Inspiration Soul Street Life

How sitting in windows is making the planet cooler

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made a call to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. While I understand that this is a well-intentioned challenge to his fellow American citizens to get with it in a quickly changing world economy, I can’t help but wonder whether stepping on the proverbial gas (or electric) pedal and getting busier than we already are is going to have the desired result of a more ecologically-balanced and livable planet Earth.

There’s certainly a lot that can be done to make our industriousness more efficient and put it in service of lowering our human impact on the planet, but ultimately it is our constant racing around, both physically and mentally, and thirst for perpetual growth that has created all the environmental problems in the first place.

Last weekend I saw something that I feel deserves at least a place at the table with all the latest greatest high tech green clean innovations:

meditating-valencia05

It was a rather strange sight among the hustle bustle of Valencia Street, but the very fact that it would be such a curiosity to encounter people in our daily lives who simply sit and calm their minds speaks to just how obsessed with and addicted to constant movement we’ve become.

meditating-valencia08

I understand that we have to do a lot of work to create a world that is more sustainable. We cannot meditate food on the table or a roof over our heads. But just as we can cut a lot of waste from our budgets and landfills, we can reduce so much of our mental clutter by consciously sitting still every now and then.

meditating-valencia03

To me, the concept of out-competing and out-performing each other to “save” the planet, even if it’s for the sake of clean energy and green technology, presents such a glaring contradiction that I have a hard time to brush over or resolve in my mind. Especially when linked to the tenets of American-style capitalism where success is measured by consumption and perpetual growth viewed as an indicator of economic health, I can’t see how the call to constant busyness is going to relieve the strain we’ve put on the planet.

What if instead of envisioning a million new electric cars in our streets the President had asked for only half a million electric cars, investing the money for the other half in redesigning our cities so that more people can live without cars and slow down their frantic lives? What if instead of pushing for a “race to the top” for our children we promoted a more cooperative, creative, and less pressure-filled way of learning?

meditating-valencia01

Just as we cannot shop ourselves out of terrorist threats, I don’t think we can build ourselves out of the existential crisis facing our planet. Yes, we all have to work hard to transform this old, wasteful and destructive economic system of ours into a leaner, more energy-efficient modus operandi. Yes, we’ll have to be diligent and resourceful while shifting towards more local and sustainable economic models. But as long as our all-encompassing measure of success is of a predominantly monetary and material nature, we will not get to the root of why this planet’s ecosystem is under such stress.

I think we’re deluding ourselves by thinking we can live within the planet’s means by just going on with our lives as we know them, simply replacing old and wasteful technologies with new and “green” ones. What if the President had included in his challenge to reinvent ourselves the shift toward a gross national happiness (GNH) quality of life measure in which material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other? I know he understands this additional and very important non-material dimension that makes us and the earth we live on more whole, and eloquently addressed it in his Memorial Service speech in Tucson a couple of weeks ago:

We recognize our own mortality, and we are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -– but rather, how well we have loved and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.

Could we not somehow have this wonderful line integrated in our budgets, models, projections, and action plans? Instead of always thinking about building more and bigger things, could we not also come up with incentives for all of us to slow down and give our restless brains a break? Wouldn’t our minds be sharper and more focused on what’s important if they were allowed to be silently observed every now and then, to reflect rather than always react?

If we really want to heal what’s ailing our planet, it would help us to talk less and listen more, slow down, and take time to enjoy each precious moment we have. Sitting in windows or marveling at people sitting in windows is one small but important step along that path, and we need to look no further than our fellow Earth residents for inspiration.

Kitty-valenciaStwindow72

Keeping Quiet
by Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden strangeness.

The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.

What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.

If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,
if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,

perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I’ll go.

========

Thanks to the San Francisco Buddhist Center for inspiring me with their Live Softening Art Meditation Event and Pablo Neruda’s poem.

Update: Check out Suvarnaprabha’s account of what it was like from the other side of the window on her post, Softening: Live Meditation. Some of the quotes of walkers-by are truly priceless.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

36 Comments

  • Great idea, Sven.

    You are right. It makes no sense to run around like crazy people on this. A little pause is a good idea.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Yes, Jan, it seems like the tragic shooting in Tucson gave us some pause. It seems like it made us a bit softer and caring for a while. The challenge for us is whether we can pause more often without tragedies.

