Dharma, Decolonization, And The Frontlines: Caroline Savery & Matthew Duffy

(Invited submission by Caroline Savery and Matthew Duffy in response to three questions posed by RMERC to the community. This version includes light editing by RMERC board member Kritee Kanko. Original submission date: August 29, 2018)

1. What are the best ways for dharma centers like RMERC to serve our ailing earth and failing democracy?

Response: Serving the planet at this time cannot be just about offering healing retreats. While having diverse voices on the board is important, the most important question is if RMERC as an organization is decolonizing itself or is it reproducing old patterns of domination that have landed us where we are.

We want to conceive of the RMERC space (by which we mean both the physical facility and the social/organizational context of a community of stewards) as a container or “soil” for birthing a society where all people become bodhisattvas—through a relentless, urgent effort to adapt our internal and external thought-and-behavior patterns to befit a cooperative, ecodharma-based world.

           Caroline Savery

A retreat center that aims “to serve the ailing Earth and failing democracy” must structurally embody models that are regenerative and democratic from the very beginning—and with great attentiveness. RMERC must demonstrate its spiritual ecodharma wisdom, and embody it prefiguratively, if it is to be seen as trustworthy to a diverse set of community activists. A retreat center whose human stewards and organizational standards do not holistically represent earth-centric ethics and principles would tend to replicate normative (status-quo) cultural and economic patterns that are based in extraction and domination of earth and of feminine, wild, queer, youth, black and brown bodies.

Could we model understandings of equality, autonomy, sovereignty and Buddahood through democratic and ecological structures—in the organization itself? Are we courageous enough to not let fear, grasping, control, or doubt cause power to be inequitably distributed? Are we able to constantly imagine what equitable distribution will look like? And what decision-making, conflict-resolution structures are ecological? Are we willing to remain in conversation, move through conflicts and difficult feelings, and keep practicing?

In reality, whatever the RMERC retreat center becomes will be an outcome of interactions and structures arising from its devoted community of ecodharma practitioners. Events and center activities should feed into communities, and vice versa. The refreshing, revitalizing activities at the center should provide essential replenishing insight, upskilling/tool-upgrading, and inspiration for ecodharma warriors (of various identities) to return to the tough, gritty work that happens in their communities. We can honor the diversity of how we show up by allowing for a diversity of leaders to offer programming, and dialoguing with communities who may wish to use the center to allow them to define their needs, expectations, and desired outcomes, etc.

Acting in these ways which model a living community sets in motion a regenerative feedback loop that will galvanize and fortify participants and stewards, where challenge and healing are embraced in equal measures, and people emerge stronger, more integrated, more visionary in their approach to their work. The RMERC stewards (aka ecodharma core community) in this way would serve the area’s broader communities through offering sacred space and structures, and those spaces and structures would be utilized—which is also a gift. Inviting in the fierce, loving energy that underpins today’s struggles for justice for people, other beings, and for a liveable future, would serve the RMERC community in keeping the space and its stewards constantly fresh, resourced, innovative and inspired.

To provide a space for ecodharma retreats that enables radical healing and decolonization, the stewardship community must be on a constant path toward decolonizing itself. For example: it would be problematic to have a Radical Dharma retreat hosted by Angel Kyodo Williams talking about decolonizing Buddhism and dharma spaces in the context of a dharma space that itself persisted in embodying a “colonized” mindset, where community members and leaders are not in the process of challenging their own participation in a culture of domination, control and oppression on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, etc. To be sure, decolonizing is a process and no person or community gets there before trying and making themselves vulnerable. However, there is much prefigurative work that can be done to create a foundation that iterates and evolves in the direction of embodied and decolonized ecodharma.

 Emails from RMERC have mentioned that there are scholarships being made for activists and people of color to be able to attend RMERC retreats. We wonder if that sort of inclusive framework is also being extended for those who would be involved in the community of stewards, in decision-making, and in residing at the center. Is it sufficient to enable folks with less access and fewer privileges to become attendees of a program? Or does RMERC encourage their leadership as board members, teachers, co-creators, and program/content providers? It takes diligent work to create an environment that authentically respects and elevates diversity, by constantly reflecting and striving, through questions like: Who is and is not at the table, in the dialogue, or at a retreat? Who is and is not, implicitly or explicitly, welcome here? Are we really questioning the modes, norms and values of our ongoing oppressive economic and societal condition? What additional privileges may be afforded to those already situated in positions of privilege—for example, RMERC’s largest donors?

