An atheist on the spiritual transformation of the world | An interview with Pancho Ramos-Stierle
First published in The MOON magazine
Francisco (“Pancho”) Ramos-Stierle was pursuing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley when he learned that the University’s Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories had contracted with the federal government to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons. The news transformed his life: he “stopped cooperating” with the institution and became a more involved activist. As a result of that decision, he has at times been houseless, living with friends, or in what he calls “the Redwood Cathedral.” For the past three years he has lived in the East Oakland neighborhood known as Fruitvale — a gang-torn and graffiti-tagged part of the city known for gang violence. Ramos-Stierle counts the police as one of the gangs, an impression justified in the film Fruitvale Station, about the shooting of a 22-year-old black man by BART police.
An avid student of Gandhi, Ramos-Stierle practices ahimsa, which is popularly translated as “nonviolence” in thoughts, words, and deeds. He is a fulltime volunteer of the nonprofit organization, ServiceSpace, and a founding resident of Casa de Paz (House of Peace) at Canticle Farm, an urban organic farm worked entirely by volunteers, with product that is distributed as a gift throughout the community. The residents of Casa de Paz use no intoxicants; practice two hours of daily meditation; eat a vegan diet; and keep no locks on the doors. Anyone can enter at any time — and they do: teens seeking a hang-out; adults volunteering to work in the garden or coming by to pick up produce; neighbors looking for friendly comfort and support for whatever it is they’re going through.
Ramos-Stierle gained a bit of unsought publicity a few years ago when he was arrested for meditating at Occupy Oakland. Images of a peaceful, smiling Pancho being taken away in handcuffs were all over the Internet. A more recent video of Pancho’s life at Casa de Paz is on KarmaTube, inspiring me to interview him for this issue of The MOON.
Pancho lives without salary; Casa de Paz is supported entirely by donations, which are never requested. People are inspired to give, or they don’t give, and Pancho is content with that. If anyone is peaceably defying the conventional wisdom of what it means to live the good life, it is Pancho Ramos-Stierle. He spoke with me by computer phone from Casa de Paz. — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You seem to be living by a different definition of “success” than most Americans. Can you tell us what your definition is and how you arrived at it?
Ramos-Stierle: That’s a loaded question, because it involves both definitions of success and what it means to be “American.” From my perspective, an American is any person who lives in any part of the continent — from the tip of Patagonia to the top of the Arctic Circle. My definition of success is taken from our indigenous ancestors, who measure success in the health and happiness of their children; in the vibrancy of their environment; in things that elder David Korten calls “real wealth” versus “phantom wealth,” which is the wealth of Wall Street, bank accounts, cars, houses, and the abstractions of conventional currency that we call “money.”
Coming from the part of the planet we call Mexico City, I grew up in a very competitive environment. The cruelty of greed is fueled by competition and comparison. I had a brain that was good at retaining data — a well-developed left brain — so I usually brought home good report cards. That’s why I say that I’m a “recovering left-brainer.”
I was also good at sports — again success by comparison and competition — so I ended up being able to get scholarships to colleges and universities. You could say that I was so successful that I was living my dream — being paid to study astrobiology, which is the study of life in the universe as we know it — and as we don’t know it. Because there is no “astrobiology” graduate program at UC Berkeley, the closest thing was astrophysics, and I was working with an incredible team of scientists searching for extra-solar planets in the galaxy.
Though I was “successful,” I witnessed many of my colleagues suffering as their programs were shut down and their budgets reduced to zero. Why? Because the government of this part of the planet needed to pay for killing human beings on the other side of the planet, in the part we call Iraq. This is what this government calls “responsibility.” Cutting funds for research, education, and healthcare at home to pay for killing human beings overseas.
