Our World is Burning

This essay opens the conversation in a book I will be releasing in 2017.

Essay One: Our World Is Burning

My grand-nephew James was celebrating his birthday, yet he felt awful and very sad about being nine. He wished he could stay five years old forever. When asked why, he replied that if he could stay five then the Earth would not explode. His lips quivered and the tears welled up in his large brown eyes. He said, “I don’t want to grow up and live in a world that is burning.” In the silence that stretched between us I wondered what to say. I could not say that everything will be OK, that my generation will fix things. He was much too intelligent for such placebos. So I spoke to him about the mindfulness community I created in 1997 – Pine Gate – and the deliberate steps taken for planetary care. We simplify, make do with less, share and adapt. Our intent is to create environmental leaders and that includes him. “Why not become a leader for your generation?” I asked him. He thought about that intensely and asked what else did Pine Gate do?

            I pointed out that Pine Gate encourages Voluntary Simplicity and Community Ethics as a way of life. We start with the Earth. Our organic garden produces an abundance of vegetables, apples and flowers that are shared with neighbors and community members. It is a solace for me to spend time with the Earth, observing bumblebees and butterflies while gardening with assistance from neighborhood children. I told James that the kids once went into hilarious laughter when they saw that the plant I had carefully nurtured turned out to be a giant weed and not a tomato plant! We had great fun returning it to the compost bin. At the back of the garden is a beautiful fountain that murmurs ‘midst the flowers, which are picked and sent to the elderly folk living on our crescent. A simple underground economy arises from the sharing. A solar panel on the roof fuels the hot water system. Everything else is as eco-friendly as we can make it for our fifty year old bungalow with a meditation hall in the basement. This eco-effort has become an example for other friends as they do the math on how much cash we are saving and implement something similar. Our focus is on mindfulness in schools, city environment, teens at risk and on the empowerment of women. I admitted to James that I am blown away by the results, for at the local level there were great women who helped make things happen.  “You mean girl power?” asked James incredulously. “Exactly that,” I replied.

The drive behind Pine Gate is to foster a strong cadre of people in Ottawa to make a difference for the betterment of society and the Earth Mother. Women are in the forefront of this endeavor. They are the heart that holds the living waters and that heart is the dynamic epicentre of the mind/will/emotions that lead to effective action. That is how we get things done differently to create a different course of action and living. James was taking it all in. He knew instinctively that major changes were needed. I intimated that when enough of us change, then we will be in charge. I told him about a speech I gave about violent consumption. His sharp mind held on to every word as I pointed out that festive occasions like Christmas provide opportunities for the best and the worst within us to come out and play. Yet compassion and kindness are quickly overshadowed by greed, selfishness and consumer madness. We need to re-assess, as it is time to move on from being self-absorbed and distracted. “How?” he asked again, as he really wanted to know. So I gave him this list.

Locate in something bigger than oneself; a humanitarian cause, respecting the earth, making our thinking better, being kinder and more generous. How about examining our habits about gift giving and learn to give gifts that make a difference?  I pointed out to James that I no longer buy Christmas gifts, instead present gift certificates in the name of family, grand-children and young neighborhood friends. These gift certificates provide items like education for a girl in Afghanistan, micro-loans for female led families, rebuild forests in Haiti, literacy packages and mosquito nets where needed, support for Habitat for Humanity building houses for the destitute and so on. Such gifts are bigger than our self-absorbed egos and create happiness for less fortunate people.

I related to James that my grandchildren proudly take their Christmas certificates to school for Show-and-Tell periods. They play it forward with their class mates and teachers. One boy on the crescent where I live had received such gifts from me for several years. For his most recent birthday he asked all his friends not to give him presents, but to bring a donation for the Ottawa Humane Society that looks after hurt animals. All of his friends brought donations, a splendid sum of one hundred and eighty dollars. They all went together to the Humane Society and happily handed their bag of cash to the surprised staff. Other children in the neighborhood have followed suit. This resonated with James and he said, “I could do that with my ice hockey team. My dad is the coach and he would help.” He waited for me to continue.

