Spiritual Ecology: How Mindfulness Supports Sustainability

We must consider not only our short-term personal advantage but also the long-range impact our choices have on others we will never know or see: on people living in remote lands, on generations as yet unborn, and on the other species that share our planet.
–Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi “The Need of the Hour”

 

In the past decade, we have produced more plastic than in the previous century, and the rate of production and consumption only shows signs of increase. There are five swirling quagmires of plastic debris in our oceans. Each one is hundreds of miles wide and at least ten meters deep, clogging up the ecosystem and endangering sea life and all species that depend on the health of the ocean: essentially all of life on earth. These daunting facts added to the long list of atrocities in the world are despairing. Yet, judgment and guilt are not the motivations we need to care for ourselves, each other, or the earth, nor is fear of doom and disaster. Can mindfulness give us the bird’s eye view we need to navigate this crisis and steer ourselves in a more sustainable direction?

Plastic debris accumulates in these ocean gyres and creates a swimming pool cover effect, heating up the ocean, and contaminating the food chain.

The degradation of the environment is, on a deep level, degradation to the human spirit. Through industrialization we have severed our connection to the earth in the name of economic progress, so have forgotten that we are part of nature and its cycle of reciprocity. To cope with this loss, we often try to escape through alcohol, drugs, or through self-importance, which justifies being too busy to have time to think about what we are doing to our home, much less make a positive change. Even meditation can be a form of escapism—or it can be a vehicle to remember ourselves and where we came from.

As spiritual ecologist Satish Kumar writes, “When we experience nature we develop a deep sense of empathy and love for nature and when we love something we care for it, we conserve it and protect it. Love and reverence for the earth will automatically result in sustainability, harmony and coherence.” If we tap into the tools and resources we have to overcome the ego’s divisive individualism, we come home to nature. Eco, which comes from the Greek oikos, means home. From eco comes ecology, the science of the interrelationship of life and the environment. Economy also comes from eco, combined with nemein, Greek for manage. The original meaning of economy was to manage the hearth and home. We use it now to imply management of material resources. If we cease to view the earth as an expendable resource and take note of the parallels between ecology and economy we don’t have to choose between one or the other. There isn’t a division between the two; without ecology, there would be no economy. The earth, our home, which we share with millions of other species, as Kumar puts it, “is a place of relationship, whereas ‘I’ as a separate self or ego is a state of separation, disconnection and isolation. The soul is starved in isolation.” When we are starving we clamor to fill that vacancy at all costs. Many of us are starving, not only on a soul level but physically as well; basic survival is a struggle for millions of people every day. For those of us who have the privilege to take time out of our busy agendas to nurture ourselves through diet, time in nature and contemplative practice, let’s not waste it. By nurturing ourselves we will have a greater capacity to care for each other and our home. Through meditation and mindfulness, we can awaken to the fact that we are not separate from the earth, but are of the earth. We can reconnect with our indigenous selves and feel the pulsation of the fluids in our bodies mirror the waters of the world and the ebb and flow of the whole universe.

Kevin Palmer Photography

In my mid-twenties, I was staying with an acquaintance while on a weekend Ashtanga yoga workshop. I was eager to learn this vigorous and challenging yoga method from an amazing teacher who had come all the way from Australia to a town neighboring mine in New Mexico. The woman who kindly put me up had a few house rules, which I was happy to oblige by. One  was to catch the water from the shower into a bucket while it was heating up to later water the trees outside. I thought this was an inconvenience and a waste of time, but a seed was planted for future germination. Even though I had a strong connection to nature through my upbringing in the back-to-the-land counter culture and close associations with Hispanic and Native American land stewards, I had (and still have) a lot of work to do to follow those examples.

