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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This Earth gives. It’s what she does. As a species, we have focused our efforts on taking while largely ignoring the need to give in return, that is, to ensure that our activities maintain ecological health for ourselves and non-human beings. In this way, climate engineering can be seen as the ultimate expression of patriarchy, which isn’t so much about men and women as it is about learned patterns of domination. In most forms of geoengineering, as it’s also called, the Earth’s body is directly manipulated, pushed ever-farther, for the dominant species’ presumed benefit.
In fact, humanity has been unintentionally engineering the Earth’s climate for the last few centuries. Yet just in the last five years, we have arrived at the point where conscious, purposeful manipulation of our shared atmosphere is now a serious, highly contentious scientific and policy discussion. Massive uncertainties regarding both efficacy and unintended consequences, potential for rogue actors, long term-obligations, uneven benefits, and a myriad of other ethical dilemmas plague this debate. In their worst forms, geoengineering “solutions” pave the way for business-as-usual exploitation of the Earth, further running up the ecological debt we owe to future generations and the rest of nature.
We have no trial planet which to experiment meaning that all effects can only be speculative yet must be contrasted to some degree with the status quo of inaction. Who’s voice will be included in the conversation? Against what criteria will our options be evaluated? How shall we decide what to do and how to do it?
As our tradition actively promotes a thorough understanding of cause and effect and, within that, causing the least harm possible, we might consider that those of us with the capacity to do so have a responsibility to understand the complexities of this debate and take an active role in advocacy, both for just representation in the conversation as well as ethical outcomes. In the article below, part of a larger volume on Multi-Faith Responses to the Prospect of Climate Engineering published earlier this year by GreenFaith, Ven. Bhikkhu Vivekānanda explores the Dharma foundations that can inform our response to this daunting challenge.
by Ven. Bhikkhu Vivekānanda
The Buddha’s teachings offer tools to individuals for an objective investigation of the factors that drive their actions at the individual level. Particularly, meditation practices allow people to better comprehend and redirect the motivations and drivers that influence their observations, interpretations, and decision-making. In general, Buddhism emphasizes the transformation of the individual as the starting point for change at the collective level.1
The development of contentment may contribute to a reduction in consumption of material, consumer goods, and also energy generation.
This emphasis on individual transformation provides a framework for considering how to approach climate engineering. For example, the first precept—to abandon the taking of life and to be conscientious of the welfare of all living beings—strongly suggests that climate engineering technologies must not be developed for military or violent purposes. The first precept also implies that a potential application of climate engineering techniques, even if done in “self-defense” against those who continue to emit greenhouse gases, should only be carried out under the condition that one has absolutely no intent to harm others. This does not provide a principle of absolute opposition to the implementation of climate engineering, but sets an additional, very high hurdle for its implementation.2
Furthermore, the five precepts, the respect for life, and the four qualities of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are universal in nature. Human beings are seen as being a part of nature. Hence, our relationships across societies should be one of equality, free of discrimination, where developing societies are as important as wealthy societies.
Determining Acceptable Strategies
In order to respect fundamental equality, any form of climate engineering research or deployment should not be imposed by some against the will of others and should not be to the disadvantage of developing nations. This sets a further, nearly insurmountable hurdle if taken literally, but when interpreted more broadly in the context of the global society, any kind of climate engineering research or deployment that possibly affects others should be legitimized through some form of common governance structure (e.g. the United Nations) and not unilaterally. Within this structure, states and other possible relevant entities representing people should be able to jointly assess and mutually determine which effects of climate engineering measures they potentially deem acceptable. This would include, inter alia, the political, economic, ethical and legal evaluations of specific climate engineering actions and the weighing of their potential effects against other values, ethical concerns, objectives, and even legal requirements. Given the largely unclear costs, risks, and impacts of climate engineering techniques and research, weighing values, concerns, objectives, and legal requirements and ultimately reaching decisions will likely be very challenging. In order to ensure that Buddhist ethics are applied, this process would need to be carried out carefully and with the mindsets discussed above (i.e. with considerations such as compassion, loving kindness, and precaution).3
Future generations have the right to be passed on a healthy environment.
