Times Square , NYC

October 2019 

I sat down on the cool stone bench at the corner of Times Square, patiently watching vehicles squeeze through the endless bottleneck of traffic. Seated next to a few XR friends, my body felt vibrantly energized, and at the same time edgy with anticipation and anxiety. Closing my eyes, I allowed the cool breaths of October air to flow deep into my chest and abdomen, slowly mellowing out the tingling nerves that had crept into my limbs and extremities. Even at the bottom of this flashing concrete jungle, peace was possible. A friend leaned over to me and whispered, “Any moment now.” I looked over at Brother Phap Man, exchanging a glance of faith and a half-smile as we internally prepared for love in action.

Among the vehicles stopping and starting through the intersection, an SUV towing a 60 foot covered trailer suddenly stopped right in the middle of the street. “Go, go, go!”, I heard voices excitedly around me. In a flash, about 75 of us were darting out of every invisible street corner and into the intersection towards the motionless vehicle. Nearly 20 people started stripping off the canvas covering a large neon green boat, while a dozen others blocked incoming traffic from both sides. Another 20 or so joined arms while forming a circular blockade to protect those focused on fastening themselves with cables, locks, and super glue to the bottom, inside, and sides of the bright green vessel that read in large bold black letters, “Extinction Rebellion.” Hundreds of pedestrians stood blank faced with jaws dropped and wide stupefied eyes, wondering if this was some chaotic road scene emergency, or an impeccably orchestrated street spectacle at the heart of the city’s business district.

Order of Interbeing member and meditation teacher Shea Reister leaps over the canvas before quickly and mindfully locking himself to the boat with steel cables.

Within a few minutes, about 40 of us had gathered in a ‘soft hold’, linking arms at our elbows in solidarity to encircle the boat and its ordainment of a dozen human glue-ons. To the captivated and growing audience of bystanders around us, it must have looked like some kind of flashmob performance offering heartfelt entertainment in contrast to the monotonous orders of the workday. We were a colorful bunch of demonstrators with many of us holding flags of diverse countries being devastated by climate change, and others wearing orange life-vests to both highlight the festivity of our moment as well as dramatize the impending doom of rising oceans.  The best view of the event was held by our youngest activist superhero: a brave 16 year old boy standing on top of the boat with his hands locked around the mast, his feet superglued below, and his whole body silently yet loudly sounding an alarm for the plight of his generation.

Having fully secured our vessel in the street, and standing in stable formation, I felt an almost overwhelming combination of feelings, ranging from triumphant exaltation to heart pounding excitement and fear. It’s not every day that one risks running into the street to defiantly disrupt downtown traffic and risk arrest. I checked in with my body’s needs, as the intense adrenaline rush had resulted in some blocked pain in my chest. I closed my eyes and took refuge in my breathing again, relaxing attention into my body, and sensing the stability and strength of the earth pressing up into the soles of my feet, supporting my entire body’s weight. After a few minutes, the tensions in my chest lifted effortlessly, and I brought my attention back to the chaotic celebration around us.

Dozens of police were quickly trickling in by motorcycle and foot from different directions between the stopped traffic. At the same time, I started heard songs of passionate enthusiasm coming towards us. The Extinction Rebellion rally of a few hundred people taking place several blocks away had finally marched its way to meet us. As they eventually saw us holding the intersection, I watched their faces light up with exhilaration towards us. Their cries of joy looked like a geyser of pent up pain and grief that finally bursts itself through as a fountain of exuberant celebration. I felt overwhelmed with relief and gratitude to witness their vibrant support in such a vulnerable moment.

My fears of defying society’s rules, of ‘disobeying’ the powers that be, of being arrested and going to jail, or having a red stain on my record had all completely left me at that moment. Even the financial high-rises looming dominantly over us, under which I often feel very powerless and small had somehow crumbled in their stature before me. Their indomitable presence no longer felt oppressively unshakable in their weight of power over us. Instead, as a community we had conquered our own fears, and were burying even more powerful seeds of rebellion, hope, and renewal right in the belly of this beast called denial. Standing there with my Gaia bodhissatvas, standing in solidarity with the earth and her most vulnerable beings, I looked out into a crowd of myriad faces, and smiled from the depths of my soul as if I was looking directly into the eyes of my children and all future descendents. My deepest fears of abandoning or turning away from them and their lives out of despair and cowardice had vanished.

I started noticing hundreds of people pressed up against the endless sea of glass walls running high and low surrounding Times Square as well as dozens of suited business women and men coming out of the buildings to check out the scene. How many of them deeply questioned the consequences of climate change that day? How many people felt the tensions of internal dilemma rise to their hearts that hour?  I prayed that this demonstration would humbly inspire them to question their own roles and responsibility towards our earth and future generations.

