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Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive. . . .” Those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe? From what? Life is always on the edge of death.
I choose my own way to burn.
—Sophie Scholl, satyagrahi (1921–1943)
Being the change is about transition. About going from being asleep to being awake. It’s a story that has one foot in industrial civilization and one foot in whatever is coming next.
Writing this book has been like taking a snapshot of where I’m at on my path. Others have gone further: they are demonstrating that it’s possible to live without any money or fossil fuels at all, and to be happier as a result. On my own path, as I continue to reduce, I’m actually experiencing increasing abundance. It’s a good path.
As I keep walking on it, I get further from the core of industrial civilization. I’m heading toward its fringes. When I look back over my shoulder, what I’m walking away from looks pretty bad. It looks like we may have lost our way as a species. More and more, as I continue to walk, I’m able to see industrial civilization for what it was: an experiment or a phase that we had to go through, but that turned out not to work.
But now the results are in. Humans: let’s stop burning fossil fuels. Let’s stop killing each other and our planet. Let’s stop merely talking about love; let’s start practicing it. We have nothing to lose but our misery.
In order to embrace what’s coming next, I had to let go of what went before. My grief was like the leap of a trapeze artist, letting go of one trapeze, flying through space, and catching the next one. There were times when tears poured down. I mourned the world I’d known my whole life. I mourned my children’s future.
I mourned how avoidable this all was. I mourned the strange and hard reality, and I mourned waking up. I mourned every blow struck in anger, and I mourned every bullet fired. I mourned all the species which are leaving us, never to return. I mourned this whole beautiful Earth.
But then, through these tears, I accepted reality as it is. Some- how, on the far side of the tears, I found the strength to go forward. Letting go has given me the space to imagine something new and better, a sea change. If you’re grieving, let the tears flow. And when the tears finally stop, look around. You will see then that there are miracles all around you. And you will be inspired to work harder than you ever thought possible.
Let’s work to build a world where everyone puts others above self and where we live aligned with the biosphere. In such a world, there is no war, crime, hatred, or negativity.
Fundamentally, what’s impossible about this vision? What law of physics does it break? I need to spend my time doing something while I’m here on this planet, and it might as well be to work toward this. And the place to start is with me.
I hope you’ll join me. We can build this new world together. We can begin by observing our own selves by way of everyday physical sensations. We can begin by riding a bicycle.
I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out, but I have hope. The world has never seen a large-scale satyagraha, where instead of a handful of satyagrahi, there are millions. As we wake ourselves up, we also wake each other up. It’s a mistake to assume we can’t do this. We can—if we choose to.
Love and connection
Our ecological predicament challenges us for many reasons, not least of which is that it calls us to examine how we live. It calls us to recognize that we are part of the miraculous biosphere, not outside of it or above it; to accept, deeply, that we will die, and that death is also part of this miracle. Our bodies arise from this spinning, burning biosphere, and we mix back into it when we die. There is nothing to hold on to, and nothing to be afraid of.
In my darkest moments, when faced with the uncompromising reality of global warming in all of its surreal truth, I come back to my body. I feel my breath going in and out, or I observe a sensation, maybe some mild pain somewhere. The present moment contains the realization of how short my sojourn in this body really is. Each passing moment contains my death—a cosmic relay race of passing moments. And I realize that living aligned with my principles and doing everything I can for a better world is more important than staying safe.
The deepest spiritual revelations are all trivial at an intellectual level. For example: I’m made of matter, and so are you. We are both made of protons, neutrons, and electrons recycled from stellar explosions. Those building blocks spontaneously organized into ever-more-complex molecules, rising and passing away, trans- muting from one form into another. Over hundreds of millions of years, the basic principles of encoding information into matter emerged. The biosphere began to produce a stunning stream of forms, billions upon billions of species—a process I feel certain is unfolding on uncountably many other worlds. Here on Earth, this awesomely beautiful stream of beings eventually included the first humans, and then my ancestors, and then my parents, and then me.
Yet what is this “me?” When I sit down and examine it carefully, dispassionately, it evaporates. I observe the matter in my body, and it is nothing but a flow, vibrating atoms, in a constant flux. I observe my mind and its thoughts, and they too are constantly changing. I observe the physical sensations that are the intersection of this mind and this body, and they also arise and pass away. I see how I crave pleasant sensations, and I see how the craving is misery. In the bright light of my calm observation, wanting dries up and blows away. I am not in control. I did not create myself. I am a calm observer with a front row seat at the greatest show imaginable: the universe itself.
How can I not smile as I watch this show? How can I be afraid when I realize how I formed? How can I feel separate from any other being when I am nature, when I am the biosphere, when I am the universe? How can I intentionally harm any being, once I’ve experienced the truth that all is connected? How can I put myself before others, when there is no “myself ?”
To realize mindfulness in every moment is to experience that everything is sacred: the air we breathe; the food we eat. The stars and the oceans. Birds that fly and bacteria that decompose. A newly sprouted plant; a steaming pile of manure. The land we walk on. My body. Your body. This moment.
Learning to live respectfully within the biosphere is a sacred task. Learning to get along with each other is a sacred task. And learning how to be happy in our own minds, to be joyful on this Earth in the short time we’re here, is a sacred task. These three sacred tasks are beautifully interconnected.
I wish that I could share with you the peace and the happiness that comes from having this concrete experience of connection, of non-self. But because it’s a direct personal experience, I can’t share it. I can only point to it clumsily with words.
Love and live lightly
Here’s an idea that’s simple and beautiful but goes against both the myths of the mainstream culture and our deepest mental habits. It’s this: don’t be afraid, and spread love every chance you get.
Don’t be afraid—not even of death. Why are we afraid of death? Have we carefully examined this fear? Through meditation, I experience the simple truth that everything is constantly changing, including my own body and mind. It doesn’t make sense to be attached to something so clearly in flux. As this grand fear dissolves, so do all the smaller ones. It also becomes very clear that fear is what stands in the way of spreading love.
Spread love every chance you get. Every time you encounter hate, stand up to it. This can take tremendous courage: humans have this terrible habit of killing those who spread love. Our cul- ture is so full of fear that spreading love seems alien to most of us, alien to our story of hoarding, of not-enough.
This story can change. Indeed, I think we’re already starting to change it. The key is for you and me to decide to live this way, and then to practice living this way. It takes work! But when others see us living according to a new story, that story will spread. The more I live like this, the happier I am; so I’ll keep doing it in any case, whether or not it catches on.
Whatever you choose to do, do it in the spirit of dance: lightly, gracefully, with a smile, knowing well that this song will soon end, and a new song will start. The universe is your partner. The lizard in the woodpile is your partner. Enjoy it, and realize through your own experience that it’s constantly changing.
Everything is in a flux, in a flow, all matter and all thought. A single quark, your aging body, superclusters of galaxies: all is in a flow, a dance. It’s all so beautiful, so full of love.
May all beings be happy.