 Although places like this are called retreat centers for reasons understood, it seems to us that RMERC is much more than a space “to retreat.” It’s a place where people will go to confront as well as a retreat—to move through their greatest inner and outer work. Therefore, we encourage the stewarding community to be intentionally comprised of practitioners who appreciate being at that edge, at the brink of discomfort continuously, toward radical purpose & inclusivity.

In the authors’ experience of living dharma, the challenge and the practice is to radically include experiences and truths, to continuously soften and erode the urge to cling to concepts causing separation (as in the method of: “This, too. This, too.” Or, also: “Not always so. Not always so.”).  Imagine social inclusivity that is radically robust—not shallow like tokenism, but deep like permaculture, really honoring the differences in living beings, honoring the different truths and expressions and experiences they embody, and desiring to illuminate and weave those truths together for the more harmonious existing of all. How do we practice genuine reverence of diversity?

In permaculture we talk about often the concept of “path of least resistance” and the principle of “small and slow solutions.” In this context, we wouldn’t want to just throw people into a dharma center and “see what happens.” We’d want to ask, “Who’s here?” or “Who wants to be here?” in the Denver area and beyond. Who are in this conversation and liberation process already—whether that shows up moreso in spiritual, political, artistic, personal or communal regards—and how does RMERC facilitate and amplify those liberatory processes already underway? Because no one should be left out of our minds, or perceived as “beyond helping,” unreachable by the potential for liberation. No one is free from becoming a Buddha.

By offering cooperative leadership and authentic collaborative ownership over direction and design of programming, RMERC can strengthen our mental and behavioral “muscles” toward democratic and ecological results. The third gem of Buddhism, the sangha, would shine brighter than ever, and bridge toward a society made up of bodhisattvas. With the notion of “culture” as a kind of “soil or milieu” that nurtures certain results, RMERC the sangha (social culture) and the space (environmental culture) would combine to foster growth in people’s capacities to endure, to adapt and to love–all of which are necessary for a planetary future.

2. How do we learn from and support those at the frontlines of change-making?

Response: Recognize the collective genius of those at the “frontlines” to understand how change is happening; provide opportunities for “frontlines” leadership to flourish and receive recognition; support activists’ needs for both healing/restoration and challenge/going; and, perhaps most profoundly, “redistribute” the frontlines by encouraging everybody to move toward their personal edges of participation in necessary, life-affirming struggles.

In this section, we are proposing that in addition to entering an ongoing relationship with activists, RMERC would help redefine and redistribute frontlines. We also argue that if RMERC is to be of any significance with respect to planetary chaos, it must embrace unconventional “student-teachers” in unconventional ways.

Matthew Duffy

Ultimately, in order to truly learn from and support frontline activists, RMERC must invite them into dialogue as co-creators, as we already advocated in our response to the first question. With respect to retreat centers that we are aware of that seem to be truly learning from frontline activists and changemakers, we suggest Windcall, which may potentially serve as a great model and ally to RMERC’s own development.

Change itself has to be a constant topic of conversation among dharma practitioners, because according to dharma, change is the only constant. Those on “the frontlines of change” should be invited into discourse around skillful methods of working with change itself (a paramount example of this “way” is the book and practice Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown). Training the mind to be conscious and creative with elements of change and uncertainty is a powerful method and point of convergence for both spiritual and activist practitioners.

Orienting through inquiry, through curiosity, is itself a liberatory technique—favoring the shared uncertainty of questioning over the perhaps-illusory certainty of answers. Questions such as:

What is the nature of power and its flows? How does one “ride the waves” instead of being buried by them? How can one be adaptive, agile, radically spacious and flexible of mind and heart while definitely resisting what needs to be resisted? How can an activist be unattached to outcomes—isn’t that a contradiction? How does one harness change in ways likely to result in desired outcomes, such as making certain potentials manifest or making certain undesired forms become unmanifest?

