Our World Is Burning
… add some prelude here!
As an idealistic teenager I wanted to save the world. I still do. Over the years though, I discovered I first had to save myself, because I was every bit as screwed up as the world. Indeed, saving myself and saving the world seems to be the same struggle, because we are all connected, one to another, and the forces that warped me are the same that warp the world. These chapters come out of my long struggle. Please accept them as a gift; my thoughts on how to transform ourselves and our world. The sixteen chapters are not candidates for academic bickering or pawns in the intellectual constructions of clever talk.
When a breeze caresses a falling leaf, it is transformed in its descent to earth. Sunlight catches one side then glances off the other as the leaf gently spirals down. The impermanence of this gift of nature is part of what makes it beautiful. Yet notions of permanence reflect our fear of the unknown and foster the limitations we impose on reality. Impermanence connotes our true nature of interconnectedness with a constantly changing web of life. We are fully alive in our connection to everything else. The theme of these chapters is about change, cycles of transformation and discovering how we contain everything within ourselves. They rest on the ever-changing cycles that mark our journey in these tumultuous and dangerous times.
Chapter Two: Rant From the Future and Chapter Thirteen: Chronicles of Awakening are excerpts from my 2016 book New Planet, New World published by Manor House. Michael B. Davie kindly gave permission for their inclusion in this collection. Ottawa Independent Writers brought out a unique anthology in 2016. My part in that stellar release is Dawson's Desert Legacy, reproduced with their permission as Chapter Fourteen. Chater Four: Punk Palace was published in a different form in The Shambhala Sun (September 2005). I resurrect it in this collection of essays on a wider stage. Excellent editing by Meghan Negrijn and Michael B. Davie ensured that my essays wove an elegant tapestry about how to manifest mindfulness in our difficult times.
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Our World Is Burning
Leonardo DiCaprio has presented passionate videos that climate change is a fact. He draws on the unanimous scientific consensus. Not so in the Trump presidency, where climate change in the United States is swiftly being displaced. Trump has dubbed climate change a hoax created by the Chinese government to make US manufacturing non-competitive. He tapped Myron Ebell, America's most prominent climate change skeptic, to oversee the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) with a view to roll back the extensive environmental platform created by the Obama administration. Myron Ebell is not a scientist and does not believe in the facts endorsed by climatologists. He talks glibly about the actual benefits of climate change and rightly earned the "climate criminal" tag from Greenpeace.
Trump then selected Scott Pruit to run the EPA. Pruit is an ally of the fossil fuel industry and his selection will destroy the US Clean Power Plan and all the other environmental measures put in place over the past eight years. He proposes to open up federal lands for logging and carbon extraction - oil, gas, coal - and rejects the Paris climate change accord. Conservation is not part of his vocabulary. The XL pipeline has been approved and federal parks will end up drastically diminished. In addition off-shore drilling permits will be abundant and conservation measures could be dropped world-wide.
The strategic momentum engineered by these two climate change deniers makes the United States a rogue nation. But, as a powerful country, its impact will destabilize global efforts to reign in climate change. Myron Ebell's organization - Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) - is financed by Exxon and the coal industry. It is part of the powerful international misinformation machine that pours millions of dollars into the campaign that discredits climate scientists. CEI masquerades as a think tank but is in fact a corporate lobbying group that buys the politics to protect the interests of billionaires, many of whom have no concern for a sustainable environment. Fossil fuel interests greeted Trump's strategy with elation in anticipation of a new bottom line - protection of carbon profits for Trump's corporate friends. The existence of the EPA is endangered and could be cast aside. Trump and his followers give little hope for our deteriorating planet. Though there are rumblings in Washington of impeaching or charging Trimp with treason, the dice has already been rolled. His cabinet and any replacement are all cut from the same cloth. The recipe is in place for disastrous global consequences.
