I doubt that you need to hear more dire predictions about the ongoing destruction of our natural environment in order to be motivated to work to save it. In fact, too many dire predictions can make us throw up our hands in despair. So I’m not going to tell you how many species a day are becoming extinct, or how soon your home will be covered by melted polar ice. You already know it’s too many and too soon.
Lists of practical things we can do for the environment are helpful tools to keep us from wallowing in anger and despair. And we also need help with our deep conviction that we need more stuff and we need it quick. This is where Buddhist teachings can give us succor. If we take Buddha’s advice, we may find we actually want less stuff, and we want it slowly.
The following are five simple—and not so simple—everyday practices to benefit the Earth.
1 First and foremost, cultivate joy
This whole save-the-planet project is not about sitting in a cold dark room shivering while you cut your hands up trying to get the metal rings off the tops of the glass bottles for the recycling. You don’t have to do that anymore! You can put the bottles into the bin with the rings still on them. The Metta Sutra says: “May I be easily contented and joyous.” And one of the practices the Buddha called the Four Immeasurables is mudita, sometimes translated as “sympathetic joy.” Your joy is my joy. The more joy we have in our lives, the more likely we are to think Yes! We can keep this planet green! And we can have a good time doing it, too. Also, the less likely we are to find ourselves driving somewhere to buy something shiny and electronic, and then driving somewhere else to buy something sweet and greasy, and then driving home to eat it in front of the TV. So consciously, deliberately, make room for what gives you joy in your daily life.
Every morning, I say, “I vow to be grateful for the precious opportunity of human birth.” And I don’t let myself use the excuse that I don’t have time. It doesn’t take much time to be grateful. It doesn’t take much time to notice the way the shadow of the tree outside the window flickers on my bedroom wall. About two or three seconds. Wow!
In particular, enjoy nature in whatever way you can, and share that joy with others. Put up a bird feeder. Take a child or an elderly person to the park—somebody who couldn’t get there by themselves. Children have less opportunity to run wild in nature than they did when I was a child. Vacant lots and ditches are hard to come by, and where they exist, they are often polluted or unsafe. So take some kids you love to a place they can run around unsupervised, forming their own connection with dirt and twigs and bugs and hollow trees. Next thing you know, they’ll be sitting up in a redwood tree for a couple of years.
2 Stop Shopping!
Once I took a vow not to buy anything except food or tools for six months. I allowed myself to get new pens, new printer cartridges for my computer, new light bulbs for the house (energy-efficient fluorescent ones, of course!); but no new clothes, books, or CDs. I rediscovered shirts put aside for the lack of a button, and I took my mending basket with me to meetings. I went to our beloved public library. I was surprised by what a relief it was not to be looking with longing in shop windows or leafing lustfully through catalogs. It’s like when I stop eating sugar—to my surprise, after a while I stop wanting sugar.
Those six months changed my habits: I mend more; I use the library more; I cancel the unbidden catalogs. Just for an experiment, try to stop shopping yourself. You’ll be amazed. Zen teacher Reb Anderson says “Stop shopping” is Zen practice in a nutshell. The planet will be better off when we catch on to the idea that more new stuff isn’t what’s going to save us from suffering.
Call the 800 number on the catalog and tell them to take you off the list. It’s easy. And write to Direct Marketing Association, Mail Preference Service, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512, asking them to put you on the list of those who don’t want to receive marketing mailings.
Circulate gifts, as was traditional among Native Americans and many other cultures. Give away things you already have as presents instead of buying expensive gifts. Polish up that old necklace. Wash and iron a pretty shirt you never wear anymore, and put it in a box with tissue paper. Knit, crochet, make a quilt, a book of photos, tomato chutney, plum jam. Remember, Buddha’s robe was sewn from scraps of shrouds. I recently participated in a clothing swap organized by my sister, in which friends came together in her living room bringing clothes we didn’t want any more, and went home with other people’s rejects. We laughed a lot and told stories about the clothes, and I acquired a purple Tencel jacket whose beauty is enhanced by the fact that it used to belong to my friend Lisa. The clothes that were not adopted by anybody went to Goodwill.
