Friday, 21 February 2014

Sh** worth fighting for pt.2 - 22 Feb 2014

Every time I sit in an airplane I cannot seize to be amazed. It seems so surreal yet such a privilege to be able to see the world from this literally elevated perspective and even though elevated I find it to be one of the most humbling perspectives of all.

As I am writing this I am flying and looking over a sea of clouds that opening far and wide next to the desert of snow capped mountains of Afghanistan. Under and amongst this incredible barren beauty next to which any one or more humans seem so entirely insignificant, people are fighting against each other. A sea of red, quickly turned brown when it comes in contact with air, before disappearing back into the earth that it originally came from. Afghanistan represents the earths defiance against human control, the selfless way it will swallow us whole if need be.

Before this, if I was following the flight path correctly, we were crossing India, or at least some part of it. The characteristic that stood out the most to me was human impact, expressed in enormous dried out riverbeds, many of which were obviously artificially and forcefully straightened out to better accommodate agriculture, which in turn was evident in the gazillion of square fields that reached as far as I could see. Human impact, or human arrogance you could say, this silly idea that we could ever control nature.

Why am I writing this? Well, to be completely clear and forthright from the very beginning, (as if you hadn’t known already) I am a hippy in disguise. And I’m proud of it, not the disguise (that’s an issue for itself), but the fact that I am a hippy at heart. Since getting on the plane in Auckland I have devoured a book which does not allow me to write that which I was originally intending to write about today and that I cannot recommend more strongly. What I am writing here is at best a very personal summary and inspiration for an action plan rather than an actual book review, so I will be making lots of shortcuts and omitting tons of crucial bits for sure. Nonetheless, I hope you don’t turn from reading this (if you’ve gotten this far) and in fact even go the extra step to read the book in its entirety (and I’m happy to lend it if you give me a shout).

How should I say this best I am not sure. I am not sure of a good way or place to start so I will say it directly. I am not a great fan of conspiracy theories (I might get back to the reason for this a little later), but unfortunately I do believe that something like World War III is already raging. There. I've said it. As a child, I have always wondered about the wars that I might get to experience, knowing for well that in the history of humankind every generation has seen its war and know I now. I think that this war is literally a WORLD war, in that it is the war for or against this world, the final direction of which we are still to decide (if we are lucky and act swiftly). I am not sure that everyone would agree with this stance, as I know there is a lot of doubt regarding this matter, but I find it difficult such doubts. The authors of ‘A Buddhist Response the Climate Emergency’ (edited by J. Stanley, D. Loy, & G. Dorje) certainly concur with the belief that this war is a reality.

Seriously, I hate reading books, watching videos or listening to talks of this sort - the messengers of doom - and in the case of this one I have literally had to force myself to continue reading. Interestingly, this feeling is of repulsion, rejection and ultimately denial is incredibly close to the root of the problem, but is also the first stepping-stone towards its solution and it is the solution oriented nature of this book that has kept me motivated to reading it to the very end in a matter of hours.

It is also the solutions that I am most interested in and that I want to focus on, so I will brush over the problems here very briefly and direct you to the book and the countless and other sources that will tell you of the reality, the hard facts and numbers of the climate emergency. Briefly put, the humanmade, toxic and mutually dependent mixture of excessive carbon emission and excessive consumerism that is so characteristic of our global society today and that got us to a place where: polar and glacier ice is melting worldwide and the oceans are likely to rise and devour entire cities, brutal deforestation is a sad and fast-moving reality, massive extinction of species, habitat and whole ecosystems is already taking place, so-called natural catastrophe’s are no longer natural and, increasing in magnitude, frequency and impact upon us, and all of this is most definitely going to get worse and worse, potentially leading to droughts, famine, diseases, economic crisis and ultimately war of resources unlike the world has ever seen and could eventually lead to the extinction of human and non-human life and diversity on the world as we know it.

Phew... I do realize this is quite the mouthful and it is not a particularly nice doomsday vision either. The uncomfortable feeling, the rejection, the repulsion as I have said is the first thing we need to get a handle on. But why does this continue to be so difficult, given the fact that the knowledge of our present predicament has been available to us for quite a while now already?

