We are all aware we are living in turbulent times where the ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet.
Old assumptions are being challenged, while new ways of making sense of it all are yet to crystalise. This is a time when we need to find a new story to make sense of our lives—a philosophy of regenerative living. We need to follow in the footsteps of the farmers who are transitioning to regenerative agriculture to recover from the ravages of the previous ideas of industrial agriculture—clear felled land clearing, mono-cropping, application of chemical fertilisers, draining the aquifers of our waterways to feed relentless irrigation—all to intensify the extraction of productivity from the land in the name of profit and efficiency. Slowly we are learning this is a recipe for long term destruction.
We can’t always name it, but we are seeing the same pattern across many dimensions of our lives, which the COVID epidemic has highlighted.
The world is changing significantly around us—climate change, pandemics, environmental issues, rising wealth inequality, housing crisis and insecure work—challenges to the very viability of political democracies and the role of government along with the extractivist basis of our modern economic system.
The fundamental epistemological framework (knowledge system by which we make sense of our world) that has shaped modern culture, and the great triumph of Western Civilisation, is being challenged as fit for purpose.
First Nations knowledge systems are offering us a new relationist epistemology—challenging the dominant Western dualistic frameworks of mind/body; sacred/mundane; religion/science; human/nature; male/female. Instead it calls for a radical sense of relationism across all life forms and the natural environment, as part of how we make sense of ourselves and our world as expressed in the idea of ‘Caring for Country.’
Order Out of Chaos
It is like at this moment in the history of humanity we are at an inflection point of instability where new possibilities/perspectives can emerge, both good and bad.
I am fortunate. Although I am not a scientist and have had no scientific or mathematical education, I was led through circumstance to become interested, as a sociologist, in how technology was acting as major force in changing society. This in turn led me to undertake a masters degree in science and technology studies, which in turn led me to read about the history and philosophy of science from Aristotle through Newton’s mechanical universe to Einstein and the emergence of quantum mechanics, complexity theory and the idea of self organisation.
Tracking these developments in science were robust discussions in philosophy, the humanities and the social sciences, as scientific discoveries were forcing us to change the way we understand the nature of reality, with implications across all fields of knowledge.
In his analysis of the evolution of western ways of thinking, Richard Tarnas (Cosmos and Psyche, 2006) has suggested that the triumph of modernity, which proceeded from Copernicus and the European Enlightenment into Isaac Newton and the age of science and rationality, has resulted in a world view whereby the human individual sees himself/herself as a subject that is radically separated from an objective world, which is seen to exist independently of human experience of it.
Although modern science has deconstructed this idea and recognizes that all experience arising from sensory perception is actually cognitively constructed, the ‘common-sense’ view of an objectively real world ‘out there’ that can be known independent of human subjectivity is deeply embedded in the modern mind-set.
This mind-set can be sharply contrasted with that of the primal world-view of pre-industrial, pre-scientific societies, whereby the human individual is seen as embedded in a relational world of subjective participation where there are no absolute boundaries between subjects and objects.
This pre-industrial mindset is now proving pertinent to insights from new quantum science, which have yet to be integrated into our ‘common sense’ understanding of our world. From their work in fluid dynamics, Isabelle Stengers and Ilya Priogine, Order Out of Chaos, (1984) showed how the complex relationships between the macroscopic and the microscopic in modern science were exploding the old certainties of the Newtonian physics that underpinned the social sciences. They showed in this work how a steady state equilibrium depends on controlled parameters and when these are pushed further and further from this steady state it leads to a thermodynamic break, a bifurcation point when we see either a collapse into entropy, or an evolution into a new order.
Human societies and civilisations reveal many such periods of non-equilibrium that led to entropy (collapse), or to bifurcation through radical change and the evolution of new forms of political and economic activity. The present world order, dominated by Western culture, evolved from the age of European imperialism and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, right through the major points of instability in WWI and WWII, and the emergence of a globally integrated capitalist economic system, in which so-called liberal democratic political systems have been the most successful.
This world order is now being pushed further and further into disequilibrium and we are approaching new points of bifurcation on multiple dimensions—political, economic, social and cultural.
The science of complexity reveals nature’s capacity for self organisations at both macro and microscopic levels, so that as Stengers and Prigogine put it, such is the wealth of reality which overflows any single language, any single logical structure, that each language can express only part of reality. The search for a theory of everything flies in the face of this truth.
