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.

Conclusion: Living in Challenging Times

The Buddha’s narrative and teaching have been transmitted across many cultures over the centuries and are always – in effect – in translation. The generic idea of the ‘buddha’ incorporates awakening and teaching for a given time or era. In our own times, our conditions of life are giving rise to a sense of exhaustion that is both external (in terms of ecological stress, pollution, and our alienation from nature) and internal (in terms of the ‘social recession’ or pathologies associated with inequality and the colonization of the life world by commercial and neoliberal logic). Out of this exhaustion – compounded by the onslaught of corporate-sponsored demands on our attention, there is a palpable demand for new forms of intimacy: The Sanskrit word for yoga is ‘intimacy’. Yoga and mindfulness can be described as practices of intimacy, practices of becoming more intimately connected with our moment to moment physical experience, a radical act of paying attention.

For the Buddhist, living simply is simply living out a radical form of non-violence, a radical act of taking responsibility, for the moment-to-moment arising of all conditions, or worlding. Caring for the self and caring for the world go hand in hand because, for the Buddhist practitioner, the quality and compassionate content of relationships (including our relations with the ‘self’, ‘others’, and the ‘world’) are always prior to the conditions and ‘things’ to which they give rise. Simple living can be an act of radical responsibility.

The Buddha referred to an unsettling characteristic of life as ‘dukkha’, which is the Sanskrit term that refers to a ‘wheel with an off-centre axle hole’. In stating that all things are marked by dukkha, the Buddha was simply observing that life can often be experienced as something that is out of kilter, always jolting or troubling us, always insisting on our attention. It is in this sense that Buddha framed his core teaching around acknowledgement and acceptance of suffering as the initial path to its cessation and the cultivation of wellbeing, in his Four Noble Truths.

To summarise the teachings of the awakened Buddha I will draw on the work of the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has done so much through his scholarship, poetry, teaching and work for non-violence since the Vietnam War, to translate the insights of the Buddha into a Western idiom. Today, his non-violent orientation to the world extends to a deep engagement with the underlying conditions of ecological collapse, and a translation of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist insights into a call for mindful care of the self as a foundational practice for ecological sustainability and a global ethic.

Nhat Hanh tells a story that is popular in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing on the roadside, shouts, ‘Where are you going?’ and the first replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse.’ The story is about the human condition: the horse is habit energy pulling us along, and the rider is ‘us’….restless, always in a hurry, not quite sure where we are going, often at war with ourselves, and all too prone to falling into conflict with others.

This is why Buddhist meditation has two key aspects: shamatha (‘stopping’) and vipashyana (‘looking deeply’). Meditation begins with the art of stopping – interrupting our thinking, habit energies, forgetfulness, and strong emotions that rush through us like a constant storm. The energy of mindfulness is cultivated to enable the meditator to recognize, be present to and transform these energies. The second function of shamatha is to calm the emotions by following the breath, and the third is resting.

As we have noted, the Buddha’s teaching confronts our human condition. Part art, part science, the Buddha’s approach is full of paradox: the first of his Four Noble Truths is ‘dukkha’, often translated as ‘suffering’ but literally referring to that dimension of human experience that is ‘hard to face’. The word ‘dukkha’ is a compound of ‘duh’ which means ‘difficulty’, and ‘kha’ which can refer to the hole at the centre of a wheel into which an axle fits. So the word dukkha can mean a poorly fitting axle, something out of place, awry, or at odds with itself.

Mark Epstein (2013, 28) compares the observational posture of Buddhist meditation or ‘bare attention’ without reactivity (not clinging to what is pleasant and not rejecting what is unpleasant) to the quality of presence that a mother brings to a child:

One of the central paradoxes of Buddhism is that the bare attention of the meditative mind changes the psyche by not trying to change anything at all. The steady application of the meditative posture, like the steadiness of an attuned parent, allows something inherent in the mind’s potential to emerge, and it emerges naturally if left alone properly in a good enough way.

In his Fire Sermon the Buddha used the metaphorical image of fire to describe the ubiquity of trauma in our lives: everyday life is on fire not only because of its fleeting nature but also because of how ardently people cling to greed, anger and egocentric preoccupations. He counselled that we are all feeding the flames of these metaphorical fires (also known as greed, hatred and delusion) motivated by our insecure place in the world, by the deep and felt experience of dukkha, of not fitting in. For the Buddha the fires are defences against acknowledging things as they are, instinctive attempts at protecting ourselves from what feels like an impossible situation. It is from this imagery that we get the word Nirvᾶna, from the Sanskrit ‘cease to burn’ or ‘blow out’.

The Practice of Wellbeing

In Buddhist terms envisioning a model of ‘simple living’ is inseparable from the invitation to cultivate a deep transformation in our individual and collective orientation to the ‘self’ and to ‘the world’, and the embrace of a new or deeper materialism that implies a new intimacy, care and compassion. Buddha’ core teachings point to practices that give us access to a mode of simple living that gives expression to an experience of liberation: a release from suffering, a discovery of wellbeing, and a restored intimacy with all things. Let us return now briefly to the Buddha’s systematic teaching on liberation from suffering: The Four Noble Truths, and The Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering
  2. Arising of Suffering

iii.            Cessation of Suffering (wellbeing)

  1. How wellbeing arises

The passage from the naming and recognition of suffering through to a realisation of wellbeing is signposted by a series of teachings called the Twelve Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma (teaching on what is). For each of the Four Noble Truths there are three stages: Recognition, Encouragement and Realisation.

This passage or pedagogical journey commences with the first Noble Truth: suffering. The first turning, called ‘Recognition’ refers to a universal recognition that suffering – whether it is physical, physiological or psychological – is a companion of our life. The second turning is ‘Encouragement’ derived from recognition and looking deeply – with compassion, non-judgement and kindness – in order to understand the causes and conditions of suffering. The third turning is ‘Realization’, marking the point of understanding.

