In my last blogpost, I introduced the idea of stepping off the line we all live on, where most of us are constantly trying to get ahead, and described the value I see in aiming to step off the line and what we can gain by doing it: reclaiming our freedom to choose for ourselves, from within, aligned with our deepest needs and values, and reconnecting with our place in the vast web of interdependence. In this piece, I focus on the actual process, the inner and outer spiraling dance of transformation we can engage in, from where we are, to move in that direction, knowing full well we cannot dismantle the line.
Freeing our consciousness
We can start with cleaning up our own consciousness from the effects of our own socialization. This means examining our internal landscape, facing the helplessness we inevitably feel about the existence of the line, and transforming and releasing any judgment we find, of self or other. We can focus on remembering that this problem is not of our choosing; that it existed before any of us were born; that our choices have been scripted by the existence of this line; that even our capacity to resist the line is scripted.
It means freeing ourselves from the thinking that comes with the line, and, with it, from any blame or shame. We can track, for example, the kinds of thoughts that are part and parcel of what makes the line stick in our internal landscape:
- It’s important to get ahead in the line
- People who have gotten ahead have worked harder than others
- My personal value is measured by where I am in the line
- Those who are ahead are better than those who are behind
- Or those behind are morally superior to those further ahead in the line
These thoughts can often lead us to be pulled in many different directions as we struggle to make sense of things underneath our conscious thoughts. This is most painfully obvious with regards to the contradictory evaluation of where we are on the line. We can often be caught between wanting the resources, status, and comfort that come with getting ahead in the line, while, at the same time, wanting to be behind in the line so as not to be “one of them.” This is part of why we are so mired in shame.
How, then, do we work with these thoughts? I often here invite myself and others to notice the thoughts and be tender with them, which opens up some wiggle room into which you can invite and embrace the thought you want to have.
For example, if you are a parent, then you care deeply about the well-being of your children. This is a large part of why so many parents tell children, and model for them, that it’s important to get ahead in the line, and even implicitly say that this drive is more important than justice, meaning, or any other less tangible longing. Since most of us know the world is rigged like the monopoly game I mentioned in my last post and there is nothing we can do about it, it’s obvious why we would conclude that, in the world as it is, we still want to aim for our children to get ahead and to get ahead ourselves in order to offer them the best chance we can.
There’s little support from which an alternative desire can emerge. Imagine what would happen if more and more parents invested in the desire for themselves and their children to have a life where they can attend to their needs well on both tangible and intangible levels, and with the minimum cost to others. If you have children, consider this alternative vision and the story I remember that has strengthened it within me.
In 1978, when I was 22, I came to New York from Israel for my first extended visit as an adult. I met a woman who was the single mother of an 8-year-old daughter. They both were wearing clothes from thrift stores, something that in Israel at the time simply didn’t exist (as hand-me-down clothes were still circulating within communities). Thus, this choice for clothes shopping shocked me, as I associated it with extreme poverty. I then asked the mother something like: “Why don’t you get a better paying job so you can get your daughter new clothing?” The answer left an imprint that resonates to this day: “It is more important for my daughter to have a mother satisfied in her work than to have new clothes.” In my frame of today, I would say that this mother rearranged my implicit unconscious value-ranking with her example of dis-identifying with the line and choosing for herself.
I am often overwhelmed with grief at recognizing that the drive to get ahead in the line causes us to take jobs we hate, to cut moral and quality corners, and to do things which are counter to our values. As far as I can tell, the bulk of harm in the world is done in the hands of people who are doing their best to live their lives with the fewest negative consequences to themselves.
As soon as we begin to ask ourselves what values really matter to us, the internal structure of the line that holds our consciousness captive begins to dissolve. It acts in the same way that water did for the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz, and is perhaps one of the reasons that modern functioning rejects engagement with values and emotions.
The question I keep coming back to, in this context, is this: what thoughts do I want to transform – with curiosity and tenderness – so I can find alternatives that attend to my needs better, rather than suppress them or act them out? What thoughts do I want to cultivate regardless?
Cultivating courage to face consequences
In contemplating action, I move beyond the internal reality of my mind and heart and into engaging with the world as it exists now. This means doing the necessary work to be able to face the inevitable consequences of stepping out of line. We need courage to work towards a vision, not just passion.
Depending on where you live, what your age, race, gender, or nationality are, how much money you or your family have, and a host of other factors, taking action beyond your most private thoughts and consciousness carries very different risks. Your actions tell others – in word or in deed – that you dis-identify with the line. In some contexts this is just a little odd and everyone shrugs their shoulders and goes on, and in some other contexts this could cost you your life. Often the consequences are intermediate, such as social shunning or material deprivation.
