Adopting Arts Thinking to Explain Sustainability

Establishing spiritual bonds with landscapes (Fig 1)

“A Tibetan pilgrim marches into sacred valleys aware and in touch with local spirits. His journey is an ascent into a divine residence: a mountain and its roots. As a guest, the pilgrim offers gifts and proceeds with caution and awakened senses. These and other practices weave together a world of places physically present, socially powerful, and personally meaningful”.  Chris Limburg.

1 Spirituality and deep thinking

 Fig 1 Pilgrimage Mountain, Corixus, (2021)

Spirituality and religious activity have been a source of comfort and relief from stress for multitudes of people. While people use many different religions and secular paths to express their spirituality world, ​research has shown that those who use their spirituality to cope with challenges in life experience many benefits to their health and well being.


Spirituality is the broad concept of a belief in something beyond the self. It may involve religious traditions centering on the belief in a higher power, but it can also involve a holistic belief in an individual connection to others and to the world as a whole.  The transcendentalists were responsible for introducing the distinction between religion and spirituality, which is a prominent issue of life in the West today. Spirituality offers a worldview that suggests there is more to life than just what people experience on sensory, physical levels.  It suggests that there is something greater that connects all beings to each other and to the universe itself. Scientifically, this connection is centred on the biochemical unity of life on Earth and its dependence on a Big Bang cosmology that produced all the materials and energy for the evolution of life.  Spirituality strives to answer deeper questions about the meaning of this life, how people are connected to each other and truths about the universe.   and other mysteries of human existence such as consciousness, free will and God.  Other former inscrutable problems, such as the structure of the atom, the molecular basis of replication and the causes of human violence, have been explained by scientific advancements, but consciousness, free will and commitment to a supreme being seem to recede ever further away from understanding.

To think deeply means to go beyond what you think you know. It means to let go of preconceived ideas in order to discover wider truths. By cultivating the skill of deep thinking, we can gain freedom of thought. Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy which promotes the inherent worth of all living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, plus the restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas. Things are deemed to have instrumental value if they help one achieve a particular end; intrinsic values, by contrast, are understood to be desirable in and of themselves.  The deeper your thinking becomes, the more focused, meaningful andvauable your actions will be.

Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives on intrinsic values. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience; something that touches us all. For instance, people may describe a spiritual experience as sacred, transcendent or simply as a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness.   The notion of ‘spirituality in place’ refers to an educational framework for self education that allows people who live and walk there to find greater meaning in their surroundings.  This framework for place-based spirituality  to weave together humanity, sensuality with sustainability, illustrates Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  Maslow originally identified these needs as ‘physiological maintenance’, ‘safety’, ‘love’, ‘esteem’, ‘self-actualization’ and ‘self-transcendence’.  When one of these hierarchical needs is “fairly well satisfied, the next need emerges, in turn to dominate the conscious life”.  The highest level is an expression of self-transcendence characteristic of individuals who have “peak experiences” that strive to further a goal beyond the self.  Self-transcendental goals may involve service to others, devotion to an ideal (e.g. truth, art) or a cause (e.g. social justice, environmentalism, the pursuit of science, a religious faith) and/or a desire to be united with what is perceived as transcendent or divine. 

2  Meditation and mindfulness

According to Maslow, “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”  As such it is the goal of many contemplative practices (Fig 2).

Fig 2 The variety of contemplative practices 

Because of the importance of developing self transcendence new pedagogies are needed to train our minds to dwell fully in the present moment, using contemplative practices that have no goal, no purpose other than just being ).  Eihei Dogen addressed this issue in his “Genjo koan” essay, where he says “When the self advances toward the ten thousand things, is delusion. When the ten thousand things advance to the self, that’s awakening.”  Henry Thoreau defined the methodological problem succinctly as the “difficulty in placing your head where your body is”.  Thoreau continues;

“Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither.  I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.  In my afternoon walk I would feign forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society, but it still  happens sometimes that I cannot easily shake the village.  The thought of some work will run through my head and I am not where my body is. I am out of  my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking out of the woods?”.