My mother, in simplifying her life and cutting back on her possessions, has taken up the practice of giving books from her library to her grandchildren for Christmas and birthdays. She chooses well, according to their particular interests: a collection of poetry by Yeats, a book about Chicago architecture, a guide to butterflies or Italian frescoes. Of course not everyone has such a library, but if you look at your possessions with an eye to circulating delight, you may be surprised at what you find.
3 Practice non-harming in your everyday life
Everything we do makes a difference. Every action creates karma. In a world governed to a horrifying extent by corporations, the choices we make as consumers are another kind of voting.
Save money as well as resources by replacing standard light bulbs with energy-efficient fluorescent lights. Use green cleaning products in your home. Use one hundred percent recycled paper products with a high percentage of post-consumer content. Do you really want big old trees to get cut down expressly for making your toilet paper? Seventh Generation is one of several companies that make nontoxic household cleaning products and recycled paper products. These products are widely available in most supermarkets, and if they are not in your store, ask the store manager to carry them. Boycott Kleenex, which makes paper products from clearfelling vast tracts of forests, and use a handkerchief instead. How would you feel if a bird bulldozed your home in order to have something to blow its nose on?
Hang your clothes up to dry. This can be a meditative time, standing outside in the sun. Smell the freshness of the laundry. If you live in a city apartment, get a wooden clothes rack that folds away between washes.
Excellent information and many more what-you-can-do lists can be found at the Web site for Green Sangha [see “Corporate Takeover,” Summer 2005]: www.greensangha.org, and also that for New American Dream: www.newdream.org. The recently published What Can I Do? An Alphabet for Living, by Lisa Harrow (Chelsea Green Publishing), lists many helpful actions and resources.
4 Join the slow food movement
Make time to cook and eat together with people you love. Have more potlucks. Eat organic food and avoid genetically engineered food. Shop at local farmers’ markets, where you’re likely to meet friends and hear some live music while you shop. If there isn’t a farmers’ market in your area, join with others to start one. See the compelling new film The Future of Food to learn more about the dangers of genetically modified foods, the corporations that patent them, and what you can do about it. Go to to purchase the film.
Some friends and I had a series of “dine-by-color” potlucks. On Valentine’s Day we had all red food. On St. Patrick’s Day we ate only green. A month later, on tax day, we had a challenging but delicious menu of black food (caviar, black beans, black rice, black lentils, seaweed, olives). Yes, I know we won’t save the planet with monochromatic menus; the point is to enjoy each other’s company over homemade meals and thereby foster the spirit of slow food. So why don’t you try it? White’s an easy one to start with. As the thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen said in his “Instructions to the Cook,” “If there is sincerity in your cooking, whatever you do will be an act of nourishing the sacred body… A refined cream soup is not necessarily better than a broth of wild grasses. When you gather and prepare wild grasses, make it equal to a fine cream soup with your true mind.”
For more information about the power of our food choices, see www.organicconsumers.org.
5 Stop driving!
Or at least cut down on it. Other options can be fun: carpool, ride a bike, skateboard, use public transportation, go by raft, and—hey—walk! You can even do walking meditation on your way to the grocery store. When I walk, I feel grateful for the ground under my feet, which keeps me from falling into the hot center of the earth, and for gravity, which keeps me from flying off into space. According to the organization New American Dream, if you eliminate one weekly twenty-mile car trip, “you’ll reduce your annual emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by nearly a thousand pounds.”
Most radical of all, stay still. To quote Dogen again, “Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands?” And Buddha said that one of the eight awarenesses of the enlightened person is “enjoying serenity and tranquility.” Sit on the front stoop and talk to your neighbors.
Don’t think that your individual actions don’t make a difference. Every little bit helps. Besides, you are modeling for others. Who knows how many people you might inspire? And you can also bring these environmental practices into the groups you are part of: help your workplace get green, your sangha, your local government. Change happens when people—and that includes you—join together and do things differently.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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