Things that won’t save us from global warming: (2) Spirituality

If religious institutions won’t save us, then what of the thing that underlies the institutions? The energy that originally inspired them? What if humanity could ascend to a higher spiritual plane, so that harmlessness became the guiding light of our behaviour, and higher consciousness for all became a reality? What, in short, if there were a hundredth monkey moment?

That would be wonderful. Sadly, though, the hundredth monkey effect is woo, not reality. And the popularity of the story in spiritual circles is yet another example of the credulity of those who espouse a spiritual solution to our woes.

Once again, I am not a cynic. I actually believe in spiritual evolution. Not just for an individual: this is the basis of Dhamma practice, of course. I mean for humanity as a whole. Our ethics are becoming more refined. We are more aware of what is happening in different parts of the world. We are less tribal. We are more flexible and open in our beliefs. We are less violent. We have changed, genuinely changed, in our acceptance of people of different colors, religions, and sexual identities. Moreover, we are moving more and more towards meditation; probably more people meditate now than ever before. All of these things are a genuine and very positive manifestation of a real spiritual growth.

As a species, and as a planet, we are becoming more conscious. Even as a gross physical fact this is true: there is more brain matter on our planet than at any time in history. In fact, we can see the whole environmental mess we are in as the result of reshaping our planet to service the growth of brains.

I believe it is possible that this spiritual growth could save the world. But I don’t think it’s going to. Why not?

For a start, it’s too little, too late. Much of the world is still enmired in gross ignorance. The future is here (as William Gibson said in another context)—it’s just unevenly distributed. Spiritual growth is hard, patchy, and slow for an individual, how much more so for human culture as a whole? Even those who have been meditators, or otherwise engaged in genuine spiritual practices (as opposed to the brainless woo that discredits much of what we think of as spiritual) still progress very slowly, and for a long time can keep following destructive patterns.

To have a breakthrough in awareness, a new way of seeing, is a rare and precious thing, and it doesn’t by itself guarantee any particular changes to one’s lifestyle. Plenty of spiritual practitioners find themselves feeling more content, wanting less, living simpler lives. But plenty don’t. There’s nothing really wrong with this, it’s just how these things go. But it does imply that we can’t expect spirituality to lead in a genuine transformation of how people live on a massive scale in the near future.

Moreover, spirituality has often gone over to the dark side. Any New Age or “spiritual” festival is full of shysters selling ridiculous cure-all water or miracle foods. Rather than showing us a world beyond reason, much popular spirituality is a retreat beneath reason. Again, this doesn’t show that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with the spiritual path, just that most people are not very good at it yet.

But these things are trivial. At a deeper level, spiritual practices, even the good ones, can, and frequently are, active contributors to the problem. There is no clearer example of this than the recent disruption of a Google “corporate mindfulness” event by San Francisco residents calling for a stop to evictions.

There’s some good commentaries on this at various places on the web. I don’t want to be too hard on how the Google people handled this particular event; the security guy was out of line trying to pull the banner away, which seemed pointless and, I guess, attempted theft, since it was their banner. But he just acted spontaneously, and you can’t blame the company too much for that.

What is really striking for me is how Bill Duane, the Google exec running the show, immediately shifted attention back from the events to “mindfulness of the body”, saying to “check in with your feelings”. This is, of course, straight out of the mindfulness/vipassana playbook, and it seems churlish to criticize him for merely repeating what his teachers have said.

But it is exactly the wrong thing to do: it is straight up elevationism. What he should have done is to directly address the actual issue. Talk about the evictions, explain Google’s policy, and make a commitment to meet the protesters personally later on and discuss solutions. But also to tell them, this is not the forum: you’ve had your moment, now let us get on with what we’re here for. Instead, he used “mindfulness” to avoid the issue, treating a social problem with a cure meant for personal suffering.

Why expect anything else? Of course Google is going to use mindfulness to further its corporate interests. And still, it’s better than not using mindfulness. But there’s just no way that in such a context we can expect that spiritual practices will lead to genuine transformation.

