Spirit and Soil

Alan Foljambe explores the integration of contemplation and activism.


I – Diverging Paths

For decades, a small number of courageous and visionary environmental activists have been attempting to halt the industrial destruction of the biosphere. Devoting their time, resources, hearts and minds, and sometimes putting their bodies on the line, these activists have raised public awareness about the dire threats to wilderness, air, oceans, and forests.

Unfortunately, these campaigns, while nowhere near successful enough in saving the wild Earth, have perhaps been too successful at shaping the parameters of the debate. The public perception of a flattened forest, an ocean stripped of life, or the environmental crime scene known as the Alberta Tar Sands is that these things are problems in their own right.

I would suggest that these things are, at a deeper level, symptoms of a society that sees itself as separate from the natural world. In the words of the Dhammapada, “If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows, as the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart.” The branches of environmental destruction can be seen in forests around the world, but its roots are firmly planted  within our human minds. Fighting the fruits of these poisonous roots, while necessary, is really nothing more than a holding action. As any gardener who has dealt with thistles knows, the only way to solve the problem is to uproot it.

To stop wrecking the planet, we need to purify our minds. A tall order to be sure, but we really have no choice. We need to take the middle path between two extremes: on the one hand, disembodied spiritualism that is often ego masquerading as enlightenment, and on the other hand, activism divorced from self inquiry, a state of being that can lead to mindless destruction and ego (again), this time disguising itself as radicalism.

Consider a person who is seeking spiritual purity, who pursues this path to the exclusion of all else. If this is done in an unhealthy way, meditation retreats and interior searching can eventually separate that person from the surrounding community. Ironically, the pursuit of liberation from ego can itself become an ego trip, when a person focuses on the self to the exclusion of the exterior world.

I am in no way condemning the pursuit of inner knowledge, but I do question a spiritual path that ignores the political realities that surround us. A meditation centre is a necessity in these trying times, and I would hope to see them become more common as we enter a historical era that will leave many reeling from social vertigo. However, these centres and those who take refuge in them need to  consider their place in the world. While paths of escape from a deluded mentality are critically important, they should not function as distractions from harsh political and ecological truths. This means, in hands-on terms, that meditators need to concern themselves with gardening and food production, green power systems, radically innovative building techniques, and waste reduction. Perhaps more problematically, spiritual seekers need to develop a critique of societal forces that oppose these necessary changes.

At the other end of the spectrum from the spiritual seeker are activists who becomes so absorbed in the importance of a cause that they lose sight of inner reality. This can lead to mindless aggression, a descent into cynicism and the dehumanization of one’s opponents. I am not condemning strong political action, even action that some would consider “radical.” These are radical times, and there is no question that sitting in a circle and singing “We Shall Overcome” is no longer sufficient, if indeed it ever was. However, radical action bears a tremendous amount of responsibility. The very understandable anger that is felt by all people who love this planet should be used with awareness and an understanding of consequences, not squandered on acts of public vandalism.

When the latter occurs, we are confronted with depressing scenes such as that played out at the G20 demonstrations in Toronto last July. Wittingly or otherwise, certain people danced to the tune of police provocateurs and obligingly torched some police cars for the cameras. What wasn’t reported on the CBC was that, prior to being burned, one of the cruisers had been spray painted with the words “this car is bait!” by a somewhat more astute protester. The bait was taken, of course, and the cameras got what they needed to marginalize the entire event and continue on with Business as Usual.

A dose of the dedication and fire of radical action within the field of meditation might not be such a bad thing. Uprooting mental impurities is not a job for the faint of heart, nor can it be healthily separated from a commitment to the health and happiness of the planet as a whole.

II – The Middle Way

Where does this leave us, as meditators, activists, gardeners, farmers, and people in search of right livelihood and a kind relationship to the Earth?
Fortunately, those who have gone before sometimes leave pathways that can make our own journeys easier. I would like to suggest the poet and activist Gary Snyder as an an inspiration for meditators, workers, and activists, an example of balanced engagement with both political astuteness and deep self inquiry, and an alternative to paths that lead nowhere.
Snyder is a poet and essayist, lifelong conservationist, and Zen Buddhist who spent ten years living, studying and meditating in Japan. He brings to his work a joyful inquisitiveness combined with a fearless advocacy for the wild things of the Earth. He is an example of what a person can accomplish if some serious energy is put into focusing the mind. His miracle, to paraphrase an old Buddhist saying, is that he eats when he eats and walks when he walks.

Snyder’s poetry reveals a precise attention to the concrete details of the world. Rather than shunning the world in favour of a disembodied spirituality, Snyder focuses his attention to the point where the light of the spirit shines through the tangible reality of a living planet. His tacit message is that, if we want to clear our minds and act in defense of wild nature, we need to be humble enough to know our own surroundings intimately.

Sunday morning, november, plenty of birds
a pair of red-shafted flickers
         on the peach tree
 stretch wings
  showing the white-flash back
linnets crack seeds at the feed tray.

Snyder’s intimacy with the real world comes from the fact that his writing and meditation have been interspersed with a lifetime of gardening, homesteading, traveling, hiking, and political organizing. Snyder’s poems are words with the bark still on them, and they bear a message that is critical for the planetary challenges that we face: when each of us is able to integrate deep self awareness with an active existence in the living world, both our minds and the world will be the better for it.

There are times when separation from the community is critical for inner growth, but these times are temporary. It is the moving forth, the moving outward into the world that in the end will wipe the dust from your inner eye. The idea that personal purity must rest upon an abandonment of our neighbors is corrosive to the strength of the community, however widely you may care to define that term.

If we hope to make any substantive progress against the destruction of the earth, we need to combine activism with a close attention to our own motivations, and work to uproot the ignorance, greed and egotism that exist within our minds as much as in the cracked and beautiful world that surrounds us.

Alan Foljambe



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