The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

December 11, 2007

The Sounds Of Silence

I’m in slo-mo this week after my long weekend retreat. That’s okay. It’s more than okay, actually. Most of our modern lives tend to be Rush Rush Rush, and as I’ve mentioned before, when I’m rushing is when I stop paying attention and end up doing the most harm to the planet.

Vanessa Farquharson of the blog “Green As A Thistle” is making one “green” change per day for a year. Last month, on Day 254, her green change was to regularly take some time out to sit and be still, with no distractions including TV, radio, music, or anything else but her own breath. One commenter wrote: How is this a “green” change. I really enjoy reading your blog every day, but I must say that some of your changes are weak at best.

To me, this change is not only not weak, it comes before all others. What I learned on retreat (where there was no Internet, TV, radio, or even talking outside the group dialogs in the meditation hall) is that the garbage comes first from identifying with the mind’s clutter and believing the illusion that we are all separate from each other and the planet. When we sit quietly and follow our breath, the mind can still, and we can pay attention to what’s around us that we normally ignore in our daily rush.

The sound of crows squawking, rain falling, people coughing, pots banging in the kitchen, traffic rushing a mile away on the freeway, and all the myriad voices of the world that we normally ignore. Sitting still for just five minutes can be painful or blissful, but it gets us in touch with our true connection to ourselves and the world around us. It helps us to realize that we’re not separate. And realizing that is the biggest green step of all because how can you pollute the world when you know in your heart that the world is you?

Unfortunately, it’s so easy to forget. I forget all the time. The plastic we consume and the garbage that we generate are outward manifestations of our disconnection from the natural world. As my teacher, Jon Bernie, said, pointing to his head, “In here is the real garbage.” And the enmity that we create by approaching people in a self-righteous manner about their environmental practices (like writing to companies in a way that’s more antagonistic than helpful) is a sign of our disconnection from one another. And yes, I’ve been really guilty of that one from time to time!

This Saturday, I’m going to attend the final session of my “Rethinking Plastics” training with Green Sangha in San Rafael. The training teaches us not just the facts about plastics but also how to communicate with others in a way that fosters connection rather than anger. Here is the planned sequence of the day. I share this schedule in case readers in the SF Bay Area are interested in taking the training themselves. If so, please contact me directly (my e-mail address is in my profile) for more information.

  • Introductions.
  • A look at the ubiquity of plastics, and their impact.
  • Relaxing in the face of crisis. We will use exercises in somatic movement and awareness as entries to the art of meditation.
  • Informing, encouraging, inviting. How do we get people to talk with us about the harmful effects of synthetics and non-biodegradable materials?
  • Framing a presentation. In pairs we will develop sample introductions of a topic in rethinking plastics — openings that will grab our listeners’ attention.
  • The art of question-asking. Strategies for engaging people in dialogue, for eliciting their knowledge and perspective, and encouraging deep thinking.
  • Listening from the heart. Non-verbal signals of warmth and interest. A model for building empathy.
  • Making the call. Choosing companies, stores, officials, schools, and clubs for outreach.
  • Letting it all go. A reflection on the Green Sangha principle of activism, “Holding our roles lightly.” The story of Peace Pilgrim. Somatic meditation.

The challenge for me is the last one, “Letting it all go.” Letting go was actually the biggest challenge for me during the retreat this weekend. I thought I’d be able to get away from thinking about plastic for a few days and just breath and relax. What I didn’t realize was that I can’t actually drop the thoughts of plastic because I didn’t grab them in the first place. My awareness of plastic and our responsibility to the earth has become a part of me. I didn’t actually choose to focus on this issue, as I wrote in my post Tales of an On-again Off-again Activist, the issue chose me.

At first, I was disheartened by the negative thoughts I had during the first day of the retreat, wondering how much plastic was used to prepare the delicious food we were served, huffing (silently, of course) about whether or not the food scraps were composted, noticing with irritation the anti-bacterial hand soaps in the bathrooms and the chemical aerosol air fresheners in each toilet stall. That last one bothered me so much, I systematically went into each unisex or women’s bathroom (didn’t have the nerve to go into the men’s) and hid the air fresheners in the back of the cabinet under the sinks!

This is commonly what happens during these retreats. I spend the first day or so experiencing and sometimes trying to fight my own internal crap. And eventually, the fight subsides as I move into true acceptance and even love for the crap. Yes, love for the crap. Which doesn’t mean giving up on action at all. Look at the Dalai Lama, after all. He’s a pretty accepting guy. Yet look at all the activist work he does. And there’s the key. Noticing harm in the world, feeling and accepting the pain that comes up, acting to create positive change, and then letting go.

(And speaking of creating change, I did end up leaving a nice note to the retreat center asking them to consider bringing back the all-natural hand soaps and air fresheners they used to use. And I also found out that they do actually compost their kitchen scraps!)

Anyway, several years go, I created a little meditation room web page for me and a few of my friends and co-workers to go to during the day when feeling stressed at work. It lets you choose a 1-minute or 5-minute silent meditation and sounds a bell at the beginning and end of each. Here’s a link to it if you think it might be of use during your day. The link at the end of the meditation is broken at this point. But my friend Mark tells me that the page itself still works:

What strategies do you use to find your center and stay connected in this crazy world? I’d love to hear your stories.

