In May 2015 a group of young people from Europe, Mexico, and the United States came together in Mexico City and Pátzcuaro, Michoacán for the Ziji Collective Leadership Retreat. The Ziji Collective “is a global network of inspired young people, dedicated to the…radical view that human beings and society are fundamentally good,” and the work of creating “a society that is uplifted, caring, gentle, and wakeful.” In this pursuit, local Ziji groups “work through the practice of meditation; through the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and wisdom; and through collective action.”
Although we came from different places, we connected through our shared experience as young people facing an uncertain future of climate change, debt, limited options for rewarding stable work, disappearing free time, technology and media disconnecting us from each other and our bodies, surrounded by overt and subtle forms of violence. We explored ways to support each other across borders by initiating collaboration and establishing communities of practice. Over enchiladas in Pátzcuaro’s busy square and during contemplative walks in the gardens of the Casa Werma retreat space, we held many discussions on how to foster the spirit of ziji (“primordial confidence” in Tibetan) in our own lives and in our communities through activism, writing, community building, and social meditation.
Over the weeklong program Acharya1 Adam Lobel gave a series of talks and invited conversation on how our personal, social, and political lives are interconnected.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s first year in office, progress on climate change has been undermined; racism, sexism, xenophobia, and white supremacy are emboldened; structural and cultural violence remain entrenched in institutions; and the oppression of indigenous peoples continues at breakneck pace. Acharya Lobel’s teachings from May 2015 could therefore not be more timely. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Acharya Lobel about his teaching at the May 2015 Ziji Collective Leadership Retreat. Below we present an edited version of some of these teachings, to be followed by posts of our interview in the coming weeks.
In his fifth talk at the Ziji Collective gathering, Acharya Lobel explored the work of philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose 2012 book Declaration examines the Occupy movement and new forms of organization that emerged in the wake of Occupy and the Arab Spring. An Italian political philosopher and Marxist sociologist, Antonio Negri was a leading theorist of the Autonomia Operai—a movement among students and workers against state socialism and capitalism in Italy during the early 1970s. Autonomists sought liberation from the authoritarian hierarchies of “modern institutions,” and instead worked to “involve people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives.”2 Michael Hardt is an American philosopher who, with Negri, co-wrote Empire (2000), and whose work explores the role of joy in political life. In Declaration, Hardt and Negri investigate specific ways in which our modern economy and society produce disempowerment and depression. They write:
“The triumph of neoliberalism and its crisis have shifted the terms of economic and political life, but they have also operated a social, anthropological transformation, fabricating new figures of subjectivity.”3
In this talk, Acharya Lobel summarizes what Hardt and Negri describe as the four subjectivities of modern civilization:
I’m going to describe what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call the four subjectivities, which are four different ways of experiencing our sense of self in the modern world. These four subjectivities speak to the authors’ context in Europe and the U.S., and they resonate for me given my social location within the U.S. They may or may not generalize to all contemporary social groups and contexts. For example, Hardt and Negri talk about indebtedness, and some people do not have the luxury even of debt. So I invite readers to reflect on how these four subjectivities apply to contexts they care about. And I also think there’s a broader shape to the ideas I’m offering: that we often are imprisoned by subjectivities that obscure our primordial confidence.
These four subjectivities describe how global capitalist society makes it incredibly difficult to experience unconditional confidence. This goes beyond the basic obstacles to confidence created by the normal ego structure, habitual patterns, fear, and cocoon that Shambhala and Buddhist teachings often emphasize. On top of these individual challenges, we—our generation and many people in the world today—face four different subjectivities or senses of self, identities.
The first is called the indebted, which means very literally that many in our world are in massive financial debt. In order to get a college education or buy a car, buy a home, buy things with a credit card—in order to do just about anything within the marketplace of the world—the debt starts piling up and up. This has a huge impact on what our options are. You can just get a feel for what we are bound to and the amount of fear that many of us experience. Yet this has become normalized.
This same indebtedness wasn’t there even fifty years ago; but now our whole economy is based on debt. Debt defines and determines our experience of life, of what’s possible. We’re tied to jobs we need in order to pay off our debt, even if we don’t want to have those jobs. This means that the majority of your life may be spent doing something that you don’t want to do, that’s not necessarily meaningful. Why? According to Hardt and Negri, it’s because of an economic structure that is sucking the wealth out of the 99% and drawing it up into the 1%. This structure only benefits a tiny portion of people. This quality of being indebted forms and molds our sense of self and our subjectivity. It generates tremendous anxiety, stress, and fear.
Even if you have wealth, you’re likely to have given your money over to the market to increase that wealth, which means you are indebted to that whole cycle. Even satisfaction is deferred endlessly.
The Shambhala teachings are premised on the innate and unconditional value of our being, our humanity. Unconditional confidence is not the result of having paid back our loans. It is more primordial. Your confidence is your birthright. Yet within the economic norms we have collectively accepted, it may be difficult to experience this basic confidence because we feel the constant threat and obligation of our debt. Why do we feel anxiety? Why is a powerful warriorship and revolutionary energy sometimes difficult to rouse? In part because we are indebted and our sense of confidence feels lacking until that sense of debt is relieved. Yet what if that day never comes? What if an entire social system is driven by the endless multiplication of debt? What are the spiritual and psychological impacts of this system? These are the questions that genuine, politically aware spiritual seekers must ask today. And these are simultaneously the questions that activists and political radicals need to ask about their sense of confidence. In this way, today’s politics are spiritual and today’s spirituality is by necessity political and economic.
The next subjectivity is called the mediatized—as in media, which conveys the notion that our sense of self is shaped, molded, imprinted, inflicted upon by the rush of information that comes through our smart phones, our computer screens, the television, advertising, and the addiction that most of us have to constant entertainment—to constantly giving over our life-force to Netflix. There’s no problem with watching Game of Thrones every now and then or whatever. But when a third of our lives are spent passively absorbing distraction and hypnotized by the next news drama or seduced by the next clickbait, this begins to shape our identity and our lives. The news and information services that we receive define what is considered important, what we are supposed to be panicked about, what we are supposed to think is happening or not happening in the world.
In the summer and fall of 2014, many in the United States were in total panic around Ebola for weeks. It was the most important thing. There was a survey—“What is the most important issue around healthcare in the United States of America?” And 75% of people said Ebola when there was less than a handful of people who had it in the U.S. You’ve got the most unbelievable health crisis issues around addiction, poverty, unequal and unjust access to healthcare—just horrific scenarios that affect millions of people everyday, and yet everyone is worried about Ebola coming and taking us over. This is an example of how a panicked media narrative distracts us from the immediate reality. This is how, in Noam Chomsky’s words, the media “manufactures consent.”
Now in some sense it’s understandable. Perhaps it’s not that crazy. But consider the way our media structures operate: they scoop our consciousness. They grab our awareness and pull it into narratives that become real for us. They shape us and the world around us, driving policy decisions and money flows. Hardt and Negri capture this idea in the notion of being mediatized: our sense of self is actually shaped and formed by the media. These forms of entertainment and information define our values and shape the direction of our lives. They make certain things allowable or not allowable, thinkable or unthinkable.
Most of us engage in a repeated, everyday ritual of checking our smart phones and checking in with social media. This repeated ritual also habituates our sense of who we are and our confidence. Unconditional confidence is self-existing confidence without reference points. We abide without needing constant confirmation from our media networks. This does not mean being isolated islands, but rather that human beings can exist without ongoing comparison, struggle, and competition. Yet our mediatized subjectivity numbs our hearts, can lead to tremendous anxiety, ongoing comparison with others, and an overwhelm of dramatic and pressing information. Rather than such constant information cultivating action and engagement, it often leads to apathy and confusion. The archetype of the warrior is someone who rests in unconditional confidence, with an open heart. This leads to fearless action. In this way, we all have to look honestly at our relationship with media, with technology, and with our iPhone-rituals to reclaim our own attention and life-force.
The third subjectivity that can undermine our unconditional confidence is called the securitized, which is the deep feeling of fear that somehow we will be attacked, blown up, or left vulnerable if there is not a massive military and intelligence system to keep us safe. It’s the feeling some groups of people have that if we don’t have the walls of homeland security or a colossal military-industrial complex or people out there spying on us and everyone else—that if those security regimes are not in place—somehow we will be vulnerable and open to attack. This is the feeling that without these structures we won’t be safe. In some sense there actually is no lasting security ever—we are vulnerable human beings—yet we have the illusion that with a huge security apparatus we will be safe from all the threats. Our sense of self becomes securitized because we actually start to support and buy into methods of being regulated, watched, scanned, made into a statistic. We feel that in order to be safe we have to forfeit our power to this force of securitization, which is the latest evolution of the military-industrial complex. This subjectivity really shows up if you look at when you feel safe or when you feel afraid. This massive trillion-dollar industry of security somehow seems to make sense.
