Mother Earth is “how you eat the carrot… how you shut the door” — Buddhist Monastics on Caring for the Planet

Recently I visited Evermind Media, a website showcasing the collaborative efforts of Dutch filmmaker Wouter Verhoeven and the Plum Village Community founded by Thich Nhat Hanh in Southern France. Among the many films and stories posted to Evermind is a series of interviews with monks and a nun from Plum Village on the topic of caring for Mother Earth.

“What is the root cause of climate change?” “What can young people of today do?” “Do you have one word of love for Mother Earth?” These are some of the questions posed to the monastics in beautifully filmed, slowly-paced interviews which, as I think about it, really form a series of precious dharma talks.

We are reminded that the earth and the environment are not something outside of us that “need saving,” but are inseparable from us, and that transforming the suffering of the planet starts with transforming the suffering inside ourselves. This means that we become aware of how we are always running, driven by strong emotions, always looking for something to consume to give us a moment of peace, only to find ourselves running again a short while later.

People like myself, who live in large, fast-paced cities, may find it difficult to step out of the rush that’s happening around us. In fact, we may think the only way to address climate change effectively, is by adding more action-steps to the to-do list, by doubling our efforts and continually raising expectations of ourselves and others. In light of almost-daily news of an environmental crisis somewhere in the world, it makes a lot of sense to think this way.

Still, we may wish to pair our activism with a good dose of self-care, compassion and insight into “interbeing,” the inter-connectedness of all phenomena. Brother Phap Dung, a senior monk in Plum Village (who also supported us greatly in setting up the Plum Village Happy Farm), says in the interview that people should…

“…learn how to take care of their suffering, their despair, their sadness, their anger, their frustration. You are the Mother Earth. To take care of yourself is also to take care of Mother Earth. Mother Earth is not out there, as a tree in the environment. It is the carrot and how you eat the carrot. It is how you take care of your body, how you move, how you hold something with less tension, how you carry yourself, how you shut the door. Mother Earth is shutting the door. So, how you slam the door is exactly the kind of energy that is being done to the Mother Earth.”

Taking care of the earth then becomes a daily practice of taking care of ourselves emotionally and physically. It doesn’t have to wait until we attend a climate demonstration, vote in the next election, plant a vegetable garden or cycle to work instead of taking the car. We can contribute to healing the earth at any moment just by stopping, taking a deep breath and lovingly embracing all our worries and pains. And when we do so, other needed actions will follow more naturally and easily.

Br. Phap Dung also reminds us that Mother Earth is not only suffering. “Mother Earth is not just crying and in pain,” he says, “Mother Earth is also telling us, ‘wow, you are alive.’ Every day the sun rises, have you seen it lately? Mother Earth is in the child smiling, do you have time to play with the child? […] You can have suffering [and] pain, but you can also have tears of joy, laughter of wonder.”

To allow ourselves to cry tears of joy and to laugh with wonder at the gifts of the present moment is to support the whole planet right away. And it is possible to practice this form of healing at least several times a day.

This short post can hardly do justice to the depth of the reflections contained in this and the other interviews. For many more beautiful, encouraging and inspiring words on this subject, head over to Evermind Media and click on the “Bonus” section. A bow of gratitude to Wouter and the monastics for making these videos available to us at a time when so many are trying to figure out how to respond to the climate crisis.

Stepping Mindfully toward Healing the Earth

Fridays for Future demonstration, Berlin, Sept. 20, 2019

As our small group of Sangha members practices walking meditation to the site of the demonstration from nearby Tiergarten, I am thinking about the profound shift that is asking to manifest inside many of us. Sustainability and climate rescue aren’t primarily technological or even political challenges in the conventional sense. They are, rather, a psychological-spiritual door through which we are invited to walk as we deepen our understanding of ourselves, our true needs, and our inter-connectedness with all beings.

In response to this invitation, I aspire to walk purposefully and to look deeply to recognize the habitual, usually unconscious mental processes that govern so many of my actions. Shining the light of attention on these processes softens their grip on me and enables me to act more like a free person in accordance with a deeper, holistic knowing.

Walking mindfully alongside the others in my group, I experience peace and trust well up followed by a feeling of unconditional joy. As we harmonize our steps with our breath and move together like a river, I feel myself expand to embrace more and more of what is, the whole of reality exactly as it presents itself at this very moment. Stresses and fears that have lodged themselves in my mind-heart-body are beginning to dissolve with each conscious step, making room for gratitude, love and creativity.

The walking meditation reveals to me a deeper and experiential understanding of my true nature and my true needs. Materially these needs amount to a fraction of what they appear to be when viewed through in a less conscious frame of mind. Walking mindfully, my consciousness is undergoing a shift from experiencing life through “having” and “doing” to experiencing it through “being.” Along with this shift, common perceptions of scarcity and threat give way to perceptions of abundance, safety and potential.

The state of the earth’s ecosystem is a reflection of the state of our inner ecosystem, which for most of us is a more or less chaotic battleground of ever-changing views, allegiances, impulses, desires and judgments. This leaves us feeling very dissatisfied and we keep running after more stuff, money, experiences, status and power in hopes of overcoming this feeling. Bringing peace and healing to our inner world is key to achieving peace and healing for the outer.

I am encouraged by the degree to which I have observed my own consciousness shift in the years since I started meditating and following a spiritual path. Though I clearly have a long ways to go, this small progress on my part is evidence to me that caring for and healing our inner ecosystem are within reach. Though the shift has been mostly incremental and relatively slow for me, I believe that it can also occur in spurts if the circumstances are right.

I am hopeful that circumstances will soon be right for a rapid global shift in consciousness and on this Friday I dedicate my purposeful steps to that end.

May all beings be happy and free.