My latest book New Planet, New World is set in 2080. It charts the space mission to inhabit a new planet made necessary by willful ignorance about climate change. A culture crash late in the twenty first century opens this epic novel. Children travel via spacecraft to a distant planet to escape Earth. A sharing of cultures and technologies ensues as they join other Earth refugees to form a new, sustainable, caring community working toward an ethical and moral community. Intertwining plotlines arc into the epiphany of the final chapter, a philosophy for the future. The inclusiveness of science combines with Tolstoy's vision, Pope Francis' climate change encyclical and not repeating the mistakes of the carbon cabal. The underlying message is from Tolstoy, who is considered to be the 'Conscience of Humanity.' He described humanity's bottom line as the cultivation of love, the mainspring for authentic and responsible living. This final chapter - Musings on the Future of Humanity - was written long before Trump ascended to the presidency in America. However, readers pointed out that I had provided an antidote for all that Trump intends to implement.
I want to bring a sensitive perspective to your attention, by seeing climate change through the eyes of a terrified nine-year-old boy. My grand-nephew James was recently celebrating his birthday, yet he felt awful about being nine. He wished he could stay five years old forever. When asked why, he replied that if he could stay five then the Earth would not explode. His lips quivered and the tears welled up in his large brown eyes. He said, "I don't want to grow up and live in a world that is burning." In the silence that stretched between us I wondered what to say. I could not say that everything will be OK. He was much too intelligent for such placebos. So I spoke to him about the mindfulness community I created in 1997 - Pine Gate - and the deliberate steps taken for planetary care. We simplify, make do with less, share and adapt. Our intent is to create environmental leaders and that includes him. "Why not become a leader for your generation?" I asked him. He thought about that and asked what else did Pine Gate do?
I pointed out that Pine Gate encourages voluntary simplicity and community ethics as a way of life. We start with the earth. Our organic garden produces an abundance of vegetables, apples and flowers that are shared with neighbors and community members. It is a solace for me to spend time with the Earth, observing bumblebees and butterflies while gardening with assistance from neighborhood children. I told James that the kids once laughed hilariously when they saw that the vegetable plant I had carefully nurtured turned out to be a giant weed and not a tomato plant! We had great fun returning it to the compost bin. At the back of the garden is a beautiful fountain that murmurs next to the flowers, which are sent to the elderly folk living on our crescent. A simple underground economy arises from the sharing. A solar panel on the roof fuels the hot water system of our home. Everything else is as eco-friendly as we can make it for our fifty year old bungalow with a meditation hall in the basement. This eco-effort has become an example for other friends as they consider how much we are saving and implement something similar. Our focus is on mindfulness in schools and city environment, teens at risk and the empowerment of women. I admitted to James that I am shocked by the results. At the local level there were great women who helped make things happen.
"You mean girl power?" asked James incredulously.
"Exactly that," I replied and told him about my writing that the present millennium is the century of daughters, not so much as gender separation, but as attributes of a holistic, nurturing presence of mind.
The idea behind Pine Gate is to foster a strong group of people in Ottawa making a difference for the betterment of society and the earth. Women are in the forefront of this endeavor. They are the heart that holds the living waters, the dynamic epicentre that leads to effective action. That is how we get things done, creating a different course of action and living. James was taking it all in, instinctively knowing that major changes were needed. I suggested that when enough of us change, then our ideas will be in charge. I told him about a speech I had given about violent consumption and pointed out that festive occasions like Christmas provide opportunities for the best and the worst within us to come out and play. Yet compassion and kindness are quickly overshadowed by greed, selfishness and consumer madness. We need to re-assess, to move on from being self-absorbed and distracted.
"How?" he asked again, as he really wanted to know. I chose my words carefully.
"We need to locate in something bigger than ourselves; a humanitarian cause, respecting the earth, making our thinking better, even: being kinder and more generous. How about examining our habits about gift giving and learn to give gifts that make a difference? I no longer buy Christmas gifts, instead present gift certificates in the name of family, grand-children and young neighborhood friends. These gift certificates include items like education for a girl in Afghanistan, micro-loans for female led families, rebuilding forests in Haiti, literacy packages and mosquito nets where needed, support for Habitat for Humanity building houses for the destitute and so on. Such gifts are bigger than us and create happiness for less fortunate people."
