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Lions Roar : September 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2008 13 Editorial: Small Acts, Whole View LIFE USED TO BE so much simpler, or so it seems. I’m not talking about some idealized time when the pace was slower or eating farm-fresh produce was the norm. I’m talking about when we could go about our daily life and not feel that every small act was contributing to some complex and intractable prob- lem that threatened the welfare of our children and grandchildren, or even the survival of our species. I find that this feeling arises in the midst of the most routine small acts. Checking the ripeness of a peach in the produce section brings up questions about: • the pesticides used in growing it, • the conditions of the workers and the politics of the country it came from, • the oil that was burned in the long distance it trav- eled to get here, • the working conditions on the freighter it traveled on, • the business practices of the multi-national firm selling it, and on and on. Each of these questions is accompanied by its own domain of complex relationships. Multiply that by all the other small acts we take each day—it can quickly become overwhelming. Do I dare to eat a peach? Adding to the depressing quality is that we know things have to change, yet we don’t know exactly how to do it. Oh, we can take small steps—we can think globally and act locally. And sometimes our choices make a difference: walking rather than driving when the destination is near, buying carbon offsets when we must fly, or just staying put and working remotely. But often the small steps only highlight the short- comings of even the best available options, which never seem to go far enough. We buy a hybrid auto- mobile to diminish our carbon footprint, and then the impact of a hundred new members of the middle class in some other part of the world wipes out the benefit of our little gesture. Every day, with every small act, we experience the reality that the larger, complex world of natural and human systems are seemingly on the brink of col- lapse. Are things out of control? Are we doomed? There’s that funny saying about how it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you. Does that mean that it’s not depression if the whole thing really is going to hell? What can we do? How best can we “be” in this world? Around here at the Shambhala Sun, explora- tion of these questions inevitably leads to how this connects to our Buddhist view and practice, both personally and for what we publish in the magazine. What is the connection? Can meditation help? Is en- gaged Buddhism the “answer”? In this issue of the Sun, we offer a number of helpful hints about how we can deal with challenges of com- plex systems from our finite, limited vantage points. We get some interesting guidance from Barry Boyce’s article profiling four heroic people working with large- scale, complex systems problems. Even though none of these big thinkers is explicitly applying mindfulness in their work, a broad contemplative orientation seems to underlie their approach, suggested by such phras- es as “prospective mind” (Thomas Homer-Dixon), “joining power and love” (Adam Kahane), “expanding our imagination” (Paul Hawken), and “finding time for reflection” (Margaret Wheatley). A friend recently told me about research on com- plex systems in the natural world, such as the flock- ing behavior of birds or how a school of fish moves safely past a predator that’s in its path. The research shows that this complex behavior is always based on just a few simple rules. The key element of these rules is this: every small act is individual but it’s taken from the perspective of the whole. Here, it seems, is where contemplative practice comes in. If solutions come from acting from the whole, this requires seeing the world as whole, rather than as separate parts acting against each other. Medi- tation fosters this view at a very deep level, and the ex- perience of interconnectedness brings new awareness to every small act. This is engaging at its most basic. So if complex systems, in the end, are made up of many small things, and we are connected to all that, then it’s possible that big things can be accomplished by small acts, even if we don’t see the immediate re- sult. Each one of those everyday, small acts is both a reminder of the complex problems and a gateway to changing them. The depression eases a little, though not to the level of lots of hope, as I move from the peaches and on to the grapes. — JIM GIMIAN, PUBLISHER SEPT 1-17.indd 13 SEPT 1-17.indd 13 7/3/08 1:25:41 PM 7/3/08 1:25:41 PM