“When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world…healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world.” —Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the great Tibetan meditation master and founder of Shambhala
We can’t stop nature from doing what it will and so we must learn to flow with it, to take action to protect ourselves within our knowledge of how nature works. On the other hand, we are responsible for what is happening in nature now. Although we are not directly responsible for thunderstorms, lightning strikes, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc., there is plenty that we, the human race, have, by our very existence, altered forever on this planet. One of those things is poison ivy.
Several years ago, I heard a report on NPR about the proliferation of a new strain of poison ivy. This strain, I heard, was more potent than the kind of poison ivy I remember as a kid. This new strain of poison ivy grew into trees, as tall as six or ten feet, and it could kill. Now that was alarming to hear!
Having grown up in a rural environment, I learned early what poison ivy looked like. I knew its reddish hue in the spring meant beware, and I also knew that its bright green leaves later in the summer meant stay away. I had an eye for identifying plants early in life—it was just a knack. I knew to stay away from the flowers and berries of deadly nightshade from the time I was small and I’d often warn my friends that something was dangerous without even knowing how I knew it. I’d thought about becoming a botanist at one time, so fond and curious was I of what grew around me. Instead I became an illustrator and did, on many an occasion, get to draw the intricacies of the plant world for one book or magazine article or another.
If I got poison ivy, it was normally a minimal rash, easily dealt with. I never got covered like some people. I didn’t seem especially allergic to it, though I knew not to fool with it either, not to rub it or scratch, but to wash the oils off as soon as possible and let it dry out. I’d cover it with calamine and let it be and before long it would dry up without too much discomfort. I remember as a little kid having it on my face and at the time I just could not help but scratch, and boy did I suffer, but that also taught me a lesson. After that I learned to bear the tension of the itch and just get through the pain that nature itself had inflicted on me, knowing that it would soon be gone. That being said, even I was recently fooled.
One morning, Chuck and I were sitting in the yard enjoying a cup of coffee when I felt an itch. Thinking a bug was crawling up my arm, I lifted my sleeve to discover that my entire arm was covered in an ugly rash. “Oh my, look at that! Poison ivy! Where did that come from? I’m usually so careful!” I said. By the afternoon it had spread. Another, less vicious looking rash showed up on my other arm, my stomach broke out in angry red spots. Later an itch on the back of my neck showed up, another behind my ear, and was that one by my eye too? Suffice it to say, I had a bad case of poison ivy.
“This is exactly what I’d heard about years ago,” I said to Chuck, “poison ivy in a new, especially toxic strain, and it looks like I have it!”
In reading up on that new strain of poison ivy, I note that in the few years since I first heard about it, its notoriety has spread along with it. Now it’s certain that we are largely responsible for this new potent strain of poison ivy, and there is no longer just one new potent strain, but many. The vines are rapidly spreading and the resulting contact itch much more difficult to treat.
With global warming has come an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a trapped greenhouse gas that is especially well liked by vines, especially the two that we see in the Northeast: Virginia creeper and poison ivy. That’s another thing I noticed not long ago. When I was a kid, Virginia creeper did just that, it crept along the ground, the floor of the forests covered with it, but I rarely saw it climbing trees the way it does now. Now both Virginia creeper and poison ivy, along with a host of other carbon dioxide-loving vines, are climbing higher and higher, overtaking other vegetation, seriously affecting the survival of our forests. Apparently this new poison ivy—that is rapidly inhaling our humanly-induced increase in carbon dioxide—carries a more toxic form of urushiol, the oil that causes the pesky itch.
As soon as I saw how quickly the rash was spreading, I knew I was in trouble. This was no ordinary case of poison ivy, this is what I saw on other people who were highly allergic, this was serious. I took immediate action. Changing my clothes, showering, and dousing myself with calamine and taking homeopathic rhus-tox were the first steps. Careful not to aggravate it, I let the rash air dry as much as possible, but it got worse. And then it got even worse. Now covered in angry blisters, I constantly had to fight the urge to scratch.
Now, anyone who has had poison ivy knows that there is nothing more satisfying than giving in to the urge to scratch away. Boy does that feel good! On the other hand, no amount of scratching will ever relieve the suffering, as scratching only spreads the rash and calls for yet more scratching.
I found some relief in showering frequently, vicariously experiencing itch relief by letting the hot spiky water from the shower head do the scratching for me. I soon found that this was not a good idea, the heat of the water actually opening my pores to more of the poison. I knew I had to “grin and bear it,” as they say. I would not scratch in any way. I would use the itchiness to go into stillness. And so began my week of deepening my mindfulness practice, with poison ivy as my guide. In so doing, I learned something new about myself and each time I learned something new I took it deeper, intent on learning something else, not only about myself, but also about the greater world that I live in.
