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Contemplative Activism Primer: the pre-gathering read

This primer is written by our collaborator, Naresh Giangrande. In our upcoming retreat we will explore how contemplative awareness, skills and practices can inform our responses to our collective cultural process of deep and lasting change.

I set out some initial ideas in a paper with Liam – Contemplative Activism What it is and Why It’s Important. Here I am exploring in more depth some of the ideas in that paper in an evolving enquiry into Contemplative Activism.

There are some ways in which contemplatives have engaged with the world that can inform how we live in difficult times. These ways might take the form of new cultural meta perspectives, which might then become the new common sense. For example, the ability to be with suffering, and the ability to embrace our suffering as a part of life rather than something that we feel we must avoid or prevent. It might take the form of realising that it is often our resistance to our suffering that is so painful, and that embracing suffering is the first step toward transforming that suffering into something else.

This is a key insight from contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, that provides a real reason for suffering, a pathway out of suffering, and makes the possibility of a transcendent realignment of the self as a result of sitting with and allowing that suffering to be. Imagine a society where this was a common and accepted practice. Imagine collective rituals of embracing suffering. Imagine the possibility for collective action springing out of that kind of ritual space.

Contemplative Activism is really both a plea for a different way of thinking about and acting on our human predicament (which we are naming the climate and ecological emergency) , and is also a wish for a fundamental realignment with contemplative traditions in the context of our secular societies. This is of course written from a Western European perspective. As we see later, the context in which our response to the climate and ecological emergency we find ourselves in cannot be separated from the temporal place where we live.

Something is clearly missing from the way in which we frame, speak about, and act in all areas of collective life, but in particular in the emergency we are in. And a large bit of that missing piece can be found in the contemplative traditions; in our history of looking deeply into human experience, and experienced the full range of humanness. It is precisely the contemplative experiences that are missing from our collective discourse. This creates a serious hole where those experiences can and must inform our decision making and action.

An analogy might be Ken Wilber’s four quadrant integral model. Where for many there is a blind spot. The inner aspects of life are easily forgotten about, and as a result there is a lack of ability to discuss and frame let alone solve societal, or individual problems. An integral piece of the system is missing.

 Image credit: Stephane Segatori https://medium.com/@ssegatori/what-is-integral-philosophy-integral-theory-5c6b0ccc7724

The same is true of the missing contemplative piece, or, as it has been termed, a ‘God shaped hole’ in our civilisation. In a civilisation run by our collective personality or ego structures, we find ourselves abandoned (although it is us who have done the abandoning) and soulless. We are left with an extrinsically driven culture and set of values. As we approach the endgame of our collective ability to provide more, and meet human wants and needs with a purely material set of answers, there appears to be no way out of the collective cul de sac we find ourselves in other than positing, in all seriousness, colonising other planets as a solution.

Those of us taking part in the weekend are curious about what this missing piece of human existence means for the culture we are living in. We are equally curious about how the response to our climate and ecological emergency is affected by a lack of contemplative awareness.

Surely the ultimate expression of freedom is the freedom to be who we are and express and live as fully human lives as possible. In a culture that repeatedly attempts to narrowly define and thereby confine the human spirit in so many ways, anything but the fullest expression of our humanity is an unwelcome and possibly fatal civilisational flaw. We must not let be to be continued to be so narrowly defined. We must allow both the seen and the unseen, the mundane, the profane, and the transcendental to coexist and be in our hearts, minds, and awareness. Reducing ourselves to corporate sized entities to fit within the corporate consumerist, neoliberal evisceration of our collective identity is leading us to an apocalyptic end game. It is not just a question of freedom but ultimately of survival. What would a transcendental, contemplatively informed view of our humanity look like? I hope we can explore this in our gathering.

Of course one of the problems we face is that most of us do not see let alone practice the cultivation of the transcendental in our lives. What might some of these practices be? What are the most important one? If we developed a pattern language or transcendental practices for everyday life what might that be?

It is also clear that there are many individual ways to hold and be with ourselves that the contemplative life enables. One such way is nothing more than being with ‘what is’, rather than seeking to find ways to avoid or hide from ‘what is’. This being with rather than hiding from or avoiding is almost certainly one of the first steps in any contemplative life. It is probably the fundamental way as from this first step, a whole life’s worth of insights and competencies arise. It is the gateway to the mystery which we are both afraid of and so attracted to. Is this the case in all contemplative traditions, explicitly, or implicitly? Again I hope we can explore this.

What does it mean: Holding our current situation within contemplative awareness so as to accept where we are with enough depth and solidity to see how to respond?

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in the opening lines of Being Peace,

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby, life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.

It is being able to hold without having to resolve contradictions and paradoxes.

