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The Case for Contemplative Activism: why, why now, and what are we offering?

We are proposing that contemplative awareness, skills and practices can inform our responses to our collective cultural process of deep and lasting change. These changes are now being rapidly forced upon us. We are having to confront as a society, collectively and individually, the end of our way of life due to the breakdown in both the natural systems that have ensured the unbroken continuation of life on earth, and the concurrent breakdown of human social political, and economic systems. Contemplatives have, over millennia, faced death, ending, and change in ways most people have not. These gatherings aims to define a new relationship between activism and contemplation, create a sangha for holding this relationship, and inform and deepen activism in social change actors such as Extinction Rebellion.

These gatherings will inject something new into change and changing making in our societies. We need something new because we face challenges and changes which we are unprepared for. We need another way of considering the present and future- a present in which we are facing the loss of just about everything, despite staggering levels technical achievements and knowledge.

Since the ‘new thing’ we are proposing; collective cultivation of the contemplative mindset as a resource to develop better responses, is actually something that we (as a society) have effectively previously abandoned and stigmatized, it is worth deeply considering where the culture that undertook this abandonment has gotten itself. We are facing the loss of most of our culture, most of our way of life, and the certainties that we have lived with for all of our lives- and for many- generations past. The certainty of the continuation of life, and in particular our culture’s way of life, will almost certainly be unavailable to us and our children and grandchildren in the not too distant future.

Of course life on earth has always faced change and impermanence, sometimes swift and catastrophic, sometimes slow and inexorable. Weather catastrophes, (volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.) can and have wiped out whole tribes, and whole ways of life very quickly. Civilisations have come and gone. But we recover from those as a species. There is change, but the general flow of life remains. However the change that we are in the midst of is poised to change everything forever. ‘Catastrophists have always existed’, is a common reply to such statements, but when have these catastrophists comprised almost the entirety of the body of experts that we as a society have put in the best position to understand our situation?

To put our motivating intention succinctly, we believe that social conditions are ripe for determined group experimentation with holding our current situation within contemplative awareness so as to accept where we are with enough depth and solidity to see how to respond. To contribute to this process we will gather a group that combines contemplative awareness and experience with environmental, social and economic expertise with the premise that how we undertake conversation is as important as what we talk about. How we will discuss responding to the unravelling? It will be in a devotedly contemplative manner – with the conviction that the results of this process, which we don’t pretend to know, will be sufficiently valuable to motivate change and further larger-scale development of this process.

The Situation as it is

The destabilising of our climate means we can’t count on the ‘modern’ agriculture that our complex, industrial society depends on. Just think for a minute about where your food comes from and what it takes to get it to us, particularly those in cities who are utterly dependent on the continuous shipment of food and most other ‘stuff of life’.

Food is essential, as is clean water and clean air. But all of these are being threatened. We do not usually think about the essentials of life, those of us in the wealthy societies on earth and particularly in the well off sectors of that society. We take these for granted. We also take law and order, endorsement (however half-hearted) of universal sanctity of human life, free movement of goods and economic stability for granted.

But they are not a given.

Changes to The ‘Fundamentals’

We and any future generations will face the loss of many givens, crucial things we take for granted and lots more. Our climate is now shifting and destabilising from the end of the last glacial period; the Younger Dryas where it naturally shifted to the Holocene, which we now live in. The Holocene dating from approximately 11,600 before present is an interglacial period where we have had a stable and beneficial climate that is suited to growing crops and where all the known civilisations have developed and thrived. Ask any farmer what she needs to grow the crops, and she will reply certainty, and abundant sun, rain, and good, rich soil. And these are now no longer certain. The range of natural fluctuations have altered and will alter more until we can no longer adapt and the staple crops we rely on will no longer be viable.

Why is this important? Because this level of stability is required to enable us to year after year produce the kind of agricultural surpluses required to feed the 8 billion (and growing) human beings on the planet, and for a small number of us to produce this food while most of us, 97%+, to do other things (at least in the industrial food model). This enables the phenomenal complexity of our way of life, and it, in turn, is enabled by the energy we use, unfortunately still mostly in the form of fossil fuels. We are undermining our stable climate by the activity of our industrial civilisation. We are forcing our climate patterns out of the Holocene into what some have called the Anthropocene. It is a new and more extreme climate. We are also facing sea level rises which will make many of the world’s largest cities at least partly uninhabitable, and will inundate much of the worlds most fertile land.

While climate change is often referenced, we barely mention biodiversity loss, not because it is less important, but because it is less easy to understand. This mirrors the tendency of even scientists to avoid discussing negative and complex climate effects. Things that are complicated are easier to ignore than things which can be understood simply. But the future is going to be complicated, and we need to learn to look at it solidly regardless of whether it is pleasurable or painful, or at least we should if we there to be a future for humanity.