So, though I was happy that my own research program was intact, I also empathized with the situation of my colleagues — which reflected a crisis of priorities. Of course, this crisis of priorities is visible in so many places. We have the wealth to eradicate poverty, but we choose not to do it. That is a crisis of priorities, not of economics. So I began to evolve my definition of success. It wasn’t just about me getting to do what I wanted to do; it was finding a way for all of us to align our hearts and our minds so that they are working together. I soon found that it involved quieting the mind so that it can hear what the heart says. Or, another way to say it is “How to combine the ancient wisdom of our ancestors, who knew that success is happy, healthy children, a harmonious community, and a healthy environment, with modern technology so that we use our technology for the well-being of all.”
My definition of success also includes accepting reality as it is, which is not always pretty; it’s often painful. Facing that is also success. You don’t make up a story about it, or hide it under the carpet, but instead success requires you to be as authentic about it as you can.
The MOON: Can you say more about that? That’s another thing I appreciate about your spirituality: you don’t slap a smiley face on everything.
Ramos-Stierle: [Laughs] We are so conditioned to react to the things we like or don’t like. If there’s something I like I want more of it; and if there’s something I don’t like I want to make it go away; the famous “fight or flight” response to a tense situation. How do we create neuropaths so that we could live from an understanding that we are love? Then we could react to nothing, but respond with love to everything, moment by moment.
What is the key for dismantling all that madness that comes from believing that happiness comes from outside of ourselves, from getting this title, or accumulating this conventional currency, or phantom wealth, and, instead, recognizing that we are part of this infinite web of love and life? We are part of a magnificent unfolding love story that the universe has spent 13.7 billion years making on this incredible, beautiful place in the cosmos we call Earth. How do we embody that love in very pragmatic ways so that we can love not only our friends and family — that is easy — but also love the people who maybe we don’t like?
The truth is, we don’t need to like them; we only need to love them, which means to say that “I have room in my heart for us to live in harmony on this gorgeous planet.” That, for me, is another aspect of success: the ability to shut down that nonstop “judgment and reaction machine” and respond in love, moment by moment, no matter what is happening. Responding in love gives us the freedom to acknowledge what is really happening; to not have to tell a story about it, or push it away, or justify or rationalize it. We can tell the truth about it because we’re going to respond to it with love.
The MOON: How did you arrive at this understanding? How did you diverge from the conventional definition of success?
Ramos-Stierle: There was a lot of unlearning I had to do. We have to unlearn “unlove.” I remember how long it took me to really understand the teachings of my mom, who is a very emotionally intelligent human being. I, on the other hand, was in my head most of the time as a boy, full of the awe and wonder of science. I would bring home these middle and high school report cards full of A-plusses, but my mom would say “I give you an F-minus in human capacities because you keep teasing your sister, your classmates, and you disrespect your teachers. What you need to do is develop human quality.” But I was too cocky to really understand what my mom was saying. My attitude was, “Whatever, Mom. Life is great, and I need no sermons to know that I’m acing school.”
My dad had taught me critical thinking, but I finally realized that my mom had been teaching me critical feeling. When I put the two together that gave me more humility — to recognize the unconditional love of all the mothers on the planet, including our mother the Earth, who loves us unconditionally too. We live in a sexist culture that values the rational over the intuitive; the head over the heart; men over women; technology over the Earth. So we’ve all got unlearning to do. We need intelligence to convert data into knowledge, and we need experience to convert knowledge into wisdom. Who are the people with the experience to honor the feminine, the Earth, and the heart? The indigenous people, who’ve lived harmoniously with their environments for thousands of years. We need to have the humility to recognize that, although we have all this technology, we are really messing up the planet. It’s the first time in three million years that the Earth has reached this level of CO2 in the atmosphere — 400 parts per million — and these temperatures across the globe. These are serious disruptions. So we’d better learn a little humility and put some of our technologies down until we learn a little more wisdom.