The Second Noble Truth of ‘Arising Suffering’ commences with ‘Recognition’ of our tendency to increase our suffering through our initial reactive responses, whether these are words, thoughts or deeds. At this point in the process, attention is given to those elements or ‘nutriments’ that have helped feed our suffering. The Buddha identified four kinds of nutriments that can lead to our happiness or our suffering:

–              Edible food

–              Sense impressions

–              Intentions

–              Consciousness

The first one, ‘Edible food’ is familiar. The Buddhist teaching is that we must learn to distinguish between what is healthful and what is harmful, and practice Right View when we shop, cook and eat so that we preserve the wellbeing of our body, mind and planet. This entails looking deeply to see how our food is grown and processed, so that we eat in ways that preserve our collective wellbeing, minimize our own suffering and that of other species, and allow the earth to replenish itself. The second nutriment that demands our attention is ‘Sense impressions’. In Buddhism the mind is regarded as one of the senses so we have to consider six realms of contact with sense objects, including media, advertising, movies, TV, social media and video games. Mindful approaches to these stimuli can protect aspects of our consciousness from unwholesome sense objects with the potential to feed our cravings, violence, fear and despair.

The third nutriment is ‘Intention’ or volition also described as the will. In Buddhism, volition is considered the ground of all our actions. It is in this arena where mindfulness and bare attention can interrupt the energy driving us towards certain apparent satisfiers or promises of fulfilment in accumulation, status, revenge, possessions. Thich Nhat Hanh (1998, 35) writes: ‘We need to cultivate the wish to be free of these things so we can enjoy the wonders of life that are always available – the blue sky, the trees, our beautiful children. After three months or six months of mindful sitting, mindful walking, and mindful looking, a deep vision of reality arises in us, and the capacity of being there, enjoying life in the present moment, liberates us from all impulses and brings us real happiness.’

The fourth nutriment is ‘Consciousness’. In Buddhism this is sometimes described as the ‘seeds’ sown by our past actions and the past actions of our family and society. These seeds can take the form of thoughts, words and actions that flow into the sea of our consciousness and create our body, mind and ultimately our world. There’s an old saying, ‘You are what you eat’. In Buddhism this applies equally, if not more so, to everything – every seed – that we allow to feed our consciousness. In a world where we are invited to export our attention – around the clock – to social media, 24-hour news cycles, advertising, and TV – the invitation to cultivate bare attention has never been more challenging and timely.

The Third Noble Truth encompasses a very popular concept in contemporary policy and news circles: wellbeing. The movement from realizing the possibility of wellbeing to its actual realization is a movement from transforming (not running away from) suffering, acknowledging its impermanence, and reaching out to touch those things that bring peace and joy: discovering that the true miracle is to walk on the earth! This is a stage that, above all, demands an alignment of mindfulness and practice or embodied realisation.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path out of suffering towards wellbeing. It commences with a recognition of the Eightfold Path or practice manual which sets out those elements of learning, reflection and practice. The elements of the Eightfold Path are more than guidelines or ethical imperatives but describe the aspects of embodied practice (centred on the individual practitioner’s own life experience) and behaviours sustained by a regular mindfulness practice:

–              Right View: The capacity for deep understanding and ‘waking up’ especially to the errors that accompany our experience of subjectivity and perception;

–              Right Thinking: Entails an alignment of mind and body, using the breath; interrupting fear-based thinking that leads to further suffering;

–              Right Speech: Closely related to Deep Listening with compassion and silence, Right Speech is truthful and aligned with the ends of social justice and non-exploitation;

–              Right Action: The basis of Right Action is mindfulness and the practice of non-violence towards self and others;

–              Right Livelihood: To practice Right Livelihood is to earn a living without transgressing the Buddhist ideals of love, compassion and non-violence;

–              Right Diligence: Nourished by joy and interest, Right Diligence lies in the ‘Middle Way’ – it is neither to be found in the extremes of austerity nor in sensual indulgence; it is associated with joy, ease and even humour;

–              Right Mindfulness: The Chinese character for mindfulness or ‘remembering’ is made up of two parts: ‘now’ and ‘mind/heart’. Mindfulness is to be fully present and able to touch deeply what lies before us, with a ‘beginner’s mind’ on the first morning of creation;

–              Right Concentration: Living each moment deeply sustains concentration, and this gives rise to insight.


The Historical Buddha: A Living Parable for the Age of the Anthropocene

The historical figure, Siddhatta Gotama, probably lived and taught between the years 563 and 483 BCE in the foothills of the Himalayas. The iconic story of his birth into an economically and politically influential family in the village of Kapilavatthu and, at the age of 29, the tale of his subsequent renunciation of this relatively comfortable material existence in favour of the holy life of the wandering ascetic living on alms (bhikkus) has echoed down the centuries. The story has a special resonance in our own age because Siddhatta’s quest – in common with other prophetic figures that would emerge across the world during the pivotal or Axial Age (800–200 B.C.E) (Armstrong 2001) – was sparked by a restlessness and disillusion with received convention and tradition. Change was in the air.

Siddhatta’s response to his time and place – marked by considerable social disruption – was characterized by a courageous and strikingly modern response to the stark realities and fleeting nature of our lives on earth. In a discourse to the people of Kalama who had become confused by conflicting doctrines and teachings, Siddhatta advised that it is proper to doubt, to be uncertain and to refuse to act on that which has merely been repeated or presented as tradition, even if it is offered as a sacred teaching. (Batchelor 2010, 98-99)

In the course of several centuries the Axial period marked a decisive shift in collective human consciousness (of itself and of the world), with figures such as Confucius and Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Socrates and Plato, emerging within their own distinct worldviews to launch transformations in thought and understanding. The great thinkers of the Axial period shared a sense of a world gone awry and set about interrogating inherited truths, often turning inwards to uncover beauty, order and a new horizon of meaning.

It is useful to recall that recorded history only begins around 3000 BCE. Siddhatta and the other great thinkers of the Axial period represent an important moment in the register of human consciousness itself – a formative moment when humankind began to articulate in a new way what had, up to then, been a dim memory of our long passage out of the Paleolithic era. In crossing this threshold of self-consciousness our species encountered finitude – most fundamentally, the reality of death and the passage of time. It has been suggested that it is precisely from this emergence into self-conscious knowledge and an awareness of time – both associated with our unique human predicament and a deep restlessness rooted in chronic insecurity – that we derive our myths of ‘the Fall’. Loren Eiseley puts it rather beautifully: ‘The story of Eden is a greater allegory than man has ever guessed.’ For what was lost was the blissful ignorance of the natural animal that walks ‘memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world.’ (Eiseley, cited in Oelschlaeger 1991, 333)

Siddhatta formed a desire to liberate himself from the transient life of the passions, attachments and delusions. He became convinced that it was possible in the midst of this predicament we call life to experience a cessation of the sources of delusion and unhappiness, and pursue that which is free from ageing, death, sorrow, corruption and conditioning. And part of his solution was to retrace our steps to the still point of the ‘beginner’s mind’ (Suzuki, 2001) that, in some respects, draws on the pre-conceptual experience (the ‘first mind’) of immediacy with wilderness (before ‘the Fall’ into consciousness of time).

