Thursday, January 22, 2015

Philosophy of the Will Session 2

Here's session 2.

Session 2 Readings

And the class itself: All about John Locke, Tabula Rasa, and the beginning of our discussion of Arthur Schopenhauer.  Enjoy!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Hello everyone!  This past Tuesday we kicked off our "Philosophy of the Will" class at Liberation.  It's a charity class, by donation, and everything goes to support First Book, a literacy charity for disadvantaged kids.  Over the next 8-ish weeks we'll explore the development of a particular idea of "Will", as it appears in the thought of folks like Arthur Schopenhauer, Frederich Nietzsche, Freud, Alfred Adler, and even Aleister Crowley.  Sound crazy enough to be interesting?

We kicked off this past week with a discussion of free will, contrasting selections from the writings of Thomas Aquinas and David Hume.  As I mention in the talk, "free will" isn't really what we're after, but rather the discussion began to reveal some important observations of the nature of the human condition and the Will itself.

Below there is a link to the selected passages we read in class (4 pages), and a video (well, audio really) of the class itself. Don't mind the ugliness of the video, it's my first time posting something like this to Youtube. If you enjoy the class and get something out of it, I encourage you to make a donation to the charity above.

Session 1 Readings

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sahasrara – The Hole in the Top of your Head through which God Enters

Didn’t you know you have a hole in your head?  That subtitle is mostly a joke, but not entirely.  In the old dualism of the yoga system, what Sahasrara represents is the connection to the Purusha, that transcendent monistic consciousness that in Tantra is called Shiva for short.  The other six chakras were concerned with the other half of that dualism, Prakriti, which basically means matter, stuff, and manifest reality.   Prakriti is the mind, body, dirt, animals, and everything except that mysterious and transcendent Purusha.  So, calling Sahasrara a hole, an ‘empty’ space in the sense of transcending matter, isn’t such a joke after all. 

            I’ve been talking about God all week in class, a topic I usually avoid as the word is so loaded in our culture.  It’s hard to talk about because we have all of these purile images of a bearded dude enthroned in a cloud stuck in our head. So try to keep in mind that the ideas below are just ideas, or really the mere sketch of my own ideas about God.

            The joke, if there is one, is really in calling Purusha ‘God’.  In classical yoga and in Vedanta, this ‘Seer’ or Purusha, is essentially considered God.  God is understood in the idealistic sense, in that it is utterly pure, utterly transcendent, and utterly free and removed from the messy-ness of the world.  Like many other theistic systems, God and the world are poles apart, and only one of the two is worthy of admiration, worship, and even attention.  This may not always be said, but it is the subtext of most spiritual systems, including classical yoga, Vedanta, and Christianity.

In Tantra, the system from which the chakras originate, Prakriti, matter, is personified into the goddess Shakti, and it is her, rather than her removed and transcendent Shiva, that is given primary worship, although both are considered part of the same whole.  The world, so the Tantras say, is a divine play between Shiva and Shakti, and we’re like actors in their love-drama.  Shakti, we might say, is given her due.

The Vedantins say that the world is illusion, and certainly this is a demonstrable fact.  The world is not how it appears.  What it really is, physics tells us, is a sea of energy fields, or more abstract yet, a field of probability.  But that’s not what the world is, that just how it appears from one point of view.  Take eating a steak for example.  You might say that the steak is just a collection of carbon-based molecules.  That’s all the steak ‘really is’ from one point of view.  From another point of view it is a delicious meal, even a celebratory treat.  From yet another point of view it represents the cruel murder of a sentient life-form.  Which one is the ‘real’ steak?  All of them, and none of them.