Albert Einstein, who achieved a good balance of the head and the heart and a consciousness to become a citizen of the world, said with regard to nuclear technology that we are like three-year-olds playing with a razor. We’re just cutting ourselves, and we need to stop. But I say that really we’re like two-year-olds. If you tell a three-year-old to drop the razor, he will listen to you; with a two-year-old you’ll have to go and take it from him. With nuclear energy, we should put it on the shelf for half the half-life of plutonium (Pu-239), which is 12,000 years. If humanity can develop more compassion and wisdom in that time, maybe we can revisit the technology, so that instead of using it to kill each other, poison the planet, and devastate ecosystems for thousands and thousands of years, maybe we can do something more productive with it. Maybe even erase the imaginary lines that humans draw in the dirt, for example. Technology is like a knife, it can be used to stab a brother in the back, or to break bread and build community.
The MOON: Tell us more about your spiritual path. I’m guessing that a lot of people had mothers who told them to be nicer to their sisters and they haven’t become the “love warrior” you have become.
Ramos-Stierle: Hmmm…In my tradition, which is secular, it’s a long story, sister Leslee — a 13.7 billion-year-old story, our cosmic age — and we better act accordingly. Some people call us atheists. I remember my dad used to tell me “You do not have religion so you have to be an even better example of love, kindness, respect and courage. You have even more responsibility than other people.” I used to roll my eyes, of course, like most teenagers, thinking, “Here’s my dad lecturing me again.” But it’s awesome how parents plant these seeds in you, even though you don’t realize it at the time.
I also had a great principal, El Maestro Pepe (the teacher Pepe), at a wonderful school in Mexico City where we learned by doing. Little did I know that he was a refugee from the part of the planet we call Spain in the time of Franco, where he’d been an anarchist in opposition to the horrendous things that Franco did. This school didn’t give us written homework or tests. Instead we played chess; we had workshops; we conducted experiments; we learned about geometry and music. You didn’t have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. El Maestro Pepe was always talking to us about “res-pon-sa-bi-li-dad.” Responsibility. He planted that seed, and when it got a little water the seed cracked open. And then the seed heard about light from a star, but the words didn’t mean anything until, when it had grown a little bit, the seed broke through the soil and felt the first rays of the sun and became a sprout — and then the seed understood what “light from a star” meant.
I think that’s what happened to me. I had so many great teachers caring for me, the little seed. I think of my grandmother, who was mischievous and always had time to play with me. I think of my grandpa, who made the best Mexican rice — in a time when men didn’t cook. I had this teacher always talking about responsibility. And my mom telling me that good grades and a good brain were not enough; that I really needed to go into my heart to be a good human being. All those factors influenced me and finally started bubbling up to the point that, when I heard that the University of California’s Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories, together with the administration of brother George Bush, were developing new hydrogen bombs I realized immediately: This is unacceptable. This is really crossing my ethical line. I don’t care if I only have one more year to get my Ph.D., or one second, I don’t want to receive a title from an institution that is putting at risk the survival of our species.
All of a sudden, the little seed that had been growing in the dark, in the shelter of the soil, which it needed at the time, broke through and felt the sun. And from that moment on I knew which direction I needed to go. I needed to reach high for the sun. Then the seed started feeling its roots going deeper and honoring where it had come from. The roots start connecting with other roots and the seed noticed that it wasn’t alone; there were others growing towards the sun with it. Some of them were giant trees and I realized that I didn’t need to — and I couldn’t possibly — do this work by myself. We all need the ecosystem — the bacteria, the birds, the bees, and all the others — that is taking care of us. I am just one little plant with all the others; that’s how I see myself. I’m one little plant with all the others, but I know which way the sun is; and I know that I’m not going to cooperate with an institution that would threaten our world’s existence.
Gandhi had an atheist friend whose name was Gora, who wrote a little book called An Atheist with Gandhi. One of Gandhi’s primary programs was to eradicate untouchability. What is untouchability? In contemporary terms it would be something like migrants are experiencing in this part of the planet at this time. They face constant attempts to crush their dignity and disrupt their families. Gandhi invited Gora to head his untouchability eradication effort and because he was so good at it, he even asked Gora and his family to come and live with him at his ashram, his community, where there were Hindus and Muslims, and now atheists. A very righteous Hindu asked Gandhi in front of Gora, “Bapu (father) what is your religion?” He expected Gandhi to say “Hindu,” making Gora feel bad. But Gandhi said, very deliberately, “Look at the words I say, the thoughts I have, the clothes I wear, the food I eat, and the things I do. The total sum of that, that is my religion.”