It is being able to look at sets of beliefs for instance and find ways through them using for instance Byron Katie’s 4 questions:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Contemplatives and spiritual teachers have come to the conclusion that it is not our objective situation that makes it hard to know where to go or how to act, but our beliefs around that situation or our thoughts and beliefs that limit our ability to respond.

In The Will to Meaning, Victor Frankl notes that logotherapy aims to unlock the will to meaning in life. That the lack of meaning in life often leads people to respond by adopting hedonistic pursuits, consumerism, power, hatred, boredom, compulsions or obsessions. And that meaning was found through deeds, the experience of values through some kind of medium (beauty through art, love through a relationship, etc.) or suffering.

Dr. Susanne C. Moser concludes,

…the leaders of the future will face not just new, more difficult, and more pervasive environmental challenges than past and present leaders do, but will need to be adept in a range of psychological, social, and political skills to navigate the inevitable human crises that will precede, trigger, and follow environmental ones. Future leaders will need to be not just experts in climate change, or a particular environmental field, but be capable of holding that which is happening to and in our world. They will need to mentor, guide, and assist people in processing enormous losses, human distress, constant crises, and the seemingly endless need to remain engaged in the task of maintaining, restoring, and rebuilding – despite all setbacks – a viable planet, the only place the human species can call its home.

This type of leadership which involves mentoring and holding people in their emotional turmoil is one which will come to the fore as it will be the most viable way to create the transformational civilisation that can allow for large scale collective intelligence to emerge from a ground of being firmly rooted in our social, political, and most importantly our ecological reality.

So contemplative awareness is about holding lightly ‘what is’ and questioning what is really true.

It is about developing this skill and making it a part of our life. It is also the ability to remain in that holding or questioning even when confronted with difficult or charged situations.

And then once we are able to hold ‘what is’ with enough grace and ease, there are clearly other steps which flow from this awareness. What are they and how can we define them?

Preparing for the death of our way of life our civilisation

How to go about doing this at a social scale?

The first step in this process of coming to terms with the death of our civilisation might be to come to terms with the loss we personally feel, our personal experiences. If we can’t put our oxygen mask on first, we can’t help others with theirs.

In our Deep Dive into Deep Adaptation, it became clear that one of the first steps was to accept and acknowledge our privilege. For myself, I have lived in an enormously privileged position in life and in the society I live in. This helps me to local myself in a civilisational process. My experience in one of many and this helps me to be aware of the overall process, and not mistake my experience for the process. It helps me to accept the heterogeneity of this process of change. After all, we daily have access to information of how collapse is happening in different parts of the world. We know that many people are experiencing an uneven end to their societies ability to provide the basic necessities of life, let alone the bells and whistles. It is important to maintain that perspective

The main message of the Transition movement was that deep changes were needed, almost unthinkable changes, like a completely different economic system, and big, big personal lifestyle changes. And then, if we created an orderly energy descent (in ‘Western lifestyles’) we just might be able to retain some of our Western lifestyle. What was said, but unspoken, was that those of us living Western middle class lifestyles might, if we were lucky, retain at least some of the privileges we enjoy. This will be a controversial assessment to many, please forgive me. But, many have wondered why Transition was a middle class movement. At any rate this invitation was refused.

Now XR have come along with a much more unappealing proposition; completely change everything about our lives, very rapidly and unless we do that we face not just the end of our civilisation, but possible extinction. XR are saying this because this is what the science demands is saying. It may be politically difficult if not impossible, but as XR continually says we must act not on political possibility but physical reality. Science is all we have to rely on; it is the closest thing we have to collective truth. And we as yet have no evidence that this message is getting through to the degree and to create the scale of change needed. It may be, but we don’t know yet.

Are we not able to imagine a voluntary end to the capitalist system?

”…it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” – attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek.

We in the Western world cannot come to terms with or see that giving up our privilege and power is necessary. We cannot imagine that at a mass scale. I am imagining that others not so privileged folks find imagining the end of the current system a lot easier, and the less privilege the easier it gets. The closer to the extractive ‘coal face’ of the industrial growth society, the easier it is.

But imagine it we must and at a mass scale. Our civilisation is dead. There are those who don’t agree of course. But if we take this view, then there is much work to be done that contemplatives can help us with. As we said in our paper, 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 compelled to find a concrete framework where a set of satisfying answers is provided. The various religions of the world are in fact systematic formulations of the answers to these questions.

Religions have traditionally provided us with answers to the fundamental and mysterious questions that frame our lives (and which most of us spend very little time contemplating or exploring). Life where we come from and after death, where we go to. And then how to live the bit in between.

