The habit of mind is to grasp for what is wanted, to repel what is not and then to be swept away in a trance of thought that would relentlessly pursue those goals. Awakening into a state of true well-being requires a fundamental disruption of this pattern. Each time you sit on your cushion, even by pausing in a moment of reactivity, you are peacefully interrupting this pursuit of impossible satisfaction in favor of harmony with life as it actually is.
When entire human societies systematically grasp, repel and robustly resist the reality of what is happening to life on earth, disruption is similarly required. The dramatic act of even one human being can clarify that true peacefulness, true harmony for us all, requires standing in the way of the colossal harm that is business-as-usual. Yet this message will be most easily heard and most likely to lead to awakened response if it is absent of any and all ill-will, if the protester’s scope of care authentically includes those normally considered ‘enemies.’
Many of the people involved in recent acts of non-violent disobedience in the United Kingdom are long-time Dharma practitioners. This is potentially helpful in at least four ways: as ethical foundation, in checking and transforming emotional reactivity, in increased willingness to renounce material pursuits in favor of something much deeper, and in demonstrating the sort of kindness that refuses to leave anyone out.
In the letter to friends below, shared here with permission, long-time Buddhist practitioner and co-founder of Freely Given Retreats Mark Øvland describes his experience of standing before a judge in a London court to make his case for breaking the law based on his love for all of life.
I have a funny feeling this will be my last post for a while.
It’s rather long, and I don’t expect many people to read it. It’s really just meant for those of you who have expressed an interest in my ongoing court cases, as this week, finally, our ‘Petroleum 9′ case reached its conclusion. Well, almost. The trial is over but we’re yet to be sentenced.
On Wednesday we were back in court, this time at City of London Magistrates’. Six of us were still to give our defences, including me, and that made it a very long day. By the time we left, shortly before 7pm, most of us were struggling to stay awake or focussed. The judge also. But aside from a few hours of rather infuriating nit-picking it was actually pretty interesting, and needless to say very moving to hear everyone speak and give their evidence. We’re all quite different from one another and each of us brought something quite unique to the stand. We thought quaintly afterwards that together we’re a little like a 9-coloured rainbow 🙂
When my turn came to testify, I found that my chest was pounding, and I asked the judge if I could have a few moments just to stand quietly and listen to what my heart was asking of me. After a short pause I told him that I felt I needed to speak freely, that I didn’t wish to be constrained by my barrister’s questioning. When he told me that wasn’t possible, that, being legally represented as I was, I was required simply to answer the questions put to me, I asked him in that case whether I could instruct my barrister to stand down, and to represent myself for the remainder of the trial. That was acceptable apparently, so that’s what I did, but it was all way more dramatic than it needed to have been. Especially with one very kind and elderly member of the court staff coming over to check in with me about my mental health, and to see if I was feeling okay. I thanked her and assured her I was perfectly sane, it was just that I felt a strong need to speak from my heart, openly and freely.
The following day we were only due back for the afternoon, to finish with the closing statements. As a self-representer I now had the opportunity to offer one of these myself, and took the chance gladly. These closing arguments are, I gather, supposed only to address specific legal technicalities in one’s defence, the reasons one believes that according to the letter of the law one shouldn’t be found guilty. I decided to take a different approach and might well have been shut down by a different judge, but ours was very accommodating and heard me out. He had shown that same generosity throughout the trial, keen that we were each able to say what we wanted to say, and that’s something we were all very grateful to him for. It would never have crossed my mind to share what I said, but as we left the court a few of my co-defendants and members of the public gallery suggested I tried to write it up, in case others might find it helpful or interesting to hear. I don’t know about that, but on their request, and for what it’s worth, I’ve done my best to recreate it below. I think I’ve added in a couple elements from my speech the day before too, just to make it able to stand by itself.
Once all the closing arguments had been made the judge told us all that he didn’t wish to make a snap decision on our guilt, or otherwise, and had a busy few weeks ahead of him, so wouldn’t be able to sentence us until 7th October, when we’d all be due back in court to hear his verdict. We told him that wasn’t the best day for us, and thankfully he agreed to make it the 9th instead.
So we’re almost there. It’s been quite a drawn-out journey, this one..
Much like this post. If anyone’s still reading this, I salute your stamina!
As I said, this is likely to be my last post for a while, so may I just wish you a very beautiful and meaningful time ahead, and joy and stillness in your heart.