In less than 15 minutes, we were surrounded by over 70 NYPD uniforms. A young, short, and gentle yet stoic faced male officer told me to stand up as I was under arrest. Our trainings in nonviolent civil disobedient action had clearly guided us to cooperate, never resisting arrest or even going limp. I placed my hands parallel to each other, rather than crossed, knowing that the cuffs wouldn’t be as tight. But to my surprise, he secured them very loose anyways, even softer than the hand cuff ropes I had felt as a child while playing cops and robbers with my neighborhood friends. As a group of predominantly white middle class activists, we had it incomparably easy in contrast to black and brown skinned friends who’ve been historically and systematically subjected to much harsher treatment from this city’s law enforcement. As a group of white dudes risking arrest, we had little to fear from law enforcement, and law enforcement showed little fear of us.

As I stood there in front of the police, waiting to be escorted to the arrestee bus, people in the crowd were sending messages of support and gratitude from every direction. One woman, with tears in her eyes, kept saying, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you”. Another woman was blowing us kisses with her hands. As I walked to the jail bus, a smile was bursting forth from my heart, and I could not believe how happy that I felt, standing there in the middle of Times Square, a policeman escorting me away. I was about to visit jail for the first time in my life, and it was a true moment of joy.

‘Peace is every step’: Plum Village Dharma Teacher Phap Man enjoys mindful steps towards the jail bus.

Elder Sacrifice

We sat in our caged bus for about an hour and a half, waiting for the strategic operations unit to finish dissolving superglue and slicing through the steel cables still holding our last demonstrators aboard the ship. We weren’t moving, and I wasn’t going anywhere that day either, except for the city jailhouse. I had time to relax and reflect on the significance of our actions that morning.

‘So why all the drama?’, you may ask. ‘How does getting arrested help our earth and prevent worsening effects of climate change?’ The short answer is that time is running out and the stakes are unbelievably high. In 2018, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released a report saying that we have 12 years to drastically turn around our emissions output, or else we will certainly reach a drastic tipping point that will set off extreme global climate consequences. The environmental movement in the last several decades has largely focused on encouraging consumers to limit their own carbon budget, and yet our CO2 emissions are still increasing every year!  Between 100 and 200 species are going extinct every day, and we are going through the middle of the 6th mass extinction of our planet. Citing thousands of studies, the IPCC reports conclude with high degrees of confidence that climate changes and ocean warming are anthropogenically induced. Our governments have all this information and yet they are still paralyzed to respond. Extinction Rebellion was launched worldwide last year in response to this report and inadequate governmental measures to protect our planet and all those at risk.

When a vast part of the population desperately wants a particular issue to change, but the rules of the game prevent its solutions, then civil disobedience can become a catalyst for social transformation. Extinction Rebellion was founded in nonviolent social movement theory and anti-oppression work, modeled after historically successful movements in the past, like the civil rights and suffrage movements in the US, Ghandi’s Satyagraha movement in India, among many others. Any movement bringing foundational change must be unequivocally committed to nonviolence inside and out.

Peaceful protests that block business as usual are not only annoying and costly, but they brings tons of public attention and unearths a growing societal dilemma that becomes too difficult to ignore. People are forced to ask themselves, ’Do we support the government and police to continue repressing these activists? Or do we support the movement’s requests for decarbonizing our economy and stronger environmental protection?’ The government can do one or the other – repress or collaborate. Further forceful repression fuels the dilemma and calls more people to question whether they side with the demonstrators or the government. The more people arrested, the more attention is created, and the more the public struggles with facing the deeper questions of the crisis, especially what side they are on. Inevitably, as the root problem worsens over time, the movement expands exponentially… until a breaking point cracks open with solutions.

‘Rebellion Week’ in Melbourne, Australia, October 2019

As a middle class American born white guy with a graduate degree and professional merits, risking arrest has relatively insignificant negative consequences for my life, yet a potentially huge social and environmental impact. Many teenagers, especially young people of color, are asking for their elders, particularly those with white privilege to take an ‘elder sacrifice’. So many young people wish that they could also take a stand of civil disobedience for the plight of earth justice, social justice, and racial justice. But if they want to go to college and take out student loans, a misdemeanor on their record, even one based on love for the earth, can seriously screw things up. So they are asking others to step forward, and put our bodies on the line for their future, and the future of many other human, animal, and plant species. Thus, being arrested in this spirit is a kind of gift to them and the planet they will inhabit.

