Meeting the world’s deep hunger

First appeared as blog post by Jane Negrych for the Weekly Challenge blog from the Mindfulness Association

After Jane wrote about The Final Straw challenge on creating and cultivating an ‘outer’ practice,  she thought it might be a good idea to change up the format of our challenge this week and record a conversation between me and her on ‘outer’ practice and how we might start moving towards Engaged Mindfulness…

 

click here to watch

 

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The final straw

Blog post by Jane Negrych for the Weekly Challenge blog from the Mindfulness Association

A few days ago, I was speaking with my dear friend and colleague Kristine Janson about straws. Yes, you read that right: straws. Kristine had asked me if I used straws and I didn’t think that I used straws, but then when I really thought about it, I realised that I actually use straws all the time.

Whenever I go to my local coffee shop and order a smoothie, I am given a straw. Or when my children order slushes (which in the summer is ALL the time), they get the fattest straws possible. And lately on my drive home from teaching, I have been stopping for a chocolate milkshake and I drink that milkshake with a STRAW. In my head this is my weekly act of self kindness 😉

However, while this is an act of self-kindness for Jane, is it an act of kindness for the planet?

Well, my conversation with Kristine reminded me that it’s not. In fact, in the U.S. alone, there are 500 million straws used per DAY!!! And what happens to those straws? They just sit there and pollute. They do not biodegrade. In fact, according to Jackie Nunez who wrote “The Sipping Point”, every piece of plastic ever made is still in our environment in some capacity (for full article click here).

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When I thought about this, I felt a bit overwhelmed. I mean we are talking about straws. If this one teeny tiny item could cause so much havoc for our earth, what other mindless consumption habits do I have?

Kristine and I spoke about this overwhelm and of ways in which we can engage and act to counter mindless consumption in ways that do not feel like we are being completely engulfed and dragged down by the enormity of the issue: the destruction of our environment at the hands of humans. How can we move forward in a way that is helpful, but also in a way that one can maintain a sense of hope?

One thing that Kristine has taken on is some advice from the late Akong Rinpoche, past Abbot and Founder of Samye Ling. In the film ‘Akong – a Remarkable Life’, Akong Rinpoche talks about the importance of not just practising for ourselves and our own benefit, but also of acting in society. He calls this acting in society ‘outer’ practice, to complement our ‘inner’ practice of meditation. Akong Rinpoche did much charity work with one of his project being ROKPA, an international relief organisation that is represented in 17 countries world wide! His ‘outer’ practice was robust.

Kristine has been focusing her ‘outer’ practice of environmental issues. She’s been inspired by the work of Joanna Macy, the eco philosopher and author of “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy”, as well as Thich Nhat Hanh, who considers and encourages mindful consumption in a way that honours all generations. His teachings stress the interconnection between all living beings, and in his book “For a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life”, he states that “[w]e have to eat, drink, consume, but if we do it unmindfully, we may destroy our bodies and our consciousness, showing ingratitude toward our ancestors, our parents, and future generations”. Therefore, it is no surprise that these principles have come together to shape and influence Kristine’s teaching practice; and in 2018, she will be co- leading (with Fay Adams) a course on Engaged Mindfulness, or a course that helps mindfulness practitioners really develop their own ‘outer’ practice in a way that does not overwhelm, rather nurtures and supports well-being (for more information on the Engaged Mindfulness course, please click here).

In the meantime, I have decided to give up using plastic straws and I have pledged to continue to find small ways in which I continue to transform my consumption from mindless to mindful. So this week’s challenge is to find your own small modification to your consumption habits that might help nourish rather than deplete, not only you but this planet!

How profound grounding can bring experiential interconnectedness with life on earth

A glimpse into the practices we’ll be exploring on the Engaged Mindfulness course led by Kristine Mackenzie and Fay Adams in Samye Ling in January 2018

– By Fay Adams

Profound Grounding

Those who have completed the Mindfulness Practitioner training will be familiar with the concept of grounding. The first stage of grounding is about dropping into the body, which is held by the earth. For many years it never occurred to me that this experience could be deepened, that it wasn’t just something you touch into as a foundation for working with the mindfulness support. Then I tried a practice called Earth Descent (led by Reggie Ray) and I was stunned by an experience of grounding that could only be described as grounding multiplied by a hundred! I realised we can drop our awareness down into the earth itself. This might sound like a strange concept – surely it’s impossible to drop into the earth! However we work with our imagination here. We imagine that our awareness keeps dropping down further and further down. Whereas in basic grounding you feel like a mountain, now you feel like a mountain with a huge foundation merging into the deep, wide and vast expanse of planet earth. This feels to me like a very primordial experience, there’s a sense of reconnecting with an ancient affinity or even unity, with the earth, my home. It can almost feel like I become earth, strange as this may sound.

