Book: A political economy of attention, mindfulness and consumerism: reclaiming the mindful commons

The process by which capitalist investment seeks to re-engineer and privatize nature, government, social life and even genes and physical matter is at once breathtakingly ambitious and subtle and insidious. The great contribution of Peter Doran’s A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism is to show how this process is also aimed, with systemic zeal, at human consciousness itself.  Whether we realize it or not, our minds and culture are being colonized by markets – through advertising and data-mining, entertainment media and social networking. The hidden political and economic struggle of our times is focused on shaping our inner lives.

This is a large, complicated story based on neoliberal capitalism’s impact on everyday life: frantic work schedules, declining wages, wealth inequality, and austerity politics, all of which have lead to a degradation of public services, social amenities and neighborliness. It turns out that consumerism and market growth, diligently supported by the state, are not in fact “maximizing utility,” as economists would have it. They are breeding personal despair, precarity, alienation and social dysfunction.

The good news is that people are discovering paths of escape from the capitalist phantasmagoria. More: They are creating new zones of self-organized commoning that meet needs and produce things in more socially constructive ways, independent of the state and market.

This trend can be seen in the growing interest in “care of the self” and mindfulness, and in the surge in civic engagement and social mutualism. A robust and expanding digital culture, especially among the younger generation, is discovering the virtues of social collaboration.  People are waking up to the huge costs and limitations of the “free market” system – and convivial, life-enhancing dimensions of open-source, commons-based approaches.

A neglected problem, however, is how to build new enabling structures of law and governance to protect such spacious ideals of human life from marketization. One hopeful sign are the dozens of one-off “legal hacks” that attempt to carve out protected zones for commoning, such as Creative Commons licenses to enable legal sharing, multistakeholdler co-operatives for social services, and land trusts to protect the interests of future generations.

Important as these innovations are, what we really need are systemic legal strategies for moving beyond homo economicus. Law and policy need to honor the “nested I,” in which the individual is seen as integrated within larger ecological and social systems.  In Doran’s words, the “symbolic architecture of social power” must change so that we can shift from a world based on transactions to one based on relationships. In effect, we must reinvent the political economy of attention.

The mindfulness revolution offers great hope for imagining new ways of being and knowing, as this book so beautifully explains. But it also remains clear-eyed about the dangers of “McMindfulness,” the mainstream effort to neutralize the emancipatory potential of reintegrating mind, body and ecology. In this sense, Peter Doran opens up new vistas of transformation for our consideration — while challenging us to step up to make them real.


David Bollier

Schumacher Center for a New Economics

April 2017


First, we must grasp that humans consume compulsively—insatiably—in large part because our clever circuit for reward learning now encounters too few sources of small surprise. We may rail against the capitalist manipulations that drive consumption from the top down, but that will not satiate our innate, bottom-up drive to consume. Therefore, social policies should follow the precept “Expand satisfactions!” We should re-examine and enumerate the myriad sources that were alienated under capitalism. The list will resemble roughly what we do on vacation: more nature, exercise, sports, crafts, art, music, and sex—of the participatory (non-vicarious) sort.


For David Bollier’s article at P2P Click Here

The writer, Philip Pullman (2008) has observed that environmentalists –  essentially – tell a story about ‘us’ and ‘themselves’ and about our place in the universe (e.g. Thomas Berry: the new cosmic story) In this sense, environmentalism has something in common with the function of religion. Questions are posed: why are we here? What is here? And What does it consist of? Above all, perhaps, we are confronted by the question: ‘What does it mean for us to be conscious of what we are doing to the world?’

In this age of the Anthropocene we have – individually and collectively – arrived at a threshold of consciousness. The quality and trajectory of our consciousness is no longer incidental (perhaps it never was) to the fate of the planet and the associated ecosystems, including the relative stability of the atmosphere.

Petra Kelly, founder of the German Green Party

Mindful and conscious living now emerge as an imperative with the dawn of the Anthropocene.

At the core of this mindful and more conscious living must be the extension of an ethos of ‘non violence’ and a gentle self regulation wherein life is lived in the key of a new song: biorhythms…not algorithms.

Petra Kelly, one of the foremost influences on my early thinking, put it like this:

In a world struggling in violence and dishonesty, the further development of non-violence not only as a philosophy but as a way of life, as a force on the streets, in the market squares, outside the missile bases, inside the chemical plants and inside the war industry becomes one of the most urgent priorities. … The suffering people of this world must come together to take control of their lives, to wrest political power from their present masters pushing them towards destruction. The Earth has been mistreated and only by restoring a balance, only by living with the Earth, only by emphasizing knowledge and expertise towards soft energies and soft technology for people and for life, can we overcome the patriarchal ego (Chatto and Windus).

Equally, the quality of the stories and connections will be paramount.After twenty years of global and regional ‘action’ to pursue the sustainable development agenda set out at the first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (1992) the United Nations Environment Programme (2012) has concluded that efforts to slow the rate or extent of changes to the Earth System have resulted in only moderate successes but have ‘not succeeded in reversing environmental changes’. Moreover, several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded. Once these have been passed, abrupt and possibly irreversible changes to life-support functions of the planet are likely to occur, with significant adverse implications for human well-being.

The questions posed by the ecological crises are, above all, a series of provocations. That’s why writers have detected that the scale and nature of this crisis – or crises – invites us to revisit our most basic assumptions. Zizek (1995:34) caught the mood with his suggestion that the radical character of the ecological crisis is due not only to the effective danger. What is at stake is our most unquestionable presuppositions:

…the very horizon of our meaning, our everyday understanding of “nature” as a regular, rhythmic process (Zizek 1995:34)

Echoing Wittgenstein, Zizek concludes that the ecological crisis bites into our ‘objective certainty’, into the domain of self-evident certitudes about which, within our established ‘form of life’, it is simply meaningless to have doubts.

The truth – of course – is that we have no choice but to live with new and far reaching questions about the implications of crises such as climate change. As Zizek and others have hinted…we are at a point of transition – ‘between stories’ – and as ‘communities of fate’ in a risk laden world, facing uncomfortable, unsettling questions is what we must now do both personally and collectively. Among the most interesting questions are those that confront the ‘social logic’ of capitalism and consumerism – for this is where we live out our lives, both real and imagined. And here, we meet the one of the most intriguing questions of all (after Zizek): why is that we can imagine the end of the world much more easily than the end of capitalism?

