Sometimes it seems to me that spiritual practice calls us to accept whatever is happening to us just as it is (‘This is how it is right now!’). Other times, it can feel that guidance is calling us to act, to bring about the better world we long for (‘God has no other hands but ours!’). It is not always easy to know which course to follow, acceptance or action. Increasingly I have been feeling this tension with regard to climate change, and my increasing awareness of the group of conscientious environmental protectors known as ‘Extinction Rebellion’. I began to wonder whether there might be a place for the Dances of Universal Peace in their April rebellion, in London. What was being called for from me as a Sufi, and as a leader of the Dances?
It gradually dawned on me that travelling to London to join the Extinction Rebellion was a real possibility over the Easter weekend. After watching David Attenborough’s Climate Change programme, Robert was right with me. So we got the train down on Saturday morning, taking guitar, viola and drum with us in case we found any opportunity to share music or dancing.
Arriving at Kings Cross, we took the Tube, not quite sure where to go first. We found ourselves at Oxford Circus, and thought we would pop up to see what was happening there. We found ourselves in the middle of the concerted police action to remove the last lock-ons (people who had glued or locked themselves together or to the road as part of the protest action). The junction was still completely closed to traffic, and very crowded with climate protestors as well as passing shoppers. We were rapidly offered ‘tree costumes’ (a ‘trunk’ to hang around the neck, and a kind of green j-cloth to wear about the head!). We were told that the plan was to make a funeral march to Marble Arch, once the police had cleared the site.
We offered to sing and play, and someone suggested it would be good support for the last group of protesters, at the opposite side of the Circus. There were four protesters (or climate protectors) in that group, one of them a woman who was heavily pregnant. They were lying down across the junctions and they were joined in pairs – their hands were glued together inside heavy steel tubes. The police worked their way round the other junctions to us, cutting all of the protectors apart and carrying them off, four officers at a time. The protectors would go limp, so they were not resisting arrest, but meaning they needed to be carried, thus using more police time and resources. As each one was carried away, the crowd would cheer and shout ‘We love you! We love you!’ It was all carried out quite calmly and respectfully, and the police were clearly making an effort to be polite and friendly. There was something immensely powerful and moving about seeing the gentle, gracious and peaceful sacrifice being made by the ‘arrestables’ (people who were willing to be arrested). It brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes to watch them being carried away.
We got our instruments out and sang and played, meeting the eyes of the group of conscientious protectors nearest us. We hoped to ease their nerves and calm the stressful situation, and at times there was really a beautiful atmosphere, as those near us joined in with our singing or were at least quietly supportive, listening. We were joined by a violinist and a drummer. We sang ‘The Earth is our Mother, we must take care of her… her sacred ground we walk upon with every step we take’, and we sang ‘Peace be with you, peace be with me and all of our relations’. At one point the police brought riot shields, and we wondered what would happen, but they were to shield the protectors from sparks as they used angle grinders to cut the steel tubes from their arms. Finally the last protector (the pregnant woman) had been carried away, and the march began.
We marched slowly, mournfully, singing a wordless chant that had apparently emerged in grief when the famous pink boat was removed from Oxford Circus by police the night before. We marched the length of Oxford Street, giving information leaflets to those who were interested. There were protectors with rubbish sacks picking up litter as we went, leaving the street cleaner than we found it. As we arrived at Marble Arch, we paused, and made an entrance, drumming and singing the XR chant: ‘The people gonna rise like the water, gonna turn this system round! In the voice of my great granddaughter, Climate Justice now!’
During the march we were delighted to bump into Jo Siari Hanstead, with her new drum, and also Caro from Brighton, who we knew from Unicorn and SAC camps. We marched together, and once we had arrived at Marble Arch, we found a spot near a large inflatable elephant where we played together and chanted – calling on Ganesh seemed appropriate! – Om Gum Ganapatiye, and Ganesha Sharinam.
We were feeling absolutely drained and exhausted by this time. It can be quite overwhelming, being constantly in such crowds of people, even though the atmosphere here is so calm and peaceful, and watching the courage, commitment and deep feeling of the conscientious protectors is a hugely powerful experience. We gratefully went to stay with friends who had offered us beds despite the fact that I hadn’t seen them for nearly 20 years! These are the kinds of miracles of generosity and support that I witnessed over and over again.
On Sunday morning, we had planned to go to Marble Arch, having understood that the other sites were being closed down. We had planned a dance session there on Sunday afternoon, and had passed the message around. But overnight I felt deeply moved to go to Waterloo Bridge, and just see what was happening there. Once again, we were blessed to be deeply in the flow of things.
As we arrived at the bridge, so did the police, in huge numbers, determined to take it as they had taken back Oxford Circus the day before. We joined a group of musicians, playing just next to the line of lock-ons who were protecting the bridge. At first we played lively folk music, but gradually the mood became more quiet and sober. I was very impressed by several clearly experienced XR people who were very keen to keep the atmosphere calm, to avoid any escalation as the police moved in. They asked us all to sit in the road, to calm things down, and also so that it was harder for the police to tell who the ‘arrestables’ were. And with slow, gentle drumbeats they led us in gentle, peaceful chants: ‘Police, we love you, we’re doing this for your children too…’
I found this gentle calling out to the police in this way almost unbearably moving, and it seemed that the police were moved too. As they removed the locked-on climate protectors one by one and carried them gently away, it felt like some sacred rite. I remembered how Murshid SAM used to say he longed to see a peace demonstration which actually demonstrated peace. I was witnessing it right before my eyes. The peace and love were clearly palpable. Apparently the police have found it very challenging to deal with protesters who are so polite and gentle, and so keen to be arrested! (As I write, over 1000 arrests have been made.)