As for the frontline… Where is the frontline? Who could confidently define this term, in a world of massive, cascading, concurrent, complex and intersecting changes (global environmental and cultural changes)? How might RMERC help people reveal to themselves and one another where their own frontlines are, so they can confront and expand their growing edges… thereby catalyzing folks to step into a greater responsibility (response-ability) to engage with social, economic and environmental frontlines? How are we inviting in frontline communities and frontline activists without accepting that certain groups of people having to put their lives on the line is “just the way it is” (there’s an implicit “other” in that lens!)? Why is being on the frontline “their” job and not mine? How can this work dissolve our individual boundaries and, therefore, allow us to redistribute “their” frontline among more of us? How can we confront the need to redistribute not just responsibility, and not just power, but also wealth—with acknowledgment of the multiple forms of capital that exist?

And what is the frontline of the NOW (this very moment in our planet’s history) asking for from all of us? We believe this “planetary time” is calling into being a vast and wide number of bodhisattvas to emerge across the world. These human beings of diverse circumstance may not have a single identity or lineage that is the condition of their arising as bodhisattvas; rather, they may be born into bodhisattvaism conditionally, even unwittingly—a result of a mass wave of “waking up” (conscious people becoming activated as the “immune system of Earth,” as proposed by Paul Hawkins). Being forced, by these contemporary times, to bear witness to outrageous strife and injustice, deep-seated ignorance and yet tremendous capacity for love, and undeniable material reality of our interdependence, these are perhaps the factors triggering a “tidal wave” of powerful, yet often isolated, bodhisattvas.

Though real and emergent, critically—we lack the language or mythos (cultural frame) to talk about this emergent truth adequately. Such beings may have attained great measures of compassion and insight on their own, but they are struggling in contexts that cannot fully witness their offerings nor name their journeys. Therefore, they are denied empowerments to teach (in the traditional Buddhist lineage sense).

The center could be a place where these folks find freedom to be who they really are—even if that may be beyond easy categorization, because these beings are called from their depths to become innovative solutions—to embody wisdom that will go beyond conventional concepts and traditional norms. This could be one of the most sacred purposes of RMERC: to acknowledge this phenomenon and to provide it space, give it soil, to intentionally flourish.

What that would look like is: allowing for the leadership—the thought leadership, the organizational leadership, the emotional and praxis-based leadership—of people of a diversity of bodies, backgrounds, chosen or inherited struggles, stepping into their powers. Allowing their truth selves expression without condition. This appeal to RMERC is personal—we two authors identify with the struggles of being in this circumstance, and we could also name two dozen of our peers who would equally thrive at the opportunity to step into their diverse powers in this way, and there is a much broader trend of people beyond that.

For this potential to flourish (wherein bodhisattva-leaders are acknowledged as such and provided space to experiment with teaching and sharing their gifts), it would require a specific kind of orientation in the participants or recipients of the teachings: where there is a real discernment and critical orientation practiced by all, and where participants are encouraged to take what is relevant to them and to not take what is not.

One of the conditioned fears we encounter is that: unless a teacher is authorized, so to speak, by a historical lineage or some kind of tradition, it’s not possible to vet or validate their quality or criteria of teaching and therefore, allowing someone unqualified to teach might inadvertently cause harm. But that concern would not be a problem if the students themselves are trained to be more mindful of what they expect from a “teacher.” If a practitioner’s normal daily existence is one of diverse exposures constantly teaching them autonomy and discernment, then that practitioner is much more resilient to engage in a dialogic, non-attached and equal manner with an instructor/teacher who is also their peer–without engaging in the illusion that the instructor/teacher is somehow “superior to” or “more than” themselves.

Perhaps, in an ecological framework, it ought to be one’s integrity and quality of conduct (or: one’s praxis) that testifies to one’s depth of wisdom and compassion–as witnessed by a community of co-equal practitioners (sangha), and not as determined by a formal, externalized authority structure. The latter is an inadequate judge of a spiritual leader’s harmlessness, as can be witnessed in a steady pattern of abuses being perpetuated by people in traditionally esteemed and “held on a pedestal” positions in religious and social orders of all kinds, including Buddhist orders. If an entire community gains careful maturity in their own self-directed or “autonomous” practices (or even just developed skillfulness in their orientations), then the spiritual community would likely function much more akin to a cooperative mutual context of “holding accountable.” In this context, if someone’s teachings were discerned to be harmful, that could and would be worked out through techniques of respectful discourse, collaborative problem-solving, even transformative justice.