We have entered the axial age of the Anthropocene – a new turning point in the history of humanity, in the ongoing story of creation and, in all probability, a turning point in human consciousness. Today we are confronted by the unprecedented extent to which our human technologies, institutions and collective imaginaries have emerged during the course of the past 500 years as the most decisive influences on the fate of our planetary home and the atmosphere. Our ecological crisis is above all a provocation to return to our own fractured narrative of human-nature.

Siddhatta’s story is received today as a universal parable of a young man driven by a deep insight into the transient nature of life and its comforts, and a determination to embody a liberating path beyond the suffering associated with our human predicaments. It is an ancient story that pre-figures an emerging collective narrative or imaginary around wellbeing and social change in our own time – one that points to a contemporary sense of our psychic exhaustion and disillusion with the surface features of modern lifestyles and institutions that are increasingly mediated by a political economy of hubris, celebrity, and habit formation – an economy of spectacle that underpins today’s global circuits of production and consumption.

Little is known about the precise circumstances of Siddhatta’s decision to abandon his home life and his family. What we can surmise is that at the point of his departure his existential dilemma – his conviction that an attachment to things and people bound him to an existence that seemed mired in pain and sorrow – was not dissimilar to the experience of many of his contemporaries who opted for the life of a forest monk. What is distinctive and resonant in the Buddha’s life is his eventual response to the questions posed by the transience of life and its passing comforts: an ultimate rejection of the extremes of asceticism in favour of a ‘Middle Way’ dedicated to finally making peace – even falling into joy – with this fragile, all too brief sojourn on earth.


We have known for some time that modernity and its exemplary mode of material transmission in the form of capitalism has only progressed by imposing collateral damage on society and nature. Indeed, for Carlisle, Henderson and Hanlon,[i] well-being is the collateral damage. They agree that the science of well-being and its critique are, despite their diversity, re-connected by, and subsumed within, the emerging environmental critique of modern consumer society.

Eckersley has linked static or declining levels of well-being in ‘modern’ societies because they focus primarily on economic and materialist concerns, to the exclusion of other values, and are characterized by rampant individualism and consumerism.[ii] The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has documented the history of Western modernity as a continuous obsessive and compulsive modernisation in every sphere of life, with profound consequences for how we live, act and think.[iii] His description of mobile and de-territorialized capital under the sign of ‘liquid modernity’ captures many of the dynamics that bring uncertainty and transcience into modern life. One of the vehicles is consumerism and its culture of disposability, wherein consumers are guided by aesthetic interests, not ethical norms. In the absence of ideals or recipes for a ‘good life’, the result for more and more individuals has been an experience of mental depression and feelings of impotence and inadequacy.[iv] For Apffel-Marglin and Bush,[v] and Hathaway and Boff,[vi] the provocations forced by the global environmental crises – and their implication in a series of social pathologies – invite an investigation that must revisit the origins of a paradigm of knowledge and power codified in the 17th century, and which quickly established a homology with the expansion of the market economy and the rise of the modern State. The historical resolutions – arising from the need to restore a sense of certainty in the wake of the spiritual-cum-epistemological movements in the Renaissance, and provoked by the Reformation – left deep traces in the paradigm of modernity that was to emerge.

As Jackson and Victor (2011)[vii] have noted, capitalism – due to the ‘productivity trap’ (growth=jobs=social stability) – has no easy route to a steady state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse. Jackson[viii] 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)[ix] 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. Noting that the social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, Jackson adds that it is also detrimental ecologically and psychologically, contributing to a ‘social recession’. He advocates structural change designed to address the 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 what Zygmunt Bauman[x] has described as social liquidity, including “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[xi] (2012:41) has linked this disintegration to: i. the spread of individualistic behaviours and to positional competition; 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.

Many of us are now familiar with the argument that advanced capitalism is hitting up against both planetary boundaries (Rockstrom et. al. 2009)[xii] and ‘social limits’[xiii] associated with 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[xiv] (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[xv] (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.’  Paul Virno[xvi] 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 detects a tragic  dimension in the culture of capitalism that 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’(Rutherford 2008, p.14). In turn, this kind of stress dramatically increases our vulnerability to disease and premature death.

In a report on Mental Health, Resilience, Inequalities (2009)[xvii], the World Health Organisation described mental health as a fundamental of the resilience, health assets, capabilities and positive adaptation that enable people to cope, to flourish and to experience good health and social outcomes. It is also a key pathway through which inequality impacts on health. There is overwhelming evidence that inequality is a key cause of stress in itself and also exacerbates the stress of coping with material deprivation. It is noted that communities across Europe place a high value on well-being just as the limitations of consumerism are being more widely reflected on in relation to children, family life and the basis of civil society.

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. And, in the process of handing ourselves over to the purveyors of expertly designed and manufactured goods, services, knowledge products, and meaning, we render ourselves increasingly in need of expert, globally mediated, care. Degraded environments, then, are inseparable from degraded consciousness, in a dual pattern of degradation that at once devalues what is experienced and lowers experiential quality.

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.

At least two primary sets of responses to such investigations are emerging. Both elements will have to form part of what I am calling a political economy of attention for the age of the anthropocene. 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. As Jackson has outlined,[xviii]meaningful steps to a transition to a sustainable economy must establish and impose meaningful resource and environmental limits on economic activity, develop and apply a robust macro-economics for sustainability, and redress the damaging and unsustainable logic of consumerism.

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 ‘somaesthetics’ from the complex of capitalisation. Institutional support, consistent with a new social logic, will also be required to support a new and holistic appreciation of the human being as opposed to the self-interested ‘radical subjectivism’[xix] cultivated by and in the service of the market. As 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’.[xx] 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.[xxi] Hershock describes mindfulness practices as an alternative technology – an alternative to our technological bias toward control and wanting. For control has silenced the things and people sharing our world, making it impossible for them to spontaneously and dramatically contribute to our narration.[xxii] 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 effectively patrols what can and cannot be contemplated in the course of current global environmental diplomacy.