The difference between the two states of mind might best be appreciated by calling the first state a “nature meditation” and the second “objectless meditation”.  The latter takes the form of a classic Buddhist practice, which David Jones believes is of limited value because, “… if we are not fully engaged in our experiences at the present moment, then we’re missing stuff. And, if we’re only focused on ourselves, our feet, our muscles, our breathing, we won’t be fully present during this practice.  

Referring to meditative walks, Jones’ advice is, “Center yourself before you begin. It’s important to get your head in the right space before you start. This is where you form the “intention” of your “intentional walk.” In a way, you’re making a vow to walk as a truly awake person, aware and engaged.  Engage the world with all your available senses and attention. Everything around you is a part of you and you’re a part of it; learn to see that connection and you’ll find compassion waiting there”.

A goal of meditation, and its outcome of mindfulness, is to become aware of your thoughts in a nonjudgmental fashion.  ‘Yoga International’ claims that meditation is a practical means for calming yourself, for letting go of your biases and seeing what is, openly and clearly. It is a way of training the mind so that you are not distracted and caught up in its endless churning. Meditation teaches you to systematically explore your inner dimensions. It is a system of commitment, not commandment. You are committing to yourself, to your path, and to the goal of knowing yourself. But at the same time, learning to be calm and still should not become a ceremony or religious ritual; it is a universal requirement of the human body.  

Jeff Warren takes up the idea of meditation-as-path to explore existential questions that have to do with the nature of experience itself, with who we are at the deepest level. It is both a means and an end.  These insights can involve more dramatic transformations around our sense of self and agency and wholeness. Meditation in this sense is both a discovery and a training.  We gain experience about the nature of reality, and yet paradoxically we are sculpting our mind-bodies to receive these discoveries.

School children are experiencing the nature of reality when they complain about the vast quantities of seemingly useless information that they are forced to memorise as part of their education.  Had they been the children of Stone Age hunters, they would have learned their lessons first hand, where the practical value in everyday life would have been obvious. Prehistoric people had to become masters of observation, with an acute knowledge of every plant and animal shape, colour, pattern, movement, sound and smell in so far as knowledge of these aspects of their environment enabled them to survive in a hostile world.  This urge to find memorable pattern and harmony in the environment is called taxophilia and accompanies spirituality.  The human taxophilic imperative was so important that it evolved to become as basic and distinct as the need to feed, mate or sleep.  Originally our ancestors may have classified berries or antelopes as part of their food-finding activities.

In the abstract world of the modern classroom, botany can seem remote, geology boring, and entomology meaningless.  Yet despite these complaints, the taxophilic instinct remains as an urge to commit to memory huge assemblages of facts on topics that will hardly ever encounter a need in the future.   Information is not just simply accumulated; it is classified, particularly where there is a current social context, such as the latest football statistics, scores and titles of pop music, and the makes and dates of manufacture of motorcars.

The human brain functions as a magnificent classifying machine, and every time we walk through a landscape it is busy feeding in new experiences and comparing them with the old.  The brain classifies everything we see, and the survival value of this procedure is obvious. It is also the case with other mammals.  A monkey, for instance, has to know many different kinds of trees and bushes in its forest home, and needs to be able to tell which one has ripening fruit at any particular season, which is poisonous, and which is thorny.  If it is to survive, a monkey has to become a good botanist.  In the same way a lion has to become a first-rate zoologist, able to tell at a glance, which prey species it is, how fast it can run, and which escape pattern it is likely to use.


3  Walking mindfully

In the 1950’s, French philosopher Guy Debord wrote an essay on people’s interaction with urban landscapes, and proposed the idea of psychogeography.  This focuses on discovering forgotten aspects or paths less traveled in the city and the effects that has on the individual in a receptive state.  Debord devized groups of these routes he called “dérives,” (French for “drift”) which were basically long, meandering walks around Paris. Dérives were described as “an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations,” and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”  Debord’s practice of ‘walking drifts’ is the practical outcome of the Buddhist ‘mindful walking practice’, where the goal is to concentrate the mind on the bodily experience of putting one foot in front of the other to reach a high level of awareness defined as mindfulness.   Walking mindfully for a Buddhist is simple; walk at a very slow pace looking down at your feet as you walk. As you pick up one foot, consciously inhale. Setting your foot down, consciously exhale. Focus only on your breathing and footsteps. If thoughts start to pop up in your mind, refocus back on your breath. 