So the first step it seems is to come to terms with death; our own and that of our civilisation. It is the practice of radical non attachment -giving up and letting go. It is the release of everything we can possibly let go of. Typically that conscious relinquishment was a preparation or a step in a phase of a journey to enlightenment. The giving up of everything that is not the true self or the self. All that which masquerades as the self but is not might be termed the personality structures, or the small self. These are pieces of ‘false self’ or ego structures which are nothing more than beliefs and thought constructions which are not us. The gaze of the larger or real self reveals them to be in fact non existent or not real (although in the paradox of humanness, in so far as we act as if they are real, they are. When in fact they are not). So in the process of relinquishment of the false self or our personality structures, which in the process of us identifying them we see them as the apparent self (unreal), we lose nothing and gain everything.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. – Matthew 16:25 attributed to Jesus of Nazareth.

If we take this as one aspect of a personal practice in a journey towards self realisation or attainment of oneness, how can we frame relinquishment in societal wide terms?

There has been a narrative in Transition towns that we can make, if we put our minds, hearts and souls to it, something infinitely better than what we have now for most people (except perhaps the 1%). If we invest all the creativity, skill and resources to making something beneficial and imaginative that we put into the fossil fuel economy, what might that look like? If we create an economic system for instance that is aligned around providing fulfilment, or happiness, or well being rather than profit maximisation, then we can do lots better. The framework of Manford Max-Neef is a compelling proposition that might go some way towards creating that kind of society. There is also Kate Raworth’s Donut economics, and the solidarity economy. There are many possibilities for change and reform which do not demand relinquishment, except for the clearly dysfunctional current system.

But what if we are going to have to relinquish our way of life, which unless we radically and swiftly change our way of life, which in itself will be relinquishment, we will lose. We will lose it one way or another. The only difference is that by voluntarily relinquishing our way of life we have the possibility of holding onto some vestige of civilisation of some sort. If we do not there is no hope that our social, economic, and political systems can cope with the scale of change and even the most technologically optimistic cannot begin to imagine the invention and rapid deployment of what we would need to continue on as life gets harder and harder for more and more, and with a steadily decreasing resource base to meet those needs. Yet this scale of change remains elusive.

What can contemplatives tell us at a civilisational scale of living about relinquishment? There are many stories of Native Americans who successfully enabled their culture to die and to be reborn in a new form. The process of cultural death and resurrection could hold many important insights for today’s changes, and process of loss and rebirth. I hope we can explore this further.

Loss of everything then begs the question: what to keep from this civilisation if anything? And how to keep it?

The earlier discussion on loss of personality and embrace of the true self or the self contains some important insights at a spiritual level. There is of course the material level which contemplatives might have much less to say. But on a spiritual level if we take the way of contemplatives as that we can only give away the personality and what remains cannot be taken from us. This is one of the understandings of Victor Frankl, as of course many others. We cannot lose our true self. An apparent loss is not loss. We lose what our personality structures, or the apparent reality that we construct from those structures.

When looked at from this way there almost certainly will be loss of technology and many other outer structures or social and technological structures and abilities, but what is essentially human cannot be lost. This seems to get us into the realms of absolute and relative truth. Or in Buddhist terms Satya, a genuine truth or reality and a provisional or conventional truth which describes (most of) our everyday reality. Or in Christian terms the revelation of truth which prophets are privy to.

There is a long debate amongst collapsologists over this question of what if anything we want to keep from our technology. There is of course a range of opinions from Richard Heinberg’s ‘lifeboat’ scenario where lifeboats encompassing the greatest amount of knowledge ranging from our understanding of what it means to be human, ontology and various epistemologies, to the technical knowledge embedded in our devices like computers and mobile phones which if lost could take decades if not millennia to recover. And then at the other end is a view often expressed by people like Derrick Jensen that our civilisation incorporates so much violence that it casts doubt that anything is of use at all. While I have some sympathy for Jensen’s views, if faced with a collapsing technosphere I can’t help but think a few solar panels and small scale grid might make life immeasurably better than not in my community.

What has been missing is the input of mystics into this space. What is the relationship of relative to absolute truth? What can we learn from this exploration? Or are they so far apart in terms of the areas of life they are describing that they don’t touch? It is reminiscent (or maybe it is the exact same debate?) of the debates about in the face of scientific knowledge whether God is dead.

A brief exploration of contemplative practices and their relevance to Activism

Buddhism

Meditation, mindfulness, and other forms of authentically being with yourself.

This almost goes without saying. The demands of being an activist make authentic being with yourself essential. This is because:

  • Being an activist is demanding particularly emotionally. Being able to be with rather than avoid or fix uncomfortable emotions makes activism much more powerful. What we try to avoid or fix within ourselves, will also be our approach to outward problems or situations. Authentic action is more likely by being with rather than avoiding or fixing.
  • Burnout is often a problem. Under resourced and facing overwhelming problems day after day is not easy to be with. Mindfulness makes this easier or more possible.
  • Meditators are much more able to be in difficult group situations and develop the internal distance that is necessary to find ways to act with others.

