Mark Ovland, Extinction Rebellion, and the problem with revolutionary mysticism

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I woke up yesterday and checked my phone.

I’ve been getting more and more caught up in the ego-stream of social media over the last fortnight, checking Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, Tinder, Hinge, BBC News, and round again.

It’s amazing how slowly time can go when one is meditating, and how quickly when one’s surfing the net.

I’ve been tweeting and posting loads about the Extinction Rebellion protests, as if the more I post, the more chance there is of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Yesterday, I woke up to see Canning Town and Shadwell were trending on Twitter, because XR protestors were blocking the Tubes during rush hour.

In Canning Town, there was video footage of two protestors standing on the Tube, before being dragged off by the angry rush-hour commuters.

The people videoing the protest were also duffed up.

They were beaten up, to the cheers of the commuters and the delight of most people on social media.

Serves them right, was the general sentiment.

Simon Gentry in City AM (a financial newspaper) said: ‘There was something cathartic about the video clip that instantly went viral. It expressed the growing irritation — even anger — that Londoners are feeling towards a group which has aims that most people support, but whose tactics seem poorly thought-through and focused in the wrong places.’

Something cathartic about watching protesters get beaten up?

His comment reminds me of the scene in Brass Eye’s Paedo episode, where an angry mob burn a paedophile alive in a 25-foot wicca phallus. The news presenter says: ‘Sheets of flame, dancing to the beat of primitive animal justice. One man kebabbed, hundreds scarred for ever by a shared blood ritual. And yet, an astonishing sense of community here now, a positive atmosphere, a sense of a job well done, a shared sigh of relief, very much like the bizarre euphoria after an hour’s vomiting.’

I jumped in to Tweet my defence of the Tube protesters. They were brave. So what if they were unpopular — so were the Suffragettes, so were the 1960s civil rights protestors. An XR spokesperson also tweeted comparing them to Rosa Parks.

Bad move. Soon ‘Rosa Parks’ was trending on Twitter as countless people tweeted about what c*** Extinction Rebellion were to block the Tube and then compare themselves to Rosa Parks…during Black History Month as well. C***!

As the day went on, I realized most of the XR movement were pissed off with the Tube protestors and saw this as a bad own goal.

One friend, who is a very committed XR protestor and spokesperson for XR Oxford, wrote on Facebook:

Rupert Read, XR’s most prominent (and articulate) spokesperson, wrote:

Those six activists are now the defining moment of this fortnight of rebellion, in which hundreds of thousands around the world sacrificed so much time and energy.

It raises serious questions for XR.

How to balance the need to build a broad movement with more radical actions, such as disrupting flights with drones?

How does one balance the need to slowly build a mass democratic movement with the fact the clock is ticking and we are running out of time?

How do we balance very committed activism (offline or online) with contemplation, non-reactivity and acceptance of what is arising?

How do I stop myself falling into a ‘you’re either with us or against us’ mentality?


This morning, looked into it deeper, and found out a bit about one of the protestors on the Canning Town tube, a man called Mark Ovland.

It turns out he is a trainee Buddhist teacher from Gaia House.

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Mark grew up in Somerset, and had a happy childhood, then read The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (or rather, by Andrew Harvey).

He went to India when he was 24, felt the call to go off and meditate, retreated to the mountains, and had a ‘profound mystical awakening’. He says:

He came back to the UK, went to a retreat at Gaia House, and met the teacher Rob Burbea. He felt he’d come home. He became an assistant at Gaia House, started training as a Buddhist teacher, and started to teach meditation, both at retreats and in prison. He’s meant to be teaching this Sunday in Frome, in fact.

Rob Burbea is a wonderful British Buddhist teacher in his 50s, who is sadly very ill with cancer.

Rob has controversially argued — as early as 2011, in this talk on ‘the meditator as revolutionary’ — that ‘the eight-fold path needs expanding. Our whole notion of what we Buddhists are doing needs to address the world’s problems.’

Rob points out that Buddhism can lack the archetype of the activist. Instead, its ruling images are sedentary mystics who have found an ‘aloof and serene transcendence of the world’.