Some reasons are mentioned in the book that I don’t need to repeat here, nor could I put them any better, but one came to mind that stems from my own experience of (slow and ongoing) recovery from addiction. From this experience I know for well the feeling of hesitation, avoidance and pushing away, when faced with the task of looking at the reality of one’s past and present actions, character traits and their consequences and effects on oneself and others. Having gone through this, and still repeatedly going through it on a regular basis however, I know for well that, once the doom-and-gloom rejection of anticipated horrors was overcome, actually looking at this reality with clarity was one of the most liberating experiences that I have ever made and that took an incredible weight of my shoulders.

Why the rejection then? Well, for me and as I have heard from many others it was partly because of the crushing effect that this might have on my self-image that I was so desperately trying to uphold. Surely I have always liked to think of myself as pretty infallible, good, or even great, etc etc, but looking at the reality of who I truly am, what I have and haven’t done I can say that I never feel closer to myself than when I fully embrace this reality and am completely end entirely open about it. Unfortunately though, I only got around to this when I hit a pretty dark place in my life only a few years ago, when I was so cornered that I simply knew no other way out anymore.

In hindsight, I am thankful for this experience, as it ultimately helped me to at least start turning around, but I am not sure if we can afford ourselves this luxury in the greater picture of the ecological crisis we are in, because it might well be that we will cross a line at which we cannot revert the effects that we have caused anymore (more detail about this in the book). The book was in fact published in 2009 and gives some very dim timeframes, so I am not sure what its authors would say now in regards to where we are up to, but I would at least like to believe and hope that we will gather our senses soon enough and still have a chance to turn things around or at least engage in some palliative care, slow things down and make a potentially inevitable end less sorrowful.

To be clear though, in the words of one of my favourite grime artists, genius Mike Skinner aka The Streets, ‘it’s not earth that’s in trouble, it’s the people that live on it’ (The Way of the Dodo, on ‘Everything is Borrowed’). If all resources should be gone and all species gone extinct, I’m pretty sure the world will find its way to balance itself out again and recover from the shock or disease of humanity. And even if doesn’t and eventually disappears altogether, that’s no big deal either, because in the even bigger picture of things, the universe will be just fine - and we won’t have to worry about that anymore anyway.

The other reason that I briefly want to mention is the one with which I opened this article and it is that of perspective. Having grown up in a concrete jungle city with apartment houses and skyscrapers, I have always thought that this is in fact a problem of the city (possibly as the epitome of our society), because our view and vision in the city is completely imprisoned and obstructed and inevitably limited by the next wall that we look into. With such a perspective it is extremely easy to start thinking that the limited space of the world that you see is actually real, or of any significance. You believe that it is already 'the big picture', when in fact this could not be more wrong. That is why flying in an airplane, being on the top of a mountain, looking an animal in the eye, or looking over the ocean, is such an important and powerful experience to make, as often as possible. 

(Over the Baikal Sea now, but unfortunately in the midst of clouds with very low visibility.) So again, as uncomfortable it might seem, I think it is great to look at, accept and embrace reality (of ourselves and our actions) as it is, as well as correct our perspective. It is the only point from which a turnaround or change can take happen and it is a great place to be in. In fact, that is the place of wisdom that forms one of the two ‘complimentary pillars’ of Buddhism. ‘Through wisdom, we investigate a danger: see it as a whole, identify its underlying causation, and determine what can be done to remedy it at the causal level. Through compassion, our hearts feel the danger vividly and personally, and thereby expand to embrace all those exposed to harm: all who, like ourselves, are subject to suffering, who seek peace, well-being, and happiness’ (Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi in Loy & Stanley, 2009, p. 161).

So this brings us to the brighter, solution and action orientated side of this article. I mean, none of which I have said here so far will be new to anyone I am sure and that is not even important, to say something new. What is important is that I have already wondered how it might be possible to do something about it, rather than be suffocated by the feeling of being overwhelmed with the proportions and gravity of the situation. What follows is a list of some of the key suggestions made collectively in the book, by all the authors represented, including famously the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh..

