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Reflections On Cessation & Civilization

David Jon Peckinpaugh

[Note: The contention about to be made in the following essay centers on the 'process of Civilization' as nothing more than a set (or series) of conditioned responses, habits, tendencies, inclinations, and assumptions—all of which happen to fall under the heading of the Buddha's analysis of dukkha as related to persons.]

If I could sum up the Buddha's message of import to a suffering species—meaning, his series of revelations to Humanity—it would be to point out the vital necessity of ceasing the habitual activities, as well as the chronic psychological and emotional states underlying such habitual re-enactments. Just stop! This prescription is not about what we are to 'do now.' The palliative for an ailing planet is not just another in a series of footnotes within the annals of production and purposefulness. Not doing more or doing better. Just stop! Just not-do! Remain seated please. Hold your position amidst the welter of cascading sensations and feelings, fluctuating emotional states and periodized episodes of heightened dramaticism—all of which are so readily generated by a fruitful imagination.

Just please stay seated.

Stay seated so you might finally come to know how compulsive are certain of our acts. Just stay seated so you might finally come to realize how intensely driven we can come to be; or how easily programmed our actions are; or how naturally our behaviours seem to follow in logical progression from incipient states of consciousness that give rise to moments of moods that descend upon us like dark clouds, covering our eyes and our I. Just stay seated. Remain in a state of non-doing and you/I might realize freedom for one day, for one moment, in one instant, and do so through what looks like a form of bondage and imprisonment—staying still, non-reactive, holding our place in the center of the cyclone that is Civilization.

It is either this or else. It is either this or else we all keep getting what we have always already gotten.

In terms of Civilization—civil, huh, how about that oxymoron!—this would mean more Wars and the manufacture of the weapons and mind-sets that partake in those Wars; that fight those Wars; that ask others to die for causes that they didn't ever get a chance to vote for knowledgably. It also means more of what the poignant authour Derrick Jensen has termed the valuing of 'production over life' itself: that a Redwood deck and patio on a house in Connecticut or Kansas is better than Redwood Forests in the Pacific Northwest; that another Red Lobster establishment in a strip mall is better than a densely and diversely populated North Atlantic Ocean.

As far as Civilization goes, the failure to cease and desist appears to mean an ongoing carnage that includes persons, plants, and animals alike. In terms of Civilization, the failure to not-do, seems to invite a future of more War, more Poverty, more Slavery, and more Famine.

Sounds like a fairly 'civil' state of affairs to me. How about to you?

Dominator Modes: Production & Consumption

If we are to look at Civilization in terms of the predominant modes of production—which is a Marxian analysis of Civilization, if you will—then we can readily see, as others have pointed out, beginning with Karl Marx, just how dominant are those systems that assert the supremacy of efficiency as the primary means towards the chief end—which is 'growth' and 'increased productivity.' So, what we have are the 'means of efficiency' being valued as the best and most fitting way to achieve the stated 'ends of increased productivity.' This is Civilization, properly speaking: Productivity as end; efficiency as means to that end.

Now, let's couple this concise analysis of Civilization with what we know to be the case in terms of psychological health and well-being, as derived from the annals of therapeutic psychoanalysis. Allow me to begin with a quote from the psychoanalytic author and essayist, Adam Phillips.

Indeed one of the things one might be doing in analysis is showing the so-called patient just how he goes about choreographing is favourite dispiriting drama… This great unkindness, this inventive cruelty to oneself always has one overriding consequence; it renders a person apparently predictable to themselves… Like a charm or a spell, the endlessly compelling sado-masochistic project—with its virtually mechanical forms of reproduction—distracts a person from the only freedom they have, the freedom to choose an unpredictable future for themselves.[2]

The key phrases, as you can see, I have italicized. These being, 'it renders a person apparently predictable' along with, 'virtually mechanical forms of reproduction.' Clearly these are forms of efficiency, even if they are classified as a form of pathology when it comes to optimum mental health. The irony here is unmistakable—at least to me it is—namely, that the ability to reproduce, in predictable fashion, is held as a sort of gold standard by which to measure our capacity to 'increase productivity' according to the tenets of Civilization proper; but, at the same time, this supposed 'gold standard' is seen as being a form of psycho-pathology as far as psychoanalysis goes. In other words, Civilization's predominant mode of production—where increases of efficiency = increases of production—is seen from the perspective of mental health as contributing to psycho-pathology within the individual.

