By Dido Dunlop
Our hearts and outer world grow hearty together
To restore Mother Nature, and grow tomatoes in our cities, we must redesign our inner gardens. New ways will only hold strong if we regenerate our inner culture too.
What are our inner tomatoes? In meditation we cultivate all sorts of interesting plants in mind and heart. Kindness, love for life, resilience, humour, steadiness through trouble.
Mother Nature’s Elements
I’m a meditation teacher and climate activist. I grew up in the New Zealand bush. I began meditating to find the ‘bush’ feeling in the city. My first teacher taught us to meditate with the Buddhist elements. I was made of mountain streams and sky, like everything else: my emotions, actions, thoughts and the great spaciousness within. Buses, even bombs. I loved the elements with all the love I had for nature, so I could love myself, and the world, beyond ego. People and creatures are all equally precious; whatever we find in each moment can transform to wisdom, in the midst of life; there’s no division of good and evil: it’s all Mother Nature’s elements.
When I was 19, HH the Dalai Lama asked me, ‘Do you know who you are?’ the elements gave me an answer.
Earth — physical
Water — emotional
Fire — action
Air — thought, communication
Space — consciousness, contains the other four
Back to nature
When I began meditating, I lived in a London squatting community. Natural food, chickens. This would take us beyond patriarchy. I was convinced Buddhism would help. My life’s two aims worked together: to grow from desperate teenager to wise woman, and craft a regenerative life that can give us a future.
Women often take one look at the Buddhist hierarchy of male teachers, and flee. Yet the teachings themselves train us to live like Mother Nature’s ecosystems: exactly what we need right now. The reality is, we’re part of nature. Our human world relies on Mother Nature. Our body and mind operate like her. Living in accord with reality works best. We regenerate the world within; we embody it; it grows in our hearts. We build communities like ecosystems. To me, the work is thrilling and creative, like painting a picture.
Meditation is a practice ground. We try things out, water our inner tomatoes, see what they feel like, explore. We go below thoughts, that scud on the surface of mind. That makes space to see our habit patterns. They drop away, so we rest in our natural state. We see wonders, glories, wisdom and love.
All Buddhism has the basic principles; the methods I learned are especially useful for our task: Buddhist Tantra, a Tibetan style of meditation. (distinguish from the tantra specialising in sex.) It’s a path of transformation. We transform negative emotions to positive; we can transform patriarchal attitudes, to Mother Nature’s way.
Tantra’s many and various methods use creative imagination, emotions, and arts, to transform suffering into wisdom, in every part of life. We liberate the heart, clear emotional confusion; then we’re free to see the nature of mind. Tantra means a thread in woven cloth: we’re all interwoven.
Meditation also supports us to keep going through the challenges of making big changes in culture. We develop self-love, courage and perseverance, and deal with emotional fallout such as grief, frustration, fury, despair. These too are part of the process of transformation.
Dismantling patriarchy: off with high heels!
A large part of my meditation was healing wounds, and developing strengths to grow beyond my conditioning as a woman. Nylon stockings and high heeled shoes were restricting, not a good fit. So were conditioned beliefs: ‘I can never be good enough. Nobody sees my strengths, they just want sex’. I had no confidence; I was sat on if I expressed myself. Every time I sloughed off another bit of patriarchal skin, I felt such relief!
Patriarchy doesn’t fit anyone else either. It damages men too. It doesn’t fit Mother Nature. We need better outfits for our culture. Looking for a woman’s way to wisdom was what most clearly showed me the patterns and values we need for regenerative culture. I led women’s groups, and we meditated on Tibetan goddesses, who model these values.
Patriarchy is a dominator system. A system is a map for how to live: a template for hearts, community, any level, any place, desert or forest. Systems’ patterns shape cultures; fundamental assumptions and values go with it.
Ecofeminism laid out a different system, called partnership, built on cooperative, life-affirming ‘feminine’ values. People lived this way before patriarchy. Many indigenous cultures still do. It’s exactly like what I discovered in Buddhist teachings.
Your money or your life? (apologies to dogs)
Mother Nature’s ecosystems >>>Patriarchy
Life is most important; life-affirming >>>Money is god
Interconnected, interdependent >>>Separate isolated individuals
We’re all part of living nature >>>Nature is dead matter to exploited
All is sacred, void innate in all >>>The sacred is off-planet: not here
Caring, love >>>Every man for himself
Equality, all genders, races, kids, elders >>>Strong men, hierarchy, oppression
Community >>>I am top dog. Me first
Cooperative >>>Competitive, dog eat dog
Changing, flexible self >>>Permanent self
Growth as in nature >>>Infinite growth, bigger is better
Power with >>>Power over
Peace >>>War to solve problems
Women support each other >>>Underdogs bitch about each other
Add your own.
