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Visions of Enlightened Societies

“There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up.” -Bernice Johnson Reagon1

The three articles in the first issue of The Arrow illustrate the challenge of articulating a single vision of “wakeful society, culture, and politics.” That is to say, their three authors—all experienced scholars and practitioners from the same contemplative tradition: Shambhala—do not exactly agree on what such a vision should look like. Consider how Richard Reoch offers a comparatively optimistic assessment of the present, finding in contemporary environmentalism “a fresh breath of the human spirit, and awakening from the dreadful history we have lived through,” whereas Adam Lobel seems more pessimistic, finding in the present an acceleration and compression of time that produces increased stress and deteriorating well-being. Or consider how Holly Gayley focuses in particular on the Shambhala view of how individual practice relates to social change, in contrast with Lobel’s broader view of a range of contemplative practices that can all function as sources of individual and social transformation. By comparison to these two authors, Reoch takes an even more capacious view of social change, identifying allies from economists to indigenous activists who share his belief that we need a cultural shift in how we relate to the environment, without worrying about whether their shared belief is grounded in any contemplative tradition or practice.

Even though they come from the same spiritual tradition, each of these authors contributes a different voice to the conversation about wakeful society, culture, and politics. Taken together, these three articles express the quality of the human condition that political theorist Hannah Arendt calls “plurality”: “we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”2Humans are alike in that they are each different from one another. And since this is a basic quality—or in Arendt’s words, condition—of human existence, even people within the same culture, tradition, or community will see things differently. Each of us may be convinced that we know exactly how our own contemplative practices relate to social and political change. Yet once we start talking about these matters, we will discover that we do not always agree, even and especially with our fellow practitioners. As plural humans, we will inevitably differ from and disagree with one another about society, culture, and politics.

The challenge that plurality poses to contemplative practitioners was illustrated with great hilarity in an episode of Portlandia. In a skit entitled “Meditation Crush,” a woman spends the whole day sitting on her cushion at a vipassana retreat convinced that the man gazing at her across the room is feeling the electric connection with her that she is feeling with him. She fantasizes that after meditation they will begin an intense love affair, convinced that he, too, is thinking about the same fantasy. But when the sitting practice ends, the man heads not to her, but to the instructor, to whom he complains in a loud and annoyingly nasal voice about the instructions. The spell is immediately broken: this lout is nothing at all like the sexy soul mate she had imagined, and she leaves in disgust.

It is all too easy in the isolation of individual practice to persuade ourselves of a version of this fantasy. Everybody who meditates will become a better person, just like I am becoming a better person. Everyone who is on the same spiritual path as me will agree with me—about presidential politics, gun control, water conservation—you name it! Meditation is going to make the world a better place. If only the Senate could open each day with a ten minute sit—think of how much progress we could make as a country! But the minute we get off the cushion and start talking with our fellow practitioners, the fantasy is dispelled, and we realize things are much more complicated than we had thought.

As we begin the conversation in The Arrow, we could begin in the hopes that through this conversation we will all come to agree with one another. Perhaps we will discover some causal relationship between contemplation and healthier societies, as scientists have begun to discover causal relationships between contemplation and healthier minds and bodies. Perhaps we will discover a clear blueprint for social and political change that derives from practices of contemplation: we will know what our strategies, policies, and institutions should look like, and all that will be left will be to simply carry out this agenda. Perhaps we will find that there is something intrinsic to contemplation that produces changes in the individual that necessarily translate into changes in society: a tolerance of ambiguity, patience, and a willingness to listen, or detachment from ego. We can start out on this journey in the hopes that what we will discover is some underlying social, cultural, and political truth that emerges from a variety of contemplative traditions—Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslin, Jewish, secular—and perhaps even from just the act of contemplation itself, divorced from any particular tradition.

Or we could begin this conversation with a different orientation—an orientation marked by curiosity and humility: we quite simply do not know how this conversation is going to go. We do not know that we will discover a causal connection between contemplation and social change. We do not know that contemplation—regardless of how it is practiced, and whether it is grounded in a spiritual or religious tradition—will always in every case produce the same social and political outcomes. (Indeed, a good deal of human history teaches us the opposite: that contemplative traditions are compatible with, and even have been used to justify, violence, oppression, imperialism, and war.) We can enter into this conversation without the expectation that it will produce convergence and agreement. Rather than having agreement as our goal, we can make the practice of the conversation itself our aim: interacting with one another, attending to our divergences and disagreements as much as to our convergences and agreements, and practicing our ability to engage with each another as plural human beings.

