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This is how a person enters the next stage of the path of practice. You may not have planned on it. You may find yourself surprised by your own growing convictions. Or you may be wondering how to become a more effective advocate for the environment. As a professor I am invited to be part of such wonderings, as students come to me considering graduate school or midcareer professionals ask about switching fields. Each person arrives in my office carrying a bundle of questions and possible options. They want to think out loud with someone and find something that matches their yearning. I ask them what has brought them this far on the path, and then I try to gauge what level of commitment they imagine for themselves. I listen while they share what they have been thinking about, no matter how tentative their vision. They have come for encouragement, to hear someone say, “Keep going, yes, you can do more.” It is clear they want a wider engagement with environmental concerns in their personal or professional lives, or maybe even both.
Taking up this phase of deeper commitment involves several significant inner processes that inform each other. When the green critique penetrates further into your life, you may need to rethink personal priorities. Every day and every hour we are making choices that reflect our current priorities. We choose to invest our time, energy, money, and relationships in certain things over others. Rethinking priorities means examining our current patterns and seeing if they really reflect what matters most to us. If environmental concerns come to occupy more of your everyday thoughts and activities, then it makes sense to move them more into the forefront of your activities. For example, you might learn enough about eating local foods to decide to grow some food of your own. This then means investing in a garden plot and in tools, seeds, soil amendments, compost box, and so on. It also requires an investment of your own precious and limited time. As you share the fruits and vegetables of your labors with others, success generates its own momentum and your investment pays off.
Rethinking priorities leads naturally to the second process of personal assessment. From those early stages of beginner’s mind, you now have accumulated new skills and knowledge and likely have developed ethical stances in the areas where you have some understanding. So you ask yourself: What do I know? What can I actually do? What more do I need to be helpful on another level? It can be very helpful to talk this through with someone who can be a witness to your personal growth as a concerned Earth citizen. As much as you see what you have gained thus far, it will be obvious that there is much more to learn. It is not possible to do it all, no matter how concerned you are. You are only one person with a finite number of hours to give to Earth care. So you must make some strategic choices to guide your next steps. For some people, what is appropriate is more education and professional development to prepare for full-time work in an environmental field. This is a common motivation for seeking a graduate degree. Others may need a change of location, a geographical move to bring them closer to a hub of environmental activity, such as Washington, D.C., or one of the rising centers of sustainability, such as Portland, Oregon. Still others may want a major change in lifestyle or more spiritual training to support deeper environmental work.
Complementing both of these processes is self-reflection on the Big Picture: What is really important now, both in my own life and in the world? When I was preparing to take lay ordination vows in the Soto Zen tradition, I was asked to do just this. My Zen teacher had me sit in a room quietly all day by myself, thinking about what it meant to take these vows. I felt somehow there was much more going on than I completely understood. I read the Buddhist precepts and recited the three refuges, settling my mind on accepting this commitment as best I could. In late afternoon I took a long slow walk in the New Mexico landscape, preparing to cross through this gate. The next day, after a light snow had dusted the mountains, I repeated my vows in the presence of the local Zen community and received affirmation from my teacher. Afterward we held a wonderful party, and one of my teacher’s senior students called in to offer congratulations. He explained that before this day I had been practicing primarily for myself, to improve my own physical and mental well-being. Now, with these vows, my practice would be primarily in the service of others.
When you come to take environmental work seriously, you realize you are doing it on behalf of all beings, not just for your own well-being. Looking at the Big Picture means understanding the nature of the current threats, seeing who the political players are, finding the initiatives that make the most sense in the long run. It also means really trying to apply global principles of justice and sustainability. We cannot do effective environmental work without taking up the roles of race, class, gender, power, and privilege in perpetuating environmental damage and inequity.
In the last few years the global conversation has shifted to focus on the impacts of climate change. All other environmental work seems to be subsumed or compared to the call to “do something” about climate change. Many of us find ourselves falling short in knowledge or skill to respond to this call and perplexed at how to shift personal priorities. Reflecting on the Big Picture of climate change, peak oil, and the exploding demand for resources is very unsettling. It is a time of great foment, with many ideas surfacing, many big conversations at play that will affect all of us. We are all being invited into this second stage of the practice path, with no time to waste.
Taking up the Path
For some people, and certainly not all, there will be a third stage of the green practice path. At this point the practice becomes a “lifeway.” In Native American traditions, people speak of everyday practice and culture fused into a way of life, something practiced by the whole community. The lifeway includes ethics, spirituality, social mores, and a deeply tested way of doing things that makes sense. A lifeway is not a religion; it is not something you can adopt or be baptized into. A lifeway is also not an identity, in the sense of ethnic or political identity. A lifeway is a way of being in the world that carries strong intention and shared wisdom. People who follow a shared lifeway help each other develop this wisdom and the strength to persevere under duress.
