Sunday, October 30, 2011

Choosing Connection

It happened late in the evening toward the end of one of our last wholeness ethics meetings. A newer member — I’ll call him Eric — raised his hand after hearing another man speak on how wholeness ethics and the code of reverence had affected his life. “This is more a personal reflection than a response to what was said,” Eric began. He went on to explain that he’d long been labeled a “sociopath” because he had no empathy for others.

He didn’t think of this as necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, he talked about some of the benefits of a lack of empathy. “I can watch a program on TV about starving people and I don’t feel anything. I just change the channel. Or all the stuff I see in here, it’s a lot easier not to feel anything.”

But, he said, as the other man was talking about his wife coming to visit him when she had cancer, something unusual had happened. Eric started to open up to some of the feelings the brother was talking about. He started to feel what it must have felt like for his fellow inmate to sit in the visiting room with his wife who’d lost all her hair to chemo — the feelings of guilt and helplessness. Eric was telling us about this because he was concerned about it. He wasn’t sure he wanted to open himself up to this “connection to the whole” that we were talking about. Maybe it was better to just stay where he was.

We all face this question at some level: How much will we open ourselves to the suffering of others? Especially those who could potentially bring some of this suffering into our lives?

We try to avoid suffering and that’s normal and healthy — to a point. One of the central teachings of wholeness ethics, however, is that suffering cannot be avoided. It’s part of being conscious. Even if we succeed in completely numbing ourselves (as I’ve done at various point in my life) we quickly learn that numbness causes its own form of suffering: the pain of not feeling. So there are two kinds of suffering in this world: the suffering of connection and meaningfulness and the suffering of disconnection and meaninglessness. All we can do is choose one or the other of them.

Acknowledging this, wholism is in no way about ending or avoiding suffering. It’s about choosing the suffering that’s worthy of us and then relating with it in ways that increase rather than decrease wholeness.

As Eric spoke in our meeting, several thoughts were darting around in my mind like swallows. The first was that the word “sociopath” gets thrown around too much in places like this. I wanted to tell him, “Don’t believe it too readily.” Not only that, but in an environment as dysfunctional as prison, shutting down may represent a perfectly healthy psychological reaction. It is certainly widespread among staff and prisoners. Indeed, emotional deadness, disconnection, and an absence of genuine compassion is widespread throughout our entire culture.

However, the fact that it’s a healthy and sane reaction doesn’t mean it’s a healthy and sane response. Reactions are for immediate circumstances; responses are more measured plans about how we’ll go forward in the long term. Healthy reactions often cease to be healthy as they become longer-term responses. To live in and ultimately change the culture that invites, incentivizes, and often demands that we constrict and shut down, we must develop a response of intentionally and mindfully pushing in the opposite direction: toward expansion and an open heart.

We must put this work at the center of our lives and strive to build an ethics and a narrative around it. We must create community rooted in it — space and time set aside to seek and speak our truth, to tell our stories and to reimagine ourselves and our world.
This is what wholeness ethics is ultimately about. It is an ethics of ever-expanding empathy and authentic connectedness. As Einstein said, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison [of disconnection] by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ethics Banned

Well, they’ve cancelled the Ethics Project here at Kinross Correctional Facility. Not sure what we’re accused of; the official reason was that we are not an approved program. Since we’ve been running for seven years this seems a little odd.

The tragedy is that like all things in our legal system, once a decision is made, it’s highly unlikely that it will ever be reversed. We’ll see. What I can say for sure is that the Ethics Project is hereby officially banned in Michigan prisons.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Changing the Economic Game

I’ve heard that the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to hundreds of cities around the world. Not long ago it was the Tea Party that was taking to the streets and influencing our political process. People are angry, afraid, and fed up.

But with what, precisely? We know things are not going well, but why? Who or what is to blame? And, more importantly, what’s the right way forward? What needs to change?
Religious people think we need more religion — specifically, their particular brand of religion. Politically ideological people think we need more right or left wing ideology. We could break it down further but in the end it comes down to this: Various forces are trying to get us to play the game by a different set of rules, each faction believing its rules are best.

I don’t think we need to change the rules. We need to change the game. I’m talking about the whole materialist, consumption/acquisition life style that the American Dream has mutated into.

What does this mean? It means, first of all, restructuring our value system.
The ugly truth is that our value system, instead of being life- or people-centered has become money- and power-centered. Consider the concept of perpetual economic expansion. We not only value it, we worship it unquestioningly. If I can make a convincing argument that something will “stimulate growth” it will immediately be accepted as a virtue. Reagan did it with greed. For centuries Western culture had considered greed a vice — it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins — but the simple claim that it serves economic growth turned it into a virtue.

This isn’t just a right-wing thing. The left worships at the very same altar of endless expansion. The only difference between the two is over how — not whether — to pursue it.

Yet our mindless pursuit of this notion has driven the massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to a small minority at the top. We were told it would produce growth. Ditto with free trade and globalization and the corresponding transfer of economic power from local communities to unseen and all-powerful corporations. Ditto through a long list of changes in our society that have come about by asking, “Will it serve economic growth?” and nothing more.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Wholeness ethics offers an entirely different game. By putting wholeness and right relationship at the top of our value scale then reasoning back from there to ask what kind of economics serve these goods, we find the concept of endless expansion replaced by the concept of wholistic sustainability. What is a wholistically sustainable economics?

