Occupy Wall Street: a spiritual movement?

The other day I visited Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti “Park,” essentially a paved strip one block long between tall buildings. What struck me first was how dense it is. Little

Tents at OWS, photo by Atomische • Tom Giebel

bubble tents are close-packed, with narrow aisles here and there so you can thread your way through. Almost all the square footage is taken up by these tents and by various organizational/ administrative booths: the “Think Tank” where seminars and lectures are held, the Library (writers, note: lots of real books), Information, Community Affairs, and Legal. A large hand-lettered sign listed a full schedule of activities for the day: seminars, speakers, actions.

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Sanitation department, photo by David Shankbone

Not everyone was young. Middle aged and elderly people staffed booths, held signs, played guitars and banjos, wandered around in costume talking to visitors.

The low wall surrounding the park marks a marginal area where occupiers engage the outside world. Sign holders, musicians, people offering flyers present themselves to a lineup of onlookers wielding video and still cameras—many press people and lots of tourists. The site is only a couple of blocks from the WTC memorial, so the tourists make this another stop.

At the west end, on Church Street, I encountered a group of about 10 nattily outfitted senior citizens from Westchester, who had driven down to Fort Lee in New Jersey, then cycled into Manhattan. “We do this every year,” one man told me, so this year they picked OWS as their destination. He reminisced about the 60s, when construction workers beat up anyone with long hair. His group smiled quite kindly on the occupiers.

The level of organization and community structure in the park is remarkable. Signs hang from the wall:

  • To reach an OWS Community Affairs Representative, call __________.
  • Good neighbor policy: Zero tolerance for drugs or abuse of personal or public property (and about a half-dozen more items I didn’t write down).
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The altar, photo by David Shankbone

I browsed my way through the tents, behind a young man with dustpan and broom who was sweeping the foot-wide aisle between two rows. The occupiers represent a great variety of groups, ranging from far-lefties to the people who set up the altar that sits at the west end near the wall, on which at least one man sat apparently meditating. The photo shows one side of the altar.

I noticed several statues of the Buddha, images of Hindu gods and Kwan Yin, incense, plants, beads, pebbles, little medallions, an orange pepper, a photo of Gandhi (“he would have been here,” said its sign), feathers, pumpkins, the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Tibetan scarves. Nearby a trumpet accompanied a group of drummers. I dug out of my handbag a foreign coin that my colleague Mary, who sold me the purse, had slipped into a compartment for feng shui (never leave a purse or wallet empty, she advised me) and left it in the lap of a Buddha as a token from both of us.

Everything goes on against a background of continuous music: drumming but also guitars, in groups and solo. It heightens the heady, high-spirited atmosphere. Inside the park it feels like school is suspended for the day; there’s a rent in the fabric of everyday life allowing something extraordinary to flow in, something joyous and completely unprecedented. My question, like that of so many others, is: will this produce anything meaningful?

Wandering back along the other side of the park, I encountered a man holding a sign that read “I am not a protester—I am a change agent” being interviewed on video for a website. I asked what his sign meant. “This movement is different,” he said, “because what we need is a shift in consciousness. We can’t change the system using the same methods as past movements of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We need to align our energy and attention with what we want to happen, not waste it on anger.” His name is Steven Morrison, and he teaches sessions in the park in what he calls the Spiritual Workout. “Everything is energy,” he says, and by increasing the number of people who make this shift in consciousness, we can actually shift reality—something he believes is already being demonstrated by the growth of the OWS movement.

Now I’ve heard all this before. In fact I’ve seen people who profess these same ideas stuck way up in the air, spinning a fantasy so enchanting that they quite lose their grasp on reality. Until reality proves intractable, and they hit the ground with a crash. So I couldn’t help feeling dubious.

Many commentators have asked, “What are their demands?”  Like others, Steven answers that these protesters aren’t making demands, because the system that exists isn’t capable of responding. Look at Congress. It can’t do anything.

This is true. We really do need a paradigm shift. So my question is: how do you keep your feet on the ground and stay connected to reality while doing what you can to make that shift happen? How do you know whether you’re lost in a dream world, spinning brightly colored wheels in the air?

I’m hardly the wise person on this, but my experience in organizing and political protest, plus my Buddhist training, suggest that at least one major component of any paradigm shift will be letting go of anger. Many people on the left learned activism as an expression of anger. Think of the vocabulary: Fight! Struggle! Outrage! And as a Buddhist would say, they’re still clinging to that anger.