To introduce my class to this idea of lifeway, I invite my friend Amy Seidel to visit as a colleague and role model. Amy is the director of Teal Farm, a demonstration site in northern Vermont for living sustainably in the future. Each year she gives us a progress report on developments at the farm. Plantings have been designed with a warming climate in mind; the system of solar and micro-hydro sources is set up to feed energy back into the grid. In the main house there are facilities for bulk food preservation and storage.
I have walked around the site with Amy, marveling at the care and foresight shown in so many details. Amy describes the vision of living close to the land on what it produces. She grounds this vision solidly in ecological principles, looking clear-eyed at a warming planet. She doesn’t exhort the students; she just shares what she knows about sustainable practices and how to plan for a green future. It is obvious that she is extending an invitation to the green lifeway to everyone in the room. Afterward the students come down and mob her with questions, eager to learn more.
If you find you are revising your priorities to reflect your environmental concerns and seeking out friendships that support your environmental priorities, you may see that something significant has shifted in your depth of commitment. Thinking about the Earth is no longer something you do now and then; it has become a way of life. Non-harming and systems thinking have become second nature to you. In every situation you look for the green alternative that makes the most environmental sense. Because this is a way of life, you feel morally obliged to look at every aspect of your food choices, your buying patterns, your energy use, your civic contributions to greening your community.
There is no single lifeway to hold up conveniently as a gold standard. You do not necessarily have to be a vegan or vegetarian, or live off-grid or in a green-built house, or have a job influencing environmental policy. You do not have to drive a hybrid car, grow a garden, or wear organic clothing. What marks the green lifeway is not specific choices but depth of commitment and intention. The person in this stage of the practice path takes it very seriously, questioning the impacts of their actions in all that they do. This process of ethical reflection is fueled by a deep and abiding love for the well-being of life on Earth.
From this perspective, any aspect of human activity is open to ethical reflection and incorporation into a green lifeway. In new and inspiring ways, people are carrying this process forward into uncharted territory. Churches and temples are trying to green their sanctuaries as part of their congregational lifeway. Universities are looking for ways to green not only their curricula but also their buildings. A local green parenting store opened up recently on our downtown pedestrian marketplace. Green marriages have come into fashion to support couples committed to caring for the Earth in all they do. And there is now a green burial movement in the United States which considers the environmental ethics of our choices in dealing with the dead.
But let me repeat again, lifeway is not lifestyle. It is not about personal choice as a green consumer or the perfecting of green virtue. A lifeway is informed by the wisdom and experience of others and is nourished by building community with others on the green practice path. These may be friends, colleagues, family members, or role models from afar. “Community” may not necessarily mean neighborhood; people following this path find each other across the continent and globe. We encourage each other, we lean on each other, and we build on each other’s strengths and experiments. When there are setbacks or frustrations, as in the last eight years of the U.S. presidential administration’s leadership, we look to others in Europe, India, Australia, and beyond to keep the momentum going and the practice path strong. Experimental communities in places such as Auroville, India, model visions of the future where practicing a green lifeway is backed by infrastructure as well as intention.
Some time ago I came to the realization that no matter how committed I was to a green lifeway, this work would not be completed in my lifetime. The forests would not all grow back, the energy grids would not all go solar, the roads would not all have bike lanes before I left this world. At the time I thought that was discouraging, but mostly it was deeply sobering. It led me to see that it is very important that I pass the green spark on to the next generation. Young people need to be mentored and encouraged to explore the green path of practice. They need support, opportunities, friends, and a multigenerational community of practice partners. The vision I carry of a healthy and life-sustaining Earth will take some time to accomplish. It is a cross-generational and cross-cultural project. We don’t know how long we must invest in this path of practice. A very important part of following the green lifeway is inviting younger people along, showing them it is possible to nurture the green heart and live a life of conscious intention.
How Then Shall We Live?
In today’s world, the pace of change seems to accelerate exponentially year to year. It is not easy to take the time to reflect on our actions, assess priorities, set intention, and build community. Mostly we fall short of our green hopes and ideals. Sometimes the rate of destruction seems to be speeding up right before our eyes. But it is also true that the rate of learning—the spread of information and new ways of doing things—is faster than we ever could have imagined ten or twenty years ago. Yes, people and nations vary considerably in their commitment to the new sustainability practices. But the overall momentum toward the green practice path is accelerating and headed in the right direction, urged on now by the most pressing matter of climate change.
I know only some pieces of what will be required in taking up these challenges. But I do know we need each others’ voices and hearts as we deliberate about how to proceed. The green practice path will be fraught with difficulty; the obstacles are everywhere. We need to understand that these very obstacles are the path. We will all be called to deepen our green commitment to be ready for the complexities, the impossibilities, the world as we can’t yet imagine it—both terrible and beautiful in its unfolding.
Excerpted from Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking, by Stephanie Kaza. © 2008 Stephanie Kaza. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.
The Green Path, Stephanie Kaza, Shambhala Sun, January 2009.