First, it is an economics that promotes local community. This one word banishes forever the god of efficiency. Community isn’t economically efficient. But who cares? Efficiency is only a virtue up to the point that it begins to degrade community. When we consider it a virtue after that point, as we do in perpetual growth economics, it becomes a god. Why should I buy a tool from a local hardware supplier when Walmart can have it shipped in from China and sold to me for half the price? Why should I hire Julie, who has a disability, when I could maximize efficiency and profits by hiring Debbi, who has no disabilities? In fact, using this same logic, why shouldn’t I then get rid of my American employee completely and hire someone in India to do the job for pennies?

Why? Because (and I’m going to commit blasphemy here so you may want to get the kids out of earshot) people and community are more important than profits.

Wholistic and sustainable economics isn’t opposed to global trade. It simply uses a different standard to determine whether something is good or not. Instead of asking whether something maximizes profits to determine if it’s good or not, wholism asks whether it maximizes right human relations.

We are so immersed in the current system that we don’t even notice the insanity of it anymore. But we have created a way of living that tells us that chasing money is more important than being in right relationship with our world, our neighbors, even our families. This is insane, yet it shows up again and again in our culture. Many of our current problems and sufferings can be traced back to it.

What can we do about it? The first and most obvious thing is, as I said earlier, to change our value system, to make a conscious decision to put people, right relationship, and community above economic issues. The desperately poor can be excused for thinking of nothing but money, but anyone who has reached a level of economic comfort ought to ask why we continue to define ourselves and create lives that are defined by money. We can think ethically rather than economically. We can embrace the principle of “enough-ness” in our lives and start using our money —wherever possible — to say no to the gluttony of over-consumption that is supposedly the point of life in our time. This is simply a matter of asking about any discretionary spending: Will spending my money this way support human relationships, local community, and wholeness?

Find Your Questions, Find Your Soul


We might think that knowing answers would make us more knowledgeable, not less, but the truth on some level is that the more answers we have about any topic, the less intelligent we are about it.
Think about it. What are some characteristics we ascribe to people who know all the answers, the know-it-alls? Right. They’re arrogant, narrow-minded, full of themselves, intolerant and intolerable. They don’t ask questions or even grasp the value of questions, so they stop learning, and over time they become less and less knowledgeable because knowledge is about information. Wisdom is about meaning.
Life is constantly moving and changing. Answers are only good if we write them in sand. When we write them in stone, life moves on and our answers become first stale, then dated, then obsolete, then wrong, then in the end outright dangerous and hateful of life. Every answer that does not turn itself into a question is a curse to those who possess it.
We often hear of institutions being “soulless,” and they often are, but what does that mean? It means they have stopped asking questions; they think they have all the answers and know everything they need to know.
There’s a program on TV called “Undercover Boss” in which CEOs go undercover in their own companies. Without fail, they come out stunned at what they didn’t know about their own employees’ lives and their own company. The show is about the boss, and through them the company, regaining soul. How? By asking questions.
Bring it down to the individual level. Show me a person with no questions, and I’ll show you someone whose ability to love is limited. Show me a situation where love has died and I’ll show you people who have stopped asking questions.
If you feel the passion has gone out of your relationship, try this: Start asking questions about your partner. Ask them silently and aloud. Start digging and very soon you’ll hit the fresh water of reawakened compassion. And if any relationship can be saved, it can only be done through questions. For how can we love anything without asking questions: Who are you? What do you need? What wakes you up and turns you on in life? Love is asking questions.
Now expand this thinking back out to life in general. Wholeness ethics calls us to live question-based lives, and to know that caring begins with asking. How can we ever be in right relationship with life if we don’t ask questions? Possessing the answers may make you well-informed, but it doesn’t make you wise. Only questions do that. That’s because wisdom is from the soul. Not the intellect or the ego. Find your questions and you’ll find your soul.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Using Power Wholistically


