The Fight for the Future of the Earth
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Our modern industrial civilization is in an involuntary conspiracy to convince us that by loving things we will become happy. Yet, from a spiritual perspective, it is clear that the love affair with material objects presented so beguilingly by advertisers is causing acute misery.
People are to be loved. Creatures and the living earth are to be loved. Things are to be used wisely. The tragic inversion of values that draws us to love things and use people has led to our current environmental crisis, in which the natural inheritance of our children’s children is being squandered and destroyed within a single generation.
The sheer vastness of the problems we face is daunting, and it is only natural to feel terrible grief when we read about millions of acres of forests being burned, or several species becoming extinct every day, or the atmosphere being dangerously altered. Yet few people realize what a valuable resource for change this grief is. To be able to transform your anger or grief into a force for positive change is one of life’s most exhilarating challenges.
The place where our environmental problems begin is the mind. That is where the real fight for the future of the earth will be waged. The environmental crisis is connected with all our attitudes, conscious and unconscious: toward each other, toward other countries, toward our children, toward ourselves. Until these attitudes change, we will go on damaging the environment, no matter what sort of surface changes we make.
I think few people realize that every one of us is the chief administrator of an Internal Environmental Protection Agency, whose jurisdiction is the mind. Each of us has an entire world within, an internal environment as real as the one we see around us.
This internal environment has a powerful effect on the external environment: the way we think affects the way we treat the earth.
Even more importantly, I would add that when we purify that inner environment, we are not only making ourselves more secure and fulfilled but we are also making an important contribution to the health of Mother Earth.
To me, the central paradox of our times is that despite our powerful intellectual skills and our ingenious engineering and medical achievements, we still lack the ability to live wisely.
We send sophisticated satellites into space that beam us startling information about the destruction of the environment, yet we do little, if anything, to stop that destruction. In our lucid moments we see that we are doing great harm to ourselves and our planet, but somehow, for all our intellectual understanding, we cannot seem to change the way we think and live.
Yet the problem is not in our intellect. In itself, the intellect is neither good nor bad. The problem is simply that we have not yet completed our education. When Gandhi speaks of knowledge without character, he is not implying that we know too much for our own good. He is saying that because we do not understand what our real needs are, we are unable to use our tremendous technical expertise in a way that might make our lives more secure and fulfilling. Instead, we treat every problem as if it were a matter for technology, or chemistry, or economics, even when it has nothing to do with these things.
Every day, for example, dozens of new products appear, promising to satisfy our deepest desires. We are barraged with messages — subliminal and otherwise — on billboards and in magazines, on television and in the movies, telling us that everything we are looking for in life can be found in a car or a bowl of ice cream.
The hidden message is that what we own or eat has the power to endow us with self-respect. Actually, I would say it is the other way around. Your car may be useful and comfortable, but that is not why it is dignified. You, a human being, are the one who gives dignity to your car by driving it.
I recall my grandmother bringing this spirit to every aspect of her life — and her example set the tone for our village. She was a deeply independent woman who refused to let any material possession interfere with that independence. The way she saw it, when we depend on possessions for dignity or fulfillment, we are giving away part of our freedom. We become servants to the things we bought to serve us.
My uncle, who taught English at our village school, once made this point to us with characteristic flair. He wrote on the blackboard “John owns a Ford car,” then asked us to write the same sentence in the passive voice. We all wrote “A Ford car is owned by John.” All, that is, except one fellow in the back, who had written “A Ford car owns John.”
We started to laugh, but my uncle held up his hand. “The rest of you may know grammar,” he said, “but this young man knows life.”
Several decades later, when I first came to the United States, I was surprised to hear a young American say the same thing.
“That man doesn’t own his car,” he said as one of his friends roared by in a Thunderbird. “It owns him. He’s got to work six days a week and take on extra jobs to pay for it.”
Can’t the same thing almost be said of us? Over the past decades, the automobile, like so many of our appliances and machines, has sped down the now-familiar psycho- logical highway from desirable luxury to basic necessity to tyrannical master.
We no longer choose to drive a car — we have to: there are so many things to do, so little time to do them, and so far to travel in between. We rush about from place to place, caught in a perilous game of catch-up, and the price is high: thousands of Americans lose their lives in traffic accidents every year.
The irony is, we are often in such a hurry that we can’t get anywhere. I have read that commute time in Tokyo and London now is often less by bicycle than by car; and to judge by rush hour on our freeways, our situation is not much different.
