"If we try to solve society’s problems without overcoming the confusion and aggression in our own state of mind, then our efforts will only contribute to the basic problems, instead of solving them." Chogyam Trungpa
How to Start a Revolution?
Collaboration is at the heart of meaningful structural change, but our lives have been shaped by social norms and institutions that foster competition and self-interest. These habits are so ingrained, that they insert themselves even in the act of trying to do good. Breaking habits that undermine collaboration (like self-righteousness, anger, competition, jealousy) requires hard work and a conscious shift in our thoughts and attitudes towards one other.
The following is based on the premise that we need a social movement to confront the many challenges of our age. That the social movement must be ethic based, not issue based. That it has two components, individual work and collective work, and both are inextricably linked.
We cannot build anything, without doing the work ourselves.
Lesson # 1: Change is Possible. We often indict institutions, corporations, “the system,” using big blanket terms that empower the idea that these are constellations of “others” somehow separate from ourselves, impenetrable and permanent. But all of these structures are composed of people. Societies are comprised of individuals. We give our institutions, our government, our corporations their legitimacy. When we change, the culture begins to change and our institutions follow suit. The logic that sees structures as impenetrable is one based in powerlessness. It’s more emotional than logical. Nothing is permanent and everything is composed of interconnected parts which means everything is movable. We just can’t expect things to happen overnight.
Lesson # 2: Everything is connected. Ecosystems teach us a lot about the minute changes that can affect broad change. The law of cause and effect applies to our political systems, just as it applies to our natural environment. After the 2016 Presidential race, many were shocked at the election results, but taking a backward looking view at American history, the current political environment makes more sense. We don’t heal an infected wound by ignoring it. Understanding where we are as the effect of the cumulative causes of unexamined policies that foster polarization, divisiveness, self-interest, and the economy at the expense of collective well-being, begins to reveal a way forward. Kindness, just like vitriol, is cumulative. It builds and grows and catches like wildfire. Through culture we can shift more impenetrable institutions if we can learn to work together.
Lesson #3: We are our own worst enemies. Working with people is hard. Period. But too often internal fighting tears movements apart. Striving to make people bend to our will, to control relationships to our ideas, is the essence of what undermines collaboration. We can only control ourselves, but ironically, this is frequently what we let slip. When we let emotion overwhelm calm consideration and compassion for the other, we break down solidarity. There are enough good people in the world that if we were able to get past our superficial differences and see one another as allies, things would begin to change.
Lesson #4: Transforming ourselves to transform the world. A movement has two parts, individual and collective work. They are connected. And we need both. The collective is necessary to activate change in society as a whole, to support one another and amplify the wishes of many, but how can collective work authentically represent who and what we are, if we are not it? If we expect society to take responsibility for their actions, it makes sense that we must too. “Self-work” alone can reify the idea that we are the center of the universe. And movement work without the self-work, can subjugate the real needs of the individual to the hive mind. Both are necessary if we’re talking about fundamental and profound societal change.
Lesson # 5: Taking responsibility for our own actions (or personal responsibility). Since we can’t control each other, conflict will arise, but as long as we continue to shift the blame onto others, we are part of the problem. Personal responsibility means taking control of our piece. We can think of it as a form of direct action of the mind, and it requires a willingness to confront the inherent contradictions between what we say we value, and how we actually act. In order to create change, we must change the way we seek change. There’s a great set of tools to critically evaluate and work with our own minds in the back of this book. I did not come up with them, but I’ve found them effective. See Direct Action for the Mind.
Lesson # 6: Building a movement around a guiding ethos. We need to build a movement that is ethic based, not issue based. There are many important issues up right now, but too often the struggle around issue-based politics divide our efforts rather than unite them. From climate change, to race, to inequality, there is an underlying ethic that drives exploitation. Similarly, there are some fundamental truths in this world — ideas, beliefs, concepts — that we all feel, deep down and in our core. These truths can provide a base for a robust social movement. How could I hurt you, if I didn’t know what hurts? How could I long for love, if I didn’t know what it is to love? The language expresses itself differently across cultures and experiences, but we all know something about pain and content. Our spiritual traditions all say the same thing. The world is bigger than me and my individual needs. There is a way to be and we can do better. This guiding ethic could be the tie that binds. It's something about equality and something about being kind.
Lesson #7: Ethic does not mean moral crusade. The last thing we need in the world is more puritanical morality that is used to justify judgment and division. This is not about proving we are somehow better than others, or justifying our own morally rightness. Ethics without humility, or an understanding that we all make mistakes and have the capacity to change, can become just another way to draw lines and condemn. That’s not the point. That is not the ethic at all. The ethic ideally embodies non-judgment, equality, kindness, reason and love.
Lesson #8: Change requires building coalitions around that ethic. A movement fighting under one guiding ethos, a movement that allows each individual to participate and find their place according to their own interests and passions could be a sustainable movement. This does not preclude organizing around issue-based politics, but allows people to continue working around individual issues as an expression of this larger ethic. It is a way to allow each of us to see ourselves as part of a larger global community, regardless of the issue that is closest to our hearts. Generating political will look different for different people. Some of us will not see ourselves in the streets but some of us won't and that’s okay. Everyone has a different role to play in structural change. Judgment and expectation within a movement only tear coalitions apart. When we fixate on who is more radical than who, or one particular way of creating change, we can become arrogant and alienate potential allies. Individuals working in service-based work, hospice workers, teachers, nurses, non-profiters, construction workers, professors and activists all must be able to identify themselves as part of the same movement. The point is that however we do the work, we are part of the movement, if the work is an expression of that ethic.
Lesson #9: Anger is not the answer. Anger does not seem to be an effective emotional foundation for a sustainable movement. It sometimes makes for a good battle cry, but it also burns us out, pits us against one another, reinforces the victim/perpetrator mentality, and generally fosters qualities that are the opposite of the ethic we are trying to build. It is a fire that burns out, polarizes, and exacerbates divisions. For lasting change, we must behave according to the fundamental principles the movement is based on. From actions of civil disobedience, to branding, to content and individual work under the movements umbrella, all strategic actions must be informed by the ethic which means it embodies values like personal accountability, kindness, equality, nonviolence and more.
Lesson #10: Ultimately, we can’t change people, people have to do that. Working towards change has a quality of arrogance to it, assumes we know what’s best. Becoming fixated on the idea of “change,” what change looks like, what people must do to be who we think they should be, can make us all victims of our own compassion. Working towards change is a delicate balance of discernment, pushing where we can and knowing when we can't. In those moments when we can’t push any further, we can still believe in people, model a different way, until they are ready to change themselves.
Lesson #11: Goalless benevolence. When we work towards a goal, we often develop attachment to an outcome. That attachment can justify all kinds of ethically questionable behavior, the ends justify the means type reasoning. Mix an agenda with anger and a little pride, and you get self-righteousness and nothing undermines a movement faster than self-righteousness. Nothing ever looks like we think it is going to look. Sometimes it looks better, sometimes it looks worse, but if we do good for the sake of doing good, without fixation on the agenda, without expectation, without fear, we are able to keep going, even when things inevitably work out differently than we expected. Remaining agenda-less, does not preclude working towards specific goals, but means we maintain a fluidity in our approach to said goals, especially when they just aren’t working out.
Lesson #12: Patience. Diligence. Humility. Burnout is the plague of social movements. Doing the work requires patience and practice and internal diligence and a willingness to recognize we do not have all the answers, and that’s okay. Any meaningful change takes time. Doing the work is a daily practice that requires constant vigilance to forever be the change we want to see.