Summary of Chapter Five

In the final chapter, I deal with some of the major criticisms in more detail (I have alluded to them, and, where possible, described how this approach addresses them, during the course of previous chapters but I want to make it some things clearer in this final chapter). Some of the problems this approach faces have to do with the idea that it could not possibly be enough simply to realise what we are, in order to deal with an urgent critical emergency. Critics might argue that this approach actually adds to the problems of the emergency, since not only do we have to deal with the emergency but we have to deal with shifting our perspective in how we think about ourselves. I take these two criticisms together. It is not correct to say that this approach adds to the emergency by asking us to approach our agency differently: I’m actually cutting through to the very heart of what has created the emergency in the first place: our lack of attention to the way in which we actually influence the trajectories of our engagement. When we focus on these trajectories with the agency we do have it shifts the entire tapestry of the threads of our engagement.

A second set of criticisms might focus on the effort required. I do not shy away from saying that this approach requires a huge effort of work. Nevertheless, compassion and forgiveness are an intricate part of this approach and that means it is rewarding and goes on being a rewarding way of engaging with experience. A subsidiary of this kind of criticism is that this approach will itself cause polarisation since not everyone will agree with it. I suggest that if this is the case (and I do not see this as inevitable, since the approach itself is not designed to compete with any existing ideological commitment) we take a leaf out of the Daoist’s book. Conflict is part of the human experience and a pragmatic approach recognises that. This is not idealism, there is no utopia in this system, and therefore if conflict occurs, the best response is evasion, if possible. That is why this is an anti-meme, so that instead of setting out a blue print of how to act, it recommends that people experience the practice themselves. Nevertheless, if conflict is insistent, it is perfectly legitimate to defend oneself. Defence without attack takes a huge amount of attention but it is vital that we pay this kind of attention to our activity in the context of the ecological emergency. Drawing fire until the aggressor is exhausted and then moving on to discussion and negotiation. The focus is always on the manner of engagement.

The final criticism is that this is just Buddhism by the back door, or that this is an ethic after all (because compassion and forgiveness are ethical virtues). I’m reluctant to call this Buddhism, although it draws heavily on Buddhist ideas, particularly from the Soto Zen tradition. I’m reluctant to call it Buddhism because I don’t want to add to the ideological competition and therefore I would maintain that this process be considered just as a system for the realisation of agency and the realisation of the good of systems. Existing ideological commitments can still remain meaningful for their proponents but for realisation as agency to operate, we need to step aside from ideological commitments and come to the unconditioned view. That is very like Zen, but it is also beyond Zen, if Zen also means ritual and faith. This is Zen without ritual or faith. You do not have to believe in anything to believe in agency as realisation. In association with this criticism is the criticism that realisation as agency and realisation of the good of systems is nihilistic: there is no going towards an ideal or a utopia for those who practice agency as realisation, therefore anything goes, or so the critics would have it. Again, this confuses not having an end with the idea of wanting the end to be nothing. Not having an end, focusing entirely on the way, is actually radically liberating. Each moment is an end. If we focus on each moment instead of focusing on some distant shore, we become much more aware of, and we alter much more of, our engagement and our relationships, to the good of those relationships. Systems operate much more freely when the focus is on each moment.

To summarise, there is limited research that supports the idea that a metasystem can change other systems but some of the research into neurological evidence of the impact of meditation is relevant and exciting here and this would be one area where this thesis could be further strengthened. Another area would be that of examining systems as directional and examining the energy dissipation within biodiverse systems in the light of what I have claimed here. There is some evidence for this, and some physical and biological scientists have done work on this but there is far more work to be done here. Finally, in the area of attitude polarisation, which is essentially the area of politics or psychology, much work could be undertaken to explore how ‘stepping back’ from conditioning might take place in the context of discussions and negotiations around issues relating to the ecological emergency. It would be really interesting to take research into other areas too, to explore the revision of language, narratives, metaphors and even images in the understanding of our relationships within systems. These are much broader areas for research and investigation but they would still be worth exploring.

My conclusions are that we are in a precarious situation, and that our focus needs to come back to how we see that situation. Nothing that we are doing at the moment will mitigate the effects of our impact as much as this revision of our agency, so that’s where I suggest we focus our energy now. I also suggest that we focus on the practice of seeing our condition, viewing the conditioned view, if you like, and then moving to a view that is ‘beyond conditioning’. This is hard work and requires cooperation. That is why I think that attitudes of compassion and humility are so important. This does not mean that we need be weak: we must draw attention to violent enmeshment within systems, including the intimate relationships that develop between, for instance, oil and state. We need to be able to articulate connections that are ‘bad for’ systems and that is a difficult job because they are so prevalent. Offering to envisage relationships that are ‘good for’ systems is a major challenge but this kind of approach will allow us to do that. Finally, the practice has the particular benefit of being ‘good for’ us. It’s actually fun, and enriching, to step back in this way. Each opportunity to loosen aversion and attachment to violent or destructive systems is a major achievement and even if we slip back, it shows us that there are ways of being liberated. As long as we remain compassionate towards ourselves and extend that compassion throughout the system, this way of engaging offers the best prospects we have for living well and responding well to the ecological emergency. This is agency as realisation: compassion in action and a way out of the maze.

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