As Tim Jackson (2011) has noted, capitalism – due to the ‘productivity trap’ (growth=jobs=social stability) (Jackson and Victor 2011) – has no easy route to a steady state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse. (Jackson 2011:158) He believes that any new economy will have to take three steps: i. establish and impose meaningful resource and environmental limits on economic activity; ii. develop and apply a robust macro-economics for sustainability; and iii. Redress the damaging and unsustainable social logic of consumerism. On the latter,  Jackson has noted that the profit motive stimulates a continual search by producers for newer, better or cheaper products and services (‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter, 1934) and the way in which the continual production of novelty is intimately linked to the symbolic or communicative role that material goods play in our lives (Jackson 2005; 2009). Jackson has highlighted how the social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, and that it is also detrimental ecologically and psychologically, contributing to a ‘social recession’. He advocates structural change designed to address this social logic of consumerism, consisting of: i. dismantling the perverse incentives for unproductive status competition; and ll. New structures that provide capabilities for people to flourish – and particularly to participate meaningfully in the life of society – in less materialistic ways (Jackson 2011:163). One avenue will be the development of non-consumerist ways of understanding and being in the world. It is envisaged that a less materialistic society will increase life satisfaction; and a more equal society will lower the importance of status or positional goods.

The ‘social recession’ manifests in a number of symptoms that flow from a disintegration of social ties or social liquidity (Bauman 2005,2007) or “consumer society” wherein all things, goods, and people are treated as consumer objects. Liquid society is the result of a process that has accelerated from the early 1980s along with neoliberalism and globalisation; it is a mobile, transient, precarious society in which the disintegration of social ties reaches levels that have been hitherto unknown. Bonaiuti (2012:41) – calling for an alliance of the ‘degrowth’ and ‘environmental justice’ movements – has linked this disintegration to: i. the spread of individualistic behaviours and to positional competition (Hirsch 1976); ii. a contribution to the loss of well-being in contemporary societies; lll. A loss of resilience of social organisation when faced with external stress (economic or ecological); and iv. to a clue to comprehending why contemporary societies seem to show little reaction when confronted with the multidimensional crisis we are facing.

Part Two

So many of us are now familiar with the argument that advanced capitalism is hitting up against both ecological boundaries (Rockstrom et. Al. 2009) and ‘social limits’ associated with the promotion myopic behaviour and hyper-individualism.

But what if the ‘social recession’ is not only undermining our psychological wellbeing but also undermining our ability to respond to the ecological crisis? As Bauman (2005:117) suggests, ‘Imagining the possibility of another way of living together is not a strong point of our world of privatised utopias’. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the way we experience the deep socio-cultural patterning of advanced capitalism. Perhaps caring for the self is a necessary pre-requisite for and accompaniment to our collective response to the larger systemic crises.

Tracing the rise of the post-Fordist brand of newly invigorated capitalism in 1980s Britain, Rutherford (2008) describes how the new capitalism extends commodification into the realms of subjective life and invades the space of creative living (Winnicott)…’Just as early industrial capitalism enclosed the commons of land and labour, so today’s post-industrial capitalism is enclosing the cultural and intellectual commons (both real and virtual), the commons of the human mind and body, and the commons of biological life.’ (2008:13) Paul Virno (2004) has argued that the productive force of post-Fordist economic activity is ‘the life of the mind’. Not just cognition but also intuition and the symbolic world of the unconscious, where communication is non-verbal. Rutherford (2008) detects a tragic dimension to this: the culture of capitalism has depoliticized class while heightening the inequalities and social gulf between classes. Consumption may offer the pleasurable pursuit of desire but it is also a mass symbolic struggle for individual social recognition, which distributes shame and humiliation to those lower down the hierarchy: ‘The pain of failure, of being a loser, of being invisible to those above, cuts a deep wound in the psyche’. In turn, this kind of stress dramatically increases our vulnerability to disease and premature death.

During preparations for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) Member States and other stakeholders were invited by the Second Preparatory Committee to provide inputs and contributions for inclusion in a compilation document that would serve as the basis for a preparation of a pre-negotiation ‘zero draft’ of the conference outcome. In an analysis of the resulting document conducted by the Rio+20 NGO Stakeholder Forum some 97 popular ‘concepts and initiatives’ are identified in submissions to the conference secretariat. The most popular term that appears in the submissions, cited in some 448 documents altogether, is ‘health and well-being’. [The priority accorded to these themes is reflective of a number of important international policy conversations with complex and provocative linkages, and which will be taken up at the UNCSD. These conversations include the influential debates on the limits of GDP as a reliable indicator of economic performance and social progress, prosperity without growth (Jackson), and sustainable consumption (tackling consumerism). In contrast, neither the terms capitalism nor neoliberalism merit a comment in the Stakeholder Forum analysis.

One reading of the collapse of the global economy over the past four years is ‘the return of the soul’ no less. Berardi concludes that the perfect machine of neoliberal ideology, based on the rational balance of economic factors, is falling to bits because it was based on a flawed assumption that the soul can be reduced to mere rationality: ‘The dark side of the soul – fear, anxiety, panic and depression – has finally surfaced after looming for a decade in the shadow of the much touted victory and the promised eternity of capitalism’. (2009:207) Semiocapitalism, or the production and exchange of semiotic matters, he writes, has always exploited the soul as both productive force and market place. Berardi is referring here to the deep cultural and linguistic codes that can come to inform our self-understandings under the influence of consumerism/capitalism; a new interiorized frontier in the history of enclosure.

Perhaps we have yet to grasp the nature of mass mediatized capitalism (as culture) and its threat to well-being at the most subtle levels of human experience. If we were to do so we should have to look at its impact at the level of human ‘attention’ and ‘intention’.

In the words of Peter Hershock, applying a Chan Buddhist perspective in his perceptive analysis of the public sphere, through the consumption of mass media (as well as other commodities), our attention is exported out of our immediate situation:

This compromises relational depth and quality, effectively eroding presently obtaining patterns of mutual support and contribution, and triggers further and still more extensive commodity consumption. As this recursive process intensified beyond the point at which all major subsistence needs have been commodified, consciousness itself is effectively colonized. The relational capabilities of both persons and communities atrophy, situational diversity is converted into circumstantial variety, and the very resources needed to meaningfully respond to and resolve our suffering or troubles are systematically depleted.(Hershock 2006:86)

Driven by the process of capitalization, the culture of capitalism has evolved a psychic investment or technology of micro-practices. These are visible in the outworking of the mass media, advertising and the culture of consumerism and represent the culmination of a deeply ambivalent tradition in Western thought, resulting in a profound ‘breach of faith toward everything that is’. For Appfel-Marglin and Bush (2005) it is this breach, first articulated by Descartes, that not only enabled unprecedented levels of human control and manipulation of the social and natural world but also lies today behind a deep alienation and meaninglessness.Hershock (2006) has noted that what we refer to generically as ‘technology’ is actually a particular family or lineage of technologies that has arisen and been sustained through a complex of political, social, economic and cultural forces focused on the value of exerting control over our circumstances to enhance felt This strategic value has delivered military and ecological destruction on a scale hitherto never attained, having co-evolved with and services the rise of the modern nation state. Hershock notes that although we remain related to others and to our environment, the prevalence of control fosters a dichotomous perspective on that relationship – a splitting into the objective and subjective – that facilitates treating our relations with others as actually or potentially instrumental:

