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.