  • Hi Sven,
    Thank you so much for forwarding your article to the SFBC, and for writing it! It was excellent to read your point of view about the State of the Union.
    Here is my write-up of what it was like to sit in the window from various points of view, and what was heard:
    http://2golden.blogspot.com
    Perhaps next time you will sit in the window with us?
    Cheers, Suvanna

    Creative Director
    San Francisco Buddhist Center

    Founding Teacher
    San Francisco Stress Reduction

    • Thanks for the link Suvanna, I added it to my post. So great to hear from “the other side.” What a great account of your experience. I think it’s a great idea, and I would definitely be interested in sitting with you all next time. But it’ll have to be one of the shorter shifts, as I’m a beginner… 😉

  • Thanks Sven for these intriguing pictures and your thoughtful words. I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel dissatisfied with the state of the union address, even though by the end I was moved to tears by Obama’s humility, his eloquence, and his empathy and concern for others. You’re right. Getting busier, even if all our busyness is pointed in good directions, is not going to solve the world’s problems. We also need to slow down and give ourselves time to breathe, to reflect, to pay attention, to still our minds and open our hearts.

    • I feel similar, Anthony. I think what always bugs me a little is the whole American exceptionalism bid, no matter who is president. I know it’s just part of the culture and history, so I just accept it as a part of building people’s confidence somehow. And I can accept it from Barack Obama, because I know that he is a very humble man at heart. It was really the speech in Tucson that I thought was beautiful, profound, and transcending, but since it was a Memorial he also had a bit more room for soulful inspiration. It’s really hard to integrate politics with spirituality, and Mr. Obama is doing as good a job as anyone. I do think it’s possible, if not necessary, if we really want to evolve consciousness.

  • I agree with your main idea of slowing down the mad driven system to our essential needs.I renounced years ago to jump on the train to “success” to be truly myself in nature. But as we talked about it before, I am very prudent about opposing the holy concept as bettering of the situation, as I think that this dualism has created this need to prove the own worth.
    I find the spiritual tourism as much energy abusive as putting agro fuel into the own car assuming a good conscience behaviour by that, not aware of the non ecological way it gets produced.I think, some concepts have to be questioned if they are truly alternatives. If some live the Buddha inside, fine…if they project it on some feudal hierarchy, in need of a escapist group feeling they have to finance with jobs in the old system, forget it.
    Self acceptance might be the satisfaction needed to replace consumerism.
    But it is more subtle than replacing one success trip with another who simply sounds better.

    • I think the main idea is to slow down our busy minds and lives, and there are different ways of achieving it. I agree that too often meditation or yoga has become a fashion statement in western society, a thing to “do.” But if it gets some people who’ve never slowed the hamster wheel in their head to gain even a little consciousness of themselves, I’d say it’s a good thing.

      I like the idea of self acceptance as a replacement of consumerism, but it seems that you need some self awareness before you can accept yourself, and that self awareness seems to be most accessible when in a meditative state, no? And I don’t mean necessarily tied to any denomination, but perhaps just a walk in the woods or watching a sunset.

      Nice to “see” you, antiphonsgarden.

  • Merci mon ami,

    May I suggest, that self awareness does not start with a better state of mind, but maybe feeling what’s going on when it happens.
    I propose to get in touch with the body in the middle of the driven madness, instead of insisting to calm the body down….what might happen or not.
    Maybe one might burst out in a big laugh, or in tears or might throw what s on his desk through the room …not truly looking calm. Maybe some meditation is success obsessed imposing simply a new image instead of authenticity. Sometimes an escapism from responsibility like…let say…a little revolt…too. Going for a walk yesterday, I saw a beautiful landscape in the frost, and I saw oversized tractors pulling trees and trees burning for the sake of resource speculation. Both are worth my awareness of reality.

  • Individual awareness, meditation practice, or spirituality aside, it’s comforting to read your perspective. It makes me feel a little less alone. I live on the East Coast, where sitting still gets you trampled.

    • Ruth, good to hear from you, I’m glad we can connect through the wilderness of the cyber jungle. Actually, my friend Barb once did a sit in NYC, meditating in the window of ABC Carpet. She said it was unreal, all that commercialism wandering past her. And speaking of people walking past, I loved the comments overheard by Suvarnaprabha, one of the women doing the sit:

      “Holey f—, that’s my cousin!”

      “Wow.”

      “Are they real?”

      “How long have they been there?”
      “A long time.”

      “Cooooool.”