Twenty years after the first Rio ‘Earth Summit’ (UNCED), much of the optimism generated by the political and media spectacle of high-level earth politics has dissipated. The proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements and summits that followed 1992 points to an unprecedented achievement in international diplomacy but also to the gap that continues to exist between the aspirations of the ‘children of Rio’ and a world haunted by an all pervasive fear that much needed change – notably at the level of society, communities and individual lifestyles in the developed world – has been too little, too late. An acceleration of global environmental diplomacy has taken place alongside, and apparently with little impact on, an unprecedented era of globalized trade, investment and the ascendancy of financialized capitalism that has left few parts of the world untouched. In twenty years of credit-fuelled spending and consumer confidence, more people, perhaps in all of human history, got to witness the sublime beauty and complexity of this lonely planet on television screens, video players, and Hollywood movies. The same media complex today bears tidings of a global recession, the spectacle of stalled climate negotiations, rumours of an impending energy crisis, and a widespread collapse in confidence in the political class. We are at once captivated by our dilemmas and yet condemned to an intimate distancing from our bodies, minds and the earth under the spell of capitalist realism.

[i] S. Carlisle, G. Henderson and P.W. Hanlon, ‘”Wellbeing”: A Collateral Casualty of Modernity?’, 69:10 Social Science and Medicine (2009), 1556.

[ii] R. Eckersley, ‘Dialogue on Despair: Assessing the West’s Cultural Crisis’, 28:2 The Futurist (1994), 16.

[iii] Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (Polity Press, 1998); Z. Bauman, Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (Open University Press, 1998); Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Polity Press, 2000); and Z. Bauman, The Individualized Society (Polity Press, 2001).

[iv] S. Carlisle, ‘Modernity and its Consequences for Wellbeing’, Cultural Influences on Health and Wellbeing in Scotland, Discussion Paper 6 (January 2008), available at <http://www.ogilvie.fastmail.co.uk/healthyfuture/bauman.html&gt;.

[v] See F. Apffel Marglin and M. Bush, n. 9 above.

[vi] M. Hathaway and L. Boff, The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Orbis Books, 2009).

[vii] T. Jackson and P. Victor, ‘Productivity and work in the new economy: some theoretical reflections and empirical tests’, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions (2011), 1(1): 101-108.

[viii] T .Jackson, ‘Societal transformations for a sustainable economy’, National Resources Forum (2011), 35:155-164.

[ix] J. Schumpeter, The Theory of Economic Development. (Transaction Publishers, 1934 London)

[x] Z. Bauman, Society Under Siege. (Polity, 2002, London)

[xi] M. Bonaiuti, M. ‘Degrowth: Tools for a Complex Analysis of the Multidimensional Crisis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism(2012), 23:1, March, pp.30-50.

[xii] Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society (2009), 14(2): 32. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/

[xiii] K. Raworth, A Safe and Just Space for Humanity, Oxfam Discussion Paper, February 2012.

[xiv] Z.Bauman, Liquid Life. (Wiley, Oxford 2005).

[xv] J.Rutherford, ‘The culture of capitalism’, Soundings: journal of culture and politics (2008), 38: 8-18.

[xvi] P.Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an analysis of contemporary forms of life. (Semiotext Foreign Agent Series, 2004).

[xvii] World Health Organisation/L.Friedli, Mental Health, Resilience, Inequalities (WHO Europe Office,2009)

[xviii] See T. Jackson, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 163.

[xix] See Marglin, n. 22 above, 64.

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

[xxi] See F. Apffel Marglin and M. Bush, n. 9 above, at 21-22.

[xxii] See P.D. Hershock, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above , at 280.



In the Western experience, it seems the Kantian-inspired bar on consideration of the sensuous affect as integral to the agency side of pure morality has , it seems, contributed to a disembodied moral life that contributes to an ethos of pleasure and comfort-seeking as a poor substitute for ‘the good life’. The ‘goods life’ has trumped the good life. Another Buddhist commentator, David Loy, describes ‘attention’ as the basic commodity – the fundamental target of capitalisation as the production complex seeks to convince us that the solution to our dukka[i]or nagging sense of lack is the next purchase.

Commodity culture has turned the relation between morality and the sensuous on its head. This is most visible in the impoverished value systems of narcissism in celebrity culture and the accompanying forms of violence inflicted on the body. In an essay on Michael Jackson – ‘so consumed by self-loathing he carved his African American face into an ever-changing Caucasian death mask’ –  Chris Hedges observes that the fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain.[ii] It is designed, rather, to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, make us blame ourselves for our predicament, condition us to chase illusions of fame and happiness, and keep us from fighting back. Rowe coined the term ‘attention economy’, explaining that the basic resource of the new economy is not something provided to the consumer but something provided by the consumer to the capitalist complex, namely ‘mindshare’.[iii] ‘But what if there’s only so much mind to share?’ he asks.[iv] Might the social depression and stress that accompanies the culture of consumerism be traced to the commodification of cognitive space – a new frontier in the long history of enclosure…an enclosure of the cognitive commons, the ambient mental atmosphere of daily life.

If Nitzan and Bichler offer a compelling account of the totalizing drive of dominant ‘capital as power’,[v] then Fisher’s Capitalist Realism serves as the user handbook for the consumer immersed in the universe of unfreedom posing as unlimited choice. Capitalism, writes Fisher, in a nod to Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto[vi]  –  is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics. This vision of control and communication no longer relies on subordination but extends an open invitation for all to interact and participate.

Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism encompasses much more than the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is what he describes as a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action. Here we recognise the penetrative power of capitalisation – reaching across institutions where forms of social control can deliver ‘attention’ and recruit it in the race to ‘beat the average’ return.[vii]

In the process capitalism engages in an ‘amoral affective engineering’, preferring to articulate injunctions in terms of ‘health’ rather than ethics. Fisher writes: ‘Morality has been replaced by feeling. In the ‘empire of the self’ everyone ‘feels the same’ without every escaping a condition of solipsism’.[viii] Noting the prevalence of widespread mental health problems – including those among students in UK universities – Fisher calls for a conversion of these problems into effective antagonisms, describing affective disorders as ‘captured discontent’ caused by Capital. He concludes:

Furthermore, the proliferation of certain kinds of mental illness in late capitalism makes the case for a new austerity, a case that is also made by the increasing urgency of dealing with environmental disaster. Nothing contradicts capitalism’s constitutive imperative towards growth more than the concept of rationing goods and resources. Yet it is becoming uncomfortably clear that consumer-self regulation and the market will not by themselves avert environmental catastrophe. There is a libidinal as well as a practical case, to be made for this new ascesis. If … unlimited license leads to misery and disaffection, then limitations placed on desire are likely to quicken rather than deaden, it.[ix]

In his discussion on the ‘social logic of consumerism’ and delinking the prevailing understanding of prosperity as the accumulation of material wealth, Tim Jackson notes a consensus in the academic literature on the existence of a ‘social recession’ in modern western society.[x] The consensus holds that there are rising rates of anxiety and clinical depression, increased alcoholism and binge drinking, and a decline in morale at work. Berardi[xi]notes that the technical definition of depression is the deactivation of desire after a panicked acceleration and calls on us to see depression not as a mere pathology, but also as a form of knowledge. Citing James Hillman, Berardi recalls that depression is a condition in which the mind faces the knowledge of impermanence and death. Suffering, imperfection, senility, decomposition: this is the truth that can be viewed from a depressive point of view. Drawing on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Berardi asserts that when dealing with a depression the challenge is not to bring the depressed person back to normality, to reintegrate behaviour in the universal standards of normal social language. The goal, rather, is to change the focus of the sufferer’s depressive attention, to re-focalize, to deterritorialize the mind and the expressive flow. The goal is to offer the possibility of seeing new landscapes, to overcome the obsessive and repetitive refrain. At the level of society, he anticipates a reconsideration of the notion of wealth and its association with purchasing power, so that a new emphasis might be placed on enjoyment. For it is in the disciplinary culture of modernity that has equated pleasure and possessing that many of our problems have their origin. And economic thinking created scarcity and privatized social need in order to make possible the process of capitalist accumulation. In the days to come, Berardi anticipates that politics and therapy will be one and the same.

[i] A Buddhist term associated with suffering arising from ignorance, craving and insatiability.

[ii] Chris Hedges, The World As It is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (Nation Books, 2001), at 40.

[iii] J. Rowe, ‘Carpe Callosum’, 9:6 Adbusters (2001).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, n. 8 above.

[vi] In The Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx and Engels had already described how capitalism had drowned the most heavily ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm in the icy water of egotistical calculation. See K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Merlin Press, 1998).

[vii] See M. Fisher, n. 4 above.

[viii] Ibid., at 74.

[ix] Ibid., at 80.

[x] See T. Jackson, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 86.

[xi] F.B. Berardi, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 214-215.

Foucault encountered Zen both in his reading and during a brief stay in a Zen monastery practicing 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 as 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)

When Foucault took up that invitation to sample the life of Zen monks in the Spring of 1978 he would have been struck by the physicality of Zen practice and the emphasis on the material or practical aspects of the life. In the Soto Zen tradition, in particular, students are constantly called back to the basics of posture, the body, and “just sitting” (shikantaza). One experienced practitioner, recalling his early impressions of Zen practice, suggests that the instruction can be so physical, so concrete and specific that the student might well wonder when the “Zen” part begins. In fact, the Zen practice is just that: to pay attention intensely to the body in all its details, to be present with the body in its physical immediacy (Fischer 2005:216). The practice extends to daily immersion in the chores of the temple, notably ‘kitchen practice’. Fischer (2005) notes that far from offering a path to transcend the material world, the process of Zen practice deepens and opens the material world, revealing its inner richness. This is accomplished not by making the physical world symbolic of filling it up with explanations or complications but simply by entering the physical world wholeheartedly, on its own terms:

When you do that, you see that the material world is not just the material world, something flat and dumb, as we might have thought…As the Zen masters show us, the material world is not superficial or mundane. What is superficial and mundane is our habitual view of the material world, which we have so long insisted on reducing to a single dimension.(Fischer 2005:218)

Zen training is the effort to learn to enter the material world at such a depth and to appreciate it. From the Zen perspective the underlying challenge is not that we are ‘too materialistic’ but that we ‘are not materialistic enough’ (Haller 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 institutionalised) forgetfulness or failure 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, the Co-Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Centre, one of the earliest Zen institutions in the West, recalls that there is another way of relating to material objects that we already possess and this alternative must be part of our redefinition of prosperity. Haller notes:

It is about connectedness and the way in which we are involved with our 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 how we define prosperity for ourselves. And as that happens for us, the compelling urge to consume more will start to dissipate. (Haller 2009)



Up to a point, Zen shares an understanding of the human condition with traditions of Western psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and existentialist philosophy. The Buddhist teaching on ‘not-self’ (anatta), for example, implies that the sense of “I” is a social construction. From this standpoint, an important question turns on how we explain the origins of the self as construct. Here the view is taken that the ungrounded or impermanent nature of the ‘self’ is repressed and gives rise to some of our existential longings for security and identity. Matthews and Hattam (2004) believe that our need to objectify the world to protect ourselves from the unbearable thought of death leads to a projection of that apparent objectivity. We live as though the world is independent from us. The apparently objective world is unconsciously structured by the ways we seek to secure ourselves within it (Loy 1996:66). Fantasies, as automatisations, are not just mental but become embodied. Projections are actually embodied in the world in the form of our own individual structuring which connects to ‘a collective dream’ (Loy 1996:67), maintained by each of us striving to secure or realize ourselves within that dream. As Miller and Rose (2008:120) describe, the consumer has emerged as a highly problematic entity, by no means a passive tool for manipulation by advertisers, but someone to be known in detail, whose passions and desires were to be charted, for whom consumption was to become an activity bound into a whole form of life that must be anatomized and acted upon. The extent to which ethnographic research methods have been deployed by manufacturers is extraordinary, as the relentless production of novelty demands ever more detail about the life world and day-to-day practices of consumers and their children.

