In this book you will find dozens of people more knowledgeable, more informed and more equipped than I am. I encourage you to listen to them carefully, as I certainly will do, for they are talking to us about the challenges we face as a species and as a planet, and they are pointing us to strategies by which we might use this critical window in human history for not only survival but for genuine transformation. And while I bow to my fellow writers here and acknowledge that the future of the world is important, what I believe is even more important is the future of how we relate to the world.
Human conscious experience — colloquially known as life — has two components. First there is the stuff — rocks, cars, trees, the planet, animals, people we know and people we don't. (This is not an exhaustive taxonomy but you get the idea). The second component is our relationship to that stuff, the elements of our inner or mental experience that results in our either liking, disliking or being indifferent to whatever is happening. And when we look closely, more often than not we see that wherever we find difficulty in our lives, it's ultimately bound up in the relationship — our mental attitude — rather than the stuff itself. Ok. So what?
The so-what is in the unavoidable fact that most of our challenges will be most effectively solved, not by tinkering around with the stuff (e.g., better, cleaner fuels) but by radically changing our relationship to it (e.g., not wanting to travel in the first place). So what we are talking about is our changing our relationships, changing our behaviours and ultimately changing our minds. Therefore to give our advances in stuff the absolute best chance of delivering the change we need, we need to develop our minds in lockstep.
Again, taking climate change as an example challenge, the mental qualities we could most benefit from building up together are awareness of what is actually going on and a greater sense of how we are all systematically connected. Or in other, more Buddhist-y words, wisdom and compassion.
All the great contemplative traditions have wisdom and compassion at the heart of their teachings and practice, but Buddhism is fairly unique in its highly systematic approach, its appealing atheistic/agnostic position, and its rich history for evolution across cultures. And while I am certainly not advocating that we all become Buddhist meditators — as someone who has spent much of the last decade in Buddhist circles, I honesty cannot think of anything worse — I am, however, advocating that we as a society up our mental game.
And from my limited viewpoint, it is already happening. Mindfulness meditation-based approaches are now widely recognised as effective therapeutic tools against a wide range of mental health issues both in the UK and globally. And as traditionally alien practices such as yoga and caring about whether our food is drowned in pesticides become increasingly accepted as mainstream, I believe (or is it hope?) that transformative mental development is the next step for the "conscious" shopper and exerciser. And it's not only the uptake of clinical meditation therapies that energise me, but also the bloom of the positive psychology movement and the well-being and happiness agenda more generally.
But to get there — to get to a culture where sensitivity, awareness and high levels of inner literacy are the rule — there has to be a presentation of why we should and how we can practically develop these qualities in a language that speaks to where the majority of us are — and that is a language that avoids the religious, avoids the clinical, and avoids an association with the limp spirituality of pop Orientalism or the anti-modern brigade. It has to be relevant, urban and now, because the challenges we face are relevant, urban and now.