Reform or Transform

October 31st, 2011

American cartoonist, Charles Schultz said,

Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, “Where have I gone wrong?” Then a voice says to me, “This is going to take more than one night.”

I set myself the goal of writing in depth about Occupy Wall Street this week. Then a voice said to me, “This is going to take more than one week.” So here goes, and we’ll see how long it takes. The second piece is about getting beyond labels that divide, and the third is a visualization for those participating in change.

Protestors at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) events use hand signals at their rallies. One of the signs is called “twinkles”. When you twinkle your fingers in the air it shows that you agree with the speaker, You twinkle them downwards to show that you disagree. There should also be one where you point at your watch to show that the speaker has gone on too long, and another one where you motion to slit your wrists because the speaker is driving you to despair.

Notice your hand signals while reading this. Rather than conform to any group signals, notice your own natural body signals. Do you clench up and maybe close your fists? Do you find yourself inspired, with open hands and relaxed face? Hopefully you’re not motioning to slit your wrists. Whether you are involved in OWS or not, I hope that what I write will resonate at a level of spirit and conscience. The important thing here is not to agree with me. The important thing is to think for yourself and uncover your own wisdom. Use my views as a launching pad for your own insight.

Here is what I see happening in a nutshell, in America at least. The frustration of ordinary people is at breaking point. The Republicans have become mean spirited, putting their own power before the good of the country. The Democrats have become spineless, putting acquiescence before the good of the country. Politics in general has been privatized and sold to corporate interests. Corporate America has become corrupt, taking a short sighted view of profits. The Tea Party and OWS share similar concerns; disillusionment and frustration. But they describe different causes for the problem, and look at different solutions. The Tea Party thinks government is the problem. OWS thinks corporate America is the problem.

Neither movement has the whole truth, and both have a partial truth. We do well to listen carefully to both. Neither political party in America has the whole solution. The answer is not bigger government or smaller government. The answer is BETTER government, and this demands a complete transformation of a system that is owned and financed by narrow interests. The answer is not curbing profits in the financial sector. There is nothing inherently wrong with capitalism. The problem is that Wall Street has turned the economy into a giant casino. What is needed is a complete overhaul of a financial system that has become a lottery so that the wealth of a few doesn’t jeopardize the livelihood of many. (Read on for more about transformation)

The answer is not more or less subsidized health care costs. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the health care system that has become a business for some rather than a service for all. The answer is not more or less federal loans for education, but a complete overhaul of the education system that is run more like a factory than an incubator for human potential. And so on I could go through all the issues.

This may sound like a political platform in itself. It’s not. I’m not interested in gaining support for my opinions or running for any office other than my own study when I hear the phone ringing. I welcome disagreement. And it’s deliberately general. It’s not time yet to define the transformation too closely. We’re still growing in our awareness of a reality that is not working for most people.  I’m interested in encouraging self awareness and compassion for the needs of many. I’m interested in personal awakening.

The same truth applies to spirituality as it does to politics. The answer to the rapid demise of mainstream religion is neither liberal nor conservative religion, and it’s not theism or atheism. It’s a complete overhaul of the way we think about theology and spirituality. This overhaul will include a healthy sense of personal responsibility, reminders of our global connections and getting in tune with something much larger than any one of us but still intimately present within each, God within by many names. The answer to the flight from organized religion is not reformed religious denominations, but the surrender of truth itself, where each person reclaims direct access to their innate wisdom and complete control of their own spiritual destiny.

Martin Luther King Jr was a prophet in so many ways. He said many things that apply brilliantly and directly to the current situation. In 1967, he turned his attention to economic reform and targeted a lot of the same issues; unemployment, education, the redistribution of wealth, that OWS is now discussing.

About religion, he said,

An adequate understanding of man is found neither in the thesis of liberalism nor in the antithesis of neo‑orthodoxy, but in a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both. (Strength to Love, p. 136).

Among this synthesis, we might include the roots of orthodoxy and the wings of liberalism, the zeal of conservatism and the compassion of liberalism, the discipline of orthodoxy and the freedom of liberalism. The spirit of our age is neither conservative nor liberal/progressive. It is independent and interdependent, and I suspect that the tens of millions of people who practice their spirituality outside of mainstream religion know what I mean. But we need to be careful in our independence.

Elsewhere King said,

There is always the danger that in revolting against any extreme view one will go to the opposite extreme, failing to see the partial value inherent in the former. (Strength to Love, p. 279)

This is important, whether it relates to spiritual transformation or political transformation. If all we do is run to the opposite of the problem, we can easily throw out the baby with the bathwater. The bathwater may be cold and dirty, but the baby in the case of religion is universal compassion and in the case of politics it is the essence of democracy that needs to be reclaimed and applied in new ways to our current situation.