At another yoga workshop, this time in Boulder, Colorado with Pattabhi Jois, the master of Ashtanga yoga, I was, again staying with a friend and teacher from the yoga community, Cindy Lusk. Sure enough, as she showed me around the house, there was a bucket in the shower and the kitchen sink for catching excess water for the trees. There was also what looked like a mini -clothes drying rack on her kitchen counter with plastic bags draped all over it. They had been washed and were drying to be reused when she went to the store to buy bulk items or produce. Who has time for that? I thought. I need to go study the Yoga Sutras and prepare my mind for the workshop so I can master these demanding physical postures.

Eventually, my studies and the practice started to whittle away at the boundaries of my small self to help me see the larger picture, and not just theorize, but actually experience our interconnection and interdependency. It started to feel more natural and less inconvenient to save water, reuse bags and reduce consumption. Through a consistent practice of yoga, over time, I began to develop the tools and resources to become less ego-centric and more eco-centric.

Ultimately, yoga in all its forms is a practice to soothe the suffering of the mind. Here in the West, we are more physically oriented and seek material rewards for our efforts, so it is fitting that Hatha yoga, the yoga of physical postures, is most popular. There are many styles of Hatha yoga for all types of people. All potentially lead to mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is simply the art of tethering the mind to the present moment, which is easier said than done and takes practice. Through contemplative practices, such as yoga and meditation, we set the stage for stilling the mind to tap into deeper layers of ourselves, beyond the stories of who we think we are or should be.

Of all the tools to rein in the mind, the simplest and most accessible method to anchor the mind to right here and now is the breath. As we feel the breath in the body, while moving through a yoga sequence, sitting in meditation, or even washing the dishes if we are really paying attention, we become more aware of the sensations in the body. As we listen to the breath it becomes louder than the inner dialogue. As we experience the ebb and flow of the breath the mind is soothed and thoughts begin to slow down. We become aware of the space between the thoughts, and of the thoughts themselves. Often the thoughts are running rampant and we blindly follow the first whim or reaction that comes to mind. The common metaphor we hear of the charioteer being led by the horses, instead of steering them where he wants to go, couldn’t be more appropriate. When the thoughts slow down we are able to see them for what they really are: just thoughts, not who we are at the core of our being, but just an experience we are having. That is the same for emotions, as emotions and thoughts feed each other.

When we are able to be present with our thoughts, feelings and sensations, we are present with what is. There is a common misconception about meditation or mindfulness, which is that we are supposed to stop the thoughts in order to still the mind when we meditate, or that we shouldn’t give into negative feelings or states of mind—it’s all about shantih, peace. On the contrary, only by honoring and acknowledging our experience can we move through it if it is a difficult emotion, recognize it if it is a destructive thought, and accept that it will change even if it is a pleasurable sensation. In the end, the outcome is greater peace of mind, though the journey can be a bumpy ride.

As we practice, just like a pianist who practices the scales every day improves and becomes more fluid, the ability to settle, still and quiet the mind and heart becomes more accessible. Then comes a sense of ease, less gripping around the thoughts of what should, was, or might be, and more spaciousness to allow for what is to arise, abide, and dissipate, as all phenomena does. By spaciousness I am referring to a sense that we are not confined to our own individual egoic needs and desires, wants and aversions. We see that we are a part of something larger than ourselves and mental limitations. If you have ever been at the summit of a high mountain you may have felt a similar feeling of vastness and interconnection to the entire universe.

Photo courtesy Miles Hinton

Spaciousness opens us to the creative pulse of life and provides a relief from separateness. When we feel that we are separate from other people, other species and nature itself, the small self we identify with becomes very needy and greedy. If we feel so small and fragile, we can easily justify fear-based decisions (like being afraid to take economic risks involved in renewable energy), over-consumption (of energy, food, material objects and natural resources), and defensive, divisive behavior. A sense of spaciousness and interconnection will guide us to be conscious of how our speech, thoughts and actions will affect the whole ecosystem in which we all live.

