As mentioned in the last post, one question that is skillful to ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to…’ whatever is our current area of concern. During the week around Earth Day I traditionally pause to look at how I’m doing in my relationship with the earth. It’s a chance to acknowledge whatever wise changes I’ve made during the year and to honestly assess any areas where I could become more mindful. This year we leased an electric car, a big step toward being part of the solution, and a fun one! We’ve named our Nissan Leaf ‘Zippy’ because it has more get up and go than any gas fueled car we’ve ever had, even our beloved Prius. And it’s the least expensive transportation we’ve ever had, which is very satisfying too.
Most of the rest of my earth-friendly ways are long established and easy habits to continue. The environment is the issue of most importance to me (How will we be able to work out our other challenges if our water, soil and air are poisoning us?) so that’s where I put my volunteer efforts and most of my donations. But of course I can also see that there were times in the past year when I was somewhat mindless in buying something without considering environmental consequences (Good color, it fits, the price is right = Buy it!) It’s a process, and nobody’s perfect. At least no one I’d enjoy knowing!
What does all this have to do with meditation? The practice of meditation has made it possible for me to come into a healthier relationship with my feelings around my responsibility toward maintaining a healthy planet. In my twenties my emotions were so shot through with guilt and grief that I couldn’t look at them. It was too uncomfortable. So even though I wanted very much to save the planet, and did do many things, there was also some resistance to change. But through the insights that arise from quieting down and listening in, over the years I have been able to see that common sense environmental practices are not a burden to take on. They are expressions of love for the earth and all of nature. And that changes everything, doesn’t it?
But why did I feel so guilty? I had a sense of being so out of step with the natural systems of the rest of nature that we don’t belong here. I don’t know where that came from. It wasn’t something my parents ever taught me, and I don’t remember hearing it from anyone else. It was just the way I felt from a very young age. I was eventually able to work my way back from that cliff by recognizing that we are all made of the same stuff. Yes, our species may have taken a dangerously wrong turn somewhere and needs to dial it back through compassionate choices, but we belong here too. We do not need to erase our footprints in the sand. We just need to attune ourselves more to our natural way of being. We weren’t born to be isolated, destructive and oblivious.
It softens my sense of separation to see how other species adapt to our manmade objects, creating habitat and perches out of concrete and wire strung from pole to pole. They seem to see it as just another part of their world. I very much doubt they are judging it as an eyesore the way I do. There are many ways in which our development for our own purposes without regard to other species has caused great harm and even extinction, cutting them off from their natural routes, eliminating their means of survival and causing climate change. But I don’t believe they see humans as evil-doers. I don’t believe they see us as separate. We are just another kind of mammal.
The closest I came to getting a sense of how other species might see us was on a meditation retreat on Mount Tamalpais years ago. After a few days in silence I decided to walk down into Muir Woods, a stunning national park full of old growth redwoods that draws millions of visitors a year. I descended into the canyon through the ‘back’ of the park where few visitors walk, then slowly made my way toward the main entrance, staying fully present with my breath and my feet on the soft path of needles. When the path transitioned to decking, to protect the redwood roots from the heavy constant trampling of visitors, I paused to make sure I was up for this. I was. As I started walking among humans, I used the same kind of ‘beginner’s mind’ attention I had been paying the trees, the ferns, the water in the creek — seeing them as just another species of wildlife: colorful bipeds with a variety of mostly melodic sounds who walk in small groups at different speeds, looking up into the trees, but also engrossed with each other in a flurry of chatter. Not so different from busy song birds really. They were not alien to nature. They were part of it. And so was I. My judgments about crowds, noise, lack of appropriate reverence in that awe-inspiring place were gone. I could just see them, and feel a tenderness for them that I would not have imagined possible.
It doesn’t seem fanciful to see ourselves as just another form of life, one that dwells in a variety of habitats and dons hard shells for long distance movement on land, sea and air. Only to the degree we seem a personal and immediate threat to their survival do other species shun us. Out at Spirit Rock, where the bipeds on retreat walk slowly in silence and never harm other living beings, all species seem markedly friendlier and less skittish. As with all relationships, we learn how to be in the world, based on how we’re treated. Knowing that, can we treat all beings well, thus substantially improving our own likelihood of survival?
