Are we getting busy in order to forget? I work in environmental circles and as a journalist, my role is chiefly that of communicator. The message that often tugs at the core of what I write is one of consideration. To consider the status quo, to realise its failings, to rethink and reshape. But in order to reflect to this degree – let alone act on it – you need to, well, slow down.
This is harder than it sounds. We appear to thrive on chaos. Emerging technologies, built for pure speed, snap tasty at our heels and instant gratification is nearly always expected. To halt such expectation in its tracks – whether through neglecting a deadline or managerial command – tends to be viewed as disruptive.
Gently observing these dynamics from the sidelines is Thich Nhat Hanh, a 86-year old Zen master. He has a cautionary tale to tell. He opines that maintaining such giddy levels of aspiration is a false reality. And that our need for gratification acts as an artificial refuge, disconnecting us from the things that really matter. Like how we tune into nature and internalise such externalities.
The reason why Hanh’s philosophies are getting more airtime at the moment (most notably in The Guardian) is because of his stark prediction that civilisation may well collapse within the next century as a result of runaway climate change. He worries that as a species, we are spiritually bereft to deal with it.
The symptoms of these emotional and soulful wounds we carry are evident in our impulsive urges, our insatiable appetite for consumption, our running on empty, Hanh observes. While we may understand environmentally what is at stake, the disordered circles in which we operate mean we often feel powerless to effect change.
For many of us, myself included, it is notably easier to make a token gesture – such as recycling or buying organic – while keeping calm (head down) and carrying on as before. The system permits it, we opt in when it is convenient to do so, we haven’t really invested much, there is little to lose.
Ask somebody what is the biggest barrier to transformational change is in their lives and the answer will almost certainly be one of mindset. It is the same for any business, or organisation, or industrial system. First we have to slow down. Only then can we become aware. Once aware, we can then work towards what Hanh refers to as mindfulness.
On a basic level, mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way – deliberately, non-judgmentally, and in the present moment. Working towards it, we start to gain clarity and realise that everything is interconnected.
When we talk about climate change for instance, no single risk exists in isolation – environmental risks are strongly interconnected with societal risks such as water and food security, as well as to economic risks such as infrastructure fragility and energy price volatility. If mindfulness can help us think more holistically, then Hahn has a point.
The Engaged Buddhism movement, which is now gaining popularity in the West, was founded by Hahn. It seeks to promote an individual’s active role in creating change through mindfulness training so that they can apply their insight to situations of environmental, social, and political suffering and injustice.
Regardless of individual belief or ideology, solutions to the impending climate crisis will not rest on technology alone. Technology is much like a drug – it looks to tackle the symptom rather than the root cause. To examine below the surface, we may well have to hit that pause button and do a little spiritual digging.