Sustainability is a value that is relevant not only to our planet, the external world, but also to our internal world. The deterioration of our environment is a clear outward manifestation of ways of living that are unsustainable. The cultural values that have led to the destruction of our planet are an extension of deeply held, often unconscious, beliefs.
Living a hectic life has become standard, so that not only our outer lives are busy, but our inner world is also racing even whilst we are sitting still or apparently resting. In his book “Awakening of the Heart”, Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master, says, “The practice of resting, stopping, is crucial. If we cannot rest, it is because we have not stopped. We have continued to run. We started running a long time ago. We even continue to run in our sleep. We think that happiness and well-being are not possible in the here and the now. That belief is inherent in us. We have received the seed of that belief from our parents and our grandparents. They struggled all of their lives and believed that happiness was only possible in the future. That’s why, when we were children, we already had the habit of running…But the teaching of the Buddha is that you can be happy right here, right now.”
This state of constantly running is unsustainable, creating a nervous system that is off balance. Our nervous system consists of two branches, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight and flight, and the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the relaxation response. Health and wellbeing depend on these two switching on and off but our busy lifestyle over-engages the sympathetic branch leaving the parasympathetic branch severely under-engaged. Anxiety, insomnia, emotional and physical exhaustion are the more obvious results. Chronic illness also results.
At a more subtle level, an addictive relationship to busyness and activity develop. Being busy and constantly doing becomes a way of “filling” one’s life and oneself up, a way of seeking happiness as we try to ensure ways of feeling a ‘charge’ – through new accomplishments and achievements, new objects, new people, new places, new knowledge. Underneath our busy lives are gaping wounds of loneliness, disconnectedness, emptiness. Persisting in busyness and constant activity or consumption only worsen these.
A sustainable life has a balance of stillness and activity, of Being and Doing. Taking time to be still and practicing present moment awareness is a great way to balance our lives. Since our bodies are always in the present moment (while our minds almost always on the move) we can practice present moment awareness by bringing our awareness to our bodies – to our in- and out-breath, for example.
Meditating each day in this way is an excellent way to begin to make our life sustainable. Even taking time to pause several times a day, to let ourselves rest and breathe consciously, allows our nervous systems to settle and rebalance during a busy day, protecting us from going to those extremes of stress and exhaustion. Spiritually, we enrich and nourish ourselves by meditating and pausing because we get in touch with the ‘open sky’ within us. “This is our birthright – the wisdom with which we were born, the vast unfolding display of primordial richness, primordial openness, primordial wisdom itself. All that is necessary then is to rest undistractedly in the immediate present, in this very instant in time….We train in returning to the unchanging heart of this present moment. All compassion and all inspiration come from that.” Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, pp 106-107.
Over time, we can learn to live mindfully more often than not, taking pauses in our day to ground ourselves and find the stillness deep within. This is indeed possible with daily practice and the support of a community. The reward of a life more balanced between Being and Doing, stillness and activity, is feeling grounded, calm and connected to oneself. When we are connected to ourselves we also feel connected to the Whole and loneliness lessens, becoming much less scary. We stop looking solely for external sources of validation, comfort and love. We come to value ourselves and feel more secure. We stop needing to run. We learn that happiness is possible in the here and now. We enlighten ourselves. From here we learn how to truly care for our planet.
Milagros Paredes of Shiatsu Milagrosa, LLC, is a certified shiatsu therapist, focusing on healing through cultivating mindfulness through body-centered awareness. For more information call 734-904-0137, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit milagrosashiatsu.com.