So too with God.  What God is can perhaps only be truly summarized by that ancient phrase from the Upanishads – ‘Neti, neti’ – ‘not-that, not-that.’  To say God is one thing is to limit the infinite, right?  Well, yes, but sometimes limited is better.  It is, for most of us, useless to try to see steaks as molecular constructs, and doesn’t make it more appetizing or morally acceptable.  And if you’re eating the steak, thinking of it as murder tends to hurt the appetite.  If you’re a vegan, thinking of it as a delicious meal creates unnecessary moral conflict.  None of these are true in some sort of objective sense, and we might well imagine that we might say that the truth of that steak is ‘not that, not that’, not a meal, not a murder, not a molecular construct, but something that has its own essence or nature independent.  Not only would this be philosophically suspect (do things have independent essences?), but it would create a ‘knowledge’ of the ‘truth’ of steak that is sterile, bland, and utterly useless to anyone.  We might well say that ‘steak’ is thereby destroyed.

God then, is like steak.  We may intellectually understand that what we call God may represent any number of experiences, ideas, and traditions none of which represents the absolute truth, but only a partial truth.  God looks different to different people, and this is why an understanding of the reflexivity of all God-talk is important.  Your idea of God ultimately reflects something of your personality.  Why did those ideas about God stick with you, why did you resonate with that image or that prayer? Why do you look at the barbaric commandments of the Old Testament and cringe? We understand ourselves through understanding God.

The chakras represent a wonderful way of conceptualizing this.  We can look at the lower six chakras as colored lenses through which we look at the world, and so too at God.  Here’s my (very brief) summary of some of the ways God looks from the point of view of each dominant chakra. Keep in mind, any one organized religion will include several of these, but we all ‘cherry pick’ what we like in those religions, so that’s what we’re looking for.

  1. Muladhara – God is the God of the tribe, the “God of my people”, and is usually conceptualized as a parent, the Great Sky Father, or the Great Earth Mother.  God may appear as animal-headed, or as an animal totem.  Animism, personified nature.  God, like a parent, may appear incomprehensible, moody, and an emphasis is placed on appeasing God like one would an angry father.  Emphasis on Taboos, and following proscribed rules.  Can manifest as adherence to the religion of one’s parents despite limited belief or interest. God of strength.  Also, “God is on our side, not theirs” mentality.
  2. Svadhisthana – God as a human image, beautiful forms like the idealized Gods of Ancient Greece.  The Gods (often plural, or an emphasis on lesser sub-gods or saints with the power to intervene), are often capricious, vain, and ambitious, meddling in human affairs, often sexually (like interfering Cupid and Aphrodite or that old rapist Zeus).  Mysteries of Sex, divine dramas and pageants, colorful statues and idols.  Inclusiveness of other Gods and forms as being at least potentially valid.  Cult of beauty and youth, Dionysian revels, and a constant search for the new thing or inspiration.  Spiritual dilettantism.
  3. Manipura – God as the template for the ego; God as the Sun, the center of the universe.  God as King, with dominion over the world, like a worldly ruler organizing things his way. God as power.  Adherence to divine order and will. God is to be honored, and feared.  He (usually) arranges things in according to a divine order, and that order continues to human things.  Concerns about fate, about roles in society, status, and dignity of the individual.  God is not immanent, but is ‘set over’ the Earth.  Just like a King isn’t the Kingdom, but rules it from above, usually through deputies.  Religions with high value on organization, dogma, and officials.  Catholic Church hierarchy is a good example, as well as the pre-China Tibetan Theocracy, or the Islamic world under the Caliphate. 
  4. Anahata – God is love.  This is the major view of our current age.  God is all-merciful, all-forgiving, utterly benevolent, and just an all around great guy/gal.  He/she is also a personal God, concerned with each of us, and one with whom we can talk like a pal.  Buddy Christ, the Buddha, and Krishna are good examples.  Also, the Virgin Mary in Catholicism.
  5. Vishuddha – God as wholeness, as all-encompassing.  God is good, but also evil.  God is transcendent, but immanent.  God of paradoxes.  God understood as reflexive.  In other words, an understanding of God as filtered through (or constructed by) the human psyche.  Cultural and spiritual relativism combined with an acceptance of personal karma and destiny. Recognition that there’s a difference between God and our thoughts about God, but also that the later has value.  This is very much the way we’re looking at things in this blog post.
  6. Ajna – God understood as transcendent.  The human experience of a totally transcendent, content-less God.  Neti, Neti.  God as void.  God as the ultimate singular underlying reality.  God as the abstract monad.  God as light. 
  7. Sahasrara – God outside of human conception.

