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.

Our Earth, Our Self

This is a slightly edited version of a post first published February 22, 2016 at plumvillage.org.

As we enter the first days of spring here in Plum Village in south-west France, we’d like to share with you the story of a small project called The Happy Farm.

This small organic vegetable farm, which has only been in existence for three years, grew some €33,000 of fresh organic produce for the monastic and lay community this last season. In addition to producing food, Happy Farm offers a year-long training program in mindful organic agriculture and diverse community living. It also offers retreats on mindfulness and sustainability, and provides tours and educational activities for kids and adults throughout the year.

This story is our reflection on how climate, our food, our community, and our personal healing are all inextricably linked. It is our story of love’s impact on the balance and survival of the whole.

With industrial food production making up a significant share of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we believe that small-scale organic farming can be an important answer to climate change, as it promotes soil health and carbon sequestration and generally uses fewer energy-intensive inputs (such as fuel and synthetic fertilizers).

But a deeper story is unfolding at the Happy Farm —  a story about people falling back in love with each other and with Mother Earth. As people of all walks of life come together and joyfully sink their hands back into the soil — some of them for the first time in many years — they experience a nourishing, heartfelt connection with their brothers and sisters, deepen their understanding of the entire web of life and offer their true presence to Mother Earth. Working the soil in this manner is a bit like caressing the earth and being caressed by her in return.

During their mindful work on the Happy Farm, the interns, volunteers and children are held tenderly by Mother Earth just as they are with all their joys and pains. Without discrimination, Mother Earth welcomes us back, perhaps wondering what took us so long. And so we experience a renewed love for Mother Earth, a renewed connection. We can now experience that the earth is not something outside of us but that she is in us and that we are a part of her. This is not a transformation of the head, but of the heart. It takes root slowly, almost without notice, unfailingly.

Having a renewed love relationship with Mother Earth, we can now see more easily that our energy-intensive life-style and our high levels of consumption are not producing lasting happiness but do great harm by contributing to GHG emissions and other problems. We gradually let go of our habit to consume and begin to experience a deeper nourishment that comes from communion with Mother Earth and experiencing our community of brothers and sisters and all beings. We begin to feel less lonely and a deep appreciation arises for simply being alive. We are hopeful that a new generation of small-scale farmers — many of whom are growing food in cities — will be inspired to turn their work into a mindfulness practice, to turn their farms into places where the harvest is not limited to food but includes spiritual transformation and healing as well, where entire communities can begin to rekindle their love and understanding for Mother Earth not as a separate entity but as a part of ourselves.

Compost for the Heart and Mind

For a year and a half now we have been operating an urban composting project in Berlin Hellersdorf. We get weekly deliveries of rotten veggies from a food bank and mix them with wood chips from a landscaping company. Piles get turned regularly and soon they start to heat up, reaching up to 80 degrees Celsius in some cases. After only a few weeks, what started out as a rotten, smelly mess takes on the feel and aroma of the earthy, rich soil amendment we are hoping to create: compost.

Composting is nature’s way of making use of everything. Nothing gets wasted. Every piece of decaying vegetation and many other “wastes” are welcome in the compost pile. With time these unwanted ingredients are turned into a fresh-smelling nutritious soil amendment, providing the nourishment and fertility for next year’s garden vegetables.

Can we learn to treat the unwanted circumstances, thoughts and emotions we face in our lives as fertilizer for a rich harvest in the next season? Through mindfulness practice we can indeed safely compost these difficulties and transform them into treasures of insight, compassion, happiness and freedom.

These days many city dwellers rarely get to witness the natural decomposition of dead plants or animals. We have sanitized our modern cities to the point where cycles of birth and death have become hidden from us. In many places even leaves falling from trees in parks and yards are swept up and disposed of instead of being left to rot naturally and thereby fertilize the soil right where they landed.

Many of us have adopted a similar sanitation strategy for our minds and hearts. We try to sweep from our inner landscape all difficult thoughts and emotions, such as pain, worry, anger, loneliness and despair. We attempt to dispose of these thoughts and emotions in endless acts of consumption, work, talking, browsing the web or social media, and other activities meant to keep us from feeling them. However, just as raking up leaves deprives a tree of next year’s fertilizer, this approach prevents our difficult thoughts and emotions from being turned into valuable compost.

Needless to say, I think this sanitation strategy isn’t very effective. It requires almost ’round-the-clock inputs in energy, money, time and attention, and, more importantly, it also keeps us from experiencing the healthy fruits of a well-fertilized soil in our hearts and minds.

As an alternative strategy, I suggest meditating on difficult thoughts and emotions to transform them. Through meditation we can see more clearly the ever-changing nature of our outer and inner worlds. We can see that what we considered “bad” may appear as an important step toward something “good.” By courageously looking at ourselves in meditation, we can also see that our own pain is the door to understanding the pain of others, to greater compassion and love for all people.

So, think of meditation and mindfulness practice as a kind of composting: We lovingly gather the ingredients, carefully mix the pile, turn it frequently (with our mind’s attention) until it warms up, and, when finished, spread it onto our fields for a rich and joyful harvest.

Happy composting!

Subway Meditation

One of the best things about living in Berlin is the city’s public transport system. After more than 25 years of commuting almost exclusively by car, I am so grateful to now be riding buses and trains in the company of fellow Berliners and people from around the world. Sometimes while riding the subway I like to practice a meditation that goes something like this (Click to hear an audio recording of this meditation):

Breathing in, I see people of all ages, backgrounds and skin colors around me.
Breathing out, I am grateful to be surrounded by such a beautiful and diverse human family.

Breathing in, I look at the faces around me, some smiling, some worried, some tired-looking.
Breathing out, I embrace the smiles, worries and exhaustion on the faces around me.

Breathing in, I am happy that the people around me practice very hard to be of service to their families, neighborhoods, cities and society.
Breathing out, I know they also experience many setbacks, frustration, disappointments, sadness and anger, sometimes causing them to act out their pain.

Breathing in, I am grateful there are so many talented, skilled, dedicated and generous people living in our city.
Breathing out, I bow in gratitude to my fellow passengers for helping keep our city mostly safe, comfortable, interesting and beautiful.

Breathing in, I am sending love to all who are suffering, who may be depressed or in the grip of addiction, who are homeless or feel isolated, who have come as refugees without papers and worry about being deported, who have escaped violence and lost loved-ones, who can’t sleep at night and worry what the future holds.
Breathing out, I pray they may be at peace and I promise to help find ways to ease their suffering.

Breathing in, I wish all the people around me a beautiful day filled with joyful, supportive and loving interactions.
Breathing out, I smile at the people around me.

Subway scene from the 1987 movie “Wings of Desire” (“Himmel über Berlin”)