08/29/2012 12:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Oneness, Firefighting and Social Change

I am fairly new here, but those who know my writing from elsewhere know I believe that the Occupy Movement is on to something, in seeing the common interest which most of us have in changing policies that serve the perceived needs of a tiny elite.

But you don't have to be thinking about politics and social change to be on to something that can help, which is why this post shows up under Religion.

Zen and the Art of Monastery Maintenance

Recently I heard Colleen Morton Busch speak about her book "Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara." It is a "spiritual thriller" about the California wildfires of 2008; the oldest 2012-08-01-FireMonks.jpgZen Buddhist monastery in the United States, a wilderness outpost which found itself in the path of two of the blazes and subject to being cut off from all aid; and the thoughts, deliberations, and actions of a group of Zen practitioners and professional firefighters.

In a nutshell, a group of Zen adepts, trained by firefighters and well prepared in terms of supplies, equipment and advance work like cutting firebreaks, intended to stay, along with a professional ally, when the fires finally came their way. Conditions became much more dangerous than anticipated, however, and a stand appeared untenable. An evacuation was ordered by the state fire command; and, after difficult consultations, the group left. Then, suddenly, five senior priests and monks turned back.

At the author event, Ms. Busch coyly avoided the details of the climax, which I have yet to read. I know that the five people were unscathed, and there was relatively little damage to the beloved facilities. Being amateurs at firefighting was somehow more than compensated for by being seasoned professionals at staying calm and at drawing on unparalleled clarity of thought.

What most caught my attention, however, was the group's insistence on not conceiving of the fire as an enemy to be fought, but as a natural force -- part of the ecosystem of the Tassajara Wilderness -- to be met, to be worked with and guided.

What Would It Mean to "Meet" Our Opponents?

Our world is full of enemies, and we tend to fight them, not meet them. I am not just talking about foreign policy. Among my progressive and liberal friends, there are the Republican Party, the NRA, perhaps "the spineless opportunists" of the Democratic Party, and the 1 percent (more accurately, the .01 percent).

Certainly we are doomed, quite literally, unless we unseat the .01 percent. What Occupy, overall, hasn't seen is how we can work to become so united as a people, and so clear in our understanding of what is needed, that the elite can no longer govern, and we can.

"Meeting" them instead of fighting them would be a huge step. We would begin by recognizing what they are: people too constrained by their circumstances and thinking to act even in their own long-term interests. For they are doomed, too, unless relieved of their command, since neither an uninhabitable planet nor, in the shorter run, an economy where people cannot afford to buy what their corporations sell, will work for them. But they are out of control, and unable to control themselves.

They are made of the same stuff as the rest of us -- there is no .01 percent chromosome. Their circumstances condition most of them to believe that corporations must have the utmost freedom to expand their operations and profits, and that the world needs to be made safe for that activity.

When confronting a wildfire, certain things are pointless and unhelpful: self-righteous anger, surprise at each new violent flare-up, and being taken in by minor, temporary victories or deceptive signs of its being other than what it is. These are no more helpful in confronting a ruling class and its minions. In either case, we need to calmly analyze the situation, see the truth. And above all, we need to think strategically, not bounce reactively from secondary blaze to secondary blaze, or election to election, or outrage to outrage.

Do We Fight or Meet the Pillars That Support the Status Quo?

There are many other implications to this concept of meeting our opponents. Outside of the political realm, I immediately think of personal conflicts. And some serious troublemakers inside my head. But the topic is rich just on the political level. Surely we need to adopt what strategists like Gene Sharp call identifying a regime's pillars of support (e.g., the police, the conventional mass media, managers within the government bureaucracy), so we can assess the bases of their loyalty and how and to what extent segments within them can be split away, defecting to the people from whom they come.

Those in the Occupy Movement who see the police as enemies to be fought, rather than a force to be met, deprive themselves of this capacity. In every war, some of our soldiers have resisted fighting. The loyalties of the security forces which the U.S. set up in Iraq and Afghanistan are divided. The same can be true here, but not if we insist on fighting the police. Similarly, "meeting" the mass media would mean recognizing that journalists have been more free to do their jobs after a war has become unpopular, discredited by other means, and exploiting those means.

Moreover, focusing our attention on opponents, rather than doing our own work (the Tassajarans spent weeks building firebreaks and setting up sprinklers), is a distraction. Merely protesting or otherwise fighting the establishment's institutions will get us no farther than aiming hoses at a forest fire. And we surely need to meet, not fight or ignore, those who should be with us but are deluded by a lifetime of propaganda. Those who want change need to turn our minds toward how to build a movement so big that it is unstoppable, and with that meet those who would stop it.