I am preparing a collection of essays – “Our World is Burning” for publication in 2017. Essay Fifteen is pertinent today.
Essay Fifteen: Guidelines to Reconstruct our World
The life support systems of the planet are severely threatened by Climate Change, aided by the accelerating greed, materialism and waste of the current global paradigm. Our ignorance and neglect are destroying the Earth, because we do not know how to behave in an aware manner with respect to ourselves, to others, and to the planet. Unless we radically change there is no possibility of balance, environmentally or socially. There is no remedy without establishing universal environmental ethics. This was my thinking while I was preparing for my Ecology and Culture course on TV at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. I wanted to connect the dots of the many levels of violence and fear we engage with. The environment certainly, but also the everyday use of harmful speech, harmful consumption and all the way up to acts of terrorism. We need to dig out the causes of how violence to the earth and ourselves is nurtured worldwide.
We live in a world framed by fear, hatred, terror, revenge and uncertainty. These derivatives of human experience are no strangers to our consciousness yet we remain ill equipped to reconstruct the world we live in. We desperately need guidelines. The not so hidden agenda remains “What do we do about neglect, indifference, violence and terror?” I show that with ethical guidelines rooted in spiritual practice, we do not generate the energy that enables terror and violence to grow. From our everyday situation to the present climate of fear, hatred and vengeance, I demonstrate that it is all of the same nature. We just have to learn how to behave differently. Radical retraining is evidently in order, as we must change before a brave new world can become a reality.
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. The Buddha taught the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a design for living. Thich Nhat Hanh reworked them to be in sync with modern realities. They are non-sectarian and all spiritual traditions have their equivalent. The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in one-self, family and society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity and not exploit other beings. The third is responsible sexual behavior to protect couples, families and children. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind. Quite a formula to present to my class!
I asked students if anyone would care to read them out to their classmates during my lecture. There were many volunteers. I did wonder if this borrowing from Buddhism would go over well with students and the viewing audience. Much to my surprise students and the public viewers wrote in to tell me that this was a wake-up call, the first time they had been presented with environmental ethics. Let me be clear – the trainings are not there for us to be in judgment of others, to bludgeon people with a misplaced self-righteousness. They are an internal compass so that as individuals we wake up to love and compassion and take heed of the directions the Mindfulness Trainings guide us to. The trainings are not a coercive design for conformity. They simply assist us to be more aware of what is going on, around and within us. They enable us to distinguish that which is good for ourselves, our minds and the world and that which is not. It is not necessary to be perfect in the practice as that is not possible. But it is possible to move in the direction of responsible and ethical living and make a difference to our society and environment. The options are: Do we bring to violence, indifference and terror a renewed application of the same? Or do we step back and consider these teachings?
We created the present situation, yet there is a way to transform our creation. The politicians, corporate moguls and terrorists making the decisions that presently shape our world do not have awakened minds. Their minds are scarred, filled with ignorance, their hearts held hostage to corporate and electoral agendas. They all follow the same script, seeking similar justifications to advocate the use of violence. Trapped in history and hate they offer no means of re-creating our world. The Buddha does. The implications of his Five Mindfulness Trainings apply fully to the dangerous times we live in. Our world needs guidelines like these to live by. The Trainings provide explicit guidelines that resonate fully within other religious traditions.
The flip side to global violence is the growing concern about the absence of love, decency and compassion in daily and public life, in schools, at work, in the healing professions and in the world at large. This preoccupies and worries many citizens and scholars at the present time. If there was ever a time to learn anew from these teachings, it is now. The awakened mind of the Buddha is there in the Five Mindfulness Trainings and it is not just a property of the Buddha’s consciousness. It is the potential state of our own mind. When we touch base with the Five Mindfulness Trainings the same aspect of mind in ourselves is being reminded to wake up. Neglect, terror and fear are states of mind. Therefore we need tools that reconnect us to a mind state not driven by such factors.