As we can see, this journey up the chakras and looking at God shows the lower chakras assigning tons of human experiences and ideas (parenthood, sex, love, rulership, etc) to God.  The higher chakras represent a falling away of this sort of projection of our very human psyches onto God, and an attempt to view God as it is on its own.  I like to look at the Crown Chakra as our connection to that deity, or that deity as it stands without projection.  Ajna is our experience of that, as described by such mystics as Patanjali.  
            Now, clearly, on one level, God as seen through the root chakra or 2nd chakra is ‘less true’ than God as seen from the Ajna.  Certainly, the experience of God is less about God and more about our own minds, at least in theory.  But is that less useful to someone whose karma it is in this life to live from that understanding?  If I see God as power, is that worse than someone who sees God as love?  I’m not so sure. 

            To me, the real problem with God from the lower chakras isn’t less in the content, and more in the fierceness in which that content is grasped and taken as literal truth.  The God of my ancestors may be important to me, but as long as I don’t fall into the trap of believing that this is the One True Way for All, there’s no harm, no foul.  To me, transcending the lower chakras doesn’t mean abandoning the great strengths that come from them.  Yoga scriptures back me up on this, emphasizing that any form of deity that speaks to you is a highly suitable object for meditation.  In doing so, we may not only get closer to God, but get closer to ourselves as well.  And that, the masters of the Ajna Chakra tell us, is the real mystery; the two are not so separate.

            Shakti, and her manifestation as the Kundalini serpent coiled in the lowly first chakra, is God no less than her consort Shiva.  Our minds then too, are a manifestation of the divine.  The mind creates our forms of God, and it teaches us about God by teaching us about itself.  Our struggles, our disagreements, and our conflicts are all a part of that divine play, that love-play, happening in us, outside of us, and through us every day.  To me, that is an encouraging (and thereby useful, if maybe not ‘true) thought.  

            So should we give up our limited forms of God? No, so long as they retain power for us, power to move us forward.  That’s the key thing, I think.  When we touch God, he revolutionizes our world like a lightening bolt, whatever form he takes.  If our experience of God is just what we want to hear, we’re getting farther away from Truth.  God is the ever-widening circle that asks us to expand our view of the world.  It doesn’t ask us to forget where we come from, but it does ask us to look to where we’re going.  Kundalini may start as a primitive snake, but she doesn’t stay that way.  She transforms into more and more beautiful forms, and so do we as we rise with her to the crown.

There is no part of me that is not of the Gods!  Jai Shakti, Jai Shiva!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ajna Chakra - The Upper Floors of the Mind

Moving into the 3rd Eye, or Ajna Chakra, we leave a lot of what we discussed in the lower chakras behind.  In a way, we can look at working with the 6th chakra as a separate task entirely, although it is deeply related to what has come before.  When we worked with any of the first five chakras, we were concerned primarily with personality and our individual psychology.  This is a process the tantric mystics called “tattva shuddhi” or the purification of the elements.  These are the elements of the personality, which we call (for convenience) earth, water, fire and air.  Space, the element of the 5th Chakra, is that which contains the rest and represents an individuated or whole personality. 

For most of us, this is the goal: reconciliation with ourselves, healing, and even the development of a new point of view independent of the ego and yet individual.  Psychology, especially Depth Psychology, has this as its main concern, and it the Jungians who go the furthest with it, describing the strange and wonderful individuation process.  But for the Jungians, this is pretty much the end of it.  Most of the rest of psychology stops much lower down the chakra tree. 