In the remainder of this essay, I would like to make the case for this second orientation, the one that sees our conversation about wakeful society, culture, and politics as one that is conditioned by our human plurality. I expect that in exploring questions about social and political change, we will have to wrestle with our differences and disagreements again and again for two reasons. First, the kind of change that is the subject of this conversation is not individual, but collective; it requires interaction and collaboration between people, which will inevitably bring out our differences. Second, the kinds of questions we are asking here are very different from those posed by, say, neuroscientists or psychologists looking at the causal effects of contemplative practice on brains and bodies. We are asking questions about the kind of society, culture, and politics we should practice together—and these are questions, as I will argue below, that do not have a single, correct answer, and that will inevitably bring out our disagreements.

Wakeful Society Requires Collective Change

It is easy to imagine how an individual’s meditation practice might have beneficial effects on her personal relationships. Meditation might help her to create space to respond generously in a conflict, rather than reacting from a poverty mentality. It might help her to be more aware of recurring thought patterns when they pop up, giving her the choice about whether to indulge those patterns or to try some new, perhaps healthier, behaviors. It might help her to cultivate more empathy for and understanding of the suffering of others. And it might help her to listen fully to others in conversation—to be more practiced at dropping her own interior monologue when someone else is speaking.

But, as Gayley and Lobel both note, it is much harder to imagine how these shifts in an individual’s personal interactions could contribute to a larger cultural shift, or bring about social and political change on a larger scale. How many people need to be meditating in order for a society to change? What if we are not all using the same meditation technique (e.g., some of us are seeking transcendence, others mindfulness, and others stress relief)? Will we be able to change the world anyhow? What if we do not all apply the lessons from our practice in the same way?

The three authors roughly agree on the nature of society: individuals produce society through their interactions with one another, through their practices. As Gayley puts it, “society is co-created as a dynamic series of interactions.” There is a risk in taking an oversimplified view of society by presuming that society is only the co-created conglomeration of all of our interactions. Society, as Lobel reminds us, is also composed of structures—of institutions, norms, and practices—that constrain what kinds of interactions are possible. For example, it matters to how two people will interact in a marriage whether their marriage takes place in a society with norms of gender inequality, or with legal recognition of same-sex couples, or with elaborate and expensive wedding ceremonies. We may co-create a relationship with our spouse, and this relationship may be improved through contemplative practice. Yet is a contemplative practice sufficient to bring about structural change?

The danger of saying individual choices will add up to larger social change is very clear when we consider the case of environmental degradation and climate change. My individual choices may not make much of an impact at all on our broader culture of consumerism. Indeed, a lot of the environmental “action” available to me as an individual is really just a greener form of consumption: I can buy a hybrid, or I can eat only organic and non-GMO food, or I can install solar panels, and so on. These kinds of options may make a difference in terms of my ecological footprint as an individual, but they largely leave in place the existing structures that perpetuate environmental degradation.

Part of the challenge in “acting locally, thinking globally” is that the ways in which I as an individual am implicated in practices of environmental degradation extend well beyond what I can reasonably be aware of as a consumer, and well beyond what I have the capacity to change. I can buy a hybrid and reduce my individual consumption of fossil fuels. And maybe if enough of us buy hybrids, this can have a real, aggregate impact on demand for oil. But it leaves in place the immense amount of infrastructure in the US that is dedicated to the car culture. Indeed, having a hybrid might help me to justify buying a new house in the suburbs, voting against higher taxes that would expand public transportation, and maintaining a literal barrier between myself and the rest of my community on my daily commute. I may have made a change as an individual, but the impact on the broader society is minimal.

In other words, the theoretical problem facing those of us who would seek to conceptualize a link between the personal and the political, the meditation cushion and enlightened society, is also a practical problem for environmentalism: what kind of action can I take as an individual that could possibly be adequate to address the problems that we face?

