People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
Be Aware the Great Matter
The wooden han (a block used to call monks to meditation) at the Tassajara Zen Center in California reads, “Wake up! Life is transient; swiftly passing. Be aware the great matter. Don’t waste time.”
This simple, daily reminder to not waste time raises questions. What exactly does wasting time look like? What exactly is time well-spent? Echoing Seneca, how do we squander our time?
In the context of climate change, the idea of not wasting time feels chaotically urgent. And when progress calls for collective, communal action on behalf of many individuals – many of whom may not agree that we are in a climate crisis – the urgency can feel hopeless. We may not know what to do. What, we might ask, is the best way forward?
Contemplative in Action
To determine what we should do – how we should spend our time – we can borrow an idea from a key Jesuit value: contemplatives in action. This value means that a fruitful life is one that marries a contemplative perspective with a decision to act in ways that honor the value or sacredness of life. Action without contemplation can be foolish or mis-guided. Contemplation without action can be self-centered or useless. A life well lived, in service with others, necessitates both, together.
Braving the fields of hopelessness and uncertainty in the face of climate change requires a calm and incessant courage that might be best cultivated through efforts in contemplative reflection.
“I Have So Little Time”
The last thing any of us want to do is add a task to our days, even if it is a “useful” practice of contemplation or reflection.
Is not the addition of one more daily task antithetical to the idea of not wasting time?
But a contemplative life isn’t necessarily built only through the layering on of yet another time-intensive activity. Kathleen Norris says this well:
The often heard lament, “I have so little time,” gives the lie to the delusion that the daily is of little significance… But most of us, most of the time, take for granted what is closest to us and is most universal. The daily round of sunrise and sunset, for example, that marks the coming and passing of each day, is no longer a symbol of human hopes, or of God’s majesty, but a grind, something we must grit our teeth to endure. Our busy schedules, and even urban architecture, which all too often deprives us of a sense of the sky, has diminished our capacity to marvel with the psalmist in the passage of time as an expression of God’s love for us and for all creation…
— Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work” (pp 16-17)
Norris helps us see that it is not so much lack of time that keeps us from God’s love and from nature, but rather a misguided attentional focus within the time we have.
Zen Buddhists share something similar: that ‘practice’ and ‘enlightenment’ are one and the same. If our idea of a reflective life is something that we’ll get around to after the dishes are done, we are missing the point.
Dedicated time for reflection can be valuable, but the really good stuff happens when it becomes the way in which we live our daily moments. As we face the looming realities of climate change and what this implies for our relationships and our lifestyles, a contemplative way of living our daily moments may be what we need to determine the best way forward.
Religious Tradition and our Relationship with the Earth
Religious traditions offer us a deep and profound view of our relationship with the earth.
Catholics believe the earth was given to us so that we may, “’till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15) … This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations” (Francis, 2015, p. 49).
Buddhists view the nondualistic nature of all things (Nhat Hanh, 2013). In a flower we can see the rain, the sun, and the soil that built the flower. In ourselves, we can see the same. From a Buddhist view, care for oneself is not separate from care for all sentient beings.
Muslims view our role on earth as caretakers of the earth (khalīfa). Avoiding or turning away from this responsibility is seen as a sin.
There are countless formal statements by our world’s religious leaders about our climate crisis. Many are housed at the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. Together, these statements amplify the ideas expressed by individual leaders from these traditions.
One of these statements comes from our current Pope, Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment. In the encyclical, he urges us to work together:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change… I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.
— Pope Francis, 2015, Laudato si, p 12
We do need a conversation as a human family. How are we shaping the future of our planet together? How do we not squander our limited time on this earth? To channel Thoreau, what are you busy about? Life is, after all, swiftly passing.
Are you interested in connecting with an ecologically-grounded religious group? Here is a list of a few organizations and institutes that are built around religious tradition and ecology.
A Jesuit Education. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.regis.edu/About-Regis-University/JesuitEducated/Key-Jesuit-Values.aspx
Climate Change. (n.d.) Climate Change Statements from World Religions. Retrieved from http://fore.yale.edu/climate-change/statements-from-world-religions/
Francis, P. (2015). Laudato si. Sobre el cuidado de las Casa Común (Enciclica). English trans.
Norris, K. (1998). The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work” (Vol. 1998). Paulist Press.
Nhat Hanh, T. (2013). Love Letter to the Earth. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
A special thank you to Dr. Erica Ferg, for her assistance on segments of this post.
(Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com)
About the Author
Anna HL Floyd, PhD
Assistant Professor, Applied Psychology
College for Contemporary Liberal Studies
SEED Institute Fellow
Anna previously blogged with us about “The Salience Impact: Environmental Experience and Identity”