The Bells of Mindfulness are Sounding

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Dear Still Water Friends,

I’ve been struggling with how to lead the Thursday and Sunday discussions on the The World We Have, Chapters 3 and 4. No easy answer comes to me. The gist of my struggle is this: As a professional consultant and facilitator to grassroots environmental organizations, I help groups focus on problems they can solve. If an issue’s too big, we break it down into intermediate and immediate goals. We avoid problems that outstrip our ability, because when people battle too long and suffer only losses, they burn out. Why do that?

My first intention was to converse about consuming food in moderation (Chapter 3) and inter-being with nature (Chapter 4), and what we find works in each moment to help us become more mindful citizens of the planet. Things we can solve.

That seems necessary, but insufficient.

What resonates in me instead is the alarmed stridency of the book’s first paragraph. “The bells of mindfulness are sounding … The forests are disappearing, the deserts are growing, species disappear every day, and yet we continue to consume, ignoring the ringing bells.”

This is the fuller truth. Climate scientists say we have already passed into unknown territory where catastrophic change may be inevitable. We may have triggered positive feedback loops that we cannot control. We don’t know. Climate change gets the most attention now, but in other areas – species die-off, loss of fisheries, water supply, ozone layer depletion – the situation is also dire. And how these changes will play together is also unknown.

This is not easily solved and not uplifting. At a conference two weeks ago one of the speakers cited polling data which showed it’s best not to dwell on this uncertainty, because it turns people off. But the acknowledged fact was: we are up against intractable issues and entrenched interests we have so far not been able to budge, and even if we can we don’t know how much we can save of the world we have. To top it off, most of the leaders who have the power to make change right away are actively resisting.

Changing our personal eating habits is necessary, but not sufficient. Larger, rapid systemic shifts are required, and it seems there’s no guarantee of success and nobody to do it but us.

And how do we – each of us – sit with that? Although I work in this field, I also do not have an answer, and I look forward to searching with you for … balance?

Baird Straughan

From Chapter Four , The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology

One example of what happens when we try to overly control nature is our excessive use of pesticides, which indiscriminately kills many insects and birds and upsets the ecological balance. Economic growth that devastates nature by polluting and exhausting non-renewable resources renders the Earth impossible for beings to live on. Such economic growth may appear to temporarily benefit some humans, but in reality it disrupts and destroys nature as a whole.

The harmony and equilibrium within the individual, society, and nature are being destroyed. Individuals are sick, society is sick, and nature is sick. We must reestablish harmony and equilibrium, but how? Where can we begin the work of healing – in the individual, society, or the environment? We must work in all three domains. People of different disciplines tend to stress their particular area. For example, politicians consider an effective rearrangement of society to be necessary for the salvation of humans and nature and therefore urge that everyone engage in the struggle to make changes in the political system.

Buddhist monks are like psychotherapists in that we tend to look at the problem from the viewpoint of mental health. Meditation aims at creating, harmony and equilibrium in the life of the individual. Buddhist meditation deals with both the body and the mind, using breathing as a tool to calm and harmonize the whole human being. As in any therapeutic practice, the patient is placed in an environment that favors the restoration of harmony. Usually psychotherapists spend their time observing and then advising their patient. However, I know of some, who, like monks, observe themselves first, recognizing the need to first free themselves from the fears, anxieties, and despair that exist in each of us. Many therapists seem to think they themselves have no mental problems, but the monk recognizes in himself his susceptibility to fears and anxieties, and to the mental illness caused by the inhumanity of our existing social and economic systems.

Buddhist practitioners believe that the interconnected nature of the individual, society, and the physical environment will reveal itself to us as we recover and we will gradually cease to be possessed by anxiety, fear, and the dispersion of our mind. Among the three domains –individual, society, nature – it is the individual who begins to effect change. But in order to effect change, the individual must be whole. Since this requires an environment favorable to healing, the individual must seek a lifestyle that is free from destructiveness. Our efforts to change ourselves and to change the environment are both necessary, but one can’t happen without the other. We know how difficult it is to change the environment if individuals aren’t in a state of equilibrium. Our mental health requires that the effort for us to recover our humanness should be given priority.

Restoring mental health does not mean simply adjusting oneself to the modern world of rapid economic growth. The world is sick, and adapting to an unwell environment cannot bring real health. Many people who need psychotherapy are really victims of modern life which separates us from each other and from the rest of the human family.