The Beautiful Revolution

J U L Y   2 0 1 4

Many in my generation — those of us who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s — were swept up by the spirit of revolutions, both outer and inner. Our revolutions were rarely violent, but they were fiery, profound, and have had far-reaching effects on society. The Beat Generation before us threw down the challenge and we took it. We rebelled against the conformism and security-mindedness of the post-war world we grew up in. We hoisted our knapsacks on our shoulders and left home. “Subvert the dominant paradigm!” we cried, fighting that paradigm over its heartless policies on earth1civil rights, women’s rights, the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, sexual freedom, species extinctions and environmental destruction. We explored the outer reaches of consciousness with psychedelics, sat at the feet of teachers from the East, and learned how to meditate. We went back to the land. We learned how to grow food and chop firewood.

And then we had kids and got jobs. Some say that’s when we copped out, that’s when the dominant paradigm ultimately subverted us.

But that has not been my experience. I believe the revolutionary spirit of those years is still alive and well, though it looks very different than it did then. It has matured, and continues to mature. I see it thriving both in how we conduct our “outer” revolutions — working for social justice, peace, environmental sanity, etc., — as well as in our “inner” revolutions, where we now seek a direct relationship with the divine, a direct experience of spiritual illumination, rather than being content with second-hand accounts.

The idea of a “revolution,” whether outer or inner, can be stirring, even romantic — Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! — but it has a shadow side. Revolutions typically get their energy from polarization, from being against something. In the sixties when my confederates called the police “pigs” it may have roused their courage, but it didn’t change anything for the better; it just made the police mad. We needed schooling in the aikido of non-violence. We didn’t realize that our “against-ness” was working to keep us in the trance of conflict rather than liberating the situation. We didn’t realize that polarization leads to more polarization, that push always leads to push-back.

I received my first lesson in this in my early twenties while hitchhiking to Spain, staying overnight at a youth hostel in Heidelberg. After staying out late I was walking back to my hostel through the dark streets when, a few steps in front of me, a door opened and a man staggered out onto the sidewalk. He was unstable on his feet and obviously drunk.

I stepped around him and kept walking. After about twenty paces I heard him shouting in German. I looked over my shoulder. He was facing me, his arm raised in a fist, obviously angry at me. There was no one else on the street. I turned away and kept walking, but his shouts became louder.

I couldn’t help it — I felt anger roar up in me. What the hell? What right did he have to curse me? I stopped and turned to face him. My heart was pounding and I thought, I can take this guy, he’s older but drunk as hell. I had never fought anyone in my life, not like this, but my anger at his unjustified anger had taken over. I started walking toward him in as menacing a way as I could. He straightened up and started walking slowly toward me. He was still muttering. He was a mean-looking guy about twice my age. It was like High Noon, Gary Cooper facing the bad guy.

Suddenly – I have no idea why – the strangest thing happened to me. I felt myself being lifted up out of my body some distance above myself. I could look down and see the whole scene: the guy walking slowly toward me, me walking toward him, the deserted street. And then I saw the ludicrousness of the situation. Here were two strangers, completely unknown to each other, about to fight. What nonsense! I saw in a flash that this was how wars begin: men take offense, for whatever reason, at other men, and those men take offense back. Then, just as abruptly, I was back in my body, walking toward this guy.

I stopped. He stopped. Then I smiled and started walking toward him at a normal pace. He backed up and put up his fists, thinking I was coming in for the attack. I extended my right hand, gesturing that I wanted to shake his hand. He looked puzzled, glancing up and down from my smiling face to my outstretched hand.

Then his shoulders dropped and a cautious smile came on his face. He reached out his hand too. We shook hands, and then he pulled me to him, embracing me in a big hug, his beery breath against my ear. He was talking a stream of slurred German, which was incomprehensible to me; I managed to say I was an American. He laughed and shouted, “Amereecan! Amereecan!” We hugged again, laughing, not knowing what else to do, both happy to feel the tension drain out of us. Then we backed away grinning, and walked in opposite directions, both of us repeatedly turning around to wave and shout, “Auf Weidersehn! Auf Weidersehn! Goodbye! Goodbye! Good luck!” Our laughter echoed down the street.

Those few moments when I experienced myself looking down at that High Noon scene literally changed my life. It began an inner revolution in my way of seeing and responding to the world. It was a unique kind of revolution, not a revolution against anything, but a letting go of the knee-jerk logic of polarization and the conflict that emerges from it.

