For this blog I thought I’d share a transcript of a short talk I gave at our last retreat in Cornwall. It investigates how our meditation can become an act of generosity in our current time of great consumption in the face of a climate emergency. I hope you enjoy.
Meditation as an Act of Generosity
So what’s the difference between meditating now and meditating when the Buddha was alive and was teaching us to meditate?
Why would it be of more merit for us to do this now than it was back then and it’s not that it’s harder?
The cost of a human life back then was completely affordable to the planet – the cost of a fortunate human life back then was completely affordable to the planet. So when folk renounced their life and went forth into the life of asceticism or homelessness they were doing so only for the purpose of the pursuit of their cessation of suffering; now of course in doing so, when we free ourselves from suffering, we also stop causing suffering to others so there’s tremendous merit in doing it. But now, these days, every one of us who makes the decision to step out of a complicated hard to uphold life into a life of simplicity … it’s not just a spiritual act … but actually it’s an act of generosity because we won’t, in doing so, take out what the planet can’t afford us to take out, and that is an extraordinary thing. There’s probably a tendency to see the act of renunciation in this day and age as something of being a dropout: ‘I would be a dropout to give everything up and go forth into a life of simplicity’. – But I would say that at this time, in this day and age, to do so is probably the most courageous thing anyone can do and it’s the greatest act of generosity that we could possibly make… I mean, how much more could you give, than to say, “I’m not going to consume what I would have consumed in this lifetime” now that’s something to think about.
Last month they’re been great demonstrations on the streets of London: Everybody’s saying: “Tell us what’s going on!?” “What about change?!” – Asking the government to change things, asking for changes in policy. But what are the government going to do? Force us to stop consuming stuff? At the end of the day the only solution is to take less out, to stop consuming. Why do we have to go and ask the government to tell us that? We can all choose to take less out.
As the Buddha said, one who is of few needs and easy to serve treads lightly doesn’t need much and is very close to being happy; while we are of many needs and hard to please, our needs are great and it is hard to make us happy. So what we do when we sit on this cushion and we change the makeup of our mind is we change our character because we change what is driving and motivating us. We change to the point where we find simple pleasures in simple things; where we are easy to serve and quickly satisfied. It’s not a cop-out to find pleasure in simple things. That work that we do on the cushion now ripens us for a simpler life, it opens us up to the idea. It’s inevitable that what happens to you when you realise where peace, happiness and contentment, actually lie, is that you realise that the more complex and hard to uphold and maintain your life is, the harder it is to find peace. So you naturally choose simplicity, in stages, as you recognise where happiness lies. This means giving up what you don’t need isn’t something that is a sacrifice, it’s something one chooses to do joyfully at a time when right now, we’re being asked to give up what we don’t need. Every one sees it in terms of a sacrifice. Well, it probably would be if the government did turn around and say “you’ve got to consume 20% of the carbon that you’re currently consuming” – everyone would be in an uproar wouldn’t they!
So there we are on the streets protesting saying “we need to change!” But most people if they are told to change wouldn’t like it, would they, because we don’t like being told what to do! So I suggest we don’t wait for the government to come to some conclusion that austerity is the measure because we would vote them out of power if they decided that that’s what we had to do! … But what if it was something that you decided to do anyway: “Do you know what I’ve got to do, I’ve got to give it back!!” And not only that, but: ‘What a relief it would be to just give it back!’
The closer you get to finding peace within yourself, the less you need to surround yourself with to find that peace. So, what you’ll end up doing is going, “Goodness me, I’m done with having this stuff why have I got all this stuff around me, oh my goodness it’s just in the way!”.
Well yes it’s in the way. Give it away.
Every person who said “I’m in” back in the time of the Buddha and got on and went and did the work and freed themselves from suffering, them stepping off the wheel was an extraordinary thing for them but not such an extraordinary thing for humanity as a whole, because they weren’t very expensive to have here.
When you look at the cost of every single one of us now … how long is it going take to put everything back? Hmmn, probably longer than we’ve got. But when you say “I’m going to live off a bowl of food a day, simple shelter, share my food with friends, have some good companions, and put the rest of my time and energy into putting something back into the land or into the planet that’s creaking on account of what we’ve taken out of it”, then suddenly, that act of renunciation becomes an extraordinary act of generosity.
It works twofold doesn’t it: “Not only do I not take out the massive amount that I was going to take out, but in the time that’s left not pursuing more, I should look in/at terms of giving back.”
So it has a double effect; so now is a good time to practice Dharma, because each one of you that comes to the conclusion, “Do you know what… I don’t need these things i keep consuming!” and either gives them away or stops doing what they don’t need to, that’s a step in the right direction. Everything we stop taking out, everything we give back, everything we put back, is a step in the right direction.
That’s our Dana, that’s our generosity, hopefully.
Is it the case that as our consumption’s gone up, that we got that much happier? Is that the case? Would you say we’re 10 – 50 times happier than we were a couple of hundred years ago?
As the Buddha suggested; He who is of few needs and easy to serve is close to being happy and close to being free.
Actually if you look at what happens to us when we sit on that cushion: gradually, the insight that comes to us is; ‘I am of less needs than I thought I was and I could be easier to serve…’ And so slowly the process of sitting in meditation, doing something as boring as feeling your thumb, not being able to distract yourself with the sort of pleasures that you use to distract yourself, not being able to distract yourself from yourself starts to work on you, until you get to the point where you can really be with yourself. When you can really be with yourself you realise you don’t need to add very much!
How many of you in a quiet moment have already found yourself just sitting and just looking out or the window after your meditation, or something, and whilst quietly just being there, not adding anything you’ve started to feel the most happy as you’ve felt?
The point is: the reason we have to take so much out is because we just can’t bear to be with ourselves. And that’s what meditation is; sitting on this cushion all day long with nothing to do: it’s an exercise in learning to be with yourself so that by the time you get to the point where you can do it, everything is complete.
So right now, what we are being asked is ‘ what do I need and could I give up what I don’t need?’ Rather than being told to do it, and then going: ‘really?! that’s not fair because it’s mine, it’s my right, I’m entitled to that! How can you take that away from me?!” – What happens if you just said: “Yes go on, have it! I don’t need it…” and just gave it away.
So that’s why meditating now is of great merit. Look: If you do it and it leads you to give up your elaborate life and live a simpler life now, that has more of an effect and is more significant than it was back when the planet could afford to have everybody on it consuming as much as they could possibly take out.
So yes, it’s big thing!
To be of fewer needs and to be easier to serve makes you easier to carry.
And it costs a lot to have us here.
This is why it’s very important to meditate now.