Thursday, May 13, 2010

Engaging Your Environments Fully

More rain today here in Minnesota. It's been twenty degrees colder than normal all week, and wet, very wet. The stuff of gloomy thoughts and haunted blog posts, like the one I wrote yesterday.

I remember being about twenty and telling people "the weather doesn't impact me at all." I was the guy who rode a bicycle in -20 degree weather and who did two mile hikes on one hundred degree days without eating. Of course, there was burned skin and dehydration, but I didn't see it as a problem. I just trucked on, not considering how much the environment shaped my life.

With more life behind me, and more experience, it's obvious to me now that if you don't engage with how both the planet and the human-made environment are impacting your life, it will simply be another thing controlling you.

Do we talk about this much in Buddhist practice? I'm not sure. Some people write beautiful spiritual poetry about nature. Others examine the stress that comes from driving, living far away from your workplace, etc. Still others are involved in various environmental projects and activist work, from community gardening to Buddhist-inspired ecology work like the Ecodharma Centre.

Yet, so much of what I see is caught in a binary manifestation - either it's mostly about an "external" focus or an "internal" focus.

How do we bring the two together? This seems to be the pivot question I've lived with for most of my life.

If you don't engage with how both the planet and the human-made environment are impacting your life, it will simply be another thing controlling you. I was on the bus this morning and I saw a woman trying to cross the street in the crosswalk in front of the bus. She was clearly anxious and in a hurry, and as she passed the large, wide front bus window, I noticed a ball of tension rising within me. Looking at her struggling, I felt a resistance, a not wanting to "deal" with her appearance in my life. And it hit me - that this was the confused compassion mixed with control I often respond to the human-filled environment with.

I felt whatever she was experiencing trying to enter me, and I both wanted to heal it, and banish it at the same time. Neither of these are working with total acceptance of the present, the basis for the bodhisattva work of non-violent intervention.

Back to the weather - living in a place like Minnesota, filled with temperature and precipitation extremes, it's really easy to get hung up on the weather. In the winter, it's too cold, too snowy, to bitterly windy. In the summer, it's too hot, too humid, too stormy. In the spring, it's too wet and the temperatures fluctuate too much. In the fall, it's too dry and the temperatures also fluctuate too much.

All that talk is letting one's self be controlled by the natural environment.

What would it look like to engage fully with both the human made environments we live in and also the natural environments, the two of which always overlap in some way or another?

Some of you may have noticed the lines from Shitou's "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage" in yesterday's post. I've been slowly reading a book of Suzuki Roshi's talks about Shitou's other great dharma poem, Sandokai, and interestingly, lines from the other poem keep appearing to me during my days. These lines in particular seem to apply to the question above as instructions:

"Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can't be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don't give up."

We have move beyond seeing "ancestral teachers" as only old Zen folks. Shitou, himself, lived a lot of his life in intimacy with the planet as it was. The ancestral trees, grasses, medicine plants, waters, mountains - these were as much his teachers as any human, if not more. At the same time, familial and cultural human ancestors probably played a large role in his life, and another reason why it took only two poems to cement his place amongst the great Buddhist teachers. He didn't need a lot of words because he had taken everything in, and wasn't controlled by it, but could engage with it fully.

Things are probably more complicated for a lot of us living now, but at the same time, there are these lines from the Sandokai:

"In the light there is darkness, but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light, but don't see it as light."

Even though we "moderns" have "more to deal with" in a certain way, it's really not all that different than those living their challenges in the past. Not the same, but not all that different. So we don't have the luxury to just copy what the various ancestors did, just as new generations of trees, for example, aren't able to replicate their ancestors' ways of growing and being. However, like the trees, we aren't cut off from that past, nor the environments around us today.

So, as it's raining outside, I'm offering this to you, and also considering my own life's ingredients. Let's work together for a more complete expression of practice, and more complete lives in the process.

1 comment:

spldbch said...

You're definitely right about being affected by the environment. I see a clear shift in my mood based upon what the weather is like outside.