Every one of you is amazing.
Thank you, I will be brief.
There is nothing concerning the particulars of my case that I would like to add or expand upon. I was there, I had my hand glued firmly to one of the entrance doors, and my intention getting out of bed that morning had been to shut that conference down. My intention did however change when I arrived at the hotel and realised, given the presence of the security team, that doing so would not be possible. Now whether my actions that day make me guilty of a crime, within this narrow legal framework in which we are operating, I’ve really no idea. That is for you to decide.
What I would like to say is that I have full respect for the law. That doesn’t mean I will always abide by it. My moral compass may sometimes demand otherwise of me. It means that if I am found guilty of breaking it, I will put my hands up and accept whatever is deemed to be the appropriate sentence. That is part of the sacrifice I am willing to make, in this fight to save some sort of habitable future for everything and everyone that I love.
When yesterday I referred to the ‘petty arguments’ that were being made, I was not intending to insult the court. I was simply struggling with what I felt as a painful disconnect between that which was playing out before us – with hours of attention being given to the most banal and trivial points – and the reason we were there, the fact that our home was on fire – the very stage on which this courtroom drama was playing out, was on fire. I was frustrated, and rather incredulous. But I do understand the necessity within this system of such pedantic scrutiny of the particulars, and I respect the process as the best we’ve got. I respect, too, the roles that everyone here is playing in this particular theatre.
We need the courage to start a new story, or at least a new chapter.
What I would like to remind the court, though, is just this point. The theatre of all this. This judicial system, this criminal justice system, is essentially just a story that we’re all agreeing to believe in. After all, it’s a story that, in large part, works pretty well. It would work even better were it not for the institutional racism and classism that sadly accompanies it. And throughout the trial I myself felt the strong gravitational pull to conform and play along, to constrict myself to a certain way of being and thinking, the prescribed etiquette of the legal system, and to subtly, almost unconsciously close off other ways of being and thinking.
But that wouldn’t have been appropriate. We need to remain conscious that we are telling ourselves a story of our own creation, and that it isn’t ultimately real or fixed. We need to remain open to changing the story when it no longer serves our best interests – when, for instance, the very stage on which we are performing the story is on fire, and what is needed more than anything is to rally together to put the fire out.
If we scrap for a moment the courtroom story, what are we but twenty or thirty human beings sitting in a room together, all of us equal before one another. Equally valuable, equally beautiful, equally divine. And all of us facing a near future that is sure to bring intense suffering should we allow fossil fuel exploration and use to continue on its current trajectory. From that starting point, what can we do, what’s an appropriate way forward?
The very stage on which we are performing the story is on fire, and what is needed more than anything is to rally together to put the fire out.
Throughout this trial we have heard legal arguments referencing cases from 10, 20, 30, or 100 years ago, from this country, and from other countries, trying to demonstrate a precedent, a guide as to what we can and should do now, in this present case. But is it appropriate any more to be so backward-looking? How can we rely on the past for guidance when what we are facing is completely unprecedented. There is nothing comparable to the situation we now find ourselves in. Scientists around the world are warning that changes in the climate could within years precipitate a total collapse of civilised society. We are witnessing entire ecosystems being destroyed and animal life annihilated. This is an exceptional situation and it requires an exceptional response.
We need the courage to start a new story, or at least a new chapter. To not simply continue with the old one because it feels like that’s what we’ve always done. In this story peaceful protestors can fight for a future without being criminalised for doing so. I can’t speak for any of my co-defendants but I know that I will continue to act as I have been, and do whatever it takes – non-violently – to try and help protect a future for my beautiful nieces and nephew, amongst all the other wondrous beings who share this planet with us. No doubt I will be back in this or another courtroom very soon, in a week’s time or a month’s time. And if the old stories refuse to budge I suspect I will soon find myself in prison. We in the dock are doing our bit. But to succeed in safeguarding this habitable future we’re all going to have to play our part. We’re in this together, and we need every one of us. The judiciary too, at some point soon, must start to treat this differently, and prioritise putting the fire out over doggedly sticking to old legal stories.
It will take enormous courage to depart from well-worn structures and set a new precedent in case law. In this theatre you hold great sway sir, and you have the power to change the story. Maybe this isn’t the case that will see things turn around, maybe we’ll have to wait for another day, in another court, with another judge, for that. But I implore you to look at and consider our cases not just through the conditioned eyes of a judge but also through the eyes of a human being wishing for a habitable future, amongst a room of other human beings hoping for just the same, and to come up with an appropriate response.