The reality studied by modern physics is a mental construct; it is not merely given. Absolute objectivity is an illusion. It is impossible to get outside the system and look at it. We are inherently in the system, searching for different ways to make sense of things.
Stengers and Prigogine were led to conclude that: ‘societies are immensely complex systems involving a potentially enormous number of bifurcations exemplified by the variety of cultures that have evolved in the relatively short span of human history. We know that such systems are highly sensitive to fluctuations. This leads to both hope and threats; hope since even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. We need to understand that it is the nature of the world we live in that the idea of stable, permanent rules governing any system seems gone forever’ (p.313).
For those of us who long for certainty and stability, particularly those of us in the West who have benefited from the modern world order, at the expense of many others—the colonised and dispossessed, the cultures fractured by imperialism such as the Middle East, the slaves of Africa who built the wealth for their ‘white’ owners, the lumpen proletariat of the capitalist economy, the cheap labor of the Third World— this can feel very unsettling. It is why we see this backlash of ‘white nationalism’ who feel that the promise of the success of their culture’s past glories is being taken from them as the dream of middle class prosperity, endlessly projected by advertising, eludes so many. And so we have the politics of populist rage in its many forms from ISIS to Sovereign Citizens.
Capitalism, including in its latest manifestation of techno-capitalism is fundamentally extractivist. It seeks to extract value in the forms of productivity and profit from the land, the factory farming of animals, the factory fishing of wild seafoods, destruction of the habitats of other life forms for human agriculture and settlement, and from human labour—from modern day slavery to wage theft and the role of the precariat in the gig economy as a ‘just in time’ workforce, from human feeling and emotions through advertising-driven consumerism, indebtedness and the pseudo-spiritualisation of work. It is a relentless commodification that belies the dream of a middle class life as the social norm of a successful modern society.
We are searching for a new way, away from this relentless extractivism towards a new praxis based on the idea of regenerative living.
You can see this emerging on many fronts:
- New economic thinking, ideas about a zero-waste circular economy and the systems perspective of permaculture
- Ethical investment, away from maximising returns to long term benefit, not only for private investors, but also the big superannuation funds, driven by member demands
- A new appreciation of community and what it takes to support community resilience, vibrancy and wellbeing
- Linking human health to planetary health
- Finding ways to resolve the tension between the so-called loneliness/anxiety epidemic of extreme individualism, and the longing of many for community connectedness and a sense of belonging
- Away from mindless consumerism, recognising how the economic system commodifies everything in its path including our innermost feelings and sense of identity, our capacity to sustain attention in the very addictive design of the technologies of connection and entertainment—the so-called ‘attention economy’
Quotes for Reflection
A human being is part of the whole called by us ‘the universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.[i]
In the natural history of the living human being, ontology and epistemology cannot be separated. His [commonly unconscious] beliefs about what sort of world it is [ontology] will determine how he sees it [epistemology] and acts within it, and his ways of perceiving and acting will determine his beliefs about its epistemological and ontological premises which—regardless of ultimate truth or falsity—become partially self-validating for him.[ii]
The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in the pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. The larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by ‘God’, but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology. [iii]
Our worldview is not simply the way we look at the world: it reaches inwards to shape our innermost sense of being. It deeply configures our psychic and somatic experience, the patterns of our sensing, knowing and interacting with our world.[i]
We need to understand the limitations of human thought, as well as a deep realization of the existence of pure awareness beyond thought, wherein lies the source of all true insight, intelligence and creativity.
Language imposes strong, subtle pressures to see the world as fragmented and static: thought tends to create fixed structures in the mind (reifications), which can make dynamic entities seem to be static. There is really no such thing as a thing: all objects are dynamic processes, rather than static forms.[iv]
In the very act of interpreting the universe we are creating the universe: we are the totality of our meanings.
Bohm suggests that each perception of a new meaning by human beings actually changes the over-all reality in which we live and have our existence—sometimes in far-reaching ways, so that ‘reality’ is never complete.
For this reason, once society, the individual and relationships are seen to mean something different, a fundamental change has taken place in our lived reality—thus how we interpret the world and act on those interpretations shapes our world in every sense.[v]
[i] Albert Einstein, ‘Ideas and Opinions’, quoted in Weber, ed., Dialogues with Scientists and Sages, 1954, page 203
[ii] Gregory Bateson, Steps to An Ecology of Mind, 2000, page 314, also from ‘The Social Matrix of Psychiatry’, 1951.