On another occasion Gandhi said something like, “If you’re a Christian, be the best Christian you can be. If you’re a Muslim, be the best Muslim you can be. If you’re a Hindu, be the best Hindu you can be. If you’re a Jain, be the best Jain you can be.” I say, “If you’re secular, be the best secular you can be.”
I think that is needed. We need to honor diversity at the surface level and unity at the heart level, so that we can include all of these perspectives and move towards a more compassionate, harmonious Earth. I think that is the task of our time — and we are ready for it.
This is a landmark year in the history of humanity because for the first time we have direct evidence that there are other Earth-like planets in the universe. In all these thousands of years of human history, we now recognize the potential for three thousand extra-solar planets — that is planets orbiting other stars. As we are speaking, scientists are building a catalog of other Earth-like planets and super Earths. We’re experiencing a new Renaissance of humanity — like when Galileo grabbed those lenses and instead of spying on his neighbors, looked into space and discovered that perhaps Copernicus was right: the Earth does move around the sun. In the same way, the discovery of all these other worlds “out there” is sparking a very important shift in consciousness: that the Earth is but one country and all living beings are her citizens. So we need to respect each other and live in harmony with the web of life.
This shift in consciousness is very important, but another element we need is direct action — to disobey with great love. How are we going to stop the madness that is destroying our hearts and the planet? Take the prison-industrial complex. If you don’t like it, you can have protests, and boycotts, and anything else you can think of to draw attention to this institution that you don’t like. But then you’ll also need a third element, an alternative institution, or you’re just going to inherit systems you don’t like. If we’re not going to cooperate with the institutions that threaten our existence, we need constructive alternatives. This is something that Gandhi also taught. We need institutions aligned with the flow of life. That could be Permaculture, restorative justice, the gift ecology, free currencies, renewable energies, independent media, preventive medicine, et cetera. Combine the three of them — shift in consciousness, direct action, and alternative institutions — and then you have, as our dear elder, the Buddhist and deep ecology teacher Joanna Macy says, “The Great Turning.”
The MOON: So you meditate; you know that we’re all connected at the heart level; you know that the law of love trumps the law of man, but you don’t call this knowledge “God”?
Ramos-Stierle: [Laughs] Twenty years ago if you’d asked me this question you would have been left listening to the dial tone, wondering, where did he go? But that’s been another one of my spiritual revelations: that I need to find spiritual translations so that we can talk to each other across our different understandings.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, all we really need to know is the language of the heart. And to learn that, you just need to eat with people; laugh with them; cry with them, and so on. But if we want to have a cognitive conversation, then we have to agree on some terminology, or find translations for terminology that is different from our own.
Twenty years ago, when I heard the word “prayer,” I got tweaked. I thought it meant talking to a deity that we have no proof of. But if I translated “prayer” to mean “contemplation” or “meditation,” I found myself on common ground again. The same thing happened when I heard the word “faith.” But then I translated, “positive thinking,” and I was okay. Then came the word “God.” Now I can translate “God” into “Universal Love” and be fine. But at first the term “God” really troubled me because I didn’t understand how people could call the unknown “God.” Then I likened it to the way scientists know there will always be questions that they won’t be able to answer in our lifetimes. Take “the Big Bang.” What if there was more than one “Big Bang?” What if there were three? What if there is more than one universe? What if there are multiverses? We won’t be able to answer those questions in our lifetimes, so what does it matter if we call all that we can’t know or understand “God,” or “Philosophy,” or “Hypothesis”? What does it matter, so long as we are harmonious human beings and respect the perspectives of other people? What really hit home to me was that, not only is God that unknown piece, but it is also the piece that lives in our hearts, moment by moment by moment. And if we really pay attention, there’s no choice but to acknowledge universal love. If we really listen, we will always be acting on the choice-less choice, which is to follow love, which is our purpose for being on this planet.
