Healing Our Relationship with the Earth, Each Other, and Ourselves

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Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
September 3, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening
September 4, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

As a little boy, we constantly moved from one military base to another and so, every year I would be the new kid in town, and the only Jew. This circumstance led to frequent violence by peers and cruelty from teachers. Unfortunately, home was not a refuge for me. Both of my parents were quite young and had many unresolved psychological issues, which led to daily emotional and physical abuse. So, I would frequently retreat to the outdoors because I never experienced intentional maltreatment there. Over time, I came to love how the natural environment simply acknowledged my presence without value judgements and how it constantly presented me with new and interesting beings to interact with. Nature was my safe space.

By the time I had moved out on my own, I began to notice how that natural world was being damaged. The air and water were becoming toxic; insects, birds and all kinds of animals were threatened and sometimes becoming extinct. I joined the nascent environmental movement and advocated for ecological conservation for nearly forty years. While some progress has been made, the evidence is that things have generally gotten worse instead of better.

Seeing so much time, effort, and money being spent for so little result, I became disillusioned. My disappointment with an exclusively political process deepened as I became more aware of the extent that environmental degradation (with its recent consequence of pandemic disease) disproportionately affect poor people as well as racial and ethnic minorities. Neither traditional environmental groups nor the political process have been able to truly remedy these problems. I came to wonder whether a different approach might be more beneficial for the planet and for me.

Even though I’ve been meditating for forty-five years, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve begun to focus my practice more on my relational way-of-being in the world. At a Still Water retreat this past January, it became clear to me that there were beginning steps towards healing that I could take. During this retreat, we discussed and meditated on the Five Remembrances, the fifth of which is:

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Carefully examining this final Remembrance, two understandings became startlingly clear to me:
  • My physical, mental, emotional and spiritual actions literally mold  who I am, as if I were a sculptor. And, since we all inter-are with one another, just-as-literally mold who others and all beings are. There is no way out of my constantly shaping and re-shaping myself and all those around me. I will either do this mindfully… or I won’t. My choosing to be mindful allows me to heal my relationships,  and thereby supports all beings in healing their relationships with themselves, each other, and with our Mother Earth.
  • Genuine Buddhist practice is not merely a “head-trip,” but rather a practice of embodied awareness. As a felt sense of embodied awareness (all-too-slowly) grows within me, it demands that I create conditions within which all beings are invited to open their hearts and, simultaneously, to make those conditions a fundamental part of our political process.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Love Letter to the Earth:

On the verge of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he touched the Earth with his hand and asked her to bear witness to his awakening. Flowers sprang up in celebration at the very place where his hand touched the ground. At that moment, the Buddha’s mind became so free and clear that he saw millions of flowers everywhere smiling at him. We can be like the Buddha, and in difficult moments touch the Earth as our witness.

So, just as we touch our Mother Earth and fully awaken to Her caring for us, our individual awakenings and consequent caring for Her and for each other can become integrated parts of our political discourse. For myself, I have committed to formal training as a Forest Therapy Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT). As noted on their website: As noted on their website:

Forest Therapy refers to the practice of spending time in forested or natural area … in a way that invites healing interactions. It’s not just about healing people; it includes healing for the forest, river, desert, or whatever environment you are in. [Forest Therapy] makes room for listening, for quiet and accepting presence, and for inquiry through all of the sensory modes we possess. … This requires mindfully moving through the landscape in ways that cultivate presence, opening all the senses, and actively communicating with the land. Forest therapy is about creating relationships between humans and the more-than-human world, in which the relationship itself becomes a field of healing and a source of joyful well-being. … The Forest is the Therapist. The Guide Opens the Doors.

Through this training, my intention is to support the Sangha by uniting our practice of Mindful Walking with an emphatically embodied experience of Interbeing. For me, this embodied sense of Interbeing occurs when I fully sense the natural world around me, while at the same time I experience that natural world fully sensing me. So much more than just another hike in the woods!

This Thursday and Friday evening, after our meditation period, we will read the excerpts below from Thay and explore together our relationship with ourselves, each other and our Mother Earth. We will begin our Dharma sharing reflecting on these questions:

  • Has a deep, healing relationship with nature been part of your life and practice?
  • If yes, in what ways?
  • If not, how might such a relationship  make  a positive difference for you, all beings, and our Mother Earth?