The Five Mindfulness Trainings are presented as an antidote to the contemporary crises and devastation we have created through ignorance and neglect. The deep malaise in society is making us ill, so preventive medicine is necessary, so that we may become whole and regain our health and balance. The ethics of the Five Mindfulness Trainings provide the necessary balance to come home to our true nature, while caring for all we interconnect. Before trying to address social and environmental crises, the building of inner spiritual strength through meditation and mindfulness is crucial.
FIRST MINDFULNESS TRAINING – Reverence For Life
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
Allow me to break it down. Each training begins with Aware of the suffering caused by … “Aware” means that I am mindful of suffering. I am aware that when life is destroyed mindlessly, suffering ensues. As I grow more aware, I begin to take refuge in the awakened aspect of my mind. The First Mindfulness Training addresses suffering caused by physical violence. When we become aware of that, we take steps to diminish the source of that suffering. We can choose to be vegetarian. We do not give our approval to violence carried out by the state, but we have to take care, first of all, of the violence that rests in our own minds. Our concerns manifest in what we do, say, and think. Body, Speech and Mind provide three locations for our action. Of these three, Mind is the most difficult one to deal with, as the task is to learn ways of practicing non-violence in our minds.
I am committed to cultivating interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. The notion of “learning ways” indicates that we do not know it all, that we make mistakes and do not do things perfectly. Yet we make a commitment to find ways to do things better, as we take responsibility for all that we interconnect with on the planet. The first training is about compassion, of cultivating the ability to transform suffering. The energy of compassion is born from insight and experience, not from the intellect or external decree. We know that our compassion includes the ecosystem. To protect human life we must protect the life of ecosystems. If the environment is destroyed, humans will be destroyed. It is taken further in the stricture not to support killing, even in our minds. To find the way to transform the wars and killing within our thoughts, we must learn how to be internally peaceful. As peace and environmental activists, if we have not taken care of this and continue to work out of anger or despair, then we will never succeed. The change and healing begins with the individual. From there it can extend to society and the environment.
When we practice mindfulness through walking meditation or conscious breathing, then we practice peace. When we reduce the internal wars compassion is born. With understanding and insight we learn the ways to express it. The practice of mindfulness is the ground from which we touch the suffering in the world and from there we act with clarity and understanding.
SECOND MINDFULNESS TRAINING – True Happiness
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others: and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help others reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and mitigate the process of global warming.
In our commitment to cultivate loving kindness, we learn ways not to exploit. We learn to share more and to consume less. A most difficult thing to share is our time. We will often give money to support a worthy cause, yet rarely do we share time. We attribute not having time to causes and conditions that lie outside of ourselves; job, family, housework, political activities and so on. Yet being polluted by time is a condition that lies entirely within our own minds. We forget to practice mindfulness, and rarely can we even enjoy a cup of tea. I remember with some nostalgia having tea with my Scottish grandmother. It was a carefully observed ritual, with the best china and attention to detail. It was a wonderful opportunity to slow down and really be with each other. Contrast this with the hasty cup of coffee first thing in the morning, as we watch the news, feed the children and hit the highway. It is no wonder that by the time we get to work, we are tied up into tight knots. This is a direct effect of pollution by time.
On those occasions when we allow ourselves to be present and truly share our time, there is a memory of joy, because it stands out from all other experiences of life. I remember several years ago shopping at Starbucks to buy some decaffeinated coffee. An elderly lady was in front of me, being served by the assistant manager. She asked him about the taste and quality of the different kinds of coffee beans. As there were no other customers apart from myself, the assistant manager took the time to explain the difference between French Roast, Kenyan and Columbian coffee beans in terms of growing conditions and taste. He was very knowledgeable and I received quite an education. Finally he asked: “Madam, what would you like?” To which the elderly lady hesitatingly replied, “Do you have any of that Tim Horton’s coffee?” (Tim Horton’s is a competing franchise to Starbuck’s.) Smiling broadly, the young man said that they did not stock it, but as things were not too busy he would drive her to the nearest Tim Horton’s. He shared time, and made my day (and the elderly lady’s) with the joy that emanated from him being totally present. I have never forgotten this small act of loving kindness, and I am sure his customer remembers it with similar feelings of joy.