I’d wake up at night itchy. Surely a tiny little scratch here or there won’t hurt? Don’t do it! Bear the tension. Let it be. Go into meditation. Go beyond the skin. Go deeper inside. I will not scratch because I do not itch. I do not feel itchy at all. I am the Buddha. Flies are landing on my face and yet I do not flinch. I am the Buddha. Mosquitoes are buzzing in my eyes and yet I simply ignore them. I do not give them any energy. I am the Buddha. The snake is coming closer in the grass and yet I am not afraid. I sit in stillness and I disappear. I am the Buddha. In stillness I do not exist in this body. I am merely energy and thus the sensations of this body are meaningless. I can let them go.
I gradually leave my itchy body behind as I do this mindfulness practice, successfully removing myself from it enough as the night goes on that eventually I don’t attach. In the morning I wake up tired, but I have succeeded in avoiding the deathtrap, the itchiness that invites me to partake in the vicious cycle of relief and more agony, relief and more agony. I avoid the cycle of samsara, suffering, for one more night. And I must continue this practice during the day as well. I must not lift my hand to scratch behind my ear. I am the Buddha. I must leave my hand down, sit with the sensation, detaching from it, cooling it with my thoughts at the same time that I seek external remedies for my suffering.
I suffer through five days of extreme discomfort before the rash subsides. Chuck looks at it one day and declares it done. I’ve conquered it. There is still an occasional itchiness, but the blisters have dried, the redness has diminished, the spread halted. I have learned what it means to suffer through an onslaught of nature, a manmade disaster as I now see it, and I hope that others may come through such an attack in good form too.
My mindfulness practice with poison ivy as my guide led me many places, to many journeys within and without, to greater understanding and acceptance of my role as a user on this planet. The world is changing and we are largely responsible for many of these changes. That is clear to me now. Every one of us, by our very breathing, effect and are affected by these changes. Whether it’s a bad case of poison ivy or a nuclear disaster like Fukushima, we are all part of the problem and we will all suffer, our bodies especially.
I had to ask some hard questions. So, how are we going to handle the inevitable crisis we have inflicted on ourselves? Are we going to make it worse by scratching and complaining about others, about the poisons put into our atmosphere by others? It’s easy to give up, to indulge in bad behaviors, to wallow in self-pity and to blame. It’s much harder to take full responsibility and change ourselves.
The challenge we face now is to accept what our human greed has done and—in full knowledge of our personal participation in the disasters we create and continue to create—take everything to a new level. We must accept our human limitations and work to deepen our connection to our energetic selves, personally and as an interconnected species, taking everything far beyond the human energy that we so value and indulge in to a greater understanding of our energy as no different than that of the fly or the mosquito that pesters us. We are all life’s energy having experiences here on earth.
Everyday now, I accept that I am part of the changing world. My mindfulness practice has deepened my awareness of what it means that I live here too, that I impact everything too. I too have poisoned the fish in the ocean. I too have dirtied the waters and contaminated the soil. I too have contributed to the greenhouse gases. I too am responsible for the wars and the terrible massacres that are happening around the globe. I too am an abuser. I too am greedy. I too am an addict.
I cannot change what has happened. It has already happened. The only thing I can do now is, from this moment on, make a decision to live my life differently, with awareness and mindfulness, committed to making better personal choices. The time of change is now. 2012 is upon us and, by the potent state of things, has been for a long time. Are we going to stay splintered, unaccepting of our personal human role in all of this that we have created? Or are we going to each individually take the next step to deepening our interconnected awareness and really changing ourselves so that we may change our world too? That’s the only challenge I see ahead of us now.
The earth will survive, but I don’t think we, as a species, will—unless we take some drastic measures to insure that our planet will be able to support us. With even the most basic requirements of air and water in jeopardy, let alone everything else we need to survive in even the most primitive conditions, how do we expect to evolve as a species?
I challenge myself to constantly create better balance in my own life while seeking to live in greater harmony with the world I find myself in.
Smell sweet scents of nature. Listen for sounds of beauty. Walk upon the earth and own its beauty. With humility and deep compassion be its mentor and its guide, for you human beings are responsible now for all that you behold. Do you care to lose it? Or do you care to truly love it?
In love there is only caring: for self and other, for that which is right, within and without.
Find peace in your days upon that earth by reckoning with your troubles as an individual and as part of the whole.
Find peace on earth by giving rather than taking.
