The Tao of #Occupy

As we enter the colder winter months, the days grow darker and time seems to slow down, thickening like sleepy sap in the bare-limbed trees. Yet for many of us watching the protests of the #OccupyWallStreet movement unfold over the last two months, the country seems poised on the brink of something revolutionary. A tension hangs in the air — the trembling stillness of hope and excitement, but also trepidation and anxiety. This pervasive mood has me thinking a lot recently about the Eastern spiritual philosophy of Taoism, and the lessons of stillness, receptivity and harmony with nature taught by its founders, Laozi and Zhuangzi. How might the insights of Taoism help us to understand the potency and influence of the #Occupy movement? And what can it tell us about where the movement might be heading in the future?

“Nothing in the world is more flexible or yielding than water. Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it.”Daode Jing, Chapter 78

I could just as easily have used the well-known quote from Gandhi when he said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The idea is very much the same. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence or satyagraha (roughly translated as “love-force” or the “power of love”) is founded on a view of love as a persistent but deeply receptive force. Often misunderstood as weakness or passivity, satyagraha has an active power all its own.

What is that power? Notice how Gandhi speaks about the process of nonviolence — they try everything to shut you down or shut you up while you simply remain steadfast in your work, until eventually they run out of ways to resist you. Like water, the power of nonviolence is its persistence, and its persistence arises out of its receptivity and flexibility. Satyagraha wears away the barriers erected between individuals because it is constantly climbing up over those walls and whispering “I see you, I hear you, I acknowledge and respect and appreciate you just as you are.” Gandhi was known for making friends with his jailers and earning the respect of his enemies precisely because he was relentless in his willingness to show respect and understanding for others. It takes a great deal more energy to resist this kind of deeply receptive power. You might expend a huge amount of time, energy and resources to build and maintain a dam — but a dam cannot change the nature of water. Even a single crack can begin the process of erosion and disintegration that will break the river free.

In this same way, the #Occupy movement has shown its receptivity and flexibility, and therefore its power. After the eviction of the original #OWS encampment from New York City’s Zuccotti Park on Tuesday last week, a new rallying cry sprang up: You can’t evict an idea whose time has come! In this age of social media and instant global communication, the ideas of freedom and equality are like water. They flow everywhere. They seep through cracks, they move around and over obstacles. (This is, incidentally, why the #Occupy symbol, the hashtag (#), is so ingenious and expressive. The social media offspring of the telephone keypad pound button, it is a symbol that evokes communication, number and weight all at once, expressing just how much gravity and influence the free expression of popular ideas can have.)

Across the country, police tactics against protesters have become increasingly violent and arrest rates are on the rise as the #Occupy movement persists despite first being ignored and then turned into a joke. We are definitely in the “then they fight you” stage of this nonviolent resistance movement. Politicians and others in positions of power would like to build themselves a metaphorical dam to stem the flow of unsightly unrest welling up in major American cities. But they simply don’t have the resources to construct a water-tight society.

“Thirty spokes join at the hub: their use for the cart is where they are not. When the potter’s wheel makes a pot, the use of the pot is precisely where there is nothing. When you open doors and windows for a room, it is where there is nothing that they are useful to the room.”Daode Jing, Chapter 11

A defining aspect of the #Occupy movement is its decentralization. Techniques for consensus building have laid the groundwork for community decision-making within the movement since its inception, and in cities around the world concepts like General Assemblies, working groups and human mic checks are becoming familiar catch-phrases in ordinary conversations about political activism and democratic initiatives. But the real power of #OWS goes even deeper: at the very heart of #Occupy, there is space.

The very notion of occupation requires a sense of space, an emptiness into which you can move. Occupation in the modern sense is used to describe both a person’s career — in which their time and energy is “occupied” by a job or employer — and a country’s (usually illegal) military presence in another’s territory. The #Occupy movement plays with both of these meanings in their founding call to action to “Occupy Wall Street” as a response to continuing underemployment in the United States and the view that the richest top 1% have unethically, perhaps even illegally seized control of the nation’s wealth.

