For the Woman Picking Litter from the Beach
Her task is vast—in fact impossible, so why is she humming as she snatches plastic bits from drift wrack all along the high-tide line?
Glum lovers pass, their world of finite joy already waning, while her future’s filled with a clear calling ahead and a clean set of tracks behind.*
I’ve been thinking about the term “virtuous.” Many Chinese analysts are worried about failing economic growth in their country, which has been hit hard by US trade tariffs. Consumer spending needs to increase, they say, to feed into what they describe as a “virtuous cycle,” in which spending generates more spending. (The Guardian)
That expression made me laugh. I’m delighted to hear that shoppers are making different choices; that they are buying fewer new smartphones, watches, homes, and designer handbags; that they travel less and have fewer children. Their motivation is probably pragmatic, neither vicious nor virtuous, but it gives me hope nevertheless. It is so clearly self-destructive to act as if the planet has limitless resources.
I’ve been wondering what would constitute a truly “virtuous cycle.” Unlike a few centuries ago, these days we don’t like to be called “virtuous.” The term has implications of doing something “worthy”—mainly in order to be seen as such by others. But looking at the root meaning: acting in accordance with high moral standards, it could be a recipe for happiness, particularly when we filter out the “high” (a hook for our inner judge, always on the lookout for opportunities to lower you).
Research has shown that it pays off in terms of physical, emotional, mental, and planetary wellbeing to orient ourselves around moral principles or values, such as being pro-ecological, altruistic, and frugal. On days when I eat fewer sugary and fatty foods, I feel healthier, more content, and confident. Not eating meat gives me a sense of peace. I enjoy doing an extra turn of housework, picking up the odd piece of litter, or phoning a lonely person. Nobody else needs to know, it just feels wholesome, quietly joyous, and connected.
And while it hurts a little, I still say “no” to the temptation to fly to some warm, exotic holiday destination, even as many of my friends do so. Why does it hurt? Well, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to miss out or be left behind. I want what others have and do. I want what is displayed in stunning images in magazines and on social media. Being left behind is a primal mammalian fear and one the advertising industry capitalizes on. But as soon as I stop and mindfully enquire into my actual experience, I discover that beneath the (relative) sense of deprivation there is a quiet satisfaction from knowing that I have acted in accordance with my values. I feel good knowing that suffering in the world has been reduced through my action, or inaction, in some unspecific, yet certain way. That sense of caring connection and integrity, once I allow myself to fully sense these qualities in my body-mind, provides an intrinsic reward. Feeling the satisfaction of “leaving a clean set of tracks behind,” as the poem above says, feeds the “virtuous cycle” and I am more likely to resist the next cunningly calculated lure to spend money on things I don’t need.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t give in to cravings. I do. I adore dark hazelnut chocolate; easy Netflix entertainment at the end of a long day; browsing eBay for particular clothing brands. I do my best to be mindful and not judge myself too harshly. Craving is a powerful desire for something that we hope will assuage the pain of a perceived lack, and the Buddha saw it as the root of suffering. Absorbing the benefits of virtuous actions alone is not enough to break the spell of deficiency. To the degree that we are in the grip of an illusory, separate, unchanging self, we will feel isolated and wanting.
A pioneer of deep ecology and systems theory, Fritjof Capra talks about the way life on this planet has always organized itself into communities. The first bacteria that came into being 3 billion years ago formed communities, and the same has happened at every stage of evolution or, more accurately, co-evolution since. The oceans, the atmosphere, plant and animal life, all arose interdependently.
Some say that climate change is eliciting a change in human consciousness. Twenty years ago my husband and I attempted to set up an ecovillage. It didn’t work out as a housing project, but it grew a community and sowed the seeds for compassionate communication (Marshall Rosenbergs’s NVC, Nonviolent Communication)  and systems thinking. I remember interminable planning meetings in which the internal tension between the lone, heroic leader/artist/meditator in me and the patient participant in a slower, complex, emergent group process was excruciating.
Over time—and with the help of a variety of contemplative, body-based, and communicative practices—transformations took hold and I now feel tangibly different in group situations. It’s hard to describe: it feels as if I am looking at people more softly, from the backs of my eyes, and speaking from the relaxed back of my body, or from a sense of intertwined roots in the depths of the Earth. I have come to enjoy and trust this sense of connection much more; my leadership style is more participatory and I am quickly alerted to any internal reaction and retraction into self-protective, dualistic, right/wrong thinking.
Our planet cannot survive as a life-friendly environment without more of us awakening to the truth of our interconnectedness, which leads to gladly curbing our desires and following, in Stafford’s words, our “clear calling.” Community is the key to this transformation. I see not just a solitary woman picking up rubbish from the beach, but a community of happy litter-pickers, building up a rhythm aligned with the roll and rumble of the rocks and the sea.
“But is it not too late?” some may question. “What’s the point if there is only a 5 per cent chance, as some scientists say, that we manage to remain below the critical 1.5-degree global warming limit?” The Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy thinks it is a distraction to think in terms of hope, or to put too much weight on optimism. I need to put my mind where I want it to be and to do what is right, as part of a community.
“We must make time for community,” Macy said during a recent summit on climate change and community organized by the Global Ecovillage Network, “and take on this nourishing of each other. What we have got is the raw edge of consciousness together; we are 100 per cent present now and don’t ask for reassurance and certainty.”
For me, one of the most powerful experiences of transforming consciousness from fearful separation into a joyful sense of interconnectedness that leads to action is to partake in the “Work That Reconnects,” (WTR) developed by Joann Macy. Last year, after spending the best part of a week co-leading a WTR retreat I felt better about myself in relation to the world than ever before, and so did the other participants Yes, there will be cataclysmic changes for humans and other living beings, yet I am confident I can live through this time with integrity, love, and courage.