Ethics, in one sense, is all about the right and wrong use of power. We tend to think of power only in terms of the most obvious forms but everyone has and uses power all the time.
We have the power of thought and of speech, the power of blessing and cursing, and the power of choosing how we respond to life. These are some of the most basic human powers. Obviously, beyond this we then have varying degrees of social power. The power of adults over children, of various positions such as teacher, prison guard, government employee, medical personnel, boss and so on.
When we use whatever power we have to advance wholeness, we act ethically. When we fail to do so or when we go in the opposite direction and use power to undermine or decrease wholeness, we act unethically. This, however, isn't always as simple a matter as it might seem. There is always a cost to the exercise of power and some forms of power cost more than others.
The two basic forms of power are controlling power and influential power. We’re all familiar with both of these. Controlling power compels compliance — sometimes with physical force (or the threat of it) and sometimes with manipulation. Influential power is power that seeks cooperation and voluntary commitment to ideas and actions. These two types of power have different costs.
Influential power, for instance, costs time and energy in the form of goodwill and respect — caring about the people and things over whom it is exercised. lf you want me to stop smoking and you use influential power it might take weeks or even months of talking to me before I decide to quit. If you use controlling power it may not take any time at all. You can simply put a gun to my head and order me to stop. I most likely will do so immediately. Thus, this often seems the best way to get things done — not necessarily with a gun, but with some form of controlling power.
But there's a cost to this as well. Putting a gun to my head will erode whatever good relationship we already had or could have developed. This is also true of other forms of controlling power such as threats and punishments. I will either submit to your rule passively, which infantilizes me, or I’ll submit to it hostilely and grudgingly. In which case I will attempt to undermine you and rebel against you at every opportunity. Which, in turn, will cause you to spend an ongoing portion of your energy policing me. Controlling power often demands an entire infrastructure to ensure compliance.
I’ve had a lot of experience with this form of power as prisons use it almost exclusively. The elaborate apparatus of external control that we've created here has grown directly from and is made necessary by our reliance on controlling power. I’ve seen it locally here. The "tougher" officials make the prison, the meaner and more hostile the prisoners become. Controlling power, overused, has this built-in consequence whether we're dealing with our children or with criminals.
Does this mean that controlling power is unethical? Of course not. It simply means what it says: that there is a cost to using it. If we are going to be conscious and live wholistically we must acknowledge this cost and remember that controlling power isn't the only power to which we have access.
To be wholistic we need to look at the big picture and ask ourselves what form of power is best in any given situation or time. Sometimes controlling power is best in the initial contact, as when we arrest and remove someone forcibly from society.
That’s often the most wholistic thing to do. After that it’s most wholistic to resort to influential power to whatever degree is possible. When we don’t do this and continue to use controlling power after its appropriate time, we turn a wholistic and ethical act into an “a-holistic” and unethical act.
This is true in our personal lives as well. Sometimes we have to tell our kids to do something “because I said so” or to accept the consequences. But if we continue to do this beyond the point where it’s necessary we create adults who know only how to submit to or rebel against authority but not how to think for themselves.
It’s been said that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is pithy, and we’ve heard it all our lives, but unfortunately it’s not true. As stated above, we all use power all the time; some of us use it wisely and for good. There are countless parents who have power over their children who are corrupt. The same is true of business people who have power over their customers, bosses who have power over their employees, and so on.
What corrupts is power without wisdom. As we all have various forms of power it is then our responsibility to acquire the wisdom necessary to use this power wholistically. That wisdom begins with the understanding that there are two forms of power, and the admission that we currently use most the one that ought to be used least, and least the one that ought to be used most.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Quotable Quote

Three things are necessary for a relationship that increases wholeness. We call them the three aspects of right relationship. They are:

Reverence
Goodwill
Justice

Reverence is acknowledging the presence of the transcendent in people and things and inquiring into their larger meaning and purpose.

Goodwill is wanting people and things to express their transcendent meaning and purpose and move toward wholeness.

Justice is giving people and things what they need to be whole, not what we think they deserve for failing to be whole.

These three things are the foundation of all right relationship with self, others, the transcendent and nature. 

— from Stepping Up: Wholeness Ethics for Prisoners and Those Who Care About Them.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Michigan Prison: Wrong Place for Right Relationship?


My book, “Stepping Up: Wholeness Ethics for Prisoners and Those Who Care About Them,” has recently been marked by prison officials as “a threat to the good order and security of the facility.”
A hearing has been requested and Michigan Department of Corrections officials may override this decision and allow the book in. I understand their concern, as a prisoner could potentially attempt to use a book to some criminal end.
This is certainly not the case with Stepping Up, however, and everything in it is what the DOC should be advocating itself. Hopefully this situation will be corrected as it should be and DOC will not ban a book encouraging prisoners to “do only what increases wholeness in yourself and in the world” and to live in right relationship in all areas of their lives.
I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

This I Believe: Life Lessons

We are happy to announce that Troy Chapman's essay, "Caring Makes Us Human," which was produced by This I Believe, Inc., for National Public Radio in September 2008, has been published as part of the new compilation of selected This I Believe essays, "Life Lessons," available Oct. 4. Troy is honored to be part of this collection of extraordinary essays, many by ordinary people.

First created by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, the popular radio program This I Believe explores the core beliefs and guiding principles by which Americans live today. In this book, you will find an inspiring collection of personal essays from men and women of all walks of life who share the stories of important lessons they have learned about life.

In this collection, you’ll find personal experiences and profound insights from a roller derby queen and a physician, a corporate executive and a homeless person. You’ll find essays written by those with several decades of life experience, while others have been written by teenagers.

You’ll find ponderings on life’s big questions, such as “Why am I here?” and “What is my place in the world?” as well as beliefs in the importance of saying hello, saying thank-you, and saying “I forgive you.” There are revelations on the importance of listening to your inner voice and taking responsibility for your actions. And there are reflections on the resiliency of people—living through cancer, depression, or an accident—and coming through it with spirits intact.

These diverse, engaging essays share valuable lessons for those just starting their adult lives or anyone dealing with life’s challenges. Revealing much about what it means to be human, this book offers wisdom, guidance, and inspiration for all.

—Maryann