The big question about walking mindfully is how does the practice of mindfulness contribute to individual behaviour change and how does this individual change translate into societal change?

In Debord’s ‘situational practice’ the walker from the start is a spectator on the lookout for the unexpected intervention for deeper thinking.   Situationism is the theory that says changes in human behavior are factors of the situation rather than the mental traits a person possesses. Behaviour is believed to be influenced by external, situational factors rather than internal traits or motivations. However, we can never be free of educational preparedness for accepting the invisible. Indigenous African thought systems believe that the world consists of two realities: the visible and the invisible worlds. The invisible spiritual world comprises entities that are imperceptible to the naked eye but exist within the same temporal/spatial realm of visible human beings. As the visible world changes how does this affect the invisible world? 

The act of experiencing unforeseen changes within a periodic routine has been thoroughly embodied and cherished in both Buddhism and Situationism as a means to achieve moments of enlightenment. A situational walk can be categorized into two stages based on the scale of intervention into the existing urban texture. At the human scale, it can be a series of unexpected architectural insertions, which serve as an invitation for the spectators to explore their taken-for-granted city life under different, unexpected perspectives. These insertions are considered as the unplanned destinations of the walk and in a Zen framework they can serve as stimuli to record deeper thinking about them in words or pictures. At the urban scale, Dubord proposed the deliberate introduction of a number of conceptual pathways for ‘drifting’ and ‘changing course’ as a method of making connections between the human scale insertions. These urban interventions will serve their purpose as the journey, which encourages the spectators to deviate from the ordinary and emerge into the unexpected.  It’s difficult for people to accept but most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment.  In other words, most of the time we are simply reacting instinctively to the world around us. The Buddhist pedestrian seeks to avoid interventions as distractors of meditation whereas the walking Situationist embraces them as starting points for meditations,

The Jesuit priest/poet and Situationist Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the sonnet “God’s Grandeur” in 1877 to convey his reverence for the magnificence of God and nature.  The background was his despair about the way that humanity has seemed to lose sight of the close connection between God and nature during the Industrial Revolution.  The word “grandeur” means grandness or magnificence and was used by the semi-Christian Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. For him, grandeur was the wonderful things generated by natural selection, which he described as ‘the war of nature’, that had a simple and chaotic beginning to produce endless forms and ways of life.

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

In his journals, Manley Hopkins used two terms, “inscape” and “instress” to define the visual system by which we are able to select things in our surroundings for deep thinking and pass on our feelings about them to others.   By “inscape” he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by “instress” he means the force of being which holds the inscape together and carries it whole into the mind of the beholder, from which it reappears as a personalised poem or other art form. The system in which inscape and instress are major components of learning-by-seeing is known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment (the inscape).  It is a route to creativity, as an integral part of the dynamic attributes of our perceptual and conceptual systems (the instress).

Hopkins says “unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.”  Hence, an object’s inscape is not truly discovered until a poet, for example, combines observation with self-examination. The final step of the process is achieved by taking what has been discovered and subsequently studied to capture the object’s essence in words or pictures.  If you have a companion with you the inscape cannot be examined and reported on in this way. Nevertheless, we are surrounded by inscapes; they permeate everything that we see and do.  

There is one notable dead tree . . . the inscape markedly holding its most simple and beautiful oneness up from the ground through a graceful swerve below (I think) the spring of the branches up to the tops of the timber. I saw the inscape freshly, as if my mind were still growing, though with a companion the eye and the ear are for the most part shut and instress cannot come.” G.M.H.

The term inscape refers to the unifying designs by which the unique interior essences of a thing are expressed at its surface,. The word does not merely refer to what is particular and individual about an object, but defines an order or pattern by which these individual essences form an harmonious composition.  For example, Manley Hopkins, in his poem,  As Kingfishers Catch Fire, selected two optical images from an aquatic ecosystem, a kingfisher and a dragonfly.  He selects them because of their individual colourful inscapes. The inner tensions of textures, shapes, patterns and composition by which a reader can recapture the poet’s perception and experience he defines as their instress. Inscape and instress define the actual creative process of an author and determine how it is received into the sight, memory and imagination of a reader so they can recapture the poet’s perception and experience. 