So now I don’t get triggered anymore and I can hear the three-letter word God and continue the conversation.
The MOON: Thank you for not hanging up on me.
That was a really breathtaking story — about the moment you realized what Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories were up to and left your studies…
Ramos-Stierle: Forgive me for interrupting, but I didn’t “leave,” or “quit.” I stopped cooperating with the university. It might have looked the same from the physical perspective — Pancho is not at UC Berkeley anymore — but it was a very intentional, conscious decision that many of us took: to not cooperate with the institution any longer. That’s the first course of action when you see an injustice that is hurting everyone: you stop cooperating with it. It’s one of the first rules of principled nonviolence, integral nonviolence.
The MOON: That’s actually where I’m going with this question: You stopped cooperating with UC Berkeley so that you wouldn’t be complicit in the creation and justification of nuclear weapons. But aren’t we all complicit in the destruction of the Earth and the exploitation of others in countless ways?
Ramos-Stierle: Yes. Oh yes. And that’s why it’s so imperative that we become aware of the ways we’re doing that. The world is made up of all of these incredible interconnections in space and time. If we’re not aware of how we’re connected with other beings, then we don’t realize how we’re harming those connections. If we just buy our food from the grocery store, for example, we don’t know how that food was grown, or who picked that food, or what their working and living conditions were like. Perhaps it was grown with chemicals and pesticides that are harmful to the soil and the bees and even to the people who eat it. Or perhaps it was grown by a farmer who put a lot of love and care into it. And how does the food reach our table? And why did the laborer who picked the food leave his home and family and cross a border to obtain conventional currency?
Once we are aware of the interconnections then it’s possible to start reducing harm. It might be impossible to cause no harm to anyone, but at least we can start to reduce the harm we cause; and we can become humble, knowing that our lives literally derive from the suffering of others. We are all complicit. We all owe each other our lives.
So perhaps we can bike for thirty minutes instead of using a car and dinosaur juice. That doesn’t eliminate harm, but it reduces it. And we can also start looking for the joy and creativity in our choices. For example, if I bike instead of drive, I get exercise and I enjoy my neighborhood. I’m helping my environment and I’m saving some conventional currency. And it might even be fun!
Still, there will be many interconnections we don’t know and can’t avoid harming. For example, this phone conversation we’re having now. Where does the electricity come from that makes it possible? I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea. And it’s not pretty. That’s why autonomy is so important: to base our economy on local goods and resources as much as possible, so that we know what the interconnections are and have a deeper appreciation for the processes that create these goods.
The MOON: Yes. And even cellphones and computers contain rare earth elements mined from far away by workers who are exploited, if not enslaved…
Ramos-Stierle: Yes, so then we have to humbly recognize how much we owe to others. The root of the word ahimsa mean more than nonviolence, or doing no harm, in Sanskrit. It also means having a heart so full of love, generosity and courage that you have no room for resentment or violence or hatred. With this kind of heart, it is no longer a challenge for you to break laws that are unjust because you’re obeying a higher law, the law of love. That’s the ahimsa of Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and César Chávez, and Emma Goldman. It’s a positive quality, not a “double negative,” like “non-violence.” It’s a superlative positive! [Laughs]
The MOON: One of the reasons I hoped you would consent to be interviewed for this issue was because your example is so positive; you do not focus on the problems; you speak about love as the solution. Not sentimental love, but love in action. Can you tell us more about this — and perhaps even why you participated in Occupy Oakland?