[iii]Gregory Bateson, op.cit, page 317
[i] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 1991, Ballatine Books
[iv] David Bohm, Unfolding Meaning: A Weekend of Dialogue with David Bohm, London, Ark, 1987, pages 73-91
[v] The Essential David Bohm, 2003
The Mental Health Crisis in Modern Society
There is increasing concern about the rise in anxiety and depression in modern society across all age groups, but particularly among young people, along with suicide in middle aged men, and the ongoing impact of intergenerational trauma among Australia’s First Nations’s peoples as a result of widespread racism, violence and the history of dispossession of land, culture and language at the core of personal identity and wellbeing. Rage politics is on the rise, and the scourge of domestic violence perpetrated by men shows no signs of abatement because its root causes remain unaddressed in our culture of masculinity.
Some are suggesting that the disruptions to our normal patterns of life and expectations about health caused by the global COVID pandemic over the last two years have increased anxiety in the community—from a heightened sense of physical vulnerability to a silent, highly infectious disease, and constraints on our ability to gather together as social beings. We have no longer been free to enjoy the simple pleasures most generations and cultures across human time have taken for granted: to dance, sing, show and receive affection, or just be together.
People are complaining about feeling exhausted from the stresses and strains of managing the COVID epidemic—not only the health and aged care staff who’ve been working long hours in uncomfortable protective clothing, and those who’ve lost income and work, but even others able to work from the comfort of their own homes—albeit often having to manage home schooling of children.
At the same time we are subject to the slow burn of the impact of climate change from global warming—the realisation that it is not in the distant future, but lapping at our feet right now in the form of severe drought followed by devastating floods, of raging bushfires, coastal inundation threatening luxury coastal homes and the very viability of whole islands in the Torres Straight. Young people feel despair that their elders—the generation of their parents and grandparents—are not looking after their future, but clinging on to old ideas that benefited them and their wealth.
Many have lost trust in the integrity of government and the ‘experts’. A daily dose of cynical political messaging that seeks to play on our fears and hopes has reduced trust in the media which has become hostage to politicised opinions mouthed by people with no lived experience of any of the issues it pretends to understand. There is so much information pollution in the air, that confusion and mistrust reign supreme.
Where do we turn in such a climate of mistrust and anxiety?
A Philosophy of Regenerative Living
From the Ashes of Extractivist Capitalism
This is the journey we are on. First Nations people tell us that when we look after Country, Country will look after us. A Gundungurra Elder in the Blue Mountains describes the meaning of Country (Ngurra) as:
“It takes in everything within the cultural and spiritual landscape – landforms, water, air, trees, rocks, plants, animals, foods, medicine, minerals, stories and significant places. It includes Cultural practices, Knowledge, songs, stories and art as well as Spiritual beings and people, present and future. Ngurra has a deep meaning of belonging.”
What does this mean in the practice of our daily lives, in how we experience ourselves as individuals, members of family, and members of our community, particularly for non-Indigenous people in Australia, the settlers from so many lands who comprise over 95 percent of our total population? What is our journey in building this sense of connection to the landscape and all its lifeforms, to the sky and to the ocean?
- What does ‘regenerative’ mean across all the dimensions of our lives—not just resilience to cope with shocks, but regeneration in the way that the Australian bush comes alive again after a fire?
- How do we describe our cultural and spiritual landscape? First Nations people have never been able to understand the Western way of removing spirituality from daily life and relationship with all lifeforms into something called ‘religion’. What does spirituality mean for us as a feeling, as an understanding of our innermost sense of being?
- What are the stories we need to tell about how we relate to the land and its lifeforms, and to one another in family and community to enable us to embrace a philosophy of regenerative living?
- What does a non-extractivist economic system look like? How does it function locally, regionally, nationally and internationally?
- What are our significant places and why are they significant?
- What are the knowledge frameworks we need to develop—in psychology, in economics, in sociology and cultural studies, in the way we use scientific and technological knowledge, in political systems of governance?
- What artforms do we practice that give voice to our understanding, to our knowledges about regenerative living?
- Where do we find our innermost sense of belonging, to overcome the creeping sense of alienation that pervades the modern world?
Insights from the Buddhist View
The Buddhist view privileges a human birth as most precious because it brings with it the possibility of a consciousness that can interrogate and escape its own inherent trap of conceptual grasping (reification inherent in conceptual intelligence)—through the realisation of its own inherent self-knowing rigpa (wisdom intelligence).