‘Of course!’ you might say, ‘we know.’ Then why is it so hard to do?
We all know the lists. Even when we know what to do, it’s not easy. When we haven’t scraped off our patriarchal skins, we operate out of old habits and assumptions, deeply ingrained and unconscious. They won’t let go unless we truck with them. They’ll bite us in the bum, wreck meetings. We compete instead of cooperate.
Ideas alone won’t do it. We need to experience what new habits and attitudes feel like. To many, the inner realm looks dark, unknown, full of sharks and monsters. We’re not trained to go there, or even to use our imagination. The depth doesn’t do nice neat rules. Imagination and creativity bring up unexpected stuff. We have to be ready for what seems like unpredictable chaos, changing weather within.
That’s exciting! We discover things we never dreamed of. ‘Monsters’ are not so fearsome when we make friends with them. We get peace and calm, we can play with them. They mature.
Most activists concentrate on outer change and resist the inner: ‘If you want to change the world, make biochar.’ Meditators vice versa. Both must dance together. The depth becomes our support. Traveling in that inner realm can change the world!
As I try to explain, I find it hard to convey what deep delight this all brings me. Unearthing this vision, this way forward, and practising it in meditation, is fuel, not just figuratively. It’s like a welling bright stream in the bush, singing and reflecting light and shadow. I’m carried along, buoyed by the possibilities of creating a world we could all be healthy and happy in. I regularly get knocked over by how impossible it seems, as patriarchal behaviour gets more and more extreme; still, the goodness of us all, of being alive, shines through. This is how I can face into the darkness of our destructive trajectory, and feel my heart still thrive.
Money or life?
Uncharted depths are less fearsome when we have a chart. Our lists are a pathway into this trackless jungle.
Take a look at the two lists. In the patriarchy list, what old habits do you have? How could you let them go? In the partnership list, what habits are you already developing? What could you grow more of?
‘Money is god’: Look at our drive to go back to work while coronavirus rages. Sacrifice the weak; the survivors will have money? In patriarchy, if we don’t have money we’re in trouble. Money won’t be made while workers are sick or dying. Our elders are precious, not disposable.
What’s our priority? Life or money? Deep inside, I think we know. How do we allow ourselves to feel, life is most important?
‘Every man for himself:’ It’s deeply ingrained in me that I’m an isolated individual, I must look out for myself; no one else will. How do we feel in our cells, I’m part of nature? Interconnected? In a community where we all looked after each other, we won’t be forgotten.
These inner shifts rearrange our brain, heart, habits, soul, body. They rearrange our culture too.
Not fitting in, in transition while in patriarchy
Changing habits is hard enough. The world resists. If you give up on the rat race, stop striving to be top dog, you might get rejected. A lot of the troubles I’ve had were because I tried to live another way. I became a round peg in a square patriarchal hole, and ended in the dogbox, ignored or attacked. Still, I felt closer to the largeness of who I could become, even if people thought I was just badly behaved.
Many Buddhists Vow to help all beings
I need to contribute, care for the world so we survive. It’s my human nature. Nowadays, we cannot save any individual koala, platypus or cassowary, unless we reverse the whole climate emergency. Helping takes on new dimensions. We have to fly up like a bird, and see the overview: the system that needs to change.
My second teacher said Buddhism must take a form that works for westerners. He gave traditional teachings so we understood what awakening is, and encouraged us to experiment, to craft a practice for modern people. He said, use your western resources, like arts and science. I loved the creative task. I trained to teach in this tradition. I drew on my work as an art therapist, group methods, permaculture. I developed nature versions for many meditations.
I work with mainly changemakers, activists, ecovillagers, Transition Towns, ecofeminists, feminists. Our outer activism is fuelled by inner work. Sometimes it may not look strictly like Buddhism. I try to live and teach the new patterns, open and accessible. Buddhism is deep. The threat is deep: death of all life. We need deep change.
People want an alternative. We need a vision of how that might look and feel. Pie in the sky? In an emergency people mostly rally round, support each other, build community. Christiana Figueres said, although we think internal change is slow, during the pandemic we made big changes towards generosity and considering each other.
Though many say we’re already doomed to extinction, I can’t ever give up. With a clear map, and methods to help us transform, what more creative endeavor? We’d all be happier. Koalas, platypuses and cassowaries could get on with their lives. Let’s see what we can do.
Here are some links to soundtracks, where you can try this kind of meditation.
Link to culture shift https://wisebirds.org/culture-shift/
Link to I am alive https://wisebirds.org/climate/
Riane Eisler: Power of Partnership, and other books.
in an interview with James Shaw, New Zealand green party co-leader.
Originally published at https://wisebirds.org.