Collective Wisdom Contemplative Activism Wellbeing

The Art of Building Communities of Practice for Wellbeing and Presence – Reflections on Buddhafield 2019

Buddhafield is colourful festival of 4000 people that many of us in the Art / Earth / Tech community attend annually. It is sober with very clean loos for a week (!) and fun crazy dancing, saunas, exercises and workshops on everything to decolonisation to Buddhist gratitude practice, to skilful flirting (it’s all about appreciating beauty). We admire the atmosphere that has been created there since 1996 by the Triatna order, one of the UK’s largest Buddhist organizations with thousands of members and about 100 local chapters. All sorts of people (the majority are not practicing Buddhists) come to relax, enjoy, and enliven themselves and be with old friends in an atmosphere that is neither intellectual nor vapid, neither freaky nor repressed. It is a time to have fun, but also to be present. This year’s theme was on Evolution or Extinction, reflecting the aspiration of festival organizers to create awareness of the slowly but surely unfolding climate crisis.

So I was grateful to be contacted by the festival organisers to come and give a talk on the things that Art / Earth / Tech is working on: namely the continuing evolution of the relationship between scientific and contemplative forms of inquiry, and what science can and cannot say about more mindful and wiser communities. In three other workshops I explored (with assistance from Jon Ekstrom) some blindspots that are the basis for our Gathering this year. Lastly, I co-organized a workshop on mindfulness-based philosophical inquiry with a group of friends from the Mindfulness Initiative, which we hope will be the start of something very valuable.

I will cover the Blindspots in upcoming blog posts, and the mindfulness-based philosophical inquiry is a project in its early stages: what I can say about it now is that we found a general level of enthusiasm for using inquiry and mindfulness together to examine values. This conversation we hope will mature into a way to use mindful inquiry to explore ethics, morality, and the nature of life in a way that is accessible to everybody, similar to the way mindfulness-based stress reduction allowed many to relieve their suffering from anxiety using mindfulness. Confused and contradictory thinking is also a source of suffering, and mindful inquiry can reduce this suffering. Audience members agreed and shared the realizations that they wished the whole world could share providing us with a lot of material to reflect on.

When it came time to have questions and discussion from the audience, I was surprised there was little resistance to the overall message but more interest in how the climate emergency was connected to this and the specifics of building community.

My main messages in my talk were: first, that meditative inquiry can coexist with, and gain from, science, and that it can gain the most if it pushes science for more humility. Second, building mindful community is an art of great interest that can be informed by science. A / E / T, like Buddhafield is working to perfect this art.

We cannot know the limits of what mindfulness practice can achieve because community is the crucial element. Community (Sangha) has always been recognized as one of the three foundations of Buddhist spiritual practice. The community is still growing so we have no idea how much it can contribute. Science can provide a solid understanding of principles of psychology and collective wisdom, thus it can help us understand that, in principle, a wiser world is possible.

On the other hand the specifics of building such a world is going to be a matter of using art and vision to create practices that are adjusted to every particular context – this is true at the individual and at the community levels. Just as an individual is engaged in a constant process of seeing her life and relationships clearly, knowing her evolving sources of suffering and where to heal and transform those, so a community is in a constant process of analogous change. Being good at healing and transformation is an art, and building community is an art. Arts are helped along by being present – artists through the ages have made statements about the importance of being present and learning to observe fully for their work. We have no idea about the upper limits of what a community of presence and wellbeing can provide because this art is in its infancy. Science cannot tell us precisely either because we cannot grow Sangha in the laboratory. A Sangha could even grow and affect and benefit from changes in laws, politics and so on. If we look at the achievements of artistic communities, we can see that artistic products tend to come in great movements centered around particular communities. We wonder “how did all that happen at once?“ This can occur as a mystery to us because we don’t just accept that we are not independent individuals, we’re copycats, or cells in a social organism.

Principles that we can still take from science tradition are that both mindfulness and chattering minds are contagious, but mindfulness is more contagious through non-verbal routes. For example, the mindfulness of friends will ‘rub off’ on us through their calm body language (their energy) and beautiful surroundings invite us to be present where we are. Language, on the other hand tends to get us in our heads and it travels easily over long distances in the information age. An age of exchanging information is an age of non-mindfulness. Intentional creation of spaces communities and environments that are beautiful and free as happens in Buddhafield, and Art / Earth / Tech is a crucial step in cultivating the mindset that bring us to a new shore as a civilisation. That starts with realizing the special nature of our times, when a new vision is necessary, and that need can help us to draw our concentration to the present to look at life a new, it can draw us together. And we need to come together to find the strength to think differently.