However this idea of the preciousness of a human birth can lead to a certain bias and dualistic relationship with other life forms as self/other.
On the other hand, the Buddhist view also points to the indivisible union of the empty essence (the great openness) and all arising appearances—both mental and physical, through co-dependent origination, of cause and effect on a myriad of dimensions—a profoundly relationist viewpoint. It points to a felt world experience of constant flow, of impermanence, which is yet pervaded by unborn, unceasing, pervasive wisdom awareness. This idea of flow is also common to the Daoist view. As Bohm has pointed out, it is a trick of language that we ‘see’ things when in actuality there is no such thing as a ‘thing’—all is dynamic process.
Through the practice of meditation, we learn how to examine the way thoughts and emotions flow through the mind, and how to let go of any tendency to freeze them as if they had a permanent basis in our mind. Slowly we become more and more free of the paralysing aspect of hope and fear that have governed our lives, filling us with expectations and their companion, failure.
The trick is neither to try to prevent them flowing in the mind, nor to try to prolong them into a fixed state. Instead we allow them to flow through our awareness like the sound of a bell ringing. Once we gain some stability in this, we find we can rest in a sense of open awareness that is not entangled with the thoughts and emotions that arise in our mind. It takes practice and there are many methods used to assist us. Such as resting our attention on the breath as it flows in and out, particularly using the outbreath to ‘let go’ with a gentle sigh. Or we can use a mantra, a verse of sacred syllables that creates a subtle vibration in our body. Or we can rest our attention on a object, such as an image, or if we are sitting in nature, on anything pleasing to our senses. Slowly we realise that our minds are not just thoughts and emotions, but behind them is a field of open awareness, which in the tradition of Buddhism that I have followed is known as rigpa (timeless wisdom awareness).
Learning how to rest in this all-pervasive self-knowing awareness enables us to develop an increasing capacity to experience an openness of perspective, a sensibility that is alive to emergent possibilities hovering in this space of concept-free awareness.
This awareness is informed by the way we bear witness to the world around us in all its many manifestations through study and reflection (intellectual effort), and is alive to a compassionate energy that is unlimited, all penetrating and unceasing, but replete with the five aspects of wisdom knowing (clarity, discernment, equanimity, courageous action and all encompassing spaciousness). These five aspects are represented iconographically in the mandala of the Five Buddhas: clarity (Vajra), discernment (Padma), equanimity (Ratna), courageous action (Karma) and all encompassing spaciousness (Buddha).
Through this meditative training, and particularly through a practice in my tradition known as guru yoga, working experientially with one’s chosen wisdom teacher, we come to know an aspect of our inner being that becomes our refuge—an aspect often called our Buddha Nature, which is present in all of us, no matter what sort of delusory behaviour and thought patterns we might have fallen into.
This profound sense of inner refuge is what many people seek in their spiritual or religious life and is the impulse behind the human desire for a spiritual as well as a material dimension to their lives., which we find in all cultures.
I wrote about my own journey on the Buddhist path in my memoir, Call of the Dakini (available @amazon.com.au) which I wrote and self-published during the two years of COVID disruption—a journey that began for me in my late thirties while I was also doing post graduate studies in science and technology. I had been interested in the Buddhist view ever since reading Peter Mattheissen’s wonderful book, The Snow Leopard (1998), a journey into the Himalayas after the death of his beloved wife. My own journey began in earnest when I met the Tibetan lama who would become my lifelong spiritual teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, during a talk he gave at the University of Wollongong in 1985 on how to turn suffering and happiness into enlightenment, which forms part of the cycle of compassion teachings in his Nyingma tradition.
I have always been impressed by the way that First Nations peoples claim the spiritual as part of their relationship to Country without any sense of self-consciousness or apology. For them it is inconceivable that the material and the spiritual can be regarded as somehow separate. Finding a way to bring the spiritual into our lives, free of religious dogma, of a tendency towards bias and sectarianism in thinking our particular spiritual path is best, or the only valid path, is an important part of weaving this new story of regenerative living.
History has shown us that religious passion can be a dangerous beast when it is linked to politics and vengeful righteousness. Evidence of this is all too prevalent. Yet a world devoid of the spiritual does not speak to our sense of inner being that hungers for this dimension, and which has informed so much of the creative expression of our humanity down through the ages.