The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction
Reviewed by: Sig Laser, January 2014
Canadian author and sustainability educator Mark Burch is well known for his books on Voluntary Simplicity and this past December saw the publication of his most recent offering, “The Hidden Door”, which by all appearances is his most significant and comprehensive work to date. It is in every sense a visionary work and his past readers and newcomers alike will be impressed by the range and depth of his considered analysis of our current malaise and the social and environmental morass that besets Western societies.
Sub titled, “Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction”, “The Hidden Door” is edited and published by the Simplicity Institute of Melbourne Australia, which then availed itself of Amazon’s “Create Space” for printing, and subsequent distribution via Amazon’s North American and international network. It will be interesting to see in which sections bookshops choose to display the book, as it legitimately covers a range of subjects such as the environment, voluntary simplicity, politics, spirituality, education and economics. To its detriment, it may occasionally also find itself slotted in the overflowing self- actualization and human potential bucket; it’s both a more serious and more visionary book than that.
The Buddhist Vipassana meditation practice (mindfulness of breathing) is the foundation of the author’s at once practical and utopian visioning. He uses the metaphor of a hidden door, hidden in the walls of the prison cell of our affluent consumer culture, but waiting for discovery by those prepared to develop the patience, concentration, and powerful awareness that inner stillness can bring. In other words, a deliberately cultivated mindfulness can lead to a desire for more simple living and provide us with guidance for the “right livelihood” and “right action” prescribed by the engaged Buddhism that is a major inspiration for Burch. He seeks to apply the insights of meditation practice to social, economic and environmental injustice.
As a sometime participant in what I like to call my Saturday morning Buddhist “catechism” classes, I have been content to splash around in the shallows but find this a congenial perspective and have found much in “The Hidden Door” that will be of use on my own journey of discovery.
Burch writes in the aftermath of the economic turbulence post 2008 and he is well aware of the dislocations which continue to beset us as individuals in this post-Fordist era. Writers always have an imagined audience of readers in mind, and when I think of the potential readership for the book I picture an educated, literate, concerned, but largely comfortable middle class individual struggling with the burdens of too much affluence. These readers will find a treasure trove of remarkable insight and gentle guidance.
Mark Burch treats his intended readers very gently; no doubt he knows them better than I do, but there’s a possibility that some righteous anger and old fashioned fire and brimstone might also stir an awakening, especially given his premise of the overhang of extinction we face. My personal preference (and comfort) is for a more outspoken and pointed language and I wished at times that his descriptions and analyses held closer to the socio-political categories that inform current public discourse of the issues addressed. For example, his category, “consumer culture” is a consistent stand-in for, dare we say the word, “Capitalism”. This is not to say that he is unaware of the historic dynamic of capitalism and its depredations, only that he seems hesitant to foreground it for his readers and by doing so perhaps prematurely forecloses aspects of the Political.
I wonder what resonance this might have for those struggling with the insecurities of part-time or contract work and the generalized precariousness that characterizes intellectual labour and what some commentators have called our new “affective economy”. In the context of omnipresent social media, terms such as mindfulness, resilience and self- sufficiency can be susceptible to co-optation by the nostrums of the self-help industry and can too easily made to fit with the corrosive individuality of personal branding and self-commodification and valourization, (“the IPO of the self”).
I think Mark Burch is well aware of this as he consistently points us in the direction of community, cooperation, the local, sufficiency and of a nurturing mutual aid. As a long-time teacher of voluntary simplicity, university based sustainability director, transition town worker, and continuously as an author, he has established a level of trust that will surely float this book to the success it deserves. Just don’t expect a self- help manual a la Oprah or Dr. Phil, “The Hidden Door” is an antidote to all that.
The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction.
by Mark A. Burch
Reviewed by: Rodney Kueneman, PhD. (Sociology)
Reading and reflecting on this book provides an opportunity for a careful, systematic, rigorous, and deep appreciation of the place of mindfulness in our personal and collective affairs. This book is the most recent iteration of Mark’s personal body of writing on this topic and it is deep and rich in insights. His grasp of the meaning and importance of the myriad concepts, topics, issues, shortcomings, and positive ways forward that he considers will provide you with an opportunity to clarify, deepen and interrogate your own understanding of and affinity for voluntary simplicity. If this is your first foray into this vitally important topic, you will find him to be a respectful, honest, sophisticated and illuminating guide. Mark has located his work in the long standing and rich intellectual tradition on simple living and this orientation and framing is most helpful.
