Capture Whole

A Conservative majority may not be the best thing for the environment, or social programs, or for Canadian priorities like healthy care, diplomacy or even Parliamentary values like transparency and fairness, but a Conservative Majority is what we’ve got for the next four years, so we better figure out fast how to get what we want from it.

There has never been a time when thinking creatively, and acting with courage, was more important. And despite moving Canada back into the dark ages of climate-denial and finding ourselves at the back of the bus when it comes to global diplomacy, the Harper Conservatives have provided some important leadership on issues such a National Parks. There’s a small opening there – a chink in the armor maybe – where we can work to advance progressive issues.

The Conservative government of the last five years, as someone recently told me, doesn’t like to be criticized. Who does? We can make the mistake of trying to teach them a lesson about democracy and being “grown up” about it, but look what happens when you spend your time trying to teach Canadians a lesson about democracy: You end up losing your seat and your party.

Instead, people across Canada who want to make this country a better place, and restore its standing as a leader among nations on issues like climate change and poverty reduction, should take a lesson from Loa Tzu: “This is the universal truth; the soft shall overcome the hard.”

There’s no arguing with the fact that the Conservative majority will pose a hard obstacle to progress in Canada. We can spend our next four years battering ourselves against it, or we can find a way to move slowly around it, over it, under it, through it. In Taoism this is called Wu Wei, which means “not forcing.” Nobody is going to force Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do anything. We’re going to have to, as Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, suggests: “capture our opponent whole.” That means moving carefully to make it so our values, our vision, our passion, slowly becomes their own. We must find what they respond to – be it positive reinforcement or public accolades, as difficult as that may be to stomach – and exploit them as an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.

If we do not, we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in, and watching all that we cherish about this beautiful nation slipping from our grasp. And we will only have ourselves to blame for its loss. Every moment in life is a choice. This choice is clear: accepting the reality of a polarized politic and gaining what we can, or raging against it, and losing it. It’s that stark a dichotomy.

And while we do this, organize for the future. The political environment across Canada has been dramatically recalibrated. Michael Ignatieff has resigned. And the BLOC Quebececios has been reduced to a fringe movement; this is maybe the best of all the outcomes from the May 2nd vote. And though separatism is by no means dead, at the very least one of the key factors keeping the centre-left from uniting and moving forward together has been eliminated.

While we work to find ways to advance our goals under a Conservative majority, we must do exactly what Stephen Harper did to capture it: unite. It’s time to put ego and hubris and the fallacy of worn-out political history aside and come together under a single banner. It’s time to find common ground, and learn to live with our differences, and embrace the future as a united positive alternative. I simply can’t listen to people complain that with only 40% of the vote the Conservatives formed a majority any longer without demanding that the progressive voices in Canadian democracy join together to form an united, positive alternative.

And within that the Green Party will finally find its place in our House of Commons. Next to the defeat of the BLOC, the election of Elizabeth May in Saanich-Gulf Islands is the single greatest thing that has happened for Canadian democracy in many, many years. She will make Canadians proud.

I hope that people who want a better Canada won’t spend too much time moaning about what may happen now under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. We may not like it much, but it’s what we’ve got; the sooner we make a choice to move forward, smartly, carefully, like water slowly but patiently wearing away at that which stands between us and our vision of Canada, the better. Our future is at stake; we are the ones who must make the choice about how we advance towards it.

Entering the (Costco) Market

In the Zen Buddhism tradition, after one has attained enlightenment, they return to the world with helping hands, easing the suffering of others, and helping them follow the way of the Buddha. This is called Entering the Marketplace, and is the culmination of the Ten Oxherding Pictures, a parable on the path to enlightenment.

Let me be clear about this from the start: I’ve skipped over steps four through nine and rushed headlong and willy-nilly into the Market. There will be more on that later.

My first time in a Costo, to do anything more than gawk in stunned amazement at the brazen consumerism, was on December 23rd of 2010. It was pretty exciting. Jenn and the boys and I had just moved into our new home in Canmore, Alberta, and had resolved to investigate the option of buying some of our staples in bulk to save money.

During our time together in Victoria, Jenn always threatened to drag me to Costco, just a few kilometers away in Colwood, to stock up on things we used a lot of: flats of juice and cases of Almond Breeze were the examples she suggested. Now, with the nearest Costco a solid hundred kilometers down the road in Calgary, we decide to finally visit one. We did this on the second-to-last day before Christmas.

I think for some this might sound like a recipe for disaster.

It likely would have been five years ago. And it likely would have been had I not been to India in 2008.