Ramos-Stierle: Hmmm. I think I do focus on the problems. I see our situation as similar to people in a boat on a river and there’s a hole in the boat. The people in the bottom of the boat are closest to the hole so they see it first, and they focus on it: There’s a hole in our boat! What are we going to do about it? If we ignore the hole and focus on how lovely our trip is on the river, our boat is going to sink. Are we going to patch the hole here? Or go to shore and fix it, or what?
People of color tend to be the ones in the bottom of the boat. If we ignored the hole in the boat until it sank, wouldn’t you say we had been irresponsible? If you see a problem that is affecting a lot of people, it’s your responsibility to draw attention to it. The reason I participated in Occupy Oakland was out of responsibility — responsibility to exercise non-violence in the face of violence.
People think that the civil rights movement was about being able to drink from the same water fountain or sit at the same lunch counter as white people. But it was about far more than that. People were getting killed. They were getting hung from trees. That is living in terror.
In the same way, families in the migrant community here in Oakland are living in terror. The other day a teacher was telling me about a five-year-old girl whose parents had been kidnapped and deported. The little girl was at school, trembling, crying, incapable of doing anything but stare at the ground, sobbing. She was now being cared for by a neighbor. To be a migrant without documents right now is to live in terror because your family could be destroyed at any moment.
So being in a boat and noticing the leak requires addressing it. That’s where I choose love. I don’t want to exacerbate the fractures in our Earth Community; I want to facilitate healing them. If we see that violence is escalating — as brother Adelaja and I did in Occupy Oakland — we must escalate our nonviolence. We saw the police training with helicopters and tear gas and you name it for two straight weeks, so we knew that they were planning to use violence to break up the Occupy encampment. To be responsible, we had to ask ourselves: how do we escalate the non-violence to match it? That’s when we decided to meditate publicly. We don’t want to just be confrontational, no. But we are here, full of love; we are not going away. We are fiercely against a system that is inherently violent, unjust and racist, but our weapon is courage; is nonviolence; is to disobey with great love. That is the only thing that can transform the hearts of other people and give birth to a new understanding. We have to always love our fellow human beings, regardless of their behavior. So that was our purpose in meditating in Occupy Oakland: to escalate the nonviolence and touch the hearts of those who set out to crush us. Sometimes touching others’ hearts comes as a result of great sacrifice. But sacrifice makes room for the new to emerge.
In a way this is “giftivism” — radical acts of generosity that transform the world. One of my favorite examples of this is the work of Vinoba Bhave, who was sick with the colonial oppression of the part of the planet we call India by the British. He was so fed up that he was ready either to an armed revolutionary or a monk. Instead, he met Gandhi — and was able to become both: a spiritual warrior armed with nonviolence.
After the British left India, there was a lot of violence in the countryside: communists killing landlords for their land and landlords abusing and killing “lower caste” people. Vinoba said “There must be a third way.” So he began to walk the entire length of India engaging with landlords, face to face. He’d say, “Brother, if you have four children, think of myself as your fifth son and give me a fifth of your land. We will share it with landless people.” As a result of this, more than four million acres of land were given to the poor in what was called the Bhoodan Movement. It was the largest transfer of land carried out nonviolently, peacefully, in the history of humanity. That’s giftivism. In fact, it was reading Vinoba Bhave’s little book, Science and Self Knowledge, that helped me realize that I could not continue to cooperate with the University of California and that I needed to find another way: the total revolution of the human spirit.
What is that? It’s the inner revolution, in which you know what’s going on in your heart and your roots and you try as best you can to be non-reactive and to respond with love. That’s the inner revolution. It ripples out to the outer revolution, in which you serve your community selflessly. When you have both of these together, that’s the total revolution of the human spirit, or what I call “giftivism.” And that’s what our situation today calls for: activists to become spiritual, and the spiritual people to become activists. Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
The MOON: Do you really live “without financial currency,” completely on donations to Casa de Paz?