Mindfulness is a cultivated aptitude and requires a kind of reflection that humans do not automatically or naturally employ. It is a reflexive understanding, which Mark suggests encourages us to “conceive of our individuality in terms of our relationships” with other members of the community of life. This mindfulness will help each of us fashion a deliberate way of living in order to live well (i.e. prosper) while having the smallest ecological footprint possible. His contrast of affluence with sufficiency is an especially lucid analysis. It provides a thorough and damning indictment of consumer culture which shamelessly promotes excess, waste, desire and an unexamined life to usher in our extinction. There is a penetrating analysis of the relationship between mindful sufficiency, communication, education, economy, technology, and human rights. The treatment of these topics is also studded with reflections on a plethora of other topics, each the fruit of a disciplined meditation undertaken by the author. A careful reading of this book will take some time but will be well worth the investment. Mindful sufficiency needs to have a central place in our personal decision-making and this book examines the central facets of a life well lived.
The Hidden Door:
Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction
by Mark A. Burch
Reviewed by: Megan Krohn, Manitoba Eco-Network, for the Eco-Journal, Spring 2014.
Mark A. Burch’s The Hidden Door explores how humankind’s pursuit of limitless affluence, supported by a culture shaped by and oriented toward consumerism, is destroying our planet. Burch provides convincing evidence that our over-consumption may, in turn, lead to our extinction if we do not make changes. In stark contrast to consumer culture, Burch suggests a different way of life, one where through engaging in voluntary simplicity, or mindful sufficiency, we can ensure that there are enough resources for all people, and we can benefit individually from a better quality of life.
The Hidden Door is written with the assumption that the reader has a basic understanding of the concept of mindful sufficiency, which is the practice of conscious engagement with daily life in order to achieve the maximum well-being with minimum material consumption. Practitioners of mindful sufficiency are more concerned with qualitative deepening rather than with quantitative growth.
As a practitioner of mindful sufficiency since the 1960’s, and with decades of experience writing and speaking to groups on the topic, Burch is well suited to speak to the potential benefits for individuals, communities and the environment of adopting this way of life. He also intelligently counters arguments set forward by others that mindful sufficiency is not compatible with a healthy economy and technological advancements.
Burch is able to re-imagine the world: communities, the economy and technology. He paints a picture of a future in which all people have equitable access to resources, where the economy is not dependent on consumption, but instead is maintained by diverse and self-sufficient sustainable communities, and where technology is developed only when it will effectively fill a need without doing ecological damage. It all sounds a bit utopic, and Burch acknowledges that, but he has a grand vision: “Whoever will shape the future culture of sustainability may not be many in number. But whoever they are, they are, or soon will be, standing at those critical balance points where the tiniest push at the right time may birth a new world” (101). At the same time, he points out that what he envisions is not far from what has been done is some small communities for thousands of years.
Burch provides a number of suggestions about how human societies need to change, some of which may be controversial. Several times throughout the book he highlights overpopulation as a key problem that needs to be addressed. He doesn’t expand on how this would be done, but he does emphasize a need for people to see reproduction as a social and ecological act rather than an individual right. He also suggests limiting individual consumption of goods (especially of luxury items), “interrogating” technology before developing it, and reorganizing society so that every individual on the planet has an equal right to goods. Burch is unapologetic in addressing what some readers may find to be uncomfortable topics but as he points out: “Extinction will be uncomfortable too” (56).
Burch advocates strongly for educating others through sharing personal stories, and engaging in face to face conversations. He argues that this kind of transformational learning is far more effective than advertising or using social media for spreading the message.
The Hidden Door is a thought provoking book. While I did not agree with everything that Burch had to say, I found myself constantly rethinking the way that I live my life and coming up with ideas of how I might do things differently to be more mindful and ecologically sustainable. The Hidden Door succeeds in opening the door for more discussion on this topic, and for sharing success stories and visions for the future.
Republished with permission. Access the original version of this review at: http://mbeconetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/eco-journal-spring-2014.pdf