Turn Away from Mindless Living

Practice of the Week
Turn Away from Mindless Living

Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.

We’re all addicted to some degree. Whether it’s to something relatively benign like coffee or something far more insidious and destructive, the addict’s mindset is a familiar one. Denial, blame, struggle…recovery? In the face of overwhelming trauma, denial can be a functional coping mechanism. With addiction, however, the trauma becomes internalized and denial is both chronic and toxic.

Humanity’s transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture separated us from the natural world: this may have been our original trauma. Chellis Glendinning writes:
“The small-scale, nomadic life that had endured through more than a million years and thirty-five thousand generations was irreparably altered. The human relationship with the natural world was gradually changed from one of respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination. The social, cultural, and ecological foundations that had previously served the development of a healthy primal matrix were undermined, and the human psyche came to develop and maintain itself in a state of chronic traumatic stress.” (My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization)
Chronic traumatic stress prompted denial, and the psychic foundation of addictive behavior was laid. Our addictive predilection manifests in various ways. We are collectively addicted to consumerism and the maintenance of our lifestyle. Even if we personally do not have the means to live lavishly, we are still affected by the cultural mindset that encourages maximum consumption. We have been addicted to petroleum, to junk food, to quick fixes, to big cars, to bigger houses, to easy credit, to throw-away products, and to overspending.

Active addicts typically refuse to face their problem, and find a million excuses to explain away their behavior, as well as its effects on those around them. Our cultural addictions provide plenty of evidence of this kind of denial. Even as Pacific islands sink under rising seas and droughts, and storms and floods increase in intensity and frequency, we ignore the consequences of global climate change. Even as fish populations collapse and ocean garbage patches grow ever larger, we continue to overfish and pollute the seas. Even as cancer rates rise and children suffer from asthma in increasing numbers, we refuse to hold corporations responsible. We explain all of this away because we don’t want to risk damaging the economy by facing the truth. We shut our eyes, cover our ears, and allow our elected leaders to ignore reality in pursuit of short-term profits.

Living in denial is mindless living. We who live in a dysfunctional addictive culture remain disconnected, out of touch and in a state of mindless denial. This is all of us, to some extent. The path to recovery for an addict usually begins with the hitting rock bottom and/or being confronted by loving friends in an intervention. What constitutes rock bottom varies considerably from person to person. As a culture, I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but frankly it’s a place I don’t want to go. Rock bottom would mean an utterly devastated and ravaged Earth, with unimaginable suffering for billions of people. We need an intervention instead.

The first step of 12-step programs is for the addict to admit the problem and to admit powerlessness over the situation. In other words, it means facing up to reality. Addictions are a huge challenge, but every day across the country, someone steps forward and admits a problem. Every day, people of all walks of life successfully live another day in recovery. Life in recovery is so much better than continuing to indulge the addiction.


1. Journaling: List How You Have Harmed. Addicts in 12-step programs make a list of those harmed and make restitution to the wronged parties as much as possible. Following this model, make a list of ecological and social harms your lifestyle exacerbates. Focus on just one aspect of your lifestyle – such as food, energy, or clothing. In your journal, list possible ecological and social harms worsened by that aspect of your lifestyle. Then list some ways that you could help heal the damage. Follow through on the most practical of the possibilities.

2. See With New Eyes. Go out to your favorite natural spot – a park or wild area where you will be undisturbed. Sit and carefully observe the natural world around you. Read aloud the above paragraph from Chellis Glendinning. Repeat the phrase: “detachment, management, control, domination.” Repeat these words several times, allowing them to sink in. Then sit in silence for several minutes, continuing to carefully observe your surroundings. In your journal, write about the thoughts and feelings that came up for you.

3. Stream of Consciousness Journaling. For this exercise, set a timer for 10 minutes. Once you begin, keep your pen moving on the paper, writing continuously without pause for the 10 minutes. Topic: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (Thoreau). What does “lives of quiet desperation” mean? Have you ever known anyone to whom it would apply? Would it apply to you? How do mindless living and denial contribute to desperation?

Group Activities

An Experiment in Awareness. With upbeat music playing, the group walks or dances around the room for about five minutes. Move with intensity and use the entire space. Then do the same thing again, only this time everyone walks or dances backward. Afterward, take seats to discuss: How did the experiences differ? Did the backward movement require more mindfulness? What can this simple, silly game teach us about breaking out of patterns of addictive, mindless living and denial? What behavioral changes could group members make to depart from mindless denial?

Questions for Group Conversation:

  • Do you know anyone who has struggled with addiction? What has the experience taught you that might be relevant to our collective cultural addiction?
  • When have you lived mindlessly? What lessons emerge from your recollection?
  • What experiences of heightened awareness have you had? How can remembering these experiences help you live less mindlessly?
  • What does denial mean? How does denial play out in our culture?

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For a more detailed, scholarly case for the trauma of the neolithic rise of agriculture, see John Lanchester, "The Case Against Civilization: Did Our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors Have It Better?" New Yorker, 2017 Sep 18.

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