When I worked with homeless women, I learned why anger feels so  good. Physiologically, it gets the adrenalin flowing; you feel empowered, invincible, righteous, alive.  You actually get addicted to the high. And like any form of attachment it prevents you from seeing clearly with what Buddhists call ‘wise discrimination.” You don’t notice that you aren’t really invincible—you’re not even all that righteous.

This week, some commentators suggested that OWS has indeed created a change: it’s shifted the public dialogue. The Obama administration wouldn’t have backed off the Keystone XL oil pipeline otherwise. A change in consciousness isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but despite my doubts I’m still hoping this time something really has shifted. Well, we’ll see.

Social media & inspiration: Google+ or minus?

In a race to beat the other Stephanie Goldens out there, I got myself an invite to Google+, and secured possession of—my name.  A real coup, right? I haven’t learned yet how to use Google+, but once I do, it’ll be a big boost to my career… right?

Not according to computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who says social media just reduce everyone to little more than the database fields they fill in to create their profile. In his manifesto You Are Not a Gadget, he attacks two notions popular among his community of techies:

  • the “wisdom of the crowd,” which Lanier calls the “hive mind”;
  • the seductiveness of the idea that “bits can be alive on their own”—that is, machines can attain consciousness.

The “hive mind”: Heidi Welch, “Bees on Honeycomb”

Together, he says, these ideas degrade the concept of personhood, which loses its individuality and (more important, to my mind) the mystery of its being and its spiritual quality. In his book Of a Fire on the Moon, about the NASA space program, Norman Mailer developed a rather mystical notion that machines contained a soul. For him this was a metaphor for what he saw as the heroic man/machine enterprise that climaxed in the moon landing. The contemporary idea that machines can be conscious is just flat—the opposite of heroic, the antithesis of human.

Devaluing individuality wipes out true creativity, which requires the singular vision that arises only from ineffable, individual personhood. That, says Lanier, is why online culture so often just rehashes cultural material from the pre-internet era (really original stuff being in short supply.)

Wikipedia is Lanier’s main example of the way “crowd-sourcing” eliminates the individual voice. It’s always at the top of search results, so people click the Wikipedia link, missing more original, ambitious material.

The flattening of individuals into a “hive” also undermines the concept of authorship. To me—an author—this is the true horror. There’s a notion that all books should become “one book” once they’re digitized and put online. Then anyone can take any fragment out of context and “mash” it with any other fragment. Lanier makes the very good point that online mashups destroy the original context in which a work is made, which then destroys their meaning.

In terms of my Venn diagram, the inspiration circle simply falls out of the picture. A whole piece of my personhood is gone. Once I figure out how to use Google+, will I just be buzzing around the global hive, as my mind melds into a single worker-bee brain?

The 99¢ store: what’s a book worth these days?

When I put my out-of-print book Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice on Kindle, I had to decide how much to charge. Amazon limited me to charging $9.99 if I wanted the higher royalty, 70%. So I thought, I’ll underprice it a bit to make it more attractive, and listed it for $8.99.

Turns out that was way overpriced. Fierce pricing debates rage among indie authors on blogs and the Kindle online forums. Many charge 99¢—the lowest Amazon allows. One theory is that people will take a chance on anything for 99¢, so you start there to build buzz and then raise your price—all the way to $2.99. Another is simple: the less you charge, the more you sell.

But I think this debate isn’t just about how to sell more copies. It’s about what a piece of writing is worth. One writer posted an e-publisher’s price list (scroll down to find it) for different length works—ranging from a “Short Story” of 12,000 to 18,000 words ($2.50) to a “Plus Novel” over 100,000 words ($6.50).

I was distressed to see prices for books and stories quoted by volume, as though they were pounds of potatoes or bars of soap.  I pointed out that a lot goes into writing that can’t be quantified that way. Research. Revision. Thinking. As magazine writers like to say, it’s harder to write short than long because of the additional effort (and skill!) needed to compress information into a tighter space. One person responded that she just wouldn’t fork over more than $1 for something that took less than an hour to read.

These indie authors are almost uniformly writers of genre fiction: horror, romance, sci fi, etc. My book is nonfiction, dealing with a serious question in many women’s lives, and based on a lot of research. Does that make a difference? Should I expect my readership to pay more than an audience looking for entertainment, a quick escapist read? Would they think that’s fair?

