On 1 November, I took a sacred vow: to sit in the center of our town in silent meditation for an hour each day for a full year. I will wear a sign round my neck with a vividly colored picture of the Earth from space and beneath it the words: “With love and grief for the Earth.” I will keep my eyes closed and have an information sheet nearby that passersby can read if they choose.
My plan is to sit every day that I possibly can until 1 November 2021, when COP26 convenes in Glasgow, Scotland. Today I completed my first month. How has it been?
My first surprise was how vulnerable I felt. As I left the house that first morning for my spot on the pavement at the top of Great Malvern, England, my heart was banging. That anxiety persisted during the first week, recurring every morning and only slowly fading as I sat in silence. I have many experiences of eco-activism, but these actions have always been with a group; being alone was a different variety of scary. Even sitting quietly on a pavement can be revolutionary if you are carrying a message that is counter to the mores of the current culture.
Alongside this vulnerability of “what will people think of me?” was an irrational fear of being hurt by someone. Great Malvern is moneyed and polite—it is not a hotbed of crime. I knew with my rational brain that it was unlikely that anyone would try to steal the beautiful hourglass next to me or shout obscenities at me, let alone hurt me physically. Still, as I sat meditating with my eyes closed, I felt that I was making an offering of myself to the people of the town—I can’t see you, so you can do what you want to me: look at me however you want, think of me however you want, get as close to me as you want.
Sitting with my eyes closed was quite a challenge to the part of me that likes to control how others see me. Usually, when I am doing something that might be seen as controversial, I am always ready with a warm smile and a willingness to answer questions. I work hard to bring people “on side,” and I’m good at inferring people’s objections and skilfully countering them. Here, I am letting people make up their own minds entirely. I heard footsteps, which meant that people were occasionally stopping to read my information sheet, but most didn’t. And as they passed I didn’t even get to see their reaction.
Now that I’ve had some practice, I am finding this lack of opportunity to manipulate very freeing. I suspect that the parts of me in charge of this manipulation overestimate their effect, anyway. These are the parts that would choose the most flattering photo for social media, or that drop in gentle compliments when dealing with a conflict. These methods do have an effect, and maybe there’s a place for them sometimes—skillful means in order to achieve something good—but what I have noticed over time is that people don’t buy it anyway. They judge us by our actions, not by our “smooth patter.” They see through us. We do what we do, and they have their reaction. What a relief to let go of trying to control the reactions of others and just get on with doing what I think is right.
As I sit, I use the phrase “Dear Earth” as an internal mantra. I silently say the words “dear” as my breath comes in and “Earth” as it goes out. This reminds me of why I am here and brings me back from the thousands of streams of thought that constantly tempt me. It also helps connect me to the amazing beast right underneath me—4.5 billion years old and 5.9 trillion trillion kilograms. Waterfalls and wild cats, salmon and snow-capped mountains. Imagine!
There are gifts as I sit, both from my fellow humans who occasionally say “thank you” or “keep it up” as they walk past, and from my fellow animals as I catch a burst of a blackbird’s song or the familiar patter of dog paws nearby. The weather has also felt like a gift. I have discovered that I like to leave my hat and mittens off, if possible, flirting with the edges of “too cold;” it feels good to be in a closer relationship with the temperature and the breeze. I enjoy the sensual treat of raindrops dripping like tears onto my forehead, or the sound of pitter-pattering as they land on my excellently waterproof hood. I enjoy the gusts that blow fallen leaves against me.
As I finish my first month, I am clear that my daily sitting is the right thing for me to do. Others might disagree and think that my energy would be better deployed elsewhere—into planting trees, blocking roads, or becoming a politician. They will question the math: how many people have seen me and changed their behaviour? How easily do their eyes slide over me? Sometimes I will also question the math myself, when it’s cold and raining, or when I don’t feel well. That’s okay.
I made this vow for dear Earth, and for the Buddha. Regardless of anything else, I see them smiling when I prepare my seat on the empty streets of a quiet Sunday morning, and when I turn my hourglass on a busy Wednesday before Christmas. I see them smiling when my legs get pins and needles and when my fingertips go numb in the cold. I see them smiling when I open my eyes to see a chocolate coin on the pavement in front of me, or when a man asks incredulously if I’ll even be here on Christmas day. I will. It’s only a very small thing, from the perspective of this 5.9 trillion trillion kilogram ecosystem. Also, dear Earth has very good eyesight and an infinite store of compassion. She sits with me, and as we sit together we become friends.