The Heart of Democracy

In a jaw-dropping moment of political theatre, UK Attorney General Suealla Braverman seems to suggest that Boris Johnson’s breaking of the law on numerous occasions (and then lying about it) could almost be considered evidence of the success story of British democracy on the world stage.

This stunning statement is presumably designed to draw her supporters down a different road from the one where the questioner has kindly offered her an opportunity for honesty and integrity. We might choose to develop this further and consider for ourselves what kind democracy we really want here in Scotland, or wherever we might live, not just on a national level but on all levels of life.

Braverman’s avoidance of the direct question points to a psychological quality we might all want to be alert to if we do actually wish to live in a thriving democracy. She demonstrates beautifully for us the attachment to impressing or obeying people we might consider important. This is a very basic survival-level function for any social animal, including us wonderful human beings. 

While survival is great, probably we want more for ourselves, our communities and our nations. If we want to understand how to move beyond this, we can look a little at how our nervous system functions before turning to inspiration found in the deeply democratic revolution taking place in the indigenous cultures of Chiapas, Mexico (and also everywhere). 

We might say there are two sides to the nervous systems called sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic is focused on basic survival and often called the Fight or Flight system. Less talked about are other ways it shows itself through our actions which include Freeze or Fawn. 

In listening to Seulla Braverman speaking here, we can see that the sympathetic nervous system is functioning strongly as she both Fawns over the PM and Fights against the possibility that Labour (or anyone else) could offer a better alternative. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, supports us in resting, digesting and enjoying life. The two are designed to work together, generally alternating from one to the other depending on what is needed. 

Only in a few cases do the two sides of the nervous system come together in perfect balance where we feel completely focused and very relaxed at the same time. Sex is one of them. Yoga is another. Now you know why people keep coming back to classes! 

Now, if I’m walking down a road and a lorry suddenly appears coming towards me quickly, I’m grateful for the boost of adrenaline that comes to get me out of the way quickly. However, if my nervous system gets stuck in that survival mode, I’m likely to experience chronic anxiety, stress, depression and, in the long term, develop other forms of dis-ease. As many of us have experienced, it’s not only exhausting living like that, it also leads to poor decision making. 

Thus we come back to the question of democracy and, perhaps, how to save it. Around the world we see populist governments taking control and convincing people that obedience to authority offers the only route to safety (i.e., fear and survival). We might also note that populist means people-pleasing, a perfect example of the social animal instinct to survive by getting others to like us. 

A very different version of democracy is being practised in Chiapas, Mexico by the indigenous Tzeltal and Tsotsil people, more famously known to the world as the Zapatistas. While many commentators have looked to them for inspiration politically, what particular inspires me is their grounding in spirit and heart. As John P. Clark notes in his foreword to Autonomy is in our Hearts by Dylan Fitzwater, these concepts include what we in the West generally consider the spheres of politics and society while also going beyond them. 

Hierarchical, fear-based societies encourage us to always look outwards to who can lead us to a better future or what material goods can help us feel secure. The Zapatistas, however, are both looking outward to the larger patterns of the world and inwards to the source of autonomy which their (and seemingly all) spiritual tradition(s) tell us is found in the spiritual heart centre. 

For them, two concepts are essential to their way of life: o’on (collective heart) and ch’ulel (meaning both soul or spirit and potentiality). They say that it is through coming together as equals (collective heart) that we nourish the seed of each individual’s potential. And through the nourishing of each and every individual, we strengthen the collective heart. Recognising the profound interconnections between the personal, the collective and indeed the international, the Zapatistas are famous among grassroots activists around the world. 

But what is commonly translated as their commitment to direct democracy is part of a much larger cosmology which doesn’t fit easily into Western political systems or ways of thought. They are inviting a deeper global revolution than that. According to Fitzwater & Clark, what we might want to simply call their ‘politics’ they themselves refer to as “bringing one another to greatness” by coming together in the one collective heart (o’on). 

Their democracy is direct, not only because they make decisions together as a community, but also because they are connecting directly with the inner wisdom of the heart. This offers a striking contrast to our social and political systems which often encourage us to get caught up in self-centred, fear-based thinking.

The good news is, we don’t need necessarily need to travel to Chiapas to learn this for ourselves. Other spiritual traditions more familiar to those of us in the West offer both the wisdom and techniques needed to discover this inner wisdom of the heart so that we can come together as equals. 

In the Christian tradition, Centring Prayer as shared by Father Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault and others provides a simple yet profound practice of connection that helps us see the ch’uelel – the soul/potential in ourselves and others – and to nurture its growth. In the Yoga tradition, Heart Practice as shared by Heart Of Living Yoga offers much the same as well as physical practices that help us discover our inner strength and steadiness in a sustained way. In Islam, we might look to the great sufi poet-philosophers and the practice of zikr (meditation/prayer). In anarchism, we can look to revolutionary mystics and prophets like Gustav Landauer and Emma Goldman. And, of course, here in Scotland we have a strong tradition of supporting our neighbours and looking out for each other as demonstrated in communities mobilising to prevent deportations. 