I said, “James, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and others at this time of global crises is Sharing and Caring. It involves stepping onto what the Buddhists call the Bodhisattva Path.” (James knows that I am a Zen teacher.) I explained that a Bodhisattva was a person who stayed in the global mess and did their best to awaken the minds and hearts of people. I firmly stated that it is time for the Bodhisattva-within-us to enter the 21st century as the example for action. It takes training, practice, smartness and creative vision. “You mean like Jedi training?” he enquired. I nodded with a smile. I referred briefly to my years of training in ashrams and monasteries in India and France and with Native American medicine people. But I confided that the real kicker for me was the time spent alone in the Canadian wilderness. I promised to talk to him about this at some future time.

Then he asked, “So what is the big deal about violent consumption?” I replied that it totally dominates our planet, mind and body. I knew that James’ greatest fear was about the planet’s ecological crises, from mining disasters in Brazil and China, wildfires in Canada’s Boreal forests, Amazon deforestation – all the way to the Gulf Oil Spill where tons of toxic oil dispersants settled on the ocean floor contaminating the oceanic ecosystem. “How do we change this mad destruction of the planet?” James exclaimed. I wondered how best to explain matters to him, yet trusted his intelligence.

I said, “We must stop, locate ourselves in stillness and make different choices by examining our minds, consumption patterns and then see how we actually participate in creating these terrible disasters.” I noted that this kind of awareness takes us back to what we do with our minds. “Just how?” was his one line mantra. “Walking meditation is a good start,” I said. I explained that when we concentrate on our breath and focus on slow walking, we have a brilliant piece of engineering to quiet the mind and body and be clear. When we add a third concentration of being aware of how our feet touch the earth, we have a meditative practice for our troubled times. We focus our mind on the mechanism of each foot touching the earth: heel, then ball of foot, then toe. We slow down even further and with our body, not our intellect or ego, make a contract with Mother Earth to leave a smaller footprint. The energy of wellbeing that arises from this practice of walking meditation is stronger than the stuff of our mental afflictions. We can then examine our consumption patterns and energy use with clarity. I told James that nobody requires a lecture from me, for we do know how to reduce our ecological footprint. We also know that taking care of the earth and the oceans takes care of ourselves. We must begin it now for the future, which is our tomorrow shaped by the actions we take at this moment.

I looked at James and indicated that was plenty for him to digest, but he yelled, “No, I want to hear more.” I could not turn away from his eagerness. I mentioned that if rampant consumption remains our deepest desire we will have a degraded planet that will certainly blow up. His fears were correct. Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day and so on are targeted by the captains of industry for optimal retail returns, and mindless consumerism is fuelled to the max. At Christmas we are far removed from remembering the significance of this spiritual celebration. Endless economic growth, the mantra of modern civilization, provides a promise of expectations being met without any awareness of consequences for our own health or the health of the planet. Our current non-sustainable energy and economic systems are subsystems of a global ecology that is disintegrating before our very eyes.  If we do not simplify, make do with less and change, then the vicious downward spiral to a burning world would definitely occur.

“Do you know that there is also violence to our bodies through the food we eat, and that it has disastrous consequences for our connection to all living beings?” He did not, yet his mind was a sponge soaking up every word. So I carried on providing him with a road map to investigate. The vast consumption of meat and alcohol constitutes an excessive ecological footprint. Industrial animal agriculture is not really farming. Animals are treated solely as economic commodities and subjected to horrible cruelty. The stress, despair and anger generated in the animals are the energies we consume when they end up on our plate. We are eating their suffering and pain, taking it into every cell of our bodies and consciousness.”