No longer intimately continuous with all things – that is, related internally – gaps open in what I can attend or hold in careful awareness. By ignoring what intimately connects who “I am” with what “I am not”, I render myself liable to being blindsided – subject to accidental or fateful events of that sort that cause the experience of trouble or suffering. Asserting independence through exercising technologically mediated control almost paradoxically renders us subject to new vulnerabilities. (Hershock 2006:90-91)

Noting considerable implications for the nature and dynamics of the public sphere where we must, finally, negotiate and engage with the crises of ecology, Hershock describes the market valorization of convenience and choice as signalling both a general narrowing of our horizons of personal responsibility and, over time, a severe compromise of relational capability and attunement. Each act of commodity consumption marks a smooth and efficient paving over of opportunities for developing the complex attentive and relational skills associated with contributory virtuosity. Hershock uses the example of a jazz soloist as a metaphor for this notion of virtuosity arising from the practice of Chan.

Hershock goes further, suggesting that the colonization of consciousness is in many ways a more critical threat to our possibilities for realizing truly liberating environments than is the depletion of soil, the fouling of our rivers, lakes, seas, and skies. The mass media have become the primary system through which the attention economy manages to be a net producer of dramatic entropy or situations in which no matter what choices we make, they will not ultimately make much of a difference.


A prominent American teachiner of Zen philosophy and mindfulness practices, Joseph Goldstein (2005) has described how ‘objects of desire’ can be transformed into triggers for an awakening (from our capitalist-induced slumber). He observes a paradox in our relation with the material world: while, ordinarily, transitory phenomena such as objects of desire leave us feeling unfulfilled (necessarily so due to the political economy of novelty), when taken up as ‘objects of mindfulness’ (moment-by-moment attention and awareness) they can become vehicles of awakening:

When we try to possess and hold on to things or experiences that are fleeting in nature, we are left feeling finally unsatisfied. Yet when we look with mindful attention at the constantly changing nature of these same things or experiences, we are no longer quite so driven by the thirst of desire. By mindfulness, I mean the quality of paying full attention to the moment, opening to the truth of change and impermanence. We all know that things change, but how many of us live and act from that place of understanding? The more we can see the impermanent nature of reality, the less seduced we are by impermanent phenomena such as consumer goods. (Goldstein 2007:18)

Western encounters with Zen have influenced both culture and theory. The beat poets, the Jazz minimalists (John Cage, and Leonard Cohen), are among the most prominent performers who have been influenced by the Zen aesthetic. (And somewhat paradoxically, so too was the late Steve Jobs). Zen has also impacted on some of our most influential philosophical thinkers, possibly Heidegger who was aware of D.T. Suzuki’s writings – the Japanese teacher credited with introducing zen to the West. Indeed, Heidegger’s attentiveness to the issues around ‘modes of thinking’ and his radical distinction between i. rational, calculative thinking; and ii. meditative/beholding, parallel insights from the Zen tradition. For Heidegger, the calculative mode came to dominate our thinking in terms of the modern security/technology obsessed man, based on a (new found capacity for, economic requirement for) wilfulness and a desire to objectify everything and dominate the objects of thought. The meditative or beholding mode, which Heidegger described as ‘thanking thinking’, is characterized by a way of thought marked by a disposition to beholding, respect and openness, and an overcoming the limits of ego-consciousness and the separation inhernet in the subject-object split.

We are suffering the dues and consequences for the hubris initiated in human thinking by and since Decartes, who made the world, as matter, as res extensa, an object for the calculative view – arid thinking of the rational ego-consciousness of the subject. We have fallen into an understanding of reality as an objective world subjected to the will of man, into a conquest mentality of Promethean scope nurtured by the projection of self-world distance, the subject-object split. (von Eckartsberg and Valle 1981:290 on Heidegger’s world view)

Apffel Marglin and Bush (2005) describe this ‘conquest mentality’ (above) as a ‘breach of faith toward everything that is’ (after Boss (1965)), a breach that has not only enabled unprecedented levels of human control and manipulation of the social and natural world but which also lies today behind a deep alienation and sense of meaninglessness.

Since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ‘control’ has been a key strategic value informing the explosion of technological development associated with the rise of the European West and its influence over other parts of the world. Hershock notes that what we refer to generically as ‘technology’ is actually a particular family or lineage of technologies that has arisen and been sustained through a complex of political, social, economic and cultural forces focused on the value of exerting control over our circumstances to enhance felt independence. This strategic value has delivered military and ecological destruction on a scale hitherto never attained, having co-evolved with and serviced the rise of the modern nation-state (Scott 1998). From his Chan Buddhist perspective, Hershock observes that although we remain related to others and to our environment, the prevalence of control fosters a dichotomous perspective on that relationship – a splitting into the objective and subjective – that facilitates treating our relations with others as either actually or potentially instrumental:

No longer intimately continuous with all things – that is, related internally – gaps open in what I can attend or hold in careful awareness. By ignoring what intimately connects who “I am” with what “I am not”, I render myself liable to being blindsided – subject to accidental or fateful events of the sort that cause the experience of trouble or suffering. Asserting independence through exercising technologically mediated control almost paradoxically renders us subject to new vulnerabilities.(Hershock 2006: 90-91)

Perhaps most intriguing, however, was Michel Foucault’s encounter with Zen.

Foucault zen
Michel Foucault pratising meditation in a Japanese Zen Temple

Foucault encountered Zen both in his reading and during a brief stay in a Zen monastery, where he practiced the life of a Zen monk. In the Spring of 1978 (Davisson 2002), Foucault travelled to Japan to visit a number of Zen centres and was invited by Zen master Omori Sogen, head of the Seionji temple in Uenohara, to spend several days living the life of a monastic and practicing zazen. In discussion with his teacher at the temple, Foucault expresses his interest in Zen, its practices, its exercises, and rules, observing:

For I believe that a totally different mentality to our own is formed through the practice and exercises of a Zen temple. (Foucault 1999:110)

He goes on to cite his interest in the famous Zen teacher, Lin Chai Rinzai, who lived during the Tang Dynasty (867) and, in the course of a conversation on the crisis in Western philosophy, comments that if a philosophy of the future exists, ‘it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe’ (1999:113).