I told James how my grandchildren proudly take their Christmas certificates to school for Show-and-Tell periods. They play it forward with their class mates and teachers. One boy on the crescent where I live has received such gifts from me for several years. For his most recent birthday he asked all his friends not to give presents, but to bring a donation for the Ottawa Humane Society that looks after hurt animals. All of his friends brought donations, a splendid sum of one hundred and eighty dollars. They all went together to the Humane Society and happily handed their bag of cash to the surprised staff. Other children in the neighborhood have followed suit. This resonated with James and he said, "I could do that with my ice hockey team. My dad is the coach and he would help." He waited for me to continue.
"James, the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and others at this time of global crises is sharing and caring. It involves stepping onto what the Buddhists call the Bodhisattva Path." (James knows that I am a Zen teacher). I explained that a Bodhisattva was a person who stayed in the global mess and did their best to awaken the minds and hearts of people. I firmly stated that it is time for the Bodhisattva-within-us to enter the 21st century as the example for action. It takes training, practice, intelligence and creative vision.
"You mean like Jedi training?" he enquired. I nodded with a smile. I referred briefly to my years of training in ashrams and monasteries in India and France and with indigenous medicine people. I confided that the real kicker for me was the time spent alone in the Canadian wilderness. I promised to talk to him about this later.
"So what is the big deal about violent consumption?" he asked.
I replied that it totally dominates our planet, mind and body. I tried to explain how, knowing that James' greatest fear was about the planet's ecological crises. He worried about mining disasters in Brazil and China, wildfires in Canada's Boreal forests, Amazonian deforestation and the Gulf Oil Spill where tons of toxic oil dispersants contaminate the oceanic ecosystem.
"How do we change the destruction of the planet?" James exclaimed.
I wondered how best to explain matters to him, yet trusted his intelligence. I said, "We must come to a stop, locate ourselves in stillness and make different choices by examining our minds and consumption patterns. We must look at how we actually participate in creating these terrible disasters." I noted that this kind of awareness takes us back to what we do with our minds.
"Just how?" was his one line mantra.
"You can start by making friends with your breath," I said. James looked up at me quizzically.
"You just bring your focus and attention to your in-breath, then on your out-breath. Really concentrate on the whole length of breath in and breath out. Do this ten times. This kind of focus peels away anxiety, frustration and anger so that you become calm and clear. Try it with me and notice the difference for yourself."
He did so, nodded and grinned with agreement. I told James that we do know how to reduce our ecological footprint. We also know that taking care of the earth and the oceans takes care of ourselves. We must begin it now for the future, our tomorrow shaped by the actions we take at this moment. I looked at James and suggested that was enough for him to digest, but he yelled, "No, I want to hear more."
I could not turn away from his eagerness. I mentioned that if rampant consumption remains our deepest desire we will continue to degrade the planet, eventually destroying its ability to harbour life . His fears were correct. Valentine's Day, Easter, Christmas, Mother's Day and so on are targeted by the captains of industry for optimal retail returns, and mindless consumerism is fuelled to the max. At Christmas we are far removed from remembering the significance of this spiritual celebration. It feels like endless economic growth, the mantra of modern civilization, pushes expectations that can only be without awareness of the consequences for our own health or the health of the planet. Our current non-sustainable energy and economic systems are subsystems of a global ecology that is disintegrating before our very eyes. We must simplify, make do with less and change, or the burning world will definitely occur.
"Did you know that we also harm our bodies through the food we eat, and that it has disastrous consequences for our connection to all living beings?" He did not, yet his mind was a sponge soaking up every word. I continued, "The vast consumption of meat and alcohol creates an excessive ecological footprint. Industrial animal agriculture is not really farming. Animals are treated solely as economic commodities and subjected to horrible cruelty. The stress, despair and anger generated in the animals are the energies we consume when they end up on our plate."
"That is so gross," remarked James. I told him that we can change our minds and patterns of food consumption. We re-educate and retrain ourselves mentally, choosing to support our body and planet by shifting ingrained food habits. It takes training but we can begin to step more lightly on the planet. It means reducing as much as possible the violence, destruction and suffering brought to living creatures and to the planet. Bringing peace into our own biological system and consciousness, inevitably brings it to all the other systems that we engage with through our thoughts, speech and actions.
