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

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

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

Petra Kelly, founder of the German Green Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foucault zen
Michel Foucault pratising meditation in a Japanese Zen Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *