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Occupy Wall Street: Notes on Non-Attachment

Photo by D. Foy O’Brien

As I read over the comments on my first article on Occupy Wall Street, which (encouragingly) all seemed to be from participants in various occupations, it seemed folks were struggling with a particular theme: How does one inhabit and experience this profound moment, and all the intensity, beauty, and the best selves people bring to it—without attachment? It’s a tall order. In my experience, agency without attachment to outcome is a major hurdle for meditation practitioners, even with engaged practice and social transformation taken entirely off the table. But for anyone front and center as the Occupation movement grows and yields possibilities many of us never thought possible, meeting that joy skillfully is the stuff over which people very well might lose sleep.

After all, these are tender moments, and the transformations people are undergoing seem to unfold at breakneck speed. Being present with that, especially with all the passion it stirs, without indulging the impulse to pin it down, can feel tremendously demanding.

But I’d like to propose that it needn’t be. A friend of mine who works as a freelance journalist in Mexico told me an all at once hilarious and moving story of the first night she spent in a Zapatista Autonomous Municipality in Chiapas, years ago. An older Zapatista asked her where she was from, as they sat watching a fire pit. She said, “Washington, DC”.

He asked, “Are there Zapatistas there?”

“Um, I guess we have something sort of similar, sure,” she replied.

“How far is it?” he asked.

“About five or six hours, flying,” she estimated.

He lingered on that for a moment, not speaking, and nodded knowingly. Then he perked up and said, “Five or six hours, flying. Hmm… How long, walking?”

It suddenly occurred to her that he was likely born within 20 miles of that spot, and may not have ventured further than the base of the mountain they were on, his entire life. There are parts of the world—many parts of the world—where people never leave a 50-mile radius from where they were born. While we may take it for granted, mobility is an extraordinary privilege, and it conditions our psychology every bit as much as what we might take to be more obvious factors. We have the option of seeing time and history as these things we move through, whereas many, many people see these two as things that move through them.

Consequently, a certain relationship with impermanence emerges: Moments do not necessarily begin or end with oneself. In entire lifetimes of some people, certain moments—many moments, even—are simply unfolding. They were underway when those people arrived on the scene, and hold no real prospect of conclusion or yielding meaning, closure, or a sense of stability before those people bow out. It’s not unlike the perspective of the cathedral builders of old. They understood themselves to be engaged in the construction of something they would not live to see completed. It’s an incredibly long view. A humbling one, for sure.

The Zapatistas have a saying that reflects this: Preguntamos caminando—Walking, we ask (questions). It represents an insistence that agency and movement are not contingent upon closure, finality, or the resolution of questions; there is, rather, a mutually beneficial relationship between our movement and our questions. Contingency is an extraordinarily fertile soil. In our present circumstances, watching the transformations unfolding around us—in our peers, in our collective practices, in the ways relations and learning ebb and flow and give way to new forms—I think this offers something keenly useful; something that gives us permission to exhale.

We are not finished; we are not completed—no matter how mind-bendingly awesome it all seems. It’s going to continue unfolding, and ultimately move though us, whether we’re ready for that or not. If for no other reason than the fact that we will all, one day, die. The prospect that this may all still be playing out when that day comes ought not trouble us. There’s no need to grab on and insist it all stay the same. Just keep moving. Just keep asking questions.

Comments (1)

  • Jacks

    Thank you so much for this piece, Joshua. I find it immensely helpful. I find so much of your reflection here helpful, but find myself particularly drawn to this quote:

    “After all, these are tender moments, and the transformations people are undergoing seem to unfold at breakneck speed. Being present with that, especially with all the passion it stirs, without indulging the impulse to pin it down, can feel tremendously demanding.”

    These are tender moments. After all the urgency and rage pass (particularly here in Oakland, where we have been subject to such police brutality), there is the slow and awe-inspring process of the general assembly. So many people participating together. I am often left with such a tenderness at the end of the night. Such wonder that this is happening at all.

    I have been filled with such energy and inspiration by the Occupy movement that it is incredibly hard to imagine it dispersing, and what this city and this world will look like afterwards. I keep thinking of the ’60s and ’70s, and the way those movements were co-opted, ravaged by drugs, or changed and burned out in their various ways… Here in Oakland, we have had weeks of incredibly sunny weather, allowing everyone to be outside every day, but the rainy season is coming, and I find myself wondering what will happen to all of this when it starts to pour?

    And then I exhale. I look around at what is unfolding all around me. I breathe, feel my back, talk to someone new, hold the treasure of it all along with the uncertainty. Everything is impermanent. Everything changes. This occupation is already changing, day by day. It becomes more and more clear that fear and clinging do not serve us here. We do not know what will happen. We never actually know what will happen…

    Thank you again.
    -j

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