Liebmann Schaub’s (1990) article on ‘Foucault’s Oriental Subtext’, though speculative, is both informed and all the more compelling, given Foucault’s first hand experience of Zen practice. Liebmann Schaub makes no reference to the visit. Instead, she posits that Foucault’s texts exhibit trace elements of oriental philosophy, religion, and kindred forms of Western mysticism, and that these various elements appear to constitute a ‘generative code’ beneath much of his discourse. She cites, for example, a discussion in 1968 – in the wake of the student riots and a current interest in eastern spirituality – in which Foucault takes Western ‘individualist’ interpretations of eastern philosophy and practices (‘mind expansion) to task for seeking to ‘attain an individual madness beyond the rationality of the world’ as opposed to the eastern objective of destroying ‘the madness of normality and to regain true reality’ (Caruso 1969, cited in Liebmann Schaub (1990)).

Foucault’s understanding of philosophical askésis (McGushin 2008:xiii) (‘gymnastics of the mind’) refers to philosophy as practice or ‘work of thought upon itself’. [In our Western discussions on askésis I think we habitually overlook the distinction between discussions ‘about’ philosophy as practice, and the profound distinction that must be made when we engage in/with such practices]. Foucault believed that a new and more profound or elevated relationship to the self emerges from these practices (historically….and perhaps, given his exposure to and interest in Zen, in contemporary times).

I believe that the crisis that goes under the sign of ‘consumerism’ (our immersion in the ‘social logic’ of capitalist realism, driven by the ‘capital as power’ articulated by processes of capitalisation (micropractices) )provoke an urgent reconsideration of the role of ‘training’ or ‘practice’ in preparation for the exercise of a richer notion of freedom that is compatible with a vision of human flourishing, within ecological limits (pace, ‘voluntary simplicity’, Alexander (2010)).

Within Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics – and the deployment of disciplinary, normalizing institutions in pursuit of a secure, healthy and productive population – techniques for the mass production of individuality do not simply free us and allow us to realize our truth. They free us to be true only by fabricating a certain truth and arranging the spatial-temporal world to direct individuals toward truth. McGushin (2008:xx) has written an exquisite account of Foucault’s approach to askésis, and explains:

A completely biopolitical interpretation of life is a political project. In this way, discipline, biopolitics, and normalization paradoxically institute a powerful self-neglect, a pervasive thoughtlessness about the fundamental political and ethical question – How will I live ? – precisely by saturating space and time, our bodies and desires, with techniques, discourses, and relationships which have the goal of taking care of us and making us happy.

Noting our immersion in the biopolitical project [e.g. consumerism], Foucault posited ‘care of the self’ as a possible counter-practice in the form of alternative techniques of self-fashioning and practice, a resistance to the forms of power which structure ways of perceiving space and time bodies and minds.

Kissack (2004) draws out the distinguishing characteristic of Foucault’s work (in response to the crisis of Western philosophy) that takes on a special significance in a society dominated by the virtual and material influences of consumerism. Kissack observes that what Foucault is implying is that the real focus of ethical enquiry cannot be conducted at the level of the rationale for, and the internal consistency of , general moral codes, prescriptions for all, with which all are expected to comply:

The genealogy of ethics, the genealogy of the subject, is a much more demanding process, which explores the individual’s reflective response to him/herself, as he/she confronts the immediacy of his/her affective and desiring existence, his/her inclinations, and makes thoughtful decisions about how to manage these. Inevitably, this involves reflection upon the expectations of society, but the ethical subject is one who focuses upon his/her interaction with these expectations, exercising judgement in a sustained practice of free evaluation, deciding what is appropriate for him/herself, and subjecting him/herself to a rigorous programme of self-discipline. (Kissack 2004:128


At least two primary sets of responses to such investigations are emerging.

At the macro-level of the economy and society, the totalizing drive of the neoliberal phase of capitalism – whose rise accompanied the decades that preceded and followed on the heels of the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio in 1992 – has reached a point of exhaustion both in terms of the need to revisit the capitalist ideology of ‘growth’ (and its role in concealing the institutionalization of inequality across countries and within countries) and to confront the challenge of redesigning an economic system in the service of people and respectful of the planet’s ecological and atmospheric boundaries.

Integral to the macro-response is an emerging recognition that a parallel and urgent challenge for Western citizen-consumers is the need to recast the notion of prosperity in a new language of flourishing and well-being rooted, in part, in a reclamation of ‘attention’ and ‘care of the self’ (forms of askesis) from the complex of capitalisation. Institutional support, consistent with new social logics (e.g. voluntary simplicity), will also be required to support a new and holistic appreciation of the human being as opposed to the self-interested ‘radical subjectivism’[1] cultivated by and in the service of the market. As Jeffrey Sachs observes in his chapter on ‘The Mindful Society’, an integral part of restoring balance to our engagement with society, health and the economy, will be a restored quality of mindfulness as a key element in silencing the ‘relentless drumbeat of consumerism’.[2] Mindfulness and contemplative practices (yoga, tai chi, meditation) are already embedded in American classrooms from Princeton to Westpoint, where students begin their classes in silence. For Apffel-Marglin and Bush, the emergence of contemplative practices in our universities is an entirely appropriate response to the 21st century ‘onto-epistemological situation we find ourselves in’, one that requires new tools for empathy and inquiry, tools that allow us to inquire into a world with which we share our ‘interbeing’ and support a recovery of ethics.[3] Hershock describes mindfulness practices as an alternative technology – an alternative to our technological bias toward control and wanting.

Paul Haller, the former Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Centre and Director of Practice at the Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast suggests that, from a Zen perspective, the underlying challenge (in the context of our throw-away consumerist culture) is not that we are ‘too materialistic’ but that we are ‘not materialistic enough’ (Doran 2009). Too many people fail to treasure the simple things that are available, and do not have an appreciation for their utility. There is a widespread (perhaps institutionalized) forgetfulness or railure to realise that the kitchen knife can last a lifetime, that we can not only own and wear those clothes but mend them too for reuse. Haller recalls that there is another way of relating to material objects that we already possess and this alternative much be part of our on-going redefinition of prosperity as flourishing:

It is about connectedness and the way in which we are involved withour material world and with our environment. As the intimacy of involvement grows, the satisfaction grows. I think that is a shift that all of us are invited to make. That is part of the wonderful thing about awareness…mindfulness…it initiates that kind of intimacy…it initiates an appreciation for what is happening. And as we do that [practice of mindfulness], quite naturally for us there is a shift in who we define prosperity for ourselves. And as that happens for us, the compelling urge to consume more will start to dissipate. (Doran 2010)

For control has silenced the things and people sharing our world, making it impossible for them to spontaneously and dramatically contribute to our narration.[4] Unfortunately, a strategic silencing of alternative ways of seeing the world and the human being has been one of the major achievements of unfettered capitalism, a strategic silencing that also effectively patrols what can and cannot be contemplated in the course of current global environmental diplomacy.


[1] See Marglin, n. above, 64.