Endless repetition is itself the form which addiction tends to take. This same mode of efficiency, though, is also valued as being the chief means for achieving increased productivity. One has to ask why, though, are not the 'virtually mechanical forms of reproduction' that Civilization proper encourages, in the name of growth and productivity, not seen as forms of addiction, not seen as a means to generating incipient forms of psycho-pathology, not seen as contributing factors to a society's burden of addictive behaviour.

Addiction is predictable behaviour. Civilization's predominant modes of production are predictable. Why, though, is one frowned upon while the other is held in esteem? Are we not noticing a connection here between Civilization's predominant modes of production and a populace burdened with chronic forms of pathological behaviour, pernicious forms of addiction—i.e., those habitual activities that make us oh so predictable to ourselves.

Perhaps addiction and Civilization's predominant modes of production are just the 'mutually interpenetrating ways' that we make ourselves predictable to one another, as well as to ourselves. It is in this manner that we could also be said to be endlessly foreclosing on an unpredictable future for ourselves, and the planet as a whole. Which is why we can expect more of the same: more War, more Poverty, more Class-division—meaning more, Famine and Slavery in the guise of 'development.' Oh yes, and of course, more reassurances from the Secular prophets and priests telling us that Civilization's Gods are with us still. Which, if you care to know, is a truth that is far from reassuring to those with eyes to see and ears to hear; in fact, it makes their hearts wary and their blood quicken.

This is the strange and convoluted logic—the ill-logic, if you will—of those who suggest that it is simply a lack of efficiency and a lack of production that is to blame for what ails us personally and collectively. We just need more production and more efficiency (which according to our analysis here is another way of saying, 'more addiction!') in order to deal with the problems and dilemmas facing us. We just need to work harder and smarter.

This kind of illogical explanation for a remedy and cure to Civilization's increasingly problematic nature flies in the Bright and Serene Face of the Buddha. It is the Buddha who suggests not a continuation along the path or trajectory of what we have been 'doing,' but, instead, a cessation of the kind of doing we have become chronically predisposed to. We don't need to 'do harder' or 'do better' or even 'do smarter.' What we need is to stop doing altogether!

We need to go 'cold turkey' as they say. Stop! Cease! Just sit! Refrain! Abstain from the 'virtually mechanical forms of reproduction.'

Stop… stop and you will see the madness and insanity of those predominant modes of production that are little more than addictions in the guise of efficiency and predictability. Repetitive motions. Modes of production. Repeatable patterns. Highly predictable motions and behaviours. The same thing being done over and over and over again. Repeat. Be predictable. Be civilized. Be a habitual offender. Be a chronic dis-ease, efficiently producing and consuming and repeating and producing and consuming and repeating and...

Just become an addict. Just become civilized. Take up Civilization's Cross and enact the rituals designed for your efficient and speedy secular salvation.

Oh… and don't stop. Don't ever stop. Civilization's Gods need your ritualistic reenactment. So be efficient and predictable. You will be rewarded for it. Given a nice lot in Suburbia, a nice shack in the shanty-town, a nice corrugated metal roof in a squatter's village, right beside the factory/temple where we go to work and worship those Gods who make fools out of us everyday.

Doing-Good, Being-Bad

It is relatively easy—perhaps even inevitable in a way—for a society/culture of doers and doing to become so invested and involved in certain behaviours and actions that these come to take on a life of their own. In such a society/culture there is so much emphasis put on doing—on action—that little of any thought is given to the merits of non-doing, i.e., of inaction, of rest, of silence, of repose, of quiet, of stillness.

Case in point: In the East there is much more emphasis placed on non-doing. In fact, non-doing is realized as being the fount of action and doing itself. Out of emptiness comes form. And to emptiness does form return.

In the West, though, emptiness is perceived—erroneously some would say—as death itself. Emptiness is nothing. And nothing is… well, nothing!

According to the West, from nothing you get nothing. The East, though, maintains that from nothing comes everything. What a paradox this is! Opposites generate each other. Like gives birth to that which is not-like itself. For example, everything returns to that nothing that everything originally came from. Emptiness is none other than form, form is none other than Emptiness.

To the Western educated mind this sounds like utter rubbish. How can opposites be one another? How can that which is supposed to be opposed to something else be that which it is opposed to? How can day be night and night be day? How can good be evil and evil be good? How can beautiful be ugly and ugly be beautiful? They can't, can they?

The Western educated mind tends not to think so. The Western educated mind is clear on what stands in opposition to that which it is opposed to. There is no 'mutual interpenetration of opposites.' Opposites are… well, opposites! Black is black and white is white. Dark is dark and light is light. Things are what they are and that is that. End of discussion.