"Is this your Buddhism?" James then asked.
I smiled - "The Buddha was very smart. He taught that the world is always burning, but burning with the fires of greed, anger and foolishness. His advice was simple; drop such dangers as soon as possible. What the Buddha taught was that it was the unskillful speech, selfish feelings, negative mental formations, wrong perceptions and badass consciousness that burned the world.
James laughed, "Did the Buddha really use the term badass?"
I grinned and said that was my embellishment, then pointed out that the Hopi people also referred to the burning as a state of imbalance known as Koyaanisqatsi. We are not the first people to experience this. The difference today is that without our commitment to wise intervention, we could be the last.
"Is climate change our basic problem then?" he asked.
I paused for a moment before replying. "The basic issue is whether we can adapt to climate change. You know about the 2015 Paris Accord on Climate Change. We talked about it before." James nodded. "It was an exceptional step by the international community, showing their determination to prevent global temperatures from rising a further 1.5 degrees. The signatories returned to their respective countries to find the wherewithal to - "Change Climate Change." What was missing from all the deliberations and press releases was a candid recognition of the "Cascade Effect," a notion from ecological science. Tipping points in sea level rise and temperature connect to tipping points in air pollution, which connect to tipping points in polar ice melt and boreal forest wildfires. All these triggers further tipping points that create deforestation, desertification and so on in a relentless cascade. I reminded him of the wildfires in Alberta. It was not a singular disaster at Fort McMurray, as the entire boreal forest in Canada is a tinder box due to climate change. The reality is not about a reversal but about learning how to adapt to the consequences of climate change."
I emphasized to James that the disasters all over the world interconnect. Whether wildfires, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis or millions of aquatic creatures dead on beaches, it is all connected. The media and news reporters cast science to the wind when they report the drama and hype of terrible things happening world-wide but rarely tell the truth that it is another manifestation of climate change. News programs are often focused on ratings and some openly promote corporate interests that are contributing to these interconnected disasters. The general public are not educated by the media about the terrible realities happening on our planet. Other obstacles that prevent the general public from taking wise action are a mixture of fear, despair, laziness, disempowerment and a sense of hopelessness.
"What on earth can I do to make a difference?" is a phrase muttered all over the world in countless languages. Followed by, "Why should I do anything?" There is certainly global awareness, but also fear about our future place on this planet. Maybe this is why you want to stay five years old forever. The difficult thing for you, for anyone, to grasp is that we are the primary cause."
I confessed to James that in my previous books, I had underestimated the impact of the carbon fuel cabal, a complex web of powerful corporate and government interests. "This carbon economy extends into the manufacturing and servicing sectors, supported by financial institutions that control marketing and advertising. This collective power, when extended into the media, has attempted to make science and ecology into public enemy number one. The result os a push to circumvent the Climate Change accords agreed to by the international community. People everywhere are aware, but just feel helpless in the face of this power. So what are we to do?" James shrugged in exasperation.
"Here's the thing," I said. "In terms of action, we have clear data-based evidence that we must cut back, make-do with less and implement a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. So, where do we start? Of course we must think globally and be aware of the bigger picture despite fear and disempowerment. But we can also act locally in our families and communities. Our intentions then spread like ripples from a pebble dropped in still water. We can hold officials, politicians and corporate culture to account. We can tell the politicians and corporate decision makers that we, as voters and consumers, are deeply concerned about the planet and our impact on it."
I continued speaking on a personal note, "So James, the challenge for me is to be in society, but as a still island of mindfulness. Take small steps at first, then larger ones. We just need to make essential changes in energy use, diet, language, media and outreach. Voluntary Simplicity is a good starting place. It means making deliberate choices about how we spend time and money. We can support environmental causes with the excess clutter in the basement and always think about whether we really "need" to buy something more. Enjoy being simple and living modestly by shifting our perceptions just a little bit. Looking deeply into what we do with time, money, clutter and our choices, we can change. Then see whether the consequences are peace and happiness for you. The world will follow."