[2] J. Sachs, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity (Random House, 2011), at 161-183.

[3] See F. Apffel Marglin and M. Bush, n. above, at 21-22.

[4] See P.D. Hershock, P.280.

‘And the multitude cried: “Bio-rhythms….Not Algorithms”‘

(Doran, 2015)

A word from Bifo

“Semiocapital puts neuro-psychic energies to work, submitting them to mechanistic speed, compelling cognitive activity to follow the rhythm of networked productivity. As a result, the emotional sphere linked with cognition is stressed to its limit. Cyberspace overloads cybertime, because cyberspace is an unbounded sphere whose speed can accelerate without limits, while cybertime (the organic time of attention, memory, imagination) cannot be sped up beyond a certain point – or it cracks. And it actually is cracking, collapsing under the stress of hyper-productivity. An epidemic of panic and depression is now spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain. The current crisis in the global economy has much to do with this nervous breakdown.” (Adbusters, Nov/Dec 15)

I have just come across an excellent book by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (2014) (Trans.) 

It is reviewed here on the TLS site by Emanuele Leonardi who highlights how the new book can be interpreted as a twofold contribution. On the one hand, it represents much-needed commentary to the lectures delivered by Michel Foucault at the Collège de France in 1978/1979, entitled Birth of Biopolitics. On the other one, it provides a compelling analysis of neoliberal governmentality in the era of capitalist financialization – which is also the epoch of a fully deployed crisis of Fordism. Whereas in the first part the authors elaborate a multifaceted and plural image of liberalism and a convincing reading of the emergence of neoliberal rationality, the second section assembles a critical genealogy of ‘entrepreneural governance’. This latter refers to a ‘neo-subject’ which functions according to a regime of ‘jouissance of oneself’ – whose deployment accounts for the incorporation of the shareholder logic and for the self-entrepreneur’s socio-clinical pathologies.

E-Flux have reproduced Part One of the book here

Those who introduce mindfulness into corporate, university and public sector settings have a growing responsibility to engage with the biopolitics of our neoliberalized institutions.

It is not sufficient to present disembedded tools for ‘wellbeing’ to a located, context-specific client [subject] for she is already embedded within a complex of targeted disciplines and power complexes, notably capitalism, that compete with wellbeing and attention.

Any attempt by a teacher or counsellor to separate the subject’s immersion in power and her reaching out to practices such as mindfulness is a disavowal – a refusal to integrate that which has already come together in the body, mind and soul of the aspiring practitioner.The new way of the world

‘Countdown to Zero Waste Conference’ Hears Challenge to Transform the North West Economy


(Creating an Intelligent Economy – How the North West Can Lead the Way on Zero Waste and A Circular Economy)


Addressing a European Conference on Zero Waste in Derry on Monday, Dr Peter Doran, set out a series of steps for the transformation of the North West’s economy. Drawing on cutting edge ideas taking root around the world, he set out a mini-manifesto of actions to put Derry and Strabane Council in a position to combine job creation, support for the social economy, and advanced sustainability.

The Zero Waste Conference was convened by Zero Waste North West and included a number of top European experts in the line up of speakers. The Director of Zero Waste Europe, Joan Marc Simon was the keynote speaker at the ‘Countdown to Zero’ conference.

Raised in Derry, Dr Peter Doran is a lecturer in sustainable development at the School of Law at Queens University and has recently helped lead a Northern Ireland Roundtable initiative, with the Carnegie UK Trust, to place wellbeing at the heart of the upcoming Northern Ireland Programme for Government, public sector reform, and Community Planning at the local government level.

“Our vision of societal wellbeing, set out in the report Towards a Wellbeing Framework: Findings, calls for a new narrative that would put the citizen and communities at the heart of governance, focused on meaningful and measureable outcomes set out in future Programmes for Government.

“Above all we have called for a transformation in the workings of Government, for more collaborative working between the centre and local government, and for enhanced citizen participation in the policy process. Our approach to wellbeing goes beyond mental and physical health and includes the cultivation of capabilities required for flourishing communities in an effective and participatory democracy.

“Development is ultimately about freedom. We have called for a Wellbeing Framework to underpin the societal conditions that will allow everyone to live the lives they value by addressing those factors that inhibit that choice today, including inequality and an abandonment of our environment.”

Turning to ‘Zero Waste’, Dr Doran commended the organisers of the Conference as exemplars of the new vision: “In the context of societal wellbeing, critical engagement in the public square is not just a means to an end but an intrinsic value in itself. Our vision of the economy can no longer be the sole preserve of elites in the private and public sector; the economy – locally and globally – has become the new arena for democratic engagement.”

The Community Planning arrangements in Derry and Strabane Council provide an ideal opportunity to prototype a citizen-led initiative on a new and transformative economic vision for the City-Region. Indeed Zero Waste is identified as an ideal opportunity to embrace some of our recommendations, drawing on:

  • Systems Thinking
  • The Circular Economy
  • The Collaborative Economy (‘the economy of the Commons’)

Systems Thinking

“When William McDonough, one of the originators of the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ concept, writes about intention and design he is making a profound observation about the root of our difficulties with the production of ‘waste’ (or as Mary Douglas prefers ‘matter out of place’ (1966). For McDonough ‘waste’ is currently built into our design systems, it is an inevitable result of a limited level of awareness that has accompanied the rise of the industrial revolution. For as long as we make decisions within silos – whether these are the silos that are government departments, or specialist parts of the economy, we’ll go on producing waste and other results that nobody wants. Only when our economic and policy decisions are taken with whole ecological, social, and economic systems at the front of our minds – at the heart of our awareness and intention – shall we begin to bring the earth back from the brink. As Pope Francis remarked in his Encyclical on the environment, we are fast turning the Earth into a pile of junk. In our own council doorstep we have created a monument to fragmented decision-making, non-decision making and environmental crime, resulting in one of the biggest illegal landfills in Europe.

“Waste is not a category that occurs in nature. Everything has its place. Everything is part of the cycle – and finds its way back into the regenerative, life-giving system. This must become the goal of human systems too – whether they are technological, economic, human or ethical.”

Organisational Transformation for Systems Thinking

Nobody gets up in the morning and says “That’s another lovely day to destabilize the climate or undermine the health of our drinking water supplies by polluting water tables.” And yet, by our collective decision-making – blighted by fragmentation, incrementalism and a poverty of imagination – our institutions constantly produce results nobody wants. Blind spots prevail.

