Activism and the Central Nervous System

Yesterday I posted a video on YouTube of a conversation I had with Sensei Alex Kakuyo. Sensei Alex is one of my favorite contemporary Buddhist teachers. He’s a young guy, but very wise and very serious about his practice. It was a great conversation about Buddhism and activism. I hope you’ll take a look.

It’s obvious that racism still exists in America and that it’s an important issue. It’s great to see so many people coming together to celebrate racial harmony. Of course, I hope they’re taking the appropriate precautions regarding the pandemic while they gather together. I don’t want to get into any debates on the matter, but I am starting to think that my fears of disease spreading wildly from these gatherings might have been somewhat mistaken. I regret overstating things, if that turns out to be the case. I certainly hope I was wrong.

I regret a lot of things. I feel like my practice has been going wrong for a number of years now. Not terribly or disastrously wrong. It just hasn’t been what it should have been. 

Be that as it may, this new era of activism and concern for others has the potential to be something wonderful. But we have to be careful or it could go very wrong.

Nishijima Roshi used to talk a lot about the autonomic nervous system, which is divided into two halves, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. He said that when the sympathetic nervous system is too strong we become very intellectual, very critical, very sharp. It’s the fight-or-flight part of the nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is too strong we become the opposite, we’re easy-going or even apathetic, we just want to relax. It’s the rest-and-digest part of the nervous system. This is all pretty basic stuff you can find in any beginner’s textbook on the nervous system.

Zazen, Nishijima Roshi said, helps to balance the two halves of the autonomic nervous system. He believed that was the chief benefit of zazen.

In terms of the current situation with various protest movements, we can see the effects of the two nervous systems playing out in people’s behavior. For example, a few days ago an activist group promoted something called Black Out Tuesday. This was supposed to help Black voices be heard on social media.

I heard about Black Out Tuesday around 9am on the Tuesday it happened. That was fairly early. But even by the time I looked it up, the whole thing had already spiraled into something almost comical in a tragic way. This well-intentioned event had turned into factions of people online going after each other for doing it the wrong way. People were putting up the wrong hashtags, or placing the hashtags in the wrong areas, or… y’know… I’m old. I couldn’t follow it. But, although I’m too old to understand the specifics of the debate, it was abundantly clear what was happening.

Too many people were letting their sympathetic nervous systems run wild. It’s understandable. We’d just come out of almost a week of fires and lootings. Everybody was on edge. I sure was! The sympathetic nervous system was buzzing!

This spilled over into the debates about Black Out Tuesday and threatened to overturn the good intentions of its creators. Black voices weren’t being drowned out by the improper use of hashtags and iconography, they were being drowned out by the outrage over the improper use of hashtags and iconography. Which was sad to me, because I wanted to hear more voices of people of color and less yelling about the wrong use of hashtags.

On the other hand, when people criticize others for being silent about important issues, what they’re really criticizing is people who allow the parasympathetic nervous system to dominate to the point where they become apathetic and uncaring. As I said before, maintaining silence does not always indicate apathy or a lack of concern. Sometimes the proper way to meet noise is with noble silence. That is entirely different from the apathetic, uncaring kind of silence. But I want to set that point aside for now and agree that apathetic, uncaring silence really does amount to allowing the worst tendencies of people to continue unopposed.

In order for any activist movement to work, it has to be balanced. It can’t swing too far into either side of the autonomic nervous system. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea that urgent change is needed RIGHT NOW and the only way to make it happen is to FORCE EVERYONE TO DO THE RIGHT THING.

I get that. I really do. I’m prone to that way of thinking, just like everybody else. Certainly when you watch the video of George Floyd’s murder it’s hard not to react that way.

The problem is, that approach never works. It favors the sympathetic nervous system too much. The best you can manage with the edgy approach dominated by the sympathetic nervous system is to bully people into playing along with something they don’t actually believe in. 

But we don’t want that! We need people who really believe that all human beings are fundamentally the same and deserve to be treated better, not people who say those words because they’ve been forced to. That just allows the real problem to fester under the surface.

And obviously, the apathetic approach that favors the parasympathetic nervous system won’t get us anywhere either. At least that part is easy to understand.

But those are not our only choices. We don’t have to side either with those who want to force everyone to conform to what they think is good, or with those who just want to ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

There is another way. But that way requires balance. And balance is hard to find and difficult to maintain.

This is why I want to get my own work back on track and dedicate myself to teaching zazen and the ethical precepts of Buddhism.

Stay tuned.

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