Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Comes a Fight

Here is a fact that most well-meaning citizens simply don’t want to face: There is an epic, inescapable, high stakes battle brewing in our society. History has handed us a job to do that will require a whole new word for courage before we are done.

Some readers of The Jailbreak Journals who agree with that assessment have questioned the relevance of my focus on the interior landscape of our habitual thoughts and beliefs at a time when the exterior world is in clear and present danger of coming apart at the seams. They’ve asked:

“Really? Another New Age canard?”
“What part of emergency don’t you understand? It’s time to act, not meditate.”

Well, let’s put that to rest: I get it. I’ve preached it, written it, marched it through the streets, and purposely leaned into this rising emergency for over 20 years. I’ve lived off the grid in a house I built out of discarded tires and other reclaimed materials. My family has carved an urban farm out of a forgotten field of weeds that amply provides our vegetables for the year. We’ve consistently chosen real resilience over financial “security”—often by means of civil disobedience and non-cooperation.

After all that experience, I’ve concluded that there is, indeed, an epic battle coming that we can’t avoid and will test us beyond any limit we can presently imagine. But more importantly, I’m convinced that we cannot fight it, much less win, until we take back vital territory that has been in enemy hands our whole lives. Strategically speaking, nothing else matters. No other campaign can succeed if we fail in this.

Yes, I’m talking again about the interior landscape of thought and belief. That’s because this is where our will is formed. It is where we are outfitted with the moral, spiritual and philosophical armory we must possess to have any hope of standing up to the forces presently arrayed against us. Many have wondered why Americans appear to be willing to suffer blatant criminal abuse from systems of power gone berserk with little complaint and almost no meaningful resistance.

The reason is that our minds are presently occupied by exceedingly effective propaganda and agents of social conditioning—our own thoughts and beliefs about how the world really works, who we are, what we are capable of, what we deserve, what we must do (or endure) in order to survive, entitlements due to the wealthy and powerful, the intrinsic value of our earth community, and on and on. This unseen web has dampened our instincts for self-defense and consistently caused us to act against our own self-interest.

We have not yet stood up because we don’t believe we can—or should. We are conditioned to prize expedience over justice, comfort over conflict, access to “security” over principle. We continue investing in thoroughly and obviously corrupted social and economic systems because we lack the courage and conviction to accept the consequences of saying the only word that matters: No.

There is a battle brewing because all the traditional ways we had for saying no—and standing behind it—are gone. The ballot box, for instance, is useless to force anything more than marginal change, never coming anywhere near the centers of so-called power. While individual causes may occasionally plant a flag on their particular legislative hill, whole continents of injustice and inequality remain untouched.

If we are able to imagine a better world, we rarely go on to visualize the price we may have to pay to make it real—a price that is always denominated in personal, individual risk and hardship. What is required now—all that is left to us, in fact—is action that cannot be outsourced to a non-profit group with a membership and check, a petition signature, a strongly worded letter, or even an appearance at a rally.

The need for civil disobedience and non-violent non-cooperation has never been greater. But we must be clear: A “no” that does not put you at risk will never, ever move the frontlines by so much as a micron. That’s because you are the frontline, and all resistance is done at arm’s length.

To engage in earnest, you must place yourself under a microscope and ask: What do I believe in? Am I willing to live by it, no matter what it costs me? Inconvenience? Financial loss? Social isolation? Physical harm? Jail? Death?

Surely these are the questions that went through the minds of civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama before they decided to cross the bridge and take the brunt of racist fear and anger; United Farm Workers struggling against de facto slavery in the fields of 20th century America; British “subjects” in India who followed Gandhi into beatings and jail cells for what they believed.

And what did they believe?—that liberty and justice do not belong to a privileged elite to dispense as they please, but are the inalienable right of any human being, at any time, anywhere on the planet.

If you believe that in your bones—and if you are willing to live by it—then meaningful action will arise by itself. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Speak Up

Words are powerful objects.

As we go about gathering the tools we need to mount a jailbreak from the confines of life as we’ve been living it, this bit of understanding is indispensible. It is no accident that we use the same vocabulary to describe the act of assembling words—to spell—as to magically influence events and the conditions of reality—to cast a spell. We are taught to regard words and thoughts as insubstantial wisps of smoke, but that simply isn’t true. It’s time to take responsibility for what we think and say—and reclaim the full creative potential we each possess.

