My grand-nephew James was celebrating his birthday, yet felt awful about being nine. He wished he could stay five years old forever. When I asked him “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.
“I am scared it is too late. That there will be nothing to save,” he exclaimed with a frightened voice. He dropped the unopened gift in his hand. He was so upset and I gently guided him to sit with me on the back garden steps where it was quiet.
James said, “I don’t want to grow up and live in a world that is burning.”
Silence stretched between us. I wondered what to say. I could not say that everything will be OK. He was much too intelligent for such placebos. So I spoke to him about the mindfulness community I created 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 and asked what else did the community do?
I pointed out that we encourage 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. I mentioned that 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 laughed hilariously when they saw that the vegetable plant I had carefully nurtured for months turned out to be a giant weed and not a tomato plant. At the back of the garden is a beautiful fountain that murmurs next to the flowers, which are sent to the elderly folk living on our crescent. A solar panel on the roof fuels the hot water system of our home. 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 quite an example for other friends as they consider how much we are saving and implement something similar. In addition our focus is on mindfulness in schools and city environment, teens at risk and the empowerment of women. I admitted to James that I am amazed by the results. At the local level there were great women who helped make things happen.
“You mean girl power?” asked James incredulously.
“Exactly that,” I replied “I believe that the present millennium is the century of daughters, not so much as gender separation, but as attributes of a holistic, nurturing presence of mind.” (I must add that the wonderful Women’s Marches all over the world in January 2018 turn this belief into a reality.) I told him that the idea is to foster a strong group of people in Ottawa making a difference for the betterment of society and the earth. Women are in the forefront of this endeavor. I explained that they are the heart that holds the living waters, the dynamic epicentre that leads to effective action. That is how we will get things done, creating a different course of action and living. James was taking it all in, instinctively knowing that major changes were needed. I suggested that when enough of us change, then our ideas will be in charge. I told him about a speech I had given about the consequences of pathological consumption and pointed out that festive occasions like Christmas provide opportunities for the best and the worst within us to come out and play. And that unfortunately compassion and kindness are quickly swamped by greed, selfishness and consumer madness. We need to re-assess, to move on from being self-absorbed, greedy and distracted.
“How?” he asked again, as he really wanted to know. I chose my words carefully.
“Locate in something bigger than ourselves; 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 no longer buy Christmas gifts, instead present gift certificates that provide items like education for a girl in Afghanistan, micro-loans for female led families, rebuilding 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 us and create happiness for less fortunate people.”
I told James how 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 has received such gifts from me for several years. For his recent birthday he asked his friends not to give 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 two 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 can do that with my ice hockey team. My dad is the coach and he would help.” He waited for me to continue.
“James, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and others at this time of global ecological 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, intelligence and creative vision.
“You mean like Jedi training?” he enquired. I nodded with a smile and referred briefly to my years of training in ashrams and monasteries in India and France and with indigenous medicine people. I confided that the real kicker for me was the time spent alone in the Canadian wilderness.
“So what is the big deal about your speech on pathological consumption?” James asked.
I replied that it totally dominates our planet, mind and body. I tried to explain how, knowing that James’ greatest fear was about the planet’s ecological crises. He worried about mining disasters in Brazil and China, wildfires in Canada’s Boreal forests, Amazonian deforestation and the Gulf Oil Spill.
“How do we change the destruction of the planet?” James exclaimed.
I said, “We must come to a stop, locate ourselves in stillness and make different choices by examining our minds and patterns of consuming. We must look at 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.
“You can start by making friends with your breath,” I said. James looked up at me quizzically.
“Bring your focus and attention to your in-breath, then on your out-breath. Really concentrate on the whole length of breath coming in and breath going out. Do this ten times. This kind of focus peels away anxiety, frustration and anger so that you become calm and clear. Try it with me and notice the difference for yourself.” (I ask all readers to do this with me now.)
James did so, and grinned with agreement. I told James that 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, is shaped by the actions we take right now. I suggested to James that was enough 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 continue to degrade the planet, eventually destroying its ability to harbour life . 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 without awareness of the consequences for 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. We must simplify, make do with less and change, or the burning world will definitely occur.