The yogis and saints of all ages tell us about states and stages well beyond this, and that’s what we’re talking about when we get to the Ajna chakra.  These, described in books like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, are states that require incredible non-attachment and perfect concentration to master.  The sutras tell us that yoga is “the cessation of the fluctuating states of the mind” and that when we manage to stop the mind’s constant chatter “then the Self dwells in its own nature.”  Essentially, the Sutras make a claim that there is a Self beyond the mind, but which, when the mind is active, appears to be those very fluctuations.  We believe we are what we think, feel, or do, but according to the yogic classics, as well as most religions, we’re far more than that. 

In classical yogic metaphysics, there are two fundamental substances.  First there is Purusha, sometimes symbolized by Shiva, which is pure consciousness. Not thought, but the pure awareness which has no content, no aim, and no reflection.  According to the scriptures of yoga, this Self is eternal, independent of time (our time-sense being a product of mind), and forever unaffected by actions or karma.  This Self is utterly without content or mind, as I said, so it is also without personality, or even individuality.  Ultimately, this Self is considered non-different with any other Self.  My Purusha is not different from your Purusha, and in fact can be considered exactly the same thing.  Imagine, for instance, a paper globe with a candle inside.  If you prick holes in the paper, small beams of light will shine out in a different direction.  If you imagine that you in the small sense, your personality is one of those beams, we understand that Purusha is the candle flame, the source of the light for every beam of light, simultaneously.  As one of my earliest teachers once said, one candle flame loses nothing by lighting another.  You may have heard the very common platitude “we’re all already enlightened”.  What truth is in this phrase comes from the doctrine that indeed this Purusha is always free, and never in bondage, although it appears to be when it takes on the qualities of the mind.  It is the mind that is in bondage, or is liberated, never the Purusha

            The second substance is Prakriti, which is sometimes symbolized by Shakti, and it includes literally everything that is not Purusha.  The keyboard I’m typing on, the electricity in the computer, the light from your monitor, your eyes, face, brain, feelings, thoughts, memories, and mind.  It is, we might say, the worldPurusha is consciousness, and Prakriti is what we are conscious of, and the means by which we know.  This Prakriti, while fundamentally one substance, which we call primordial Prakriti, is said to change and evolve into the varied forms that we see.  While there are 24 of these evolutes, I’m going to simplify the system for our purposes and talk about only a few.  We can begin with the five elements which make up the lower chakras – everything we’ve been working on up to this point.  You, the little self, are entirely made of Prakriti.

As we’ve moved up the spine, the elements have gotten subtler, especially when we got into the akasha or space of the 5th Chakra.  In order to conceive of the space of the mind, or chidakasha, a level of non-attachment is necessary.  If we identify ourself with the ego, or with our desires, the non-ego and our aversions will seem to not be included in the space.  Only if we stop being so attached to the specifics of our personality can we begin to work with the psyche as a whole.  But the psyche is still individual, and in order to get at the 6th chakra, the ‘third eye’, we must let even that go.

Last week when teaching about the Vishuddha chakra, I likened its inclusiveness to a phrase from the Chandogya Upanishad, but which has correlates in the West as well – satya brahmapuram, or the “true city of God.”  We imagine the psyche as a city, God’s city, not ‘ours’, and recognize that the city has good parts and bad, mansions and slums, and recognize that all of this is part of the city, even a necessary part.  In order to really look at the psyche like this, nonattachment is necessary.  Now, a mandala is the perfect illustration of this idea, and in fact mandalas are often intended to be read a sort of 2 dimensional city.  So imagine that you were looking down at a mandala, like a plan of your psyche.  If the psyche is the object, then what is the subject?  What sees?  Ultimately the Seer, but to the Seer no differences exist, no boundaries, no neighborhoods. No, the Seer sees through something else, a subtle, content-less part of the mind.

