Blue Mountains Creative Arts Network—Open Day
As part of our commitment to connecting creatives across the Greater Blue Mountains, we are holding our 2022 Open Day on Saturday 30 April at the Gallery H complex at Dargan on the northern side of the Blue Mountains National Park, where the border between the local government areas of Blue Mountains City Council and those of Lithgow City Council meet, and the meeting place of Darug and Wiradjuri Country. Our theme is ENGAGE CREATE REGENERATE, as we join together to celebrate the power of the arts to shape a new vision of regenerative living. Artists will contribute paintings and sculpture; Kenny King and the Antelope Trio musicians will contribute live music, Monkey Creek Cafe will provide us with food and drinks, and Jo Davies from BANC will talk with Dr Paul Rhodes about the power of art and eco-psychology to respond to the challenges of our time.
The Creative Arts—visual arts, film, music, dance, theatre, storytelling—and their various fusions and hybrid forms, have the emotional power to communicate to our longing for meaning in understanding our world. We are in search of a new meaning framework, as we reach a cultural inflection point in the face of:
- The deep psychic wound at the heart of Australia in dealing with the physical, social and epistemic violence of colonial settlement on Australia’s First Nations peoples, and our failed response to their invitation in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to non-Indigenous Australians, “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future, through Truth, Treaty and a Voice to Parliament”
- Global warming with the global temperature of the Earth predicted to rise well above 2 degrees Celsius on our current trajectory of carbon emissions, leading to increasingly catastrophic impacts of climate change from industrialisation linked to the use of fossil fuels
- Environmental degradation caused by industrial-scale practices such as land clearing, mono-agriculture and use of chemicals, extraction of water resources from rivers and underground aquifers, large-scale mining, plastic pollution and waste management
- Societal breakdown in so-called advanced industrial economies linked to increasing wealth inequality, insecure work, insecure housing, rising mental health problems, loss of capacity and effectiveness in public services, loss of public trust in political and business leaders, and the rise of information pollution and conspiracy thinking infecting the body politic
- Big Tech and Platform Capitalism – the power of technology and tech conglomerates over human society as we become the ‘data’ for data mining, the new growth industry where our lives are increasingly mediated for profit maximisation and propaganda.
- Growing tech vision of transhumanism as we become impacted by sophisticated brain-machine interfaces, smart algorithms, and biochemical devices, and tech billionaires sell their dreams of colonising the planets and defeating death and old age.
From the agony of this situation, we are being urgently called upon to pivot from this paradigm of industrial civilisation, based on consumer driven economic growth and wealth extraction, to a new paradigm of eco-civilisation based on a philosophy of regenerative living.
The following part of this post draws on Zac Walsh’s article, “Contemplating the More-than-Human Commons”, published in Dharma, Degrowth and Climate Change, Vol5, no.1, and in the Arrow Journal.
The Failure of Misused Rationality
“Because climate change contests and reconfigures long-standing distinctions between the human, social, and natural sciences, the anthropocentric worldviews that have afforded humanity an exceptional identity and status must now give way to more embodied and situated knowledge-practices that view humanity in ecological terms. Expanding the notion of stewardship beyond anthropocentric lenses thus expands the discipline of political economy beyond the human sciences to the life sciences” (Zac Walsh).
It also challenges ‘scientism’ the ideology that only that information that can be known through the scientific method and mathematical measurement is valid, which has drivn disciplines like psychology down a narrow pathway of behavioural management that ignores the situational context of psychological distress, and driven economics down a blind alley of abstracted mathematical models that increasing have nothing to say about ‘the real world’.
Economics, unlike the humanities, champions itself as a ‘scientific’ discipline using mathematical models to describe and predict economic activity. What cannot be incorporated into its models are hived off as ‘externalities’ as the models have proved ever more incapable of describing or predicting anything meaningful.