Find peace within by loving in the midst of both your joys and your sorrows.
Find peace in right action, in balance with nature’s generosity, but do not be greedy, for then will peace be destroyed.
Be solid citizens of earth, of the self, of each other, for you are all worthy of peace on earth.
Find yourself more than worthy of the earth’s calm energy as you soak up its love for you. Can you accept that loving energy from the earth itself and return it with equal love? This is what man is now charged with upon that earth: balancing energies of love by achieving balance between nature and self. This is how to change the self and how to also change the world.
Each morning we awaken to our longest running dream, the world we live in. So compelling and consistent is this dream that we call it reality. In our reality dream, reason has come to be the guiding force, with magic and spirit really believed to exist only in other dreams.
Despite the limitations of reason, it has generated a dream we can count on, a safety net of order and continuity for us to build and maintain our lives on. Currently, our world of reason is under siege by a wily trickster who presents under the pseudonym of economics.
“It’s jobs, stupid; it’s the economy.” And with those words the world goes silent and is brought to its knees in servitude.
This past week I heard a music reviewer, on the eve of the American Idol finale, state that the show had become so formulaic and, despite some strong voices, that formula choked out new music. She herself felt the need to attend a rock concert that night, rather than be bored once again. The economic coup, the other “idol” of our times, has become equally formulaic and boring.
In our own American dream, currently dominating the world stage, a new economic American Idol was anointed this week, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. At age 28, he is now one of the twenty wealthiest people on earth. How did he get there? Well, his greed and speed launched Facebook initially. Despite dirty tricks at Harvard, he pulled it off. The recent Facebook IPO launch was filled, once again, with dirty tricks, with JP Morgan implicated once again, but Zuckerberg still landed at the top, and truly, that’s all that matters. Right?
Reason and fairness are no match for the “economic need” of the few. And, in the end, all dirty deeds are truly forgiven because, secretly, all is fair in the accumulation of wealth. What matters is getting there—at any cost. That’s the real dream of the economic dream.
We have to frack, to poison the water supply. Why? It’s jobs, stupid! We have to drill in the Arctic. We need more oil. Why? Homeland security and the economy, stupid! We simply cannot limit carbon emissions to forestall global warming, at least not now. Why? It just doesn’t make economic sense. How could we possibly shut down a nuclear industry in these times of economic need?
Ironically, such drastic economic delusions were created by the Zuckerbergs of the world, the Wall Street tricksters, the champions of finance and industry who continuously fool the world to their own wealth advantage. But truthfully, their power remains unchecked because, secretly, we’re all upholding the notion that the accumulation of wealth, through any means, is of the highest value and at the basis of our survival. That American dream, like American Idol, simply chokes out the possibility of other dreams, even one so simple as fairness, sharing, and taking only what you truly need. Or a dream that acknowledges interdependence, a dream that says, “no being left behind.” It takes all of us to uphold the dream.
Our reality dream is breaking apart now because even rationality cannot uphold the logic of the economic trickster. Science, a most rational process, is severely checked under its influence. According to the economic trickster, science exists only for its money making potential and should only be funded to serve the market. Education is all wrong. Schools are markets now too; markets for iPads, markets for loans, for online degrees. It’s all about the economy—we need more to survive. Like cancer, that dream can only survive on the unchecked accumulation of more.
The good news is that new dreams are incubating to dream our world forward, as we begin to awaken from our current economic nightmare. Just watch Greece. They’re doing it. They’ll be damned, but that cradle of democracy is learning to just say no, as the trickster—the European/World economy—shakes in its boots. True reality is that there is no debt crisis, there is no economic crisis, there is more than enough to sustain all in this world.
The trickster’s crisis is the crisis of greed, with its insatiable need to have it all—that’s the true crisis of which we’re all deluded. The trickster’s dream insists that we dream its dream and pay homage to survival being based on feeding the insatiable need of its greed. That dream requires all of us, in consensus, to agree to it, to uphold that world. That’s why the markets are terrified at the implications in Greece and France. If Greece leaves the Euro, they break from that dream, and that dream begins a free fall into a nightmare that even the trickster can’t dream himself out of.
The other good news is that we are all dreamers capable of awakening from this dream that’s held us in its grip for so long. In our daily dreams, we can incorporate mindfulness practices to achieve a calm that allows us to dislodge from the frantic fears generated by the suggestions of the trickster hypnotist, found within us, as well as without.
We can dream our lives forward, beyond the constraints of the economic formula into new possibility. We can even dream a world of magic and fulfillment, freed of the delusion that we need to accumulate more. Come on, dreamers, let’s dream it forward!