This system of security is unequal, racist, and unjust. This system will impact you and your family very differently if you appear white or if you appear black or brown or if you appear as a Muslim or if you are an immigrant, documented or not. In other words, there are indeed vulnerable communities. But with the securitized subjectivity, it is often those who are most secure that are made to feel afraid. Furthermore, this fear-based system of security is manipulated to establish political power and influence the rhetoric and turnout of elections. It is intimately interconnected with the rise of nationalisms. Our question here is: how does this system of security show up in our own body, our own fears, and our own assumptions? How are you shaped by the fear entailed in being a securitized subject, living behind a wall? Here, discovering and resting in unconditional confidence becomes revolutionary. We discover that we are confident without the need of the walls, the barbed wire, the secret drone assassinations, and the military-industrial complex. In fact, we may find that this system of violence and security is the source of our fear, rather than a protection from fear. Releasing our life-force from its entrapment in fear is not only a matter for meditation and spiritual cultivation, it is a political demand in the present.
The fourth and final subjectivity is called the represented. As the term says, there is this sense that others represent us. What is our political power? What is our voice? We don’t have a voice, but someone else will speak for us. This is the great myth of democracy. In the United States for every one congressional representative in the House of Representatives, there are on average well over 700,000 people who are supposedly represented.
How does that exactly work, even if we imagine that representation is not skewed by gerrymandering, money in politics, and more? How is it that our voice, our wisdom, our ideas are represented in the democracy? How does that play out with more than 700,000 of us somehow represented by that one person? And then it’s questionable whether that congressional representative actually has much of a say in decision-making at all. From the very beginning of the political history of democracy you had thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau who said that there is no such thing as a representative democracy. Democracy has to be immediate and direct in order to be a genuine democratic system.
This notion of the represented spans a very long history in Western political thought, some of which starts from the fundamental assumption that humans are violent and brutish, that we all want to be tyrants, that we want to destroy others and get the most for ourselves; therefore we need political systems to control us, either through a monarchy or through distributing that control democratically so that basically no one has any power. Tellingly, important strands of Western monarchy and Western democracy are both based on tremendous fear and mistrust in humanity.
Unconditional confidence could be understood as a state of being politically empowered. Confidence includes trust in human power, even political power. While there may or may not be a need for political representation, we do not need to reduce our political power to being represented by others, and to focusing our political efforts on trying to influence those representatives. We need not defer our potency to others. Though our present liberal democracies claim to give us voice, this is highly questionable. On some level we know this and feel this and it covers our confidence with layers of deception and apathy. We are disempowered. In this way, the warrior’s rediscovery of unconditional confidence summons a political subjectivity that can never be lost through representation. A new politics joins with the rediscovery of ziji.
. . .
These four subjectivities provide a useful contemplation for the unique historical moment that we are in as sentient beings. They identify some of the social, political, and economic structures that undermine our sense of confidence: being in tremendous debt; being distracted by the media; being terrified—we need these massive security systems in order to live; and being represented—someone else will speak for us and we basically are powerless. How can we feel unconditional power and confidence in such a world? How can we feel the wisdom of our awakened hearts when these are the subjectivities that are forming us?
So we have a dual task. We have to work with the normal, sentient, samsaric situation of ego, fear, habit, ignorance, grasping, and clinging. And we also have to work with these social, political, and economic structures that harmfully shape our sense of self. And, crucially, we have to break out of them. We have to open out beyond these kinds of socio-political cocoons, reclaiming this unconditional confidence as individuals and as collectives. This is ziji—the spark of ziji, primordial confidence—which has profound implications that are directly related to transforming our world.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for Parts 1 and 2 of our interview with Acharya Lobel, “Losing Our Confidence: Four Subjectivities of the Present.”
Illustration by Alicia Brown
- Acharya is a title for a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition, taken from the Sanskrit āchārya, meaning ‘teacher’ or ‘spiritual guide’. ↩
- Georgy Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (AK Press. 2006), 6. ↩
- Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Declaration (New York: Argo-Navis, 2012), 9. ↩