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Equality As An Embodied Practice (VIDEO)

joshua stephens equality dharma talk

Does dharma’s universality mean that it appears in the same way, to all people, in all circumstances? Or does our embodied experience in “realms” of existence — living in poverty, under occupation, with addiction, in abusive relationship — affect how the dharma shows up in our lives?

Our friend Joshua Stephens explores these questions and more in this dharma talk, shared with permission. Enjoy!

[Note: We apologize for being unable to offer a transcript for the video at this time. If you would like to help transcribing the video, please email me at katie [at] bpf [dot] org. Much gratitude!]

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies and a dedicated practitioner with Dharma Punx NYC. A longtime participant in anticapitalist and solidarity movements, he’s spent much of the last year writing on recent global uprisings, contributing to outlets like JadaliyyaNOW Lebanon,Truth-OutUpping the Anti, and blogging for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship from Occupy Wall Street. He’s the author of Self and Determination(forthcoming, AK Press) and blogs here.

Read Joshua’s other work for Turning Wheel Media here.

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Comments (6)

  • mel

    ….although i have to wonder how many people who have either lived a life of privilege (or are currently living a life of privilege- and these days, when you think about it- what that often boils down to is just having a job that pays all your bills, you’re not living from pay-check to pay-check, have a good car in running condition, live in a home with hot running water and heating, do not rely on food stamps, etc)… many of the people listening to this talk is living that kind of life?…..and how many who need to actually reflect on a “practice of equality”, are simply too busy struggling day to day just to survive, not knowing what the future may bring (which in some cases may mean next week)..? (no offense to anyone including Joshua Stephens), but i got involved with the Occupy movement locally….met quite a few vocal anarchists and very passionate Occupiers- which i admired on some level……but none of them were poor- and i mean either in the classic sense, nor by today’s current standards of what it means to be either living in poverty or “living below poverty”…..They all had (relatively) “comfy lives” from what i could see…..and while i DO understand that Buddhist teaching (as with all spiritual traditions) teach us that material things cannot hope to offer us either inner peace or ultimate liberation……we need to keep some perspective when it comes to realistic demographics as far as the vast majority of those either giving these ‘reflections’ and those listening……(PS- aside from many of the homeless people who showed up at the Occupy events or happened to be at the encampment, i was probably one of the few, genuinely poorer Occupy people there)….just sayin’

  • nathan

    We had a decently diverse range of folks in terms of class here in the Twin Cities. At least during the first handful of months. However, as the encampment was crushed, and the meetings and action leadership got more and more dominated by loud, mostly middle class male activists, the diversity in all aspects dropped significantly. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the big group splintered off into smaller groups that sometimes worked together, but more often were in tension with, or ignoring each other.

    I stuck with it all for over a year, despite being “poor by current standards.” But eventually, the struggles to pay rent and feed myself became front and center. If I had had children, or even just a little more debt to deal with, my exit would have been much earlier. We had dozens of working class and “middle class poor” folks that couldn’t hang around for all the petty bs and infighting amongst the mostly privileged to settle down. Frankly, I eventually couldn’t hang with it all either, in large part because of the fear of being tossed from my apartment and not having enough to eat on a regular basis. People in more economically privileged places often do get it, how difficult it can be to deal with survival needs, and also try and do activist work and/or be part of a movement. People manage to pull it off everyday all over the world. At the same time, when you’ve got meetings and planning work being hijacked by the same handful of privileged guys – which is what happened in Minneapolis – it won’t take long before lots of folks just say screw it and leave.

    Occupy Minneapolis still has weekly meetings, but it’s a very small group at this point. I’m still loosely connected with them, but that’s about it. Occupy is still a seed in my view. And I think you questions about class and the challenges poor folks face just to survive, and how that fits into a broader movement, are very key. And haven’t been on the table, front and center, like they should be.

  • nathan

    “People in more economically privileged places often do get it, how difficult it can be to deal with survival needs…” That should read “don’t get it.”