Increasingly the public looks at the prognostications of economists that dominate today’s media, the world of business, and the Public Service as ‘the emperor with no clothes’—utterly devoid of integrity or common sense. When Treasury tells voters we have at least 11% more disposable income than 2 years ago, with businesses and household adding more than $180 billion and $250 billion to the amount of cash they have on hand, the lived experience of the majority is that this largesse is enjoyed by a very small percentage of households and businesses, many of who were massively overcompensated during the COVID pandemic handouts.
The hyper individualism of neo-liberal economics with its belief in the liberating powers of free markets has not only denuded our ability to fund public goods such as health, education, transport and infrastructure, it has also disconnected the idea of ‘individual human rights’ from the idea of ‘social responsibility’.
The new story of regenerative living displaces the dominance of economics as the secular ‘priesthood’ of modern society. It demands a much more ‘joined-up’ public policy discourse that no longer talks about a ‘care economy’ versus a ‘wealth-creation economy’, or focuses on debts and deficit instead of the total society value resulting from expenditure, and what the public gets from taxation, instead of hollow promises to keep reducing it—invariably continuing to shift wealth to the already wealthy. In Australia, we worry about paying for aged care or raising Job Seeker to at least the poverty line, while little scrutiny or outrage by the economic priesthood commentariat is attached to the $5.5b cost of submarines never built; the billions spent on keeping refugees and asylum seekers tortured offshore or locked in hotel rooms; and the design of a COVID rescue package to business that did not allow for money to be reclaimed when it was proven it was not required and instead was spent on shareholders or executive payments.
And we wonder why cynicism and conspiracy thinking stalks the land.
What is remarkable about adherents to conspiracy thinking groups such as QAnon and the anti-vax movement, is that the psychological drivers for their rejection of collectives such as ‘government’ is a search for meaning and belonging, a deep desire to search for the hidden ‘truth’ and a sense of shared purpose in belonging to a group that shares this with them. Fuelled by the growing distrust of media commentators who mostly live on secure high incomes and governments that protect the wealthy, the movement is riddled with messianic religious thinking that marks their group off as ‘special’, the chosen ones whom ‘God’ will not abandon.
It has much in common with the messianic and reductive thinking that underpins Islamic fundamentalism in ISIS and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Thanks to the power of social media and the technological manipulation of images, the level of information pollution infecting society now equals the worst of air pollution impacting cities such as Delhi in India—with the same pernicious impact on our physical and mental health.
New Ways of Thinking
I’ve been a student-practitioner in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition since 1988, when I took the Tibetan lama, Sogyal Rinpoche as my teacher and became closely involved in the development of his worldwide network, Rigpa. As well as attending retreats in Australia and Europe at Lerab Ling, Rigpa’s international retreat centre, I also spent time in New Zealand supporting Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche, the reigning tulku of Ju Mohor Monastery in the remote Sershul County of Sichuan Province China, then a refugee seeking New Zealand citizenship. I travelled with him to Tibet in 2004, experiencing Tibetan culture in the remote nomadic grasslands. Between 2006 and 2009 I undertook a three year retreat at Lerab Ling, where I was able to combine sustained immersion in Buddhist practice with a study of Buddhist philosophy and the lives of some of the great spiritual masters, which I later captured in my book, Tulkus, Tertons, Turmoil: East Tibet 1855-1955
My immersion in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition provided me with a window into mytho-poetic ways of experiencing life, something that is a feature of the knowledge systems of Australia’s First Nations peoples, as captured in their songlines and what is glossed in the English language as the ancient Law/Lore of ‘the Dreaming’—past and ever present, a distinctly non-linear concept of time that accords with the rhythms of nature’s ecosystems, rather than the clocks of linear time-making that rules industrial civilisation.
As I describe in my memoir, Call of the Dakini (2021), at the same time as I was experiencing this deep immersive journey into mytho-poetic ways of knowing, I was also undertaking a master’s degree in science and technology studies. This helped me to understand the way in which the Western mechanistic vision of life that was birthed by the 17th century Scientific Revolution, associated with Newtown’s Principia Mathematica, had replaced the spiritual idea of ‘God’ as the creative force of the universe with the universal mechanical laws of mathematics.