“So we need to bear some things in mind when we are designing new institutional responses to issues like ‘waste’ and setting out the journey to ‘zero waste’ (or the intelligent economy):

  1. We need to build ‘learning organisations’. Organisations where people are invited to reflect deeply on their own actions with awareness….awareness at the level of the system no matter how focused or specialized their task may be. Awareness based action must also encompass an awareness of the ways in which our historical institutions and institutional habits are often deeply implicated in creating the very predicaments we are setting out to resolve.
  2. This Awareness Based approach to action is all the more urgent as our contemporary ‘wicked problems’ are more accurately described as ‘predicaments’. They are typically no longer amenable to ‘off the shelf’ technical fixes, but require deeper considerations that involve ethical, cultural, social and technical responses.
  3. It is also clear that organisations – Governmental and private sector – must be clear about their long-term vision. People working in these organisations must be clear about what they care about (their own values) and the relationship between their values and their tasks. Otherwise, lives and outcomes become fragmented, disconnected and sterile.

In the context of building a local economy from a systems perspective there are many examples to choose from, including:

  • Eco-business clusters where all ‘waste equals food’ or where waste is treated as a resource for another nearby business. Such clusters have been supported by Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives, founded by the business entrepreneur Gunter Pauli.
  • Michael Braungart and William McDonough have called for industrial design revolutions that would treat all biological and technical products as resources for re-integration into biological or industrial (re)production. Their ideas would challenge policy communities to mimic nature – to learn from nature rather than merely extract from nature.

The Circular Economy

The circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the concept of a product’s ‘end-of- life’ with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models.

When thinking shifts to whole systems approaches – including the need to take account of the ecological system in all design decisions – a number of key guidelines come into play in the policy community:

The circular economy:

1 – Decouples economic growth and development from the consumption of finite resources;

2 – Distinguishes between and separates technical and biological materials, keeping them at their highest value at all times.

3 – Focuses on effective design and use of materials to optimise their flow and maintain or increase technical and natural resource stocks;

4 – Provides new opportunities for innovation across fields such as product design, service and business models, food, farming, biological feedstocks and products; and

5 – Establishes a framework and building blocks for a resilient system able to work in the longer term.

The conventional linear model turns services into products that can be sold, and ultimately disposed off but this throughput approach is a wasteful one. In the past, reuse and service-life extension were often strategies in situations of scarcity or poverty e.g. during the Second World War, and led to products of inferior quality. Today they are signs of good resource husbandry and smart management.

The benefits will be multiple – both in terms of the economy and the environment. The U.K. could save USD$ 1.1 billion a year on landfill cost by keeping organic food waste out of landfills—this would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.4 million tonnes p.a. and could deliver up to 2 GWh worth of electricity and provide much-needed soil restoration and specialty chemicals.

A Derry and Strabane Council – City Region Strategy for Economic Transformation

Five Steps:

City-Region Governance: Adopt the ‘Circular Economy’ and ‘Zero Waste’ as the over-arching framework and driver for the new Derry and Strabane Council’s Community Planning Partnership. Pursue this in partnership with Donegal County Council and agencies/partners in the Republic of Ireland.

In a globalised economy and world of accelerating connectivity, notably in the circulation of ideas, knowledge, and opportunities for collaboration, city regions are global players in their own right. It is time to look to our own genius and resources to connect globally and build locally.

At certain moments in our history, when Derry became the ‘City of Culture’ for example, we momentarily shifted our sense of place in the world and raised our eyes to meet the gaze of an international audience, an international cast of peers and participants. City-Regions today take their place in a world of sustained cultural, intellectual, economic and environmental conversations and initiatives.

While the roles of senior civil servants and government departments cannot be ignored, they must not be perceived as ‘gate keepers’ when it comes to global circuits of policy exchange, innovation and business development. While demanding a regionally just level of resources and infrastructure, in the sphere of ideas, innovation and wealth generation the solutions are closer to home and to be found in the new online global commons of ideas, think tanks, and collaborators.

We must cultivate the attitudes and the infrastructure that will embed a sense of ‘taking our place in the world’ as a City-Region in our own right. A Global City with a unique history, perspective and set of opportunities.

In one of the names of the City, ‘Londonderry’, there is an explicit link to ‘London’, one of the most globalised cities on the planet. Perhaps it is time to think about a new ‘London-Bridge’….a new cultural, intellectual and economic bridgehead to the unique blend of culture, business networks, and intellectual ferment that is the city of London. Equally, we must engage more wholeheartedly with the global commercial and intellectual circuits that have converged in the new Dublin.

Integration: Shift the language about ‘waste’ from a technocratic policy frame that focuses on infrastructure and off-the-shelf (recycled) consultants’ solutions. Re-imagine the ‘waste’ issue as a resource challenge that must drive our approach the wealth in a new green economy. Begin to think about the economy from a systems perspective, incorporating social and ecological imperatives. Engage every part of the social, economic and political system (locally and Europe-wide) with the challenge of our regional transformation. Put the priorities of the local economy first: kick-starting the drive for useful jobs, especially for young people.

Open-Source: Think outside the box when it comes to designing a strategy, communication, intellectual input and delivery. Use the ‘collaborative commons’ (global online networks, peer-to-peer collaboration), to call on the best minds and most ambitious eco-entrepreneurs to contribute to an intelligent local economy for the city region .

Think-Do-Invest: Work with Queens University and others, and local agencies to establish a ‘Circular Economy Think and Do Tank’ combined with a Social Economy Social Capital Investment Fund to offer cheap loans and advice to start-ups in re-manufacturing, transforming supply chains, energy co-ops, and ecological service providers.

Communication: Embed the message about economic and environmental transformation in appeals to our passion for our local landscape and environment, and to the identities associated with declared pride in our shared natural and cultural heritage. Link the circular economy message to wider normative agendas, including Environmental Justice and Climate Justice. Historically, the detritus of our unsustainable industrial and consumer practices have been translated into burdens on the poor and socially excluded, both in terms of the location of dirty facilities and in terms of the export of our waste to overseas territories. Video Links:

Carnegie UK Trust: Wellbeing

MacArthur Video on the Circular Economy and Systems:

Michel Foucault pratising meditation in a Japanese Zen Temple
(Above: Michel Foucault pratising meditation in a Japanese Zen Temple)           The West has witnessed an explosion of interest in Buddhist teachings on mindfulness. Most of the popular literature adapts these ancient teachings for an audience in search of enhanced states of individual well-being at home and in the workplace.

The underlying teachings of mindfulness offer much more in this consumer age; they offer new sources of critical inquiry into our collective condition under the sway of consumer culture. Since the post-WWll rise of mass advertising and the more recent global advance of consumer culture cultivated through the ubiquitous forms of media technology, our collective ‘attention’ has become the latest frontier in the processes of enclosure and commodification.

