Earth Day Attention

A tale in the Zen tradition has it that a student came to visit a master, a spiritual teacher. Finding the teacher at calligraphy, the student asked, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.”

The teacher’s brush glided over a fresh sheet, writing a single word: “Attention.” The student said, “Is that all?”

The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The student, perplexed, said, “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle.”

So the teacher wrote, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” The student paused, unsure, before asking, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?”

The master replied, “Attention means attention.”

Speaking of calligraphy, some years ago, I was gifted with a lovely wall hanging of Japanese calligraphy. According to the note taped to the back, the translation is: “It is mind that deludes mind, for there is no other mind. O, mind, do not let yourself be misled by mind.”

So there you have it. The spiritual path is simple: attention. But, the mind plays tricks on us.

On this glorious day, celebrating our planet home, we attend. The winter’s beauty of white subsides to spring’s beauty of green, and we feel the salvific power in this reliable rhythm.

Ecospirituality – attention to how our experience of the divine comes through the natural world – connects, and connecting to the sacredness of the earth saves us – saves us from being only half-alive. Attention is what will save the Earth, if it will be saved.

One of the lessons – insights that come on the spiritual path of attention – is that reality is never depressing. Being in denial, being out of touch with reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that it has to sneak around, come at you from behind, and crawl up your back (for reality eventually finds a way to get through to us), THAT can be a source of depression. Resisting reality is stressful -- reality isn’t. Attention to exactly “what is” cultivates joy. Even if “what is” is pain.

Dear ones, the good news is: you and I are going to die. That’s great news because it means we don’t have to figure out how to live forever – get everything solved, all threats removed, so that we can then relax into our immortality. We don't bear that responsibility. We only have this short time -- a day, a year maybe, or possibly a few decades -- and all we have to do is show up for just this brief time. That's all. Knowing I am blessed with an ironclad exit strategy, knowing the divine takes form only temporarily in the body and set of ego defenses called "Meredith," I am liberated. My task is no more (and no less) than to manifest this transience that I am – to pay attention, for time is short.

Yes, drink in this day: how good the sunlight and warmth feel, how delightful the budding green, how fresh the springtime air. Let not this manifestation of the divine pass unnoticed. Let not creation play to an empty house. Attention!

And attention, also, to the pain and grief: climate change, deforestation, species extinction, lost biodiversity, soil degradation, ocean acidification, air pollution. Hold all that sadness, my friends – for it is the Earth’s pain, and therefore it is yours. Shrink not from it, for our capacity to fully experience sadness is equal to our capacity to fully experience joy is equal to our capacity to fully experience life. In other words, love is love is love is love, as Lin Manuel Miranda put it.

Reality is never depressing, but it does contain much pain and loss. Taking in the sadness is actually the opposite of depression, for depression is disconnecting, while holding the sadness is an act of connecting. Depression is dull while grief is sharp.

Attention. Attention.

Yet the mind plays tricks on us. It retreats from attention, unable to sustain its hold on the exquisite sharpness of life. It slips back into sedative notions.

“It’s futile,” the mind whispers. “You can’t prevent climate change, or deforestation, or any of the threats.” But this is not what the spirit asks. The spirit simply asks for your attention.

“Perhaps technological breakthroughs will solve everything,” the mind muses. News stories this week, for example, touted the discovery of enzymes that eat plastic. So, yes, 1 million plastic bottles are sold each minute, only 14% of them will be recycled, and many of the rest end up in the ocean in huge plastic garbage patches. But these new enzymes can take care of all that.


Maybe we’ll develop economical technology to suck carbon out of the air and sequester it. I might point out that we already have a really economical device for doing that. It’s called a tree, but worldwide, we’re still cutting them down faster than we’re planting them.

We might be about to develop cold fusion: unlimited, nonpolluting energy for everyone forever.

“Oh, mind, do not let yourself be misled by mind.”

Yes, technological development happens, but remember we’ve never been able to predict where the developments will occur. And when a development does occur, we are similarly lousy at predicting its side-effects. We see the solutions offered but not the new problems caused by every new technology.

Attention. Attention. Attention.

Small acts of attention and care – therein is salvation. “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal,” said Wendell Berry, “is our only legitimate hope of survival.”

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Video of the complete service that this reflection was a part of: HERE

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