1) We need to ‘break away from the culture of addiction’, which our consumerism precisely is, ‘and choose a lifestyle of minimum needs and maximum contentment(Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche in Loy & Stanley, 2009, p. 58). Again, I am sure we have all heard this before and it sounds very wise-cracky, harsh and utopian, but again some recent experience from my own recovery has shed a different light on it, at least for me. For as long as I can remember, I have felt drawn to nature. I remember repeatedly sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Frankfurt, Germany where my family used to go frequently (before it turned into a steakhouse (which we likewise frequented) and staring at and into the Bonsai trees that were standing there, gradually drifting away in my imagination, flying over vast country-sides and landscapes of all sorts. This was either my first pull, or its first conscious expression that would eventually draw me out of the concrete jungle of Frankfurt to my present home in Auckland, New Zealand where I live 2 minutes away from the beach. On my latest visits to the beach over the last few months, as I was reading yet another excellent book on nature and our connection to it, I would stand at the beach as well as float in the water and consciously say to myself that all I need is already given to me, just there. Not wanting to sound funny, and maybe it’s a kind of make-believe process, but the repetition of this exercise has gradually led to a concrete sensation that calms down a craving that I can still detect inside of me, even though I have been clean and sober for a while now already.

Under such a circumstance, or better, with this feeling, the presumed sacrifice that the above-suggested lifestyle seems to ask of me is no longer an issue. In fact, this feeling is one of richness and fullness that is gradually growing within me and I plan the keep watering the seed I have planted. I mean, I live on relatively little money, but still I feel I could do better on this issue and engage in a fair bit less of consumption, so even though this might be partially aspirational, I don’t there is anything wrong with such an aspiration as I work towards its realisation. How to do that on an individual level leads to the next points following the aspired ‘Way of Life’.

2) Decrease consumption. For me personally I think of clothes and ‘stuff’, so as I have already been trying for a while I want to continue reducing the amount of clothing and ‘stuff’ that I already have, that I am buying. What I a mean with stuff are things that are not actually necessary, the kind that gets thrown away, stands around and is never actually used. We’ll see how that goes. Another side of this is taking care of the kind of products that I am using and buying and switching to greener versions where and whenever possible. This is actually one of the points that might eventually tear down my disguise and make me more readily identifiable as a hippy.. but I am less and less afraid of this consequence.

(Ok more vision again.. magnificent mountain ranges covered in snow and forests a riverbed with actual water, a red sunset or sunrise, I am not sure, … Aserbaidschan apparently. Beautiful definitely.)

One thing that is important here and that one of the authors in the book has beautifully put is the importance of learning to distinguish between wants and needs. ‘The needs of any one person, household, or township are finite, while wants are without limit. Wants reside in the mind, a product of thought, while needs are of the body, consisting if such reasonable necessities as food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. A simple analogy makes the distinction more tangible: wanting to eat is eating when you feel like eating; needing to eat is eating when you’re hungry’ (Lin Jensen in Loy & Stanley, 2009, p. 220).

Further, the interesting thing here for me personally is that consumerism might well just be another form of addiction and so my recent experience might actually give me a great tool and reference guide here. ‘Our unquenchable compulsion to consume and enjoy is an expression of craving, the very thing the Buddha pinpointed as the root cause of suffering. … A life revolving around production and consumption means people are persistently beset by insatiable craving, restlessness, and a chronic sense of lack: the ills of modernity’ (Ven. Bikkhu Bodhi in Loy & Stanley, 2009, pp. 167-168).

3) So the third point, even though just an example is food. Not solely for this reason, I already turned vegetarian last year in July, and I like it, am even considering going vegan. I understand, and the book provides plenty of detail that this is another small contribution that can be made on a personal level. Beyond that, I think that eating mindfully and with gratitude are crucial elements of this, but maybe another time about those.

4) Transport. A tricky one in Auckland where everything is so extremely spread apart and public transport is pretty appaling, but nonetheless I want to learn more about alternative cars, carpooling and want to see what could realistically be done by bicycle and walking. Some of that should be fairly easy.

5) Green architecture. Well, we live in a rather small rental space and though not necessarily on purpose are actually liking it and happily declare ourselves converts to the tiny house community, so that’s an ok start. Being a rental though, I am not sure what I can do at this stage in regards to renewable energies, better insulation, better windows and more energy saving appliances (of which we don’t have many either way), but I’ll look into it and will happily take advice/ideas. Lighting is certainly something I can look at and maybe change the remaining standard lightbulbs to LED, just as much as the old idea of not using light unless or where needed.

6) Renewable energies: Wind, solar, hydro, tidal, geothermal need little explanation I guess, but as yet I am not sure how to get my hands on them.