But a lot has happened in the last five years; I’ve done a lot of work: the sort of work that allows me to step into a Costco store teaming with crazed consumerism and see it as an opportunity to make people’s lives a little easier. Where else could I find so many opportunities to greet so many other human souls? And get little blocks of cheese on fancy crackers for free as a reward?

A couple of years ago, Jenn and I spent some time in India, where one of our favorite activities was to visit markets. We found an amazing open air produce and fish market in the City of Emakulam, across the bay from the Fort Kochi, which was simply fabulous. And the Thieves and Crawford Markets in Mumbai were extraordinary.

Markets in India aren’t all that different from, say, a modern urban Farmer’s Market, except they are more intense in nearly every way. They are brighter, noisier, darker, more fragrant, and extremely crowded. At one point in the Thieves Market the pedestrian and motorcycle traffic was so congested that we could barely move. I remember an Indian man putting his hand on my shoulder and gently guiding me through the throng. The temperature was in the high thirties that day in Mumbai. We were the only white people in a male dominated, Muslim sector of the city. That takes some getting used to.

Jenn likes to tell stories of our visits to these markets because of how paradoxical they are: two white people, often the only Westerners in sight, weaving their way through these crowded, chaotic locales. I learned that one of the secrets to survival in such quarters was to be effusive with smiles. Smiling is a powerful means of dissolving cultural barriers. So when I would walk into a dimly lit corridor filled with men at work preparing garlands for Shiva ceremonies, I would beam my brightest smile and greet people by saying Namaste: the spirit in me greets the spirit in you. With very few exceptions, this produced warm smiles, handshakes and invitations to photograph the goings on in return. I found myself perched on concrete platforms, talking with men in broken English (their’s was often perfect; mine, not so much) about their work and their lives.

Costco isn’t Kochi, and North-West Calgary isn’t Crawford Market in the world’s third largest city. But something is the same. So when Jenn and I stepped inside my first Costco I made a decision. To use this opportunity to try and relieve people’s suffering.

For most of my life, and for the last five years or so, I’ve been trying steadfastly to find an end to the suffering that characterizes all human endeavors, and certainly has been a dominant force in my own life.

The Buddha taught that, simply put, life entails suffering. Some mistake this to read life is suffering. That’s not what Gautama Buddha taught. What he said was that in life, there is suffering. He also taught that there is a cause to that suffering, and that among the root causes of suffering is attachment, and our failure to see understand the reality of our universe, which is that we are all connected to one another.

The reality is that we’re all part of the same interwoven fabric, and only our dim perception of the world keeps us from seeing that. We see ourselves as isolated sacks of flesh and blood and bones moving about the world, when really the boundaries between ourselves and everything else around us are more like the difference two colours in a sunset. It’s nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Costco is a good place to look if you want to find people who are suffering. Walmart too. We rush through the aisles, scanning the case-lots for something, anything, that will provide us with the illusion of relief from what causes us pain. Inside we feel an ache: loneliness, an isolation, a separation. We mistake these things we are purchasing for our true source of comfort. We believe that if we just had a flat of juice or a case of almond breeze in the cupboard, then we’d be satisfied. But of course we’re not. Because drink the damned things and then we need more.

I wandered around Costco, following my wife up one aisle and down another, loading up the cart with all the things that we regularly buy – from rice to cereal to loaves of bread – and greeting people with the same phrase: “This is my first time in Costco, how about you?”

People would smile and say hi and a few would laugh and we’d strike up a conversation. We’d talk about Christmas plans and the kids and the Calgary winter and then we’d both move on.

“We are all so much together,” said the philosopher and theologian Albert Schweitzer, “but we are dying of loneliness.” I believe I can see this in people’s faces; in the distracted way they move through the world. Telling people that it was my first time in Costco was my way of chipping away at that loneliness, and dissolving the illusion of separation. Suddenly the shell around us cracks, and we become human again: we connect, and for a moment the barriers we erect to protect our fragile souls from the arrows of the world are withdrawn.

When Jenn and I got home from our Costco orgy of consumerism it felt good to fill up the cupboards with the necessities of life. Two cases of Almond Breeze and a double sized box of Cheerios means less trips to the local Safeway, and more money to pay for the other necessities of life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, so long as we’re being conscious about what we buy. But let’s not mistake that feeling of temporary comfort from the permanent relief from suffering that the Buddha taught was possible.

My next venture into Costco came a month ago, during the kid’s Spring Break. The three of us went into the city to visit the Zoo, and Jenn and I prepared a lengthy shopping list for us, and programmed my phone to dial 911-Shopping Hell if I needed to. But we didn’t.

The three of us went up and down the aisles again, filling our cart, and I did my very best to smile and say hello and chat with people as we went. I couldn’t use my refrain of “first time…” anymore. But I didn’t need to. I simply sought out every opportunity to greet people – fellow travelers – as I encountered them.