Ramos-Stierle: I want to say a few things about that. One is that I consider the work we do at Casa de Paz so important that it is too valuable to be sold. It is priceless. Second, one of our shared values at Casa de Paz is that we operate on a “gift ecology.” Not a “gift economy,” but a gift ecology, because we see that there are so many factors — from the invisible love magicians who are always present, to the strangers who smile at you on the sidewalk, to the people who join in our “receptive silence” meditation practices here, to the people who come to our free fruit stand on Sundays — that our quality of life is really determined by so many interactions that have no financial equivalent, and these transactions are life-sustaining, so it’s an ecology.
For example, we were talking to a neighbor, Maurelio, about all the vacant lots in our neighborhood and about how a lot of the people who live here miss farming. Next thing we knew, Maurelio had put a planter with peppers in front of the lawn of his apartment complex where about fifty families live. He waters it with a hose coming from the window of his bathroom! He was so excited about this that he got a second planter. Then we said, “How about if we have a work party to plant fruit trees?” So we did. We had an orchard workshop and we planted seventeen fruit trees: pears, apples, figs, nectarines, cherries, plums, lemons, and peaches. Now there’s a mini food forest on the side of Casa de Paz, with vegetables and flowers in the understory — broccoli and lettuce and cilantro and marigolds. It’s beautiful, and it makes people so happy to see it, to work in it, and to enjoy the fruits of it. It is maintained twenty-four/seven by volunteers.
We know that the greener a neighborhood is, the more peaceful it is. So that garden is not just a food-producer; it’s a peacekeeping force. There have been a couple of instances of near physical violence that the garden has stopped. That’s another reason we call it a gift ecology: because there’s more involved than just financial transactions. Every time someone smiles at a neighbor on the sidewalk, or has eye contact, or leaves the door open — because we never the lock the door at Casa de Paz, and most of the time it is wide open — they’re making a contribution to the gift ecology. And they’re receiving something from the gift ecology, too. People love to walk by the house on the sidewalk and see the door open and know that everyone is welcome there. The children even ask to walk to school, instead of drive, so they can see Casa de Paz at the Canticle Farm.
And yes, we still do need conventional currency for things like the rent and the water bill, but we do not write grants. We do not ask for money. That was so revolutionary to me when I first heard it. “How do you survive?” I asked. The answer is that we have to be fully immersed in the community we are serving, so that we know their needs and serve them. If you’re doing something and the community is not supporting you, then you either need to change what you’re doing, or change your community. So far we’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the major needs here and earn the support of our neighbors. I don’t know how long we’ll last, but in the meantime, we’re trying to be as aligned as we can with serving our neighbors, anchored in love, truth, and authenticity.
The MOON: Practically speaking, how do we combine the inner revolution and the outer revolution? I’m so disillusioned with spiritual people who shun activism as if it’s “negative,” or “strengthening what they would resist.” I can’t help but think they just don’t want to give up their comfort. I’m right there with them; I like to be comfortable too. And fulltime activists can be hard to take, too. They never rest; never allow others to rest. Yet you’re living a life that most people haven’t chosen. I’m assuming that you don’t have a savings account, can’t afford to take vacations, don’t have money set aside for your children’s education, and so on. Do you have any advice, or words of encouragement — or even criticism — to help us get where we need to go?
Ramos-Stierle: Well, that, sister is called “privilege.” People who have it are often not aware of all that they take for granted that other people don’t have. If you were living in a community where you felt adrenaline every time you saw a police officer because they might deport your mother, your father, your brother, your friend, you would have a very different modus operandi. That’s where empathy comes in — enabling us to understand each other’s experiences. One expression I like is: “If you eat, you are part of the movement.” What I mean by that is we are devastating the ecosystem with GMOs, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, agricultural wastes, and so on. How do we support our local farmers? We each, perhaps, could consider donating an hour a day to local food growing.