This line of thought points to a whole framework and tradition for processes of education and embodied action designed to be liberating (developed by Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and subsequently by Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed, and many others). “Popular education” is a kind of social pattern that catalyzes communities to learn for, by, from and about themselves, from a place of self-determination and shared purpose, without creating a dichotomy where the teacher is superior to the student and the teacher is seen as the source of knowledge which must be dispensed vertically to the student (which is also called the “banking model of education,” and is grossly prevalent in the U.S. public education system.) In fact, the word “praxis” (meaning the intersection of theory and action, which seems to be precisely what RMERC is currently pursuing by posing these questions) was popularized by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

If we were to liberate these methods of popular education and embodied experimentation within RMERC… if we were to encourage folks to radically explore their own relationship to knowledge and praxis, their own experience of leadership, their own willingness to take up space or yield space… in a context of a community of supportive peers who are equally (and equanimously) capable of providing critical feedback or heartfelt support as needed: these conditions would catalyze the growth of leadership capacity in all participants, which would have wide ranging impacts in their work in organizing for social and ecological justice in their communities.

Lastly, but not at all least: sometimes people in this work just need to undergo restoration. In lots of activist spaces (and in activist rhetoric), fighting good fights is framed as an “us against them” proposition. However, this often leads to exploitation (burn-out: “you have to keep fighting”) and frustration/confusion over what targets, and what tactics, are actually going to have the desired effects (confusion over what is the root or “source” of the damage or danger). Consider that oppression–that which is rightfully striven against–operates from the very same dynamics as these activist discourses: that is, from a root premise of separation and duality.

By reconnecting with the life energy of Gaia, aka the “soul,” that inextinguishable living “source” or prana within each being, people can access healing. RMERC can stand out as a resource that proclaims: “You ARE love embodied (as proven by your willingness to struggle to better our lives) and you DESERVE healing from that which separates.” (The wording intentionally subtle there–as Buddhists know, the real “frontline” of such struggle is the mind, foremost… but also we must grapple with the harmful manifest conditions resulting from our common delusions of separation.) Offering sacred space and mindful retreat programs for frontline communities and activists to genuinely retreat from the work of constantly confronting edges and boundaries seems to be a crucial service. Balancing this, and equally important albeit seemingly opposite, is the promise of safe spaces for different folks to come together and confront edges, tear down walls, and make themselves more vulnerable to the world through engagement. The “heal/restore” (rebuilding mind, heart, and body) and the “deepen commitment” (challenge edges and go deeper) might be two complementary modes of programming offered at RMERC.

3. What does this concern to serve activists in the bigger world mean for the ways we understand and practice dharma/Buddhism?

Response: Activists are not “others.” They cannot be “others” in these times. We all have to be “activists” who create the spirituality necessary for socio-political change.

First, let us recognize that there is an activist in each of us. Let us consider what more intention, awareness and compassion we can bring into every act, every moment of every day. Let us not consider ourselves, as Buddhists or followers of ecodharma, as separate from the work that “activists” are doing to positively transform the world. In their book, Coming Back To Life, Joanna Macy and Molly Brown identify three realms of work for those of us engaged in facilitating what they call “The Great Turning” (a complete ecological revolution from a doomed industrial growth society to a life-sustaining Gaia-stewarding society… what is possibly the third turning of the dharma wheel). These are 1) Holding Actions: direct actions, blockades, protest, boycotts, things commonly associated with “activism”, 2) Shifting Consciousness, and 3) Creating the New. It seems that most people hold station in one of these modes, and perhaps dabble around in the others, often clinging to a perspective that the sort of work that they’re doing is the most pressing, strategic, or important. Yet, these three modes are inextricably linked and must be fully integrated for any one of them to succeed. Here, we are inspired by the concept of “integral non-violence” as explained by Chris Moore-Backman in his book, Gandhian Iceberg. This kind of integration of all three modes (where inner change or consciousness shift is deeply intertwined with “constructive program” to build the new culture, and with blocking things that no longer serve us) is fulfilled Ecodharma. If those of us embedded in any one of these three “modes” could live in a community that deliberately cultivated the conditions for the integration of all three, how might that free up/make available our own resources and abilities—how might that loosen our clinging to those resources? As dharma practitioners, how can we integrate the lessons of activism, and as activists, how can we integrate the lessons of dharma practice? This generative juxtaposition, this dialogue in which we co-create meaning toward common ground, is what RMERC could hold space for.

