By Susan Dreyer Leon
A colleague recently suggested I watch a Youtube video of Ram Dass interviewing Thich Naht Han.
Both men have made substantial contributions to the American understanding of mindfulness over the past four decades. It’s a delicious little slice of insight between two beautiful minds. During the interview, Thich Naht Han says something that cuts to the heart of what I see as the relationship between mindfulness and sustainability. He says, “It’s easy to get people to agree that things are impermanent. They may understand it completely, but they act as if things are permanent.”
In order to experience, truly experience the changing world around and within ourselves, we must cultivate the capacity to know, to intimately see and experience, impermanence and how we relate to the fact of it. For example, we here in New England know the seasons change. Do you have a favorite season? Are you acquainted with how you relate to its impending arrival? Do you savor each day greedily, be it warm summer swims or frosty ski runs? Do you mourn the passing of this season with longing, melancholy or outright sadness? Do you find yourself complaining to yourself or others when the expected weather conditions do not materialize. We KNOW that seasons come and go, that weather patterns change and yet, we plan and organize and react to these changes with grasping and resistance. And, we suffer for it in ways large and small. What would it mean to live our knowing of this impermanence and acting based upon it, unhooked from the cycle of desire, longing, and aversion? Would we love our “favorite” season less, or would we be more contented with the ever-changing flow of the natural world around us? I challenge each of us to experiment with this simple idea and see where it takes you.
It puts me in mind of the reasons why I believe so strongly in the development of the field of Educating for Sustainability. The need for the conscious development of a culture of sustainability is rooted in our default tendency to take as permanent our current conditions. As a species and as individuals, we do not act as if the health of the earth is urgently essential for our survival. We do not treat our planet as if every single thing we need to stay alive and every single thing we possess arises from it and it alone. But this is the case. Educating for Sustainability is rooted in the idea that we have to increase the capacity of individuals and groups of people to act in ways that will ensure survival for ourselves and the ecosystems on which we depend. It’s not enough to understand that our lifestyles are unsustainable, we have to do something about it.
In addition, those of us who live in this affluent, abundant culture of plenty, must understand that our situation is intimately connected to lives of others whose basic human needs are not met. We know this intellectually, but we do not act based on that knowledge. Or maybe more accurately, we do not change our activities based on that knowledge. And yet, we must know on some level, like the changing of the seasons, it’s only a matter of time until the affects of global resource degradation confront us at our own door step. Higher prices for food and fuel, being perhaps just the first small symptoms of much larger changes to come.
So, in developing our mindfulness practices, are we also developing our capacity to take on the challenges of creating a sustainable present and future? I hope that this post will be the first in a series of explorations of the link between mindfulness and Educating for Sustainability. Please add your thoughts and comments. We would also be very interested to know about work happening in the intersection of the fields of Mindfulness and Educating for Sustainability, so please feel free to send links and share information on resources.