Note: A good follow up to Chuck’s blog and the economic dream we are caught in is to watch the movie I AM by Tom Shadyac. If you haven’t seen it, it offers a romp through where greed has taken us and specifically the director himself. In the end, he allows simplicity to take it’s modest yet most appropriate place. Available in our Store, under the movies category.
So Chuck and I have lately been writing about mindfulness meditation with the goal of achieving compassion, for ourselves and others. We both spent some nights dreaming with the Dalai Lama, thought to be the incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, and indeed his life has centered on bringing the concept of compassion to the modern world. But what about mindfulness, what is it and how does one achieve it?
I like to think of mindfulness as a practice of achieving a peaceful mind, the true nature of mind. By constantly reminding myself that my life is a journey, and by acknowledging that everything that happens in a day and in a lifetime is an important part of my learning experience, I am able to bring myself closer and closer to achieving the goal of peaceful mind. Sometimes I get there for long periods of time, and other times I may only touch down for a few minutes a day, but the more I remind myself of my goal the easier it becomes to quickly experience peacefulness of mind.
Even during recapitulation, when in the throes of a memory, one can use the practice of mindfulness to ground the self and stay in the adult present self. Reiterating often that life is a journey of self-discovery helps anchor one in reality, even while another part may be experiencing something from a painful past. Mindfulness is that anchor, the anchor of awareness that we are all on journeys, that we are all in our lives to learn something, that we are all sentient beings capable of incredible feats. The first incredible feat is to remember these things, to change how we think about ourselves and our lives by constantly bringing our attention back to these truths. The second incredible feat is learning to let go of what normally fills our minds so that we can rest a moment in the peacefulness of empty mind. Mindfulness is building awareness of ourselves beyond the usual cogitations of the mind, awareness that the perfect state of mind is peaceful. It is what our minds seek most of all.
It is possible to begin training in mindfulness simply by bringing attention to what we are doing throughout the day, staying mindful of the moment. In such mindfulness practice peace exists. Now I am mindful that I am sitting at my computer and writing, but I am also mindfully aware of my breath, of my calm heart, of words flowing out of me.
In a little while I will make a cup of tea. I will sit calmly with my tea and drink it mindfully, focusing on its nourishment, letting thoughts go as I remind myself that “I am drinking tea, I am drinking tea.” When I take a walk, I remind myself that “I am walking now, I am walking.” I focus on my breathing and my next step, letting thoughts go. As thoughts return, as they always will, I simply bring my attention back to what I am doing. “Oh, yes, I am walking!” When I go to yoga class I calm my mind by saying, “I am in yoga class now, I am present in my body in yoga class.” I constantly remind myself to come back to the moment, to where I am and what I am doing in the moment. In so doing, I allow all else to escape the confines of my mind, leaving room for a few moments of empty, peaceful mind.
This mindfulness practice of constantly re-anchoring in the moment, aids in allowing worry and stress to be absent, however briefly. Given a reprieve it will often leave of its own accord, for in reality it does not exist if we do not give it a home to exist in.
Begin the process of mindfulness meditation in everyday life simply by being in the moment and then re-focusing on being in the moment. It doesn’t need to be something that we sit and do at a certain time each day, though that is perfectly acceptable too. In the end, by simply allowing it to become a natural part of everyday life, it grants us its gifts more frequently. By constantly reminding ourselves to be mindfully aware, we train our awareness to be mindful more often and pretty soon we find that it comes to our rescue when we most need it, such as in a moment of intense recapitulation as I mentioned.
Being able to anchor ourselves in the awareness of now, reminding ourselves of the truths of our journeys upon this earth and the desires of our spirits to learn and grow, helps greatly as we face our recapitulations. The more we are mindful, the easier it becomes to be mindful again and again. One day we might notice just how peaceful our minds are and, however brief the moment may be, take it as a sign of achieving the goal of mindfulness.
With mindfulness comes compassion; it just naturally seems to lead the way there. We find that compassion does not really need any explanation. One day we just find ourselves experiencing it because we have already taken on the biggest enemy of compassion: the old mind with all of its directives, judgments, condemnations, repetitive voices and tiresome criticisms. By letting it go we become open to new ideas, new thoughts, and incredible feats of mind never before thought possible. One day we find that all of our thoughts are compassionate ones, all of our ideas embrace a new paradigm, encompassing a broader worldview where everyone is equal.
By opening the mind to peacefulness we allow new energy in, and it comes in calmly, aware that something is different now, that the mind is no longer accepting the old way, for it is only interested in peaceful emptiness for all.