      “Estan meditando.” [They are meditating.]

      “I don’t see anyone sitting in lotus position!”

      “They look so real.”

      “Daddy, why are they sleeping?” (repeat a few times)
      “They’re not sleeping, they’re concentrating.”
      “Why are they concentrating?” (repeat a few times)
      “Let’s let them concentrate.”

      “I wish I could do that.”

      “Passive aggressive, sitting in the window meditating.”

      “That’s not a real person, is it?”
      “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.”
      “Wow, that freaks me out.”

      “Oh my god.”

      “See look, there they are.”

      “Is she breathing?”
      “No, people don’t breathe when they meditate.”
      “Really? Are you sure she’s not breathing?…See, that’s why I can’t meditate.”

      “Oh my god. Are those real people?”

      “Is it art or is it meditation?”

  • You have made some wonderfully great points to which I agree.

    However, where I disagree with you is that we are in the manner of slowing down and pausing, reflecting and innovating to a small extent. It’s done on an individual basis at centers like the Buddhist Center, churches, synagogs, Islamic temples, etc.

    It’s just not done on a national level where it moves throngs of people to innovate for the good of the country or the world first, without the motivation of capitalism.

    Capitalism is so entrenched in our society, that to innovate to the extent that you feel is necessary to save our planet, well, that won’t happen for centuries.

    Although, I once said in a class that I didn’t think I would ever see a black President in my lifetime.

    So, innovation that speak of could happen earlier instead of centuries down the road.

    • Thanks for stopping by, sixthirtythree. I totally agree with you that not enough slowing down is happening on a larger scale and that our current economic system is making us all speed up and consume ever more. I guess my feeling is that since every big change has to start with a small seed I try to point out those small seeds of positivity. It may ultimately not be enough to reverse the unsustainable course we’re on, but if nothing else, I prefer inspiration and optimism over fear and punishment as a means toward changing our collective consciousness. And you’re right, sometimes the strangest things happen, but I think we first have to dream them into being.

  • May I suggest a little philosophical reflection, that meditative systems who create another form of achievement stress are not better than any other structures neglecting the acceptance of the human as such.

    I get the impression that all these structures pretending to improve the human are dehumanising, and that groups who gather around those concepts are not willing to truly question their own behaviours and motivations.

    Maybe we can slow down from too fast almost mutually agreed concepts like “mediation is the opposite of this stressful society”.
    Thinking and feeling on our own might surprise us and other, as we might truly experience self awareness and see people acting in society, who might not fit the clichés.

    • I know you keep saying that meditation is a form of achievement, but it seems to me that that is YOUR own interpretation of meditation. What if the people sitting in that window were simply just doing THAT – sitting in the window, and nothing else? I certainly can’t read anybody’s mind or their motivations for why they do what they do, and in this case it doesn’t even matter to me or to the story I’m telling. The point was that it made me and many other people stop and slow down from whatever else we were doing or wherever else we were going. Granted, that is a very small deed in the grand scheme, but to me it’s those small things that sow the seeds for big changes. If there was anything dehumanizing about it, I didn’t see or feel it.

  • You misunderstand me, I don’t consider meditation as a form of achievement.
    I just consider it as another complementary aspect of a generalised dogma who express himself in the idea of “making progress”, “improving the own self”.
    I suggest that this sitting still is as success driven as the running around.
    I propose the idea that self acceptance is not bound to do the right thing, practice the right attitude as goal to reach, but it s about awareness in each situation.

    • The way I understand meditation is that it is about being aware of the present moment, and nothing else. Of course, there are some of us, and probably most of us, who aren’t always able to do that. After all, we all have a mind that likes to go crazy. : ) But it certainly doesn’t have to happen in one particular way, to me meditation is beyond any particular practice. The true essence of mediation might not even have a name at all. That said, if someone can find peace, relaxation, and a connection to the present moment by sitting in the lotus position, I have no problem with that at all. And if that means “a success” to an individual, then I can live with that, even if perhaps in the most pure sense it diminishes the meaning of the word. The world is on fire, and as far as I’m concerned, I welcome anyone who is at least trying to become more aware of themselves.

  • Well, having been in a lot in such meditative groups, I have seen how many still had this zealot absolutist world saving concepts and something like expensive enlightenment career plans and role limited hierarchical divisions of peace achievement as much as spiritual dogmas who did not truly differ from feudal determinism, we would normally be more critical about.