In 1872 Hopkins discovered that Duns Scotus (1265/66–1308), who was one of the most important and influential Christian philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages, has put forward a theory of haecceitas, not unlike his own theory of inscape.  Scotus argues that every thing and every natural phenomenon contains within itself individual properties (principle of individuation) which differentiate it from every other thing. He argues that  each thing possesses intrinsic qualities which make it ‘this thing’ [=haecceitas]  rather than that thing.  It seemed to Hopkins that this endorses his own vision of the makeup of the natural world.  As a Jesuit, Hopkins realises that he is theologically entitled to his perception of the natural world in which each thing, including man, has a specific purpose that reflects its glorious Creator.  For a humanist or a Buddhist it is absolutely clear that facing grandeur expressed in places, systems or objects today there is no longer a need to underline some mythical or divine presence because grandeur is endemic in the thing itself.

Manley Hopkins developed his ideas about inscape and instress around the English verse style.  Can they be applied to the creation of other art forms ? Surely the answer is yes.  For instance, a  digital image where colour is the primary factor responsible for making it feel exciting, lively, mysterious or perhaps melancholic, defines its inscape (Fig 3).  Its instress is revealed by stripping out the colour (Fig 4).  The black and white image highlights more fundamental aspects of the picture, such as the subject, the textures, shapes, patterns, and the composition.  The images have to be viewed as pairs.

Fig 3 God’s grandeur; a ‘ Suffolk gull’ ( the inscape)

Fig 4 God’s grandeur; a ‘Suffolk gull’. (the instress)

5 Buddhist practice and Street View

Google Street View allows an individual to bond virtually with landscapes throughout the world,  It  is a technology featured in Google Maps and Google Earth that provides 

interactive panoramas from positions along streets. It was launched in 2007 in several cities in the United States, and has since expanded to include cities and rural areas in other countries with the aim of documenting  everything in the world that could be seen from a moving car. Street View is a massive, undiscerning machine for image-making whose purpose is to simply capture everything.  Street View takes a continuous panoramic photograph as the camera car is driven along the public roads without apparent concern for ethics or aesthetics, from a supposedly neutral point of view.  The screen-clicking viewer follows the car route on Google Earth, to ‘walk’ mindfully, forwards, backwards or sideways, to reveal a sequence of walking pace views.  These views can be captured and their position recorded on Google Earth as a preliminary to a dialectic between a viewer and a virtual locale.

Working with Google Earth can be a virtual pilgrimage or journey to a sacred place motivated by religious devotion.  However,  the term may also be applied to a meditative search for new spiritual experiences, prolonged wanderings, or travel to a place of nostalgic meaning or absence through bereavement for an individual.  In this context, the term ‘therapeutic landscapes’ was first coined by health geographer, Wilbert Gesler, in 1992 to explore why certain environments seem to contribute to a healing sense of place. Since then, the concept and its applications have evolved and expanded as researchers have examined the dynamic material, affective and socio-cultural roots and routes to experiences of health and wellbeing in specific places and the dynamic nature of people’s therapeutic place assemblages over time.  Objectification, the process through which physical things are imbued with meaning in a specific sociocultural context, is a key concept in this understanding. Objectification is the capacity of things to carry meaning.  It therefore has the potential to assist individuals in their personal growth. Recognition of the symbolic dimension of objects through contemplation is particularly critical in enabling individuals to strive for detachment in highly materialistic societies. 

Semi abstract landscape snapshots can become things of the spirit and objects to meditate upon. The semi abstraction is applied using an algorithm that simplifies the image by desaturating the colour and maximising and unifying surface texture (Figs 5-7  ). Different moments in time and space are then  available for comparative meditation.  Photography encourages mindfulness by heightening our awareness of seeing.  Both photography and meditation require an ability to focus steadily in order to see more clearly. To see in this way involves shifting to a frame of mind in which the habitual view of a familiar and self-evident world is replaced by a keen sense of the unprecedented and unrepeatable configuration of each moment. Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or whether you are composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality.  The following paragraph describes taking a photography as a zen routine.