Advertising, the mass media, technological advances in social media and celebrity culture underpin deeply rooted practices of individualism and materialism by facilitating a global competition for ‘mind share’ in the attention economy (Rowe 2009). These technologies have also come to mediate our popular self-understanding and how we relate to notions of self in a profound way.  But at what cost? There is an increasing recognition that ‘attention deficit’ is the price individuals now pay for their participation in the new ‘attention economy’ that treats attention as a scarce commodity to be pursued and monetized at every opportunity. The deficit is commonly experienced as a form of time poverty. This condition has multiple implications for our quality of life, well-being and ability to negotiate wise and sustainable choices for ourselves, society and ecology.

A Critical  Political Economy of Attention would draw on the rich Buddhist-inspired philosophical and psychological teachings that underpin the practice of mindfulness and attention to inform critical insights into the nature of the contemporary economy, its construction and pursuit of human attention, and its implications for our well-being, collective resilience, and global ecology.

Drawing together lively debates from the new economics of transition, resilience and well-being, sustainable consumption, and the emerging role of mindfulness in popular culture, we need to speak to audiences from both the sustainability disciplines and students of Buddhism and mindfulness. As advanced global capitalism – or capitalist realism – targets, perhaps above all else, the human capacity for attention there are far reaching implications for our well-being – psychologically, physically and spiritually, and ultimately for our global ecology – because our innate capacity for mindfulness and a quality of attention is the realm, the final commons, where the potential for human adaptation to new ecological and social boundaries must be cultivated if we are to flourish as a species in the era of the anthropocene.

“Attention has its own behavior, its own dynamics, its own consequences. An economy built on it will be different than the familiar material-based one.” (Michael H Goldhaber, Wired, 5.12)

In his recent work on sustainable economics, Tim Jackson (2011) called for structural changes of two kinds that must lie at the heart of any strategy to address the social logic of consumerism: a. Tackling perverse incentives for unsustainable and unproductive status competition; and b. Establishing new structures that provide capabilities for people to flourish, and particularly, to participate fully in society, in less materialistic ways.

These challenges sit within a nexus of important challenges that are in many ways definitive for the era of the anthropocene:

  1. The transformation of dominant patterns of unsustainable consumption (engaging with critiques of consumerism) and the formulation of a new political economy for sustainable development (UN Secretary General High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, 2012);
  2. A transition to lifestyle practices and supporting infrastructural and regulatory systems respectful of ecological (Rockstrom et al 2009) and social boundaries (Oxfam 2012);
  3. Redefining and exploring lifestyles consistent with the good life or ‘good living’ (buen vivir): flourishing and well-being beyond materialism (new hedonisms (Soper 2012)); and
  4. Micro- and macro analyses of the processes of capitalization (accelerated since WWll) that now (pre) occupy, commodify and monetize the universal human capacity for attention: enclosure of the mindful commons.

Under the neoliberal phase of capitalism, specifically the decisive shift in the balance of public and private control over the global media and telecommunications complex, the processes of capitalization targeting attention formed the vanguard of capitalism’s psychic investment: a form of technology designed to enclose the human imagination and notions of subjectivity (notably the relation to the self (see Michel Foucault and McGushin (2008)).

As Paul Rutherford (2008) has noted, the fastest growing economic sector during the 1990s was the cultural industries – advertising, architecture, TV and radio, music, publishing, film, and video, design, designer fashion, and computer and video games. Their raw materials are information, sounds, words, symbols, images, ideas, produced in creative, emotional and intellectual labour. But they also rely on a newly conceived and scarce resource: attention.

As Rutherford has documented, the new capitalism is extending commodification into the realms of subjective life. Its forms of production are not confined to output, but use individuals and their relationships in the co-inventing of cultural and symbolic meanings and new ideas: “The market creates communities of interests and seeks the intimacy of the consumer in order to embed commercial transactions in personal and daily life. Promotional culture creates desiring consumers whose personal histories can be mined for their interests, desires and purchases. The economic sphere expands as production conscripts the thinking, imagination and sensibilities of individuals.” (Rutherford 2008:11)

This assault on human sensibilities has also been traced by scholars who have highlighted the ‘High Price of Materialism’ (Kasser 2002), including the infantilization of American adults (Barber 2007). Others have documented the rise of the cult of novelty, the cultivation of hyper-individualism with its accompanying pathologies, and the resulting severance of societal commitment devices (Offer 2006).

Biopolitical formations of internalized self-regulation have become vital to the survival of the global neoliberalism. Dispersed, heterogenous, deregulated, de-governmentalized (consummatized) forms of capitalization have demanded new and diversified kinds of self-regulating attentive subjects. The regulatory self has become a regulatory ideal as individuals have found themselves taking on more and more responsibility for their life course mediated by a series of (infinite) choices. In the process, attention has become an essential part of practices of consumption, leisure, labour, pedagogy, medicine, psychology and media culture.

Equipped with a better understanding of the resulting social depression (Jackson 2010), policy will have to pay closer attention to the structural causes of social alienation and anomie, and adopt as an explicit policy goal of the upholding of conditions that support human capabilities for flourishing, including a reclaiming of the mindful commons. This will only come about when we fully understand the implications of the ‘attention economy’, with its colonization of consciousness and potential for undermining reflective and attentive faculties that go hand in hand with the demands of active citizenship and ecologically sustainable lifestyles.

I want to demonstrate a timely and compelling match between the profound societal questions around the fate of our global ecology, notably the questioning of consumerist culture (unsustainable consumption versus sustainable lifestyles) and the insights of traditional and contemporary Buddhist scholarship on mindfulness (focusing on the cultivation of resilience through a capacity for ‘attention’ and mindful awareness in the now). Buddhist philosophy and psychology, supported by contemporary neuroscientific studies on mindfulness, not only offer the basis for personal and collective counter-practices for those who seek to decolonize their mind/bodies, but offer original insights into the technologies and practices that translate the processes of capitalization in late consumer culture.

To paraphrase Foucault (after McGushin 2007), it is within such embodied reflection that moments of opposition and overcoming of the logic of consumerism as an all pervasive experience of biopolitics will also be understood and cultivated. Mindfulness practices and their underlying teachings also have the potential to re-awaken similar intuitions within our own Western philosophical traditions, including the voluntary simplicity movement and its forebears.

Nietzsche’s questioning of our restless relation to the self (Bubna-Lilic 2007) corresponds to a core insight within Buddhism and summons up the iconic image from the Zen Buddhist tradition: that of the ox herder, the metaphorical image of the restless search for the empty self. In Nietzsche’s writings and those of others in the Western canon, we can recognize a human predisposition that was always going to be vulnerable to the most intimate enclosure: the enclosure of the mindful commons. The notion that there is something missing is a powerful theme in many commentaries on neoclassical economics. The philosopher Charles Taylor (1989) observed that there has been a profound gap in the West’s philosophical response. He suggests that there has been a tendency in moral philosophy to focus on what it is right to do rather than what it is good to be, defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life. (cited in Bubna-Lilic 2007:3) The global ecological crises and their drivers in our dominant economic paradigm, given sociological expression in a global culture of consumerism, is forcing such questions to the surface across the disciplines of ecological economics, environmental politics, psychology and environmental ethics.