This training is about generosity. It is about the opposite end of the spectrum from exploitation, oppression, social injustice and stealing. These attributes have many faces and constitute a form of theft that kills us slowly. In the Second Mindfulness Training the emphasis is on loving kindness, expressed through generosity. There are three kinds of gifts of generosity. First of all the gift of material resources, second the gift of helping people to stand on their own feet through the gift of wise teachings, and third the gift of fearlessness. The third gift is very important, as so many people are motivated by the fear of not surviving. Fear corrupts and degrades, yet is a pressing reality in the minds of so many global citizens. To help those in the grip of fear, we bring the gift and benefits of our loving kindness, of our own fearlessness. We can encourage people to feel safe by being fully present with them. This may be something they rarely experience. Fearlessness in our example helps friends in difficulty and pain.
Thich Nhat Hanh poses a direct question about the Second Mindfulness Training:
Is your nation practicing this? Or in the name of development or growth, is your nation or are your lawmakers violating it, exploiting other nations, trying to make them into a market, monopolizing them, profiting from their manpower and natural resources in order to win the heart of their own country and its people?
The Second Mindfulness Training is a profound practice, as it generates larger and more encompassing groups of people in communities, cities and nations to engage with global realities of systemic breakdown.
THIRD MINDFULNESS TRAINING – True Love
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that the body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness, which are the four basic elements of true love, for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
This training is about healing the negative consequences of sexual misconduct. In contemporary society love is often misunderstood; attachment is substituted for friendship and the sex industry for relationship. It is no surprise that subsequent actions lack responsibility. Authentic love calls for understanding, responsibility and respect, whereby our sexuality reflects a wider mosaic of joyful communion between body and spirit. The key term in this training is responsibility. Because we are responsible for the well being of so many people, we make the choice to refrain from sexual misconduct. In sexual relationship, as many of us know and have experienced, we can become deeply hurt and devastated. This training protects us, and others, from being wounded. Loneliness, advertising and the sex industry provide a powerful inducement for misconduct, which has destructive consequences for all concerned in the sexual abuse of children. On a daily basis the imagery of the sex industry is presented to our senses through advertising, the media, internet, pornography and films. The producers of this material may claim freedom of expression, but it is really a lack of responsibility. It influences everyone profoundly, particularly young people. This irresponsible imagery pollutes our consciousness and fosters sexual misconduct, destroying self-respect and respect for the other.
We need to learn ways to protect our senses, to guard against the energy of the sex industry as it is insidiously purveyed to us on a daily basis. There is an ethical void around sexual behavior, and young people are left to experiment without clear guidance. They stumble frequently into disaster and suffering, as do their parents. That void can be filled by observance of the Third Mindfulness Training as it protects our senses and provides the means to re-establish the balance that has been lost. Meditation closes the sensory doors to external inputs and opens the doors to the heart, wherein dwells our true nature of responsibility. Once the doors to the heart are opened we are predisposed to be more responsible with our sexuality. From the awakened mind of great teachers come insights and guidelines to cultivate our own awakening. The Third Mindfulness Training is such a guideline. It helps us to know our own mind, to see habit energies and addictions for what they are, and guide us to become aware of the awakened mind that exists as seeds within our consciousness. This Training feeds those seeds and takes us to a place of non fear.
FOURTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING – Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering within myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord, I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.
