Are you practicing eco-mindfulness? Do you wish you were, more consistently? Or, at all? The Interdependence Project’s Jerry Kolber shares some of the ways you can make a difference to our planet’s health, right now – individually, and as part of your community.
I’ve been a member of the Interdependence Project sangha for about two years, and since I began attending weekly meetings in 2007 I’ve developed a daily personal meditation practice with the support of the community, both in New York and online. At the Interdependence Project we not only study traditional Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice, we also apply that practice directly to personal and group activism around environmental issues. So, Shambhala SunSpace asked me to identify a few practices that Buddhists can do around the issues of eco-mindfulness.
First I’d like to say that we run the risk of making our contemplative and activist practice — which should and can be useful and appealing to anyone — seem like something perhaps too specifically “Buddhist” if we identify practices as “for Buddhists.” I know this is a fine line, worthy of far more discussion than what I am devoting to it here, but creating group identity as Buddhists, then creating eco-practices that Buddhists do, can easily make those who do not identify as “Buddhist” wary of engaging in similar practices. In day-to-day terms for me personally this translates into an ongoing question about whether (as a result of my personal practice and active participation in a Buddhist sangha) I am Buddhist, Buddhist-flavored, or just a guy doing contemplative practice and some other stuff with like-minded people. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but maybe it does. I know we need to label things to be able to talk about them in a meaningful way with other people, but labels also can create barriers to participation.
Meanwhile here are a few practices that we can do in our own lives and communities to help the environment. Note that I am skipping the obvious and important ones (reduce use of plastic bags, pick up one piece of trash each day that is not yours, turn off the lights and power strips when not in use) that have been covered many times in other places, in favor of less obvious and more challenging practices.
Whether in your sangha, your school, or your office, why not appoint someone as your Ecological Officer? Having an “Eco Cop” who has a passion for the latest information about the environment and is respected by their peers creates an opportunity for self-assessment of how your group is interacting with the planet. This person can be responsible for assessing everything from the paper you use, to your power suppliers, to the “green-ness” of your webhost and other suppliers, to how you handle waste products your organization generates. You could even try this idea in your family or home — appointing your partner, one of your roommates, or one of your kids as your personal Ecological Officer. In a Buddhist setting, this person might propose a ceremony or dedication, or sitting practice, that is directly related to a specific environmental issue. Water, earth, and air each provide a wealth of opportunity for spiritual study and actual engagement.
Is it a coincidence that Buddhist philosophy is so focused on two concepts that actually define the core of environmentalism? Interdependence and compassion could be expressed as follows: “What I do over here directly affects what happens to you over there — and vice-versa — and I care enough about myself and about you to want to take actions that reduce both of our suffering and dissatisfaction.” It’s easy to think of environmental activism as something “over there where the environment is”, but as Buddhists we eventually come to realize that the environment is both over there AND over here. We gradually experience that the environment is not just where we physically exist but it also encompasses ourselves, our relationships, and our actions.
Used in the more colloquial sense, “Environmental Activism,” while important, only captures a tiny fraction of what “Environmental Activism” means when you begin to even mildly grasp the concept of interdependence. Perhaps this not coincidental; emphasis on compassion and interdependence, combined with a growing sense that the physical planet is simultaneously suffocating, drowning, and burning (i.e. suffering), is what has spawned such a wellspring of activism in the Buddhist community. The old saying “If you want to work on the world, work on yourself first” might perhaps be rethought now as “If you want to work on yourself, work on the world at the same time.” Being a Buddhist-Flavored Activist — whatever that may mean for you, however involved you want to get — offers a fantastic opportunity to practice compassion, mindfulness, and awareness in an area that seems to demand urgency and immediate action. For me, activist practice offers a deep opportunity to practice compassion and non-violence towards myself, as I struggle to find the time and energy to engage in activism as deeply as I want to.
Finally, and this is the “change your lightbulb and recycle” practice — meditate daily. If you meditate every day, you cannot fail to see how your every action is connected to everything that you see manifest in the world around you. This is not some “new agey” idea. This is practical, on the ground, test-it-yourself-and-see stuff. What “you” do “here” doesn’t just affect “you” and “here” — because you can’t somehow separate out “you” and “here” from “them” and “there.” As useful as those labels are, the real nature of the “total environment” is that reality has a certain thickness and inseparability. We aren’t each some discrete object hurtling through a hostile and unfriendly universe. We don’t end and begin anywhere. Personal daily practice begins to reveal this ever so slowly and it creates a great deal of responsibility for how you treat everything.
Traditional environmentalists want people to deepen their relationship with the earth and air and all living beings, to understand that each person’s actions have impact beyond the narrow bandwidth of their own experience, and to become deeply in love with everything around them — thus making it impossible to continue to unconsciously harm the planet. To my little ears, this sounds suspiciously like the benefits of a regular practice of sitting meditation. It’s not a stretch to say that regular meditation practice may be the best possible way to get people to care about the environment. And to my earlier point, labeling the practice as Buddhist risks making it unappealing to many people who could seriously benefit from it, so I prefer to call it meditation or contemplative practice.