Fig 5 Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Linstead Magna, Suffolk   

Fig 6  Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Ubbeston, Suffolk 

Fig 7 Cultural ecology of extreme rurality; Ubbeston, Suffolk

When feeling ready, focus your eyes at the centre of your picture and relaxingly keep on your deep breathing. Some feelings and thoughts will start occurring. Take a notice of them but don’t dwell in them. Observe them like they are the feelings and thoughts of somebody else. Your main interest is your breathing. When and if your eyes want to move around the image, let them do so. And then let them focus wherever in the image they want. Don’t force them to stay focused in the centre or any part of the image, and don’t impel them to change place. Just keep your head motionless, focus on your breathing and trust your eyes.

The following is an enlightening testimonial to art as a spiritual routine by Diane Walker.

“Wood warms you four ways: once when you cut it down, once when you drag it home, once when you chop it into kindling, and once when you burn it. For me, contemplative photography works the same way: you get several opportunities to be warmed by that spark of the sacred.  That divine spark expresses itself as a kind of recognition, and it happens for me at four different points in the process: when the subject calls to me; when I’m deciding how to photograph it; when I develop the resulting image, either in the darkroom or on my computer; and, finally, when I decide to engage with the image and see what it has to teach me. And in each case, the key to the process lies in paying attention: being present, being mindful, and not trying too hard to control the results”.

6  The invisible landscape

According to Ed Bastian,

“Contemplation is not an aimless meandering of thought, but a disciplined activity by which one explores and investigates an idea, an insight, a sacred persona, or a truth, in a thoroughgoing way, pursuing its consequences for all aspects of our lives.” 

How does a transcendentally desirous individual live happily and meaningfully?  Zen thinking engages place as a fundamental arena to develop self-transcendence as a central concept behind Buddhist placemaking.  The groundwork is based on geographic thought and Buddhist practices of pilgrimage, namely the cultivation of enlightenment through mindfulness that comes from meditation as a spiritual practice.  The objective is to apply mindfulness to uncover a landscape’s unseen components.  These are the subjective resources of experience, memory, and a narrative, which people familiar with the place understand to be an integral part of its geography.  Outsiders may not suspect the existence of these resources unless they see and listen carefully. This invisible landscape is made visible though stories, and these stories are the focus of the art forms of Zen.  Zen-places encourage individuals to reveal the real condition of their situation as humans in the world working towards their goal of awakening via deep thinking about what they have perceived what they value and how it is communicated

Kent C. Ryden’s ‘Mapping the Invisible Landscape’ is an examination of the concept of place in which he detects and examines a dialectic between a given locale and the representation of that locale in folklore and literature. Traveling across the invisible landscapes in which we imaginatively dwell, Ryden asks the following questions. What categories of meaning do we read into our surroundings? What forms of expression serve as the most reliable maps to understanding those meanings? Our sense of any place, he argues, consists of a deeply ingrained experiential knowledge of its physical makeup; an awareness of its communal and personal history; a sense of our identity as being inextricably bound up with its events and ways of life; and an emotional reaction, positive or negative, to its meanings and memories.  These questions were the drivers for ‘Blything and Nine Parishes’  a community project launched in Suffolk at the dawn of the Internet. A practical goal was for people to seek out things of the spirit as peak experiences that attached them to their locale using a set of Zen aesthetic values embedded in landscape and works of art, whether they be paintings, gardens, ceramics, or architecture. These are, in brief: 

  • Wabi, a nostalgic sense of shabbiness, or decay brought on by age.  “Wabi”  connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects as an expression of understated elegance. It can also be used to refer to the quirks and anomalies that arise from the process of making something, which are seen to add uniqueness and elegance to the finished object; 
  • Sabi, a bittersweet sense of sadness or forlornness.  “Sabi” refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.; 
  • Shibui, a stark sense of unadorned simplicity; “Shibui” (adjective), “shibumi” (noun), and “shibusa” (noun) are Japanese words to express an aesthetic sense of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty. Originating in the Muromachi period (1336–1392) as “shibushi,” the term originally referred to a sour or astringent taste, such as that of an unripe persimmon. Shibui still maintains that literal meaning, and remains the antonym of “amai,” meaning “sweet.” Like other Japanese aesthetic terms, such as “iki” and “wabi-sabi,” shibui can apply to a wide variety of subjects, not just art or fashion. Shibusa objects appear to be simple overall, but include subtle details such as textures, that balance simplicity with complexity.  This balance of simplicity and complexity ensures that one does not tire of a shibui object, but rather constantly finds new meanings and enriched beauties that cause its aesthetic value to grow over the years.
  • Yūgen is said to mean a profound, mysterious sense of the hidden or suggested beauty of the universe and the sad beauty of human suffering. 