The answer, as Reoch’s article hints at, must be collective action. It is insufficient for me to make changes as an individual, whether through my meditation practice, or through my consumption habits. I must work together with others to create social, cultural, and political change, and to envision and enact new practices. And I especially have to work together with others to create change in some of the most intransigent power structures that stand in the way of altering our course on issues like carbon emissions and climate change: those embodied in governments, parties and politicians, and corporations. As an individual acting alone, I cannot possibly hope to make change on such a scale. We have to act together with others. And when we organize collectively to create change, our human plurality will come to the fore. We will have to contend with differences of opinion about what is to be done and what strategy to take.

There Is No Single Path to Wakeful Society

These three articles show us that one important way in which a contemplative orientation can contribute to change is that it has a tremendous capacity for generating critique. Contemplative practices offer us a way of being in the modern world that is at odds with our contemporary culture. Even Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who attempted to reconcile secular modernity with traditional spiritual practice, was aware that he was training his students against the grain. To borrow from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, we might think of contemplative practices as cultivating “habits of mind which would unfit [us] for the contemporary world.”3This unfitness of contemplative practice for the contemporary age is what enables critique. Lobel shows how mindfulness contributes to a critique of the accelerated temporality of our technological age; Reoch shows how it contributes to a critique of consumerism and materialism; and Gayley shows how it contributes to a critique of choices that contribute to a “degraded society.” The authors converge in using the lack of fit between contemplation and our contemporary world as a way to identify and analyze the problems we face—and this is very powerful.

Yet, I venture that contemplative practices cannot produce a singular, positive vision of how our contemporary world should be transformed. This is because questions about what “should be” are political questions.4 When I say these are political questions, I do not mean that they are policy questions to be decided by politicians. Rather, I mean to draw a contrast here with questions we might think of as scientific or mathematical: questions that have a single, correct answer that can be verified, like “What is the sum of 6 and 7?” or “What is the effect of meditation on the brain?” Political questions are instead questions that do not have an objectively correct answer. Questions like “Is wealth inequality unjust?” or “Do we have an obligation to take in refugees from low-lying regions of the world rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels?” simply do not have a single, correct answer. Even when I am convinced that I am right in how I answer such a question, I cannot simply point to “the math” to show others that I am right and compel them to agree. Instead, I have to engage in the messy work of trying to persuade other people to share my view, and I may find that work difficult, frustrating, or even impossible. Our answers to “political questions” must be hashed out among a plurality of persons who will see things quite differently and who may not be persuaded to agree.

As The Arrow gives rise to a new conversation—among Shambhalians, among practitioners and scholars of various contemplative practices, and among activists and scholars engaged in social and political change—it is important for us to keep this human quality of plurality in mind. When we presume that we will all want the same things—whether because we are all human, or all meditators, or all environmentalists—we are likely to be disappointed. But even when we presume we will not all want the same things, working together with people who differ from us and who disagree with us is not easy. As feminist musician and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon classically described what it is like to work together with diverse women: “I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. This is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”5 The conversation we are beginning here will threaten each of us to the core; it will knock us off our seats and challenge our practice—and if it doesn’t, we aren’t really having the conversation.

Society, as the Sakyong writes, begins with “just you and me”6—that is, it begins with two people, with plurality. We should not expect that our interactions will produce a vision of wakeful society, culture, and politics that is singular. The question to ask as we begin this conversation together is not: What vision of enlightened society arises from mindfulness practices and traditions? But rather: What visions of enlightened societies arise? And how will we rise to the challenge when they do?

Michaele L. Ferguson is Associate Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate in the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  She is the author of Sharing Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2012) and co-editor with Lori J. Marso of W Stands for Women:  How the George W. Bush Presidency Shaped a New Politics of Gender (Duke University Press, 2007), as well as articles in feminist and democratic theory.


  1. Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 344.
  2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 8.
  3. MacIntyre, a contemporary philosopher inspired by Aristotle’s virtue ethics, was referring here not to contemplation, but to the purpose of a liberal arts education. Alasdair MacIntyre, “Alasdair MacIntyre,” in Key Philosophers in Conversation: The Cogito Interviews, ed. Andrew Pyle (Routledge, 1999), 83.
  4. This language of “political questions” I take from Arendt. See especially her essay “Truth and Politics,” in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1968).
  5. Johnson Reagon, “Coalition Politics,” 343.
  6. Sakyong Mipham, The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s HIdden Treasure (New York: Harmony Books, 2013), 85.

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