There is an ‘element’ of a sorts for the ajna chakra, and it is called ‘mahatattva’ or ‘mahat’ which means the ‘great element’.  It is a stand-in for the mind, and specifically one subsection of mind which we call the buddhi, (not to be confused with the Buddha) or ‘discriminative intelligence’.  Its job is to choose, to make differences between things.  We should try to understand this as the very root of the mind itself, its impersonal substructure common to all human beings. In yogic metaphysics, buddhi or mahat is the very first evolute of the primordial prakriti.  First there is just stuff, a sort of primordial soup.  Nothing is different.  Then a mind comes along and starts to find differences, like, this is ‘me’ and that is ‘not me’, and then ‘that not-me is a rock’ and ‘that not-me is a person’ and so on.  The first basic division is the me/not-me, which creates the illusion of an individual self.  I say illusion because this philosophy considers the self like a wave in the ocean – it’s there as long as the mahat is making it different, but soon enough the mahat desolves and now the wave is again non-different with the ocean.  It is this mahat or buddhi which can dispassionately observe the ‘city’ of the psyche.

The buddhi is considered extremely pure, and when we remember that the previous chakra, the 5th, was called Vishuddha or “most pure”. This refers to the perfection of non-attachment that must happen in that chakra before we can really enter into the Ajna.  This goes back to what the sutras said about what yoga is really about – quieting the mind so that the Seer, or Purusha, can ‘dwell in its own nature’.  When we have all sorts of psychological twists and issues and complexes, the mind is tense and restless.  The buddhi, let alone the Purusha, is invisible.  It’s like trying to focus on hearing a pin-drop at the Superbowl – it isn’t going to happen.

The solution to this problem is to quiet the mind, to do yoga in its fullest sense.  The eight-limbs of yoga (ethical restraint, observances, postures, pranayama, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation, and Samadhi) are a direct method towards this goal of stopping the mind, which we call Samadhi.  But this is a gradual process, and as we progress in slowing the mind down (which happens for a long time before ‘cessation’ occurs), we can begin to focus not on the content of the thoughts, nor the affect, but on the sub-structure of thought itself.  We begin to see the buddhi at work, labeling, separating one thought from the next.  We notice that we can witness, judge, and even control our thoughts from some removed place prior to the day-to-day thoughts that make up the rest of the mind.  The buddhi is the part of the mind that has the most control over the rest, and can begin to do the work of cessation, preventing thoughts from arising so that the true self, the Purusha, becomes manifest. 

The Ajna stands in a special place in the chakra system.  The rising Kundalini, that earthy energy, is called Shakti in Tantra, literally the Goddess of Power, or Goddess of the World. She begins the process coiled at the base of the spine in the Root Chakra.  As we move up, it is really her (as our mind) which moves up the spine to higher levels of understanding. Shiva is pure consciousness, sitting remote and unmoving, as if in perfect meditation, unattached and uninvolved.  He is said to sit at the Ajna Chakra, and that chakra thus represents an exact counterpoint to the Root chakra and its Shakti snake coiled there.  Shakti rises because she desires Shiva, and when they meet in the Ajna chakra, Liberation is said to occur.  We must remember however what is Liberated: the mind.  We may say that Purusha comes through the Crown Chakra (although this is a bit literalistic and simple) to meet Shakti (and animating the mind) at the 3rd Eye.  You may also be familiar with the idea that there are two nadis or subtle channels going along either side of the spine, and a third at the center.  These represent male and female, hot and cold, etc – the duality of nature.  Of course, it isn’t a duality of nature at all, it’s the mind which makes things seem dual; the buddhi separating and comparing always.  These two side nadis are said to stop just below the Ajna chakra, and this represents a cessation of the functioning of the buddhi, which is indeed the goal of yoga.

What happens then?  Imagine a wind rushing over a mountain lake, which makes the surface appear grey with white caps.  Imagine the same lake, with no wind, totally still.  Which reflects the viewer?  Clearly, the still lake will do a better job.  When the mind is still, we may say that it perfectly reflects the luminance of Purusha, of the Self.  It is no accident that the lunar crescent is often used to symbolize the Ajna chakra.  Its two petals represent that duality (also the two eyes) which is overcome by the chakra (and the third eye). It is said that the mystic who masters the Vishuddha chakra gains the ability to instantly understand scripture and to interpret it for others.  Mastery of the Ajna chakra is said to give the mystic the ability to create scripture. 

