Isn’t there a big — humongous, crucial — difference between doing and embodying? Doing means some activity that pays heed to my concerns and cares. Embodying means ‘giving birth’ to a human being who lives those concerns and cares as naturally as fish swim. If I become a person who embodies empathy, then whatever I do comes to be infused with empathy. If I turn into someone who embodies profound ideological tolerance, then my discussions and interactions will be deeply informed by it. If I dream of tolerance but remain an intolerant person in my everyday outlook and habits, then what I actually do in the world will be far more likely marked by intolerance as well.
The process of changing one’s behavior surely includes stories and ways of speaking, as in, for example, “sisterhood is powerful.” New words and images can inspire and provoke. But if one’s inner being and the behavior arising from it isn’t altered, in turn producing changed outer reality, isn’t it then all for naught? “Sisterhood” fades into yet another broken dream.
A person can talk about cooking from scratch all the time, or read cook books, or organize on behalf of slow food, or write manifestos, but will it really amount to anything unless that person opens up to something new within, which in turn produces actual cooking behavior resulting in tasty home-made meals?
In a well known essay Forget Shorter Showers, and elsewhere, Derrick Jensen has criticized the sentiment behind the quote often attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” He says, “I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”
Jensen is right; personal change does not equal social change. If I become a person who embodies respect for water, and live this respect in the outer world only by changing some habits and undertaking household modifications, I will not save the Ogallala aquifer upon which I depend. For that, I must do more than embodying my water-respect in small personal ways. The Ogallala aquifer will be sustained and replenished when a critical mass of people – householders, business people, farmers and all — who draw from it come to embody water-respect in their individual and collaborative actions, both public and private, which will then add up to a profound shift in how things are done at all levels.
The point that Derrick seems to have missed is that activity without embodiment cannot produce the profound, fundamental shift he is calling for. “Be the change” is necessary though not sufficient. One online commenter astutely remarked: “Jensen is right in the sense that if you only effect personal change, that doesn’t do much at all. But he’s wrong in the sense that you only focus on outside change. If you do that, you get a reproductive rights organization like Planned Parenthood where so many of their own low-income staff have unplanned pregnancies, or a rights organization like Acorn that union-busts its own employees. We must be the change, and we must effect change from that place.”
I want to distinguish no action (hypocrisy), vs. earnest outward action (conventional activism), vs. lifestylism (“personal = political” green quietism) vs. embodied action (“personal to political” activism). What I am trying to get at is this: the path of embodiment, of incarnating my values and desires in my flesh-and-blood being, leads then organically into action which is infused by those values and desires.
Perhaps the best way to get at the inner kernel of embodiment is via stories…
There was a time when I got involved with the Greens, in the late 80s. Eventually, I had to leave town for three years. At the time of my leaving, the group was fairly large, energy was high, mini-conferences were organized and projects started. When I came back, I found a handful of stalwarts hunkered down working out in excruciating detail how not to be bogged down in minutiae, finessing a variety of rules and directives the national organization had passed on down and which were meant to put an end to this pattern once and for all. The group faithfully toiled on the document’s behalf. After sitting in the stupefyingly boring meeting for some time, I said, “Here’s an idea. Remember that Muste peace quote [above]? Let me paraphrase it. There is no way to not doing organizational minutiae. Not doing organizational minutiae is the way.” They looked at me with instant recognition and shock. A few long seconds passed. Then they said, oh, but we have invested too much energy in this already. We have to go on and see it through. And that was that.
Once upon a time there gathered a group of people who were onto interesting projects. They organized well attended and lively events. Over time, however, they became troubled. Though living in a diverse city, the attendees were invariably lily-white middle-class people. So the group got together to look for solutions. Many concerned discussions were held about the need to pay attention to inclusivity and to change the group to appeal to the others. Various ideas were written up as a result. Funding was sought, and eventually received. A Diversity Coordinator was hired. Outreach PR activities were undertaken, educational workshops were planned to draw a greater variety of newbies in, and obligatory contacts with non-white, non-middleclass organizations were proposed and initiated. Several years later, more or less the same situation prevails, and the same calls for more inclusiveness are heard at the gatherings.
Another group in the same situation, located in a remote and eccentric kingdom, faced this problem another way. The participants decided to embody the solution, opening up to becoming the sort of people who have diverse friends and acquaintances. They each began to seek out neighbors, friends of friends, fellow students and colleagues who did not fit the white middle-class profile. What they learned from these encounters they brought to the group to chew on, and eventually, some began to bring along their new friends to the group’s events.
A boy went to a Zen master to learn about jade. At the first lesson the Zen master put a piece of jade into the boy’s hand and proceeded to talk about the wind. The boy played with the pebble while he focused on the conversation. After a while the master announced that the lesson was over. The boy gave back the jade and left. This continued for some weeks. The master gave the boy a piece of jade to hold and proceeded to talk about the things of nature. One day the boy’s parents asked him what he was learning about jade. The boy felt that though he had learned much from the master, he had learned nothing about jade. He went to his next lesson determined to remind the master of his reason for attending the lessons. When he arrived, the master put a small stone into his hand. The boy jumped up and cried, ”This is not jade!”