Meanwhile, I am wild in love with Buddhist practice and philosophy and how useful the tools are for me personally and for my relationship to the earth and others. Maybe the new label I will paste on my forehead is Green Buddhist. That sounds fresh and appealing and is probably a better brand name for what I am.
So: what about you? Do you have any questions about these practices, or how you might deepen your practice of eco-mindfulness? Do you have any suggestions for other practices we all can take up to make our world a bit better? If so, please leave them here as a comment so that we all can keep this important conversation going.
shelley kolber says
Great insight!!! I am soooo proud of you and appreciate your sensitivity to environmental issues….every little ripple makes an impact…..LOVE, mom
Check out Jerry's newest post on One City that just went up today:
What are the larger steps that one can take with regard to environmental issues that are actually improving the world siutation? As an example I just recycled a desk computer through the new "Eco-Friendly" system, only to see a news report about how the materials are being being bulk shipped to China and causing issues over there. Sure I felt good about recycling, now not so much. All we have done is move our problem to the third world. Here is a news item about the situation:
What is actually being done to make sure these supposed eco-friendly efforts are not in fact creating harm in another part of the world? It's fine to have folks acting as "reminders" about eco efforts, as long as we are not just spinning our wheels.
Peter, that is really unfortunate that waste is being shipped to China – wrong on so many levels. However for every story like that, there are equally inspiring stories of recycling, greywater reclamation, green roofs, and other eco-success stories. I guess all I can offer is that you do the best you can with the information you have and stay present and compassionate.
For me it also has to start at the begining of the cycle as well. Looking at how to reduce and reuse up front, rather than having to recycle at the end. One approach I have is to minimize the packaging I buy. If there is an option of buying something with less packaging, and it is fairly close in price, I'll buy the less packaged version.
Want to make a huge dent in your personal carbon footprint? Stop flying thousands of miles.
From the standpoint of greenhouse gases, a travel mile in the air is as bad as (and actually often worse than) a travel mile on the ground. Despite this, I know many Buddhists who worry themselves sick about whether to bike, drive, or walk to work (a journey that usually adds up to only a few thousands miles over a year) and then think nothing of traveling to another continent for a special two-week retreat with a really special teacher. A single unmindful decision (to fly thousands of miles) completely wipes out the environmental benefits of many hundreds of mindful decisions (walk to work, bike to the store, carpool).
I don't mean to pick on retreats. ALL long distance travel is problematic. Send your kid to a local college and forget about study abroad. If your sibling lives halfway across the continent, tell him that you and your kids won't be attending his wedding.
hmmm…this doesn;t sit right with me that one has to refrain from all long-distance travel in the name of eco-green-foorprint. It actually seems adharmic to have such an approach to me. Perhaps there is a middle of the road option?
Peter, I wouldn't dream of telling you or anyone else what you have to do. I haven't given up travel myself (although many others have), but the arithmetic of greenhouse gas emission is quite simple. Check out George Monbiot's "On the path to global meltdown", Guardian, Sept 21, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2006/sep/21…
Your phrase, "doesn't sit right", is worthy of much reflection. If I tell a modern well-off Westerner that I won't engage in unnecessary long distance travel, I will immediately be labeled as an enviro-whacko. But there are other points of view. Consider: the mere possibility of jetting around a continent is something that was never a part of human history until very recently. Moreover, most of humanity is still too poor to take an air trip. So really, how eccentric is a refusal to engage in air travel?
From a Buddhist perspective, we might ask who is the "self" that this refusal to travel "doesn't sit right" with? When I first started studying ways of reducing my carbon footprint a few years ago, I realized I could only make a little progress by making substitutions (CFLs for light bulbs, Prius for minivan, etc.). I would actually have to give things up if I was going to live sustainably and in true equilibrium with the Earth. But giving things up was (and still is) a huge problem, I couldn't do it, so I began to reflect on why it is so hard to give things up. This led me to Buddhism and the possibility of learning to approach my "self" and "my" desires in a new way.
Alan & Peter – very thoughtful and interesting comments about flying and the impact on the environment. We can easily get into "my solution is greener than yours" but in the end mindfulness will show us each the right way.
The elephant in the room, by the way, is industrial meat production and our addiction to meat. The meat industry releases far more emissions and pollutes air and water much worse than air and car travel. On a purely basic math level that any 3rd grader can grasp, feeding something 1.5 pounds of human edible protein, in order to get 1 pound of human edible protein, is a loser's game. Check out this report for more info; http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
I live in a cooperative apartment complex in NYC that has almost 4,000 people living on a footprint that would encompass perhaps 200 people if it were in suburbia (app. 13 acres – allowing for 4 to 6 people per 1/2 acre lot). I ride my bike to work or take the subway when it rains. Yet my carbon footprint is still huge compared to someone living in third-world conditions (whether in USA or actually third world) and I am increasingly mindful of what I can do to make a difference, even if I don't always do it….
I have to say that being vegan has made me more socially conscious in myriad ways. First, seeing the intense suffering of animals is what *really* woke up my compassion, which had been muffled somewhere under a veil of complacency my whole life. It gave me the passion to pursue active knowledge regarding social justice. And increasingly I am interested in intersecting issues, including ecology and feminism. Also, watch No Impact Man (I posted about it on my blog). It is a documentary that will inspire you to make personal changes in your life.