“That is so gross,” remarked James. I told him that we can change our minds and patterns of food consumption. We re-educate and retrain ourselves mentally and choose to support our body and planet by shifting deeply ingrained food habits.  It takes training but we step more lightly on the planet. It means reducing as much as possible the violence, destruction and suffering brought to living creatures and to the planet. If we bring violence into our own biological system and consciousness, then we inevitably bring violence to all the other systems that we engage with through our thoughts, speech and actions.  “Is this your Buddhism?” James asked.

I smiled, “The Buddha was very smart. He taught that the world is always burning, but burning with the fires of greed, anger and foolishness. His advice was simple; drop such dangers as soon as possible. What the Buddha taught was that it was the unskillful speech, selfish feelings, negative mental formations, wrong perceptions and badass consciousness that burned, and not the world itself. James laughed, “Did the Buddha really use the term badass?” I grinned and said that was my embellishment but pointed out that the Hopi people also referred to the burning as a state of imbalance known as Koyaanisqatsi. We are not the first people to experience this. The difference today is that without our commitment to wise intervention, we could be the last.

“Is climate change our basic problem then?” he asked.

I paused for a moment before replying. “The basic issue is whether we can adapt to climate change. You know about the 2015 Paris Accord on Climate Change as we have discussed it before.” James nodded. “It was an exceptional step by the international community, dedicating their intent to prevent global temperatures from rising a further 1.5 degrees. The signatories returned to their respective countries to find the wherewithal to “Change Climate Change.” What was missing from all the deliberations and press releases was a candid recognition of the “Cascade Effect,” a notion from ecological science. Tipping points in sea level rise and temperature connect to tipping points in air pollution, which connect to tipping points in polar ice melt, boreal forest wildfires and triggers further tipping points that create deforestation, desertification and so on in a relentless cascade that cannot be stopped. I reminded him of the wildfires in Alberta. It was not a singular disaster at Fort McMurray, as the entire Boreal forest in Canada is a tinder box due to the powerful forces of Climate Change. The reality in front of us is not the reversal of Climate Change. The question is about learning how to adapt to the consequences of Climate Change.”

I emphasized that the disasters all over the world interconnect and reinforce each potency to explode. Whether it is wildfires, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, millions of aquatic creatures dead on beaches, it goes in relentlessly. The media and news reporters cast science to the wind when they report the drama and hype of terrible things happening world-wide but rarely tell the truth that, “Here is another manifestation of Climate Change.” News programs are just showbiz and journalists mere pawns to corporate interests that are culpable in the first place for creating the tipping points that cause the interconnected disasters. So the general public are not educated by the media about the calamitous realities happening on our planet. That is a big obstacle. The other obstacles preventing the general public taking wise action are a mixture of fear, despair, sheer laziness, disempowerment and a sense of hopelessness. “What on earth can I do to make a difference?” is a phrase muttered all over the world in countless languages. Followed by “So why should I do anything?” There is certainly global awareness, but also fear about our future place on Planet Earth. This is all understandable, which is why you wish to remain five years old forever. The difficult thing for you to grasp is the clear evidence that we are the primary cause.

I confessed to James that in my previous books I underestimated the impact of the carbon fuel cabal, a complex web of powerful corporate and government interests. This carbon economy extends into the manufacturing and servicing sectors, supported by insulated financial institutions that control the marketing and advertising sectors. This collective power, when extended into the media, has attempted to make science and ecology into public enemy number one. This powerful, intermeshed cabal can easily circumvent the Climate Change accords agreed to by the international community.  People everywhere are aware, but just feel helpless in the face of this power. So what are we to do? James shrugged in exasperation.

“Here’s the thing,” I said. “In terms of action, we have clear data-based evidence that we must cut back, make-do with less and implement a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. So, where do we start? Of course we must think globally and be aware of the bigger picture and step beyond the smaller pictures of ourselves created by fear and disempowerment. But we can also act locally with great vigour in our families and communities. Our intentions then spread as ripples from a pebble dropped in still water. Then we can hold officials, politicians and corporate culture to account. We alert the political and corporate decision makers that we mean business as voters and consumers deeply concerned about the planet and our location on it. This is very important.

