Next month I will be launching a new year long course called the Give Back Generation programme. Full details can be found on the website here, however here is a little piece I have written explaining my decision to run this new course and the ethos and principles it is built upon.
If you have been looking for inspiration and motivation to find your own way of making a difference, I really encourage you to think about joining. It might just be exaclty what you’ve been waiting for.
Last year the 13th of August 2015 was “Overshoot day”. Overshoot is a notion identified by the World Wildlife Foundation as part of their “Living Planet Index” that calculates the day of the year that Humanity as a whole for that year has consumed everything the planet will be able to replenish in that year. What it means is that from 13th August until 31st December last year, we ran on ‘resource overdraft.’ Literally we wrote cheques our planet can’t cash! Starting around 1970 we crossed an invisible boundary, where for the first time in history we consumed more natural resource in a year than the planet was capable of replenishing.
I teach hundreds of people each year 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 and realistic long term vision. It seems that life has become so high paced, pressurised and stressful, that there is a deep sense that we all need to come up for air, catch our breath, and take stock. It is taking so much out of us to acquire the things we need to make life satisfying, that all too often we have little energy left to enjoy the good fortune that we have.
Best selling author and New York Times journalist Chris Hedges, in his brutally honest book, “The World as it Is”, quite simply 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 crisis we face but a spiritual and moral crisis. The man made world is holding sway over the natural order of things, and our lives are ever more held together by the things that we create, and ever less so as a reflection of our connection to that natural order and the intelligence behind it, which is what we actually depend upon for our security.
Whilst almost everywhere there seems to be indications that we might have to embrace a wholesale change in the way we set out our lives, we have yet to find the kind of determination to seek the solutions that are being asked or demanded of us.
There is of course a lot of positive movement in many quarters to seek out solutions to our problems, but all too often such initiatives are occurring on the fringes of society. It is all too easy to reflect upon the challenges we face and feel that we are facing an insurmountable problem, which 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 down. We must remember now the 100th monkey effect and simply find the courage to seek to embrace change at a personal or folk level.
The movement towards change is going to be a folk movement, and the real revolution is going to have to start in our own hearts and minds as we look deeply at how we each of us have come to the point that we are at and bravely and imaginatively seek solutions. Rather than waiting to see what our leaders are going to do and which way our economy is going to go. Our first step is to make a personal resolution to place our longing for peace and happiness at the head of our agenda.
I am always being asked for advice on how people can improve their feeling of contentment and personal meaning. I can honestly say that in fifteen years I can count on one hand the number of people for whom the answer to this question isn’t just “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 close to being happy. He who is of many needs and hard to serve is far from being happy.
Over the years, many people have come on retreat to learn meditation and almost all of them are hoping that meditation will in some way enrich their lives. 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 to not expect to take out more than you put in.”
Meditation is a means rather than the ends. 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, of harmlessness, and accountability.
When you start to re-establish your connection to the life that you are actually a part of, you will start to see that your real needs are far fewer than you might think, and daily when you wake up you’ll recognise that you are a part of something rare, precious and extraordinary. While we are more connected than ever before through technology and social media, in our intoxication with ourselves and our need to be seen, we are losing touch with that place in the heart where we’re all connected and what it is that we are connected to.
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 start to let go 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 a lack of the necessary support, whether at a financial, spiritual or community level. While I have been teaching these principles over the last fifteen years, I feel the time has come to offer a tangible, living model, from which a community can emerge, putting theory into practice and leading by example.
The result is Dharma Vihara, our new retreat centre in the French Pyrenees. It is not principally a place for people to come and learn meditation, although many do. We have a full retreat schedule in the UK for this purpose. Rather, Dharma Vihara is designed as a halfway house for people seeking to transition into a simpler, more sustainable life, built on ethical principles of sharing, caring and contribution. Our aim is to give people an opportunity to fully imbibe the profound healing effect of living simply in nature while exploring the balance between spiritual practice, co-operative service and the delight in being alive.
There is an organisation called Escape the City which helps burnt out executives from London find more rewarding jobs. In a sign of the times, it has more than 200,000 subscribers. In a sense, Dharma Vihara is the ultimate Escape the City. One of the students who joined our inaugural 3 month retreat funded her whole experience through renting out her flat in London. Not only did this pay for her entire stay out here but she returned home with money in her pockets. Another student, rather than being overwhelmed by a challenging divorce, has moved here and is running his business in the peace of the mountain air, while the legal wranglings are formalised back in London. In doing so, he has found a way to do in three hours a day online, what was before taking him all day, everyday, in an over-powered office in central London, leaving half the day to explore, help out or meditate.
By sharing resources, eating together and being powered by renewable energy, we are all investigating a pathway to a more sustainable and simpler way of life, whilst replenishing our depleted minds and bodies from the exhausting pace and demands of modern life. We are reducing our impact and we are not frying our heads. Indeed, the natural space we are in is crystal clear, allowing consciousness to thrive. Everyone here gets a thorough digital detox and the opportunity to unplug yet reconnect.
The world so needs each of us to start giving back. To live in such a way that our presence here is neither a burden to the planet or those around us is to succeed in life.
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 200 years ago. In the past 50 years, more resource has been consumed than in the whole of history before us.
With our new communities retreat in the Pyrenees we are investigating how we can embody the kind of changes that are being pointed at. We are not alone. All around there are people gathering at a folk 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, point the way to a more sustainable and enriching way of life. Each of these communities, like us, are hoping to offer micro solutions that could have macro implications.
We are all intelligent enough to see what is happening to us, if we are willing to pay attention. But our welfare in the future will not be built on understanding alone, it will be built on conduct and choices. We are living, 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, each of us as individuals, together as groups, and as a species, seeking to secure our long term future, survival and happiness upon this earth.
A cluttered and overcomplicated life leaves little room for contentedness, happiness and inner peace. The more we have around us, the more vexing it is to maintain. 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, whilst learning to be of few needs and easy to serve, 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.