Worse than the loss of time, of course, is the threat to our health. An average American car pumps its own weight in carbon into the atmosphere every year — twenty pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of gas — accounting for a substantial portion of our total carbon dioxide emissions. Not only do these emissions poison our air, but the accumulation of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is a major cause of the greenhouse effect, raising the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere — with unpredictable and dangerous results.
And of course Madison Avenue has found ways to capitalize on these concerns. Not long ago, for example, I read an article about skin care. “The diminishing ozone layer, the multitudes of pollutants, the swarm of free radicals in the air, are all being flagged by cosmetic companies as hazards to the skin. It figures that a new category of products would emerge to protect the skin from the environment.”
As I see it, it’s fine for us to take good care of our skin, but why can’t we lavish the same kind of care on our mind? In our internal environment, pollutants like greed, anger, and fear pose just as great a threat to our health. And, as Gandhi would have observed, those internal pollutants are the real cause of the external ones.
Our job as responsible human beings is to make the mind a favorable environment for health, happiness, love, and wisdom to flourish. Unless it is methodically purified — which is what meditation and the mantram can do — our efforts to purify our external environment will have as little effect as writing on water.
Our modern conditioning seems to specialize in methodically polluting both our internal and external environments. Everywhere we are encouraged to become addicted: to cars, to junk food, to excitement, to money.
Unfortunately, once we are addicted to something, we begin to lose sight of how our actions affect the rest of the world. When we are addicted to our cars, for example, it doesn’t matter how many times we are told about the environmental effect — we go on driving and driving. When we are addicted to fast food, we can’t even listen to those reports about the damage that billions of fast-food containers are doing to our soil, oceans, and even air.
Addictions are also the greatest source of internal pollution. They create poisonous clouds of greed and anger and leave us nothing but insecurity to show for it.
Ansari of Herat put his finger on the dynamics of this kind of internal pollution. “Urged by desire, I wandered in the streets of good and evil. I gained nothing except feeding the fire of desire.”
Ansari was a professor of Islamic law, and as a former professor myself, I can guess from these lines that he must have known students well. This is the experience of most human beings in their teens and twenties today. As a professor of English literature, and then as a teacher of meditation, I played Dear Abby and Ann Landers for many students over the years, when some of the best and brightest would come to me, confess some questionable adventures, and ask for advice or help. I often asked, “Why on earth did you do that?”
“I just wanted to get it out of my system.” That was a favorite phrase during the sixties, and it still hasn’t gone out of style.
“What you really did,” I would answer point-blank, “was get it into your system!” That is how desire works: it only grows when you feed it.
Suppose, for example, that while you are walking to campus or work you see a beautiful Black Forest chocolate cake gleaming in a bakery window and suddenly feel tempted to eat it. That shouldn’t be hard to suppose. Perhaps, instead of walking on by, you say to yourself, “I’d just like to look at it.” And you stop. Then you slip inside the door to have a smell. The obliging lady behind the glass-topped case serves you a wafer-thin slice, “just so you can experience the taste.”
“It’s heavenly,” you agree with a smile, “but I really wasn’t going to buy any.” And you float out the door, empty- handed and free.
In Hindu and Buddhist psychology, however, you’re not so free as you think. There may be no cake in your hand, but there is a tinge more desire in the atmosphere of your mind. Whenever a desire is gratified, the sages say, even with a minuscule wedge of chocolate cake, it leaves a residue of conditioning added to that desire. The next time you pass by that cake in the window, your Black Forest desire will have grown a little fatter and will be clamoring a little more loudly for satisfaction. If this goes on, you will someday find yourself walking out of that bakery with a nice pink box in your hand and wondering to yourself,
“Now why did I go and buy that?”
“Well,” you ask me, “what’s the harm in that?” The harm is that the desire is a little fatter and the will a little weaker. Cake, of course, is merely an example. Whether your weakness is cake, cocktails, or cocaine, when you indulge a desire over and over again, the muscles of that desire build up into a force you can no longer defy.
“Desire yielded to,” says Saint Augustine, “grows into habit, and habit not resisted becomes compulsion.” Then we no longer yield because we find pleasure in it; we yield because we have no choice. Even when the pleasure dries up, the compulsion is still there.
Augustine knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t a model teenager, you know. When he went off to Carthage for college, he didn’t exactly allow his various appetites to starve. It is from personal experience that he tells us how a feeble little desire, when it is indulged and encouraged, becomes bloated into an overweight, overbearing compulsion.
This is true not merely of physical indulgences. We can be addicted to attention, to power, to a particular kind of relation- ship, to the process of sexual attraction.