I hope you will be able to join us.

May you be well and safe.

Roy Ringel

Excerpts from Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh

On the verge of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he touched the Earth with his hand and asked her to bear witness to his awakening. Flowers sprang up in celebration at the very place where his hand touched the ground. At that moment, the Buddha’s mind became so free and clear that he saw millions of flowers everywhere smiling at him.

We can be like the Buddha, and in difficult moments touch the Earth as our witness. We can take refuge in the Earth as our original mother. We can say, “I touch the pure and refreshing Earth.” Whatever nationality or culture we belong to, whatever religion we follow, whether we’re Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews or atheists, we can all see that Mother Earth is a great Bodhisattva. When we see her in this way, with all her many virtues, we will walk more gently on her and treat her and all her children more gently. We will want to protect her and not harm her or any of the myriad forms of life she has given birth to. We will stop wreaking destruction and violence on Mother Earth. We will resolve the question of what we mistakenly call “the environmental problem.” The Earth is not just the environment. The Earth is us. Everything depends on whether we have this insight or not.

When you’re able to see the Earth for the Bodhisattva that she is, you will want to bow down and touch the Earth with reverence and respect. Then love and care will be born in your heart. This awakening is enlightenment. Don’t look for enlightenment elsewhere. This awakening, this enlightenment, will bring about a great transformation in you, and you’ll have much more happiness, more love, and more understanding that from any other practice. Enlightenment, liberation, peace, and joy aren’t dreams for the future; they’re a reality available to us in the present moment.

We can’t wait any longer to restore our relationship with the Earth because right now the Earth and everyone on Earth is in real danger. … A spiritual revolution is needed if we’re going to confront the environmental challenges that face us. … Real change will happen only when we fall in love with our planet. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change. When we recognize the virtues and talents of the Earth, we feel connected to her and love is born in our hearts. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love: to be at one. When you love someone, you want to take care of that person as you would take care of yourself. When we love like this, it’s reciprocal. We will do anything for the benefit of the Earth and we can trust that she, in turn, will do everything in her power for our wellbeing. …

We tend to think that we have to do something to heal the Earth. But sitting, walking and breathing with mindfulness and concentration is doing something. We don’t have to fight in order to feel the benefits of practice. … Just allow yourself to sit, walk and breath quietly. Allow yourself to be yourself. Don’t do anything. Don’t strive; relaxation will come. When you are completely relaxed, healing will take place on its own. There’s no healing without relaxation. And relaxation means doing nothing. There is only sitting, walking and breathing … we just enjoy our in- and out-breath. Healing begins when you aren’t trying to do anything. This is the practice of non-practice.

If we know how to take refuge in Mother Earth, we can experience healing through sitting, walking, and simply by breathing. We can feel her solidity under our feet; we can see her majesty in high mountain peaks and lakes, in the vast blue sky, winding rivers, and deep oceans. If we truly believe in the planet’s power to heal itself, we know she can also heal us. We don’t have to do anything at all. Just surrender ourselves to Mother Earth and she will do everything for us. We are the Earth. The Earth is us. We can allow this process to happen by itself. …

Dear Mother, wherever there is soil, water, rock or air, you are there, nourishing me and giving me life. You are present in every cell of my body. My physical body is your physical body, and just as the sun and stars are present in you, they are also present in me. You are not outside of me and I am not outside of you. You are more than just my environment. You are nothing less than myself.

I promise to keep the awareness alive that you are always in me, and I am always in you. I promise to be aware that your health and well-being is my own health and well-being. I know I need to keep this awareness alive in me for us both to be peaceful, happy, healthy, and strong.

Sometimes I forget. Lost in the confusions and worries of daily life, I forget that my body is your body, and sometimes even forget that I have a body at all. Unaware of the presence of my body, and the beautiful planet around me and within me, I’m unable to cherish and celebrate the precious gift of life you have given me. Dear Mother, my deep wish is to wake up to the miracle of life. I promise to train myself to be present for myself, my life, and for you in every moment. I know that my true presence is the best gift I can offer to you, the one I love.

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