Some of the #Occupy protests and encampments around the country have grown up in places like Zuccotti Park that exist in a strange liminal legal space between public and private property, taking advantage of laws that require businesses to make privately-owned spaces available for public use. Protesters carry signs proclaiming things like, “Lost My Job, Found An Occupation” and “Occupy Your Mind, Occupy Your Heart” — suggesting that occupation can also be a metaphor for reclaiming symbolic spaces like time, energy, emotion and thought that have been overrun by invasive foreign influences. In a society where corporate interests insinuate themselves into every public or community space possible through advertising and political lobbying, the #Occupy movement pushes back and reasserts the value of empty, open spaces as fundamentally necessary for free public discourse.

With the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park, and the successful mass demonstrations that followed two days later at the heart of New York City in celebration of the movement’s two month “birthday,” this metaphor of empty space has now taken on a new, more powerful and far more literal manifestation. As one protester explained, “We coordinated today without a park, you know, without a hub. People have been here for months; they’re in it for the long haul.” As Laozi points out in the Daode Jing, the usefulness of the hub is its empty center, around which everything else turns. The emptied public space of Zuccotti Park now stands as the perfect symbol of unjust, unethical political force robbing citizens of their right to peacefully assemble — an issue that rests at the very core of the #Occupy movement itself.

The word “occupy” comes from the Latin occupare, whose root capere means “to grasp or seize.” The Daode Jing has this to say on the same topic: “What you don’t get when you grasp is called the subtle” (Chapter 14). It is this subtlety of community space that politicians don’t “get” when they attempt to squash protests by stamping out individual encampments through fear, force or legal finagling. In another masterful work of protest-art during the #OWS march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Thursday evening, a “bat-signal” celebrating the 99% was projected onto the side of the Verizon Building corporate center from a private residence across the street, while police below looked on helplessly. Light, like water, cannot be easily grasped or seized. Public space is both everywhere, and nowhere.

But perhaps the most poignant evocation of the importance of space in the #Occupy movement was the response from students at the University of California when told by campus police that they would no longer be allowed to erect tents on the campus lawns: using hundreds of balloons and kite string, they suspended tents in midair, along with a sign that read: Our Space.

“Through nonaction, no action is left undone.”Daode Jing, Chapter 48

One of my favorite stories from the Zhuangzi, the second and lesser-known foundational text of Taoism, is the story of the useless tree. One day, Tzu-ch’i comes across a mighty old tree so huge that it could shelter four thousand chariots in its shade. Astounded by the tree’s great age and size, Tzu-ch’i marvels that the tree must have exceptional wood that would make superior lumber. On closer inspection, however, Tzu-ch’i discovers that the tree’s branches and trunk are all twisted and gnarled, no good for lumber at all, and that even its leaves are poisonous and foul-smelling. In surprise, he exclaims, “But this tree is absolutely useless! That’s why it has lived so long!” And so, the story concludes, a wise man is useless like this tree, and that is why he cannot be exploited.

Issues of uselessness, productivity, exploitation and waste have held center stage among both protesters and critics since the #Occupy movement began more than two months ago. Activists galvanized by continuing high unemployment and rampant underemployment protest for access to meaningful work at fair wages, while counter-protesters and hecklers shout slogans like “get a job!” and criticize the protests as the self-entitled complaints of a lazy, useless generation. Supporters and skeptics alike have questioned the efficacy of #OWS, wondering if other forms of protest and direct action might be more productive or a better use of time and energy. Even folks participating on the ground sometimes grow frustrated when the movement seems to be “all talk.” As encampments continue to grow in size and put down roots in parks and public spaces, the problem of literal waste — the refuse, garbage and other by-products of human animals all living outside together — has presented challenges for protest organizers, while police raids have turned carefully constructed community kitchens, libraries and sleeping areas into trash heaps in a matter of minutes.