What must this be like?  Well, if we understand that time, space, and all of prakriti are detected (even created) by the mind, then such concepts will be meaningless when the mind is stopped.  No space means reality is the monad – truly one. This is symbolized by the bindu or monad point, which Hindus often wear as a saffron or sandal-paste dot on the ajna center. No time means that that one is eternal.  No content means we only end up trying to describe it after the fact.  We might say with the Vedantins ‘neti, neti’ no, its not that, not that, because if it’s that, it can’t be this.  The famous phrase sat, chit, ananda, or ‘being, consciousness, and bliss’ is used to describe the feeling that lingers when the mind starts back up again to perceive it, but can’t be said to be attributed to the purusha itself, which remains fundamentally mysterious.

If this sounds really heavy, well it is.  We’re talking about stuff that is well past what words can really get at anyway (being rather limited products of human minds).  For most of us, the practice will not be to try to perfectly stop the mind right now, but to slow it down as much as possible in meditation and try to see how it works, so that maybe down the line we can make a stab at stopping it. 

But as with the rest of the chakras, the Ajna is indeed working in us even if we haven’t fully evolved into it.  It comes across in intuition – a decision seemingly made before thought, an insight that comes from underneath the surface of the mind.  It also represents our ability to concentrate and to think with clarity. 

Overall, the Ajna is the contact point between our mind and our spirit, and represents a tremendous mystery that is still beyond the grasp (or even the vision) of science and everyday life.  It is the entry point for the gifts of the spirit, a place of openness which transcends all of the particulars of individual life.  At the level of the Ajna, “all is one” is not an equalizing platitude of the heart, but a physical, literal fact which can be experienced only by the exceptionally disciplined and self-controlled. It is where apparent difference is dissolved into perfect light. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chakra cycle

Its that time again.  In my Sunday 10am classes, we'll be taking a journey through the seven chakras.  Last year I wrote some thoughts on each of the chakras as we went along, and I'm going to repost them here so you can easily find them.  Last time around, I didn't write anything for the last two chakras, so I'm hoping to remedy that this time around.  Expect those posts during the 6th and 7th weeks.  In the meantime, enjoy!

What the hell are the Chakras anyway: Part I
What the hell are the Chakras anyway: Part II

1. Muladhara
2. Svadhisthana
3. Manipura
4. Anahata
5. Vishuddha

Thursday, October 13, 2011

OWS 4: OWS and the Tea Party (Conclusion)

