The point of meditation is to grasp our true nature and accept the inevitability of change. It is impermanence that enables composure in the face of the difficult possibility of Extinction. The Buddha was very clear about “Impermanence.” His teachings on this foundation spur a radical change. The 12th century Japanese Zen Master Dogen writes, “Impermanence is itself Buddha nature.” For the Buddha, Dogen and countless sages this is not a problem to overcome. It is a path, not an attempt to overcome impermanence. Without this insight, we will not be able to change our mindsets about disruptive political and environmental circumstances. We rigidly hold on to views of how it once was, only it has already changed – often dangerously so. This lapse is further embedded by humanity’s general avoidance to value the planet and other people, undermining the possibility of understanding the sheer necessity of “Impermanence.” However, once we can accept that we have created the present deterioration of the global situation, then and only then can we find insights that bring radical change to our values, habits and mindset. Thich Nhat Hanh adds,
“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
From the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh, all the way to Eckhart Tolle and Mooji, poets, seers and scientists – there is a unanimous point of view.
Dogen, from the 12th century, instructs us to intimately observe cause and effect, especially the condition of impermanence and loss. Then he throws in, “…..time is always impermanence.” The bottom line is that concentration on this factor releases us from fear and suffering. I offer a simple four step understanding of impermanence:
- Things change.
- Accept the existence of the change.
- Find your composure about it.
- Use meditation and the fullness of your heart to continue.
It is very difficult for western culture to accept death and the notion of impermanence. The usual response to both is fear and denial. We have to re-educate our minds to get past these two obstacles. When we can recognize that our present form of civilization is dying, we will recognize that despair and denial will do us no good. We need to rely on our practice of mindfulness and community-building to provide a measure of sanity. Martin Luther King devoted most of his time and efforts to build “The Beloved Community” as the strength to break through racism in America. With spiritual practice and community activism, instead of denial and despair, a space opens in our mind for lucidity and steadiness to propel our species to live differently. When such a community walks with us, fear dissipates and the dreadful despair and suffering recedes.
Such a future on Earth requires a mass awakening of attributes that run counter to the ecology of greed. It requires a candid acceptance that our global civilization in its present form is coming to an end. Such an acceptance of our reality on the planet enables understanding of environmental collapse and Extinction. Thich Nhat Hanh brings this home to us in a challenging way, making it very clear that any view not based on impermanence is wrong. He shows how the Buddha provided meditations for his followers so they could recognize that the only thing that follows death is the fruit of our action and thinking, of our speech and of our acts during our lifetime. Specifically, on climate crisis he is very blunt:
“If we continue to consume unwisely, if we don’t care about protecting this wonderful planet….the ecosystem will be destroyed to a large extent and we will need millions of years to start a new civilization. Everything is impermanent…. We are our environment, which is in a process of self-destruction.”
The origins of the Climate Crisis can be found in greed, craving, delusion and ignorance, where sanity is crushed by the greed for profit and corporate rules triumph over social responsibility. That sums up our overwhelming retreat into denial. The Buddha advised a long time ago that we need internal changes in our values, our thinking and our ways of life. This means turning away from a system driven by greed, limitless profits, exploitation and violence against people and the environment. By relying on impermanence we can make changes to our collective systems and choose co-operation and living in harmony with the natural world. That enables humanity to flourish in a better 21st Century.
Understanding impermanence brings clarity to our minds and perhaps we can implement ethics, structures and technology while on this planet. We have the job of cultivating a new way of living with one another on Earth. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh means in his homily, “Only Love can save us from Climate Change.”
We must deliberately cultivate positive ethical attributes in our minds. We have to shine the light of recognition and mindfulness on our suffering, so that we become steady and full of resolve to live differently with a community. We have to shift the tide of negativity, change our mindset and not squander our life. With templates like the Mindfulness Trainings we consciously choose to nurture patterns of behavior and habits that are wholesome and generous. In other words, we make mindfulness practice our new habit, an internal transformation of consciousness at the core of our being.
I shape all of this into a simple personal mantra for myself – “I refrain from causing harm.” I know that by refraining from one thing that causes harm, I then prevent other harmful things from happening. It takes mindfulness to do this and the trainings provide the starting point, a guidance system and a deep well of internal ethics to live by. My commitment is to actualize these trainings in my life, and in the lives of others, so that impermanence is understood. To mitigate ecological collapse, the transition from doomed economic and political systems have to change to life sustaining societies based on community activism. There are many hurdles, as people do not see Climate Emergency for what it is, because they are stuck in their personal suffering. The plight of Mother Earth is beyond their capacity to grasp. Spiritual practice and community building of some kind are drastically needed in order to prevent being overwhelmed by suffering, despair and fear.