I wasn’t always successful: the second person who cut me off to take a parking spot in the massive blacktop lot didn’t win a smile. But that was an exception.

In Zen, the Oxherding Pictures are a parable on enlightenment. There are hundreds of versions of this fable online and in books, and each is illustrated with simple, eloquent line drawings or watercolors. I take my interpretation from Roshi Philip Kapleau’s book The Three Pillars of Zen (Doubleday, 1980).

One: Seeking the Ox. Even though the Ox has never gone astray, we search for it, forgetting the true source of peace. Instead we mistake worldly gain and fear of failure for our true path.

Two: Finding the Tracks. Through the sutras and teachings of the Buddha we come to learn about the Ox. Though still living in the mist of illusion, we know that there is another way.

Three: First Glimpse of the Ox: We realize that everyday distractions are blinding us from seeing the Ox. We catch our first glimpse of him through a brief parting of the mist of illusion.

And for the record, after twenty years of study and five years of challenge and practice, I think I’ve just started to glimpse reality through the mists. The hard, sometimes deeply painful work, of step four yet eludes me.

Four: Catching the Ox (or, as Cat Stevens put it: Catch Bull at Four). After some effort, we are able to rope the Ox, but it is wild, and is attached to its old habits, so struggles. We must use strength and courage to hold onto what we have caught.

Five: Taming the Ox. The struggle with the Ox is won: we have conquered suffering. We no longer struggle with our true nature, but instead accept it, and smile at the paradox of existence. We overcome delusion, accept and triumph over attachment and harbor no illusion of separation.

Six: Riding the Ox Home. Serene, we are no longer in conflict over “gain” and “loss.” Though temptations still ply us, we retain undisturbed.

Seven: Ox Forgotten, Self Alone. In the Dharma – our purpose in the universe – there can be no separation between ourselves and others, ourselves and the world around, and ourselves and enlightenment. This is in part because there never was any separation; it’s only our thinking, and the illusions that this creates, that make us believe we alone.

Eight: All Forgotten. All attachment is vanquished, including attachment to holiness, and to being the Buddha.

Nine: Returning to the Source. We have never been separated from enlightenment. We are already home; we are already a part of the source. We always have been.

Ten: Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands. Having seen through the illusion and having conquered suffering, our job now is to help others find the tracks of the Ox and embark on their own passage.

But I don’t think we need to wait for steps four through nine to occur in order to cut straight to the desire to enter the marketplace with helping hands.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not always successful. I’m inpatient and hot-headed and have a temper and sometimes I’m not very nice. When I catch myself behaving this way – behaving as if the people I’m curt with aren’t simply an extension of my own fearful, fragile self – I make a point now of apologizing and remembering the greeting of Namaste: two sprits greeting one another; we are the same thing.

Rio and Silas and I proceeded towards the check-out, the long lines stretching back towards the cases of impulse items: chocolate bars and twelve packs of socks. I felt a wave of panic that I’d just loaded hundreds of dollars of food into my shopping cart and that there were people in this world who would never see such a bounty. I looked around me and felt a wave of pity (that most regrettable of emotions)  at all the people there who looked tired and sad and lonesome. And then I looked behind me in the lineup and saw such a face; two faces, a couple who looked worn and weary.

“Hi,” I said, and smiled. “How are you?”

But what I really meant was: You are not alone.

“How was your day today?”

You and I are one.

“I hope that you have a good night. Take care….”

You are loved. I love you. Find peace.

Coming out of the (NDP) Closet

I’m a political junkie. I’m not hardcore. I’m a moderate. I caught the bug when I ran for school president of Rolling Meadows Elementary when I was in Grade eight, but lost. I ended up in the only elected post in my life as a class rep (my only opponent for the post of class rep killed a man with a fire extinguisher eight years later and may still be in jail today).

In the 1990s I learned that to influence  policies and decisions about the environment, I had to learn to influence decision makers. In doing so, got to know many of them. At the same time I volunteered for a number of campaigns, including Liberal Stephen Owen, and New Democrats Denise Savoir, David Cubberley and Gregor Robertson, and for the late Andre Gareau, who was a dear friend and who served as a Town Councilor in Canmore for many years until his sudden death this past year.

Despite my propensity for supporting the NDP, I’ve only had the chance to vote for them sporadically. When I lived in David’s riding in Saanich, BC, I voted for him, and in later in Victoria I voted for Denise, but these have been exceptions rather than the rule.