Polarization arises because of the dualism inherent in our experience of reality. We presume there is a “self” (or “subject”) in here, and a vast sea of “others” (“objects”) out there.   Geopolitically, this gap between self and other shows up as nationalism, patriotism, and fundamentalism; culturally it shows up as racism, sexism, and classism. What is more, as soon as we define the other as “other,” our own identity gets a thicker shell. A few years ago when I was traveling in Iran I heard a remark of Ayatollah Khomenei’s — he said: “If Iran and America ever become friends that will be the end of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.” In other words, as long as we can struggle against what is oppressive to us, our identity will be assured.

This is old thinking, and though it still dominates global culture, I believe its hold on our minds is weakening. In part, my optimism about the maturing of our revolutionary spirit is based on how prevalent “seeing things from more than one point of view” has become in the past few decades. Systems thinking, Theory U, complexity theory, deep ecology, nonviolent communication, cross-cultural communication, interfaith dialogue, family therapies — these and many other systems approaches to human problems are flourishing now in ways unimaginable fifty years ago. We are beginning to see how much the presumed gap between self and other, us and them, human and nature, has pervaded our societies and constricted our ability to get along with each other and support the community of life on earth. We are beginning to see that “self” and “other” exist together. Subject and object co-arise. There is no gap. My safety and fulfillment includes yours. The health of the planet is inseparable from our own health. We are one interdependent, interconnected happening. And the whole thing is alive!

If you feel you already know these things, that’s a sign that the inner/outer revolution I’m pointing to is taking root. We can take heart in the first indications of its presence:

• climate change, resource depletion, the loss of health of oceans and soil, etc., — all of these impending disasters are forcing us to recognize the interdependence of human society with the life of the planet as a whole;

• the Internet and social media have brought the viciousness of war, greed, and other forms of dominance into our homes — we can no longer avoid seeing the failure of these old ways of human relations;

• an increasing number of statements of principles, international treaties, and global declarations (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) demonstrate the gradual deepening of empathy and ethics in human society;

• instant communication and uncontrolled access to information is democratizing both education and decision-making in ways we are only just beginning to recognize;

• the rapidly-growing global conversation that is now taking place on sustainability, local food production, beauty in the built environment, and a turning toward the pleasures of art and contact with nature.

As for signs of the revolution in our spiritual lives, these too are beginning to appear amidst the decay of old forms of dogma and religious control over our journeys of spiritual discovery. Here are a few of the ways I see it beginning to show up:

the enormous advances of science in the past century have revolutionized our view of reality, evolution, the origin of life, and the wonder of the cosmos; this “New Story” is evolving our sense of human worth and our reverence for all life;

the old idea of God as a separate and judgmental entity is evolving into the direct intuition of the all-pervasive presence of sacred unity;

the fixation on achieving a spiritual reward in the future is evolving into seeking realization of inner peace and wisdom, now;

our tendency to talk about religious stories and mystical insights is evolving into our welcoming direct experience of the numinous basis of reality;

chauvinistic identification with one religious tradition is evolving into appreciation of the many ways divine reality is experienced and expressed;

the isolation of spiritual groups is evolving into a respectful community that enjoys sharing their different styles and devotions.

These are profound changes, both in our outer relations with each other and planetary life, and in our inner experience of being. While I am not naïve about the enormity of the forces rampant in the world that are aligned against these views, I believe those forces are diseased and will not survive in the long run. The “oppositional revolutions” that have been waged against these forces in the past are evolving now into dynamics of change quite unlike anything the world has seen before.

I like to think of this as “the beautiful revolution,” apparent in both the outer and inner realms we are part of. Why is it a beautiful revolution?

It’s beautiful because it embraces wholeness rather than polarization.

It’s beautiful because it nurtures communities of conversation and deep listening to address our problems, not division into belligerent, opposing camps.

It’s beautiful because it recognizes the fundamental “togetherness” of all being.

It’s beautiful because it derives its energy not from opposition and righteousness but from openness and mutuality, not from objectifying the world around us but from coming into its presence.

I don’t doubt that this beautiful revolution will take many generations to be integrated into human culture as a whole. It’s not going to save us from ourselves any time soon. It may take a hundred years, maybe a thousand — or it could happen tomorrow. However long it takes, I am confident it will happen. I’m confident because the beautiful revolution is grounded in the way things actually are and the way reality actually works.

I know this may sound idealistic considering the magnitude of the problems facing humanity, and all the ignorant forces of selfishness and greed we witness in the world. Indeed, it may be unavoidable that humanity will have to endure major cataclysms in the near future. But this makes it even more essential that we protect the flame of the beautiful revolution from being extinguished. We might think of the beautiful revolution as a great “Yes” that is arising amidst the chaos of “No’s” around us. As the poet Wallace Stevens reminds us:

After the final no there comes a yes,
and on that yes the future world depends.