This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

A feature of the contemporary commoning movement is the welcome shift away from a view of the commons as merely a ‘thing” or ‘resource’ or set of arrangements. We are coming to understand the resurgence of interest in the commons as an invitation to embrace new ways of seeing ourselves and the world and how these ways of seeing co-emerge. Alongside this, the explosion of interest in mindfulness - with its origins in Buddhist meditation teachings and similar practices such as yoga - signals a profound return to the arts of self care and the cultivation of an ethos of mindful attention.  Both these trends, and the associated rise of an ‘attention economy’, can be seen as emerging alternatives to contemporary capitalism and neoliberalism.

We live in an age of disenchantment and ecological destruction that have followed in the wake of our lonely enclosure in cultures of technology, consumerism and hyper-individualism. Our increasing preoccupation with navigating social media, upping our screen time and complaining about the blight of time poverty is fuelled by a form of capitalism, referred to as ‘cognitive capitalism’, which creates value by engaging human neurological systems. Contemporary forms of capitalism now set out to enclose and marketise not only land and our labour but our very imaginations and capacity for carefully attending to that which is life-giving and life-sustaining. Under this form of capitalism we humans are the products – ‘imagineered’ for manufactured dreams with origins in corporate media complexes and public institutions that are dedicated to enhancing our ‘mental capital’.

In contrast, commoning, as a new way of seeing ourselves and our entanglement with the world, is about undoing the disenchantment that has roots in the colonisation of our worldviews by the primacy of economics (or the “miserable science”). It is about re-embedding the stuff of life in new relationships of care and due attention that extend all the way from our own human intentions and values through to a renewed respect for the agency and even the subjectivity of other species. In Buddhist circles this is called a culture of ‘interbeing’ - a cultivated experience of the continuities of our ecological self with the communities of life of other species, with the land, and with the atmosphere.

Commoning has been described by the wonderful German writer, Andreas Weber[i], as an attempt to redefine our very understanding of the economy, to challenge a dominant understanding that has celebrated rationality over subjectivity, material wealth over human fulfilment, and the abstract notions of growth and endless accumulation of money and things over wellbeing. What we are now seeing opening up is a new arena for the commons - the ‘contemplative commons’. And this is occurring just as, once again, the combined forces of the market and capitalism set out to extend the horizons of enclosure and marketization to the intimate realms of our attention.  

Human attention is an exceptionally important cognitive function, and it is one that is now at the heart of a global corporate competition for ‘mind-share’. The eminent psychiatrist and writer, Iain McGilchrist, believes, in line with Buddhist understandings, that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context – the context of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence and of the wider human culture in which they arise. He has described how attention occupies a special status in our lives because it comes into play prior to our functions, relationships and even to our encounters with things. In other words, what we choose to pay attention to has a decisive influence on our very dispositions. It changes the nature of the world we each inhabit.

The great insight behind Buddhist and other practices around mindfulness is that the quality of our attention is not a fixed human deposit. Mindfulness is about cultivating and training that innate human capacity for more focused attention, and reclaiming our ability to observe closely the mind-body. Mindfulness practices encourage the quiet observation of habituated thought patterns and emotions, with a view to interrupting what can be an unhealthy tendency to over-identify with, and stress out about, these transient contents of the mind. In its Buddhist settings, mindfulness is inseparable from the ethical life, because it is the original human technology that cultivates the space where our human condition is laid bare.  This is the inner space, where we can reclaim freedom as a kind of virtuosity in the practice of our lives together, and where limits and forms are gateways to an original freedom for improvisation that we associate with a ‘beginner’s mind’.  In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, we can recover the insight that the real miracle is to walk mindfully on the earth and glimpse, once again, that beauty of the first morning of the world.

Somewhat paradoxically but predictably, mindfulness – or perhaps more accurately the popular, secular variety of ‘McMindfulness’ - is also big business. It is worth in excess of $1.0 billion in the US alone and linked to an expanding range of must have products including downloadable apps (~1300 at the last count), books to read or colour in, and online courses. Mindfulness practice and training is now part of a global wellness industry worth trillions of dollars. McMindfulness - mindfulness stripped of ethical and critical consciousness - can appear to offer a tailored and individualised therapeutic response to many of the features of neoliberalism. It can be sold as the perfect antidote when we are overcome by a desire for respite from hyper-consumerism. It can provide us with support in our struggle to comply with pressures to enhance productivity in the workplace. Or it can offer individual training programmes designed to enhance our resilience.

But as our enclosure in this attention economy accelerates, our vulnerability to addiction, loneliness, depression and alienation increases in a disenchanted world,  bereft of complexity, care and meaning, and where nature and other people appear to retreat behind a series of screens. Mindfulness in corporate and institutional settings can be co-opted as a form of self-discipline and adaptation to cognitive disciplinary forces in the service of enhanced productivity. Or the practice can be deployed by institutions to help mitigate consequences at heightened moments of distress, e.g. when staff are being prepared to adapt to news of their imminent redundancy.

This is why Slavoj Žižek once described Buddhism as the perfect supplement for a consumerist society. Stripped of its ethical and contextual roots, mindfulness based practices borrowed from Buddhist and Zen lineages, risk shoring up the very sources of suffering from which the Buddha set out to liberate himself and others.

Mindfulness must be practised with attention to the operation of power and context if it is to generate useful and liberating insights, irreducible to exclusively personal or individual experience. Aligned with, and informed by, acknowledgement of our institutional sources of suffering, mindfulness can be a pathway to critical engagement and transformation and can provide access to the contemplative commons. The risk for mindfulness practices is that they are co-opted and instrumentalized by corporate, educational and other institutional settings.  The very domain of interiority, where resistance can begin with insights into the nature of modern power, is in danger of being colonized and enclosed by the imperatives of neoliberal logic.

The recovery of the contemplative commons is central to creating an alternative pathway to a more sustainable life - a life lived both individually and collectively with care and due attention to the mutual entanglements of self, others and nature. Mindfulness needs to be practised in the context of Buddhist or similar ethical teachings and, in such a context, leads to a liberation that is richer and more interdependent than the lonely, doubting and radically insecure life of solipsism.

Dr. Peter Doran,
School of Law, Queens University Belfast

Peter is a lecturer in sustainable development and governance at the School of Law, Queens University Belfast. He also conducts work at United Nations negotiations on the environment for the International Institute for Sustainable Development. His book on the attention economy and mindfulness as commons was published by Routlege in June 2017. See A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge Studies in Sustainability) His research interests include consumerism, green politics and the economy. He locates himself firmly to the left of the political spectrum and writes in a personal capacity. Born in Donegal, he was raised in Derry and now resides in Belfast with his family.

Next week, on Wednesday 14 March, Karin Eyben of Garvagh Peoples Forest Project explores the commoning practice around the shared local resource of Garvagh Forest. 


[i] Andreas Weber, The Biology of Wonder – Aliveness, Feeling and the Metamorphosis of Science, 2016

We invite you to participate in this ongoing conversation:

  • Comment on this article below to share your thoughts.
  • To receive the articles directly into your e-mail inbox, sign up here.
  • To offer to contribute a piece of your own, to tell us about discussions on this topic you are having or planning to have, or for any other queries about the series get in touch with series editor, Kevin Murphy, at: [email protected] 

Creative Commons license - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: CC0, Pexels