Mindful Ecological Action: a postdoctoral research project

This research proposal is an extension of the work I did as a PhD student, revising the generally-accepted understanding of ‘moral agency’ from a non-dualistic perspective. Beyond the “doomsters” (there is nothing that we can do) and the “deniers” (there is nothing that we need to do) of the prevailing global ecological emergency, I attempted to work out a new approach to agency (that we can do something) that is not tied to an atomistic conception of the self, but rather which flows in and through the systems within which we have co-evolved. The climate and ecological emergency is in us and we are in it. We are not just catalysts of the emergency, but interactive features in it.

This implies that a Zen inflected (inspired by the great Kamakura Zen Master Eihei Dogen) approach to the interdependent relations that both shape and are shaped by us will allow us to exercise what agency we have. Realisation, in the sense of mindfulness, or awareness, of the non-dual nature of our interrelatedness, allows us to move beyond systemic flows that are blocked so that the systems “graduate” their “dissipating flows.” Instead of looking for a moral impetus to create the motivation to change how we interact, I argued that we work both from a case-by-case understanding of our particular circumstances, but also within an appreciation of the broader ecological context. Our awareness of this context is developed through practice-realisation that revises our reliance on the trap of atomistic selfhood (the agent with the free will to do what is right) and in so doing recasts action within our ongoing enmeshment in the climate emergency. We find our good in the good of systems.

It would be possible to explore the ideas developed in the thesis further through an extension of some existing research studies into the impact of mindfulness practices on intra- and interhuman relationships. Much work has already been done (and, indeed, a ‘Mindfulness Hub’ has been set up in the UK to further investigate this area) to research the impact of mindfulness practices on aspects of individual and group behaviour, particularly with a view to finding out whether or not these practices are beneficial. Studies have successfully shown correlations between mindfulness practices and improved sleep patterns, mindfulness practices and decreased experience of depression and anxiety, mindfulness and decreased obsessive compulsive, or addictive behaviours, mindfulness practices and improved capacity for empathy, with the resulting improvement in effectiveness at work, in meetings, and in other personal and institutional contexts. It would be a natural, and interesting, further step to explore the relationship between mindfulness practices and an increased sense of awareness of the ecological context, and any consequent change in behaviour, as a result of shifts in attitude, towards choices of transport, foods, activities like being in nature, and more understanding and appreciation of the importance of biodiversity, intact ecosystems, and other indicators of non-human environmental health.

The project itself could be developed and refined according to the overall context of existing projects within an institutional context. However, in broad terms, it would take, as its model, work done by the coordinators of the Prison Phoenix Trust research project that investigated the impact of mindfulness practices, including yoga, on the experience of a group of self-selected prison inmates. The cohort for the proposed study would consist, it is hoped, of volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds including university students, rural, suburban, and urban dwellers, as well as members of marginalised groups, and professionals (these groups are obviously not mutually exclusive: the point would be to have as broad a range of the population represented as possible).

At its most basic, the project could consist in a) taking the details of all participants, including getting a background idea of what their current attitudes to the ecological context are (this could involve asking about attitudes to climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, plastics and radioactive waste, as well as questions about their general attitude to nature, broadly conceived). b) The second stage would be to conduct a six- or eight-week training in mindfulness techniques. Since I developed a particular idea of agency that aligns with a non-dualistic understanding of agency (agency as realisation), a strong emphasis on including a description clarifying this understanding of agency would be included as a part of the mindfulness training. Obviously, there wold be no coercion to shift the attitudes of the participants, but the practice itself would either shift understanding, or leave participants unchanged, and this would be measurable. c) The third stage of the project would be to survey the participants to discover whether there had been any change in attitude, and, relatedly, any shift in behaviour towards the ecological context. A similar set of questions, or, alternatively, the more open structure of an interview to collect oral testimonies, would be devised to collect responses. The number of sessions attended would be noted for each participant. Finally, the findings would be analysed through a focus on particular features of responses that summarise the attitudes of the participants at the beginning and at the end of the course.

Another, sub-project (or extension of the project described above) would be to look into the influence of the arts on how we view our relationship with the ecological context. This could involve taking a specific film (say ‘Avatar’, or Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’), book (Gary Snyder’s ‘The Practice of the Wild’, for instance), or set of art works, and exploring a group of participants’ responses before and after viewing (it may be necessary that they view the films more than once, or that they explore the ideas in the book over time). This work could be correlated with the work of physicists Rosen and Dincer who suggest that we are inclined, as evolved organisms, to appreciate the tendency of systems to be well organised in their dissipation of energy (complex biodiverse systems as opposed to monocultures, for instance), more than chaotic or obstructed systems. This research is further supported by the extensive work of John Baez and the Azimuth project, which suggests that ‘perhaps human values are related to exergy and order’. If they are correct, we have an intuitive sense of the graduated flow as more aesthetically satisfying than chaotic systems. This closely parallels the idea of the Dao, or non-linear flow, of energy, as something that resonates with what we are and would be one way of exploring how we might alter the systems we are engaged in to better reflect this aesthetic, both for our own well-being, but also for the flourishing of the systems that sustain us.

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