When astronauts sent back images of Earth from outer space, for the first time we were able to see our home from the outside. Picture it now: a blue sphere suspended amidst an infinite ink-black backdrop, swirling with oceans, clouds, forests and deserts.
Home is where the heart is, and each time I see this image, I feel warmth and love.
Recently at a conference I attended, hosted by the New Economy Network Australia, the keynote speaker deftly unpacked the madness of our current economic system: designed to grow perpetually on a finite planet, extractive and linear in its function rather than cyclical like nature, generating toxic waste into our oceans, rivers and land, widening the chasm between the haves and have-nots, re-framing us as consumers and not citizens, and drawing down a massive debt on future thrivability for all species, ourselves included. Then on the screen, up flashed an image of our beautiful home amidst the stars. He paused for a beat, and said, ‘If you look at Earth from space, you can’t see the economy!’
How have we ended up with this problem, in which our systems for living are at odds with the truth of our existence, namely that we are all of the Earth, we have only this home, and we are all in it together? If we love our Earth, why don’t we live as if we do?
Underlying the systemic challenges we face in these turbulent and unsustainable times are deeper cultural issues. Culture can be experienced as the differences we see between regions when we travel, or the norms of behaviour and etiquette of any group. Yet under their surface, cultures are underpinned by a set of stories, world-views, beliefs and values that answer fundamental questions about who we are, how we got here, where we’re going, and how this world works. From these shared narratives arise our ways of living together.
Whilst there are 7.5 billion unique world-views, there are common patterns and dominant narratives that have lead to our complicity in current systems. For example, in one way or another, we all play a part in the story of perpetual growth that underlies our economy. We also have stories of how we relate with our Earth home. Whilst we might love nature, the dominant narratives that have emerged since our hunter-gatherer days see us as separate from Mother Earth. And the modern story of ‘me’ threatens to supersede the story of ‘we’, as we are conditioned to pursue self-interest ahead of what is good for the whole.
Fortunately, our stories, and thus our systems for livingare created by us, and so we have the opportunity to change them in order to find ways of living more harmoniously with Earth. But changing stories isn’t as simple as closing the book we have been reading from and opening a new one. Our own world-views are deeply embodied, entangled with our own identities, the habit patterns of our minds, and our somatic knowing and being. Our collective stories are reinforced and perpetuated through the outer world constructs of our societies: our businesses, politics, economics and media, as well as the social norms of our conversations and daily interactions. We are bombarded with messages to consume, for example, and then we delight in each other’s new consumptive purchases.
This is where the work of cultivating inner consciousness becomes so relevant. As we pursue the path of contemplative practice and awaken to our true selves as well as to the world around us, we can become more aware of our own subtly-held stories. As our awareness becomes more fine-grained, we begin to observe the impermanence of our thoughts, and the recurring habit patterns of our mind and emotions. We can notice where we hold on tightly to existing world-views as if they are solid objects. We can feel more acutely the anger or resistance coursing through our bodies when our world-views are triggered. Meditation, time with nature or other forms of regular contemplation become valuable practice for transforming our own narratives.
The Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra in the Zen tradition says that ‘Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form’. This non-dual wisdom reveals the dependent co-arising between our thinking and world-views, and the outer world we live in. It invites us to practice suspending our attachment to the way things should be, and to hold more lightly the stories we see as truth as we also begin to see the world around us anew.
As we do so we become more able to participate in transforming shared cultural narratives through our conversations, modelling and behaviour, and through actions and projects we might pursue toward more life-giving systems.
For some, contemplative practice is new, and it can be difficult to know where to start. For others, they are clear that meditation is not for them. Yet there are many forms of contemplative practice that suit different preferences and can provide the kinds of benefits outlined above. The Tree of Contemplative Practices is a simple visual map of different forms of practice: ones that are more active, more creative or relational, some that feel more compelling or interesting than others.
Contemplative practice has an important part to play in bringing forth new stories about how to live in this world in harmony with all of life, so that together, through our inner lives and our systems for living, we can love and regenerate this blue Earth, our one and only home.