Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology

photo: www.plumvillage.org

When an eminent Buddhist master and human rights activist like Thich Nhat Hanh warns of impending environmental catastrophe, I sit up and take notice.

Thay – as he is affectionately called – is not alone among his peers with this urgent call to action. The Dalai Lama was the first to sign A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change.  Many other great Buddhist teachers have followed suit.

In no uncertain terms, Thay states,

“Without collective awakening the catastrophe will come,” he warns. “Civilizations have been destroyed many times and this civilization is no different. It can be destroyed.”

He believes that only an inner revolution and consequent change in our individual and collective behavior – not a technological one – will avert the potential disaster.

Inner pollution equals outer pollution

In Buddhism, the outer world is seen as a reflection of our inner world.  As long as our inner world – the mind – is polluted with turbulent emotions, our outer world will be filled with toxins too.  Our seemingly diverse emotional states can be boiled down to what is traditionally called the five poisons:

  • attachment and craving – “I want…”
  • aversion, anger, hatred – “I don’t want…”
  • jealousy and envy – “I wish I had…” or “I wish I was…”
  • pride – “I’m important, the center of the universe…”
  • ignorance – not recognizing our true nature

If we take an honest look inside, chances are we’ll find one or more of these emotions at the center stage of our life.

All our actions are driven by our thoughts and emotions, so naturally they impact our outer environment for better or worse. In addition, this constantly churning emotional fuel make us miserable, bringing a background sense of unhappiness and discontentment.  Almost like an itch, we’re never quite satisfied.

Even though we are good people at heart, most of us are plagued by emotional distress to some degree, on both gross and subtle levels.

In his recently published book, The World We Have – A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Thay says our current environmental problems are due to tranquilizing ourselves with over-consumption:

“The situation the Earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilizing ourselves with over-consumption is not the way.”

Thay believes that the world cannot be changed outside of ourselves. Instead, the answer is to look within and transform the fear, anger, and despair which we suppress with over-consumption.

Mindfulness is the antidote

Living consciously with mindfulness and awareness is the antidote to a world gone berserk.

Meditation is a powerful method for cultivating mindfulness, increasing awareness of self and others, and transforming difficult emotions.  The benefits of meditation are immense for both the mind and the body.

Another form of meditation is to water the seeds of joy by cultivating positive emotions as an antidote to negative ones.  For example,

Just like turning on a light in a dark room, when your mind and heart are occupied with love, there’s no space for anger and other harmful emotions.

Through looking inwardly, you discover your true self.  You come to realize that real happiness is only found within. A sense of interconnectedness and compassion naturally flows from a clearer mind and calmer heart.  Thus, the practice of mindfulness meditation leads to more responsible action for oneself and the planet.

Mindfulness doesn’t  preclude eco-activism.  It simply encourages activism born from a heart of love not one bitter with anger.  Thay cautions us to avoid separation and blame,

“The energy we need is not fear or anger, but the energy of understanding and compassion. There is no need to blame or condemn. Those who are destroying themselves, societies and the planet aren’t doing it intentionally. Their pain and loneliness are overwhelming and they want to escape. They need to be helped, not punished. Only understanding and compassion on a collective level can liberate us.”

Although Thay believes that it is possible to avert the ecological disaster that lies ahead, he accepts the possibility that our civilization may not endure.  This very act of letting go of our need to save the planet, he feels, is also an essential step towards doing so.

What do you think? Is cleaning up the inner environment of your mind just as important as taking steps to live green and reduce your oil consumption?

[The quotes in this article are from two interviews with Thich Nhat Hanh conducted by the UK Guardian newspaper.  I haven’t had a chance to read Thay’s book yet, so this article is not a review of the book, but simply reflections on points raised in the interviews.]

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If you liked this article, please share the link with others.  Thanks very much!  Sandra

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19 Comments

  1. Hi Sandra,
    I believe that how we feel on the inside is constantly telegraphed to the Universe, which in turn creates the reality we experience. I do think we need to clean up the inner landscape first – otherwise the same programming will continue to affect world on the outside.

    Was it a year, or two ago that some scientists said that if we don’t put a stop to global warming by 2012 we be past the point of no return? That’s pretty scary. It’s not something I like thinking about but, it as Thay points out civilizations have disappeared in our history several times. Maybe that’s what the Earth needs to heal? I hope not though.