In Gandhi’s day, the focus was on the spinning wheel and creating homespun clothing. If you weren’t going to cooperate with the institution — the British Empire — that was oppressing you, you shouldn’t enrich it by giving it your clothing money. Gandhi set up spinning cooperatives so that the Indian people could create their own clothing again. Using the food example, try devoting an hour or two a day towards producing your own food. It could be composting, or bee-keeping, growing seedlings, or weeding your neighbor’s garden; supporting your local CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture buying cooperative), or cooking a healthy meal, or even washing dishes afterwards! The point is to do something that involves yourself in the local food production system so that you are not dependent upon a system that is doing harm to the Earth. Be part of a local, healthy food chain and join the planetary movement.
In India, Gandhi started with clothing; then he moved on to brick-making. These are ways of building the alternative institutions we talked about earlier. And once they had the alternative, they made bonfires with British clothing. In our contemporary food sovereignty movement, once we create our local-organic-run-by-the-people food alternatives, perhaps we can have bonfires with Monsanto’s GMO seeds, or with passports and visas.
The other thing is to spend one to two hours a day in receptive silence, or meditation, or prayer, to cultivate that peace that contributes to the inner revolution. Then, when you are motivated to act it will be from that place of inner peace and your actions are more likely to be wise responses, rather than angry reactions.
One of the things I love most about living in East Oakland is that the violence are so in your face that you cannot hide from it. There are gunshots, drug deals, gang fights, police brutality, and families being destroyed by deportation. We went to a local school to plant fruit trees with a class of fifth graders. I asked how many of them had a friend or family member who had been deported. Twenty out of thirty children raised their hands — two-thirds of the students! It seems to me that we are deforesting the hearts of our children. Doing nothing is really just another word for supporting this kind of violence.
We also showed the kids a satellite picture of the neighborhood around their school and compared it with a satellite picture of the neighborhood around an elementary school in the Piedmont district, which is one of the materially wealthy communities in Oakland. There’s a stark contrast between the two neighborhoods, just in terms of trees. But we told them, “You know what? It doesn’t have to be like that. We can start planting trees.”
Then I also said, “There’s another reforestation that’s happening, and it’s here in our hearts. We can say in this neighborhood, ‘Buenos dias,’ good morning, and look our neighbors in the eye. That, too, is wealth. That is green. That’s something we can share with our brothers and sisters in the hills, who are fearful and isolated from each other, living behind gates with their security cameras. We’re grateful that we have this to share with them.”
This is the kind of constructive program that can arise from a peaceful inner revolution and start to heal our Earth Community. I think that most spiritual teachers would say that you need to act in the face of violence; but you need to act in a skillful way so that you do not exacerbate the suffering.
The MOON: Thank you. I know that if it was our house that was burning down, we wouldn’t sit around discussing whether or not we should fight the fire because “what we resist persists.” We’d be calling 911 as soon as we smelled smoke. And it is our house burning down; our collective house.
Ramos-Stierle: Maybe, sister, what you want to do is put a link to the letter that brother Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from a Birmingham jail, where he explained why he couldn’t wait any longer to take action. Because we’re in a similar situation. We need to take wise action because our house — our planet — is burning. To do nothing is irresponsible, especially if we are in love with what is happening in this corner of the universe.
In terms of advice? Just follow your heart! What is your heart saying that the Earth wants for you to do? What is the promise the Earth made to you in the moment that you were born? Remember that promise and follow it.
Our conscious minds are able to handle twenty transactions a second. That sounds like a lot, but our subconscious minds can handle twenty million — six orders of magnitude greater! That’s why it’s helpful to practice shutting down the conscious mind through meditation, so that you can gain access to the subconscious. That’s also why it’s beneficial to practice loving kindness. Whatever you do repeatedly — basketball, or cooking, or meditating — after ten thousand hours you become an expert at it; you perform that activity automatically, without thinking. Can you imagine if we practiced kindness and generosity to the degree that we didn’t have to think about it? We’d be like Michael Jordan on the basketball court. His body knows what to do; he doesn’t have to think about it. What if we practiced love and kindness and generosity and courage like that? We’d be making a whole new world. And we don’t have to wait. We can start right now.