Ken Wilber gave a good explanation of why we make these kinds of confusions. He said that we use the word “spiritual” to mean two quite different kinds of things, without being aware of the difference. First, there are certain specific things that we call “spiritual”: meditation, ritual, and the like. But sometimes we use spiritual to speak of the integration of all the aspects of our consciousness. Quite simply, one does not follow from the other. You can meditate until the cows come home, but you won’t, just by doing that, become kinder, or more ethical, or more conscious of the effects of your lifestyle on the planet. This is why the eightfold path includes all the different aspects of life, and each aspect must be developed in and of itself. This is the essence of Bill Duane’s problem: right mindfulness is the solution to wrong mindfulness, not to wrong livelihood.

Now as always, those who are really embodying spiritual transformation are few indeed. There are many of us who try, and get some things right and some things wrong. With time, perhaps, we might learn from our mistakes. But we don’t have time. And the promise of spiritual evolution, rather than extending the possibility of a cure, becomes just another tragedy: humanity’s boundless potential destroyed by greed and thoughtlessness.

10 thoughts on “Things that won’t save us from global warming: (2) Spirituality

  1. Hey, More on the effects of stereotyping and standardizing vipassana-mindfulness training into the one size fits all category, without putting it in the full context of the Buddhist teaching (right mindfulness is the solution to wrong mindfulness, not to wrong livelihood). If you’ve ever heard of the “Maharashi Effect”…now we have the “MIndfulness Effect”. Seems mindfulness is now being marketed like Trannscendental Meditation was for business executives back in the 70’s and 80″s. (Click on the* various places* link above).

    Mindfulness is enabling corporations to “optimize impact”? In this view of things, mindfulness can be extracted from a context of Buddhist meanings, values, and purposes. Meditation and mindfulness are not part of a whole way of life but only a spiritual technology, a mental app that is the same regardless of how it is used and what it is used for.

  2. Hi Bhante , More on the effects of stereotyping and standardizing vipassana-mindfulness training into the one size fits all category, without putting it in the full context of the Buddhist teaching (right mindfulness is the solution to wrong mindfulness, not to wrong livelihood). If you’ve ever heard of the “Maharashi Effect”…now we have the “MIndfulness Effect”. Seems mindfulness is now being marketed like Trannscendental Meditation was for business executives back in the 70’s and 80″s. Hopefully mindfulness won’t become someone’s new trademark and cash cow, raking in billions like it did for TM.

    On Mon, Apr 28, 2014 at 5:42 AM, Jacques Pierret wrote:

    > Hey, > More on the effects of stereotyping and standardizing > vipassana-mindfulness training into the one size fits all category, without > putting it in the full context of the Buddhist teaching (right > mindfulness is the solution to wrong mindfulness, not to wrong livelihood > ). If you’ve ever heard of the “Maharashi Effect”…now we have the > “MIndfulness Effect”. Seems mindfulness is now being marketed like > Trannscendental Meditation was for business executives back in the 70’s and > 80″s. (Click on the* various places* link above). > > > Mindfulness is enabling corporations to “optimize impact”? In this view of > things, mindfulness can be extracted from a context of Buddhist meanings, > values, and purposes. Meditation and mindfulness are not part of a whole > way of life but only a spiritual technology, a mental app that is the same > regardless of how it is used and what it is used for. > > > > > > On Mon, Apr 28, 2014 at 2:10 AM, “Sujato’s Blog” <

  3. Historically very few people seem to become awakened. And most of them were legendary.

    After some 200 years of Buddhism in the West we’re still less than 1% of the population. And how many awakened? . Countries with a larger proportion of Buddhists are as bad off or worse. Except maybe Bhutan, but how does one separate media hype from reality?

    We’ve had much less impact than the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo has had, for example. http://moderndebtjubilee.blogspot.co.uk/p/lewis-powell-memo.html

    I really like Google. I get free email, free blogging, and a lot of other free stuff from them (they own YouTube now). I like that they teach mindfulness to their staff – brilliant! Of the various evil multinationals we Buddhists could have chosen to be against, they are a really, *really* odd choice. When the competition is, to name just two examples, Goldman Sachs or Lockheed Martin, why are we even bothering to complain about a reasonably positive company like Google? Let’s talk about the impact Goldman Sachs have had on housing in the USA! How many thousands of families lost their homes altogether in the sub-prime mortgage scam?

