Humanity stands at an interesting juncture at the start of the 21st Century. We overflow with knowledge and have a global middle class with unrestricted access to it. People across the world enjoy the political freedom to conduct their lives relatively unhindered. But neither this available knowledge, nor the freedom to act upon it has helped us collectively reverse a globally destructive course we have cumulatively embarked upon.
We are losing species from human disrupted environments at rates that have many leading biologists considering this age a period of mass extinction—one of only five the world has seen in 3.5 billion years of life.
None of this is happening quietly. Across the globe are tens of thousands of advocates working to set a more sustainable course. But combined, all the solutions have amounted to paltry patches, which, while inspiring on their own scale, are like mites trying to move a mountain. We know we have a big problem. But it’s one that we are collectively unable to do anything about.
On paper how to help the environment seems easy. But in the current state of our individual realities, they are not achievable because our environmental woes are symptoms of us. How can you ask a population struggling to take care of itself to look after their environment? “People are crippled by a cycle of suffering,” says Kobi, the found of The Vagabond Temple, a yoga retreat center in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Kobi is part of a global movement of introspection emerging in Western contexts as recoil to our current state of existential affairs. Religious historian Karen Armstrong thinks that today, “We are finding that the traditional ways of experiencing the sacred and discovering and ultimate meaning in our lives are either difficult or impossible” (Buddha, 2004).
Kobi agrees that our individual cycles of personal dilemmas are the microcosms affecting our larger environmental problems. Between obesity rates, fast food delirium, antidepressant consumption, lives trapped in corporate rat races, it’s not difficult to see the analogy between our suffering on an individual level and the problems we are collectively causing our planet. Thoreau hit on it when he remarked, “Most [people] live lives of quiet desperation.”
Environmental solutions that focus solely on political policy miss the underlying causes of the problem. Kobi recalls not only having once been part of what he calls, “the rat race life,” but enjoying it. But a trip to India started a chain of events that led him to embark on a path that culminated in his to co-founding The Vagabond Temple to help others help themselves. “It’s disharmony that we live in,” he says. “It’s keeping us away from our own natures. If each individual would take care of themselves, there would be less abuse of the earth.” By fostering healthy, aware individuals in control of their lives, environmental consciousness is a short step away.
It’s true, our problems exist on the level of the actors — industry, government, market driven energy solutions, etc., but seen from the ground up, these are logical outcomes of who we collectively are.
Kobi and the Vagabond Temple are not per se environmental activists, but any center which leads to healthier, more aware people is building a foundation for a cleaner, more balanced world.
Howard Thurman’s often repeated quotation hits home this point perfectly: “Don’t ask what the world needs, but ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is for people to come alive.” What the earth needs is its people to take better care of it. This isn’t possible as long as it’s a world of people struggling to take care of themselves.
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