We are facing loss. And death; death of not just ourselves, but the death of our way of life. We must be prepared to contemplate that our civilisation is already dead and the only thing that matters now is what comes next. It is natural to fight to do everything we can to keep what we have, at least for the fortunate ones who so clearly benefit from the current way of life. But, as in all scales of life re-organisation, after collapse the remaining resources, the resources released by collapse, can reorganise into new forms of living and working and new forms of life. But if we use all available resources to prolong what is already dead there may not be enough left to support a reorganised system. A new climate regime, should the current trajectory be maintained, may also be unable to support all but the simplest forms of life. Therefore, any energy spent on keeping this particular civilisation alive will be wasted, and will prolong the agony of earth based cultures and other sentient beings.

The realisation that our civilisation or our way of life civilisation is dying which is essentially one of the key messages of ‘Deep Adaptation’, then begs the question what to keep from this civilisation if anything? And how to keep it? This is where our proposal, contemplative activism, become very important. The process we are in is death. We all have faced death and loss in some form or other, friends die, parents and grandparents die. As we grow older what one of us has not had to face loss or the threat of loss? Loss of friends, loss of our jobs, our marriages, or relationships, loss of our faculties, loss of our looks and youth. Life is about death and loss. And where has this been examined most clearly? In religion, spirituality or whatever you want to call it.

Stephen Bachelor in Alone With Others describes this very clearly,

What is life? How are the potentials of life to be actualised? What is the purpose and meaning of life? These are all questions that gradually formulate themselves in this unstructured region (the region of being as opposed to having and doing) which is slowly disclosing itself to us[as we live our lives].

In any case we are impelled to find a concrete framework which a set of satisfying answers is provided. The various religions of the world are in fact systematic formulations of the answers to these questions.

We are now in a time of cultural death. And coming to terms with that loss. This is because we have built a civilisation using lies, fabrications, and misunderstandings of the nature of what and how an Industrial Growth Society works. What we take as technological mastery is often just the exploitation of the abundant energy available to us from fossil fuels. The phenomenal growth of our economic sphere has been aided by both the enslavement of Africans and genocide in the Americas. We think we can grow food and exploit other renewable resources endlessly, but we can’t and we will soon come to a point where we must give up our stubborn hope that technological fixes can mend this vast brokenness. We can only write this as members of the elite class in the elite culture, the culture that has exploited many others and exploited the earth. Our culture is very busy destroying, seemingly unknowingly, the very basis of wealth and life.

The world’s most influential contemplative tradition, Buddhism, can bring much to times of ending and renewal. No society has more to benefit from understanding the second ‘noble truth’ – that attachment creates suffering.

Industrial society has given us perfectly red tomatoes at all times of the year and the ability to use the phrase ‘on demand’ commonly and un-ironically. We get most attached to predictable pleasure, and so the end of predictable opulence will create great suffering. Thoughts that imply suffering are the source of cognitive dissonance, which distorts our conclusions making them disjoined from reality. A society that has incredible levels of regularity and predictable consumptive pleasure will be attached- and have incredibly distorted and dissonant thoughts regarding potential threats to that pleasure. Releasing attachment can create subtlety and sensitivity, enable creativity and create the space for adaptation. We do not know what lies beyond these movements but have faith that it will be truer that what we experience now.

There is also the praxis of Buddhism in meditation, mindfulness, and other forms of authentically being with yourself. And there are the Buddhist practices based on non attachment that allow us to find the cracks in our ego structures, enabling creativity and the ability to just ‘be with’ without substituting story and shallow and frail human ideas for actuality.

Contemplation involves becoming unattached from our expectations and also our stories – authentically being with life itself. Being with what is without turning to ‘stories’ makes it possible to meet our reality and take our next steps in awareness and as consciously as possible. It will be especially important for those who are called to be leaders during the undoubtably violent and chaotic death throes of an unblissfully ignorant civilisation. We will need to stand in the fire and hold very difficult people, situations, and events, which, if mishandled. will leave us worse off. And on the positive side, there will also be enormous opportunities for change and collective growth.

We think that the imagining of the new will take clarity and tapping into states of consciousness regularly and reliably which none but the most devoted contemplatives are currently capable of, certainly we (the authors) are not. The notion of the sangha is therefore important, as communities of practice that artfully cultivate a consciousness that enable clarity and imagining beyond anything that currently exists. Releasing attachment creates cultural and personal malleability, which will necessitate the leaving behind of what has been and cultivating new and unexpected cultural forms and processes.