    • Hi Angela,

      Thanks for telling us about the 2012 date. I haven’t heard that before and I’m always curious about this. Nothing is permanent including our planet and universe. One day they too will dissolve. It would be nice if it were to happen naturally rather than prematurely due to people-made causes. I agree with you – as the Buddha said, “With our thoughts, we make the world.” The wonderful part is that being good is full-filling, so it’s a wonderful path to travel.

      Thanks for commenting. I always love it when you visit.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote this post. I have the book on order through our inter-library loan system. Ever since being introduced to Thay’s teachings a few years back — especially, the power of mindfulness as well as peace and tolerance of all — my life has never been the same.

    I completely agree with his premise. One hundred and ten percent. In my book, there is a deep connection between these teachings and things like the philosophy of deep ecology. It is only when we can open ourselves up to this new sense of being — with all other beings AND the planet that makes it all possible — that we create the beautiful possibility of change. It’s powerful stuff.

    I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the book. Maybe we can compare notes… 🙂

    @Angela — There are many scientists who argue that we have already passed the point of no return. This recent story from Market Watch (of all places) is quite sobering: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/forget-going-green-earth-doesnt-care-2010-09-07
    Bill McKibben’s book, “Eaarth” is another good read on the subject of the tipping point.

    • Bill,

      I really want to read this book, too. I’m going to have to get with it and apply for my library card in my new home state! I would love to compare notes.

      It’s wonderful to hear the profound impact Thay’s teachings have made on your life. I see the influence in your blog writing and love your expression of deep being and nature.

      I will definitely follow this link that you suggested to Angela and am interested in this book too. Thanks for sharing your voice on the topic.

  3. Buddhist philosophy has given me hope in the past year or two since I randomly picked up Becoming Enlightened by the Dalai Lama, and something clicked inside. I’m disabled because of mental health issues, and nothing else has helped really. The medications and therapy keep my head above water, but I feel it’s my exploration of emptiness that will eventually cause lasting change.

    For example, last night at the ER while I was having a panic attack, I kept telling myself that pain and fear were only transitory. This may be funny, but I also pictured myself meditating in a beautiful temple. It didn’t completely stop the attack, but it did help me keep still long enough for the doctors to do what they needed to do to help.

    I agree that “green” is so important, but I will admit that my inner landscape is such a mess that I can’t tackle that actively right now. On the other hand, by attempting to work through my cravings and avoidance behaviors, living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle may flow naturally. I will think on it. Perhaps there are some little non-stressful things my family can start doing to take those first steps.

    By the way Sandra, thanks for visiting Surviving Limbo and leaving your kind words. Every small act of kindness helps nurture my faith in the goodness of other people.

    • Welcome Emily,

      It’s inspiring to see how profoundly you have been touched by the Dalai Lama’s teachings. They really do offer a world of hope and healing. Even when our bodies and minds go beserk, there is still true sanity to be found within. Your experience in the ER illustrates this. I agree that deeply understanding emptiness can bring about profound healing.

      At the same time, I know that environmental toxins can trigger or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and anxiety attacks at least in some people. So I think clearing our home environments can also have powerful effects on our health. Having said that, I completely appreciate how overwhelming the idea might seem when you are functioning in survival mode. The last thing one needs is any pressure to live more green, that’s for sure.

      I’m really touched by your struggle, your courage, and your vision.

  4. Hi Sandra,

    “Satisfaction is the greatest happiness.” I think this quote is well known to most of us, but we hardly try to go through it or practice it in real terms.

    It’ s a bit difficult for me, you and perhaps many around us in this world to satisfy fully with our thought-driven actions. We lack and in one way miss that eternal happiness due to the absence of the soothing satisfaction. The reason is our never ending desires which have so embedded in our minds and the five poisons that are continuously damaging our mind which ultimately affects our outer world.

    It would be really a great deed of our life if we put our efforts to clean our inner self. Then only can we cherish the real and eternal happiness that lies within us.

    Lovely post, Sandra. I keep on browsing to see your every recent post.

    • Sangita, That’s a beautiful quote. And it’s so simple to be content! Thank you very much for your kind words. I’m happy to know you.

  5. varuni chaudhary

    thanks! for this post.
    i have personally seen the effects of anger and resentment in my life, it has blinded me, and also poisoned my relationships, its effects are far reaching and bring nothing but pain to all.
    whereas Buddhist teaching teach compassion and equanimity, they stress on our interdependence.
    cleaning up ourselves will definitely go a long way, it will make humans more compassionate.
    thanks for this wonderful post, Sandra. i shall definitely read the book.
    varuni

    • Hi Varuni,

      Your personal experience is powerful. It really speaks to the harm these emotions cause and the possibility of change too. All the best to you.