So James, the challenge for me is to be in society, but as a still island of mindfulness. Take small steps at first, then larger ones. We just need to make essential changes in energy use, diet, language, media and outreach. Voluntary Simplicity is a good starting place. It means making deliberate choices about how we spend time and money rather than living on the automatic pilot of busyness. We support environmental causes with the excess clutter in the basement, always thinking about whether we really “need” to buy something more.  Enjoy being simple and living modestly by shifting our perceptions just a little bit.  Just look deeply into what we do with time, money, clutter and our choices, and change.  Then see whether the consequences are peace and happiness for YOU. The world will follow.”

I told him I was writing a sci-fi book, located in the near future, which provides a counterpoint to the demise of our modern civilization. I chart a communal Hero’s Journey to reconstruct society based on ecology, caring and sharing. Intertwining plot lines arc into the epiphany of the final chapter, which muses about human survival anywhere. The drive is to create a tangible spirit of co-operation, the willingness to share and be supportive and intuit how to cross the bridges of misunderstanding. In this sci-fi novel my intention is to provide a scenario that reflects the disasters of the world today. The rich and uber-wealthy already inhabit armed, gated communities and will be targets for eco-militias and popular uprisings drawn from the impoverished masses – intent on revenge. “Have you ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s film The Clockwork Orange?” James had not and I told him it was a gruesome movie that could well emerge in the real world. To avoid this likely outcome it is wise to take training very, very seriously. All of this is to do an end run around the toxic mixture of fear, despair, sheer laziness, disempowerment and sense of hopelessness that I spoke about.”

“Wow,” exclaimed James. “OK, I get it about training but what does it look like?” I was relieved by his intelligence and proceeded to talk about “Gardening in the Mind.” I offered him eight simple steps to refine the mind then engage with the world.

  1. You – learn to be Silent and Quiet! Clear time and space for spiritual practice at home and throughout your daily schedule.
  2. Create a stress reduction menu and subtract the “weeds” in the garden of your mind.
  3. Be determined to meditate daily – do the weeding.
  4. Focus on and soften your heart – cultivate the soil of your mind’s garden.
  5. Water the seeds of mindfulness at home, work or in solitude.
  6. Simplify, make do with less, de-clutter your mind and home.
  7. Taste the fruits of your spiritual practice.
  8. Engage with the world.

James was typing all this down on his tablet as I continued talking. “Our ways of living together, caring for environmental, political and economic realms must all be re-constructed.” I assured James that we have the capacity to transform the mind. Finding stillness and inner silence is a necessary first step. We have to find a way to create the conditions for this to happen. In our modern world of fast paced lifestyles there are so many distractions that make us outwardly dependant and un-centered. We also find it easier to close down rather than open up our hearts. The remedy is within reach. We unravel the knots of suffering and move from being mindless to being mindful. This is brought about by organic gardening in the mind.”

I paused for a while to find the words to bring our conversation to an end. “Why should we do all this stuff James? Here’s why. When you can be open and receptive you become an epi-center of light for others. When you can just sit with pain, come face to face with what hurts, breathing in and breathing out, you feel the sting recede as you calm. If you start to close down ask yourself, “Do I really want to take a pass on happiness?” Always let go once you feel you are closing down or clinging. Do you know that I have a fridge magnet – LET GO OR BE DRAGGED? I see it every day and take the message to heart with a quiet smile. It is essential to learn to be silent, to stop clinging and find the way to be present. As the Hopi advise us, never take anything personally and look around to see who is with you. As you do all of this the world changes as a consequence. Such a destination is well worth your effort.”

I assured James that we are equal to the task and I chose not to hold back anything from him during this long conversation on his birthday. He is an unusually bright boy and asked questions and demanded clarification. Yet I knew he had grasped what I had said. He came up to me as I was leaving and whispered in my ear that my chat with him was his best birthday present ever.

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