Western culture henceforth developed a schizophrenic relationship with reality—an inner personal idea of an all powerful outer ‘God’ based on faith that lay beyond scientific proof, largely in control of what happens to us after death, which is set against a coldly rational utilitarian view of worldly reality enshrined in the idea of ‘rational economic man’ espoused by the empirical philosopher David Hume. Thus political leaders of ‘faith’ in Liberal Western Democracies seemingly have no difficulty espousing and pursuing policies in the ‘real world’, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the professed values and principles of their Christian faith.
Interestingly enough, it is my journey into Tibetan Buddhism that has enabled me to escape this schizophrenic framing of reality. As a committed empiricist, Hume did not believe in a unified and continuous “self”; rather he believed that the self is an illusion generated through a chain of perceptions that result in a feeling of personal identity. While this accords with Buddhist understanding based on the contemplative investigation of the idea of ‘self’, Hume failed to link this to the spiritual insight of Buddhism, the idea of ‘shunyata’—that reality arises as the indivisible union of emptiness with appearances, both physical and psychic, and that this inner realisation can be directly experienced through meditative training with an experienced spiritual teacher.
In this way the idea of ‘God’ as an outer creative force is brought within, as an active aspect of personal agency and a lived experience of a sense of inter-being with all of creation. Such a realisation frees one from the tendency to ‘double down’ on concepts and beliefs as something fixed. Instead one develops a greater ability to live in dynamic flow with reality as it changes moment by moment.
In our text based culture, we often fail to realise that the words we use to encapsulate reality are ‘labels’—mere designations. Not the ‘reality’ itself. For example we label certain physical feelings and emotions as ‘anxiety’ as if the word ‘anxiety’ is the only valid way of describing such experience, denying the way other cultures have ‘labelled’ similar phenomena in a different way—setting us on the path of cultural arrogance and blindness.
‘Tibetan Buddhism uses a rich repertoire of ceremony, ritual, poetic imagery, movement and sound to support ways of experiencing reality as lived experience that seeks to break through this tendency to get trapped in labels, to reify experience this way. There is a similarity here with the role of the arts in the songlines ceremonies of Australia’s First Nations cultures. As the art curator Hetti Perkins reminds us, ceremony is at the nexus of Country, of culture and of community in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, taking us into deeper and deeper layers of meaning and knowledge.
However, coming from a Western rational tradition that dualistically splits off spiritual experience into another domain, it takes some time for a Westerner to undertake this journey in re-framing our way of experiencing ourselves and the world around us, especially as we encounter the challenges of climate change and the ‘failure’ of the Western industrial paradigm’s schizophrenic Faustian bargain between utilitarianism and ‘God’.
It takes a reckoning with the deep hold that dominant dualistic Western epistemology (ways of thinking and knowledge systems) has on the unconscious way we make sense of the world. As my friend, the anthropologist Inge Riebe says, we have to crack the knowledge code of ontology (our view of reality), epistemology (the knowledge system based on this ontology), and axiology (the values system encoded in this knowledge system).
Climate change and environmental destruction is challenging quiescent Buddhism
For many, the focus on the meditative methods of Buddhism, which have now become mainstream through the mindfulness movement in Western psychology, are not spiritual, but secular. People are seeking to better manage difficult emotions, to develop a greater sense of calmness in managing anxiety and stress, and to develop greater loving kindness and compassion in how they treat themselves and others. In fact, led by Stephen Bachelor, there is a whole movement in the west for a secular Buddhism that accords with Western scientific rationality and the value assumptions of secular liberalism.
For others, their engagement with the Buddhist teachings is a deeper spiritual journey into realising what the Tibetan tradition calls the ‘nature of mind’ as the five aspects of wisdom: unflinchingly seeing reality as it is with openness, discernment, courage, compassion and equality. Thousands of books have been written about this journey, the journey to enlightenment—many of which are now available in the languages of the West, and with many teachers of this tradition supporting communities of practitioners on this journey.