This letter was originally posted by Mark on facebook and is shared here with his permission.
Greetings Dear Friends on the EcoDharma Path,
For the first time since our first EcoSattva Training in 2015, we have decided to delay the start of the program this fall. With the need and opportunity to organize our community for the Climate Strikes and a number of other challenges, this fall’s Training wasn’t coming together according to schedule. While Lou has been ever supportive and helpful, as Director, it falls upon me to see that all the elements of the Training are in place and ready to go by the opening. It has became obvious that there just wasn’t enough time.
Lou and I have therefore agreed that it would be a mistake to force it, to provide a training that hits the published date but yet falls short of what this Training could and really should be. Instead, we have elected to work with our teacher partners and One Earth Sangha team members (more than ever!) to take the time required to provide the best Training, the best EcoDharma and EcoSangha experience, we can at this incredibly intense time for our community and our world.
We have never been more clear and excited about the vital role of Dharma in inspiring and guiding response to ecological breakdown. In order to do right by this moment, these extra two months will let us take the time we need to make a solid offering, one that is as valuable as it can be to you, our global Sangha.
In summary, these are the updated dates:
- Materials for the first module will be available November 24.
- After that, subsequent modules available on a weekly basis.
- The first monthly community gathering, inviting all registered individuals into a live conversation with others around the world, will take place on Sunday December 8th at 12:30 pm US Eastern Time.
- Registration for the Training will open November 1.
Given the proximity to the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, we expect that many there will wait until the beginning of December to begin the course. As you may remember, the course sessions have no live component so groups can start when they like and move at their own pace. Overall, this new date allows us to keep with our objective of delivering in the fall, support groups who want to get started but without compromise the content or our ability to support the process.
While we believe this to be the right decision, it is not without impact. We know that many communities have invested in plans to begin the training shortly (as we encouraged!) and so this announcement may put leaders, formal and informal, in a challenging position. It may be difficult to suggest a delay when so many are in need of community and dharma to support them in holding and responding to this immense challenge.
Some of you may be interested in going forward with your group gatherings as scheduled and using the extra time and space to really get to know one another and practicing together. You might hold mindful conversations around recent articles or video’s on our website. We’ve just shared Rod Purser’s article on a necessary evolution for mindfulness and for the Dharma-nerds out there, we’ll soon release a four-part series from Bhikkhu Analayo on the essential role of mindfulness in managing reactivity around climate crisis). There are great videos from climate and/or spiritual leaders to choose from or perhaps the opening chapters of either David Loy’s or Stephanie Kaza’s recent (excellent) books. We also invite you to check out Thanissara’s new online course, Dharma in Times of Heartbreak, which runs October 1-27. Enter the coupon code HEARTBREAK108 to register for $108, a 43% discount.
No matter what you decide to do, please know that I am sincerely sorry for any difficulty this delay causes you and your communities. At the same time, Lou and I are truly excited about the content of this year’s offering and we will very soon have more capacity than ever (including excellent new volunteers!) to get all the pieces in place. So I hope that you’ll connected with us and bring your groups together to begin the Training later this fall. In the meantime, I invite your input and feedback on any aspect of this decision.
With love and gratitude,
By the way, for those of you who have inquired about the registration fee, we can say that it looks like we’ll be able to keep roughly the same cost structure as our 2017 series (base of $140) with some changes to the supporting levels and a more extensive group discount structure. Our scholarship program will again be flexible, based on financial need of the applicant with our policy that no one will ever be turned away for lack of funds.
The Buddha regularly invited his followers to contemplate internally, contemplate externally and contemplate both internally and externally. He understood what is still true today, that our confusion about the nature of self and reality, about where true well-being comes from, has always existed at multiple scales, individually, inter-personally and collectively. The difference in the industrialized “modern” era is that phenomena at the collective level, in the form of institutions that codify the consciousness of history’s victors, has accumulated over millennia. Delusion’s manifestations build ever-more solid over time and reach out to dominate more and more spaces. Its tendency is to eradicate or consume all that stands in its way, including, if necessary, “mindfulness” itself. To free a modern people is to enable and facilitate widespread clear seeing and dismantling of this multi-layered delusion in all of its forms.