Speaking from our own experiences: there is an outcome of the practice of non-attachment that can result (and often, at least for a phase, does result, as discussed in Adyashanti’s book The End of Your World), in a posture of detachment and dispassion. Adyashanti describes it as a stance of being stuck in a mode of an observer or “witness”—minus a sense of connection to the thing being witnessed. This mode of detached witness is sometimes where a spiritual practitioner becomes stuck or “frozen.” A spiritual practitioner eventually must overcome that and recognize themselves as being “bound up” with the thing being witnessed, and thus, able to affect the reality in front of them–that they have the capacity to act with compassion. But until that point is reached there’s a kind of stuckness, stagnation.

Also, people who live a lifestyle of full-time, “full steam ahead” activism, people who feel every day like they are fighting for their lives (and indeed, some really are), can inhabit a kind of opposite space internally, one of constant activation, exertion, and stress—a mindset of the whole world could hinge on my actions. It could be said that some activist folks also experience being “stuck” in this mode (albeit an opposite one), believing they are not permitted the space for a moment’s peace or reflection because of how constantly dire everything is. This mode might be called “Do,” while the spiritual practitioner’s stuckness might be called “Be.” Both are essential; but they should be brought into healthy balance.

There’s a term coined by Augusto Boal for Theater of the Oppressed–”spect-actors.” Like Paolo Freire’s educational model, Boal believed nobody was allowed to be a spectator in this life–we are all “spect-actors.” This amplifies the idea of praxis (the intersection between theory and action) while it challenges traditional theater conventions about the distinction between “performers” and “audience.” In Theater of the Oppressed, anyone in the role of “audience” can step up at any time and become a performer or change what is happening if they disagree with the scene. Theater of the Oppressed methods and structures teach spect-actors that they are always “present” in a situation, and can always act to change their situation—something Boal called “rehearsal for the revolution.” This may be considered a model for what engaged or activist spirituality can look like: to know that you’re never not a part of what is happening.

As David Loy (one of RMERC board members) has pointed out, Buddhism has a kind of reputation (or at least it is prone to be perceived this way) that it is all about “transcending reality,” where practitioners practice dispassion for the world’s suffering. Non-attachment, sitting still like a mountain, not letting anything move you from your seat—these teachings can result in a serious meditator affecting a somewhat disconnected stance. Indeed, if we’re being honest, many spiritual practitioners feel motivated by a desire to “rise above” the world, and may prefer the comfort of “writing off” the drama, chaos and suffering of the world as “samsara” or mere illusion.

We see RMERC as a resource to help people break through stuckness in that place where people feel oneness with nature or compassion for “others” (e.g., climate refugees and asylum-seekers) but are not empowered to act meaningfully in their own lives. The ability to serve as a bridge to the other side for people stuck in either “Be” or “Do” modes would be powerful medicine!

How do we embody and act on what we know to be true? From an ecodharma perspective, we know to be true that: we are all one, yet we experience a tenacious illusion that we’re separate; we are inextricably entangled with one another; and there is a living breathing self all around us. How do we invite spiritual practitioners to break through accustomed inaction? How do we allow spiritual practitioners to learn to live by their wisdom, and how do we foster activists to reflect and connect more deeply on their situation? In various texts, understanding and compassion are a yin and yang that must become unified or “married” in the spiritual practitioner for enlightenment to occur. To be so present and so adaptive that you can become completely relaxed or intensely active—according to circumstances, freely in every moment—is an essential capacity for all beings to develop, especially those of us walking the path toward an ecodharma world! Bringing in folks like Angel Kyodo Williams, Fleet Maull and other such speakers-doers at that intersection between spirituality and activism would serve to guide people to their edges of such work.

In situations of complexity, a great practice is to try to include more, to try to integrate and accommodate the “edges.” RMERC has positioned itself to sit on the brink between activism and spirituality. As a result, its work will necessarily be rife with edges—some of which may feel acutely sharp. As a community of practitioners and stewards, however, we must inspire one another continuously to grow in our individual and collective courage to turn toward the difficulties—and move through them. To include diverse truths, and weave together apparent “edges,” is to make the world whole again. It takes outrageous, “radical” love to embrace edges and integrate shadows. In such ways, spiritual practitioners and activists are brethren, equally concerned with bringing about blessedness in a hurting world. We hope RMERC may become spacious, broad and deep enough in its theory and action to extend caring space and restorative programs and services for any and all human beings who have answered the call to increase the blessings in the world by their being.