After some time, we were told there was an induction training happening on the bridge, which gave us guidance on how to deal with the police, and information about getting arrested and what to expect. Also, most importantly, we learned about and signed up to the fundamental XR principles of non-violence. While we were sitting in a circle in the middle of the road on Waterloo Bridge, amongst the trees and tents, a police officer came and informed us that any property left on the road was going to be confiscated by the police. So people began moving the tents and trees to safety.
It was now the time we had arranged for a group to come and do a flash-mob dance circle on the bridge. We had had to make a difficult decision to move it from Marble Arch to Waterloo Bridge. My guidance to do this felt very strong, but we knew we risked not getting the message through to people who were expecting to come to Marble Arch. Some people did get the message, and we were so grateful for their support. Thank you Marie, Nathalia, Jess, Bill, Joel, Grace, and any of you who I’ve forgotten to mention! Others didn’t hear about the change, but in fact this also worked out well as Lindsay was able to meet them at Marble Arch and lead another session there, so the peace blessing was doubled.
We circled up with the friends who had found us on the bridge, and began to play and sing and dance. ‘Peace be with you, peace be with me and all of our relations’ – people began to gather, smiling and listening. ‘The Earth is our Mother, we must take care of her’ – the atmosphere intensified, a sense of sacredness as some joined the dance, and others circled round us quietly listening and soaking up the energy. ‘E Malama’ – more musicians joined us, the group grew larger, more people singing as they watched. ‘Mother Earth is a great big ship we are sailing on’ – a man danced with a tree in his arms – and then the police and people moving trees needed the space, so it was time to stop. Many people had been filming and photographing us, and later on several people thanked me for what we had done. Some of them I couldn’t recognise, although they clearly remembered us, even some time later, in Parliament Square.
Buoyed by our success, we decided to walk to Parliament Square and try to get some more dances going there. We strolled along the river in the gorgeous sunshine, and found ourselves on the grass in front of Big Ben (encased in scaffolding of course). People were gathering, and very soon it was announced that we were leaving Parliament Square, in a big funeral procession, heading back towards Marble Arch again, to consolidate there as part of a controlled withdrawal from the other protest sites. So we joined the procession, walking alongside the amazing Bristol Samba Band, and made our way slowly down Whitehall, past Buckingham Palace, and through St James’s Park and Hyde Park to Marble Arch.
We arrived in time to hear Greta Thunberg speak, a small, determined figure in front of a huge, adoring crowd. Afterwards we headed back towards our accommodation. On the train, we met three delightful teenagers, all of whom had been arrested and cheerfully described their experiences to us. The XR badges we wore were a passport to all sorts of interesting conversations- with tourists on the train, intrigued as to what was happening, and supportive when they understood; with a couple in a shop, who talked animatedly about the possibilities and difficulties of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels; with our friend, who had worked for Shell for many years, and who pointed out to me that Shell had had all the best science and information at their fingertips, but chose to make (in his opinion) the wrong decision with regard to moving away from fossil fuels.
Our final day we chose to spend at Marble Arch, and we planned to lead some dances at 2.30, before a big meeting which had been called for 3 pm. It was really interesting to experience the differing calls of advance organisation, in order to muster a core group of dancers (which was very helpful in seeding a circle of dancers and getting the dance going) versus being able to respond intuitively in the moment to a call or need for a dance or chant. This often felt more powerful, even when it was not actually possible to dance, and seemed to attract more people to the energy that was created. The times we chose to lead something at Marble Arch, at a pre-arranged time, we ended up with small groups, including only those who already knew the dances, while onlookers and passers-by were less drawn to join in and participate.
What dances would you choose to lead for an occasion like this? I found myself drawn to the native and earth traditions, with simple chants that people could pick up without formal teaching. Simple, often English words, surprisingly not necessarily the dances I would usually go to first – the crowd touching sacredness through breath, heart and intention, as well as through sacred phrase. And I noticed the beautiful chants which were arising from the crowds around me in the moment, feeling very congruent and appropriate – who knows, maybe ripe to evolve into dances in the future. I heard of very special kirtan sessions being held on Waterloo Bridge, and I could feel Shiva’s presence as we dared to look Extinction in the eye, Ganesha brought to mind by the inflatable elephant at Marble Arch.
We have been back home for several days now, and I am still integrating and processing the experience of our days with the Extinction Rebellion in London. There’s a sense of grief in me, of missing the intensity of the times at Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge. The sense of brave, wise people passionately and courageously standing up to be counted in defence of our beloved Earth. The impression of wise and peaceful people holding the space and powerfully guiding the groups to act in radically peaceful ways, working to de-escalate fear and anger. My deep gratitude at the calm, compassionate professionalism shown by the police in my small experience – and my renewed appreciation of how lucky we are in this country, and how in some ways it has been – so polite, and considerate – a very ‘British’ rebellion! The deep rising joy within me at this vision of a better world, another way to do things. For those of us who have been to Sacred Arts Camp or Unicorn, it was a familiar feeling, transplanted to an unfamiliar setting: open-hearted community, in unusually quiet and car-free streets, or on a bridge in the middle of London, transformed by the clean air and the sound of birdsong.
Whatever your feeling about the Extinction Rebellion and climate change, there can be no doubt that we live in times of great confusion, stress and change for many people. My call to you as Dancers and Dance Leaders is that these are the times we have been training for. Look to your local communities, and consider how you can serve your local people. We have an immense gift to share, which we have received from Murshid SAM and all those others who have guided us to this point. Our world is in great need, and we can help to bring people together in loving community, creating and increasing unity, joy, love and peace. We can create a space for people to share what is in their hearts, we can offer the healing balm of connection through sacred phrase, chant and dance. These qualities are going to be ever more necessary and valuable in our world, today and from here on.