Dear fellow travelers,
On the surface the title of this blog seems like an oxymoron: How could it be possible to live unsustainably with mindfulness? Before describing the practice I'll give some context from my own life experience.
Throughout my life I have had an awareness of contradictions between the way I lived my day-to-day life and core values that I hold. When I was a young parent with four growing children I was painfully aware of the fact that half of the federal income tax I paid as an American citizen went towards the military and uses that were contrary to the Quaker pacifist values that I embrace. After several years of war tax resistance, withholding the share of the taxes I owed that would go to the military and seeing the federal government seize them anyway from a savings account, I decided that the only way to really be true to my values was to live below the taxable level. My wife, bless her, saw how strongly I felt about this and agreed to see how it would work. It was not a successful experiment. The amount of non-taxable money available for the basic needs of a
growing family was scarcely enough for bare essentials. As a free-lance environmental consultant I had a degree of control over how much money I made, yet I ended up alternately worrying when I was making too much money and when I wasn't making enough. Within six months it was clear the experiment had failed. Late one evening in a state of deep discouragement I started reading a book of writings by the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. Everyone else in the house was asleep. The
only light was cast by the lamp by the chair I was sitting in as I read. I was in a state of anguish. Gradually I felt the room fill with a palpable sense of unconditional love. In Love's embrace the anguish drained away. I knew that in this situation my own, and my family's, sense of well-being was more important than living below the taxable level.
The above example is one of many where I have addressed the contradiction between the way I live my day-to-day life and the core values I hold in favor of maintaining a sense of well-being for my family. As an environmental scientist I am acutely aware of the harm caused by the unsustainable aspects of my lifestyle. Yes, I live in a super insulated home and heat with wood, yet a propane backup heater is required when it gets really cold. Yes, we grow a fair
amount of the food we eat, but living out in the country requires fossil-fuel driven vehicles for shopping and a host of activities involving the four-generation family.
The photograph above provides a snapshot of some of the contradictions. The leaky plastic bags, washed and reused multiple times, are drying before being taken for recycling, yet in the better world I know is possible there would be no containers made from non-renewable resources. The freezer in the bottom of the picture is full of produce from our garden, yet the electricity the runs it comes from coal that contributes to global warming and the
leftover ash contaminates groundwater with heavy metals. While we avoid the more toxic chemicals for cleaning and house/homestead construction projects, the materials on the shelf in the picture are emblematic of the fact that my ecological footprint far exceeds that of a very large majority of the almost 8 billion people alive on the planet.
Around Christmas Spirit found an interesting way to disturb the uneasy peace I maintain with the contradictions noted above. First, you need to understand that I married into a closely-knit, loving four-generation family in which everyone, except me, loves to exchange gifts at Christmas. Gifts are chosen, made or purchased, and wrapped with care. And with 10 to 12 people involved each year there are so many! After 48 years I'd expressed my dismay at the quantity
of presents enough times that I've settled into being able to take pleasure in the pleasure I see expressed by the family members. I also appreciate that the modest pile of gifts I've received by the end of the day represents acknowledgement by family members of my own preferences.
At first I wasn't quite sure what to make of what happened during our Christmas gathering. I became acutely aware of the extent to which the positive things in my life and my family's life are inextricably bound up in the economic system that is destroying Mother Earth. Not knowing what to make of it, I simply maintained the awareness in my heart. If I were to assign an emotion that related to the awareness, it was puzzlement. Was there a way address the
contradiction between a large part of what was good in my life and the consequent harm to Mother Earth?
The answer to the question emerged shortly after sending out my last blog: Live unsustainably with mindfulness. At this point in humanity's collective awakening process it's not possible for me to extricate myself from the economic system that is driving us toward extinction. However, I do have the ability to envision a better world that is possible where my activities are not
harmful to the planet. Now, engaging in unsustainable activities serve as a catalyst for envisioning what they might be like in a world where humans lived in harmony with each other and all living beings.
To give a few examples:
- While taking a hot shower I maintain the awareness that coal-fired electricity heats the water, and in my mind-heart hold the vision of a better world where renewable energy heats the water that provides the pleasure of a hot shower.
- While driving our gas-fueled Honda Fit anywhere I maintain the awareness that the fuel contributes to a host of environmental problems during extraction, processing and use, and I hold the vision of a better world where all forms of transportation rely on renewable energy.
- While driving 5 miles/8 km into town to pick up a carry-out meal from a favorite restaurant I also envision ways in which people in rural areas could have easy access to diverse cuisines through cooperatively owned rural food hubs, and where no food packaging is made from non-renewable resources.
In this practice maintaining awareness of the harm caused by the unsustainable aspects of my lifestyle prevents any sense of complacency. It has also led to some really interesting envisioning of ways that rural transportation cooperatives might replace private ownership of cars without restricting freedom to travel. I see the practice as a complement to the activities I'm engaged in that are focused on contributing to shifting the human extinction
trajectory toward a positive direction.
In the meantime, hold the frequency, stay grounded, engage, carry on.