Recently, I came across a very vivid example of the necessity of preparing ourselves to face consequences, when I saw the movie “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” which shares the long and complicated journey of Daniel Ellsberg from high-ranking Pentagon worker to visible whistle blower who leaked what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers.” At a certain point someone asked him: “Do you know that you can face prison?” His answer showed me that he had, by then, accepted the potential consequences of his actions. “Wouldn’t you be willing to go to prison to end this war?” he said. This movie was also instructive in that it showed that this process is not a one-time or overnight decision. It took him years from seeing new facts that led him to believe the Pentagon leaders were lying to the public to being willing to suffer the consequences of his release of information. Often enough, we cannot predict what the consequences might be, nor what our capacity to accept them is. Sometimes, we discover by doing. When we have say in the matter, I find it valuable to both honor what the limits of our capacity are so we don’t act beyond the consequences we are capable of facing, and simultaneously to seek support in order to expand what we are capable of facing, to be prepared to take action that is more and more aligned with our dreams and values.
Choosing from within
To the extent made possible by our courage and by others who will offer their backing and support, we can then walk our way towards dis-identifying with the mindset of “the line.” The point is to align personal choices with our vision, and show ourselves and others that it is possible to dis-identify with the line and to have a rich and satisfying life even as we live with ongoing friction with the world and at far lower consumption rates than the aspired-to “norm.”
For myself, I haven’t found anything that I can do that directly addresses the existence of the line. For the longest time, this has been a source of immense despair for me. And then, very recently, I came across this article by Charles Eisenstein (whose writing I usually find a lot of commonality with), which left me with two clear insights. One is the recognition that the drive to scale is, itself, part of the same mindset that the line lives in. The other is an extension of what I’ve been working with for a while already: we don’t know what action has which impact. At least temporarily, my despair has lifted and is now replaced with curiosity and humility.
This solidifies for me the clarity that what I have is a path, not a destination. It’s a clear practice that provides both solace and guidance: I aim, in every moment, as closely as I can bring myself, to choose as if the world I want already exists. As this relates to the line, since I want a world based on needs and not on an abstract line and the constant “more” and “not enough” mentality, I keep coming back to some basic questions:
- How much is enough? Clearly, if we go back 200 years, what most of us reading this have now is obscenely beyond enough. Clearly, our idea of enough is affected by the structure of our culture. That’s why the question makes sense. How do I know what is a need and what is a habit fed by the culture? I keep checking again and again: is there any place that I can reduce my level of perceived need and still be satisfied with less? How can I consume less?
- What do I do with any resources that are freed up? Our cultural ethos says that if we have more, our “task” is to enjoy it, “save” it, or give it to our family. I want to ask beyond this: How do I distribute the resources I have on the basis of need rather than merit or fairness or self-protection? How do I use the resources I have in support of the values and vision that fuel my work?
Repeatedly asking these questions supports me in focusing on my values rather than the embedded values of the line. On the individual scale at which we ultimately operate, nothing could be more subversive.
Leveraging your influence
Once you have the freedom to choose your responses, the clarity about what you want to choose, and the practices and support structures that will sustain you, you can next choose to join me and some others on the path of leveraging your influence. This means simply asking yourself, as often to every moment as possible: how do I act within my current sphere of influence to invite, model, challenge, and inspire others to question the line and to take their own actions in moving toward the world we envision? And… what can I do to increase my sphere of influence? Listen to the answers that emerge, and take action to refine your path in that direction.
Meanwhile, as we deepen our exploration and experimentation, the status quo continues to exert influence to sustain itself. I find it essential for growing capacity to step away from the line, to continue to seek and integrate information about what is going on, what led us to here, what is possible, and what people with similar visions to mine are already doing to make that vision a reality. Since this vision, for me, is about caring for everyone and all that is, my practice also includes finding a way, ultimately, to embrace all that is sufficiently to be able to orchestrate an alternative. This is no small task given how much horror I find in the world as it is. Regardless, I don’t see how fighting against the current of life will get us where we want to go.
All along the way, (and especially whenever you imagine that you are “done”), you can continue to review your consciousness to see what else you find that is a reflection of your unconscious training rather than your choice. Because of how long patriarchy and its offspring have been in place, their external and internalized influence are deep, and it’s likely that you will need to iterate many times rather than doing it once and being “done.”
Each time I do this, new things come to the forefront to be re-examined. Just recently, for example, I came to realize that the Core Commitments that came into being through me in 2010 were influenced by my own blind spots. For one example, I have now come to believe that “balance” is a notion rooted in scarcity, where the elements I am trying to balance still appear to be either/or, so that I am trading off one for the other to achieve the balance, instead of seeing them as semi-independent and possibly even mutually reinforcing… I am now scheduling a personal retreat later this year to examine where scarcity thinking continues to influence the framing of at least some of the commitments so that I can re-write them from where I am now. I don’t know how far I can get with this ongoing practice. I only know that every turn of this cycle brings me closer to the life I want to live and the world I want to see.
Image Credits: Top: Photo byCraig WhiteheadonUnsplash. Second: Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash. Third: Photo by Marcin Białek on Wikimedia Commons, CC by 2.0. Fourth: Photo by Edouard Tamba on Unsplash. Fifth: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.