A Zen-place will likely exhibit one or more of these values, and they are apprehended by a person in a receptive state as things of the spirit.

4 Things of the spirit

“Spiritual but not religious”, also known as “spiritual but not affiliated”, is a popular phrase used to self-identify what a person accepts as being of ultimate importance. Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion.  However, in contemporary usage spirituality has often become associated with the interior life of the individual, placing an emphasis upon personal well being, while religion refers to organizational or communal dimensions.

An object connected with interior life  can convey the  essence of something that can not be understood necessarily by the mind, rather in the senses. All great works of art move and transport one into a state where we feel enchanted by the spirit of the painting, story, or song. We are taken over by an essence, an experience, that transforms our sense of a wider, deeper world and our place in it.  The phrase “power objects” has been used to describe transpersonal carriers, the term originating within every culture in the world.  Such objects of mediation have been called ‘artes’ and indigenous cultures especially view artes as tools, as aids to ensoulment i.e. they are used to define selfhood. Things of the spirit are thereby considered “animate” with consciousness and intelligence, a stretch of the imagination that justifies their collection as evidence of well being.  Connecting to spirits through objects is the essence of Shamanism, an ancient religious practice that involves a practitioner who is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance. The goal of this is usually to direct these spirits or spiritual energies into the physical world, for healing or another purpose. 

Intangible, non-physical concepts are difficult to grasp. They are elusive by nature because we cannot see, feel, touch or hear them.  Artes are representations of what is meaningful to us as well as links to greater unseen forces we know exist in our cosmos. We engage and commune with these objects because it gives us the physical sensation and connection our bodies crave.  A collection of artes collected together on an altar (Fig 8) helps devotees cultivate the ability to connect at a deeper, sharper, and more distinct level with the subtle realms, abstract concepts, and multiple dimensions we traverse in our daily shamanic lives.

Fig 8 A New Age, personalised shamanistic altar

Shamanism is everywhere. If we go deep in Hinduism and Buddhism, we find they have their base in shamanism, although now there is a difference between these institutionalised religions and shamanism, which was/is the original tribal earth spirituality.  It is generally agreed that shamanism originated among hunting-and-gathering cultures, and that it persisted within some herding and farming societies after the origins of agriculture. Some would say that the Hindu puja (Fig 9) evolved from the interactive shaman altar.

Fig 9 Hundu family puja

‘New Age’ is a range of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices, derived from shamanism which rapidly grew in the Western world during the 1970s.  Although analytically often considered to be religious, those involved in it typically prefer the designation of spiritual or Mind, Body, Spirit and rarely use the term New Age themselves.

It was in this context that Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk  became involved in defining things of the spirit in their parish churches, particularly the villages representing settlements on the watershed of the River Blyth, which flowed through the town.  The project was taken up by the school’s poetry group, which made links with communities served by the school and its primary feeders. Pupils and their parents took pictures of objects in local churches to focus discussions about the importance of spirituality to a largely secular society.  The idea came from researching the demolition of the medieval church at Linstead Magna and the sale of Ubbeston’s church and its conversion to a private house.  There is now a biennial memorial pilgrimage to the site of Linstead’s church, which together with its churchyard, is a memorial artifact expressed by a crop mark in a huge arable field.  This has become a thin place where imagination about the past and present can run riot.  In this context, Avril Maddrell develops a thesis for the powerful absence-presence in vernacular memorial artefacts, spaces and performances at a variety of scales and locations.  She explores the ways in which the emotions, memory and materiality of absence through death/loss are expressed and negotiated in different memorial forms and landscape settings in the British Isles. She questions how living with absence as a result of bereavement or loss of an historical connection is mediated through different material forms and practices including expressions of continuing spiritual bonds with landscape.