  6. Sandra,
    Wow I’m printing this out and reading to hubs tonight. As we’re looking to purchase a new home and I want to shed everything and go very small. He’s not quite where I’m at…also I’m going to crawl into being a vegan. I’m beginning with Mondays and adding a day a month. Then it gives me time to transition and in 7 months I should have it together. Also I think I told you we’re a one car family when my 11 year old VW Beetle dies. I’ve had no car payments for 8 years because I paid it off quickly. Does this mean I’m doing well within?!? This is just what I needed to read today;)

  7. Tess, You are absolutely doing well within!! 🙂 With all the love and joy you emanate, you are leagues in front of the pack lighting the way for the rest of us. I love your vision of simplifying when you transition to a new home. At least there can be more simplicity even if hubs is not quite fully there yet. Looks like some exciting changes coming up.

    In the meantime, I love the Be, Dream, Create theme of your most recent blog post. I’m often for a bit of being right now.

  8. Hi Sandra,
    I do believe that we must get the inner self cleansed before we can take on cleaning the external. That is the only way we can truly see results. It is always best to cleanse the internal, I believe once that is done the other will radiate to the external. Once the mind is cleansed and made up, then we can do whatever we have set out to do.

    Thought provoking!

    Take care,

    Evelyn

    • Welcome Evelyn,

      Thanks for weighing in with your perspective. I agree wholeheartedly!

      I’m enjoying your blog so much. You offer such helpful health advice. Almost every woman could benefit from reading your recent article on treating fibroids naturally!

      Thanks for coming buy. I appreciate it so much.

  9. varuni chaudhary

    i read on the Buddhist channel that Thay encourages residents of plum valley to eat all meals in absolute silence, contemplating on what they are eating, the forces of nature and the nature spirits that nurture these plants, the efforts of the farmers, the trucker that carry it to the markets, etc.
    when i try the same i find that i am more satisfied with less eaten, more grateful to mother earth.
    at other times when i eat in a hurry, simultaneously checking e-mail etc. i find only stress etc. thats what i give back to mother earth when she gives so much.
    i guess just a little more care, contemplation is the answer.
    love to you always
    v

  10. Varuni,

    This is an incredibly beautiful contribution to this discussion. I love this approach to contemplation practice for eating meals and will definitely be bringing this to mind when I eat. Thank you so much for adding this comment.

    Recently, I read about a blogger who reads blogs while he eats his meals. He was recommending this as a time-savings method. How sad, I thought. It might seem like it helps in the short run, but on the long run it’s not good for your digestion, for your mind, or for your being.

    With appreciation for you.

  11. Dear Sandra,

    Oh I am late to this juicy post. 🙂 I love both the post and all the comments. I find reading this very soothing, and resonate with it deeply. It’s an interesting phase of my life I enter now at 56. I’ve written this first Naked in Eden book, and I think I often disappoint some people because they dearly become all excited and tell me that I am an author now (like now I am “somebody”) and I have a book in the stores and what an exciting world is now opening up for me and I will be traveling, etc. LOL!! 🙂 And honestly, I really feel none of that. I feel only me, and the things that excite me now are the things that have excited me for years.

    Those things are, learning to love, being ABLE to love, learning compassion, forgiveness, absence of judgment, being with Nature as much as possible, learning about myself from “every-day-people”, gardening, composing music, loving my husband, photographing Nature, doing pottery or glass work, eating healthy and consciously, holding a friend’s baby, loving all who come my way. Experiencing the incomprehensible miracle that I am alive and experiencing the deeply emotional mystery of that. More and more I find my greatest joy in being able to give compassion. It is profoundly healing.

    I also love what Tess wrote: We have been by choice a one car family for several years. It is not always easy but it feels really good and fosters teamwork, consideration, and consciousness. We will probably move in a couple of years to a more rural area, and I want to strip way down. We may, at some point, build our own small mud brick house (something eco-friendly and filled with the Earth). I love simple living, gardening, growing all my own food. I am predominately raw vegan, with an occasional “walk on the wild side”. LOL! 🙂

    Anyway, this whole post moved me. In light of all that is changing in the world, I have found the one thing that is constant—if I make it so—is love, compassion and forgiveness. Thank you for starting my morning in a very moving and grounded way.

    Much love and gratitude to you dear Sandra,
    Robin

  12. Thank you Sandra for posting this. It is succinct and beautiful and all we need to know about living and loving in a world gone berserk. And thanks to Robin for pointing me here 🙂

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