Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
DANCE stands for Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement. It was coined by a group of Buddhists active in the climate justice movement in the UK, led by Thanissara. But I would like to use DANCE as a rubric or model for talking about what happens when people are involved in a mass protest event. I will be looking at physical movement dynamics such as ‘dancing’, ‘orchestration’ and ‘flow’. I will be relating these kinds of physical movement dynamics to the recent invention in the Hong Kong protests to “be like water”.
When you are involved in a mass protest event, you must remain acutely aware of the dynamic flow of events around you; masses of people moving in a particular direction; orders being given to move; counter-moves from opposiiton groups; barriers that block movement, people near you who need your support and protection, and from whom you can recevie the same. It’s a highly volatile, dynamic set of movements and counter-movements, in many different directions, with different degrees of speed, force, mass and momentum.
I contrast this type of dynamic dance movement with the typical Buddhist form of participation in mass protests of ‘sitting in meditation.’ This is why I don’t think that sitting in meditation at a mass protest event is an effective form of participation, and in fact, is counter-productive. It works as a blocking device, especially if you sit arms locked together to block the movement of a police force or counter-protesters. But I suggest that meditating with your eyes closed is not only ineffective but dangerous. If you meditate with your eyes open, such that you can see what is happening around you, you can protect yourself and your fellow protesters from harm, and move when it becomes necessary to avoid harm or assist the crowd.
Meditating with your eyes closed shuts out the environment except for sound. But sound alone isn’t enough; you need to know where the sound is coming from, who is making it and thus why. Eyes-shut meditation also shuts off the crowd from psychic contact with you; they can’t connect with you psychically if they can’t see your eyes, what you’re focusing on. This is an essential feature of how people ‘read’ the faces and intentions of others, especially in a crowd situation: they look at your eyes and where they are directed. A blank facial expression, common in meditation, signifies nothing. It denies others in the protest essential information about what is happening in your location. Responding to the actions and emotions of the crowd with facial expressions and the directed attention of your eyes relays information to the crowd about what is heppning in the protest from your location and perspective.
A mass protest movement is a collective dynamic of people stepping, standing, moving, flowing together like a dance. Far more effective then sitting meditation is to stand and move with the crowd as the collective dance that it is. But there is a way to engage in this collective dance as a practice of active mindfulness, but not meditation. It also goes beyond walking meditaiton becuase you are not focusing on the sensations of your own breath or body movements. You are mindfully focusing on the bodies of people around you, connecting with them, as individuals and as a collective, as a coordinated physical dance. You are mindfully connecting with our movement, our dance, our energy, our voices, our collective concerns and demands.
There’s more to mindfulness than silent meditation, and this is why solitary meditation as the singular practice of Buddhism in the West is so impoverished. Participating in mass protest events is precisely the opportunity to practice a different kind of mindfulness, collective mindfulness, mindfulness of the collective movement as a whole, as a gestalt, as a larger framework of meaning and purpose.
Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke argues that mindfulness develops different kinds of ‘knowing’ that lead to insight. He discusses three mindfulness practices: meditation, contemplation and tai chi. They all break down the rigid and false frameworks of ‘self-world’ (he calls it agent-arena). Thus they allow insight into the falsehood of that framework and the apprehension of a more comprehensive framework of self-world. (For more from John Vervaeke, see his Youtube video series “Awakening to the Meaning Crisis”; Episode #8 is on mindfulness practice.)
The first form, meditation, uses inward directedness to break down the false framework of the self (e.g. ‘there is no separate self’). The second form uses the outward directedness of contemplation which allows one to comprehend a greater, unified cosmology, the wholeness and interdependence of the world and one’s connection to it. It is this form of contemplative mindfulness practice that is most effective in the dance of mass protest movements.
Instead of the inward focus on the self derived from mediation, the protester contemplates one’s connectedness to the whole body of the movement, which might includes hundreds or even thousands of people. Try to perceive the whole of the event, the whole of the body and its moving parts. Feel intuitively where the collective body is moving it’s torso, arms and legs, where it is directing its attention, its emotional energy, where it speeds up, slows down, where it circles and swings. Listen to the chants and songs of the marchers, the directions of the movement leaders, how they are orchestrating the movement. Feel the energetic vibrations of the whole body of movement. Comprehend the whole by joining the collective dance.
The third kind of mindfulness that Vervaeke teaches is tai chi, a martial art. The kind of mindfulness that tai chi and other martial arts develop are midnfulness of flow.This kind of mindfulness is particularly applicable to the dynamics of mass protest movements. What’s even more intriguing is that the current pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has made effective use of the flow dynamic of martial arts mindfulness. Their slogan is “Be like water!” taken from a teaching by martial arts film star Bruce Lee:
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong elaborates on this movement directive: freeze like ice when confronted by barriers. When faced with a blocked route, flow like water to another opening. When marching down a street, flow like a river. Crash like a wave when breaking through a police line. Flood the space when entering a secured area. Furthermore, there is no singular direction for the protest; it can change directions in a flash, like water. These are all examples of the mindfulness practice of collective flow.
DANCE is the model that Buddhist activists should be using to engage in mass movements because protests are dynamic, they move—that’s why it’s called a movement. Dance, flow, groove, connect, become one with the whole movement for climate justice.