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Posts Tagged ‘green dharma’

When my son, Alexander, was a child we often took walks around the village of Alfred on Sunday mornings. We had no agenda, other than to spend some time together and to explore our surroundings.

Being closer to the ground, Alexander sometimes noticed things that I overlooked. On one April morning, he spotted two crumpled plastic cups near Seidlin Hall. They reeked of stale beer. “Who put those there?” he asked.

“Thoughtless people,” I replied.

A few weeks later, Alexander noticed some crushed soda cans in the Kanakadea Creek. “It must have been the Thoughtless People,” he concluded. In his imagination, I surmised, the Thoughtless People had become a band of feckless nincompoops, who roved the streets of Alfred, New York, dropping refuse wherever they went.

Perhaps he was not far wrong. But in retrospect, I wonder whether my response to his question, however fatherly, was all that wise. At best, it was incomplete.

If there are Thoughtless People, there must also be Thoughtful People. The one implies the other. In my eagerness to teach a moral lesson, I had created a moral duality, from which my six-year-old son had fashioned an image of his own. In the technical language of philosophy, he had reified an abstraction. On the one side were the Thoughtless People, on the other the Thoughtful People. People who know better. People like ourselves.

Twelve years earlier, Joni Mitchell had done something similar in her song “Big Yellow Taxi.” In that 1970 song Joni complained that an unspecified “they” had “paved paradise / and put in a parking lot”. In a subsequent verse she admonished farmers to “put away that D.D.T.” before it destroyed “the birds and the bees.” On the one side of her moral polarity stood avaricious developers and pesticide-wielding farmers; on the other, the trees, birds, and bees—and virtuous enviromentalists like herself.

To be sure, such polarities serve a practical purpose. Certain people, and certain aggregates of people, tend to be greedy, thoughtless, and destructive. For the sake of ethical clarity, if not also for the common good, it is sometimes necessary to call a spade a spade: to identify such people and such groups, using the familiar language of dualistic thought.

The danger lies in reifying our abstractions, which is to say, in mistaking our moral categories for reality. And one of the benefits of meditation, regularly practiced, is to reveal to us that in the flux of undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of moral concepts, there are no Thoughtless or Thoughtful People. There are only actions, our own and others’—actions that have an impact on the web of life.

In his book Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it this way:

In any given moment, we are either practicing mindfulness or, de facto, we are practicing mindlessness. When framed in this way, we might want to take more responsibility for how we meet the world, inwardly and outwardly in any and every moment—especially given that there just aren’t any “in-between” moments in our lives.*

Viewing the past in this perspective, we can recognize and regret our thoughtless and destructive actions without being held forever in their thrall.  But by the same token, we can no longer take refuge in images of ourselves as Thoughtful—or Mindful—People. At any future moment, our words and deeds may be thoughtful or thoughtless, mindful or mindless. And much will depend on the difference.

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*Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses (Hyperion, 2005), 71.

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