    I don’t find innocent how meditation appears the relaxing pole of a success driven lifestyle.I think, that society has to truly change and that requires a deeper impact than just creating complementary behaviour games who at the end of the day, confirm each other.
    To be honest, I would not find mediation in such a situation truly an expression of inner relaxation, but slightly a narcissistic holy poseur trip , I might have even have enjoyed in the past well knowing my true intentions!.

    • antiphonsgarden, I wonder what meditation would be like for you if you did it now, knowing what you know. It would be really interesting to read about your personal experience with meditation, coming from a less narcissistic, success-driven place you describe. For if we really want to change our collective consciousness, we have to help each other out, but rather than telling people what they’re doing wrong I find it more effective to lead by example, so others can be inspired and will be more inclined to open themselves up for a change in perspective. Just an idea…

  • My meditation does not want to lead anybody anywhere.
    My enlightenment experiences are not about hierarchical leadership, but about self aware interconnection.
    Do I feel a slight disagreement from your side, to expose yourself to the thoughts I propose. Are you trying to guide me away from them, by moralising me that I allow myself few philosophical consideration about how meditation can be system supporting instead of system critical? Like you, I do my best that this society changes, and because I trust in our potential, I remain aware of structures pretending to be the new when they are still the old games in new outlooks.
    We had better times, we both. How comes, I seem to be send into the box with the label “old ranter” suddenly? What did I tickle? Got an Idea?

  • This:

    “My meditation does not want to lead anybody anywhere.
    My enlightenment experiences are not about hierarchical leadership, but about self aware interconnection.”

    is beautiful and I can relate and want to hear more from you. It’s just when you assume things about other people’s motivations that you lose me. Isn’t saying that the people who are sitting in these windows are doing it because they’re trying to be cool or achieve some sort of societal success just as judgmental and hierarchical as what you purport their intentions to be? If we want to move away from the dualistic thinking that we both agree is so damaging to this world, wouldn’t it be a good practice to refrain from labeling people that we don’t even know, insinuating their motivations?

    What if you asked the two folks in that window why they meditate and their answer was:

    “My meditation does not want to lead anybody anywhere.
    My enlightenment experiences are not about hierarchical leadership, but about self aware interconnection.”

    I’m not trying to guide you away from your thoughts, but I am certainly disagreeing with you in that I think that while it is true that for some people meditation is just another fad there are plenty of people who meditate with just the same detachment that you do. I would think you’d probably agree with that statement, it’s just that sometimes the way you talk about meditation makes it sound to me like you’re contending the entire practice is useless, no matter how, who or why.

    It’s nothing personal about you, one can have a good debate with an old friend, no? I always really appreciate your very thought-provoking comments, but you must understand that the very act of provoking thought brings with it debate and disagreement. It’s great, because it helps all of us to learn and grow and develop clarity in our thoughts and positions. From my perspective we’re having a great time here, having a rigorous and meaningful conversation, and I love and respect you regardless of your positions. Obviously, in real life it would be easier, we could just have a glass of wine now and say “cheers”, but consider this comment a blinging of wine glasses. : )

  • Sven,old friend, are you aware that I try to handle with patience, your projection on me? A bit of Lemonade please!

    I don’t know the motivation of those both people in the window.
    I was proposing some thoughts I associate with meditation theses days.
    I used to see it as a way of improving the world, I don’t any more out of the reason I describe. I suggest that certain topics are not questioned deeply as they are assumed to be good for me, you and the neighbour. If meditation increases the own awareness, than maybe to come to more subtle concepts than the one one had once. Maybe it needs time and experience with the matter to understand me. Maybe it will never happen. I don’t need that everybody agrees with me, but I believe that changes includes deep reality insights who might disturb us first maybe, but are necessary to not repeat old mistakes who might bring even more pain in the future when our strengths is needed for other aspects.

    • Mr. Garden, your patience with me is very sweet, like honey for my lemonade. : ) I truly appreciate it, as well as your insights that stretch me like yoga for the soul. Thanks!

    • Everything is okay here, thanks for thinking of us. My heart goes out to the people in Japan today.

      PS: Just having fun with your name, since we’re dealing with this anonymous cyber world but I like real human contact I always imagine you as Antiphons Garden. Thus Mr. Garden. 🙂

    • how rude of me to assume, sorry. Still learning about cyber manners. Perhaps I should ask how you wish to be addressed first, if by name at all?

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