A Heart-Centered Approach to Politics

Future politics, soft power, conflict transformation, the role of the arts, and holistic awareness are among the topics on which Indra Adnan has written, consulted, and built networks. She founded and co-initiated The Alternative UK political platform, which publishes The Daily Alternative, brings together new system actors, and creates “cosmolocal community agency networks.” Indra is a psychosocial therapist, journalist, and author of The Politics of Waking Up: Power & Possibility in the Fractal Age. In this interview, she opens up about a human-centered, community-borne, all-encompassing approach to rebuilding a political system which integrates the practical and the spiritual components of societies. 

You are a psycho-social therapist and also a political entrepreneur. How do you perceive the connection between politics and psychology? 

Politics has been designed in a way that makes people quite powerless. We have managed, over decades, to live with the idea that basically a human being is what we call Homo Economicus. We’ve designed our society in a way that gets to meet our physical needs first, traps us into too often meaningless jobs, and then designs a public space that has convinced us that we need to be consumers first to keep the growth economy going. It has prevented us from becoming creative, responsive, alive human beings that have the time and space to react in real time to the crisis we are in. So we are in a crisis of the environment, we all recognise it, we are destroying the planet. The people who really understand the human psyche are the very people who are selling stuff to us all the time. You know – who have managed to make us addicted to buying stuff. If I need status or I need belonging I will get that through buying a can of coke or pair of nikes or a handbag. They have sold it to us that way. Through this handbag you will get some status, through this can of Coke you will feel belonging to other people. It is a whole industry that advertises and does that. It’s difficult to free ourselves from that. If we keep consuming at the level we are consuming we will keep destroying the planet. So, we are trapped really.

So how can we use politics to unpack all these difficult conversations about crisis and grief and uncertainty?

You can’t use the current party political system for that because it is designed in a way to capture a lot of the behaviour that is in the malfunctioning system. So, we are easily finding ourselves competing with each other instead of collaborating with each other. It’s probably the worst in the UK but it is the same in any party political system. This competitive culture means that we as a people cannot come together and right now there is nothing more important than people coming together and collaborating to beat this crisis. Instead of that we find ourselves constantly, actively invested in the failure of other people. This is the wrong way to be in the face of a crisis. We have to find a way to come together. Also, the party political system is very top down, it imagines there are elites of people, those educated and privileged, and the people who are less educated, less wealthy, and less resources become anonymous. They become the people who have to follow and do what they are told. So, all these divides keep appearing. How can we create a politics that goes in the opposite direction of that and really prioritises – and is inspired by – all the diversity including different levels of power. 

What kind of new politics can bring people together? 

That is what we have been working on at Alternative UK for the past four and a half  years and we have come to some basic solutions that are not ours in a way but mostly we are seeing these things now appearing. These new kinds of political responses are not the same as the old party political system but I would still call them political because they are still dealing with power. They have an ambition to change society. They see themselves as political in the same way as a feminist might say the person is political. These people are beginning to move together and are starting to ask the question what kind of a future do we want in this place. In some cases they connect themselves very successfully to civil society organizations or technology organisations or great innovations and social enterprise. 

So how can parties transform themselves?

I am not sure that the current parties can do that, to be honest. They still have a role to play and we are borrowing a phrase from Vaclav Benda who invented the term Parallel Polis. To me that has become, in a way, a new structure, the structure of a new political system. So if you think about the Parallel Polis as two legs serving the same body, one leg is the current party political system but the other is society starting to self organise in a much better way to be able to create a new democracy in relation to the other leg. There are a lot of people who are active in this world. We call them CANs, which means “community action networks” or “citizen action networks”. There are CANs all over the world. When we first started we were prototyping our own. We started to work in Plymouth, in Birmingham and other parts of the UK to design this thing called the CAN. When we started to do this work seriously we noticed that people have been doing this work for a long time. Like transition towns or eco villages or, you know, in India there is this amazing huge movement called Neigbourocracy.

There is this whole system of youth, young and senior adults parliaments that takes you all the way from the local community to the national level. It is an amazing system. These things exist all over the world but you do not read about them or take part in them. This is the thing we feel needs more attention and to grow. It needs a new media system to really grow it. That is what we are now trying to do. 

Buddhist activism foreshadowed your decision to set up the Alternative. What have you learned from this experience in creating outcomes without using force and helping people and communities regain a sense of agency?

Just after I finished my education I went to Indonesia where my father is from. I went on a classic back to my roots kind of journey and I was working as a journalist and I was writing what I was seeing there. At that time, Indonesia was under military rule and it was ninety three percent muslim country. So, I did not know what I was going to find. I was attracted to this kind of story that I heard a lot of people talking about but I couldn’t find the source of it. There was this group of Buddhist anarchists working amongst the people helping them to become more and develop their agency. Helping them sort of get moving in their lives. I joined in with this group and went several times to villages around the main cities. The patterns were always the same. We’d go and visit these villages where people were still practicing an indigenous way of living. Neither islamic or anything specific. They were very passive. They were just relying on food parcels from the army every week. This Buddhist teacher would go and spend some time with them and talk or give a lecture and then do some chanting with them and get them talking. Then six weeks later we would go back there and we would see things have changed. It was always like magic had happened every time. After that, they would build a road or plant some vegetables or food. There was always this renewed energy after the visit. This is what we are finding when we find these CANs. Always at the heart of a CAN is this sort of a shift. Sometimes it comes from something like learning about permaculture for the first time and really understanding from permaculture that there is a whole system in nature that allows you and shows you new models but allows you a reconnection to the land in ways you did not think you have. Or sometimes it gets you to see that the civil society in your town have been working on this for a long time and they have got resources for funds and for business but you as an outsider have always felt excluded from that opportunity. Or sometimes it is this cosmolocalism that says out there in this world people have been designing this technology that could answer the things you’re talking about and today you can download that through the internet. You do not have to spend decades working it out yourself; the solution is already there. So, it is a kind of solution oriented way of being together in a community that just brings energy to people. The magic part of it is that the stuff you were getting answered by consuming gets answered by being part of a movement within a community. So your emotional needs get met in ways they were not met before and it becomes much easier to give up this endless consuming and slavery to the old system because you have so much more in your life now. You have energy and excitement in the place where you live and with people who you were not working with before. 

You also wrote the book Politics for Waking Up. What is its main takeaway? 

The book is really about this journey that I have already described to you but it is also a very practical book so it kind of tells the story of my own realisation from Buddhism to becoming a politician to becoming a political entrepreneur it is all in there. But it also shows people in real time which kind of projects are already doing this work and what kind of personal developments we already are doing since the birth of the internet and what kind of impact on the planet this is having. A lot of people underestimate how important it is for human beings who have felt powerless all their lives to become part of a Facebook group and can watch their own involvement in things and begin to see their own agency in ways they have not before. This is the chaos of waking up. You know what people call woke-ness. You know Black Lives Matter or the #metoo movement. We can see this wholeness happening but this is a very necessary phase in waking up. People themselves have to see and understand why they have been in such a difficult position. Then we have the importance of other people having lots of privilege. They also have to change the most because they have to give way to other people who now want to participate in the public space and design new  systems of power. It doesn’t mean you are irrelevant now if you were privileged in the old system.

This is the era of using your privilege to help others participate. You still have a role in that you are just not the only dominant voice you used to be. Actually this could be the most exciting era of human endeavour and the future is yours. I want to put all this learning we have done behind the young people and say use this wisdom of the slowly growing alternative to really go forward in the way you want to that will have an outcome for the planet and give you and your children a future. That is the ambition of my book.  

Photo: Maerisna Hole