We don’t need to erase ourselves from the planet for it to thrive. We simply have to expand our understanding of the way of things — that we are not a species apart and we need the earth and all its inhabitants to be healthy in order for us to survive. The wealth of creative intelligence we have has already developed solutions that are easy to adopt.
In class this week, with our view of Mount Tamalpais and the hills of Marin County, we acknowledged how fortunate we are to live in a place full of people who are dedicated to the environment, and to be inspired by previous generations who have made major differences through their efforts. In particular, I think of my friend Martin Griffin, an MD and father of four who worked so hard to save this county from becoming yet another overdeveloped bedroom community after WWII where massive building projects went unchecked without regard to consequences to the wild world.
One person can make a huge difference. But Marty would be the first to say he didn’t do it alone. None of us do any of this kind of work alone. But with each person using whatever time, skills and resources they have, it is absolutely amazing what can be accomplished. There are plenty of dedicated people today working together to protect and defend the wild and the health of the planet. I am especially appreciative of the work of the local Sierra Club group with whom I work as the website administrator. They work tirelessly out of love for the earth and all its inhabitants, so that we may all have healthy water, air and soil to sustain us for generations to come. Thank you all!
Protecting the health of the planet is one area that each of us, throughout every day of our lives, makes choices that help or hurt the health of our planet. We may not get ‘active’ but we can make wise choices in what we buy, how we dispose of it and how we vote. These wise choices do make a difference! Look at the difference that has been made over the past decades. And with every decade, as more people participated, doing the right thing became easier and easier, because systems are in place to support it. And habits, once in place, are easy to sustain.
Marin County was an incubator for the development of community recycling and composting. In more recent decades it became the incubator for community aggregate alternative energy, so that even though our power comes through Pacific Gas & Electric lines, our local Marin Clean Energy assures that the power we are using is 100% green. (If you live in Marin and haven’t opted in for 100% Green, switch now as a gift to the earth on Earth Day!) Other communities have joined Marin Clean Energy or set up their community aggregate, but it was a sangha sister of mine at Spirit Rock, Barbara George, who worked hard to make it happen. Talk about birthing pains! She needed that weekly quiet sit and supportive sangha to make it possible to face down the seemingly endless challenges that wanted her project to fail. But she and her cohorts did it! I couldn’t be more proud or grateful. Another great example of one person making a difference in a big way.
This Earth Day, when we see how some previous achievements being sabotaged and dismantled, it is easy to get totally disheartened, to lose hope, to even ask ‘Why bother?’ But this is a powerful world movement now, supported not just by environmental activists but by corporate leaders who are excited about the possibilities of renewable energy and intelligent care of the planet, and by governments who recognize the destabilizing potential of climate chaos. Our current president and his crew might be a little slow on the uptake, but the powerful engine of positive change has left the station. There’s no calling it back by a dwindling myopic band who cling to the idea that immediate profit for the few takes precedent over the well being of all in this and future generations. I believe that! And that gives me hope that with sufficient effort by all who are clear-seeing, we can save our species through recognizing how dependent we are on the well being of all earth systems — the water, the air, the soil, and the complex web of life.
So what keeps us from making wise choices? What exactly is the resistance? Meditation has given me a chance to understand how attached we get to certain identities. We define ourselves in a certain way and that way might include some pretty earth-unfriendly choices: gas guzzling SUVs and trucks that support our macho image of self, for example. Not being a wimp can seem more important than saving the planet for our children and grandchildren. But saving the planet is the job of everyday super-heroes, not wimps!
The more deeply we sense our true being, the easier it is to see through the fallacy of the advertising hype that has been perpetrated upon us by corporate branding. (I used to work in advertising, so I know full well the fear-based psychological methods employed to make us feel isolated and in need of shoring up with identity-glorification objects!)
Another way meditation has helped me is to not get caught up in some future goal of a perfect earth. That is a sure way to burn out and give up! Instead I recognize how important it is to simply live in this moment with as much wisdom and compassion as I can. If I do that, moment by moment, choice by choice, then I am co-creating the world I want to live in.
If we can see our wise choices as yet another way we express our love of life and of this amazing planet, then doing the right thing becomes not some external demand but an internal arising of our truest nature, to live in harmony with all being. In this way, through kindness, through understanding the nature of mind, through letting go of the need to prove anything to anyone, we can co-create the healthy, harmonious and peaceful world we want for ourselves, for all beings in this and all future generations.
Happy Earth Day, every day!