No one would deny that the things we get addicted to can be quite attractive at first. They excite us. They stimulate our fantasies. They distract us from pressing problems. But the fulfillment they promise is not really there, and when our response to them becomes compulsive, even the surface glitter which first attracted us will fade. The more we indulge them, the hungrier we get, and the bigger our appetite, the less satis- faction we get from indulgence.
But in every addiction energy is trapped. In all our daily partialities — for food that is less than nourishing, say, or reading and entertainment that are far less than elevating — power is hidden. And a full-scale compulsion contains so much power that it can be thought of as a trail leading right into the unconscious.
When you begin to understand this, you will go looking for traps from which to release your energy. When I began to transform my life through the practice of meditation, I made the stupendous discovery that whenever I needed a lot of power to solve a problem or even more drive to go deeper in meditation, all that I had to do was to take on a strong urge and defy it.
Once I saw a sign in a bakery window, tucked among the croissants and the pinwheel cookies, which said invitingly,
“Indulge Yourself.” This is the usual approach to desire. In my bakery the sign says, “Defy the Desire.” You will come out not with a little bag full of calories but with a heart full of increased security, love, and joy to share with everyone.
Chemists tell us that the earth’s atmosphere is not a fixed entity but is always changing, continuously being re-formed. Every day, countless different processes combine to produce the air we breathe and modify the climate which brings us rain, snow, or warmth. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for example, is the result of a myriad of processes: it is produced by fossil fuel combustion, the burning of rain forests, and industrial processes; and it is absorbed by trees, other vegetation, and the sea.
The ozone layer is another example of this kind of dynamic balance. Ozone, an unstable union of three oxygen atoms, is created by sunlight-triggered chemical reactions above the tropics and distributed by air currents around the globe. Being highly reactive, ozone is constantly breaking down in contact with other molecules; but at the same time, the interaction of sunlight and oxygen is creating new ozone molecules to replace them, thus maintaining a layer of ozone that protects living creatures from harmful ultraviolet rays.
But these balances, so necessary for life as we know it, have their limits. Cars and factories are loading the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than it can deal with. Natural replacement processes cannot keep up with such attacks, and the result is that the air we breathe becomes laden with noxious gases and the ozone layer we depend on breaks down.
In the internal environment, the story is the same. Some two thousand years ago a master of spiritual psychology, Patanjali, gave us one of the most practical and profound analyses of human character ever developed.
According to Patanjali, our character is being formed and shaped continuously. Anger, good will, depression, friendliness, resentment, are not fixed features of personality. They are variables which depend on what we put into our internal atmosphere. And although we rarely realize it, we can develop the ability to change those variables.
We can decrease our emission of pollutants like hostility, for example; and when we do, we discover native reserves of good will that can protect us against hostility in the future. Just as we worked to restore the ozone layer by refusing to use harmful CFCs, we can restore peace of mind by banning anger. We can use forgiveness to soak up and transform resentments just as nature uses trees to soak up and transform carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen.
In other words, character is a continuing process. It can be ennobled, strengthened, and purified by the enthusiastic practice of meditation and the allied disciplines.
This is great news not only for the internal environment, but for the external environment too. The cleaner the atmosphere of the mind, the harder it will be to do anything that would hurt our planet and its creatures.
When our inner freeways are no longer clogged with bumper-to-bumper desires, we become true friends of the environment. No matter what the advertisers promise us, no matter what selfish desire comes knocking at our door, we will always ask the question, “Will this have a deleterious effect on the air which we and our children breathe? If so, go knocking elsewhere — you’ll find no welcome here.”
A medieval Christian mystic gave us three simple procedures for effecting a total environmental clean-up, both inside and out: “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” Be kind in your actions by never doing anything to hurt other people, other creatures, or the environment. Be kind in your words, so you can work harmoniously with others to conserve and protect our resources. And, finally, be kind in your thoughts, since it is from our thoughts that our actions and words arise. Without some control over the thinking process, it is impossible to make lasting changes in the way we live.
This kind of control is no easy task. It requires constant attention. “One has to work day and night to plow and to clean the field of the soul,” says the Sufi mystic Sanai. Or, as Ansari puts it, “Watch vigilantly the state of thine own mind. Love of God begins in harmlessness.” And not only love of God: love of Mother Earth, too, begins in a mind free from ill will.
As Gandhi says, it is possible for any one of us to purify our internal environment to such an extent that ill will cannot arise even in our sleep. There is no miracle in this, simply a lot of hard work: being kind, being kind, being kind throughout the day.
