SAM_Spirituality and Men, A Talk at the City Fringe Meditation Space

Peace, Non-Violence and Social Ecology

by Ben-Zion Weiss PhD

Wednesday 3 May, 6.30 – 8pm

My early journey into manhood was largely a traditional one for a Jewish boy growing up in the eastern suburbs of Sydney in the mid-20th century. I went to an all boys’ upper primary school, an all boys’ high school and ended up in what was in those days an all male profession, namely chemical engineering. At Sydney Boys’ High it was compulsory to play a team sport like cricket or football as well we were encouraged to join the school cadets. At every assembly we had to say the Lord’s Prayer and sing God Save the Queen. As a Jewish boy from Romania I couldn’t relate to either of these. This highly competitive male world did not sit well with a creative and quite religious person such as myself, but I also wanted to be accepted by my peers and make friends with other boys.

While at school in this Anglo-Christian male world I was being trained to be part of the male power elite in Australia. “Many of you will become the country’s leaders” was a mantra we often heard from our teachers, and that indeed has been the case. However, I had other worlds competing with this dominant male conditioning, one was the Jewish world of my religious studies, another was the musical world of my violin studies and a third was my love of the ocean and the beach. My parents had a family business, a milk bar /deli in Bondi Beach, and I helped in the shop during my holidays and sometimes after school, so that too was an influence on me in terms of learning about running a business. This is what my father had done most of his life.

As it happened, at school I succumbed to the pressure and joined the cadets, but I left after a year because I didn’t relate to all that military business. Later, when I was at university, Australia became involved in the war in Vietnam. I realised then as a child of Holocaust survivors that I hated war and what it did to people like my family, who had been decimated by war. As a uni student I became involved in the peace movement and was determined not to be conscripted to fight in Vietnam. This is when I seriously began to question my male conditioning and began to consider other ways of being in the world. As a musician I was drawn to the protest folk movement and I began to attend folk clubs and learn the anti-war songs that became popular at the time in the peace movement.

As a result of an industrial accident as a chemical engineer, I decided to change my career to becoming a filmmaker, and I took up acting, photography and then went to a film school in Melbourne. A few years later, after a big trip to Europe and the Middle East, this led to my returning to university to study the arts, majoring in French and Drama. I entered a world that was dominated by women, especially when I became a drama/ESL teacher for secondary school. The male world of engineering and the pub was then replaced by the female world of the arts and the café. At Sydney High I learnt that being a teacher was only for women and dumb boys. However I realised that teaching was my vocation so I had to go against this middle class male conditioning. This led me to develop a vision to create a more peaceful and socially just world through the arts. It was like I gave up the male dominated world of ‘power over’ and began to connect to my inner feminine as I entered the helping professions of teaching and psychology.

The yearning for peace led me to the practice of yoga and Zen Buddhist meditation and by the mid 80s I was involved in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and helped bring Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh to Australia. Both of these teachers were founding members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as was Aitken Roshi my Zen teacher. From these Buddhist teachers I learnt about our interconnectedness or inter-being, and for the need to practice compassion, loving kindness and peace. What was interesting was the way this awakened me to a very different way of being a man. My yoga teacher John Cooper, Aitken Roshi and Thich Nhat Hanh, were Zen practitioners and powerful male teachers. They presented another model of power – what Joanna Macy called ‘power with’.

Around the same time I got involved in a group called Chrysalis, which was a non-violent collective training people for peaceful protest and conflict resolution. It grew out of the Terania Creek and Franklin Dam actions to save the last remaining stands of rainforests in eastern and southern Australia. I later did several courses with the Conflict Resolution Network, that were formed in Sydney in 1986, the International Year of Peace, the same year we brought Thich Nhat Hanh to Australia. They taught about co-operative power as a way to resolve conflicts. Out of all this work, and the fact that I had trained as both a yoga teacher and a drama teacher, came a process I called Drama Yoga. This brought eastern and western ways of working with the mind and the body together, and through yoga the spirit too could be involved.

Like so much of my later work, this was a process that involved a lot more women than men; however there were a few men involved who seemed to benefit from the process. The way the Drama Yoga process worked was that we would do some yoga asanas and then some yoga nidra with guided visualisations moving through the chakras, and then people would identify which of their chakras were blocked or more difficult to relate to, and then using techniques from playback theatre we would explore the story of the blockage, which would invariably release the block. It was a very powerful process that also used activities from Joanna Macy’s Despair and Empowerment workshops, in which I had become a facilitator. I co-led these workshops for the Sydney Interhelp group for peace and environment groups. They particularly focussed on addressing ‘burn out’. Thich Nhat Hanh also had processes and meditations to support activists and address ‘burn out’, like having a regular day of mindfulness each week.

The Drama Yoga process brought up very deep emotions and led to powerful releases for participants as well as for myself as the facilitator. At this time I was teaching adult migrants English using creative methods like drama and songs and other techniques adopted from accelerated learning techniques. This work involved some social welfare work, healing as well as teaching, as people were often quite traumatised by migration, especially people who came from war zones or other places of conflict or natural disasters. People needed emotional as well as intellectual support in this process of learning a second, third or other language, which is called TESOL. As a migrant or refugee they also needed to learn about the culture, the environment, the psychology of the people and how to function in this new world of Australia.