Non attachment

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. Releasing attachment can create subtlety and sensitivity, enable creativity and create the space for adaptation.

What has become clear to me as an activist is that letting go of all attachment to a specific outcome is essential to our current predicament. Letting go of what ultimately does not serve us is as important as letting go of specific outcomes once we have gone through the gateway of loss and change. We cannot know the pathways of change, how they will play out, the time sales and variations of ‘two steps forward and one back.’ We may need to take what appear to be detours. It is also clear to me that what ever comes next out of the metamorphosis will almost certainly be nothing we can have envisioned. We have taught visioning processes as part of the Transition model and process, and I wonder sometimes whether this is actually useful. We can vision a world of more silence, without cars or at least internal combustion engines, and more in tune with nature. However beyond this, what that looks like, what regenerative practices look like are only now being explored, and we have no idea of the scale of destruction we might have to be repairing, only that it will likely be high and perhaps insurmountable.

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.

We do not know all that lies beyond these movements of letting go but, maybe need to have faith that it will be truer and more enlivening than how we are living now.

Stories

Being with ‘what is’ without turning to ‘stories’ makes it possible to meet our reality and take our next steps with awareness and as consciously as possible. Contemplation involves becoming unattached from our expectations and also our stories – authentically being with life itself. In fact it is essential.

It seems that all human societies rely on stories, fables, religious texts, myths, heroes, and legends to tell themselves who they are, what they stand for; the whys and hows of life. What’s life about? What is the path of happiness or well being? What is real wealth? How we can live in harmony with all of the ecosystems we are interdependent on? These are some of the questions that demand answers or at least stories that enable us to develop some beliefs that pass for answers.

Some think that human life becomes untenable without a story that explains pain and suffering, and birth (where do we come from) and death (where do we go to?), and what are the non material aspects of humanness like consciousness emotions and thoughts?

We can certainly ‘clean up’ the story and tell ourselves that we are one with earth and all living and non living entities. The reinterpretation of Genesis is often translated notion of dominion into stewardship and working with is more helpful than an understanding based on a Cartesian notion of linearity and control.

However, living without a story might be even more powerful.

It’s not life that causes suffering, it’s our story about life – our interpretation – that causes so much distress. When we practice interrupting the story we’re telling ourselves, we can find a new freedom and flexibility in the face of uncertainty and change. – Pema Chodron

This is true on an individual level, but how might this work on a society scale level? Can we collectively free ourselves of the stories we tell ourselves? The stories we tell ourselves individually are generated by trauma, past experience, and the conclusions we have drawn from living. Many of these stories are based on childhood and other incomplete or outdated life history, and are embedded in our feelings of anxiety and fears. Hence we remain clouded in half truths that emerged often in our tender years, when we need protection and were able to develop only limited and provisional life stories, modes or being, and limited awareness. As such growing up, and the process of individuation means updating these complexes and ideas about who we are and how the world works to something with more freedom and allowing more possibility.

However the stories of our culture are something different. They interact with our personal stories but perform a different function. They are there to align us in collective action. Without these beliefs generated by the stories we tell ourselves about who we are we cannot act collectively. For instance unless we all agree that something printed on paper, or plastic with all sorts of magical symbols and holograms can be exchanged for a cup of tea and cake our money system does not work. And the economic story goes far, far beyond that into the reals of the myth of progress and makes it possible for us to operate the technosphere because those working in it need to have a story to make it possible to go to work in the morning because they are provided with a why along with the need to make money to live.

Exploring what it means to live without collective stories might well be an interesting and important way to create a group of people able to engage with and be with deep change of a kind we are unfamiliar with and beyond current imagining.

Other practices

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.

Contemplative leadership

Contemplative leaders would hold this almost unholdable awareness of the nature of reality, life without stories, and the nature and scope of the climate and ecological emergency, 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 is acknowledged. But for this we need not just contemplatives willing to lead but technical and political experts willing to be led.

Shift in consciousness

Nowhere to go, nothing to do

This simple sentence crops up every once in a while in Plum Village. It encapsulates the awareness that there is a doing culture that demands action and a sense of there always being somewhere to go and something to do. It calls us into our essential self, and makes the awareness that this is actually the most important relationship we have with ourselves.

I hope we might have time to discuss what this shift in consciousness might mean, and how it might come about.

These are only a few ideas about what we might want to explore in our time together. It might not. These ideas are only offered as a range of possibilities that might or might not be useful in attempting to frame and inform our discussions. It is a starting point. We don’t really know where we are going or where we want to get to. I am purposely writing this primer in order to explore what contemplative activism might mean and how it can be useful. I am keen not to narrow our enquiry but to enable us to keep the enquiry open and alive.

Naresh Giangrande

December 2019

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