The power of words lies in their ability to conjure mental imagery: to cause whole worlds—and all the assumptions upon which they rest—to instantly materialize in your mind. Meaning and emotions that would require volumes to communicate in words are contained in a single image.

For instance, for most people in the 70s—and even today—the word “Vietnam” produces a mental picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running in terror and agony after a US napalm attack—an image that embodies all the horror of the time. The word “gulag” evokes ice bound Siberian prisons that swallowed Soviet dissidents by the millions—but also the image of stern-faced men standing above Red Square in Moscow surveying a parade of missiles.

Entire chunks of history—and everything you think you know about what actually happened and why—are contained in a couple of syllables. If your mind were no more than a movie screen in a darkened theater—and words a kind of passive projector—then so what? Not much power in that.

But your mind does far more with imagery than simply reflect it. What you think you see and know inevitably shapes what you can see. That, in turn, collapses all other possibilities and encrusts your world in the belief that it can’t be any other way.

For many millennia, all manner of mystics, and others gifted with the ability to see beyond the confines of apparent material reality, have reported that what goes on in the mind—all that we visualize, think and believe—has incredible, possibly limitless power to shape the world we experience. Imagination is our native language, and the foundation of reality.

In some respects it isn’t terribly hard to see how this works. If the word “redneck” and the mental image it evokes causes you to think you already know what a person from the rural south thinks, believes and values, then you will act accordingly and reinforce the structural biases built in to present day society. This happens every day—in all directions—and goes a long way to explaining the dangerous levels of political and cultural polarization we’re experiencing today.

That simple example barely scratches the surface of the true influence your thoughts and beliefs—and the words you use to convey them—have on the world you experience. Your power to create reality is limitless. In fact, you do it all the time, whether you realize it or not.

It would be tempting to dismiss that claim as a metaphysical fantasy—were it not for the fact that a whole generation of quantum physicists peering into the ultimate nature of reality speak of their findings in very similar terms. The behavior of the subatomic world has led them to a stunning conclusion: Human consciousness can no longer be left out of their equations and their models of why things are as they are.

Nobel prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner summed it up like this: "When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness."

Martin Rees went further: "In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it."

You can bet this was not an easy conclusion for rational men and women of science to swallow. Einstein himself was deeply offended by some facets of quantum theory when it first surfaced in the early 20th century. Niels Bohr, an early pioneer of quantum research, said, “Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it.”

But in the end no one could ignore a repeated and consistent laboratory finding—that the specific outcome of experiments involving subatomic particles depended upon the intention and expectations of the scientists themselves. Since they also see in the quantum soup an underlying unity to all things, there is no reason to assume this startling fact is limited only to very, very small things, but ultimately includes everyday reality as well.

Physicist Pascual Jordan: “Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it."

A popular bumper sticker says: “Question Everything.” That is excellent advice, but only if it begins with your own words, thoughts, beliefs and assumptions about “the way things are.” We have the power to choose whether our words and shared images are weaponized, inflicting maximum amounts of fear (and creating a world by that blueprint), or will become our allies in gaining our freedom from a way of living gone wrong.

With this in mind I invite you to examine the words I have chosen to frame the conversation in these essays: Jailbreak. If that evokes imagery of desperate and angry people destroying everything in sight and beating their erstwhile “jailers” to a pulp—smoke, blood, shouting mobs—then now is the time to capture that thought and turn it over, because it is not at all what I see.

Picture instead a group of people who are laughing, smiling, dancing, singing, embracing, crying, effusing pure joy and gratitude, telling each other poems and stories of a new world—an infectious party of epic proportions—all because it has dawned on them—on us!—that the gates to the prison we’ve inhabited since birth not only never were locked, they never existed in the first place.

That will be the scene once we have seen what Annie Dillard wrote: “Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap.” Freedom is ours when we say it is, when we believe it is and visualize what it looks like. From there we will act accordingly and the hopelessly tangled knot of problems we face will begin to untie itself.

I’m breaking out of here. If you’re with me, speak up!