The argument being put forth here is that Civilization—the emerging Global version of such, which is certainly a strain of the Western variety—tends to posit something along the lines of the following: that when we encounter problems or dilemmas action is immediately required. We cannot delay, prevaricate, hesitate, withdraw, or take a moment. Hesitation, as such, is perceived as a form of weakness and indecision. It is most certainly not perceived as a form of contemplation and withdrawal from the intensity of the situation so that one might be educated into a larger understanding of the situation so that more effective action might then emerge from the emptiness evoked in a moment of supposed crisis.

The hidden dangers of a 'take charge' mentality are very much evident to those who are not exclusively Westernized citizens of the world. Exposure to an understanding that has disclosed the merits of retreat and withdrawal, patience and contemplation, silence and inaction, tends to educate one in such a way that they become more open to non-Western forms of problem-solving.

Applying this to the problems and dilemmas of Civilization seems to warrant some deep consideration. After all, if our actions and investment in doing are not bearing any long-term fruit—beneficial to both humans and non-humans alike—then perhaps it is time to step out of the maddening loop of one crisis after another that Civilization has very clearly become noted for.

Another way of saying this would be to propose that the solutions of Secularization—which are deemed as being the necessary antidotes to what ails us—are merely so many ways of generating more and more Civilizationally-derived crises. Here the solution is but another problem—a future crisis—in disguise. Evidence the War in Iraq circa 2004. Evidence the use of pesticides and insecticides in terms of Agri-business. Evidence the genocide of Indigenous peoples as a way to clear the way for the Imperialistic assault on natural resources the world over. Realize that these are all solutions that were—and are now even!—proposed as sufficient answers to problems.

And let me ask you, would it not have been wise to take more time and hesitate before eliminating the supposed problem of Native Americans? Would it not have been wise to exhibit some non-doing in terms of the application of pesticides and insecticides the world over? Would it not have been wiser to prevaricate when the solution of invading Iraq was proposed as 'the only viable answer' to the dilemma presented by a dictator and his regime? Would a little of indecision spared more than a little life?

Don't you want a leader who hesitates, who is not so sure and certain? Isn't wisdom realized in the silence of withdrawal from the theatre of Civilization's series of unending crises?

Strangely enough, certainty can be seen as being the most deadly and murderous state of consciousness we are each heir to. I am certain that this man must die. I am certain that you deserve death. I am certain that these Redwoods deserve to fall. I am certain that it is better for our nation's economy to begin drilling along the Rocky Mountain Front. I am certain that this course of action is warranted. I am certain that our foreign policy is on the right track. I am certain that the Jews should be eliminated from the face of the Earth… that they are a scourge. I am certain that some deserve a life of slavery at best. I am certain that some people are more special than others are—hence, deserve more love, respect, dignity, and appreciation than do others. I am certain that in protecting our nation's interests abroad we are going to have pre-emptively strike out against others. I am certain that before they get us, we need to get them. And I am certain that we will.

Of course there are times when we may need to be decisive. An emergency arises and we need to take effective action immediately in order to spare lives. However—and this however is the most notable qualification that I can think of regarding this point at present—when the emergency passes a bit of deliberation is not without its merit. In fact, such deliberation can be seen as essential!

When a crisis passes and the time for decisive action is over we need to be able to sever ourselves from this sense of impending crisis. In our ability to do so is discovered our truest capacity for working on ways that we can prevent crisis from arising in the first place. This is when the call for thoughtfulness and deliberation, contemplation—and as I have contended, even total withdrawal from the situation—so that a too-tight mind will not contract around the problem so that the most effective remedy is barred from entry into our awareness.

In other words, we need to get away from the problem in order to deal with the problem most effectively.

This is not avoidance of the issue at hand. This 'getting away from the problem' is what allows us the privilege of a greater perspective. When we get some distance on a problem or dilemma we are suddenly able take into our awareness more of the factors surrounding that particular problem—that is, we are able to now notice the variables that contribute to the problem, but which we may not have been able to notice when we were way too close to the problem—i.e., when we were 'right on top' of it.

So get some distance. Create some space. Gain some separation. Remove yourself from the situation—the intensity of the environment, the immersion, the embeddedness, the stuck-ness of it all. Transcend. Go beyond. Get away from it for awhile so you can see 'it' more clearly within a larger context.

For example, imagine we are reading an essay and we are so focused on a particular passage that we presume to know exactly what that passage means. We are sure of its meaning. We are certain of what this is all about; what is being indicated by a particular statement or assertion. Yet, if we were able to take into account the whole essay itself we might find that the passage is seen to suddenly mean something else entirely. We would see that the passage's actual meaning and significance is not what we had initially presumed it was, but is, instead, quite other than what we had initially assumed it to be.