7) Reforestation, or planting trees: This is something I’ve been looking into and I think is actually already one of the projects for this year. Definitely, I plan to make a start, even if it is just one tree for this year, I’ll make it two next and so forth. Some scheme like that anyway.

What I like about this very small list of things is that I actually feel empowered by it. I can recognise that there are things that I can do and that can have a however small impact. But I am not so na├»ve to believe that this is even close to enough and so this brings me back to the level of the dojo, of Budo and the different physical activity/training communities that I am a part of. But before I go into action specifics, let me clarify why this is relevant to the dojo and its community (or the sangha). Simply put, I think that our indoors dojo perspective is too frequently too small. It is the same as the city perspective that I have mentioned before, and in fact an even more restricted one. It is inevitably restricted by the walls with which we surround ourselves and so our focus is constantly mainly on improving ourselves and some kind of fighting skill that can only ever be applied in the war against other people. This is both short-sighted and small-minded at the same time. To be honest, in regards to the current situation on this planet, I always think to those big Hollywood blockbusters where all of a sudden, be it due to alien invasion, the awakening of some monster, or whatever else, the whole of humanity suddenly pulls together to fight side-by-side. Unfortunately our present enemy is not so obvious (next to the fact that we have called it upon ourselves, or we are in fact it), but nonetheless we are actually in such a situation. And so a collective and cooperative effort is needed for the world and not against ourselves, next to the above-mentioned personal efforts.

I mean, if we really wanted to know the efficacy of our martial arts/ways, maybe this would be a more realistic field upon which to measure this and a more meaningful battle to fight than the meaningless bloodshed over land, resources, pride and stupidity (especially when we open our perspective). Maybe the real or better warriors of today are actually environmentalists. I mean, I am not saying that there are not are injustices worth fighting for in the world, but I fear that unless we tackle this greater problem, we won't really have much land to fight on, let alone for. And further, doesn’t it exactly need true warriors, who, even can act effectively, 'in a calm, deliberate manner' even ‘amid an urgent crisis’ (Taigen Dan Leighton in Loy & Stanley, 2009, p. 192)? Is this not what we are training for? Who am I to say, but my feeling certainly leans towards this…

What goes hand in hand with this is that at least to my knowledge, Aikido dojos have largely fallen short of taking on this urgent fight, but I might be and hope I’m wrong. I’m sure there must be some initiatives out there, because after all, this is a martial art whose claim to fame is its moral, ethical or even ‘therapeutic’ (ie. caring) and in fact cooperative endeavour. Unfortunately though, what I see mostly is the exclusive focus on ‘me getting better’, a bigger, better, stronger, more agile, versatile fighter/person, … I am aware of other non-Aikido communities that are doing this kind of work regularly and think we need to follow suit urgently. Already what I have written here is far too much really, so I will contain myself of going further into this.

Instead, let me finish on a few ideas that I’ve had in regards to our little group at Jikishin Dojo Auckland and some things we can do together:
1) For the past few months we have already moved one of our weekly training sessions outdoors. This both lets us enjoy and connect to the environment at least a little more, and effectively uses no energy or materials other than what we generate ourselves. I hope that we can continue and expand on this practice as we continue.

2) As for indoors training I would like to experiment with not turning the lights on even throughout winter when it gets darker earlier. This would save some energy, while giving us the benefit of training under yet another circumstance, that is, getting used to fighting in various degrees of darkness or poor lighting.

3) Along the lines with outdoors sessions and seminars, I would firstly like us to do more of those, and secondly would love if we could maybe spend some of that time getting involved in some environmental activities, e.g tree-planting or else.

These at least would be my initial ideas, I am more than welcome to hear yours and we can make a plan for us collectively. As I said, we are only a small group, but I am sure we can do something nonetheless. Bigger groups might take this up as well if they are not doing it already, which would be/is great. This is a numbers game, the more the better. Enough now. For the moment I am happy that we have such great people in our little group that keep the dojo running while I am away. For that I am very grateful. I have also spent some great time with great people, some of which I only met now, others which I have seen again, just before and on this trip. I hope to write about them and these experiences another time. Now off to teaching my first ever seminar in Frankfurt amongst many good friends and fellow Budoka.



Loy, D., & Stanley, J. (2009). A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.