We will also be indebted to Buddhist practices based on gratitude, meditations on the interconnectivity and flow of life, loving kindness, healing pain of self and other, healing shenpa, letting go of self concern, and taking on board the concern of the welfare of others to name a few.

The role of story and imagination

Even though we can be outside them, story and imagination are crucial to our existence. The story of who we are as conscious beings, aware of our situation includes awareness of death. It includes the question that comes out of that – ‘what happens after death, if anything?‘ All religions have an answer to this question. They offer belief structures and practices that enable us to hold the anxiety of our certain death in order to live. However our patterns of identification, our notions of who we are usually extend beyond our essential being, what is sometimes called our true self, and into our status, achievements and so on. At death or when facing loss of these things, we suffer, as these are things which we cannot take with us, and which we will have to at some point relinquish. The pharaoh’s tombs held cornucopias of objects, many of which undoubtedly held deep meaning for them which they fully intended to take with them into the ‘afterlife’. We know that these objects remained on earth. And this will also be the case for us. Everything apart from our essential nature or spirit, cannot go through the gateway of death if you believe in something of us living on after physical death. Or at least this is the only credible explanation for what remains after bodily death. Of course we have no way of knowing this is true. But at least it’s plausible.

While this seems to be a religious question however that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a society we make up stories about who we are and make meaning for our lives, our suffering, our work, and what it means to be a part of whatever culture we are in.

The story of our civilisation: the myth of progress

We are a technological civilisation and as such we rely on our technical prowess to solve our problems. The temptation is to frame every problem into a technical one for which a technical solution can be found. While there are undoubtedly many technical problems to be solved; improved battery life, growing food with less fertiliser or water inputs, or cheaper, more energy efficient homes and buildings. However, there are many problems that are not technical. At the core of many of our problems; over exploitation of resources, obsession with short term economic growth, endless growth of our desires and wish for stuff lies a ‘being’ question or questions, rather than a ‘doing’ question. These questions cannot be solved with technology.

Questions like: What’s life about? What is the path of happiness or well being? What is real wealth? or How we can live in harmony with all of the ecosystems we are interdependent on? These are all being questions and cannot be solved by technology. These questions lie in the spiritual and cultural space, and transcend questions of doing. They are the questions which we will need to come to terms with if we are to create a new regenerative culture.

Where are we going?

There are many stories of where we are going. Two dominant cultural stories we have are the myth of unending progress and growth, and the realisation that our civilisation will crash and burn in the near future.

The 4 stories of the future are an interesting and important statement of where we might be going, representing possible futures.

These stories are about to be tested in the end times of a culture that is reaching the end of its possibilities. And the reality of where we are at and what needs to happen now lead one to the unenviable conclusion that we will be increasingly facing a world of violence and suffering on a massive scale. And not just in the places of the world that are currently violent and are suffering, but in the places which up until now have been safe and secure. In other words, the world that you and me live in.

One New Story to Consider

We desperately need a new story to replace the old. One story for participants of this gathering to hold ever so lightly may be that we need a leadership who are not attached to any stories. This is the way of the mystic. We need people to live with what is without needing to turn it into a story or an explanation, or a thing of any sort. It is from that place of no-thing-ness, that peaceful and culturally generative actions and ways to be in the world can emerge.

This leadership does not have to conflict with ‘horizontality’ but to be outside of it, because it would be outside of status and value. Leaders are needed, but not in the conventional sense as being seen as above those they lead, but playing a different role; of inspiring through the sheer quality of their presence. This role of leadership requires others who will listen to contemplative leaders. Contemplative leaders would hold this almost unholdable awareness along with the other aspects of non-duality and guide others to at least establish themselves in this awareness even if they do not always live in it. This is of course the sort of leadership contemplatives have always provided, but it can only work in a community in which the power of contemplation acknowledged. But for this we need not just contemplatives willing to lead but technical and political experts willing to be led.

The reason we propose this kind of leadership, is that it is only realistic to hope, we believe, for a very small minority to spend their lives in a mystical, or non dual presence. The habit of holding on to stories will die hard. A regenerative story of peace and living in harmony with earth processes is a much, much better than a story of technological progress and ruthless, and often consciously hidden exploitation. This is what we think. But of course one never knows. What we are saying is that it is unrealistic, we feel, for an entire culture to live entirely without a cultural story. Building a better story is therefore essential. However, if for those who it is possible, holding no stories will be an essential form of leadership and be most culturally generative.