Wasted potential, wasted money, wasted energy, wasted opportunities for peaceful reconciliation and substantive change… The problem of waste is inescapable as a reflection of the deeper tensions in modern American society between healthy productivity and unjust exploitation. It’s safe to say that Americans these days are downright obsessed with productivity, encouraged to embrace the philosophy that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they just work hard enough and long enough. Americans work more hours for fewer benefits than workers in almost every other wealthy Western nation. Meanwhile, companies focused on plumping up their bottom line outsource both jobs and waste, taking advantage of drastically low labor costs and lax regulations and environmental protections in developing nations around the world. As a result, underemployment (when someone only works part-time or in a job for which they are overqualified) is a growing problem alongside unemployment in the United States, and income inequality yawns ever wider as the economy enters a race to the bottom.

The line between occupation and exploitation is by nature a fuzzy one, and though many ordinary citizens in America sense that they’re being cheated or treated unfairly in some way, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how. The #Occupy movement — by adopting the language of occupation and embracing a kind of “agenda-less agenda” for which it has earned both criticism and praise — wades through these complexities in order to push back against a wealthy 1% who would like the elide employment and exploitation into one and the same thing. How does it do this?

The story of the useless tree can give us a clue. When Tzu-ch’i stops to marvel at the uselessness of the tree, he does so by remarking on its impressive greatness and the shade it provides. The tree may be “useless” from a strictly utilitarian point of view, but by allowing the tree to live out its life undisturbed, the true and natural value of the tree — as a thing of beauty in itself and a place of shelter for others on its own terms — is revealed. This is a common theme in both philosophical and religious Taoism. Taoists look to the patterns and cycles of the natural world as a guide (tao) to living in harmony with the Way (Tao) things are.

Environmentalists and conservationists have found common ground with the #Occupy movement in resisting a mainstream consumer culture that would reduce both people and the planet to mere utilitarian resources to be used for profit. Environmentalists point out that, like the great useless tree in the Zhuangzi, the earth’s ecosystems can contribute best to the quality of life on the planet when they are protected and preserved from exploitation and disruption, or in other words, when they are allowed to flourish naturally in their own time and in their own way. This observation about our relationship with nature echoes the idea of wu-wei, or “active-nonaction,” and for millennia Taoists have applied this same principle to human beings seeking to live with virtue and integrity as members of society. When I wrote last week about the #Occupy movement as a large-scale, public work of art, I noted that one aspect of art is that it “gives what it is” — its worth is not located in some objective goal external to itself. The #Occupy movement embraces community engagement and creativity in this same way, reasserting the value of individuals and communities for their own sake, and not as means to an end.

The patterns of nature have another lesson for the #Occupy movement and mainstream American society: there is no such thing as waste. In healthy ecosystems, one creature’s waste is another’s feast. The dead body of a wolf fertilizes the soil in which plants grow that will nourish the deer who will be another wolf’s prey, and so the cycle continues. Resources are constantly being recycled and reintegrated into the larger community. This is what Zhuangzi means when he says: “We can tell that a person has integrity, even though it may not be evident in her physical form, because she is indispensable to all things.” The bacteria and larvae that transform rot and decay into nutrient rich soil are as indispensable to a tree as the tree’s ability to recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen is indispensable to us as oxygen-breathing animals. Participating harmoniously in the cycles of nature is following the Way, and by following the Way no necessary action is left undone.

Unfortunately, the outsourcing of waste and pollution in modern American society has allowed us to ignore the consequences of stagnation, when the cycle of reintegration is interrupted and unused potential is isolated, shipped off and left to fester somewhere else, out of sight and out of mind. #Occupy protesters who rely on donations and second-hand goods while grappling with sanitation and health issues in tent communities across the country are confronting the basic challenge of how to transform waste into new potential — whether that waste is literal garbage, or unused time, energy and expertise. The #Occupy movement makes the waste of Western society visible. Meanwhile, police raids that transform viable community centers into garbage dumps in the name of “protecting public health and safety” demonstrate inescapably the damaging effects of disrupting nascent ecosystems before they can evolve to sufficiently cope with waste and its reintegration. Once again, by refusing to conform to our expectations of streamlined, waste-free productivity, the #Occupy movement challenges us as members of modern society to question the relationship between productivity and waste and to rediscover the potential to be found in harmonious, cooperative community living.


Quotes of the Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi are from translations by Victor H. Mair and Thomas Cleary.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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