  4. Thank you for taking such a clear and useful stance on this, Bhante!

    Hi jayarava ~ I’m not sure why holding Google and Goldman Sachs both accountable should be an either-or kind of thing? Capital has many faces, and for those of us in the Bay Area and SF specifically, Google is one of our biggest new neighbors. Its impact is palpable. Yes, there are other actors and factors, but the people confronting Google may *also* be trying to block the banks in other actions, no? I think it’s precisely because Google is prominently featured at the **Wisdom** 2.0 conference that SF Buddhists felt compelled to raise some wisdom about the gentrification & eviction crisis, and Google’s role in it. Do you think that’s fair?

    • I’m not saying it’s an either or thing for me. I’m questioning why Buddhist bloggers persistently attack Google, but *never* Goldmans or Lockheed Martin. Why is our economic critique limited to companies that directly impinge on Buddhism and not on any more compassionate ground?

      What about all the Bay Area property owners who are *delighted* at the rise in the value of their asset (for no effort on their part)? What about all the jobs created by having a large company like Google nearby – and all the economic multipliers? Why don’t Buddhists write about the SF Google buses and their positive impact on commuter traffic in SF? Why are Google attacked and not, say, Apple or Facebook who have their own head quarters nearby? Apple also teach mindfulness to their staff. So do Twitter, AOL Time Warner, IBM, General Motors, Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks, Yahoo!, and dozens of other big companies. (According to mindfulnet.org). Corporate Mindful goes far, far beyond Google. Tech companies sponsor all kinds of events: look at the list of TED partners for example.

      There’s no research, just the repetition of clichés based on one 3 minute YouTube video (and lest we forget YouTube is owned by none other than Google!). And note the use Sujato is making of this 3 minute video – he’s not interested in property prices or evictions. He’s just concerned that the Google guy is getting Mindfulness all wrong!

      “Fair” doesn’t even come into it.

      I think Buddhists single Google out because Google are an easy target. It’s part of a culture of negativity and complaint at the success of mindfulness outside a religious context and the loss of control over “Brand Buddhism”. Talk about the dark side of spirituality!

  5. “First, there are certain specific things that we call “spiritual”: meditation, ritual, and the like. But sometimes we use spiritual to speak of the integration of all the aspects of our consciousness. Quite simply, one does not follow from the other. You can meditate until the cows come home, but you won’t, just by doing that, become kinder, or more ethical, or more conscious of the effects of your lifestyle on the planet. ”

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone state that so strongly (and I agree!) Meditation and mindfulness has given us a convenient means to delude ourselves into thinking we’re above reproach. This aspect of the trend needs to be addressed more vocally.

  6. A concern with corporate mindfulness, as in the example in Bhante’s piece about Google is the video’s capture of real time “spiritual bypassing” that was employed when the Google crowd was faced with a spontaneous protest. As Bhante related, the Buddha’s recipe for mindfulness was within the context of ethical, wise, skillful behavior. Said another way, if one is to employ mindfulness, this might open insights into whether in our corporate life we are utilizing Right View, Right Livelihood, et al. It seems that mindfulness, as it is being introduced into the corporate world, is devoid of these ethical considerations, and is employed as a bypassing tool at its most benign, and as a means for corporations to cultivate more productivity out of their already overstressed employees, ie “contented cows give more milk.” Plenty of Buddhist mindfulness coaches have emerged to help companies like Monsanto create a feelgood environment at work while producing toxins for the earth’s environment. Site like http://www.mcmindfulness.com illustrate this idea. No Buddhist has control over the mindfulness “brand,” but it’s a shame to see one of the Buddha’s core teachings corrupted and monetized. It does seem to be a role for some Buddhists to speak out about these misuses, and open doors for people to understand how samma sati might work in their lives. Who knows, maybe someone at Google will suggest, as a byproduct of mindfulness training, an effective means to help the tenants in SF being displaced by skyrocketing rents.

  7. I share same sentiment with regard to the abuse of ‘spirituality’ and the corporatization of ‘mindfulness’.for commercial gain.

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