A few years ago, I participated in a retreat in New York City, Active Compassion - Meditations to Empower People Who Empower Others, sponsored by Union Theological Seminary and the Foundation for Active Compassion, led by John Makransky, PhD., Associate Professor of Buddhism and Comparative Theology at Boston College. John is also an ordained Lama within the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. My friend Paul Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union then, and one of my own spiritual benefactors, invited me to attend; Paul assisted John over the weekend.
While in the city, I had hoped to see the World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial now open to the public. So, on my first morning, I got up early, found the web site to plan your visit, and reserved an entrance pass. I was lucky enough to get a 10AM time. My entrance pass had to be picked up in lower Manhattan close to St. Paul’s Chapel, part of Trinity Church Wall Street and the Episcopal Diocese of New York - Worldwide Anglican Communion.
I arrived downtown at about 9AM, in plenty of time to claim my pass and walk around viewing the sights. At that time in the morning lower Manhattan is full of commuters and in this case tourists, since the New York City Marathon was also that weekend.
While walking around I discovered Zuccotti Park, formerly called Liberty Plaza Park. This is where Occupy Wall Street was once located. I was intrigued of course. And amazed a bit, by the bright interconnections that bring us all together within this world, connections we only have to look for with mindfulness to find.
What I discovered at Occupy Wall Street early that morning was a community of hope, a community of open and hopeful people wishing to make some profound changes in the way the world is today. What I found was a community of compassion that was reaching out to others in the hope that they can make a real difference in transforming our worldview.
What I witnessed that morning, as I have many times in my life, is how the interconnections between us, help us to see how the world works and to make it work even better. It does work you know, but so often, far too often, we are blinded by our own bias and negative emotions. We cannot see the abundance before us. We don’t see that we live within community all the time, and that from this community arises the reality we all encounter daily.
In Zucotti Park, I saw a peaceful group of people, in many cases still bundled up in their tents and sleeping bags fast asleep while a whole city moved around them. Most of them were just kids, college age kids who wanted to be there in the midst of this movement, in this place in time. Children who wanted to make a difference in their world and who were answering a call to community and hoping to find a new way in which to live.
And even though two weeks after the day I was there, Zucotti Park was empty of campers, my hope was that in some form it would become a broader community that helped people to change and transform their world.
When you think about it, community is everything, and if you don’t have it, you have nothing, and you can be left with a deep hollowness of the spirit within the self, a deep loneliness. Such, is the hunger for community.
Occupy Wall Street is not so much about needed reforms in both the private and public sectors, in commerce and the economy, in government. Although, these are real concerns, terrible in all their complexity, which as a society we should address with a sense of justice and wholeness, social justice and human wholeness.
More than this, it’s about community, it’s about learning to live within community and to honestly care for your neighbor. It’s about living the dream of community. And that’s what the people, the children of Occupy Wall Street, were (and still are I hope) trying their best to practice, wherever they may find themselves. My hope is that they will continue to practice community in the most thoughtful sense of that word.
One tragedy of the hard economic times the world and many people are living through today is in their loss of community. Occupy Wall Street was a finger point to this loss, something we have all felt, something we may feel even now. And something we need more than we can imagine, more than we can see in our political and social biases, in our fears. Fears that drive us towards more fear, more anxiety.
Fear of the government, fear of the banks, fear of corporations, fear of an unpaid mortgage, fear of more taxes, fear of another stock market crash, fear of having less, fear of going hungry, fear of someone else having more, fear of the next bad news of the day, which comes to us so easily through our addictions to the news media. And ultimately, you know, fear of one another. Do you really want to live in such fear; do you really want to live your life in this way?
Is this living life abundantly?
Our national dialogue and discourse are deeply broken, so broken that people and leadership can no longer come to the table together. So broken, that conversational leadership is no longer taking place. Our battles over ideologies are taking the day; they have become habitual and addicting. Our ideologies have become idols.