In terms of the problems and dilemmas that seem to arise in the course of our life, and do so quite naturally, we could say that those apparent solutions that we think are quite 'fitting'—while we are immersed in the problematic situation—can suddenly be revealed—with some distance and perspective—as exacerbating the problem vs. resolving it.

The twisted irony of this implies that what might appear on the surface as being a form of neglect and indecisiveness—gaining some distance and space from the problematic situation itself—can actually be seen as a necessary step in the process of arriving at an effective solution and/or remedy. So what would seem to be a movement away from the world—transcendence—is actually one of the best measures of our ability to deal effectively with the dilemmas that arise in the course of our days and nights here on earth.

Transcendence is the Way towards a greater perspective on the things of this-world. Period.

Strangely enough, those who seek to have us become more and more invested in the problematic situations of the world are quite likely encouraging us to become increasingly incapable of ever dealing effectively with those problems. Our being so involved and invested in the situation can result in 'our losing all perspective.' Content starts to trump context. We lose our bearings. We can get ourselves so enmeshed in the challenges of a particular situation that we maybe fail to realize whether or not any such challenges have a direct bearing on the problem at hand, i.e., whether or not we are even dealing directly with the central dilemma, or are unwittingly encouraging the proliferation of that dilemma.

So we may be accused of 'bailing out' just when others are getting ready to 'buckle down.' We may be the ones who are seen as 'giving up' and 'throwing in the towel.' Others may see themselves as 'rolling up their sleeves' and getting ready to do all of the 'dirty work;' while they see us as 'withdrawing' and being 'neglectful.'

These are the kinds of accusations that have always been leveled at contemplatives. The contemplative is not 'action-oriented' enough. The contemplative is 'too withdrawn.' The contemplative one is 'far too passive.'

And yet it is the contemplative who sees… who knows… who through a greater perspective that bestows a more inclusive and encompassing awareness of the situation just how it is that those who level the accusations are caught up in 'spinning their wheels,' in 'chasing their own tails—that is, in pursuing the tail of a problem that is an outgrowth of their own efforts and activities. It is the contemplative who is able to see—and realize—just how much senseless activity there is in relation to problems that are not so much (re)solved by chronic doing and activity, as they are fed by such chronic doing and activity.

Better said, it is the contemplative who is rewarded with a far greater insight into just how much perspective is being lost by those who are so eager to solve the world's numerous problems, through immersing themselves into the fray whole-heartedly. The contemplative might certainly appear aloof and dis-interested; and to the extent that there is activity and doing for the sake of activity and doing this is indeed the case. The contemplative is one who has, in all likelihood, already traveled the road of enmeshment and embeddedness in this-world's predicaments. And it was realized that immersing one's self in this-world's strange and convoluted predicaments only served to feed energy to those systems that perpetually (re)generate a series of tragedies, dilemmas and crises—as well as strategies and methods for dealing with them all. So one day there is a (re)consideration given to just how effective immersion in the world's predicaments for the sake of (re)solving them has actually been. This gives way to the realization that the fundamental predicament of this-world has not given way through immersion in action and the freneticism doing—that this has only added to the anxiety surrounding such. Retreat suddenly seemed apropos.

So our withdrawal from deep immersion and embeddedness in the social and cultural communities that are so heavily invested—neigh, nearly fixated!—on dealing with the fundamental predicaments of this-world has come to be realized as also being a withdrawal of vital energy from those systems that support and sustain this-world's problematic situations in the name of (re)solving them.

This is the 'spirit of resignation' that I am contending was at the heart of the cessation that the Buddha prescribed more than 2,500 years ago. It applies directly to the dilemmas posed by Civilization. To the extent that we become non-participants in either the problems presented by Civilization, or the solutions proposed by Secularity, we effectively deprive the whole system of the energy it needs to sustain itself.

Through ceasing to react compulsively to this sense of dilemma presented by Civilization we effectively pierce the veil of secrecy that makes it seem to us that a) Civilization is necessary, and b) that we therefore need to save Civilization through the Secular offices set up in the name of our doing so.

We don't need to fight the system; anymore than we need to fight an emotion or a feeling, a sensation or a symptom that arises in the course of our meditations. We don't need to solve or heal the system either. We just let it extinguish itself. Neither reinforcement nor resistance is required.


Jensen, Derrick, The Culture Of Make Believe, New York: NY, Context Books, 2003.

Phillips, Adam, Equals, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002.

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