Being arrested isn’t the best option or even a reasonable one for many people. That’s partly why it’s so right for me! I don’t have any personal trauma with police authorities; I didn’t grow up in a community that suffered from police brutality and discrimination; my legal residential status in the country is not threatened; I don’t have any reason to fear that police will treat me more harshly than others; I have little to lose economically, except for a modest fine and needing to travel back down to the city for my violation court date; and I’m not afraid that my health or personal safety are at any peril from law enforcement. Generally I feel quite safe with criminal justice system, and that is an enormous privilege for me to do something positive with. Since my basic needs and survival are not threatened in any way with the law, this makes me the perfect arrest-able candidate!

XR sisters offering an arrest for climate change, Times Square, NYC, October 2019

Iron Bars Meditation Hall

A few hours later, we arrived in the jail. There we were together, without cell phones, internet, books, or food; instead, we had several rows of benches, a water dispenser, a couple of toilets and sinks behind a chest high wall, plenty of iron bars, and an unknown number of hours on our hands, and each other. I thought to myself, ‘Without all the iron bars, we’d have the same ideal conditions for a great retreat center!’ After such an emotional event, what a perfect combination for connecting to ourselves and each other.

After conversing for an hour or two, I was ready for some quiet time. When I told a few guys what I was about to go meditate, their faces lit up. “Oh that sounds perfect. Do you mind if I join you?”, one guy eagerly asked. I checked around with others, and it was clear that people were craving some silence and inner relaxation after such an adrenaline thumping morning.

A few other practitioners and beloved friends of mine had also finally arrived in the cell after being processed: Brother Phap Man, a monk whom I knew from Plum Village and Blue Cliff Monasteries for over a dozen years; and Shea Reister a vibrant Wake Up facilitator (young adult groups) and Order of Interbeing member in the Plum Village tradition, with years of experience in environmental actions, and building communities of mindfulness practice. I was overjoyed to see them, knowing we would spend the rest of the day in jail together, and could offer our meditation practice to the group.

I checked in with them and another XR organizer, who had already been brainstorming some mindful exercises for our group while on the bus. We started by offering a guided meditation for anyone who wanted to join us in the second half of the cell. To my surprise, at least 35 of the men joined!  We hardly had space on the benches for everyone to sit. Meanwhile, the other 5 to 10 had some quiet time to themselves, which was probably very helpful as well.

Wake Up London helped facilitate daily meditations during Rebellion Week, October 2019

I sat cross legged on the bench, using the concrete wall behind me as a support for my back. I didn’t have a bell, so I tuned into the soothing tone of my voice to gently guide the brothers into practice. I focused mostly on awareness of the body, guiding people through a simple body scan, relaxing and releasing tension from the soles of our feet all the way up to the muscles and skin on our scalp. After several minutes, my awareness sank into the subtle spaces of breathing, and softened into the intimately quiet body of men around me. Tensions lifted out of our pores, the gentle buzzing of our minds hummed together, and the boundaries of separation within and around us quietly melted, as the iron bars and officers gradually dissipated into a greater whole. There was no jail or confinement, no inside or outside, no one being held, no one holding. There was just this ripe shared awareness of being alive, the soft subtle movements of breathing, murmurs of careful shifting in the room, and the sense of being held within a community of practice right here.

Towards the end of our meditation, I started hearing what sounded like angels chanting harmonies in the distance. Were they prison angels? Heavenly spirits of the civil rights movements from decades ago here to befriend us? My mind playfully delighted at such thoughts. Down the long halls of the jail, separated into several cells, our XR sisters were connecting hearts and spirits with one another through the jail walls via vocal melodies. Perhaps they couldn’t see each other, but they could hear and harmonize with one another in even more powerful ways. We couldn’t make out the words, but the distinct overlapping melodies and choruses came in strong, like waves gently rolling and tumbling over us, one after another, falling on an invisible island of healing and strength. In our silence we found peace and stability; in their song, they shared healing and joy.

Evening meditation in Trafalgar Square. Between 200 and 300 people were arrested every day during Rebellion Week in London, 2019

Healing our Masculinity

After our meditation, later that afternoon, Brother Phap Man guided us in another set of practices, integrating mindfulness with masculinity. We gathered in a circle, with everyone just barely fitting into one fairly circular formation. He started by guiding us in breathing exercises for 10 minutes to ground and deepen our presence with ourselves and each other. Then he offered a short teaching. “I know that all of us here have a deep calling to confront and help transform difficult things in our world out there – forces that are destroying our earth and oppressing communities. But if we really want to transform things out there, then we have to know how to encounter and transform the pain and fear inside ourselves first. If we can be compassionately and fearlessly present with what’s inside of us first, then we’ll absolutely be strong enough to embrace and transform the greatest challenges out there.” We were all hooked. His brown robes gave him the pulpit to be heard, but it was his words and presence that gave him their hearts.

Exercises that challenge the habits of typical masculine emotional expression can be a hard sell. But if there’s one thing that these men respected, it was challenging the forces causing environmental destruction. They knew he was telling them the truth: if you can encounter and befriend your shadows within, then the monsters of the world are no match for you.