And a broader question: is my book—anyone’s book—really the equivalent of those doodads they sell at the 99¢ store—a worthless impulse purchase, but so cheap it doesn’t matter?

Tech warrior II: online sample

Amazon is amazing. They don’t miss a beat.

I just discovered that I can post a link to an online free sample of Slaying the Mermaid that people can read in their browser—no special software needed. You can read the entire first chapter; just scroll past the title and copyright pages.  Makes me feel like a techie.

All you other writers, take note. Much opportunity for publicizing your ebook via the KindleBoards forums (where I learned about this online sample link). I just finished figuring out the html code for including both book cover and a tag line in my forum signature. That took all my brainpower this evening: actual posting, including figuring out the protocol for authors, will be next.

I have very mixed feelings about Amazon, but they sure do know how to sell books.

Tech warrior: putting a book on Kindle

Slaying the Mermaid cover imageSlaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice is now an ebook offered through Amazon. A triumph, for I did it all myself. Years in print publishing had worn deep grooves in my brain, so it took some effort to wrap my mind around the basic ebook concepts:

  • No pages.
  • No fancy fonts for display type.
  • No artful white space before and after chapter titles and subheads (but enough space and sufficient variation in font size so the reader knows that a new section is beginning).
  • No index!
  • On the bright side, endnote reference numbers are links. Click and jump straight to the note. Click again and jump right back to where you were in the text.
  • On the agonizing side, guess who had to format each of 300 notes, one by one? Read more

Writer as flypaper

Have you noticed that when you’re deeply involved in something, you turn into a magnet for anything related to it?

I once interviewed Kay Gardner, a musician and composer of healing music (sadly, she died in 2002), who told me that during a time when she was intensively exploring the physical effects of sound—teaching experimental workshops and reading extensively—all sorts of information found her. “People sent me books and articles. Books would fall off shelves. A book would be handed to me through a crowd—just a disembodied hand like one of the aces in the tarot deck.”

In that state of focus, you become like flypaper—things sail in out of the universe and stick to you. That’s what it feels like, anyway. To take just one example: writing my book on homeless women, I struggled to untangle some complex ideas about what these women meant to people inside society. I was tackling a chapter about mental illness—which I was choosing to call madness, a term that gave this condition a lot more meaning.

One bright Saturday afternoon, walking down my block toward a nearby park, I came across a stoop sale, which included a bunch of books. (In my Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood, we don’t have front yards, but everyone has a stoop, so that’s where we set the items out.) I was tempted, but figured I’d check it out on my way back. Read more

Reborn from the ashes

Writing Craft & Practice has a new look, and a new life. I was hacked—some enterprising soul inserted stealth links to sellers of Viagra and Adderall at the bottoms of my pages, and Google didn’t approve. No use trying to clean it up since I had to update my software anyway. So all but a few of the old posts are gone (though all are still up on Facebook). And the focus has changed slightly, as my preoccupations shifted to include more ways that the inspirational aspect of writing intersects with skill and experience.

The sky of mind: vast like space

Buddhist meditators practice experiencing the mind as a vast, clear sky, through which thoughts, feeings, and all other experiences pass like clouds, appearing and then vanishing in an open space of awareness that’s not limited to the inside of the head. (Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes this practice here.)

Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Blue Sky combines that image of the mind as vast open sky with an experience I’ve had when writing at a very deep level. Part of the conceptual work for my books about homeless women and about self-sacrifice was simply discovering what they were actually about. I came across incidents, articles, and books, and generated images from my imagination, that I knew were important, but I didn’t know why, or what exactly they meant. And normal-type thinking about them didn’t help. Read more

What’s the “practice” of writing?

I practice yoga, and I practice meditation. And I also “practice” writing. I like this concept, because it connects skill and inspiration. I’ll begin with skill.

One authority defines practice as “systematic training by multiple repetitions.” Other sources emphasize frequency, skill, instruction, discipline, and “artful management.” (Here is a thought-provoking collection of definitions.)

The BuddhaMy practice of insight meditation shapes my thinking about writing as a practice. In meditation, you train your mind to stay focused by systematically returning over and over to your breath. You need instruction to learn how to do this. There is an art to choosing the particular technique (out of many) that is appropriate to a given moment. Read more