The media enables us to wallow in negative emotions and fear, arguing constantly over ideologies and politics, pumping up the fear, along with our adrenaline level. You see this every day; it’s all over the news media, and in our political and social discourse. We are lost. We have forgotten who we are as a people in the deepest core of our self
We turn on the news and expect exactly what we see and hear, more of the same rhetoric time and time again. It is an ever-increasing downward spiral that leads to frustration and anger, destroys the conversation, and prevents open relationships. And in the process, we may be destroying one another, and the hope of a new generation. We have forgotten that loving-kindness fills our lives already with untold blessings. We have forgotten that God’s love pours out upon us all.
What’s the solution then, the alternative; might it be forgiveness, acceptance, loving-kindness, and openness? An openness to one another that takes us beyond all ideologies; an openness that encourages us to work together towards real solutions to real issues; an openness that helps us to see the beauty and love that constantly surrounds us each day, and gives us a way of counting our blessings.
Later that morning, I walked a just a few small blocks over from Zucotti Park to the World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial. Where I stood in line with people from all over the country and the world, making up an international community. What brought us all together was a need to share our grief and compassion with one another, perhaps a need for some closure even, and to remember those who had perished; to remember a need for community, a need for peace, a need for one another.
No one in line asked about your ideology or politics or faith, whether or not you were conservative or liberal or moderate; we simply stood there together in reflection and peace. We stood with one another, in silent communion, in thought and prayer. It was a sacramental moment, a moment of sharing, a moment of loving-kindness, and a moment of openness.
If you believe in some fashion that each one of us is created in the “Image of God.” If you believe that God rests in each of us as an image, as the core ground of our being, as love. Then you may also believe that this image is reflected in others, in all humanity.
1 John 4:16 – “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
From an interfaith perspective we may call this image our Christ Nature, our Buddha Nature, or some other Divine Nature. As a Christian, I know it as the Holy Spirit who dwells within. This is a reality, which transcends all the symbols and language used to describe the Divine. But it is real; it is a part of each one of us, this goodness of the Spirit dwells with us all. It is written as a word within us. It is love at work within the world. I am reminder of these words from the work of Thomas Merton.
"Again, that expression, le point vierge, (I cannot translate it) comes in here. At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely." [Thomas Merton: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg. 158]
What is Merton asking us to understand about others and ourselves? Simply, that this love is alive, that this invisible light of heaven lives in everyone. It is the fullness of our human and spiritual potential as a people of God; however, you may imagine God to be at work in your life today. Love is the sustaining force of all our lives, moving through us always, all through our life, and the life of others.
Love is a force of creation, binding us together as one, as union, as unity. Even when we have forgotten to remember it in the smallest of things, in a warm smile given to a stranger, in a kindness unasked for and undeserved, in the simple grace we receive each day of our lives. Love flows through us all; it is the sustaining force of creation itself.
The success of any movement, such as Occupy Wall Street, will not be measured by what they may immediately achieve and change, or not. But rather I believe by the community they have created that arises out that movement. Community can happen anywhere and at any time, even virtual communities. Community is many things to many people, but one of its central roles, is to help us engage and know one another, to help expand the dialogue, and to open it up to others.
We may each be individuals, but we share a common reality, we live in community with one another. We are interconnected. In this sense, in a very visceral and true sense, we are not single. We are not one, or two, or three, or four, but something more, something larger, something more profound. Who we are as individuals arises out of that community, out of all our relationships, and in that sense we are the true keepers of one another, we hold each other’s hopes, hearts, dreams, and fullest potential. We are neighbors. We are community.
It’s something we should keep in mind as we enter another Presidential election cycle in 2016.
Who is your neighbor and where do you find community?
Don’t look too far; it’s right beside you, right here, right now.
Saint Julian Press
Ron Starbuck is an author, poet, the Publisher-CEO of Saint Julian Press, and an Episcopalian.