Many First Nations peoples and premodern cultures, such as Tibetan Buddhism, practise embodied forms of knowing. These forms of knowing are often situated within relational worldviews that conceive humans as part of nature, and nature as not ontologically divided from humans, but as already co-constituted by humans and nonhumans. The Buddhist insight into co-dependent origination of all phenomena challenges the very epistemological and ontological basis of Enlightenment thinking and the various bifurcations of nature/culture, subject/object, and mind/matter. In the Tibetan cultural contexts this extends this into sacred landscape inhabited by spiritual forces and agency.
As my teacher advised me, in the end as a Buddhist practitioner you need to distil all the teachings into ‘one point’ that sustains your practice as a way of living your life from the viewpoint of the nature of mind. For me this is expressed in the mandala of Guru Sangdü, which forms part of a tantric practice, Tendrel Nyesel (Removing Negativity in the Interdependencies by which the world manifests). It enables me to encounter the world from this mandala as the union of openness and dynamic awareness surrounded by the four classes of the dakini, the non-gendered feminine principle of dynamic awareness whose outer expression is the play of the elements. This manifests for me here in the wild beauty of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area where I live, so that I have the lived experience of being in the embrace of the dakinis as I gaze down Kedumba River over Katoomba Falls across the Jamison Valley to Mt Solitary, while around me birds call out and soar from tree to tree. Close to there I live, one of my Buddhist teachers has identified a certain rock formation as an ’embodiment’ of the Vajravarahi, the feminist symbol of dynamic awareness that lies at the centre of the Guru Sangdü mandala. In this way, my spiritual practice from a Tibetan cultural source is deeply rooted in this landscape with all its multiple meanings encoded in both Gundungurra culture and Western geomorphology.
From this mandala I seek to embrace a philosophy of regenerative living and to work to support projects that enable creative practitioners to give expression to this philosophy through their artworks. In this I am inspired by the words of the Gay’Wu Group of Women of North-East Arnhem Land (Songspirals, 2019):
Country has awareness; it is not just a backdrop. It knows and is part of us. Country is the connections between those beings, and their dreams and emotions, their languages and their Law. Country is the way humans and non-humans co-become, the way we emerge together, have always emerged together and will always emerge together. It is all the feelings, the songs and ceremonies, the things we cannot understand and cannot touch, the things that go beyond us, that anchor us in eternity, in the infinite cycles of kinship, sharing and responsibility. Country is the way we mix and merge, the way we are different and yet become together, are part of each other. It is the messages, languages and communication from all beings to all beings.
Mapping Regenerative Living
Ever since reading Charles Massey’s monumental work, Call of the Read Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth (2017), I have been convinced that his own journey from the industrial agriculture methods of his forebears, imported from England, to one of regenerative agriculture provided a map for a much wider story. This is the story of the transition from the ‘mechanical’ mindset of modern industrial society that was birthed in the 18th Industrial Revolution on the back of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, to a new way of thinking about how humans can live sustainably on our home, Planet Earth.
The mechanical mind looks for technological solutions, captured in the catch cry of the Coalition Government, ‘technology not taxes’, as it stubbornly protects the interests of the fossil fuel sector, and advocates reduced taxes for business and the wealthy on the basis of the demonstrably failed trickle down theory of neo-liberal economics. But it is also captured in the Labor Opposition, with its renewable energy, skills and economic growth vision for Australia’s future.
However, behind this vision for a future sustainable Australia, a new story is building—the story of regenerative living.
In the Blue Mountains, our local council has adopted Planetary Health as its overarching policy framework. Like a Songline which spirals deep into the past and far into the future, the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative has emerged from our Council with a strong vision to grow Planetary Health for the whole City, for all life, and for future generations. Its aim is to provide a framework for us to reassess and adapt human practices to better support a healthy planet for current and future generations. It also includes learning from sustainable resource management practices that have been used by traditional peoples from around the world for millennia. As Council says: Planetary Health requires us to understand all connections and interconnections and working with our community, we can provide insight on this, in a unique setting at this extraordinary time.