On this premise, he had the sway to test these guys’ inner level of comfort. He invited everyone to split into pairs, and gave instructions for a two minute silent eye gazing practice. Here we were, 40 dudes inside a New York city jail, silently staring into each other’s eyes for minutes that seemed like eternity. I could hardly believe he was going there!  But no one turned away or left the room; everyone stayed with it. Silent dominated our cell with each breath, and time seemed to shrivel into each other’s eyes as we watched our reflections stare back into our depths.

Sitting Meditation in front of New York City Hall, Rebellion Week, October 2019

“Now slowly close our eyes, and bring your attention inside”, he guided us. “Whatever you are experiencing, honor it, and feel the care and kindness towards your own being. Whatever is there, just love and care of it with your whole heart.” He was pairing the practice of lovingkindness, known as ‘maitri’, with this intimately vulnerable eye gazing exercise. After a few minutes, we were back to the eyes of our beloved man once again. Then we closed our eyes again, focusing on what we appreciated, loved, and enjoyed about our friend, no matter how closely we knew him, another practice known as “mudita” or symphathetic joy. We had another round of pupil watching, followed by a reflection on the pain and suffering in that person’s life, the practice of “karuna” or compassion.

We continued like this for a few more rounds, followed by several minutes for each of us to share about our experiences while the other person listened silently. Then we came back to the larger circle, and Brother Man invited people to share with the whole group anything that was alive for them. A slightly older man acknowledged, “I’ve never felt this close to a group of men before, with this depth of openness and realness. Thank you to all for being here.” Another more gruff and woodsy looking fellow shared, “I’ve never had the experience of looking into another man’s eyes before like that. I felt both love and some fear at the same time. But I appreciated the vulnerability and acceptance that was there in both of us.” A middle aged man shared, “I’ve been wanting to do a men’s group like this for some time now; I just never thought that it would be in jail!” We all burst out laughing, remembering the irony of our present situation. Another man recounted recognizing the face of an old friend from high school during the demonstration as he was getting arrested. His friend, however, was in uniform. He teared up with emotion, acknowledging that he was acting on behalf of his friend’s teenage kids just as much as his own children. Nearly everyone who spoke expressed a depth of gratitude for all the men present in the room, and especially to Brother Man for leading us.

Meanwhile during all this, a few guys noticed some police officers curiously peering into our cell. They were checking out this rare male bonding session, and looking at us as if we were men from another planet!  Although I didn’t see them watching us myself, I can only imagine the looks on their faces as they watched our jail cell full of men staring silently into each others’ eyes for minutes on end, over and over again. While they may have laughed or poked fun at a scene so peculiar to their cultural norms, I wonder whether they were also touched by our gentle, kind and fearless presence that day.

We ended by singing a few songs together, led by Shea. Forty-five men singing together in a jail cell is a brilliant sound and heart warming site if you ever have the chance to hear it. The song goes:

Let the life I lead speak for me.

When I get to the end of the road,

And I lay down my heavy load,

Let the life I lead, speak for me

Students rally before occupying the administration office at Columbia University, New York, October 2019

Back to Community

After about 9 hours together, they began letting us go in groups of four to five. I honestly felt a little sad leaving this beautiful community of men I had bonded with, but I was also hungry and excited to get home as well. We walked out of the jail and were met by a small group of smiling and waving people in puffy jackets waiting on the cold street corner. “You must be the jailhouse welcoming committee!”, I said laughing. “Oh no”, a woman explained. “We’re here to direct you towards the welcoming party!” “Welcoming party?!”, I asked incredulously. We walked down the street, and around the corner we were met by a crowd of about 40 to 50 people hanging out, conversing lightheartedly, and playing music on the sidewalk. It really did look like a party, and when they saw us coming, they all started cheering for us!  I didn’t even know these people! Yet here they were, welcoming and celebrating us with big hearts of joy as if we were heroes. In addition, there was a long buffet of hot homemade food and delicious snacks stretching over three tables! Curry, pasta, Chinese food, salads, drinks, cookies, and fruit…we had enough goods to celebrate all night!

The man who co-led my nonviolent civil disobedience training was also there with his young daughter. “How are you doing?”, he asked with caring attention. “I feel wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Really?!”, he laughed. “Well that’s great.” “Seriously”, I added, “This was one of the best days ever. I can’t wait to come back together and do it again!”

Extinction Rebellion is ground swelling global environmental movement that is unequivocally committed to nonviolence and telling the truth about the science and consequences of climate change. There is a strong component of regenerative community that welcomes and prioritizes meditation, art, and other healing elements in our work. For more info, check out rebellion.earth … or read ‘This is Not a Drill’.

“Let the life I lead, speak for me”