Life runs in cycles. There are times of growth, development and decay. That is the way of things. There comes a time when old ways inevitably give way to new, when older generations pass on their responsibilities to those who come along in their wake. Every now and then a generation is challenged with the responsibility of overseeing times of great change and significance. The generation who have come of age over the last ten years are such a generation, for the world they will become guardians of has changed so profoundly from the one theirparents inherited, that the very paradigms we have based our vision of life upon need to be fundamentally reviewed. It is clear that deep and wholesale changes are well overdue, and our challenge is whether we choose to embrace and embody such changes or have them thrust upon us.
13th August 2015 was Overshoot Day. Overshoot is a notion identified by the World Wildlife Foundation as part of their Living Planet Index, which calculates the day of the year that humanity as a whole has consumed everything the planet will be able to replenish in that year. What it means is that from 13th August until 31st December 2015, we ran on ‘resource overdraft’; literally writing cheques our planet can’t cash. Around 1970 we crossed an invisible boundary, and since then, each year, we have consumed more natural resources than the planet is ever capable of replenishing.
Bestselling author and New York Times journalist Chris Hedges, in his brutally honest book, The World As It Is, says, ‘Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had’. However, it is not just an economic and ecological challenge we face, but a spiritual and moral one as well. Everywhere we look there are indications that we need to embrace wholesale changes in the way we live our lives, but it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face, and we have yet to prove our determination to seek the solutions that are being demanded of us. Similarly, all too often positive initiatives for change are occurring on the fringes of society when they should become its bedrock.
This is why we have to start at home, with ourselves, by simply asking, ‘How can I respond to what is happening to us as humans?’ It is not enough to wait for change to be initiated from the top; we must find the courage to embrace change on a personal level, and trust that by setting an example and leading the way, we can and will move mountains.
The real revolution must start in our own hearts and minds as we examine deeply how each of us have come to the point we are at. We must seek brave, imaginative solutions and act on them. Our first step is to make a personal resolution to place our longing for peace at the head of our agenda.
Each year I teach hundreds of people from all walks of life how to meditate, and I can see that a growing number of them are feeling despondent and seeking a new and more positive approach to life that incorporates a sustainable, realistic and long-term vision. There is a deep sense that we all need to come up for air, catch our breath and take stock. It takes so much out of us to acquire what we need to make life satisfying, that all too often we are left with little energy left to enjoy the good fortune we have.
Over the years, many people have come on retreat to learn meditation, and almost all of them hope that meditation will in some way enrich their lives. I am often asked for advice on how people can improve their feeling of contentment and personal meaning. But in fifteen years the answer to this is almost always ‘simplify your life and get rid of what you don’t need (preferably by giving it to someone who does)’. The Buddha used to say that he who is of few needs and easy to serve is closest to being happy.
At the end of a retreat, I explain two basic principles that our welfare and progress in the future stand upon. I do not say, ‘It is important that you practice meditation everyday’, however enthusiastic I am about the value of meditation in bringing us to a point where we delight in simplicity. The real guidance I offer is: ‘Be totally unwilling to harm yourself or others in the pursuit of your desires, and do not expect to take out more than you put in.’ Meditation is a means rather than an end. The journey may start with overcoming unwholesome states of mind, such as restlessness, craving and aversion, but ultimately it points to these two golden rules: harmlessness and accountability.
When you start to re-establish your connection to life, you begin to see that your real needs are far fewer than you think, and when you wake up you recognise that you are part of something rare, precious and extraordinary. While we are more connected than ever through technology and social media, we are losing touch with that place in our hearts where we are all truly connected.
Re-establishing this connection is a very deep, profound and personal journey. Rather than fearing simplicity, we start to delight in it. Rather than being overwhelmed with life, we breathe a sigh of relief as we let go of some of the things we have been struggling to stay on top of. In stages, our aspirations change. In many respects, it is the ultimate rite of passage; the transition from spiritual adolescence to adulthood.
One of the biggest challenges we face when we undertake this transition is the lack of necessary support, whether at a financial, spiritual or community level. I feel the time has come to offer a tangible, living model of these principles from which a community can emerge, putting theory into practice and leading by example. By gathering together as groups and communities we can start to put meaning back into life, through regenerating a sense of connectedness. We all recognise the need for change: it is time to support each other in becoming that change, instead of fearing it. Our first step is to stop asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’, and start asking, ‘What have I got to give?’
The world desperately needs each of us to start giving back, to start living in such a way that our presence here is neither a burden to the planet nor to those around us. For every day that we take out more than we put in, our soul withers in some small way. Every day we put in more than we take out, our souls shine a little more brightly. So when we explore how we might learn to give more than we take out, we begin the process of the regeneration of our world and the healing of the wounds we have inflicted in the past. In doing so, we secure the way for others.
It takes more resources to keep a first world human alive in the way we have become accustomed to today than it would have taken a whole community to be alive two hundred years ago. In the past fifty years, more resources have been consumed than in the whole of history before us. It cannot go on. To assume that we couldn’t be happy with less is to assume that no one before us has ever been happy.
With our new community retreat in the Pyrenees we are investigating how we can embody the kind of changes that are being pointed at. By sharing resources and living simply, we are reconnecting to our environment and the natural rhythms that govern our lives. We are not alone. All around there are people gathering at a communal level, exploring viable solutions to these issues. Organisations, from Schumacher College to Findhorn in the UK, Plum Village in France and Eco Dharma in Spain, are pointing the way to a more sustainable and enriching way of life. Each of these communities is hoping to offer micro solutions that could have macro implications.
We are all intelligent enough to see what is happening around us, but our welfare in the future will not be built on understanding alone; it will be built on conduct and choices. We are living now, both individually and globally, the effect of our past choices. Our life will roll out in the future as a reflection of the choices we make now. That is now, as it has always been, the predicament and the challenge that faces mankind, as individuals, groups, and as a species.
A cluttered and overcomplicated life leaves little room for contentment and inner peace, and at every level, simplification and a lighter footprint is the way forward. We all need to step back and catch our breath. By working, sharing and collaborating together, we can change for the better. I know that we all have it in us to become the ‘Give Back Generation’. It is our time to shine and find out what we are truly made of.