At the root of the sense-of-lack that accompanies the Cartestian error is the struggle by conditioned consciousness to become unconditioned, autonomous or real. Anxiety ‘is generated by this fictional self-reflection for the simple reason that I do not know and cannot know what this thing I supposedly am is.’ (Loy 1996:21) The ego-self is the effort or the struggle of awareness to objectify itself in order to then grasp itself and flee from contingency and groundlessness. For the Zen practitioner, the solution to the problem of death-in-life is not a struggle against the terror of death but rather the practice of terror endured. The Zen path recommends abiding (‘sitting’) in the anguish with simple awareness. This is askēsis as embodied deconstruction, a practice dedicated to the realisation that there is no lack because there has never been any inherently existing and autonomous self that stands separate from reality, an assault on the contradictory dualistic subject-object structure of the ego in ego-consciousness. Magid (2005) describes how an experience of emptiness is simply a non-resistance to the flow and transience of our lives. In mindfulness practice, the subject watches where she resists, letting things come and go. These nodes of resistance are forms of attachment. Non-attachment is an acceptance of impermanence and non-avoidance. Magid (2005:61-62) identifies this practice with the essentials of Zen meditation:

The analysis of our resistance to change, of our unwillingness to face, accept, or mourn the impermanence or limitations of our bodies, relationships, or understanding, becomes part and parcel of what we literally sit with in the zendo[ii].

For Magid (2005a:82-83), Zen practice challenges the dualistic pictures of self and other, self and world, body and mind, inner and outer that have subtly permeated Western philosophy, including psychoanalytic therapy and theory. Zen directly confronts and destabilizes Cartesian presuppositions of the essential interiority of the self – as well as any belief in a ‘true,’ ‘inner,’ or ‘essential,’ self or nature. The true self is non self: simply the immediate, non-self centred response to life as it is.

Contemporary expressions of Buddhism, including Zen communities of practice, have carried on a sensibility for the natural world first established by Shakymuna Buddha (the historical Buddha), who began his teaching ministry by leaving home and choosing to live with his followers in the forests of Northern India. For example, Haller (2009) reported that the San Francisco Zen Centre, one of the earliest and most influential practice sites in the West, had ties with influential figures in the ecological movement from the outset, including Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, and Paul Hawken, who has jointly developed the influential concept of natural capital in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (1999) co-authored with Amory Lovins. The San Francisco Zen Centre and two associated centres, Green Gulch and Tassahara, were established in quick succession during the 1970s. Green Gulch was converted to organic production with the explicit objective of learning to live off the land, living ‘less is more’, and challenging the prevailing culture of consumerism in the US. In doing so, the Zen students, priests and monks were integrating the first wave of Western Zen practice with countercultural themes of their times, which have now become highly influential questions for the dominant economic model in advanced industrialised societies. The early practitioners had set out to use Zen to (re)discover a way of valuing the materials available to them, and appreciating that ‘each tool was worthy of mindfulness, worthy of careful attention, acknowledging that this object could be a tool for a lifetime’ (Haller 2009). Haller adds:

We were aware that the very nature of mindful engagement in what we were doing would produce an economy of use…in contrast with consumerism, which gives us this false notion that we don’t have to be careful, that there is this endless abundance…that we can just simply consume, discard and start over.(Haller 2009)

For Haller (2009) the invitation to our times is to look deeply and insightfully and investigate, with a radical honesty, which elements of the status quo continue to serve our interests. He continues: ‘What is asked of us now is to touch deeply what is important…so deeply that we’ll be willing to bring forth the effort that is required to shift.’ The primary function of Zen is not to pose an enormous philosophical question that has to be absorbed and understood. First and foremost, the simple teaching of the Zen tradition is ‘come into the moment’:

The process and practice of Zen, of how to discover the capacity to be in the moment; how to translate the intention into the lived activity – that is the process of Zen. This is why we consider it a daily practice, on an ongoing basis. (Haller 2009)

The writer Philip Pullman (2008) has observed that environmentalists, essentially, tell a story about us and themselves and our place in the universe. 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 to us to be conscious of what we are doing to the world?’

The questions posed by ecological crises are, above all, a series of provocations. That’s why writers have detected that the scale and nature of the ecological crises invite us to revisit our most basic assumptions. Žižek (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…( Žižek 1995:34).

Echoing Wittgenstein, Žižek concludes that the ecological crisis bites into ‘objective certainty’, into the domain of self-evident certitudes about which, within our established ‘form of life’, it is simply meaningless to have doubts. It is impossible, nevertheless, to seriously maintain today that in some very important way we do not ‘know about’ these problems, according to John Maguire (1996). Were we to decide seriously to understand and tackle them, however, we would require ‘increased amounts of (differently framed) knowledge. Maguire (1996:171) believes that what prevents us from pursuing such action and such knowledge is not plausibly a lack of data:

It is much more centrally a failure to integrate those data, a failure to make them real to ourselves, to give them the proper frame.

How we frame knowledge and, subsequently, our responses to crises can be enclosed by the very problems and problematizing frames we are seeking to address. One example has been identified by Szasz (2007), who has described a ‘consumeristic response’ in the form of an ‘inverted quarantine’[iii]. This is a hyper-individualised response to risk, which, in contrast with the response of a social movement or collective protest, retreats to an attempt to isolate or contain the individual from a ‘toxic, illness-inducing’ environment, often through acts of consumption.  What is proposed here is a very different response. With Hattam (2004) and Bachelor (1997) I want to suggest the need for tools and techniques that counter the social conditions that can undermine individuals’ attempts to integrate knowledge and make it real, through the pursuit of ethical practices. Hattan (2004) suggests that Zen meditation (with which Erich Fromm conducted an extended dialogue (Suzuki, Fromm and de Martino 1960)), for example, should be regarded as a ‘technology of self’ (Foucault 1988) and a basis for an ethico-political life consistent with a culture of opposition to the logic of consumerism. Citing Foucault’s interest in askēsis (Foucault 1985), Hattan (2004:112) continues:

These knowledges are yet to be commodified, or tamed by the human sciences, and have as their modus operandi a form of consciousness that is the antithesis of the logic of capitalism (Hattan 2004:112)

