Practicing Eco-Mindfulness with Jerry Kolber of the Interdependence Project

The Interdependence Project’s Jerry Kolber shares some of the ways you can make a difference to our planet’s health, right now.

Jerry Kolber5 August 2009
Photo by Cristiane Teston

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.

Group Practice

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.

Activist Practice

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.

Personal Practice

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.

Jerry Kolber

Jerry Kolber

Jerry Kolber has been writing, producing and directing television, film, and theater in NYC since 1989. He lives on the Lower East Side and has been meditating since he joined the IDP in 2007. His site is at www.JerryKolber.com and he is also the author of www.ThreeDollarDinner.com. He also writes for the IDP’s blog, One City. Click here to read his posts, including his latest, “Top 10 Reasons to Start Meditating Today.”