The Garrison Institute has linked this idea of Planetary Health to a holistic vision of four regenerative pathways:
- Half-Earth – Conserving half of the earth’s land and sea to safeguard its biodiversity, and the conditions for ecological regeneration;
- Ecological Civilization – Applying ecosystems models to the activities of human civilization including agriculture, energy production, transportation, urbanism etc.
- Regenerative Economics – Moving from consumer capitalism toward a regenerative capitalism that incentivizes and rewards actions that increase systemic health, and dis-incentivizes actions that lead to systemic degradation.
- The Common Good – Imbuing human cultures with a pervasive sense of mutuality and an ethics of the common good, as a generative social field from which environmental, social and inter-generational justice can grow.
Zac Walsh on Buddhism and Regenerative Ways of Thinking
In his idea of the Common Good, as actions generated by many different actors in relationship, rather than ‘things’, Zac Walsh suggests that in response to the failures of the state and market, many crises-stricken areas, especially in Europe and South America, have developed solidarity economies to self-manage resources, thus insulating themselves from systemic shocks in the future. It seems likely that a community’s capacity to share will be crucial to its survival on a wetter, hotter, and meaner planet. He suggests that this is birthing a relational epistemology, replacing that of the hyper-individual epistemology of liberalism. He says that from a Buddhist perspective, one could say that the commons emerges co-dependently with a field of objects, forces, and passions entangling the human and nonhuman, living and non-living, organic and machinic.
Zac suggests that to move beyond the notion of the commons as an object, either of nature (material) or culture (immaterial), one must critically examine present-day definitions of nature and culture—what we may alternatively call nature-cultures—and reassess the human-nature relationship in light of its history and our contemporary predicament. The more-than-human commons thus does not dualistically separate the material and immaterial commons, the commons (as object) from the commoners (as subjects), nor does it separate humans from nonhumans.
Like Zac, as a fellow Buddhist practitioner, I understand the central importance of epistemology. Today’s socio-ecological crises have arisen from particular beliefs, lifestyles, institutions, and power structures that encourage unsustainable dynamics between humans and nature. Unless we face this, we will unconsciously act from this deeply embedded way of thinking and reasoning.
Zac: One of the main challenges to our understanding is of an epistemological nature. The very concept of Nature in the modern period was constituted by the separation of humans from nonhumans. This separation jointly promulgated specism and racism, since the ways in which we classify various animals and humans directs our ways of caring for them. Whether species are considered alien, invasive, or pests and whether people are likewise considered subhuman, foreign, or Other depends on categories that order life to establish places of belonging. Those who are excluded, whether the colonized species or peoples of this planet, are similarly objectified and treated instrumentally, as either natural or human resources. Capitalism’s appropriation and exploitation of nature extends this logic on a global scale via the biopolitical control of human and nonhuman populations.
In this way, a philosophy of regenerative living is the praxis of commoning. Particular commons can only be understood in their actual, embedded social and ecological circumstances, and in the subjective and emotional experience of those involved in commoning. Commoning not only creates sustainable systems—it also has the potential to birth entire new lifeways and worldviews premised on relationality and reciprocity. It generates worlds where we commune with each other and with the environment, as if every object is also a subject—a being worthy of our respect.
Zac notes that this new framework of regenerative living, and the practice of commoning, is based on an ethics of inter-subjectivity, once dismissed by anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss as a sign of primitive psychic-cultural development. Inter-subjectivity, the sense of ‘interbeing’ as advocated by the late Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, distinguishes itself from the notion of inter-dependence. It highlights how relationships are not only externally dependent, but internally dependent and always present to one’s inner awareness. Intra-subjectivity thus explains how all beings are related vis-à-vis our experience of one another. Thus, the deeper we connect with our own suffering, the more we realise our suffering’s constituent relation to the suffering of others and the more we act to serve others as extensions of ourselves. This involves a shift from the Buddhist emphasis on personal individual liberation to one of communal liberation—to a courageous commitment to socially engaged Buddhist practice that applies wisdom to the challenge of a pivot to a philosophy of regenerative living.