There has been much talk over many years from people with a spiritual perspective on life that what we need is a ‘shift in consciousness’. The originator of Active Hope, Joanna Macy lists this as one of the three things that needs to happen to make a just and ecologically viable Transition. society-wide shift now seems vanishingly unlikely in the time scale we have to adapt and mitigate climate chaos and prevent species extinction. This kind of shift would probably require generations and a stable enough environment, but with enough tension with the current operating system to ensure evolution. None of these is available.

So a shift is possible, but it may be unwise to be attached to, or even hold the intention of, a total shift. Enough of a shift might allow us to grab onto a story with enough meaningful difference to the current cultural story and enough positive and negative dos and don’t to enable a culture to emerge that is in enough harmony with earth systems to allow life to continue amidst the chaos of the death of the existing paradigm and the birth of the new. And for this we need a very different kind of leadership. To harken back to tradition – we need a leadership that helps to craft a raft to cross to another shore. There are Buddhist teachings, expressed in dualisms, often simple ones like ‘nowhere to go, nothing to do’ that can help guide us.

Who or what will this leader be? Thich Nhat Hanh has said, the next enlightened being might be a Sangha. He said this with awareness that enlightened individuals were not going to develop within the culture of having and doing so a Sangha is necessary. A Sangha could become an enlightened subculture, or an enlightened enough of a subculture to make a real difference. We know of no greater aid to contemplative concentration than awareness of the environmental situation that we face, the fatal symptoms of our culture’s ill-being, its near total devotion to having and doing. We believe a contemplative sangha built around this fertile awareness may do great things for the art of presence in end times, it can help to build a raft to cross to another shore.

Those who can hold this form of leadership will often go unheralded and unrecognised just because the immensity of what is possible from a place of non attachment and authentically being with what is so far outside most people’s experience that they might as well be an alien. That is perfect, though, because recognition is the friend of ego, and ego is the enemy of awareness.

Another Story to Consider

What can we offer a society that is about to lose the way of life it knows? The simple fact is that people who have grown up in this culture, but turned towards the inner life know most deeply that none of the consumption is necessary and life itself is enough. They can say this with authenticity. As mentioned, deep awareness of this is alien, but some awareness of this is commonplace, even unavoidable.

Living life means some contact with simple pleasure, with the value of ‘life itself.‘ For example, visitors to the US, the epitome of consumerist culture, often are shocked if they are invited to Thanksgiving, one holiday where consumerism is still somewhat resisted. On that day even the most unashamed consumerists show the ability to at least touch gratitude even for a short while, even imperfectly, often without reflecting on the brutal history of their riches, or the story of what is at their table. Eating with friends, relaxing, and talking in a spirit of gratitude for having enough is still available if we could come anywhere near to realising how little enough really is. That is contemplative work, and so contemplative are best suited to helping to build a raft to cross to this shore.

The reality is that we could be far happier in the next decade, even while cutting our GDP drastically, which is what it will take to stop the irreparable damage to our home, the earth. The reality is also that on cultural level, a realistic calculation would probably show that we are too blind to see this, but contemplation is not about calculation, and any movement towards this is our best response to the current situation.

One of the key aspects of giving up or relinquishing, in the Deep Adaptation frame proposed by Jim Bendell, will be relinquishing deeply held beliefs and thoughts about who we are personally and as a culture. This inner letting go will enable outer relinquishment. This is because we are letting go of desires, beliefs and ideas about ourselves and our work that are simply not useful, and not important. If this is aligned to a sangha, a kind of vortex of change might be possible. One of us (Naresh) has seen this sort of thing occasionally manifest in Transition towns, although not reliably.

There is much to take on in these times, and much that will need to happen to allow a just and relatively less violent and traumatic end time for ourselves, our communities and our world. The retreat we are proposing will be a way to enable sanghas of personal change leading to the enabling of leadership in these times.

We cannot know the outcomes, much of what we are proposing and will propose has not been done before; and it never could have been done, because we are now facing historically unique times and unique circumstances. Of course every effort has been and will be made to learn from what does and has worked. We will be indebted to the millennia old practices and framing of the painful and anxiety ridden nature of our lives and our societies which can lead to transformation and the end of suffering.

We the holders of this gathering lay no claim to enlightenment, specialness, or mastery of ourselves and our lives. We are in the shit the same as anyone else. We hope that our combined practices, knowledge and experience will enable us to create the container to hold the energetic qualities that will allow something regenerative, solid, and durable to emerge. We obviously cannot give any guarantees. Active hope and possibility are however tangible and with us. We offer this gathering in utter humility and with a prayer for healing and peace for all beings.

Naresh Giangrande

Liam Kavanagh

2 replies on “The Case for Contemplative Activism: why, why now, and what are we offering?”

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