At one point, I watched as a news crew interviewed Michael.  They wanted to hear about the anger we all felt, but Michael insisted there was no anger, and surprisingly, I think he was right.  Sure, people are unhappy, but it didn’t feel that way down there.  It felt optimistic, hopeful, and even joyous.  One fifty year old woman I spoke to, a professional who had lost everything when the housing bubble crashed, said that these days she felt safer and happier at the protest than any elsewhere.  Michael said he saw very little anger, but that wasn’t what the news company wanted to hear.  The reporter spoke to her boss and she was told to cancel the interview.  No one wanted to see something about hopeful, positive protesters.  They wanted anger and arrests, pepper-spray and dirty hippies.  As the news shows, if you look for something, you’ll find it, and I’m sure this reporter did too.
            I did see one bit of anger, but it wasn’t from the protesters, but from a ‘tourist’.  A angry man in a suit ended up shouting at the man with the detailed banking proposal on his poster-board sign.  “Where were you when the Tea Party was marching?” he asked, disgusted.  I was proud that the protesters stayed rather civil with him, although he was far more aggressive in his accusations.  Still, he did have a point.  How was this different?
            I saw the above exchange in the first hour I was there, but that moment stuck with me longer than the rest.  The guy had a point.  I thought back to when I first heard about the Tea Party, and I remember being briefly sympathetic.  But it wasn’t long before I scorned them right along with the rest of my liberal friends.  I tried to remember what changed, and social issues were the most obvious thing that caused me to write them off as misguided.  However, other than the stances on social issues (in which OWS comes clearly down in favor of progressive policies), the two movements have a lot in common.  Both clearly stem from a recognition that government by the people for the people is falling apart and that the system has failed too many.  Both were initially popular movements made of regular people.  The Tea Party these days seems to have been mostly subsumed into the Republican establishment, with strong corporate backing, but OWS is still young and may soon find itself in a similar situation.
            I did see one important difference between OWS and the Tea Party – philosophy of government.  The Tea Party views government as an inherent problem; big government is inherently inefficient and wasteful, and private enterprise is efficient and effective.  Government is the problem, not the solution.  OWS seems to agree that government is broken, but it believes that corporate culture did the breaking.  From that point of view, government by the people is a good thing, but impossible in our current climate.  Government isn’t inherently the problem, but is because it’s bought and paid for.  Fix the corporate climate, and government becomes a force for good.
            I see both sides of this issue. I agree that government bureaucracy is wasteful and inefficient, but I believe that this is a matter of scale – look at the sheer waste of government dollars paid to private companies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, I (and most of the people at OWS I believe) would rather have a wasteful government healthcare (just one example) than corporate healthcare and insurance.  Why?  Because the government program’s purpose is to take care of it’s citizen’s health.  That’s the bottom line.  The insurance companies bottom line is on their financial sheet.  They are responsible to shareholders, not their clients and it is in their best interest to NOT pay for medical care.  Beyond that, I’d rather have billions of dollars wasted on doctors and medicine than billions in dollars in profit for executives who try to cut costs and deny coverage whenever possible.  Honestly, when it comes to health, I view ridiculous insurance profits as more inexcusable than government waste. But that’s just my own pet issue.
            I’ve heard many people who support the Tea Party exclaiming that OWS is anti-American and anti-capitalist.  No doubt that there are many who could be called anti-capitalist in the movement (or communist, socialist, or anarchist), but I’m not sure it’s as broad as the news would have you believe.  Many people think they’re anti-capitalist, but are actually anti-something else, as they don’t have much of an understanding of capitalism.  I spoke to one man in his 60s, a salesman, who put it beautifully:  “I’m a capitalist,” he said with a note of pride, “I’ve never had a cushy salary job, or paid vacation, or anything, and I’ve worked 33 years in this job.”  What was he against?  “Greed,” he said simply, adding that capitalism is all about making a good product and selling it honestly.  He complained that instead these companies cheat, steal and lie, and then buy political power to protect themselves and insure monopolies. 
            There is a difference between capitalism and plutocracy.  The later encourages monopolies of a few rich individuals and companies.  The number of major banks in this country keeps shrinking as the biggest banks gobble them up.  Competition against them is impossible, just like it is among the telecoms, and big outlets like Walmart that routinely destroy small businesses and turn small towns into their personal fiefs.  Monopolies and plutocracies are anti-competition, and therefore anti-capitalist.  And of course, that makes them as un-American as can be. 
            But it was social issues that really turned me off the Tea Party: hostility to gay marriage, racism, and religious extremism of the Christian variety.  But seeing news coverage of OWS and comparing to the reality I saw with my own eyes, I have to wonder if I was misled.  I have no doubt that much of what scares me about the far right is present in the Tea Party, but I have to wonder if that’s just where the cameras were pointed, much like the young anarchist punks down at Liberty Park seem to get most of the attention from the media.  Clearly, OWS and the Tea Party have very different social values, but both are crying out for fairness, transparency, and accountability.  They identify different sources of the problem, and different solutions.  I still think the Tea Party’s anti-government philosophy and faith in an unregulated market is misguided, but OWS has plenty of its own problems.  But they have more in common – both are popular movements, drawing regular people who don’t actually know much about politics or policy, but see that this country is being taken for a ride.  I don’t think the Tea Partiers see things clearly, but neither do most people down at OWS.  When there’s so much emotion, how can anyone think clearly? Then again, no one elected them – it’s not their job nor responsibility to write laws.  Many have few resources (or none thanks to the job market), and few have much access to the political process beyond choosing the lesser of two evils and pulling a lever every couple of years.  But they know that something has to be done, and like me, they want to help make this country better.  In the final analysis, both the Tea Party and OWS are made up of patriots who disagree, but are patriots nonetheless.
            Protest actions and passive resistance don’t create laws, politicians do, but politicians feel social pressure acutely.  Social pressure works.  Egypt proved that, Martin Luther King Jr. proved that… hell, the Tea Party proved that, helping to steer the political dialogue of the 2010 elections in their favor.  OWS is not an organization, not really.  It’s not a political party.  It’s a symbol, and a powerful one at that, and people are responding.  As the night fell Friday night, I departed, tired, bewildered, yet energized.  Like others I talked to, I found the protest frustrating, inspiring, maddening, and uplifting, all at once.  Like any symbol, it means something slightly different to everyone who experiences it, but that is its power, its strength.  So bewildered was I that I had trouble finding the subway, despite having worked two blocks away from the park for over a year.  On the crowded subway, in the press of tired bodies heading home, I felt a strange sense of unity with the people on the train, even if they didn’t know it.  I looked around and realized that everyone I saw was part of the 99%.
            And so am I.