For most of the elections of my adult life I’ve lived in Alberta’s Wildrose riding. It’s a peculiar riding that includes most of Banff National Park, Canmore and the rest of the Bow Valley, a huge swath of the forested foothills that edge the Rocky Mountains, and then cups around Calgary to include the commuter towns of Cochrane and Airdrie.

A lot of people think that because the mountainous Bow Valley attracts a lot of well educated, liberal minded sorts, that somehow this would be a close race between the right-wing parties and the left. But that’s never been the case. (The last time the Bow Valley had a left leading MP was in 1930 when Edward Joseph Garland beat the Conservative candidate on behalf of the United Farmers in the riding of Bow River. This organization, incidentally, still exists as a representative of feed stores and card-lock gas station operator.) When Myron Thompson was the Reform/Alliance and then Conservative MP here, he won with landslides: 63% in 1997; and then 70, 71, and 72% in subsequent elections. Myron – who I knew and respected and liked, through disagreed with on just about everything – had quadruple by-pass surgery and had to sit out the first two weeks of the 2000 election campaign out. He still won by a landslide.

And every single one of the 200+ polls in Wild Rose voted for Myron. Now Blake Richards, Myron’s former communications assistant, follows in his footsteps. Mr. Richards won the last election 73% of the vote. The Greens came in second, with12.6%, their strongest showing across the country. It was a safe place to park your vote.

I’m a strategic voter. I make no qualms about this. I want a government that will reflect my values, but I also want to defeat governments that stand in diametrical opposition to the things I believe in. And while I might have respected the hard working Myron Thompson, I did not want to see his party in government, and once they were elected, wanted them out. So, ironically, I voted for the Progressive Conservatives under Joe Clark in 2000, and then, because all hope was lost in Wildrose after the amalgamation of the Alliance and the PC’s, I too voted Green.

But something has happened in 2011 that allows me to vote with my heart, not my head. And I think many people across Canada have come to the same conclusion. I think a lot of Canadians, like myself, are coming out of the NDP closet this election; it’s a hypothesis that still has to be proven at the polls.

Staring on April 8th, and beginning in Quebec, the NDP started an almost unbroken surge in the overnight tracking polls conducted by Nanos Research. They’ve gone from about 14% in the national polls to 31.6% as of yesterday, leapfrogging the floundering Liberal’s on April 26th and closing the gap with the Harper Conservatives to just 6 points (just outside the margin of error). It makes you wonder what might happen if the election was to go on for another week or ten days.

A lot remains to be seen for this surge in support. Suddenly ridings with almost no NDP infrastructure are in play. In these ridings the all-important work of identifying, through weeks and weeks of phone calls and house-to-house visits, and then mobilizing the vote has not been done. Voters are left to their own devises to find their way to the polling stations.

As one NDP volunteer and former candidate recently told me, “they can get themselves to the voting booth” doesn’t always work out. People are forgetful, and distracted, and sometimes a little lazy or uninspired. If things are going well for their party, they think: “What does it matter if I vote?” If things are going poorly, they think: “My vote won’t make a difference.”

In 2006 I volunteered as a riding captain for David Cubberley in the provincial BC riding of South Sannich. I had a team of half a dozen volunteers and we spent twelve hours making phone calls to “pull the vote.” We had another two volunteers who, all day long, took calls from us directing them to pick up voters and get them to the polling stations. We had a dozen volunteers inside those polling stations “marking the vote.” Every time someone on our identified supporter list cast a ballot, we marketed it down, and once an hour we updated all of our call lists. Some people got three or four calls from us until they voted. In the end we estimated we got 70% of our identified voters to the poll, and we won, but not by a landslide.

Organization makes a difference in an election.

But so does hope. And so does passion. And I think what we’re seeing in Canada right now is a whole segment of our society who have come out of the closet and realized that it’s OK to identify with the left-of-centre NDP. In the past they’ve parked their support elsewhere – Conservative, Green, Liberal or BLOC – but this year, this time, it’s OK to say, “I’m voting NDP.”

This year, I am too.

If I was still living in the federal riding of Saanich Gulf Islands I’d be voting for my old friend and colleague, and current Green Party leader, Elizabeth May. Canada needs her in Parliament. Her election to the House could be the single greatest outcome of this election. If I was living in Victoria still, I’d be out pounding on doors and making phone calls and pulling vote until the very last moment of this election night.

Instead, I’ve used “Vote Pair” to make sure that my ballot counts twice. I’m voting for the NDP, and specifically for Jack Layton’s leadership, in Wildrose; and a new friend in Kitchener Centre, in Ontario, is voting Liberal, where the Conservative incumbent is in a tight race with former Liberal Whip Karen Redman (300 votes separated them in 2008).

Between us, we’re hoping to change Canada for the better.