If we learn to take care of our thoughts as the actions of our Mind, then we will take care of what we say as the actions of our Speech. We pay attention and discipline our thoughts, taking greater care of what we say. This ensures that the important guidelines of the Fourth Mindfulness Training are applied. Our speech also comes from our parents, ancestors, teachers and friends. Very often something comes out of our mouth which we instantly regret and we wonder, where on earth did that come from? We are a continuation of our ancestors and teachers. We have to be aware that in addition to all their mindful qualities we have also inherited harmful habits of speech. Children are often criticized and reprimanded at mealtimes, as that was the way our parents communicated. So children consume the energy of punishment along with their food. Frequently they will cut themselves off from their bodies while eating, so it is not surprising that so many children suffer from eating disorders. Family meal times can be changed from a battlefield that produces casualties. If parents would only take the time and effort to talk about what is going right, and empower young people rather than focus on supposed faults. Mindful mealtimes can transform family life. We must learn ways to be considerate in our speech, though it takes time, understanding and awareness.
This training is about the art of deep listening and the power of compassionate speaking. In our busy modern world very few people give their time or presence to listen deeply to anyone. Yet our presence is the greatest gift we can give, especially to children, for it bridges chasms of misunderstanding and heals wounds. The reason we do not listen is simple. We have ceased to listen to our true nature, the neglected internal component of ourselves that harbors our strengths, compassion and love. As we learn to touch this island within ourselves through meditation, then we can listen to others and deeply heal them with our full presence. Our perceptions are filled with incorrect judgments and this is what is fed by a toxic conversation. We rarely listen to the other speaking to us, simply because we are not present for them. We also do not listen to significant others in our lives. We are unskillful and often harmful. On the other hand the practice of meditation does not distort what is presented and provides freedom from the prison of prejudice. And so we train with the Fourth Mindfulness Training as a guide.
I remember the magical effects of being present and listening deeply with my children, particularly as I previously had a long history with them of not doing so! To truly love our children is to be present for them. Everything is available through our full presence. Being present, listening deeply from a compassionate heart, speaking lovingly is what the Fourth Mindfulness Training is about. It provides a practical and ethical guideline about what to do with our speech, listening and presence so we can bring about transformation and healing. We learn to listen to a different internal voice that has its foundation in goodness and decency. The capacity for deep listening and loving speech lies within everyone and this training guides us to develop and use these skills to relieve suffering in others. We all know that the power of words can cause distress, yet it can also bring about joy and happiness. The Fourth Mindfulness Training guides us to be aware of how we so often place judgments into our speech, and encourages us to reflect on our perceptions before we open our mouths. With our mouths wide open for mindless speech to spill out, we condemn and criticize without understanding. Blaming does not allow understanding and compassion to enter into the picture.
The Fourth Mindfulness Training encourages us to look deeply into the habit energies so powerfully wrapped round our speech, and to take care that we prevent separation and harm from coming into the lives of families and communities. At the same time we do our best to nurture the energy of reconciliation when conflicts are created by unkind and thoughtless words. In order to practice the art of deep listening we have to retrain ourselves so that the seeds of compassion and love are nurtured. But very often we have our own scars and personal baggage, which makes deep listening and compassionate speech difficult. Never before have there been so many means to communicate with one another, yet we remain isolated because our communication is shallow and meaningless, without depth. In our communications with others, our words and energy have the power to either uplift or harm. Very often we choose to harm, and though this may provide a moment of triumph, our speech action alienates us from that consciousness which brings happiness. When we cannot listen deeply, we cannot speak kindly.
The Fourth Mindfulness Training takes us into a deep investigation of what to do with our speech and the quality of our presence. What we do is often very unwise because the environment that surrounds us encourages us to be untruthful. We may believe it is innocuous to lie under certain circumstances, the proverbial white lie. Yet some part of our mind knows our integrity is compromised. When that volume is pumped up, however, politicians, business people, the media, bureaucrats feel they have to lie in order to be successful. Our elected representatives do not usually speak mindfully, or listen to anyone. Many are mindful only of public opinion polls and their re-election. A considerable proportion of the icons from the sports, entertainment, and media domains present posture and hype rather than truth, and we know that most of them lie. This environment that encourages untruth translates into a degraded nation, world and environment. Can we not set an example for our children by speaking the truth, by coming from the heart, by demonstrating the positive effects of deep listening and compassionate speech? An antidote such as the Fourth Mindfulness Training is needed to transform and heal the basis of our communication with others. This Training is the sword to cut through the Gordian knot of lying that tangles us in webs of deceit and destruction, and guides us in the direction of integrity and trust.
FIFTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING – Nourishment and Healing
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or any other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in such a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.
This training is about the way we consume. It guides us to adopt new patterns of consumption so that our society becomes mindful and less violent. This is the necessary shift in consciousness required if we choose to actualize the Five Mindfulness Trainings in our daily lives. Then we can step more lightly on the planet and find ways to encourage people to consume mindfully and bring an end to violence. However, media, TV and advertising bombard our senses daily with violence. Indeed, we are encouraged to consume in a manner that supports a political/economic system based on greed. As long as we remain willing prisoners to this corporate ideology, we are unable to take responsibility for the world we live in and create. None of this is good for our mental and physical health. Our consciousness absorbs and is defined by all that we consume. If we continually consume toxins, violence and garbage, then it should not surprise us that this is the raw material for daily decision making. We are the sum of the nutriments we put into our beings, and to be healthy we must learn how to protect ourselves otherwise we will get sick and violent and create a sick and violent society.
Our consciousness stores everything. Deeply hidden in our mind are the addictions of our ancestors, the negativity, cruelty and discrimination throughout our species memory, our fears, hatreds and guilt. Also in our consciousness are the seeds of an enlightened mind, the Grace of God, the potential of understanding, compassion and love buried as seeds, waiting to grow. Guidelines such as the Mindfulness Trainings take us on a journey, so that the latter seeds are nurtured rather than the former. Without ethical guidelines rooted in a spiritual practice, we would suffer continuously from internal conflicts and confusion.
We can say, “This is not good for me”, or “This is not good for my children,” and then begin cultivating an alternative consumption that is good. Without mindfulness we are exposed to all kinds of energy-sucking elements that activate and indulge the seeds of violence, hatred, anger, terror and despair; all of which drain us of life force. As we begin to understand the effects of these energies feeding our worst attributes of mind, then we can stop. With insight we can cut off the energies that are damaging us. The Mindfulness Trainings provide the key. If we know what the nutriments are that feed our ill-being, particularly the potential state of violence within us, we can make the conscious decision to cut off the feeder supplies. Replace them with nutriments that support us moving in the direction of compassion and responsible ethical living. Remember, it is the ethical void in our lives that supports violence in daily expression of who we think they are.
The Fifth Mindfulness Training guides us out of this prison with a clear commitment to consume mindfully and thereby create a different kind of society, one that is responsible to ancestors and future generations. The issue of responsibility is the key to this training. because we interconnect with and affect everything. We must realize that lack of responsibility to the environment, ancestors and future generations, creates a very dangerous situation. If we do not choose to consume mindfully then we will destroy our world. We need to go on a diet of mindfulness for all aspects of our life, society and environment. It is possible to move in the direction of responsible and ethical living. This is what mindfulness practice is for. This is the hope and the remedy for violence in our society, in our children and on our planet.
We must deliberately cultivate the positive attributes in our minds and shine the light of recognition and mindfulness on our suffering, so that we can become steady and full of resolve to live differently. The Five Mindfulness Trainings provide us with a template to do exactly that, as 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! This is the only way to unravel the insidious internal knots caused by generations of ancestral habits, created from ignorance, vengeance and separation. This is the work of the new revolutionary of the 21st century. It is not only a political and intellectual exercise, not only a matter of compromised treaties and cease fires. It is an internal transformation of consciousness at the core of our being.
I shape all of this this into a simple personal mantra: “I refrain from causing harm.” I know that by refraining from one thing that causes harm, I then prevent other harmful things from happening. I arrive at my own insight, which is not imposed by any outside authority. It takes mindfulness to do this and the Five Mindfulness Trainings provide the starting gate, a guidance system and a deep well of internal ethics to live by. Without them………….? I choose not to go there, as my commitment is to actualize these trainings in my life, and in the lives of others, to the best of my ability. That is my dance.