We need a new context for a renewed understanding of the quality of attention and the importance of the restoration of the value of mindfulness as a cornerstone of a new culture of flourishing and resilience. We could begin to re-examine the place of cultivation of personal/collective practices (askesis) that restore a certain integrity and alignment to our relation to the mind-body and to the earth, in the face of invitations to export our attention to channels of production and consumption. We could introduce the work of a key scholar in the Western Chan Buddhist tradition, Peter Hershock (1999) who has begun to describe how the technology of consumption modeled in the mass media results in attention being exported out of our immediate situation, resulting in a loss or compromise in relational depth and quality, effectively eroding presently obtaining patterns of mutual support and contribution (commitment devices as described by Offer), and further triggering new cycles of defensive and compensatory practices of consumption. The genius of contemporary consumerism is that its pathologies beget their own ends.

At the heart of this project is our contemporary condition, or what Hershock has described as a recursive process that has intensified beyond the point at which all major subsistence needs have been commoditized, to the point at which consciousness itself is effectively colonized. These patterns have become so pervasive that Hershock goes so far as to speculate that consumerism’s undermining of our response to our suffering and predicament extends to a potential undermining of our collective response to the ecological crises. This, in turn, is linked to a society wide technological bias toward control that has come to inform Western self-understanding and experience and which leads to a denial of our interdependent origination among all things.

‘Touching the Earth’ is a Buddhist meditation that invites us into that place where we encounter archaic memory, the memory of blissful unknowing.  It is a place within all of us that recalls – with every animal – that moment when we walked memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world.

Touching the Earth – A Buddhist Meditation on Mindfulness and Ecology:

Wildness is a source of our liberatory imagination that disrupts, questions and celebrates the transcendent possibility of returning and inhabiting ‘beginner’s mind’…

Where we encounter the archaic memory of blissful unknowing of the animal that once walked memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world.

The practice of ‘Touching the Earth’ is to return to the Earth through the body, a journey to our roots, to our ancestors, and to a recognition that we are not alone but connected to a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors. We are their continuation and with them will continue into the future.

We touch the earth to let go of the idea that we are separate and to remind ourselves that we are the Earth and part of an unfolding creation.

The term ‘engaged Buddhism’ was created to restore the most compelling dimension of Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is simply Buddhism applied to daily life. If practice is not engaged, it cannot be called Buddhism. Buddhist practice takes place not only in monasteries, meditation halls and Buddhist institutes, but in whatever situation we find ourselves. Engaged Buddhism means the activities of daily life combined with the practice and ethic of mindfulness. (Thich Nhat Hanh, paraphrased).

Of Systems, Commons and Indra’s Net

In one of Buddhism’s iconic images, Guatama Buddha sits in meditation with his left palm upright on his lap, while his right hand touches the earth.

The forces of death and negation try to unseat the contemplative, because their King, ‘Mara’, claims that place under the Bodhi tree. As they proclaim their leader’s powers, Mara demands that Guatama produce a witness to confirm his spiritual awakening. The Buddha simply touches the earth with his right hand, and Creation itself responds: “I am your witness”. Mara and the minions disappear. The morning star appears in the sky. And it is from this mytho-poetic moment of supreme awakening to the human-nature condition from which the whole Buddhist tradition unfolds.

Mara, interestingly, is linked etymologically to the figure of ‘death’. It refers to the Vedic or pre-Buddhist mythic figure, including a manifestation related to Namuci or a ‘demon of drought’ [A God of Death]. This is interesting in our current times of climate change and its impacts on water scarcity.

Mara [Namuici] threatens not by witholding seasonal rains but by witholding or obscuring the knowledge of truth.

Namuci is a figure who was transformed in early Buddhist texts to become Mara, the god of death. In Buddhist demonology the figure of Namuci, linked to death caused by calamities such as drought, was taken up in the symbolism of Mara, threatening the welfare of humankind.

The 20th century Vedantin sage, Ramana Maharashi noted that the Earth is in a constant state of dhyana (meditative absorption). The Buddha’s earth-witness mudra (hand positioning) is a beautiful and poetic example of “embodied cognition” or embodied knowing. The posture and gesture embody unshakeable self-realization as interbeing. He does not ask heavenly beings for assistance. Instead, without any words, the Buddha calls on the Earth to bear witness.

The Earth has observed much more than the Buddha’s awakening. For the last three billion years the Earth has borne witness to the evolution of innumerable lifeforms, from the single cell creature to the extraordinary diversity and complexity of plant and animal life that flourishes today – and in which we are embedded as an integral element of ‘interbeing’ and custodian.

Many biologists predict that half the Earth’s plant and animal species could disappear by the end of the century. We are living through the sixth mass species extinction – with all the physical, resource, aesthetic and spiritual implications that heralds for our interbeing.

This sobering fact of extinction reminds us that phenomena such as climate change is a primary but not the only ecological crisis facing us today. Indeed it is only one of three critical ‘Planetary’ thresholds that are currently being broken by our political, economic and technological institutions and practices today.

Mara appears to us today as a collective experience of ‘deep dualism’ and discrimination. Ecological insight has been supplanted and dismissed by collective delusions and denials that are not incidental but expressions of deeply embedded, habituated institutional responses to our shared experience on Earth.

Behind the delusion is a universe and an earth system in which everything inter-penetrates, in which everything needs everything else and where there is no single speck of dust that does not affect the whole.

In the Flower Garland Sutra a most resounding metaphor, the Diamond Net of Indra, points to all existence as a vast net of gems that extends throughout the universe, not only in the three dimensions of space but in the fourth dimension of time as well.

Each point in the huge net contains a multifaceted diamond which reflects every other diamond, and as such, essentially contains every other diamond in the net. There is no centre and no periphery.

The diamond represents an entire universe – or reality – of past, present and future. In a sense, what the metaphor depicts is how each and every thing in the universe contains every other thing troughout all time, including responsibility for each and every other part’s fate.

The Diamond Net of Indra is not just a philosophical postulation. It is a description of realized reality. It is the direct experience of thousands of awakened women and men.

In this age of the Anthropocene, the cry of the earth has entered deeply into our wild hearts….it is an intimate and collective cry all at one, captured in the ritual of ‘touching the earth’:

  • The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty (inter-being);
  • Therefore the communication between them is inexpressibly perfect;
  • Our practice centre is the net of Indra reflecting all Buddhas everywhere;
  • And my own person reflects all Buddhas to whom with my whole life I go for refuge.