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Practicing on land

From the environmentalist ethics from a buddhist viewpoint we move to another angle: that of the heritage of nature.
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Hello again, and welcome back to the forest. This is really the second half of the last session practicing with them hand, in which we discuss some of the ways in which mindfulness of the elements might encourage an environmentalist ethic on a Buddhist account. In this session, we’re going to stick with the same reflection that kicked off the last one, but we’re going to take the response in a slightly different direction. In case you’ve forgotten, this is where we started last time. If your practice of mindfulness revealed to you a sense of your inextricable, and intimate relationship with the more than human world around you, would that change the way you behave within or towards it? If so, how?
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One of the great privileges of living, working, and learning here on the unseated territories of the [inaudible] people’s on Vancouver Island has been the opportunity to speak with, and learn from indigenous colleagues, friends, and elders about how to be respectful of the land on which I now sit. This land, here in Canada, but also in many other places around the world. The land is rich with heritage, life, and relationships with indigenous people that had been structurally, and systemically disrespected, violated by colonial settlers. A lot of the most obvious forms of that colonial violence, such as military occupation, might now be historical. We would have to be naive to think that colonialism doesn’t persist in many other ways today as well.
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There’s a weight of responsibility on all of us, especially white settlers like me, to do the work necessary to unearth what is sometimes called the colonialism within ourselves. The work of truth, and reconciliation can be very demanding very disturbing. There’s a sense in which an authentic relationship with the natural world exposes us to it, and requires us to take action.
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Alongside this session we’re fortunate to have a special interview with Cherokee scholar Professor Jeff Quanta, in which he speaks about the importance of acknowledging the territory where on of respecting the land, and its heritage, and behaving in ways that would encourage the indigenous people of the land, and perhaps the land itself to see us as welcome friends rather than as colonial settlers. If you haven’t viewed those videos yet I hope you’ll do so. I might also encourage you to pause right now, and think about what you know about the land you’re on right now. Do you know its history or any of its stories?
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No matter where you are, there’s a good chance that the land is historically contested, and possibly still contested now. What do you need to know about it in order to be on it respectfully, to put this another way with whom do you need to be at peace in order to be at peace on that particular territory. One classic response to that question from the contemporary mindfulness movement might be something like this. Wherever you go, there you are. Or sometimes wherever you go, that’s your home. The implication being that the only person with whom I need to be at peace anywhere, is me.
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Now, we’ve spent a long time in this course trying to understand the psychological, philosophical, and spiritual reasons for this orientation, which has in general been found to be liberating in all of those realms, albeit sometimes in complicated or ambiguous ways. As we’ve seen though, the social, and political significance of mindfulness, especially in its contemporary form, or rather more contested. Here again, we see the hint of a shadow side of mindfulness rather than turning away from it. Let’s sit with it for awhile, and see what we can learn from it. The potential problem here is something like this.
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If we can go anywhere we like, and make that place feel like a home, then there’s a sense in which we’re granting ourselves license to go anywhere, and take that place as our home. Now, this maybe a relatively trivial issue if we’re talking about going to our own kitchen or sitting under our desk at work, taking a breath at the bus stop, or even sitting in a public park at lunchtime. But its meaning, and significance seems to change if we’re talking about walking into a church or a temple to which we do not belong in order to do our meditation practice. Or if we decide to sit in the middle of our neighbor’s garden instead of in the public park.
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Or if we decide to lie down in the middle of the road to do a body scan. Now, I’m sure that many of you will immediately, and hopefully correctly retort that you wouldn’t do those things because they’re either disrespectful or dangerous or both, good I’m glad to hear that. However, it’s worth reflecting that taking my seat here in this forest right now is not a million miles away from invading my neighbor’s garden, and treating it like it’s mine. It’s actually not all that different from meditating in a temple of which I am not a member. These are the unseated territories of the [inaudible] people after all. Now that might not be my fault.
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But it’s part of the truth about where I’m sitting as part of what it means for me to sit here instead of somewhere else. No matter how mindful we may be, place still matters. One of the things that’s fascinating about your natural response to those scenarios is that it reveals something really powerful, and important, which is something like this. It’s simply not true that the only person with whom I need to be at peace anywhere is me, or at least not me in any conventional sense. I cannot seal myself off from the world with mindfulness. Indeed, mindfulness should open me up to that world. I always, and already exist in complex inter-relation with the world around me.
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That is another discreetly bounded, and sealed agent in the world, and not a billiard ball that can just settle wherever it stops rolling. This leads us to a very exciting, and potent insight, no matter how much contemporary mindfulness might present itself via modern psychology as being about the health of a self that is uniquely mine or uniquely me, which I can take with me wherever I go and which I can make feel at ease anywhere. A self that is in some sense self-contained, and self-controlled. This is not at all the sense itself that mindfulness was originally developed to cultivate.
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Quite the contrary, the self of classical mindfulness practices, such as the elements practice that we’ve tried in this module, is always an already emerging, and emanating from the myriad relational qualities in the world around us. Indeed, the cultivation of mindfulness brings those qualities into our awareness. In doing so it actually creates us. Mindfulness on this account brings us into the world, even as it brings the world into us. It’s not about divorcing ourselves from the world to create inner peace. It’s about finding peace, and harmony in the intimacy of this relationality. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls into being. Perhaps even more powerfully for our purposes today.
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It’s interesting to reflect that the contained sense of self that grounds much of clinical psychology, and thus emerges into what we’ve called contemporary construct mindfulness is also the very sense of self that was cultivated at the foundations of the European Enlightenment Project, which did indeed allow European colonizers to travel anywhere in the world, and treat it as their home, even if it was already somebody else’s home. Once again, just as we encountered in a number of the previous modules of this course, we’re coming up against a foundational difference between what has emerged as construct mindfulness today and what we know of older traditions of mindfulness, such as the Buddhist notion of Sati.
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The therapeutic force of construct mindfulness seems to be directed towards bolstering, and healing the individual self. While the force of Sati seems to be directed towards liberating us from the suffering that follows from that very idea of self-hood. Sati directs as to the self as into being. In terms of our topic today, there’s a sense in which phrases like wherever you go, there you are, or just settle where you are, and breathe. Could have radically different political connotations depending on which sense of self, your entertaining, and also depending on your status, your privilege, power and identity and society. Perhaps a better guiding question then might be, wherever you go, where are you?
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At the very least, mindfulness practitioners have a responsibility to reflect on this as a potential site of systemic injustice and our realm of practice. Certainly in the language we use to describe it. Thankfully, it seems that practices we can beneficially perform outside on the land like the elements practice in this module helps us to reflect on the way in which we are enmeshed with the world around us, and all kinds of important, and fundamental ways. Perhaps these kind of practices can help us find ways to be better friends of the land. If the human, and non-human lives who live on it and have lived on it for hundreds of generations before us.
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Here in, perhaps is the radical potential of mindfulness as a force for social change.

From the environmentalist ethics from a buddhist viewpoint we move to another angle: that of the heritage of nature. With whom should we be at peace?

Leiden University

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