A contemplative response to the chaos around us
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
We are living in tense and difficult times. Politics have become unpredictable and authoritarianism is on the rise throughout the world, with fewer and fewer bastions of liberal democracy left standing.
The income gap between top earners and the vast majority has grown to absurd proportions even while the cost of living skyrockets for most people.
While billionaires grab oligarchical control over economies and political systems, average people are under increasing stress. Some 40% of Americans, citizens of supposedly the richest country on earth, do not have $400 for an emergency, and 60% cannot cover an unexpected expense of $1000.
And of course there is climate change—not a distant threat coming some time late in this century, but a clear and present danger today that is displacing vulnerable communities in the Arctic, Bangladesh and other front-line areas, causing insufferable heatwaves all across the globe and threatening the global food system. This year’s extreme rainfalls in the U.S. farm belt, followed by scorching heat waves, are just a small taste of what’s to come.
The effects will hit us all, no one, not even the ultra rich, will be able to insulate themselves forever from nature’s revenge for our extravagant lifestyles and the rapacious global economic system.
It seems that almost everything is vulnerable to collapse and we are likely to be threatened politically, economically, and physically from now into the indefinite future.
We will all have to find a way to respond.
Options include sticking your head in the sand and pretending that life will just go on as you’ve been used to; or acknowledging the changes that are taking place but working harder to try to make more money and somehow pay your way out of reaping the whirlwind; or giving up in despair—after all there’s are reasonably priced single malts that will help you escape reality.
Perhaps a better reaction, an empowering response, is to think about what kind of lifestyles and what kind of societies and political systems could emerge from the wreckage.
And let’s just assume for a moment that some kind of super high tech green economy with glowing futuristic cities thriving under protective domes managed by benign philosopher kinds isn’t going to be it. Let’s assume that because the dream that technology will save us is nonsense. Water shortages, crop failures, killer heat waves, dying oceans, widespread species extinction, civil wars, mass climate induced migration, and economic crises—this is the reality. We’re seeing the beginnings now and the process will only accelerate.
There’s no time, no energy, and not even the political will to invest in a green high tech future—not even in the developed countries that could plausibly make a go of it, to say nothing of the rest of the world—most of the world—that stands no chance.
No one has a good answer to the question of what a sustainable civilization that succeeds this dying industrial civilization might look like. Certainly not the politicians and business leaders of today. The elites will surely try as long as possible to keep this system afloat—after all, it is designed to benefit them and pretty much them alone. The winners of today don’t want to become the losers of tomorrow, although they certainly will be.
In the meantime, the rest of us have a wonderful opportunity, because as it becomes increasingly clear to more and more people realize that the present system can only provide them with a bleak future of economic hardship, unsatisfying and underpaid work, and the prospect that the very ecological foundations of life are being eroded, making it all the worse for their kids and grandkids.
It makes more sense to start to think outside the box. To experiment. To reflect deeply. And to figure out what is actually important—that is to say, to develop more conative intelligence or wisdom: to become smarter and wiser about what we are motivated to do, to achieve, to organize our lives around.
One thing that can be said with certainty is that our civilization has directed its focus outward. That is to say, we have become exceptionally good at manipulating the outside world. Our science is unsurpassed, our capacity to build machines unprecedented, our ability and willingness to alter the natural world simply unparalleled in human history. We blanket the globe with our bodies, our crops and domestic animals, our cities and highways and cars and factories, and our bodies.
The obsessive focus on manipulating and controlling the outer world and reaping material rewards has come at the expense of cultivating our inner worlds. Introspection and the cultivation of attention skills, insight, and wisdom receive no support at all in modern, industrial societies. We don’t support contemplatives and do very little to even ensure the sanity of our children—children who are canaries in a coal mine for the mental health of our society as a whole, and who are on prescription anti-depressants, drugs for ADHD, and self medicating with illicit drugs, marijuana and alcohol like never before.
Whatever society will inherit the damaged earth that we leave them, if it’s going to succeed it will surely have to change the emphasis. Instead of conquering, controlling and ultimately destroying the outer world, a sustainable society will have to be composed of people who have learned again to live and work with nature, who can listen to the primordial messages of the natural world and who cultivate their inner worlds through introspective contemplation.
There is no better time than now to begin to imagine such a society, and to adopt the habits of a contemplative life in our own lives to the greatest extent possible.
Here are some ideas for how to respond sanely to the unfolding chaos around us:
1. Find ways to simplify your life. Downsize. Consider moving into a smaller, less expensive space. Consider the possibility of adopting a minimalist lifestyle. Dabble with it or go all in. What would it be like to have few possessions? Would it be freeing? How would it affect the way you live your life? Is this a better way to live and how would it be if we all lived simpler lives with few possessions?
2. Find ways to share material objects rather than buy and own them. The sharing economy is popping up all around. From cars to tools, people are connecting to share rather than buy and own. Not only does it save money, it’s an increasing necessity on a resource depleted planet.
3. Rethink your life’s purpose, and if you’ve never really spent much time thinking about the purpose of your life, do so now. Is what you are chasing really meaningful? Will it lead to a fulfilled life if you achieve it? Will it lead to deep, lasting happiness, or just a passing satisfaction?
4. Practice frugality for a set period of time, like a month. Don’t buy anything you don’t absolutely need. Eat a simple diet. Don’t go to restaurants or bars. Delete the Amazon app on your phone. When the time has passed, what lessons have you learned?
5. If you haven’t cultivated a meditation practice, spend a month doing so. If you live near a Buddhist center (you probably do, even if you don’t know it) why not go for a visit and see if you can get some formal mediation training? Learn about the different types of meditation. Slowly begin your practice, and as you do so, connect with other meditators either in person or online.
6. Read a thought provoking, serious book. It could be philosophy or theology, cosmology or a book of dharma. Read to gain depth and insight.
We don't have to be slaves to the economic system, we don't have to be subjects to our political overlords, and we don't need to accept a poverty of inner resources just because the world we grew up in didn't value them. We can begin to create a new and better world, starting with ourselves.