Reflections on the First Contemplative Activism Gathering (Dec 2019)

Seeing the world as it is.

Learning to act and be when we have no ground under our feet

The first contemplative activism gathering took place near Kings Lynn, in the beautiful and whimsical West Lexham centre.

So what did you do?

We met, we talked, we meditated and did some embodied practice together.

What actually happened?

We found that it is very hard to talk about what Contemplative Activism is and what it means. The sharply contrasting, paradoxical melding of two concepts that don’t usually go together felt intriguing, and we wondered if they are the right terms for what we are proposing.

Rhetoric feels important. The tension between contemplatives and whatever culture they are a part of is a subject as old as the hills; living in the world versus contemplation – with very divergent skills and aims. However at a time when all the available evidence is pointing to a civilisational collapse following business as usual, then something else might be able to happen. And contemplatives offer an opening to other societal narratives, aims, and practices.

We asked a lot of questions like:

  • What is activism?
  • Is climate change a spiritual issue?
  • Contemplative practices won’t solve climate change, but bringing contemplative practices into activism might?
  • What are the collective traumas that lead to our civilisational crisis?
  • How well equipped do we feel to hold people in the grief and loss that we are likely to face?
  • What might a Contemplative Activism Sangha look like? What are the challenges?
  • Do we need a new organisation? Or a new Sangha?
  • Can we have trees in our Sangha?

But we had very few answers.

This is because Contemplative Activism is about helping us to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be or wish it was. To question is to live without knowing or needing to know how to live with no ground beneath our feet as Pema Chodron calls the embrace of the dharma.

Turning your mind towards the dharma does not bring security or confirmation. Turning your mind towards the dharma does not bring any ground to stand on. In fact, when your mind turns toward the dharma, you fearlessly acknowledge impermanence and change and begin to get the knack of hopelessness.

When Things Fall Apart pg 51

We will, almost certainly, have to start to live without the rules, agreements, and boundaries which have defined our world. Our world is a world that has been created by civilisation. Civilisation created cities and settled groups of people. It is the defining organising principle of our world, more than capitalism or socialism. Political organisations such as capitalism or socialism are just two different ways of running civilisation.

What we are currently living in, is the end of civilisation and the beginning of something else. And Contemplative Activism will help us with this transition. Why? Because it will enable us to see the world as it is not as we want it to be. We will need to adapt to vastly different ways of doing just about everything, and contemplating change, not managing, not setting up rules or agreements, not mediating anything. Just ‘being with’ is easily the most useful skill we might possess. And one of the most difficult to maintain and live with. Easy to say but oh so difficult to do. Presence, the cultivation of ‘being with what is’ in any moment, moment to moment, has been the stomping ground of contemplatives of all ilk and every hue from the beginning of time.

Our new world will be a world without the existing hierarchies, without the existing power structures, and without the certainties that civilisation has put in place, and has determined our world for the last 500 years or so or maybe 2500 years, depending on what part of the world you are living in. What comes next is up to us to define and create. Or we can leave this to ‘others’.

The Ho de no sau nee, the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, made a spectacular set of statements to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland in Autumn 1977. They concluded:

The traditional Native peoples hold the key to the reversal of the processes in Western Civilization which hold the promise of unimaginable future suffering and destruction. Spiritualism is the highest form of political consciousness. And we, the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, are among the world’s surviving proprietors of that kind of consciousness.

I would add the contemplatives to this list of ‘proprietors of that kind of consciousness’, the only consciousness there really is. All else are fabrications, beliefs, and conventions which have no basis in reality apart from the significance we collectively give them and the violence that is used to uphold them. Yuval Noah Harari provides a searching and unflinching examination of the role and basis of beliefs in the formation of civilisations in his book Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind.

Now is the time to contemplate what and who we are. And from that will flow a new world consciously made.

The Sangha created in this gathering will go on meeting virtually, and face to face in Liverpool in a ‘drop in drop out’ two-week meeting in early spring, a small meeting in Berlin, and a large gathering in summer 2020. Others can join us. Come and bring your practice. We are gathering and blending a variety of ‘spiritual’ and other practices. We are an eclectic and fluid group which is still forming and finding out who and what we are.

Naresh Giangrande January 2020

By Naresh Giangrande

Co Founder of Transition Town Totnes, & Transition Training. Celebrating a new cultural story while gracefully letting go of the old.