I told him I had written a futuristic book - New Planet, New World - which provides a counterpoint story to the demise of our modern civilization. In this book I chart a communal Hero's Journey to reconstruct society based on ecology, caring and sharing. The final chapter muses about human survival anywhere. The drive is to create a tangible spirit of co-operation, the willingness to share and be supportive and teaching how to cross the bridges of misunderstanding. In the novel my intention was to provide a reflection of the disasters of the world today. In the novel the rich and uber-wealthy already inhabit armed, gated communities and will be targets for eco-militias and popular uprisings drawn from the impoverished masses - intent on revenge.
"Have you ever seen Stanley Kubrick's film The Clockwork Orange?" James had not and I told him it was a gruesome movie that could well emerge in the real world. "To avoid this, it is wise to take training very, very seriously. This helps with all the negativity I was telling you about"
"Wow," exclaimed James. "OK, I get it about training but what does it look like?" I was relieved by his intelligent questions but hesitant to talk to him about what I was thinking.
He watched me and said, "Just lay it out for me."
I then proceeded to talk about "Gardening in the Mind." I offered him eight simple steps to refine the mind and then engage differently with the world.
1. You - learn to be silent and quiet! Clear time and space for spiritual practice at home and throughout your daily schedule.
2. Create a stress reduction menu and subtract the "weeds" in the garden of your mind.
3. Be determined to meditate daily - do the weeding.
4. Focus on and soften your heart - cultivate the soil of your mind's garden.
5. Cultivate the seeds of mindfulness at home, school, work or in solitude.
6. Simplify, make do with less, de-clutter your mind and home.
7. Taste the fruits of your spiritual practice.
8. Engage with the world.
James was typing all of this down on his tablet as I continued to talk. "Our ways of living together, caring for environmental, political and economic realms need to be re-constructed." I assured James that we have the capacity to transform the mind. Finding stillness and inner silence is a necessary first step. We have to find a way to create the conditions for this to happen. In our modern world of fast paced lifestyles there are so many distractions that make us outwardly dependant and un-centered. We also find it easier to close down rather than open up our hearts. But the remedy is within reach. We can unravel the knots of suffering and move from being mindless to being mindful, achieved by gardening in the mind."
I paused for a while to find the words to bring our conversation to an end.
"Why should we do this stuff James? Here's why. When you are open and receptive you become an epi-center of light and energy for others. When you can sit with pain, face to face with what hurts, breathing in and out, you feel the sting recede as you calm. If you start to close down ask yourself, "Do I really want to take a pass on happiness?" Always let go once you feel you are closing down or clinging." Then I said to him, "Do you know that I have a fridge magnet at home with the words - LET GO OR BE DRAGGED? I see it every day and take the message to heart with a quiet smile. It is essential to learn to be silent, to stop clinging and find the way to be present in the moment. As the Hopi advise us, never take anything personally and look around to see who is with you. Doing these things helps the world change. Such a destination is well worth your effort don't you think?" James nodded his agreement.
I assured James that we are equal to the task and I chose not to hold back anything from him during this long conversation on his birthday. He is an unusually bright boy, asked questions and demanded clarification. Yet I knew he had grasped what I had said. He came up to me as I was leaving and whispered in my ear that my chat with him was his best birthday present ever.
My conversation with young James was all about Engaged Buddhism - the essential teachings of the Buddha. Engaged Buddhism is a modern term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh to remind Buddhists that the Buddha's teachings were always based on Engaged Buddhism. In the past there was too much attention on forging feudal structures to support monasteries in the East and the foundation of Engaged Buddhism was lost. It is up to us to revive Engaged Buddhism and live it in every moment of our lives.
If the reader connects the dots of my conversation with young James, you would see clearly that Engaged Buddhism is the antidote to all that Donald Trump's government stands for.
Option C: If you live in Ottawa, Canada
To save on the cost of shipping and handling, Ottawa and surrounding area customers are welcome to pick up their copy of Our World Is Burning directly from me
by emailing me or calling me at 613-726-0881 to determine a pickup day / time as well as location. Thanks.