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Carla Jean
15 years ago

This is truly a beautiful post, and it echoes a lot of what I’ve been thinking about for the past year. I’m not sure how I stumbled onto your blog but I’ve now subscribed. A lot of visionary ideas. Thought about writing a book?

15 years ago

Because of this blog, I have been changing the way I deal with plastic in general, mainly in the kitchen because that’s where I use the most plastic, or at least I thought so until just now when I really looked at my table top covered with wonderful plastic stuff: Highlighters, pens, Sharpies, clock face cover, ink bottle, top of the hard-drive, phone receiver, Scotch tape core and dispenser, pencil box, caps on watercolor tubes, calculator, glasses frames, plastic bag of plastic file folder labels,credit card, ruler, glue stick, and much more. I see each of these items all the time, never giving a second thought until one of them disappears. Now, after carefully replacing the plastic cap on my plastic pen, which had been left overnight to dry itself to a possible early and needless death, and hereafter in landfill, I finish off this comment by saying that while tenderly cleaning plastic bags for re-use, I have discovered myriad really great uses for them. Thank you, Fake Plastic Fish.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Hi, Tricia. You have questions; I have answers, kind of.

Stickers on fruit… if it’s just a regular little sticker, I don’t count it even though I know that the paper is probably coated with some kind of plastic. I’m not counting any other kind of coated paperboard either (disposable cups, milk cartons, etc.) although I do try to avoid them as much as possible. I wrote a post about these types of hidden plastics a while back. The link is here:

I guess the main reason is that I can’t weigh that stuff because I can’t separate it from the paper, which is the bulk of the weight. But I really don’t use much at all. Maybe when I get my regular plastic waste down to almost zero, I’ll start tallying all the non-recyclable, non-compostable garbage and see how that goes although, even coated paperboard is allowed in our green compost bins here in Oakland.

As to your second question about pets, I’ll be dealing with that issue very soon because we are getting two kittens in a couple of weeks. The cat box situation is already solved. I have no problem using certain plastic items if they have been previously owned, such as buying from Goodwill or getting through Freecycle. I put an ad on Freecycle for a cat litter box and someone generously gave us a very nice one. I feel good about reusing plastic items that would have ended up in a landfill, rather than buying new ones.

That’s really the only pet item I’ve figured out so far.

15 years ago

Beth, thanks for this gentle reminder about the importance of stillness. Until we are aware of our connectedness, it will be impossible to really work together to solve these issues. The acrimony can be almost as toxic as some of these chemicals.

15 years ago

Hi Beth,

I have been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now via google reader. I really admire what you’re doing, and while I’m not anywhere near there myself, I find myself being much more aware of what I buy and consume and how I can start making small changes. I have two questions about your project, one that is a biggie and one that’s just kind of silly.

Silly question: Do you count the stickers on loose produce? (apple/banana stickers) Just curious.

Big question: How would someone with a pet go about avoiding plastics? I can’t imagine living without a plastic litter box, for example, or even if I could find a non-plastic box for cats (I suppose I could google it, but it’d probably be expensive). And dealing with pet messes, pet food, pet care in general–I can see ways to avoid or minimize plastic but it would be hard to avoid completely.

Thanks for sharing your blog with the internets!

15 years ago

Thanks for posting the link to the meditation room- I’ve put it on my pc at work- to remind me whenever I need it to stop and breathe.

15 years ago

Pascal said, “I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”

It has also been said that the problem with Western man is he can’t sit alone in a room by himself for 15 minutes.

If there is any secret to what gives me peace of mind, it is that I attribute no significance to myself. I look at a pebble on the street and realize it could well be millions of years old, part of some larger piece of rock from who knows where. What am I but a wisp of smoke, a fleeting shadow, a momentary spark?

Loving, caring, respecting, honoring, nuturing are all very valuable, desirable things and whatever significance we have it comes from how we treat others.

But overall, in terms of the physical world, we are no more important or permanent than the leaves that fall from the trees each year. I have not noticed any of them complaining that they must fall, or desperately trying to cling to a branch, or one believing it is a special leaf.

You mentioned the Dalai Lama. He is at peace even as his country is taken over by the Han Chinese who are on the path to out-hustling and out-consuming even we Americans.

The best way to deal with life is, I think, to think of it as a fluke. What are the chances of you or I being alive here and now in this incredible universe? I count myself incredibly lucky to be here and if it all ends tomorrow, that’s that. To even think about being sad over it is laughable.

My advice to all is to get out there and do what you feel gives you a purpose. Squeeze every drop of juice from the life you have, a life you did nothing to deserve and every breath of which is pure good fortune while accepting your mortality, the inevitable, with grace.

In the Mahabharata, part of the Hindu canon, a spirit challenges one of the protagonists to answer a series of questions in order to bring his dead brothers back to life. One of the questions is “What is the greatest wonder?” and the answer is “That although death is all around us, we live each day as if we were immortal.”

When mortality is accepted, life begins. As Erich Fromm said, “The tragedy of man is not that he must die but that so many die before they are born.”