The famed four noble truths of Buddhism state that, 1. There is suffering in life 2. The cause of suffering is clinging, particularly clinging to the mistaken belief that we are a separate, individual “I”, 3. There is an end to suffering, 4. Freedom from suffering comes through practicing meditation and mindfulness so we can see clearly and live ethically out of love, on behalf of all beings. One does not have to be a Buddhist to practice meditation and live mindfully; contemplative practice is woven into the core of most belief systems, which leads to a sense of wholeness and interconnection. Even if no structured system is followed, the indivisible, true nature of mind can be attained through meditation practice.

Ah, there is that practice word again. Our lives are so busy and what we have to do is seemingly so important that there is little time to practice mindfulness. Yet, if we set aside at first, just ten minutes of time to sit and do nothing but feel the breath in the body to soothe the mind, we are well on our way to cultivating an awareness that can take us out of our habitual way of being and in touch with our true nature, which is no different than the nature of all living phenomena. Little by little, we may increase that ten minutes to thirty or forty minutes per day, and start to incorporate other positive habits into our lives, which ripple out into the world and affect everyone and everything we come into contact with, and beyond. For example, if we are mindful when doing our grocery shopping, we might reconsider whether to buy the pre-washed salad mix in the plastic clamshell, even though it is more convenient, and choose the head of lettuce we place in a reused bag instead. Or, opt for the loose avocados instead of the pre-bagged-in-a-plastic-net avocados, even though they are fifty-cents cheaper, because that plastic net will never biodegrade, causing more damage to the ecosystem than that fifty-cents will to our budget. In this way, we take our practice out of the context of sitting meditation or yoga asana and into the world. Eventually, if we practice consistently over a long period of time, with devotion, everything we do, say and think, may become mindful, for the benefit of all.

Sometimes, in our fast-paced, over-stimulated society, sitting still for a few minutes is out of the question. We need to swim a few laps, play our instrument, or go for a hike just to unwind enough to sit for a while. Methods such as Tai-chi, yoga, and time in nature can prepare us for sitting meditation without further taxing the nervous system, which more rigorous activities may do. One of the best times to practice meditation is in the morning, before any incoming or outgoing messages are received or sent, when the day is still fresh, though any time of day is valuable.

When we shift our routine to fit in a ten-minute meditation, the very act of shifting the routine shifts the consciousness. Then, add the practice of meditation and a bigger shift happens. With that shift, we might see that we do have that extra time to save a bucket of water to water the trees as the shower heats up, or to save the plastic bag from our bread to take back to the store for our apples, instead of throwing the bread bag away and getting another plastic bag from the grocer, which will also be thrown away. We might also see how our actions of taking the extra effort to bring our reusable coffee mug to the coffee shop will reduce our dependency on deforestation in order to provide us with a clean, white paper cup every morning as we stop for a fill up on the way to work. It may also inspire the person in line behind us to do the same.

I have taken on the waste-reducing habits I learned from Cindy almost twenty years ago, and have increased my reduction of single use plastic to include making my own toothpaste and laundry soap to avoid the containers they come in, avoiding plastic packaging whenever possible, and saving those ubiquitous plastic bags to reuse until they can be used no more. I do what I can to “live simply so that others might simply live”, yet there is still a lot more that I can do. From the practice of meditation and awareness of the microcosm within the macrocosm, the vastness of interconnection, comes loving kindness. Loving kindness, compassion and acceptance of oneself is a pre-requisite to extending the same out into the world. So, although there is always more work to be done, I am patient with my own small mind and heart and do the best I can.

I am patient with others as well. I went to a luncheon lecture on sustainability last year and the whole meal was served on disposable plates and cutlery. At the end of the meal the staff threw away the all the plates and cutlery even from tables that had not been occupied. I have been to plenty of yoga and Buddhist gatherings where there was also a lot of wasteful packaging and food service in the name of convenience. For someone who is adamant about reducing single use plastic and unnecessary waste, it is not always easy for me to suspend judgement, but in this world of competition and individualism the ego’s need to “get it right”, to “be right” is divisive and causes despair. Sometimes there are other factors in the circumstance that I am not aware of, or simply the seed of interdependence has not fully blossomed in the person or people in question. Everyone in their own time, yet we can help each other along the path gently, through our example and ceaseless practice.