Rather than putting our energy into (sympathetic nervous system) fighting, whether against the Tories or among each other in left-wing groups, we could look to another way where we can feel balanced, alert and relaxed, able to help bring each other to greatness. We could call this the way of the heart.

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  1. 220212 says:

    All this is substantially correct, but Zapatismo is so much more than its ‘indigenous’ components. The classical Marxism of Marx and Engels, the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser and Nicos Poulantzas, and the post-structural Marxism of Michel Foucault are (among other things) also key components of Zapatismo.

    Anyone who would like to find out more about the specifically ‘indigenous’ component should look at the writings of Subcomandante Galeano, which are in large part an effort to complement the armed insurgency on the ideological front by figuratively ‘translating’ the language-game of the indigenous people of Chiapas – their worldview, values and constitutive concepts – to a wider audience.

    ‘Zapatismo is not attempting to inaugurate and/or lead any kind of resistance to neoliberalism, but rather facilitate the meeting of resistance, and allow it to organically form worlds outside of exploitation.’ – Anthony Faramelli: Resistance, Revolution and Fascism: Zapatismo and Assemblage Politics (London, 2018).

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Thank you for this. My understanding is that Subcomandante Galeano (once Marcos) went to Chiapas as a Marxist intellectual bent on teaching indigenous people the meaning of revolution and instead found himself learning a deeper meaning than he ever could have imagined. This is similar to my own experience of writing a whole PhD on the linkages between anarchism and poststructuralism in relation to liberation struggles and realising I felt no more liberated from all that intellectual effort. It was later through spiritual practice of meditation and yoga (based in indigenous science) that I began to really feel what it was I was yearning for in my writing.

      So instead here I emphasis something which is very simple for anyone to practice, that takes us beyond theory into the living experience of liberation. This, I believe, is the Heart of Zapatismo, the Heart of Democracy.

      The more theoretical side is also available for those who enjoy that, of course.

      1. Vishwam Heckert says:

        Also, we might question to what extent Marxism & Anarchism are ‘purely European’. They seem to have rather strong roots in indigenous systems of living. Kroptokin, for example, was basically an anthropologist among other things and this Dine/Navajo activist makes a case that Marks & Engels learned from studies of indigenous ways of life, too –

        Very interesting, no?

        1. 220213 says:

          Yes, I’m sure some non-European societies will exhibit features that we could interpret ‘anarchism’ and ‘mutual aid’. To my knowledge, though, Marx did not ascribe to any of those societies the sort of advanced capitalism that he argued was a necessary material condition of man’s remaking of himself as communist man.

          Kropotkin, on the other hand, did seem to value the primitive communism he ascribed to the premodern societies as in some sense more authentically human than modern capitalism, and modern capitalism as some sort of aberration from that primitive ideal to which we ought to return. Kropotkin thus ascribed a moral superiority to his conception of what we now call ‘indigenous’ cultures that Marx did not.

          Both, however, in their respective anthropologies, did ‘denature’ or ‘denormalise’ capitalism and its ideology of man in the sense of exploding the view that man has a fixed and indelible nature and that this nature corresponds to how man is constructed under capitalism.

          (And, by the way: nothing ‘takes us beyond theory into the living experience of liberation’; all living experience is experienced through the prism of theory. The entire history of Western philosophy – its language and traditions – has emphasised the desire for immediate access to meaning and thus built a metaphysics based on privileging presence or ‘living experience’. It’s this metaphysics that leads theorists like Kropotkin to privilege the alleged ‘immediacy’ of premodern cultures over the contingency of modern ones.)

          1. 220215 says:

            Aye, here it is. A sample from my commonplace book from 2017:

            “Western appropriation of exotic [i.e. ‘other’] cultures in mysticism is informed by its own metaphysics of presence – the Western mind’s desire for immediate access to meaning as a direct ‘lived’ experience. This appropriation-through-colonisation of non-Western ‘indigenous’ cultures extends to our ascribing to those cultures the same desire that motivates and directs our own specific spiritual quest for meaning.”

            The source of the sample is a paper by Lina Trigos-Carrillo of the Universidad del Norte in Colombia: ‘Latin American Influences on Multiliteracies: From Epistemological Diversity to Cognitive Justice’.

            For context, you’d do worse than The End of the Cognitive Empire, in which Boaventura de Sousa Santos of Coimbra develops his concept of the ‘epistemologies of the South’ and outlines a theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical framework for challenging the dominance of Eurocentric thought and the cultural appropriation by the latter of ‘other’ (‘exotic’) practices of which Lina writes.

          2. Vishwam Heckert says:

            Thank you for kindly taking the time to elaborate your perspective. As you know, mine is different. Probably that’s true for all of us. We all seem to see the world a little differently. For example, you seem to hold a belief that life can only be experienced through the medium of the mind and the theoretical constructs that dwell there. Many people around the world describe very different experiences and to discount those based on one’s owns experience might possibly be unfair.