  • mel

    Thank you for that….it does affirm not only for myself, but i am sure for many people who are “socio-economically underprivileged” as well……For the record, while i did not grow up in a home that was ‘poor’ by the standards of that time (the 70’s and 80s) nor today, nor wealthy either, my parents were both college educated and on some level we fit into what was at least then referred to as the “middle class”. My family has long since lost that status or lifestyle and today, both my parents having passed, my sister, my brother and myself struggle economically and currently, both my brother and myself are living in poverty (at least by current American standards) just as i described above (no hot running water, heating, in debt, etc.)…..also, incidentally, while i do feel like my own voice was drowned out by the same demographic that you had in Minneapolis, i stayed with it for a while even though i did not identify with the same socio-political views that many espoused, particularly their clear lack of spiritually minded or inspired views which eventually turned me off……Also, because i identified more with the Idle No More movement happening just as Occupy was starting to “fizzle out” in many places, i became more involved with that and less with our local Occupy movement here in Southern California…..i am still loosely affiliated with the local group, know a couple of people from it and stay in touch…..but sadly, we are coming from different places….

  • Katie Loncke

    Just want to say thanks for this conversation, you two. mel, you spelled out the material aspects of a life of privilege in such a simple and powerful way. Yes. Heat, running water, being able to afford to fix things when they break…

    I’m reminded of the work of POOR Magazine / Prensa Pobre, here in the Bay Area, which prioritizes the leadership & teaching roles of Poverty Skolaz (rather than ‘experts’ studying poverty) and builds meaningful relationships & organizing work between people with various levels of wealth and poverty.

    I wonder how we might learn from some of their work in thinking about how to create sanghas that work against class / wealth privilege… Nathan, those dynamics you’re talking about sound all too familiar, and, yes, annoying and discouraging — especially to folks who don’t have free time to waste at a meeting… And mel, as you’re speaking to the question of free time, too, it seems like spiritual and political groups that provide a tangible benefit to people’s lives can be important enough for folks to make time… or even accomplish multiple things at once. That’s why something like the Black Panther breakfast program has been so inspirational, in meeting immediate community needs around child hunger while at the same time offering politicized perspectives and analysis that folks might not otherwise “find time” for… (That’s how I see it, anyway…)

    Have you seen practices in sanghas or spiritual settings that felt helpful to you in creating the type of embodied space where the wisdom and knowledge of folks struggling materially is acknowledged and affirmed? Does it have to do with the fanciness / unfanciness of the setting? The teacher or facilitator and their un/familiarity with poverty? Acknowledging it in dharma talks? Providing and prioritizing communal resources like free meals and childcare?

    Unfortunately, it seems like oftentimes sanghas and social movements alike rely on middle- and upper-class voices, faces, and funders to keep up their public image and viability… so it seems there’s often an inherent conflict that pushes groups toward middle-class perspectives. Folks usually want to see ‘competent, educated, attractive’ leaders at the helm to feel good about how their money is being invested… and so, to the tune of Billie Holiday, “Yes the strong gets more / while the weak ones fade…”

  • nathan

    I also felt drawn to the Idle No More movement and have been involved with many of the events and actions they’ve done here in the Twin Cities. What I find particularly compelling is the deliberately spiritual centric energy – at least amongst folks in the local Idle No More. Every action being grounded by a tobacco offering, smudging, and/or simple prayer offered. There’s so much more speaking from the heart present, and much less emphasis on people being “experts” or “leaders” in the mainstream sense.

    “Have you seen practices in sanghas or spiritual settings that felt helpful to you in creating the type of embodied space where the wisdom and knowledge of folks struggling materially is acknowledged and affirmed?” The only thing I can think of offhand from my home sangha is a support group for unemployed folks that developed after the 2008 market crash. It was an informal group that one of our priests started to give a place for anyone that lost their job to go and talk about their experiences and share some dharma teachings.

    Our sangha also has a robust youth program, and also regularly provides childcare for parents who want to attend important events, like our annual meeting. Another local zen center has been working to implement something similar in their sangha.

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