Contemplative Activism

Contemplative Activism: A Primer

We are proposing that contemplative awareness, skills and practices can inform our responses to our collective cultural process of deep and lasting change.

We set out some of our initial ideas in our first paper. Here we are exploring in more depth that some of the proposals might mean.

There are some ways in which contemplatives have engaged with the world that can inform our ability to live in difficult times, to frame and shift how we hold and engage with our collective processes. For instance, the ability to be with suffering, and embracing our suffering as a part of life rather something that we feel we must avoid or prevent. Realising that it is often our resistance to our suffering that is so painful, and that sufferings embrace 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 that suffering, a pathway out of that 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 ritual space.

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 that 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 the first step 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.

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?’

What is contemplative awareness?

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:

Is it true?
Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react when you believe that thought?
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.

Preparing for the death of our way of life.

How to do this at a social scale?

The first part is 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 have lived in.

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 the science demands it. It may be politically difficult if not impossible, but physics trumps politics. Science is all we have to rely on; it is the closest thing we have to collective truth.

We are not able to imagine a voluntary end to the present systems, or capitalism.
“it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek.

We in the Western world cannot come to terms with or see that giving up our privilege and power is necessary. We cannot image 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’ 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 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.”

So the first step it seems is to come to terms with death; our own and that of our civilisation. It is to practice radical non attachment. The giving up and letting go. The release of everything we can possibly let go of. Typically that 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. These are pieces of ‘false self’ or ego structures which are nothing more that beliefs and thought constructions which are not us. The gaze of the 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 when identified with become the apparent self, 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 narrative that what we can make if we put our minds to it could be infinitely better than what we have now for most people (except perhaps the 1%). If we create an economic system for instance that is aligned around providing fulfilment, or happiness, or wellbeing rather that profit maximisation, then we can do lots better. The framework of Manford Max Neef is a compelling proposition that might go some way to towards meeting this 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 scalar of change and even the most technologically optimistic cannot begin to image 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 an steadily decreasing resource base to meet those needs.

What can contemplatives tell us at a civilisational scale of living about relinquishment? There are the 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 todays changes, and process of loss and rebirth.

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 Vitor 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 reals 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 devises 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 forJensen’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 that 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


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

This hardly 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 of 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 nearly 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 but have faith that it will be truer that what we experience now.


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. 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, hero’s, 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?, or 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 hat human life becomes untenable without a story that explains pain and suffering, and brith (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’s 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 Chödrön

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.

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 al agree that something printed on paper, or plastic will all sorts of magical symbols and holograms can be exchanged for a cup of tea and bun our money system doesn’t work. Nd it 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 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 with out 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 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.