My grand-nephew James was recently celebrating his birthday, yet he felt awful and very sad about being nine, wishing 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 could not say 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 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 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 big 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. 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 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. Our focus is on mindfulness in schools, city environment and teens at risk. 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 and told him that I have written elsewhere that the present millennium is the century of the daughters, not so much as a gender separate thing, but as attributes of a holistic, nurturing presence of mind.
The idea 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 that leads to effective action. 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 and pathological 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 kindness is quickly overshadowed by 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 a 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 that 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 and so on.
One boy on the crescent where I live has received such gifts from me for several years. For his most recent birthday he asked all 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 one hundred and eighty dollars. They all went together to the Humane Society and happily handed their bag of cash to the surprised staff. This resonated with James.
“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.” 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. 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. “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 come to a 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.”
“Just how?” was his one line mantra.
“You can start by making friends with your breath,” I said. James looked up at me quizzically. “You just bring your focus to your in-breath, then on your out-breath. Really concentrate and 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.”
He did so, nodded 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 is 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 pathological 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. If we do not simplify, make do with less and change, then the vicious downward spiral to a burning world would definitely occur.
“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.
“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. 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. 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 to James that the disasters all over the world reinforce each potency to explode. Whether it is wildfires, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, millions of aquatic creatures dead on beaches, it goes on 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 often showbiz and full of fake news, so the general public are not educated by the media about the terrible realities happening on our planet.
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 rather than living on the automatic pilot of busyness. 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. The world will follow.”
I assured James that we are equal to the task and chose not to hold back anything from him. 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.