I Hear You

“To be loved means to be recognized as existing.” Thich Nhat Hanh

I spotted these two flyers posted to a fence around a large construction site in Berlin, Kreuzberg.

I was touched deeply by the messages “I hear you” and “I’ll help you.” Doesn’t it just feel wonderful when someone says these words to us in a moment of suffering?

May we remember that we can give the gift of listening to anyone almost any time and for free! And by listening with an open, nonjudgmental heart we are already helping. To improve our listening we can make it more intentional. We can ground ourselves by feeling the earth beneath our feet or the chair we are sitting on. We can breathe slowly in and out and follow our breathing as we deeply sense the unwavering support of our Mother Earth. And from this centeredness we can begin listening. Whatever is being said to us, we can now receive it with appreciation even if it includes words of criticism or accusation. While listening to someone share feelings of hurt or anger, we can practice staying grounded, present and connected to our compassionate heart. In this way we are bringing healing to the person or the situation.

What is more, we can give this gift to ourselves. We can learn to be present for ourselves and remind us that we are okay the way we are. The process is similar. We ground and center ourselves and turn our attention to our body sensations, which may include stress, anxiety and tension. The moment we tune into how our body is feeling we have already begun listening. We are saying “I hear you” and “I will help you” to our body. And we may soon feel a sense of relief. Similarly, we can tune into our emotions and embrace them, too, with our mindful and compassionate heart. We can attentively hold space for our hurt, worry, depression or anger and light up this space with the warm light of compassion. We can even make a promise to take good care of all our emotions.

The longer I live, the more I come to the realization that 99 percent of my suffering result not from things that happen to me but from a recurring and habitual state of disconnectedness from myself and others. To me, this realization holds a huge promise for a happier, healthier and less consumption-driven life. And it reminds me to pause, again and again, to practice “I hear you. I will help you.”

Thanks to the person who posted this teaching on a wall in Kreuzberg.

It’s All Here

“‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.” (Wendell Berry*)

My farmer heart felt fuzzy warm last weekend when some 170 tractors of all shapes and sizes rolled through the streets of Berlin. They had come from across the region as part of a large-scale demonstration for a new, healthier agriculture. Framed by 35,000 people in attendance, these tractors — and the smiling, radiant faces behind their wheels — symbolized something that is rare and precious in any large city: a reminder that the gift of a satisfying, peaceful and rewarding life is a gift lovingly granted by Mother Earth.

From my perch atop the slow-moving trailer belonging to a national agricultural nonprofit, I had the opportunity to see hundreds of marchers and I was touched by the positive energy, the smiles, the strength and the courage written on their faces. It had been a while since I had been exposed to this energy and finding it right here in the city made this experience even more special.

A couple days later I am still feeling this energy inside of me, stirring me, talking to me and asserting itself once again as a guide. It is a familiar guide whose voice I have been hearing throughout my life and who really began talking to me twenty years ago when, together with my wife at the time, I built my first vegetable farm in West-Central Missouri, USA. It has spoken to me about what it means to be at home, not in a country or a culture but in my body which is inseparable from the whole of nature and the universe. To me, this experience of home is possible only in the present moment and though it is possible to access it right here in the city, it is much easier to do so when I’m in nature.

Over the years as a farmer, I have come to see nature as a special doorway to equanimity and peace. The stories she tells — of birth and death and rebirth, of the interconnected web of all things, of turning wastes into an abundant harvest — these are stories of a beautiful home, a safe and welcoming home where I can truly arrive and become everything I am capable of being. This home is always available inside of me. I am called to it each time the wind is brushing against my face, each time I feel the warm earth under my bare feet or rest my body against a tree after preparing the fields for planting. I am called to it when I feel exhausted from the to-do list and my mind turns farming (or whatever else I am doing) into a punishment, when I drift into wanting another life of different comforts and diversions which never seem to satisfy for very long. In these moments of joy and pain I am called home to discover the incomparable beauty of the present, to connect with all life around me and to touch peace.

I am very grateful to the organic and sustainable farmers who came to Berlin last weekend with smiles and confidence nourished by Mother Earth. They helped me remember my path toward inner peace and happiness. I would like to honor them and all the world’s farmers with a poem. I recorded this poem some years ago for a radio program in Kansas City, USA. I cannot recall the author’s name, so if you know it, please share it with me so that I can give her credit. And thanks for listening.

It’s All Here – read by Daniel Dermitzel — if you know the author’s name, please share.

(*) from “Wendell Berry on Climate Change: To Save the Future, Live in the Present” Yes! Magazine, March 23, 2015.

A Diamond In My Pocket

I passed him one morning outside a friend’s apartment. Though I was walking quickly to get to my next appointment, his beautiful appearance didn’t escape me and I felt nourished by it for the rest of the day. My life has been a plateful lately — my ongoing adjustment to living and working in Germany and now also to Berlin’s housing crunch have been doing a bit of a number on me. Practicing mindfulness has been an important part of dealing with my anxious and worried thoughts. Indeed, I sense that any storms blowing through my life are directing me to a deeper practice, a further wakefulness and an inner calm accessible in the present moment.

I am reminded of a dharma talk I once heard about a “Diamond in my Pocket,” the diamond being our ability to instantly drop the story we tell ourselves which causes us to suffer. It takes just one or two breaths, or as the case may be, the sight of a Buddha sitting by the road, to shift attention from our worried thoughts to the sensations of our body, which almost always tell a different story, don’t they? Usually a much less dramatic and less urgent one. Through this shift of attention, we bring mind and body back together, connect with the present moment, and step out of the world constructed by our habitual thoughts, emotions and identifications, into a world of discernment, acceptance, wisdom and greater peace. We all carry this diamond in our pockets. May we remember to pull it out often.