Below I’ve posted two book reviews of Mark A. Burch’s latest book, The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction.
Book Review: The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction, by Mark A. Burch
Reviewed by: Rodney Kueneman, Associate Professor, Sociology, University of Manitoba.
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
A Review by Sig Laser
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.
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 precarity 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 valorization, (“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 is available here.