I could go on and on about the terrible things taking place in society, politics and to the planet – and will divert to that in a moment. It is important to refine a system of ethical conduct. I go deeper into meditation to mainly fix myself to be steady and insightful. I register with Mindfulness Trainings, as it brings out all that I would like to see in people around the planet. The bottom line for me is that awakening and mindfulness are active. Activism, on its own, does not have the inner resources to maintain effective social and planetary transformation. I know from personal experience that re-training the wild mind is a necessary ingredient to precede activism. Becoming environmental or political is only one part of the gig. It cannot be fully effective until the internal spiritual work is in place.
At present, we are totally out of sync with the earth’s resources. The fragile threads of ecosystems around the globe are severely compromised and we are in the position of going down the collective sewer. Earth is like a giant living cell, all parts are linked symbiotically. Biologist Thomas Lewis created this metaphor with humanity as just one part of a vast system. The reality is that the life support systems of our planet are severely threatened by Climate Crisis. Our ignorance and neglect are destroying Planet Earth, because we do not know how to respect ourselves, others, and the planet. We have no alternative but to concentrate on sustainable living, rather than exploiting the spoils of perpetual economic growth. Profit cannot be the sole reason for commerce. There must be responsibility tied into the equation. Unfortunately, we have largely discarded our ability to relate to meaningful values such as compassion, planetary care, love and social justice to mention a few castaways. Unless we radically change, there is no possibility of balance, environmentally or socially.
These issues were examined with great clarity by the awakened mind of the Buddha, 2600 years ago. His teachings are timeless, as relevant to the modern world as when first spoken. In the modern era Thich Nhat Hanh taught the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a design for living related to modern realities. They are non-sectarian and all spiritual traditions have their equivalent. The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, family and society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity and not exploit other beings. The third is responsible sexual behavior for all people, to protect couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconciliation. The fifth is about mindful consumption, which helps us not to bring toxins and poisons into our body, mind or planet.
Expanding Heart and Mind – Community Building and Activism
I rest on the Hopi Elders’ Prophecy in 2000,
“Create your community. Be good to one another. And do not look outside yourself for your leader… See who is there with you and celebrate…. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
I believe, from my own experience, that community activism is a vital action for populations around the world. I would say community building and activism are essential actions in our times. For years I organized a big event in Ottawa City Hall – the annual Friends for Peace Day. This was my job for a decade. It all started on a bitterly cold winter evening as the Iraq war loomed. I received notice that a Peace Song Circle was happening on Parliament Hill to protest the bombing of Baghdad. So I went, accompanied by my wife Carolyn, a friend and our dog. No-one else turned up, as it was so cold. I remarked to Carolyn,
“This is a good idea but it needs attention to detail and organization.”
She replied, “Let’s do it.”
So we created the nucleus for Friends for Peace Canada. It quickly grew to a loose coalition of over fifty organizations in the city and we asked them to begin the peace process first of all within themselves, then to the community and out to the world. Our mandate evolved from peace advocacy to projects on the ground. We gave annual Grants to local organizations making a difference in our city, as well as working with other coalitions in the city for environmental and social justice issues. We organized five thousand participants at the Song Circle on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, held on a miserably wet, cold spring day in 2003.
A sea of multi-colored umbrellas on a rain swept morning welcomed all those gathered. As other peace protests joined us and sang “All Within Me Peaceful,” the crowd covered the grounds of Canada’s seat of government, all meditating at the end in total silence as the rain poured down on our heads. The pouring rain was strangely welcome, for it symbolized the tears of Iraqi children, my tears, your tears, transformed into hope through singing for peace with one another and experiencing deep stillness with this community on Parliament Hill. There was a transformation of anger, anguish and violence into a determined clarity to be peaceful and to oppose war. From there we know the wise actions to take.
The projects in the city of Ottawa supported by Friends for Peace include: the Multi-Faith Housing Initiative, the Youth Treatment Centre, Child Haven International, and Peace Camp Ottawa, which brings reconciliation to Palestinian and Israeli teens. In addition we supported the Physicians for Global Survival initiative to expand the mandate of the Canadian War Museum to include the creation of a culture of peace. There were other projects in Africa, India and Nepal. One planetary care project was the campaign to make the Dumoine River watershed in Quebec a protected conservation park. Peace Grants were also awarded to rebuild the Galai School in Liberia and the Healing Art Project of Minwaashin Lodge – an aboriginal women’s centre in Ottawa. Orkidstra received several grants to expand their children’s orchestra. Other grants were presented to the Dandelion Dance Company and to USC Canada. Ottawa Friends of Tibet received several Peace Grants for their Tibetan Re-Settlement Project, just to mention a few.
Each year since the relentless rain on Parliament Hill in 2003, the annual Friends for Peace Days have been memorable. We were rained and snowed on for several years on Parliament Hill, thunder and lightning at Alumni Park of Carleton University, before we moved inside to Ottawa City Hall. We organized differently there, with peace activist and environment booths along the periphery of the hall, a food court at the back, a long set of tables with items for the silent auction and the stage at the north end. The response to this community activism was beyond any expectations.