What was once the province of the mystics may be required for any version of survival. Only by knowing deeply what captures and distorts the mind (knowing Mara in his forms) can we replace our collective structures with that which is genuinely supportive, freeing and “sustainable.” Ron Purser’s article below gives us an entry way into this critical exploration.
by Dr. Ron Purser
Mindfulness provides important psychological and emotional benefits for individuals, but caring for our own personal wellbeing as if it were a private affair is no longer sustainable given the impending risk of the collapse of civilization. Paving a mindful path for collective liberation and ecological healing requires a shift in consciousness from “me to we” to engage with the challenges we face in ways that go beyond a concern for personal salvation.
This shift calls for new forms of spiritual activism that engage the sociopolitical domain with what the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi calls “conscientious compassion,” where the practice of compassion is unified with a drive for justice. Thus, we need a “civic mindfulness” that focuses attention on stresses in the body politic as well as the structural interventions and systemic changes that are the root causes of our cultural malaise and ecological collapse. Whereas most therapeutic interventions place the burden on the individual for coping with the anxieties produced by this malaise, civic mindfulness empowers individuals to question the dominant order so that they can see how their everyday worries and insecurities are linked to the social and economic contexts of their lives.
The Three Orders of Suffering
When mindfulness is taught and practiced in ways that help people connect the dots between their personal troubles and public issues, it becomes potentially transformative, but this can’t be done without forging deep bonds of solidarity and communities of resistance as a path for engendering a regenerative culture. However, isn’t this just another call for politics and social activism? Where does mindfulness come in?
To answer this question it’s useful to go back to the principles underlying mindfulness in the spiritual traditions from which it emerged, especially Buddhism.
Suffering that is purely private in its causes and effects no longer exists.
Existential suffering of the human condition—the suffering of sickness, old age and death, anxiety and stress, conflicts in personal relationships, divorce and personal loss—has long been the domain of religious consolation and pastoral care, individual counseling and psychotherapy, and, more recently, of mindfulness-based interventions. This is the first-order of suffering.
Second-order suffering concerns human evil and atrocities where the source of suffering is readily identifiable—whether it be victims of violent crimes or murders, children caged in detention centers, whole populations suffering from wars, genocide or social and environmental injustice, or oppressive working conditions.
The problem is that human distress is no longer limited to or demarcated by these two orders of suffering. Greed, ill will, and delusion—what Buddhists consider the three root causes of suffering—have become institutionalized. This institutionalization makes a third order of suffering difficult to identify because it has become so amorphous, pervasive and systemic. As Bruce Rogers-Vaughan puts it, “Oppressors no longer have faces, even the impersonal “faces” of the state, the corporation, or the church. Third-order suffering does not simply replace first or second-order suffering. Rather, it arises alongside them. The three orders coexist and interpenetrate. They too are entangled.”
Hence, suffering that is purely private in its causes and effects no longer exists. To become truly revolutionary, teachers of mindfulness need new practices that reflect this fact and are capable of tackling the entangled nature of distress. This requires a much wider focus, using communal practices to develop insights into how our social and political experience is embodied.
The “Faux Mindfulness Revolution”
A civic-oriented mindfulness helps individuals to cut through the obscuring fog of third-order suffering in order to recognize that the anxieties, insecurities and rage they feel are political, not merely personal in nature. But we cannot take on such a task in isolation. Civic mindfulness is grounded in community formation by recognizing our shared vulnerabilities and mutual interdependence. In this way, people can come to see how social conditioning has influenced their identities and how they have internalized messages of competition, violence and domination. This form of mindfulness offers an opportunity to reorient practices away from instrumental ends towards a more prophetic critique of underlying problems and solutions.
By contrast, the “faux mindfulness revolution” is led by elites and affluent professionals who have used their cultural capital to gain insider access to a variety of institutions including corporations, public schools, community agencies, government, and even the military. Rather than opposing and confronting institutional authorities, these mindful elites believe that by inoculating individuals with mindfulness, social reform and systemic change will naturally follow.
Many mindfulness trainers (even those who view themselves as quite progressive) are fond of providing anecdotal stories of how individuals in their programs became kinder and more relationally sensitive and aware of their surroundings. That’s fine. Nobody questions these outcomes as a possibility, but such “mindful moments” are unlikely to go further without some other impulse towards deeper and broader action and understanding.
Civic mindfulness is grounded in community formation by recognizing our shared vulnerabilities and mutual interdependence.