I told him that we can change our minds and patterns of food consumption. We re-educate and retrain ourselves mentally, choosing to support our body and planet by shifting ingrained habits. It takes training but we can begin to 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. Bringing peace into our own biological system and consciousness, inevitably brings it to all the other systems that we engage with through our thoughts, speech and actions.
“Is this your Buddhism?” James then 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 the world.
James laughed, “Did the Buddha really use the term badass?”
I grinned and said that was my embellishment, then 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 about climate change, 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. We talked about it before.” James nodded. “It was an exceptional step by the international community, showing their determination to prevent global temperatures from rising a further 1.5 degrees. The signatories returned to their respective countries 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, hurricanes and forest wildfires. All of these trigger further tipping points that create deforestation, floods, desertification and so on in a relentless cascade. I reminded him of the wildfires in Alberta and British Columbia and pointed out that the entire boreal forest in Canada is a tinder box due to climate change. The reality is not about a reversal but about learning how to adapt to the consequences of climate change.”
I emphasized to James that the disasters all over the world interconnect. Whether wildfires, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis or millions of aquatic creatures dead on beaches, it is all connected. 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 it is another manifestation of climate change. News programs are often focused on ratings and some openly promote corporate interests that are contributing to these interconnected disasters. The general public are, by and large, not educated by the media about the terrible realities happening on our planet. Other obstacles that prevent the general public from taking wise action are a mixture of fear, despair, 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 this planet. Maybe this is why you want to stay five years old forever. The difficult thing for you, for anyone, to grasp is that we are the primary cause.”
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 despite fear and disempowerment. But we can also act locally in our families and communities. Our intentions then spread like ripples from a pebble dropped in still water. We can hold officials, politicians and corporate culture to account. We can tell the politicians and corporate decision makers that we, as voters and consumers, are deeply concerned about the planet and our impact on it.”
I continued speaking on a personal note, “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. We can support environmental causes with the excess clutter in the basement and always think about whether we really “need” to buy something more. Enjoy being simple and living modestly by shifting our perceptions just a little bit. If we look deeply into what we do with time, money, clutter and our choices, then we can change. Notice whether the consequences are peace and happiness for you. The world will follow. To avoid drastic outcomes, it is wise ro take training very, very seriously. This helps to avoid all the negative stuff I have told you about”
“Wow,” exclaimed James. “OK, I get it about training but what does it look like?” I was relieved by his intelligent questions but hesitant to talk to him about what I was thinking.
He watched me and said, “Just lay it out for me.”
I then proceeded to talk about “Gardening in the Mind.” I offered him eight simple steps to refine the mind and then engage differently with the world.
- You – learn to be silent and quiet! Clear time and space for spiritual practice at home and throughout your daily schedule.
- Create a stress reduction menu and subtract the “weeds” in the garden of your mind. The weeds are the negative energies we have cultivated.
- Be determined to meditate daily – do the weeding.
- Focus on and soften your heart – cultivate the soil of your mind’s garden.
- Cultivate the seeds of mindfulness at home, school, work or in solitude.
- Simplify, make do with less, de-clutter your mind and home.
- Taste the fruits of your spiritual practice.
- Engage with the world.
James was entering all of this on his tablet as I continued to talk. “Our ways of living together, caring for environmental, political and economic realms need to 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. But the remedy is within reach. We can unravel the knots of suffering and move from being mindless to being mindful, achieved by gardening in the mind.”
I paused for a while to find the words to bring our conversation to an end.
“Why should we do this stuff James? Here’s why. When you are open and receptive you become an epi-center of light and energy for others. When you can sit with pain, face to face with what hurts, breathing in and 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?” Remember this – always let go once you feel you are closing down or clinging.” Then I said to him, “Do you know that I have a fridge magnet at home with the words – LET GO OR BE DRAGGED? I see it every day and I take the message to heart. It is essential to learn to be silent, to stop clinging and find the way to be present in the moment. As the Hopi advise us, never take anything personally and look around to see who is with you. Doing these things helps the world change. Such a destination is well worth your effort don’t you think?” James nodded his agreement.
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, asking questions and demanding 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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