One may argue that emissions reduction strategies outrank climate engineering measures since they primarily aim at limiting, eliminating, or reversing the actions that lead to the unwanted effects. Similarly, adaptation strategies help to make the negative consequences of climate change more bearable, without imposing new, potentially harmful effects on the environment on a large scale. Furthermore, within the group of climate engineering measures, based on these principles, one would generally prioritize carbon removal techniques, which are largely targeted at reversing the chain of damage causes by carbon dioxide emissions by removing it from the atmosphere. A lower priority would be placed on solar radiation management techniques, which introduce further perturbations to the environment (e.g., modifying aerosol particle layers and clouds) in exchange for reducing other existing perturbations (e.g., increased temperatures). However, this is not completely unambiguous: especially biomass-based carbon dioxide removal techniques can also be seen as causing perturbations to ecosystems in exchange for the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, carbon dioxide removal techniques are generally focused closer to the cause end in the chain of cause and effect, and thus will likely generally be favored over solar radiation management techniques in future detailed analyses based on Buddhist ethics on a case-by-case basis. It is interesting to note that favoring carbon dioxide removal over solar radiation management reflects the current general tenor of the international discourse of climate engineering.4
One of the most commonly discussed forms of solar radiation management is stratospheric aerosol injection. While stratospheric aerosol injection and related measures have the potential to avert “climate emergencies,” or to serve as a stopgap measure to buy time for effective emissions mitigation responses, they also pose serious risks. Stratospheric aerosol injection involves increasing the amount of aerosol particles in the lower stratosphere (at altitudes above about 20 km) as a means to increase the reflection of sunlight beyond what is reflected by the naturally occurring stratospheric aerosol layer. Particles could either be injected directly or formed via injection of precursor gases such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), which are then converted into particles.5 Many commentators have focused on intergenerational risks, such as changes in precipitation patterns, or increases in sulphur dioxide loads in the troposphere. Future generations have the right to be passed on a healthy environment. However, solar radiation management approaches like this may also pose grave threats to future generations should their use ultimately cease without concomitant reductions in greenhouse emissions, termed the so-called “rebound effect.” This would amount to depriving future generations of a healthy environment, which would be in violation of the second Buddhist precept as well as the international legal principle of intergenerational equity.6
With a view to the institutional and procedural aspect of governing climate engineering, the fourth precept, i.e. abandoning false speech, suggests increasing transparency, providing opportunities to participate and making available information to those potentially affected throughout all stages of all related activities. The realization of this precept could be furthered, for example, by promoting publicly available scientific research.7
The cultivation of the mind may lead to the realization that the consumption of consumer goods or energy ultimately does not lead to inner happiness. When true inner happiness arises fewness of desires (appichatā) and contentment (santutthi) follow naturally. The development of contentment may contribute to a reduction in consumption of material, consumer goods, and also energy generation.
In summary, Buddhist teachings are setting high hurdles for the research and deployment of climate engineering measures and instead advocate changes in human behavior towards the environment and changes of lifestyle.
1Till Markus, Bhikkhu Vivekananda, and Mark Lawrence, “An Assessment of Climate Engineering from a Buddhist Perspective,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 12 (2018): 27.
5Stefan Schäfer, Mark Lawrence, Harald Stelzer, Wanda Born, and Sean Low (eds.), The European Transdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Engineering (EuTRACE): Removing Greenhouse Gases from the Atmosphere and Reflecting Sunlight away from Earth, Funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme under Grant Agreement 306993 (EuTRACE, 2015), 41
6William Burns, “Solar Radiation Management and Intergenerational Equity,” accessed November 22, 2018, https://www.spp-climate-engineering.de/files/ce-projekt/media/download_PDFs/CERSYM%20PresentationTeil8.pdf.
7Markus et al., “An Assessment of Climate Engineering,” 29.
This article was originally published on GreenFaith. It is reprinted here with permission.