The yearly event, held in the Autumn, became an awesome, diverse, unique Ottawa experience. It was made possible by the generosity of volunteers, supporters and citizens of Ottawa who showed up to have a good time, be educated and inspired. It created an epicentre of intent and action, intense at times as people were moved to both tears and laughter. The intensity and joy rippled through the diversity, all generations, faiths and cultures in our northern city. The force of the epicentre roared through the community and activist tables, Muslim families, Asian groups, elders, young folk and volunteers. The diversity of Ottawa gathers, listens, dances, laughs, cries, and takes home an unforgettable experience of hope and confidence.
Friends for Peace presented Awards to outstanding Canadian citizens who devoted their lives to securing peace, planetary care and social justice. Our mandate was always solid throughout the day, at the Welcome and Community Tables, the Silent Auction, Connection Centre and Food Court. Citizens left at the end of the day feeling uplifted, confident and connected. The intent was to create a different form of peaceful expression that appeals to a wide cross section of Canadian citizens who want to create infrastructure in our institutions that value peace and planetary processes.
When I founded Friends for Peace Canada I was making a conscious choice to focus on the local, my home city of Ottawa. My focus was on mindfulness in schools, city environment, youth at risk and the empowerment of women. I was astonished by the results, more true to say “blown away.” At the local level there was continuity with great women who made sure good things happened. Many of the Award recipients were women. The funds raised from the annual Peace Day were used to issue Grants to organizations in Ottawa. In particular we supported youth organizations that burst on to the local scene guided by awesome women. Orkidstra, founded by my friend Tina Fedeski, provides children from under-served communities with the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and sing in a choir. It is modelled on the El Sistema program, which was so successful in Venezuela for breaking down barriers of poverty and violence. The philosophy of El Sistema has spread to sixty countries in the world, serving millions of children.
In Ottawa, Orkidstra is creating a quiet social revolution on the backs of children – in a very healthy way. Tina Fedeski and two friends drew together a marvelous group of music teachers, promoters, volunteers and educators. There are now 700 children from over 62 cultural and linguistic backgrounds – a huge enrollment beyond the 27 children who started in the program in 2007. Orkidstra is a social development program giving children in Ottawa a sense of belonging and achievement plus fostering life skills. Children from low-income and under-served areas receive tuition, instruments and music – provided free of charge. Each child commits to playing in an ensemble. The program builds community, co-operation, commitment, compassion and self-esteem. This is in the opposite direction of fear, suffering and neglect. The results have been amazing. All graduates go on to post-secondary education making good the belief that empowering kids builds mature citizens and community. In the Orkidstra domain there is no sense of separation, only love. They interconnect with integrity, a recipe that makes the entire organization deeply heart-warming.
Similar support was provided to The Dandelion Dance Company, which has a similar structure. This is the creation of Hannah Beach, who brought forth a dozen young women actors, dressed in black to several Friends for Peace Days. This Ottawa based youth dance theatre company explores social issues through movement. Their repertoire is driven by the experiences, reflections and passion of young women who range in age from twelve to eighteen. The themes they dance include children’s rights, hunger, authenticity, bullying, drug addiction, stereotypes and inclusiveness. Their performances of John Marsden’s “Prayer for the Twenty First Century” brought the entire audience to their feet applauding their passion for nonviolence and the basic rights for women. The dance alluded to our hope and dreams we want for our society. The Dandelions provide the means to galvanize parents, friends and volunteers so that good kids are created and excellent citizens emerge.
Peace, Planetary Care and Social Justice are alive and well in our northern city. A Circle of Nations no less. Friends for Peace had a fantastic run for a decade, then I was side-lined by surgeries for three years and I could clearly see Impermanence working on me! There is now a two week Peace Festival in Ottawa every September. It has grown in ever increasing concentric circles. The foundations of mindfulness through the organizations we partnered with have taken root in the annual Peace Festival. All adhere to some form of our mandate: Peace, Planetary Care and Social Justice. Concentration on my home city was a primary focus. I was inspired to devote my time and energy to moving things just a little bit, so that good things could begin to happen spontaneously. I soon discovered, there were many good friends across the city more than happy to make this possible – and take over.
This narrative shows how the strategy of community building and activism in the face of Extinction is necessary. This is what it takes to derail the culture of fear and greed. To truly embrace impermanence requires an open spiritual practice, co-operative networks and preparation for community activism to invigorate the values that serve humanity. The required global response to implement some form of the Marshall Plan or the Green New Deal is not likely to appear in time, unless political leaders suddenly become brave and make bold choices to connect rather than separate. In the looming vacuum, deadly forms of Climate Emergency will certainly crash down all over the planet. Yet the organization of community building and activism provides local support with a strong view of impermanence. In my home city of Ottawa, Canada, there are many magnificent networks of solidarity in the city to help and support.
There may well be disaster in our faces, yet there is also solidarity in community activism. Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community” no less.