            Likewise, I wouldn’t like to assume that all intercultural exchange is appropriation. Probably you don’t either as you seem a very open-minded person. Many of my own experiences of intercultural learning come through invitation. For example, my teacher’s teacher was invited to the West from India and he could see that we were suffering from our mental patterns and shared techniques freely from Yoga to help us find a greater sense of peace and ease in daily life. Because of that training, myself and others from my yoga tradition have been invited by elders from the Pine Ridge Reservation to share Heart Meditation and other practices of Yoga and to simultaneously learn from their traditions in an exchange of mutual benefit for the healing of our world. We share with them to support their (and our) process of decolonisation.

            You may have noticed that all great spiritual traditions refer to the heart. By this we don’t mean the emotions or Valentine’s day cards but the spiritual heart. Great teachers (you could say philosophers) of various traditions say that the source of the mind is this heart and that the mind can return to rest and eventually dwell in the heart.

            Maybe this is what the western philosophers you refer to are searching for. In fact, it could be what we’re all yearning for as it seems everyone feels some sense of lack in life. A feeling that something is missing. We can try filling it through consumption of products or information, or perhaps through relationships or social roles, but none of that seems to work. Something in us always seems to want more. When mind drops into heart, we learn from those we share Heart Meditation with, that desire drops away and natural contentment arises.

            I realise this isn’t for everyone and wish all well on their own paths of discovery and exploration of life.

  2. Jenny says:

    It’s a revealing answer.
    Extraordinary that an intelligent woman can look at what is happenning now and say Brexit is ‘delivered’.
    And the rest of the world has watched with horror the UK government’s handling of the pandemic and its careless disregard for the health and life of its citizens, especially minority citizens and the poor.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Absolutely! I think that is the biggest clue about her psychological state. She’s obviously incredibly intelligent and yet seems to be functioning in survival mode, desperately hoping that sticking with Boris will help her in some way. Intellect itself is no guarantee of peace. In fact, overthinking can take us away from peace in my experience.

      I do hope we can collectively wake up and choose healthier governance for ourselves. Perhaps we can only do that through our own healing, together.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    The Zapatistas make only a brief appearance in the revised and expanded version of Gord Hill’s The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book, but enough to make the point that their solidarity and unity is based on opposition (to things like NAFTA and neocolonialism), on indigenous traditions and syncretised imports, and their communication strategy has been global. I am not sure what any of that has got to do with inner wisdom, apart from the core of ethics which comes from our shared biology. In the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit has argued that “Buddhism has changed the west for the better”, but that has been through a river of incoming ideas, she says, not peering within:
    whilst also echoing some of my previously expressed concerns:
    “Of course the new ideas are corruptible, and charismatic leaders, including in Buddhist lineages, have abused their power”

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Nice to hear from you again, SleepingDog. It may be that Gord Hill focused on the outer manifestation of the Zapatista movement. I’m looking here more at the research focusing on the inner aspect. It may be that successful social movements require both.

      And thank you for the Rebecca Solnit article, I hadn’t seen that one before. Very beautifully written with some interesting points I hadn’t read before, so thank you. I see how she does emphasise ideas but don’t see anywhere that she dismisses Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice which is meditation and going within. Maybe it wouldn’t make any sense of she did as his wider perspective on life and awareness of the internconnectedness of all things didn’t come from just reading books and thinking about it, but arose naturally through his many years of dedicated meditation practice. Solnit refers to this in the article as “the practice of awareness.” Like the Zapatistas, he also combined the inner work of spiritual practice with his outer work of global communication promoting peace.

      It’s interesting to me that you bring up Buddhism here as I didn’t mention that tradition at all in this article. Meditation practices of different kinds are found around the world as I mentioned above. I am glad you did, though, as it helped me see the similarities between Thich Nhat Hanh’s life and the Zapatista movement.

      And on behalf of all spiritual practitioners, I apologise for the abuse that can take place. The transformation that occurs through spiritual practice, we are told, takes a dedicated heartfelt practice over a long time. We never know how long it might be for anyone of us. When these practices become institutionalised, they can become dry and less effective. Power games can replace the loving intention which was the root of the movement.

      However, perhaps we don’t need to throw out the baby with the bath water. Jesus, for example, invited us to love each other. We can observe that love is not always the foundation of Church practices, but that doesn’t mean the teacher was wrong or unhelpful. It just means that people sometimes lose their way. When those around him found his teachings politically objectionable and killed him for that, he still loved them. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” He could see that they did not have “the practice of awareness” that enabled them to see that he was offering not a threat but an opportunity to be free from the restrictions of mental conditioning shaped by fear and hierarchy. They were obviously not able to hear that invitation, but he knew that wasn’t their fault. And so he forgave them.

      If we’re not able to forgive an institution for its abuses, perhaps we might begin with forgiving ourselves for the natural human errors that take place as we learn and grow.

      I hope this might be of some help in some way.

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