It was the first time in many years that I spent Christmas staying at my mum’s home in rural Dorset, the area in which I spent my childhood. Christmas can be a noisy family time, especially this year with four adults and two excited young children packed into a small house.
Each morning I was awake at 5.30 am, staring into the darkness, adjusting my eyes and listening to the silence before getting up and tiptoeing out of the room and down the stairs to sit zazen online with the Chosei Zen community. There is something slightly magical about mid-winter in the higher reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, the short days and long hours of darkness, with the sun rising around 8.00 am and setting soon after 3.30 pm. Stonehenge lies not far from my mother’s house, where our prehistoric ancestors laid out a ring of stones to celebrate these circadian rhythms. The Christain carol Silent night, holy night rings out in my ears; I chuckle as I open my lap and light floods the room, All is calm, All is bright. The 30 minutes of sitting turn into something profoundly beautiful, way beyond the reach of the commercial trappings of Christmas. It is as though something weighty hangs in the air, pulling me down towards a deep inner peace, bringing a profound meaning to the silence.
There is also something spellbinding being in a house full of childhood memories. Maybe I have always been a morning person, but the time of rising for zazen coincides with my teenage years when I would get up and head out in the dark on a cold Christmas morning to scour the fields to bring the cows home to milk. The realisation comes to me that, unlike my children, my early years were a gift of living in the present, with nothing other than my own mind to pull me away. I listen to the pulse of the pump as I lean into a cow and attach the milking machine. A moment of lost concentration, a thought drags me away as the cold bites my numb fingers, like the stick of a zen master, the cow kicks out, narrowly missing my cheek, ensuring I remain awake at this early hour.
This reflection carries a growing concern about bringing up young children in a world of distraction, where everything seems to be aimed at pulling them from that precious peace. Back in London a few weeks earlier, we had taken the children to visit Hamleys Toy Shop, known as ‘The Finest Toy Shop in the World. The shop is six floors of every conceivable toy you can imagine highly packaged to catch the eye of each passing child. Fraught parents followed eager children, desperately negotiating how to acquire their next must-have toy. No one looked happy. An image arose in my mind of children opening Christmas presents sitting on a snow-covered peak on a mountain of landfill. What had it taken to produce this stuff, and where would it end its life?
Regular zazen practice undoubtedly brings insight, enabling us to see beyond the distractions that prevent us from witnessing the reality in which we live. But in addition to zazen, we also need the occasional whack from the stick of the Zen master, or in my case, some piercing words from the 95-year-old Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. In his new book, Zen and The Art of Saving The Planet, published during COP26 ‘The UN Climate Change Conference’, he hits me in the opening chapter with the words, “If you see the suffering in the world, but you haven’t changed your way of living yet, it means the awakening isn’t strong enough. You haven’t really woken up.” WHACK, a blow from the stick of the Zen master himself. Yes, I see the suffering and the future suffering to come as global warming heats our planet. The pain we face over the next few decades as people lose their homes to rising sea levels, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, and droughts. Populations migrating as they look for new homes increasing tensions in countries where immigration is already seen as problematic. I repeat the question several times, have I changed the way I live? Finally, I take to the cushion, have I changed the way I live?
Community living during a week-long Sesshin at Spring Green is probably the closest I get to living without borrowing too much from the planet itself. Sesshin is a great leveller, bringing you into direct contact with nature, stripping away life’s non-essentials. It teaches us that it is possible to live a happy life with little. During a week of training, we travel nowhere, we sleep and practise under one roof, eat vegetarian food, share bathwater, the tea we drink is used to wash our bowls at mealtimes and other than our Gi and Hakama (robes), we have no clothes to wash. Yes, you could say sesshin is an eco-friendly, highly efficient way of living. Knowing how much I can strip away, I ask myself the question again, ‘have I changed the way I live’. I hear myself saying, ‘not really, but I do enough’ I recycle, turn off lights, buy food without packaging, and compost the vegetable peelings, my mind trying hard to convince me that I am doing something. And many would say something is better than nothing, which I agree with for those with no insight! But with insight comes the need for action; otherwise, the understanding is a waste. A million species are in the balance over the next 70 years, including our own race.
The world needs radical change, and that change has to begin with each of us. The Superheros sitting on the shelves in Hamley’s Toy Store will not arrive and save the world single-handedly. Instead, we need to create new stories for our children based on teamship, community, and collective energy. Even Superheros cannot change the world if they cannot change our way of thinking, our consciousness. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Collective change in our way of thinking and seeing things is crucial; Without it, we cannot expect the world to change.”
First, we must be fully awake to give those we lead any sort of chance. And if we believe we are already awake, perhaps we can begin 2022 by asking ourselves, is the awakening significant enough to change the way we live? We are the one’s that future generations are counting on!
The article was first published by The Institute Zen Leadership – January 2022 – https://zenleader.global