Heidegger used the word Gestell (Gelvin 1989) to conjure up the image of the technological disclosure of all things under the sway of ‘instrumental rationality’. Informed by being as technology, people force nature to conform to their subjective needs and expectations. Affluent consumers are supported by an infrastructure of well armed imagineers. Whenever nature proves unsatisfactory for human purposes, people reframe it as they see fit and are seduced by a misplaced technological optimism (‘technology will save us’) associated today with an over investment in the rhetoric of ‘decoupling’ economic activity and environmental impacts. Heidegger saw that this drive towards a technological ‘reframing’ inevitably compels entities to be revealed in inappropriate ways. These transgressions have begun to rebound in a multitude of environmental crises as the limits of natural systems are overwhelmed by a rising tide of technological hubris concealed by an ego-centric forgetfulness that the world it [the ego] encounters is but one possible forced disclosure among many possibilities. The applied psy sciences have co-emerged and subsequently conspired to accelerate a concealment of the modern subject’s forgetfulness as a state of being; undermining the potential embrace of a life lived in the immediate, non-self-centred response to life as it is. This is not a path to a denial of materialism, but a path to a new intimacy with the material world, supported by a meditative knowledge of beholding, gratitude and easy relations with the contingency and impermanence of life. It is one of the paradoxes of the ecological crisis that our future might be secured (for now) by an act of letting go of foundational assumptions designed to distance us from the underlying contingency of life. Contemporary practices of askēsis, notably Zen practice, are invitations to embody a radical honesty that can hold the practitioner in this surrender while, paradoxically, supporting a mindful intimacy with the world and others.

[i] Uta Liebman Schaub (1990) has argued that there is an ‘Orientalist sub-text’ to be found in Foucault’s earliest writings, and that a particular influence can be traced to the Mahajana Buddhist tradition associated with Nāgārjuna. In 1982 he seemed to recall his visit to Japan, in comments that paid tribute to ‘cultures of silence’ (Foucault 1988).

[ii] Zendo is the traditional Japanese term referring to the meditation room.

[iii] Szasz (2007) uses the term ‘inverted quarantine’ to contrast the consumerist response with the traditional notion of quarantine, wherein individuals are isolated in order to prevent the spread of a disease or illness and maintain healthy overall conditions. Today, that logic is inverted insofar as individuals pursue individual protection within a system that is, itself, a source of environmental and health risks.

The individual is a relation of opposition

Foucault recognized that the convergence of power-knowledge-subjectivity suggested an alternative model of political ethics, ‘or an ethics of resistance to the proliferation of power’ (McGushin 2007:14), a resistance to political power established in the relation of the self to itself[i]. For if it is true that modern disciplinary power, normalizataion, and biopower function by producing individualities, then the practices of the self must represent an experience of ethical life that potentially resists those forces. Foucault determined if we are to take governmentality to mean a field of strategic relations of power, in the sense of relations that are mobile, transformable, reversible, then reflection on this operation of power cannot avoid operating, theoretically and practically, with the notion of a subject who would be defined by the rapport of the self to the self. While the theory of political power as institution ordinarily refers to a juridical conception of the subject of rights, it seemed to Foucault that any analysis of governmentality must refer to an ethic of the subject defined by the rapport of the self to itself. He saw relations of power, governmentality of self and others, and rapport of self to self, in a chain of relations to be articulated in the question of politics and the question of ethics (CdF82:241-242). The individual is a relation of opposition.

For Foucault, ‘Care of the self’ (epimēleia heautou) is an attitude of mind that combines one’s comportment within the world, with others and with the self. Most importantly in this context is the dimension of epimēleia, which refers to activities, practices and techniques. Care in the ancient context does not simply refer to a state of being. It is an activity: watching over, cultivating, protecting, improving. Foucault catalogued a number of these practices:

  • Techniques for concentrating the soul; and
  • The retreat or withdrawal, which entails both physical and mental withdrawal.

The relationship between the subject and truth in ‘care of the self’ is not dealt with as a question of how the subject is able to know the truth, including the truth about itself. Foucault, rather, sought to show that the relationship takes place within an experience he described as a form of ‘spirituality’ or ‘a transformation necessary in order to have access to the truth’ (CdF82: 16-17). Spirituality refers here to a particular form of care of the self which transforms one in the necessary way to gain access to the truth. The truth is available to the subject at a price that puts into play the very being of the subject itself. Other dimensions of spirituality are the resulting self-modification of the subject; and an uncovering of truth as a fulfilment or saving experience (McGushin 2007:39). Looking back from the time of modernity, Foucault acknowledged that it is difficult now for us to appreciate the experience of truth as a spiritual practice. McGushin (2007:41) notes:

For “modernity” – and this is what is most definitive of modernity according to Foucault – knowledge is understood as “access to a domain of objects”. Knowledge is objectivity. In order to acquire knowledge, even knowledge of oneself, one must apply the proper methods of thought, logic, analysis, and so on. The experience of knowledge as spiritual work, as the struggle to win access to truth which requires not simply method but self-transformation, and the experience of truth as fulfilment of the subject illuminated by it, no longer have any meaning.

The scapegoat for this modern shortcoming – if that is how we view it – is Descartes or what Foucault himself described as the Cartesian moment.

The Cartesian Moment

Descartes’ work marks a fundamental break between the ancient philosophy practised as a mode of spiritual inquiry and ‘knowledge’, and the detachment of the subject from spiritual practice as the ground of its access to truth. As a result of this event (McGushin 2007:192), access to the truth no longer requires ascetic self-transformation; rather it requires employing the proper method of reasoning. According to this new way of thinking, this new mode of perceiving oneself as a thinking being and of perceiving the world as something to be known, self-transformation no longer appears to be necessary in order for one to have access to the truth. McGushin summarises the nature of this vital break with the tradition of askēsis:

 The cogito is a mode of subjectivity that does not appear to be linked to any particular way of living. Truth for the cogito is grounded in “evidence”, not in an ēthos produced through askēsis; one arrives at knowledge by following the proper method of thought, not by living the proper kind of life. Finally, the truth that the cogito discovers does not take the form of salvation, of fulfilment. Instead of truth, what one acquires is knowledge, an accumulation of true statements about reality. Knowing does not lead to the saving experience of truth/being; rather, it is the infinite accumulation of knowledge about things/beings. (McGushin 2007:193)

At the same moment, political power took on a new function: its new operation is no longer to impose the law on abstract juridical subjects. Rather, it will invest individual bodies, controlling them by nurturing them, taking care of them, making them healthy and ‘happy’. McGushin (2007:238) explains:

In other words, politics itself, once it comes to be defined as biopolitics, is pastoral in nature. Biopower takes over the activity of care of the self.

The modern subject of care perceives itself through the biopolitical grid. The main function of biopolitics is to institute this mode of care of the self: it is through this definition of care of the self that individuals are able to be produced and controlled. Power functions by investing, defining, and caring for the body understood as a bio-economic entity. Freedom is defined in biological and economic terms.