When you have learned the difficult but very precious art of being kind in thought, word, and deed, your inner atmosphere will be sparklingly clear, fresh, and fragrant with compassion. In the language of mysticism, you will be living in heaven. It is not that you will be unaware if people around you get agitated or depressed, or that you won’t suffer if unkind things are said to you. But your peace of mind will not be disturbed.
This is the only goal worth striving for. Only mastery of the thinking process can lead to permanent peace of mind, and permanent peace of mind is heaven.
So every one of us can aim at heaven — not after death but right here on earth. That is a career worth throwing yourself into! Rumi put it beautifully:
Whoever flees from a master in this world flees good fortune. Know this! You have learned a trade to make a livelihood for your body. Now grasp the trade of religion! You have become clothed and wealthy in the world. What will you do when you leave this place?
Learn a trade through which you can earn the income of forgiveness in the next world!
All of us can start earning the income of forgiveness right here and now; there is no need to wait for some afterlife. The more we forgive, the more we are forgiven — the more we forgive ourselves. That is what Saint Francis means when he says, “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
So when someone is impolite to you, seize the opportunity: that is the time to be exceptionally polite in return. You will be picking up a quick paycheck. When a friend lets you down or hurts your feelings, forgive him. Not only will you be purifying your own internal atmosphere, but you will be making it easier for him to purify his.
The mystics tell us that peace of mind comes only when we acquire the capacity to live free from all conditioned habits of thought and action. The key here is attention: gaining the capacity to direct our mind as we choose, so that it never gets trapped by any undesirable focus. A trapped mind is compulsive; a mind that goes where you choose is free.
William James, the famous American psychologist, gave an unintended summary of the power of meditation when he said that the ability to direct attention is the very root of judgment, character, and will. Let me try to explain how this ability is developed through the practice of meditation.
At the heart of the method of meditation I teach is an inspirational passage that embodies your highest ideals: the last eighteen verses of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, for example, which paint a vivid portrait of the man or woman whose wisdom is so unshakable that it can never be swept away by the storms of conditioning which blow through our modern world.
In meditation, you go through that passage in your mind as slowly as you can, with as much concentration as you can muster. And every time your attention wanders, you simply bring it back. You may have to bring it back thirty times in thirty minutes, but every time you do, you are training your attention to go where you choose instead of jumping and wandering. What you are doing is learning to drive with judgement and discrimination through the unfamiliar landscape of the mind.
It takes a long, long time to master this art, mostly because of the intense conditioning which has convinced us that we have no control over the inner world. But when your thoughts obey you, you can drive your mind in one and the same lane, the lane of love, all the way from morning to evening. It’s like traveling down Interstate 5 from Sacramento to L.A. without ever weaving into somebody else’s lane.
In order to be greedy, you have to be distracted into changing lanes. In order to be angry, you have to change lanes. In order to be afraid, you have to change lanes. If you have learned this marvelous skill of staying in the same lane always — the lane of patience, of forgiveness, of wisdom — nobody can push you out.
During the day, after your meditation, there are abundant opportunities to develop this capacity and practice inner environmentalism. When you find yourself straying into anger, for example, don’t act on it; don’t talk about it; don’t even think about it. Acting and thinking about it are what pulls you into the next lane. Instead, try to keep both hands on the steering wheel of your mind.
How? I can give a simple secret: keep your mind on your mantram, and, if possible, go for a long, fast walk. Walk and repeat your mantram until you feel the anger dispersing like a sulfurous cloud in a fresh ocean breeze. Then, when your internal environment has cleared, you can go back and deal with the situation with a calm mind.
Each time you do this, you are withdrawing your attention from anger and putting it into forgiveness. As James says, the person who can do this will have excellent judgment, because he or she will see clearly — not only the road just ahead but the distant consequences just barely visible over the horizon.
This kind of judgment is the very foundation of the sustain- ability consciousness our planet needs. When you can see clearly how your actions affect the environment, you cannot imagine wanting to do anything to hurt the earth or damage the atmosphere.
Each of us can take steps to minimize our wants, learning to live in reasonable comfort and artistic simplicity. Such steps come naturally when we begin to clean up our internal environment. We can begin each day with half an hour of meditation and gradually withdraw our love from the dazzling objects that beckon from every direction.
When we find fulfillment within ourselves, our love will be free to flow out toward all the children of our beautiful Mother Earth. When the love of God and of all creation rises like a fountain from the depths of consciousness, all other desires are overwhelmed and, as Meister Ekhart says, the pauper dies, and the prince or princess is born.
This article is from the Winter/Spring 2020 Blue Mountain Journal.