He compares that image to the story of Jesus, the young hot-head, overturning the tables of the money-lenders.

We are in a climate crisis, Rob notes. Twenty minutes into the talk, there’s a remarkable moment where he begins to talk about the mass extinction of marine life, and he chokes up.

Ancient Buddhist culture, Rob says, ‘couldn’t conceive that humans could have such a devastating effect on the climate. We’re in a very different situation now…’

He warns that ‘dharma practice can become insular and self-obsessed…What do I want? Is it my own private nirvana? Do I want a soft open heart but without real disturbance?’

He is very influenced by the Jungian James Hillman, and his co-authored book, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — and the World’s Getting Worse.

He quotes Hillman:

I think it’s very likely that Rob Burbea’s teachings on revolutionary Buddhism shaped Mark’s decision, eight months ago, to leave his teacher training, like Luke Skywalker leaving Yoda, and join XR as a full-time activist.

Since then, he’s been one of its most radical and arrestable members.

In February, he was arrested for gluing himself to the doors of a conference centre hosting International Petroleum Week. That’s him on the right.

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In April, he was arrested for a naked protest at the House of Commons.

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And again for gluing himself to the Docklands Light Railway.

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This month, he was arrested for spraying fake blood over the Treasury.

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He’s been arrested several times during the last fortnight of protests and was arrested again for his Tube protests yesterday.

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He expects, even hopes, to go to prison — he expected it when appearing in court for the petroleum conference protest in September.

He said:

At his trial, he dramatically chose to do without a lawyer, because he felt his heart telling him to represent himself. His speech was straight out of Rob Burbea’s theory of the Imaginal. Everything is just a story — capitalism, democracy, the rule of law.

Well, he wasn’t sent to prison. Not for lack of trying.

But of course, there’s a paradox in his desire for protest to be decriminalized. Because he — and XR, in Roger Hallam’s theory of it — needs people in prison. It needs people willing to be imprisoned, beaten up, on hunger strike, and finally willing even to die, to expose the murderous self-interest of business as usual. Business as usual = death, as his placard said on the tube at Canning Town.

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Understanding his action in the light of his story and beliefs, what can one say?

You can certainly say that Mark is very brave and committed. He is what the anthropologist Scott Atran called a ‘devoted actor’, willing to give everything for his sacred beliefs. He has no family, no possessions. In another culture he would perhaps be fighting on the front lines of ISIS.

Ovland (according to the Sun — so possibly misquoted) said he wanted his Canning Town protest to ‘polarise opinion’ and ‘create an emotional response to really shake things up’ so that ‘people have to get off the fence’ — if he really did say this, it reminds me of ISIS’ strategy called the ‘elimination of the grey zone’. You’re either with us or against us, there is no in-between.

He puts his values — the voice of his heart — before all other ‘petty’ considerations. He is not one for trade-offs or compromises, for heeding the majority wishes even of his own movement. He’s not really a democrat, in that sense. Democracy is just a story, after all.

There’s a certain logic to his disobedience against the majority will of XR members. He’s doing to XR what XR is doing to society, after all. But from the perspective of some XR members his actions look fanatical, self-defeating, even selfish. He put his own spiritual drama before the movement.

This is the risk when religion and politics mix. Rob Burbea warned of the archetype of the mystic as serene yogi. But the mystic as revolutionary is also dangerous. I think of the vicars on both sides of the Irish Troubles — Rev Ian Paisley, who supported loyalist bombings, or Father Patrick Ryan, who designed many of the bombs the IRA used to kill civilians. I think of the Brexit vicars who think the European Union is a demonic conspiracy, or the American evangelicals who think Trump is a modern King David, or the Indian sadhus urging Modi to blow up Pakistan.

Mark is at least committed to non-violence, unlike his fellow Canning Town protester who took a kick at the commuters from on high. But he caused real harm to XR, nonetheless.

As a result, XR is thinking about how to become less anarchic and more democratic, so that the movement as a whole can vote on actions and not be held accountable for the actions of its most radical members.

Meanwhile, Mark will no doubt continue until he tastes the purity of a prison cell, where ‘I won’t have a single responsibility…It brings a lot of joy.’

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open

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