We have now turned full circle and crashed through to another age of limits. In fifth century Athens, self-neglect lay at the foundation of political domination, spurring Plato and Socrates to initiate a resistance in the form of a philosophical art of the self. Thinking and living have become two distinct domains. The proper conduct of the mind has been reduced to a methodological problem. The question we now face is this: Is this a sufficient basis for the challenge of rethinking (reworking) our subjective (mind/body) responses to our biopolitical enclosure in the culture and politics of consumerism?


The work of Richard Shusterman suggests that Foucault’s insights on the importance of the subject (work on the self) as a departure point for our understanding of the formative role of power (and resistance) continues to speak to our political condition. He has set himself the heroic task of setting out a new disciplinary path that reopens the door of reason and restores the body and the ‘art of living’ to a central position in philosophical consideration. His ‘somaesthetics’ is premised on the observation that since we live, think, and act through our bodies – their study, care, and improvement should be at the core of philosophy, ‘especially when philosophy is conceived (as it used to be) as a distinctive way of life, a critical, disciplined care of the self that involves a self-knowledge and cultivation’ (Shusterman 2008:15). He provisionally defined his Somaesthetics as the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning. It would, therefore, also entail the pursuit of knowledge, discourses, practices, and bodily disciplines that structure such somatic care or improve it, thus correcting the functional performance of our senses by an improved direction of the body and senses. Shusterman (1999) also appeals to a continuity in the ancient philosophical tradition, citing Socrates’ (who engaged in regular dance training and simple living, and linked clear thinking to physical fitness), Aristippus, founder of the Cyrenaic School (who insisted that bodily training contributes to the acquisition of virtue), and Zeno, founder of Stoicism (who claimed that proper care of health and one’s organs of sense were unconditional duties). He also recognises the role of somatic training in contemporary practices associated with the pursuit of philosophical enlightenment, including Hatha Yoga, Zen meditation, and T’ai chi ch’uan, and cites the Japanese philosopher, Yuasa Yusuo, who insisted that the concept of ‘personal cultivation’ or shugyo is presupposed in Eastern thought as ‘the philosophical foundation’ (Shusterman 1999:3). In these traditions shugyo training is regarded as an essential bodily component on the path to ‘true knowledge’, which cannot be obtained simply by means of theoretical thinking. More recent Western body disciplines such as the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method also seek to improve the acuity, health, and control of our senses by cultivating heightened attention to and mastery of the somatic functioning, while also freeing practitioners from bodily habits and defects that impair sensory performance.

Shusterman (2008:37) wants to call our attention to everyday somatic pleasures such as breathing, stretching, and walking, and the possibility that these can be developed to produce experiences of great power and exaltation, as seen in the familiar yoga methods of pranayama and asana or in Buddhist disciplines of meditative sitting, walking, and dancing. He reminds us that the psychology of sensory perception means that the intensification of pleasure cannot simply be achieved by intensity of sensation. Sensory appreciation is typically dulled when blasted with extreme sensations:

Pleasure has a complicated logic; ascetics know how to get it by rejecting it. Yogis find its highest intensities not from the sensory explosions of narrow orgasms but rather from an emptiness that reveals its own empowering intensity and fullness.(Shusterman 2008:37)

He poses the question: In proposing an ‘ethics of pleasure’ doesn’t Foucault need a more careful ‘logic’ and ‘logistic’ of its central concept, a more refined and delicate appreciation of the diversities and subtleties of pleasure, including its more tender, gentle, and mild varieties? The question, of course, can also apply to the model of hedonism that lies at the heart of our consumer culture, fuelled by a media and advertising complex that can undermine our appreciation (attention to, appreciation of) ordinary pleasures and spur a demand for more intense stimulation, thus raising the threshold of what can be felt as satisfying, thus condemning too much of everyday life to joyless tedium. Citing the Weber-Fechner law[ii], Shusterman laments Western culture’s lust for ever greater intensities of somatic stimulation in the quest for happiness noting that it is a recipe for increasing dissatisfaction and difficulty in achieving pleasure, while our submission to such intensities dulls our somatic perception and consciousness. He believes that the culture’s sensationalist extremism both reflects and reinforces a deep somatic discontent that relentlessly drives us, yet is felt only vaguely, by our underdeveloped, insufficiently sensitive, and thus unsatisfied body consciousness. (Shusterman 2008:38-39) Perhaps with some irony, Shusterman concludes that while some regard Foucault’s bodily pursuits as dreadfully deviant, his ahedonia and extremism clearly express a common trend in late-capitalist Western culture… ‘whose unquestioned economic imperative of ever-increasing of ever-increasing growth also promotes an unquestioned demand for constantly greater stimulation, ever more speed and information, ever stronger sensations and louder music’ (Shusterman 2008:39). The result is:

…a pathological yet all too common need for hyperstimulation in order to feel that one is really alive, a problem that is expressed not only in substance addiction but also in a host of other increasingly psychosomatic ills that range from the violence of self-mortification (such as cutting) to the passive nightly torture of insomnia. (Shusterman 2008:39-40)

Western modernity has essentially confined the philosophical project to the analysis and critique of sensory propositional judgements that defines traditional epistemology. The complementary route offered by somaesthetics is to correct the actual performance of our senses by an improved direction of one’s body, since the senses belong to and are conditioned by the soma. If the body is our primordial instrument in grasping the world, then we can learn more of the world by improving the conditions and use of this instrument. Shusterman agrees that Foucault’s seminal vision of the body as a malleable site for inscribing social power reveals the crucial role the soma can play in political philosophy and the question of justice. It offers a way of understanding how complex hierarchies of power can be widely exercised and reproduced without any need to make them explicit in laws or to enforce them officially; they are implicitly observed and enforced simply through our bodily habits of feeling that have bodily roots. Entire ideologies of domination can thus be covertly materialized and preserved by enclosing them in somatic social norms that, as bodily habits, are typically taken for granted and so escape critical consciousness. (Raúl Quiñone Rosado’s 2007)

[i] CDF82, p.241.

[ii] The Weber-Fechner law of psychophysics holds that a smaller stimulus can be noticed more clearly and easily if the already pre-existing stimulation experienced by the stimulated organ is small. Conversely, the threshold for noticing a sensation will be so much the larger, the greater the pre-existing stimulation is.