraints surrounding this tradition, so much so that I see it as only addressing one component of “freedom”, namely the deeply internal realm. Although important, much more exists besides this.

And that is just it - so much more exists! I am left trying to find a label, a term, a word, a concept, a tradition or a social scene that encapsulates all of what I am wanting, longing for and trying to express, and nothing is working. Or, they all work, to an extent, and then they cease working. I am wanting to find something to identify with and belong to, whole-heartedly, and none of these things apply. And that is the problem, for me, that I am facing: what do I identify with and belong to?

For a long time I have had the internal mentality of being a zealot, a propagandizer and a recruiter for a cause. This has served me for a very long time, it has kept me afloat during hard times and has propelled me forward to do amazing things. Now I do not have this way of being to move me forward any longer, for the thing that I am associated with, identified with and a part of is no longer as solidly in place as it once was. Or, I am no longer relating to it in the same way.

What I am looking for now is what kind of relationship I am wanting with these things that I mentioned here, as well as with people and life in general (after all, everything that I mentioned here ultimately is about relating with people and life in some way). I know that I do want to promote, support and encourage something, or a set of somethings, in the world. I want to be a positive and constructive influence on the world. And I want to do so in a way that is in integrity with my values and my heart, as much as I can. So, perhaps this means something else. A different word, a different set of words, or a series of words. Or perhaps it requires an integration of all of these different things, such that they are no longer “different” as much as they all flow together - one leads to another leads to another leads to another.

Perhaps these words, labels and terms that I have used and spelled out here so far in fact are some things that have been getting in my way, and in the ways of others as well. What I have identified are some very particular practices, bodies of thought, histories, traditions and social scenes that surround them. These are all useful, to an extent, but some very distinct walls encircle them all as well. My problem is perhaps these walls. Perhaps a series of underground tunnels is needed. And perhaps building this network of tunnels is my calling.