OWS 3: Analysis

If you’re looking for a 3rd party option for the next election, look elsewhere.  If you’re looking for a political action group, look elsewhere.  If you’re looking for a liberal Tea Party to help steer the democrats left, look elsewhere.  If you’re looking for a genuine popular movement, look no further. 
            The people of Occupy Wall St. are not pundits, politicians, or professional organizers.  They’re not funded by the Koch brothers or Warren Buffett for that matter.  It’s hokey to say it, but they’re ‘us’.  By which I mean, they’re regular folks, and I feel about them much as I do myself – I wouldn’t vote for them if they ran for office (I’d make a terrible President).  These are not policy makers, so don’t look for a new Banking Bill to be sent from Liberty Square to Congress.  More importantly, I think it would be wrong of us to expect that activists should be perfectly coherent in their demands or to make policy recommendations among protest signs and street theater.  Yet, these people do stand for something, even if only a few of them can articulate it well (ask yourself if your neighbors could do better).  There are as many ideas and opinions down there as there are people, but one idea seems to unite the rest symbolically: corporate greed is ruining our society. They might not be able to say exactly why that is, or quote figures from memory, but they recognize that something has gone wrong for 99% of us, and right for the 1% we’re holding up with our labor and taxes.  To one person, what’s most important is corporate blocking of significant health care reform, to another it’s about corporate sponsored warfare, and to yet another it’s about the numerous issues surrounding agricultural monopolies and genetic modification of food.  Those are just a few examples, but all tie back to the notion that our government isn’t protecting us from a greedy, powerful section of our society, labeled the 1%. 
            I spoke to one young woman who put it well.  I asked her what she hoped would come out of this, and her answer seems to be a common one among the activists.  “Nothing,” she said, but she didn’t mean it pessimistically.  “But it will bring energy to lots of organizations that already exist out there.”  She drew a diagram, a circle at center labeled OWS, and like spokes on a wheel she drew circles sprouting from OWS.  They were small, grassroots organizations, she said, fighting the various problems of our time (and seen as stemming from that same corporate culture of greed).  She labeled a few: education, poverty, and sustainability.  But I heard many others, and I began to see what may really be happening here.  I heard about banking reform, ending foreign wars, getting off oil, corporate accountability, loan forgiveness, healthcare, and many others.  It became clear to me that what united these people is the feeling of powerlessness, the feeling that the government has been bought and paid for, making the varied reforms I’d heard about seem impossible to implement against the pushback of billionaires.