When you see the word sustainability, what associations come immediately to mind? This term is having its moment in the spotlight of public awareness, along with other words like mindfulness and wellness. Some of us celebrate that these are becoming mainstream concepts, while others may cringe at the trendy ways we see these concepts used to sell products or promote causes that may not reflect their true meanings. Others of us may tune them out altogether, finding that any meaning becomes watered down when a quick computer search generates an avalanche of results - 262 million hits for wellness alone! And yet, these profound concepts must not be dismissed as only buzzwords. They express ideas whose time has come, describing values that are closely linked with our Buddhist commitments. We will use this column to explore the connections between Buddhism, wellness, and sustainability, focusing on the places where our own practice and actions can strengthen our commitment to true health as individuals and members of communities, as well for the Earth we have inherited.
Many of us who take the Buddhist Precepts or, more generally, make a commitment to a moral life, find that this changes more than our meditation practice. We discover that our commitment to harmlessness, in particular, has wide-reaching implications. In exploring what it means to live in a way that is not harmful, we discover that real, sustainable health can be experienced in deeply personal ways, as well as writ large in the earth, air, and waters on which our lives depend. Wise Intention, Wise Action, karma, impermanence… The Buddha offered teachings 2600 years ago that can be used to discern how to live in balance with our personal and planetary ecosystems today. Happily, many of these realizations are rapidly gaining popularity in the broader culture, and we have begun national and even international conversations about them. However, in the very moment when a critical momentum seems to be gathering, we may also sense that the power of these intentions are at risk of being co-opted or bought out by commercial interests, and thus the potential for them to generate positive change in the world potentially weakened. Our response to that risk is to engage with health and well-being in new ways, as expressions of how we live the Dhamma.
Let’s start with defining our words, then lay the ground work for some of the topics we’ll explore in future articles. When we discuss sustainability, we may bear in mind the warning of ecological author Bill McKibben, who notes that “sustainability is a vexed term – no one knows quite what it means”. Yet we intuitively understand that sustainable systems are those that build at least as much long-lasting health and value as they use up or destroy. The system may be that of one living being, a sangha or other community, or the entire environment of our planet. If we are creating, consuming, and leaving behind debris, toxins, and waste, then the system will be unable to sustain itself in a robust and wholesome way over time. For the purposes of this column, we will consider sustainability as it relates to the how we care for and offer stewardship toward the system of our planet. We will inquire into how our own choices around daily behaviors and use of resources (such as selecting a meal, getting to our place of work, or cleaning our homes) together create an impact that may not be immediately apparent, and yet can support widespread ecological sustainability in the world.
Another word for what we are interested in cultivating here is wellness. Wellness can be understood as the result of these kinds of “wholistic” practices, and we could define it almost interchangeably with sustainability. Both terms, after all, refer to healthy, durable practices and systems that are beneficial over time to the beings who participate in them. Both depend upon an ongoing series of discerning choices that together create the fluid, organic, changeable balance that is experienced as a state of well-being. However, wellness also points more directly to the personal, lived experience of health, while sustainability pertains to a broader sense of connection and impact of our behaviors on ever-widening spheres of community and environment. We will use wellness in these articles to refer to the individual and to the practices which will support personal physical and mental health. We will explore our choices around food, physical activity, and self-care, identifying some of the many avenues available that can be supportive of health, so we can find the paths that resonate with us as individuals.
Sustainability and wellness are not goals or destinations, as much as they are practices we engage in, and the results that unfold. We will learn that they are ways of understanding karma, as expressed through the embodied experience of an individual or a world. We may think of the words Theravadan bhikkhuni Amma Thanasanti, on practicing in the face of environmental disaster, and expand them to include our own inner and outer environments. She writes, “living with wisdom and compassion, framed by integrity and simplicity opens my heart... It allows me to listen deeply to what I feel called to do, what the land and others have to say and to find ways to include these truths into what needs to be... acted upon.” We practice inclining our intentions and actions toward harmlessness and the protection of well-being of all sentient beings. When our behaviors are simple, skillful, and mindful, we do not strain the systems upon which we depend, and we have more energy available to practice living the dhamma, rather than in crisis management. I look forward to exploring these ideas with you, and supporting each other in making choices that will create clean, clear, radiant health for ourselves and the Earth.
Lulu Cook, RDN, is a vegan nutritionist with a background in sustainable food systems and mindful eating. She has been trained as a Dhamma group facilitator with Noah Levine (Dharma Punx and Against the Stream), and is currently a student of Amma Thanasanti (Awakening Truth). She is a householder in the Bay Area who practices the Dhamma as it unfolds in a busy urban home with two dogs, a daughter and partner, and the occasional hip-hop concert.