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A ‘sitting man’ at Goldman Sachs

Max Zahn, founder of the new website Buddha on Strike, is currently on strike in front of Goldman Sachs. I asked him a few questions about what he’s up to.

(WNV/Max Zahn)

(WNV/Max Zahn)

So what is it that you’re doing, and why?

Over the past seven business days, I’ve been meditating for 3 to 4 hours directly outside the entrance of Goldman Sachs headquarters. And I intend to continue sitting silently at Goldman HQ every single business day for the coming weeks and months. Soon this effort will grow beyond me, however. Starting yesterday, we’re holding hour-long group meditations three days per week.

The reason for my meditating at Goldman is that I seek to extend compassion to its employees and demand that they do the same for the worldwide billions affected by the bank’s practices. By meditating, I’m quite literally modeling a technique that cultivates the capacity for emotional states like compassion and empathy. On another level, I’m trying to communicate that I come in peace; I understand that Goldman Sachs bankers are people just like you and me. There’s nothing inherently evil or malicious about them. Like all people, they are the beautifully complicated products of a personal and social history.

Does that mean that we allow them to acquire huge amounts of money, while exacerbating global inequality and its effects? Absolutely not. But we intervene in the way that a family might intervene when their son has a drug addiction. That’s how I think of Goldman Sachs: addiction to greed. And greed, in its various forms, is something that everyone struggles with. The difference with Goldman Sachs is that greed on this scale is causing atrocious human suffering. So we need to put the harmful practices to an end, but with the love and goodwill of a global family.

What drove you to commit to doing this?

The large scale human suffering that is taking place, and the sense that our global trajectory is moving toward even greater amounts of suffering. That, coupled with the realization that our global and national systems of governance are simply not up to the task of preventing such harm. I’ve come to believe that a dramatic shift on inequity issues — like regulating Wall Street — will only result from a mass nonviolent social movement. I see myself as a small, sustained part of that effort.

It’s kind of like the “Standing Man” in Turkey. Has anyone joined you, like people joined him? Do you expect them to?

Yes, exactly. I draw a lot of encouragement from the Standing Man’s passive resistance. He exuded such dignity in his commitment to bearing witness. He seemed to say, “I may not be able to forcibly remove your tear gas cannisters, but I will not gratify you with the act of turning away.”

No one has joined me in the spontaneous way that they joined the Standing Man. However, people did reach out to me after I posted some photos to Facebook and Twitter. Also, from day one I’ve envisioned this Goldman Sachs meditation presence growing beyond me. As a former community organizer, I know that power is in numbers. In this case, we’re seeking to dramatically reign in one of the most powerful institutions in the world, so we must have lots of people as a counterweight.

(WNV/Max Zahn)

(WNV/Max Zahn)

What kinds of reactions are you getting from Goldman Sachs employees? What about other people?

To be honest, it is very difficult for me to tell how Goldman Sachs employees have reacted. I meditate with my eyes looking down at a 45-degree angle, so I do not know what their facial expressions have been like. No Goldman employees have spoken to me yet, either — well, that’s not entirely true. After the first couple days, the security guards became more and more chummy. Now, when I arrive, they ask me how my day has been. Recently, when my friend came to take a bunch of pictures, they stopped him to make sure it was all right with me.

Most other people have been supportive. They ask me what I’m doing or why, and they respectfully engage with my response. The meanest thing that happened so far was a man yelling, “Get a job!” Little does he know that I work full-time at a Mexican restaurant in Crown Heights. But millions of Americans do not have a job. Does that disqualify them from speaking out — or, in my case, sitting out — against injustice? I think not.

What would be your ideal outcome when you’re done?

The ideal outcome is the formation of a massive meditation protest that helps create political space for the dramatic reform and regulation of the finance industry — especially the megabanks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. I know this is a lofty goal, but it’s so terribly important. I envision a perimeter of meditators around the entirety of the gigantic Goldman Sachs headquarters. How incredible would that be?

Are you doing any support work to make your action part of a broader campaign, to make it more effective? Or are you focused on this act of witness?

Yes, I’m most definitely doing support work. As I said, I come from a community organizing background; so I know the importance of coalition building, outreach and trusting relationships. I also know that this kind of organizing is a slow process.

Your sign says “Begin Anew With Compassion.” Why that? Do you really think what Goldman Sachs lacks is compassion? Is meaningful compassion even possible in these institutions of hyper-capitalism?

The sign “Begin Anew With Compassion” is directed toward the employees of Goldman Sachs, not the bank itself. I’m not naïve enough to think that compassion can overcome the structural forces and financial incentives that dictate Goldman’s practices. In that sense, I think it’s absolutely valid for you to speculate about whether “meaningful compassion is even possible” within the constraints of a megabank like Goldman.

However, what I would say is that Goldman’s policies — as with all policies at all institutions — are enacted by people. And those people make a choice about whether or not to extend ethical consideration to those affected by their choices. That’s what we saw with Goldman Sachs Vice President Greg Smith in 2012. He realized that his actions were unethical, and he chose to resign from the firm.

What has the quality of your meditation been like, so to speak? Better or worse than at home?

To answer this, I need to describe my meditation a bit. My meditation practice is following the breath, which means that I focus on the sensations of a single body part — usually the belly — as air comes in and out. The challenge is that when thoughts arise, you simply notice that you’re thinking and immediately return your attention to the breath.

At Goldman, it has been a lot more difficult to sustain continuous attention on the breath. The noise of the street corner — combined with the personal and political significance of the location — makes for an extremely distracting environment. So, if we think of meditation as the practice of focus, then I would say the meditations are worse. But another crucial component of meditation is the practice of acceptance. The more and more I’ve meditated over the years, the more I’ve been willing to be nice to myself when I get distracted. And I think for that practice of compassion — for myself as a struggling meditator and for bankers as human beings — I think my meditations have been significantly better.