About civil protest, King said,

Like the synthesis in Hegelian philosophy, the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites—acquiescence and violence—while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both. (Stride Toward Freedom, p. 213).

I will write more about Hegel and the dialectic next week, but for now, let me say that what I see taking place is the beginnings of full scale revolution. The wisdom of the OWS movement is that they aren’t moving too quickly to demands and solutions. If they did, they would inevitably become reforms, and that would do little more than rearrange the deck chairs while the titanic sinks into rapid oblivion. Reform has value but now is the time for transformation that is borne out of careful inner reflection. Out with the old and in with the new, a whole new way of thinking, living and loving.

The prophetic warning of MLK is to avoid the extremes of passive submission and mindless violence. Non violent transformation is the order of the day. Deep in your own body, do you resonate with a message of freedom and interdependence? Don’t take my word for it. Trust your own instincts. Know what moves you and follow that.

Anyone can get angry about injustice. True mastery is to get active at the right time, in a skillful way, partner with the right people and most importantly do it with the right motivation. What the world needs is people who are alive and awake, aware and authentic. This is also what the world needs from you. As the poet David Whyte said,

Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.

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  1. Celia Said says:

    Wonderful insight, Ian!  Thanks.

  2. [...] are often called 1st reformed, 2nd reformed etc. All they are doing is reforming. There is little transformation taking place. They may be rearranging the deck chairs on a style of spirituality that is sinking. [...]

  3. donna says:

    This message resonated… I’ll be looking forward to your future comments and watching for the time I should become active.  I totally believe we need a transformation not just more reforms!!!  Thank you for expressing it so well:)

  4. Victor says:

    Excellent post Ian.  I too believe that transformation, not reformation, is the order of the day.

  5. [...] = 'wpp-262'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};This week I’ve been writing about Occupy Wall Street. I see it as a transformational movement that gets beyond the usual divide and conquer politics. [...]

  6. Amy says:

    What wonderful insight. I especially appreciated the last quote of your piece…” Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you”. What I interpreted is the same that the Dalai Lama frequently teaches-and it is about embracing moderation, compassion- and I try and avoid extremes as I interact with others on my journey. We all have something of value to contribute-and the comparisons only simply further divide us, when, in reality, we all really do want (mostly) the same things. I have practiced and embraced the views of many theologies/viewpoint/religions, and I find they all have an inherent worth and wisdom within-if we open our hearts and minds to receive. I will lastly write a verse from The Bible which fits this issue/topic. “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. Peace.

  7. ian says:

    great attitude Amy and well said.

  8. Ian, you express it well. The ideas of Barry Shwartz in his book Practical Wisdom support your opinion here. He says that we cannot turn to regulations or incentives to solve our institutional problems, because they promote gaming the system and greed.  Rather we need to look at our own virtues, as Aristotle said.
    I am not religious, however I do have the faith that you allude to: a faith in humanity, a faith that we will do the right thing if given a positive environment. The environment you write about..an empowering one such that people live for themselves, mindful of their actions. Many think our society is already selfishness, but I contest that we are far from it as selfish means improving your condition. I wrote about it in my latest blog. I value feedback. Cheers.

  9. Keith says:

    “Occupy Yourself” spoke to me right at the start. I’ve been using ‘Soulseeds’ in morning meditations.  The theme of Peace at the core of one’s being is high on my ‘mulling’ list.  I’m more and more impressed with the idea that dialogue (or debate) about politics & religion requires that ‘cool center’ of peace at one’s core!  This is the first election year that I’ve responded to the plea for donating to the cause.  (more than once actually)  But I haven’t yet joined a ‘take sides’ discussion with any of my peers.  I’m open with those of like mind but feel quite different when confronted by one who is ‘strongly opinionated.’   I know what I believe and when I read it in someone else’s article it resonates within, as in the above article.      

  10. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog. Great post and perspective on #ows and the state of our politics.  I’ll be back!!

  11. Martin says:

    There are things inherently wrong with capitalism. To simply say “Wall Street has turned the economy into a giant casino” is to ignore how Wall Street and Main Street rely on each other, and to be ignorant of the dynamics of how the search for ever greater profits produces these imbalances and reckless behaviour. The problem isn’t “corporate greed” as some lone-standing quality; capitalism produces and rewards greed.