It can help if we remember a fundamental truth which indigenous societies knew well, but which much of humanity in the contemporary world seems to have forgotten. Human beings are born – are children – of the earth; the archetype of Mother Earth is found in original cultures on every continent.

There is a Native American saying which says: ‘’The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth’’. What a different orientation is required to go from thinking we have dominion over the earth, to feeling our belonging as one small manifestation of the vastness of life on earth! How different does this feel in the body?

Sacred Earth Awareness

It’s only relatively recently that human beings live without an awareness of the inter-dependence with the earth as a sacred reality. The level of disconnection from the beauty, intelligence and formidableness of nature is acute in the modern world. How else would human beings be able to be so destructive of the earth? We see the earth as something we can dredge, use and manipulate, rather than relating to her with wonder, awe and devotion and working in submission to her laws of balance. So these practices are a way of beginning to heal the earth by healing our experiential disconnectedness from her. We are reminded that we are more than individuals in bubbles, we are tiny, tiny life forms amongst the teaming, diverse grandeur of life on earth. If we deeply feel that we are the earth, then we will not exploit our planet and instead we will naturally want to tend, serve and love Mother Earth as an expression of our humanity.

Practicing Earth Descent has, for me, been a way to naturally find this earth connection. It has felt like experientially finding my umbilical cord back to the earth, like coming home to a home I didn’t know I was missing. My heart and body feel more embedded in the interdependence of life supported by our majestic planet. The unexpected response to this is spontaneous love.

 

Active Hope

Reflections on the book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone.

For me, the connection between Active Hope and mindfulness is completely seamless, and seems vitally important at this time in the world. In our mindfulness practice, we come back time and again to our motivation for practising: the motivation for the deepest well-being of ourselves and others. And our well-being is inextricably linked with the larger world around us.  As Thich Nhat Hanh says: “The Earth is not just our environment. We are the Earth and the Earth is us. We have always been one with the Earth…” So actively connecting with and caring for the earth that we are part of, and ‘facing the mess without going crazy’  is an essential part of this well-being in my view.

The ‘state of the world’ is something that might be tempting to turn away from as being too overwhelming, too dire to really look at or connect with – but what is mindfulness if not turning towards the places that scare us? We do this internally in our practice whenever something comes up that is uncomfortable, and we can do the same with what’s gratitudeuncomfortable and scary out there in the world, whether it’s climate disruption, depleting or resources or the fast rate with which species are going extinct and ecosystems are lost.

What I love about the Active Hope journey is that it helps connect with the strong steady ground of gratitude to start from, a trusted mindfulness practice connecting with joy, resilience and wellness. This gratitude and the vitality and strength it offers, facilitates turning towards what’s difficult with skillful exercises that honour our pain for the world. As Joanna Macy says:

“In owning this pain, and daring to experience it, we learn that our capacity to ‘suffer with’ is the true meaning of compassion. We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind, and how it helps us to move beyond fear. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into wider reaches of our ‘world as lover, world as self’.”

dandelionspiral

Spiral of the Work That Reconnects, by Dori Midnight

As is emphasised in the mindfulness training again and again, the sensitivity to pain in self, others and the world, can be the doorway to genuine compassion and meaningful action to try to relieve it. For me personally it has been so affirmative to directly experience the discovery that this pain is not the end of anything, but rather a beginning to see with new eyes, to widen our perspective. The chapters in the book relating to this seeing with new eyes, are on A Wider Sense of Self which offers a descent into the levels of our identity where there is much more connection than the usual perspective of separate individuals; A Different Story of Power looks at a shift from the domination model of power-over to the surprising potential of power-with; A Richer Experience of Community reaches into our deep connectedness with all human beings as well as with other life-forms; and A Larger View of Time,  where we stretch our imagination to planet time and connect with our ancestors as well as the future generations. And each of these themes in the book have a range of experiential exercises to dive in to, which shifts interesting thought-material to powerful personal experience. The Buddhist themes of interconnectedness and no self are tangible in these chapters, informed by Joanna’s decades long practice and deep understanding of Buddhism. In Joanna’s own words:

“The truth of our inter-existence, made real to us by our pain for the world, helps us see with new eyes. It brings fresh understandings of who we are and how we are related to each other and the universe. We begin to comprehend our own power to change and heal. We strengthen by growing living connections with past and future generations, and our brother and sister species.

Then, ever again, we go forth into the action that calls us. With others whenever and wherever possible, we set a target, lay a plan, step out. We don’t wait for a blueprint or fail-proof scheme; for each step will be our teacher, bringing new perspectives and opportunities. Even when we don’t succeed in a given venture, we can be grateful for the chance we took and the lessons we learned. And the spiral begins again…

So finally, we take this work into direct – and mindful – action. What little thing can I do today? Which ‘fruit tree’ can I water, even if I’m not sure it will actually bear fruit in the future? And how can my mindful awareness light up unconscious habits of consuming, how can my sense of interconnection with ecosystems and people across the planet inform me in everyday choices of the food I eat, the clothes I buy, the ways I travel? As is often the case in mindfulness practice on ‘the cushion’, what is revealed by deeper looking might need a good dose of (self)compassion, which we can offer freely. Because this is not meant to be another stick to beat myself up with in guilt. It’s living my intention to be increasingly aware and as Lama Yeshe Rinpoche says, becoming a more and more ‘useful’ human being.

“There are hard things to face in our world today, if we want to be of use. Gratitude, when it’s real, offers no blinders. On the contrary, in the face of devastation and tragedy it can ground us, especially when we’re scared. It can hold us steady for the work to be done.”

So… let’s start with gratitude, again and again!

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Earthy mindfulness

More and more, I am finding a deepening love and concern for what is happening to our beautiful planet. The poet Reiner Maria Rilke (translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows) phrased it beautifully in his Book of Hours which has been on and off my bedside table for several years now:

Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor—let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,

before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!

I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.

And I continue to be very curious about how mindfulness can help in that quest to love the things as no one has thought to love them. It seems to me that a lot of the current climate crisis can be met by looking deeply, acting mindfully and lovingly. And so I find myself wondering… what is my place in the family of things, how am I connected to others? How can I contribute to a healthier thriving planet on a day-to-day basis? Where do my clothes come from, who has grown my food and where, what are the conditions of their lives and how is their environment treated, what resources are used to package my food and what happens to it after it has served its purpose? What are the lives of the animals like that are producing the eggs and milk I consume, and how is the animal agriculture that I’m supporting with my purchases contributing to climate change?

This topic occupies my bedside table at the moment: Stephanie Kaza’s Mindfully Green, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Love Letter to the Earth, Joanna Macy’s Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy.

I find I’m having to work hard at staying connected and balanced in the midst of the amount of suffering I see when looking more deeply at the interconnectedness of all things and therefore, my contribution to it. It’s easy to fall into overwhelm and then shrink away in apathy, distraction and numbness, or flip the other way into black and white fanaticism and deadly criticism of myself and others (and it’s not hard to see how harsh criticism then flips me back into apathy). It’s taking all my mindfulness and then some, to inch towards where it hurts – while also consciously directing my gaze to the deep gratitude and my love and sheer beauty of life.

I find Joanna Macy’s wise voice a continuous inspiration and encouragement. In a short video she talks about Embracing Suffering and ends with saying in such a definite and knowing way that “despair is the covering of our love for our world, and we crack it open by speaking it so that our love can act. So the key is not being afraid of our pain for the world. Not being afraid of the world’s suffering. And if you are not afraid of it… then nothing can stop you.”

And not only can nothing stop you, but it allows you to live as Hafiz described:

One regret, dear world,
That I am determined not to have
When I am lying on my deathbed
Is that I did not kiss you enough.

Indeed!
So may we all live in a way that allows our self, our fellow beings and this precious planet we call our home to be well and flourishing…