Ecology of the Mind

I recently participated in a discussion about how the principles of Dharma could help us address the climate crisis. In attendance was a diverse group of concerned activists, one of whom was a long-time monk of an eastern tradition, whose comments contributed new perspectives on the problem and the relevance of Dharma in crafting a possible response.

“What is the root cause of the problem?” the discussion moderator asked at the start. “The science tells us we have a real problem and only a few years to respond.”

“Yes, and they say it’s an extinction-level event,” quipped a participant.

“Which is why it’s an important question. If we can identify the root cause, we have a better chance to focus our efforts where it will count the most.”

A discussion ensued that touched on all the obvious culprits: fossil fuels, cattle farming, over consumption, population growth and deforestation. We also discussed attitudes and values, the role of greed, short-termism, elitism and denial, as well as how the scale of the problem tends to disempower us rather than energise inspired action. Almost an hour had passed without the monk saying anything. The moderator then invited him to share his thoughts.

“The masters in my line teach that all our problems are rooted in the mind.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the climate problem is not real. We know it’s real. But, can we trace the cause of the problem back to a state of mind that gave rise to it?”

“Are you saying that bad thinking is the cause?” someone asked.

“It’s not that a particular string of bad thoughts created the problem per se. Rather, it’s the quality of mind in which the thoughts occur that point to the underlying cause.”

“What do you mean quality of mind? Why do you separate out specific thoughts as distinct from the function of the mind?”

“The nature of our thought is dependent on the quality of consciousness that we cultivate through attentive awareness. Yoga, meditation, mantra chanting, prayer and other practices are aimed at a refinement of consciousness. Regular practice raises our awareness to higher states of mind, in which higher qualities of thought can occur.”

“Are you saying that we should teach everyone to meditate as a solution to climate change!?”

“I think that would certainly help. For the moment, I am responding to the moderator’s question by suggesting a possible origin of the problem, not necessarily recommending a particular remedy for it.”

“I think you and your masters are right,” said one participant. “It is clear to me that all action begins in the realm of thought. The quality of our thought determines the quality of our action and its results.”

“Yes. The idea takes shape in the Dharma Diamond. The quality of our thought is symbolised by the ideal of Purity, which directs the quality of our actions and the principle of Effort. When we are conscious of how our thoughts and actions affect others as well as ourselves (Respect and Truth), we have a better chance of being more conscious in the choices we make.”

“OK. I follow. But can you give me an example that makes it easier to understand?”

“Yes. Plastic. It’s designed to last forever — in a world where everything, even galaxies die and degrade. The designers failed to consider the adverse effects of designing for endless durability or for the need to design for benign biodegradability.”

“So, you are saying that a gap in the quality of their thinking is the cause of the plastic problem?”

“Had the designers followed the Dharma Diamond, they would have tried to align their creation with the natural order of things. Wisdom thinking tells us that stepping outside of that natural order is what creates the adverse effects of our actions.”

“Can I offer one more example related to the quality of consciousness as the root of our problems?”

“Sure.”

“In the 1970s, one sage I studied with told me that the root cause of all pollution is sound pollution. He said that impure or polluted sound eventually gives rise to grosser forms of pollution. He warned about the ‘very risky business of intentionally invading the sound waves with defective sound.’ He said that sound pollution especially happens when leaders, judges and trusted people of social prominence intentionally mislead or lie to the public. Wisdom traditions teach that being a leader means guiding others to truth with a capital T. It is their responsibility to preserve the Truth principle in Dharma which is the root of all its other principles, respect, purity and effort.”

“Was he speaking metaphorically?” asked a participant.

“You can take it any way you like. I have found it to be a useful meditation which guides me in my vow to always speak the truth.” There was something in the demeanour of the monk that gave his words a weight and caught my attention.

“My point is that the quality of our thinking, is dependent on the quality of our consciousness cultivated through attentive awareness. If we improve the quality of our attention, we have a chance to change the quality of our thinking which could help us address the problem more effectively.”

“What you are saying is that if we expand our consciousness to be aware of the big picture, to see the earth as a whole and all creatures on it being of equal and important value, then that shift could result in a reorientation of each individual’s priorities?”

“I am repeating what my teachers taught me, which emphasises our need to be awake. If we awaken first to the quality of our own consciousness, if we seek to cultivate a higher order within ourselves through wisdom like the Dharma Diamond, then we stand a better chance of affecting the world around us. We have to be the change we want to see in the world.

—To Be Continued

 

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Brilliant explanation of Dharma in practical terms to address humongous problem!

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you Rasangi. I don’t think there are easy answers for such a big set of problems, but the Dharma Diamond does gives us reliable principles to guide our efforts and to focus on the essentials. We need everyone to take the matter seriously. My hope is the idea of Dharma will inspire a new quality of thinking about the cause of the problems and possible solutions.

      Reply

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