Although not everyone who meditates is inclined to reduce waste and not everyone who is environmentally conscious meditates, the two ways of life certainly complement each other. Sometimes when we sit on the meditation cushion and wonder if we are just wasting our time, sitting and doing nothing, we can remember that just being and allowing supports us to take conscious action in the world. Likewise, if we ever wonder why we bother saving bags when the whole world is so full of plastic and pollution anyway, we can reflect on Rumi’s sentiment: You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the whole ocean in a drop.

 

A few tips for ditching plastic
(Since every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists and every piece of plastic made for our short-term convenience will never go away)

REDUCE plastic use, REUSE plastic bags and containers, RECYLE at the last resort.

Yoga mats and clothing:

  • Avoid yoga mats made from PVC. They are toxic for your body and the environment, and will never biodegrade. Choose natural rubber mats from Manduka or JadeYoga instead.
  • Choose yoga clothing made with natural fibers like organic cotton from Prancing Leopard or Ripple Yoga Wear. Clothing made from synthetic fibers does not allow the skin to breathe well, and every time it is washed small particles of plastic leach into the water.

 Cosmetics and toiletries:

  • Choose toothbrushes with replaceable heads, or made from natural fibers like wood and plant bristles.
  • Buy dental floss by Eco-Dent, which comes in a cardboard dispenser. The floss itself is plastic, but still much less plastic pollution than a plastic dispenser.
  • Make your own toothpaste to avoid the non-recyclable, non-reusable tube it comes in. Recipe at sonyaluz.com/blog.
  • Use razors with replaceable cartridges, or metal razors, or opt for sugar waxing instead.
  • Look for lip balm and deodorant by Organic Essence, it comes in a cardboard tube.
  •  Nurture Essence  has cream deodorant that comes in a reusable (yet plastic) jar, and many other skin care products that come in glass containers.
  • Consider using bar shampoo, or refilling bottles at the bulk section of your natural grocer.
  • Vapour Beauty has make-up that comes in metal, wood or glass containers.

Household:

  • Make your own laundry soap to avoid the plastic bottles it comes in and save a lot of money. Recipe at http://www.thefamilyhomestead.com/laundrysoap.htm
  • Refill your dish detergent bottle from the bulk section at your natural grocer (I have been using the same dish detergent bottle for over 15 years!).
  • Use dish sponges made form plant fibers (Scotch Brite has an economical version available at most grocers).
  • Use a concentrated cleaning solution, like the one from Ecover. Mix a capful with water to refill your spray bottles so you only have to buy one plastic bottle every few years, then recycle it.
  • Buy trash bin liners and disposable party supplies made out of plant based, biodegradable “plastic” from Eco Products.
  • Wash and reuse plastic bags for produce and bulk items and keep them in your reusable shopping bags that you carry in your car, so you will never be caught at the store without them.
  • Use bees wax coated cloth instead of plastic wrap to keep food fresh. Buy it from Beeswraps, or make your own: http://myhealthygreenfamily.com/blog/wordpress/plastic-wrap-alternative-diy-beeswax-cotton-wraps/
  • Buy everything from appliances to clothing, cars and refurbished computers and phones second hand to reduce waste and expenses.
  • If you absolutely cannot avoid plastic, re-use it and recycle it.
  • Join TerraCycle to recycle the items that are non-recyclable in your area.

Suggested reading:

  • Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and You Can Too by Beth Terry
  • Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson
  • Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World edited by Martin Keogh
  • Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
  • Conserving the Inner Ecology: Buddhasa Explains Why Dhamma is the Ecology of the Mind Tricycle Magazine https://tricycle.org/magazine/conserving-inner-ecology
  • The Need of the Hour by Bhikkhu Bodhi Tricycle Magazine https://tricycle.org/magazine/need-hour/

Satish Kumar Three Dimensions of Ecology: Soul, Soil & Society from the collection of essays Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth Edited by Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee

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