TESOL teachers were thus fulfilling the role of the parents as well as the teachers of their first language and culture. Sometimes there would be people in a class from either sides of a conflict – like in one class I had a Serbian man, a Croatian woman and a woman from Kosova, who was Muslim. They each sat as far apart as they could even though they all spoke Serbo-Croatian. Conflict resolution strategies were really needed to prevent the war they came from being re-enacted in their new country. By the end of that course some of the tensions between them had been reduced.

All these challenges led to my training as an AVP facilitator with a group of Quakers. AVP stands for the Alternatives to Violence Project, which is a prison non-violence program that the Quakers developed in the US based on their experience of training people for non-violent protests against the war in Vietnam. Prisons represented the challenge for men, especially those from working class backgrounds who had grown up in a violent world, where conflicts were resolved through fighting, gangs and deadly weapons. 90% of prison populations in Australia are men, and the level of recidivism is around 70%. Now the kind of competitive male conditioning that I received in the middle class educated world that I grew up in, generally led to psychological violence, which is not considered a crime in our society in the way that physical violence is. The power of the AVP workshops was that we addressed all kinds of violence, not just the physical one, that lead so many men into prisons. In the AVP process we were all volunteers – the facilitators and the inmates, as the process would be compromised if inmates were forced to be there. They had to come to a stage in their life when they realised the violence was not serving them. The violence had led to them being in prison! The point of the workshops was to explore alternatives to violence as a way to resolve conflicts.

During this time I was invited to represent the AVP group at a NSW government parliamentary committee on youth violence. I was working with high school students in western Sydney at the time, so I set up a fishbowl discussion with the students on the topic of violence and its causes. What came out of the discussion that I presented to the parliamentary committee was that these young people, especially the boys, considered men to be the main perpetrators of violence. They considered these men to be powerful and aggressive, as they needed to be to survive in their world. A non-violent man to them was a ‘wuss’, to use their own term. They were considered to be the losers and victims of violence. They dismissed the idea that there could be powerful non-violent men. This led to my introducing the students to people like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandella, as non-violent powerful men.

If I reflect on my own male conditioning, I had a similar belief as a young man, which is why I spent many years attempting to deny my power, as I saw power itself as the problem. Until when I was nearly 40, I met Joanna Macy’s work and the idea of ‘power with’. Then came ‘co-operative power ‘with conflict resolution training and finally with AVP came the idea of ‘Transforming Power’. I later discovered that ‘Transforming Power’ was a Quaker way to talk about God. It was a way to transform a potentially violent situation into a non-violent one. This became a process of conflict transformation not just resolution. Techniques for transforming power could be ‘I’-messages or other assertiveness skills; they could be humour or other creative ways to avert the conflict. In the workshops participants would re-enact fictionalised situations from their lives and find ways to present transforming power. I’d like to suggest that the discussion about men and power could be a useful topic for our post talk discussion tonight.

Finally the cross cultural work I did and the non-violence work came together in my social ecology doctoral research into the use of drama education for anti-racism. Here I was drawing on my experience of anti-Semitism in groups of well meaning people working for social justice, peace and self-realisation. My thesis was that racism can be reframed as cross-cultural conflict, then by using drama based techniques for working with conflict we could address racism creatively. This led to projects in schools and training teachers and youth workers in anti-racism, non-violence and dealing with anger creatively. This in turn led to a program called Cooling Conflicts that was adopted by the NSW Department of Education and Training through its Multicultural Programs unit. It involved a whole school approach using drama, forum theatre and peer teaching for transforming conflicts. Initially the focus was on anti-racism and more recently it has been used in anti-bullying programs. With the support of my doctoral research, I became one of the principle trainers of teachers and youth workers in this field and it was introduced into over 100 schools state-wide.

In conclusion, I’d like to present the intriguing idea that comes from the American Sufi and Zen master, Samuel Lewis. He was the creator of the Dances of Universal Peace in the late 60s. A basic Sufi teaching in the dances is that Peace is Power. This is derived from the term Allah Ho Akbar, which is literally translated as God is all Powerful. It is sadly often used by confused Jihadists when they commit acts of violence. And yet that goes completely against the teachings of Islam, which is itself derived from the word Salaam, meaning peace. Samuel Lewis gave an alternative translation of this saying with his deep understanding the Universal Sufi teachings.

My own journey then as a man shows a radical shift from the typical competitive male conditioning of my childhood that encouraged ideas like ‘looking out for number one’; ‘survival of the fittest’ and even ‘winning through intimidation’ with a strong focus on power over and material success. In my later years through my search for peace and self-realisation I’ve come to seek a more spiritual focus of stilling the mind from the yogic perspective; compassion, loving kindness and awakening from the Buddhist perspective; to seeing that of God in everyone and seeking peace with justice from the Quaker perspective; and finally to living in the heart from the Sufi perspective. It is the latter that gave us the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz; the mysticism of sound and music and the unity of religious ideas from Murshid Sam’s Sufi teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan. Finally from his disciple Murshid Sam came the Dances of Universal Peace, the Sufi Ruhaniat International and the recognition that Peace is Power.

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