Being mindful in the sense of pausing and reflecting before re-tweeting an inflammatory political post, for example, is a commendable act of impulse control, but it is a far cry from joining with others in collective action to address political polarization and create new constituencies for change. Similarly, providing philanthropic or pro-bono mindfulness interventions—whether it be teaching mindfulness in prisons or training community agencies in response to environmental crises—are still dependent on a model of individual suffering and service. As the socially-engaged Buddhist teacher David Loy is fond of saying, “we have become much better at pulling drowning people out of the river, but…we aren’t much better at asking why there are so many people drowning.”
This is why a recent UN report suggests that mental health can be promoted and treated more effectively by focusing on social justice using a rights-based approach. Alleviating inequality is a much better public policy investment than doling out pharmaceuticals, therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions. “The best way to invest in the mental health of individuals is to create a supportive environment in all settings, [including the] family and the workplace,” says Dr. Dainius Pūras, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Health. As his report concludes:
Conceptualizing the determinants of mental health requires a focus on relationships and social connection, which demands structural interventions in society and outside the health-care sector… [pushing back against the] use of interventions that focus on immediate, individual behavioural factors, rather than adequately addressing the structural conditions, which are the root causes.
In this sense the current hype around quick-fix TED talks and self-help gurus for training individuals who are “mentally fit” and “resilient” is seriously misleading. Here is Dr. Michael Ungar from the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada writing in the Globe and Mail:
We have been giving people the wrong message. Resilience is not a DIY endeavour. Self-help fails because the stresses that put our lives in jeopardy in the first place remain in the world around us even after we’ve taken the “cures”…The effects are fleeting and often detrimental in the long term. Worse, they promote victim blaming. The notion that your resilience is your problem alone is ideology, not science.
Civic Mindfulness in Action
Allying mindfulness practices with radical action is a way of “making refuge.”
In that case, where should we look for guidance and inspiration—for examples of civic mindfulness in action? One emerging case is Extinction Rebellion (XR), whose leaders have intentionally integrated mindfulness practices into creating cultures of constructive resistance. In their demands to halt biodiversity loss and reduce carbon emissions, XR deploys mindfulness as a “spiritual truth force” in their civil disobedience and direct action protests. In an interview for Transformation, Bill Beckler, a co-coordinator of outreach for XR in New York City, told me that “mindfulness is used as a spiritual support” and “is partly the reason for the success of our protests.”
Beckler emphasizes that in XR’s organizing efforts, “we don’t want to mute suffering.” Instead, mindfulness is used to amplify the distress activists feel by bringing it into collective awareness. Pain, grief, despair and anger are not impediments to mindful resistance, they are its fuel.
Tom Carling, the board president of the New York Insight Meditation Center, has joined forces with the XR movement, attending all four major actions in New York. “We can no longer just focus on personal transformation,” he said when I spoke to him by phone.
Responding to the criticisms that the XR movement in the US is “too white”, Carling told me that the center is now focusing on the intersectionality of the ecological crisis. In the US, a fourth demand has been added to be more inclusive of the most vulnerable people, who have been bearing the brunt of environmental injustice for decades, especially in the Global South. Carling’s aspiration is that the New York Insight Meditation Center can be the spiritual home for XR New York chapter.
As these examples show, allying mindfulness practices with radical action is a way of “making refuge.” This begins by bearing witness to our shared vulnerabilities as a means to rebuild trust and safety, and re-situating mindfulness in a larger socio-ecological context. By doing so, we can develop capacities for collective resistance and socially-engaged action as well as individual liberation. Those who suffer together—the literal meaning of “compassion”—can re-imagine new futures together.
Dr. Ron Purser is Professor of Management in the College of Business at San Francisco State University. His essays and cultural criticism have appeared in the Huffington Post, Salon, Alternet, Tikkun, and Tricycle magazine. His viral article, “Beyond McMindfulness“, opened the floodgates for the mindfulness backlash. Author of eight books, his recent books include the Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement and the Handbook of Ethical Foundations of Mindfulness. Prof. Purser’s writings have been exploring the challenges and issues of introducing mindfulness into secular contexts, particularly with regards to its encounter with modernity, Western consumer capitalism, and individualism. Dr. Purser is an ordained Zen Dharma Teacher in the Korean Zen Taego order of Buddhism.
His most recent book is McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (Repeater Books).
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