7  A non dualistic pedagogy

Today, many people argue that scientific thinking presents a powerful challenge to religion because it offers explanations of nature, the cosmos, and human origins that require no reference to God or any other manifestation of spiritual power.  In an age dominated by economism and its supportive philosophy of instrumentalism, science thinking is taught as the essence of economism and instrumentalism. Science education is seen as an investment for future employment to support the endless growth and spread of capitalism.  For the past three centuries, education systems of the West have been based on an instrumentalist pedagogy of scientific thinking with unsustainable outcomes because the world is being used as a warehouse for our consumption and as a sink for our wastes. The concept of duality frames our world so that we split things up into separate sides.  There are many examples of dualistic thinking.  The separation of science and art in curricula is an instance of dualism with widespread repercussions in the way we treat ecological problems, which require cross subject thinking to solve them. The arts are often considered unimportant, or, at best, to have entertainment or recreation value. However, arts thinking has a wider and deeper scope centred on beauty and ethics as a system of moral principles concerned with what is good for individuals and society. In terms of effects on society, there is strong evidence that participation in the arts can contribute to community cohesion, reduce social exclusion and isolation, and/or make communities feel safer and stronger. Principles and standards of ethical behavior are as important to peace, order, and social cooperation in the world as they have ever been. Science, however, has very little to tell us about ethics. Also, persistent poverty, environmental degradation, epidemic disease, and crime have defied the best efforts of humanity’s scientific imagination. Amid the distresses and dangers of our contemporary era, people have sought not only cooperative, communal ties to one another but also moral and spiritual certainties. Spiritual quests and ethical questions continue to be a vital part of human culture. In Zen and Taoist thinking, arts and science merge to become a holistic aspect of the human educational  experience.  It is in this context that the arts are essential and critical  to our planetary survival.  In particular, we need to apply arts thinking to explain sustainability.  We live unsustainably because we see but do not look.  We go for immediate judgement and we  intellectualise objects.  A nondual prescription to live sustainably is to first put aside the desire to judge immediately; acquire the habit of just looking long and hard. Second, do not treat objects as subjects for the specialists to chew over endlessly. Third,  just be ready to receive, passively, without interposing yourself.  All Zen arts  provide ways to achieve this state of intensified consciousness.      

Zen as practice is really about re-animating our consciousness.  Zen arts are concrete, sensuous ways to  accomplish this re-animation of the self and the universe. The key to Zen arts is to repeatedly, release and arrest the hyperactive intellect by means of complete  absorption in what is perceived or experienced moment by moment. What results is intensification of  consciousness through concentrated and sustained attention.  This is how Thomas Berry evocatively describes the outcome of zen thinking: 

“The thousandfold voices of the natural world suddenly became inaudible  to the human. The mountains and rivers and the wind and the sea all  became mute insofar as humans were concerned. The forests were no  longer the abode of an infinite number of spirit presences but were simply  so many board feet of lumber to be “harvested” as objects to be used for 

human benefit. Animals were no longer the companions of humans in the  single community of existence”.  

Similarly, Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the Japanese Mingei (folk crafts) movement, gives this advice on incorporating a zen approach to  cultivate artistic perception for living sustainably:

“Such consciousness is no  longer divided into the subject and the object, the perceiver and the perceived.  The two poles of perception are integrated into a seamless unity, and as a result, a tremendous sense of vitality is released. This is how we re-animate the universe.  This is the way to heal our sense of existential alienation and numbing which  drives us more and more to such pathological behaviour as treating the world as  if it had no life of its own and existed solely for the human consumption and wastage”.

These quotations raise an important example of our collective nonduality with Earth. The basic problem now is that our species feels separate from the rest of the biosphere. We think that we are superior to its other creatures, and that the earth is just an endless collection of material resources for us to exploit. This duality has become dangerous, for us as well as most other species. Can we really resolve the ecological crisis without realizing this type of duality cannot continue?  A nondual ecological culture to manage Earth’s bounty sustaonaly is required to address an ecological crisis (Fig 10).  

Fig 10 A non dualistic pedagogy

8 Internet references

Contemplative photography

Connecting to spirits through objects


Things of the spirit at St Michaels

The puja

Spiritual life and moral codes

Community learning

Situationism and Buddhism

Zen with Google Street View

Towards a Buddhist place making

The real meaning of meditation

Learning from zen arts

Meditation: consider walking

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