Sustainability leaders could learn from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who believes in a deeper human connection with nature and looking beyond purely material consumption
There is a saying from a famous Buddhist master that the miracle of life is not being able to walk on water but on being able to walk on the Earth.
This came to mind as I read an introduction by Prince Charles in What has nature ever done for us?, Tony Juniper’s new book on the importance of natural capital. Prince Charles says that a key reason we are so wantonly destroying the natural world on which our very lives depend is that “there now abounds a disturbing lack of a sense of the sacred”.
“This is very important,” he writes. “If nothing is sacred, most of all nature, then we create the potential for the perfect kind of storm, to which it will be virtually impossible to adapt, let alone mitigate.”
He hits the nail on the head; we are not going to save ourselves and countless species from destruction with innovations in technology and business thinking alone, unless we heal our profound disconnection with Mother Earth.
I recently wrote about the importance of epiphanies in creating change and experienced one a few years ago when I was doing my masters degree in responsibility and business practice.
We spent a week at Shumacher college in Devon and one exercise was to go to a river valley on Dartmoor and, wearing a blindfold, experience nature via a sense of touch and smell. Halfway through the exercise, we were asked to switch our attention and try to feel how nature might be experiencing us in that moment.
It was only afterwards that I realised how important that change of focus actually was. How arrogant of me to have believed that it was only ‘I’ who could have an experience of the world around me, which was not being reciprocated.
It isn’t just Shumacher college that realised that a deep connection to nature can lead to profound change. The Natural Change Project, set up by WWF, offers leaders potentially life-changing experiences of wild places. And the social enterprise, Leaders’ Quest, has a similar philosophy.
Building bridges with nature
This type of experience is particularly important for business leaders and transformational change will come only if they understand the meaning of sustainability in their guts, rather than as an intellectual exercise aimed at safeguarding profits.
Money and power often create separation and what we need these leaders to feel is intimacy and that community is an inclusive concept.
I recently spent two weeks at a retreat with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh at hisPlum Village centre near Bordeaux in France. It was my third visit and each one ranks among the happiest times of my life.
The practice of mindfulness teaches me that true happiness comes from a deep appreciation of the profound simplicity of life in the present; the joy of breathing, of walking, of contemplation, of good wholesome food and company.
This naturally engenders the understanding that everything is connected in the web of life in a far more profound way than trying to get one’s mind around the energy, water, food nexus.
It is in this atmosphere of quiet meditation that I rediscover a sense of peace and inspiration – like a water channel dredged of mud and debris – which allows me to return to the Guardian with renewed vigour.
The problem with modern society, however, is that it tends to ride roughshod over these simple pleasures because there is no economic value in them. Instead, we are sold a way of life that deepens our sense of isolation and loneliness.
Looking beyond material consumption
Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as he is known, says repeatedly that we have more than enough to already be happy and that buying more material goods will only expose us to more unhappiness. How often do we really appreciate our good health or feel gratitude for those people around us? In most cases only when we are in danger of losing them.
Sitting in his modest Toadskin hut, around a crackling fire, Thay tells me that there is nothing wrong with consumption, only what we consume: “When we do walking meditation we consume. In the context of modern civilisation, to walk like that is a waste of time. You don’t do anything. You don’t talk or think and that is a waste of time because time is money.
“So we consume time but for us this is good consumption because we allow our body and mind to relax and rest and every step we touch the wonders of life, the refreshing and healing elements of life.
“After half an hour of walking like that you feel refreshed and restored and that does not need a lot of money, does not need anything at all … from the parking lot to the place where they [readers] work; walk in such a way that every step can restore their peace and their joy and love for life. Teach them how to stop their thinking.”
It’s easy to dismiss this kind of approach as lacking relevance to the complexities and pressures of modern life and Thay is the first to admit that living the life of a monk is far easier than living in the ‘real’ world.
But rejecting such a simple approach often just protects us from the deeper recognition of the collective loss of our freedom and sense of connection, in exchange for power, fame, money and sexual gratification.
Juniper does a wonderful job in his latest book by showing the marvels and infinite complexity of Mother Earth and how that connects to the health and economic success of the human species. He also gives powerful arguments for why we should be valuing natural capital rather than taking nature for granted. But will this knowledge actually lead to a transformation in our behaviour?
Thay suggests that a greater intellectual knowledge of the impact of our destructive behaviour, or of nature’s wonders, will not create the change that is necessary and that only a deeper connection to our hearts and a personal insight into the inter-being of everything in the universe, can offer hope to humanity.
“We are very intelligent but we have to learn how to love Mother Earth,” he says. “When you look at the sun during your walking meditation, the mindfulness of the body helps you to see that the sun is in you; without the sun there is no life at all and suddenly you get in touch with the sun in a different way.
“You see the relationship between you and the sun change … Before, you see the sun as something very far away and not having too much connection, but the connection is very, very deep. You are a child of the sun, you come from the sun, and that is something true with the earth also … your relationship with the earth is so deep, and the earth is in you and this is something not very difficult, much less difficult then philosophy.
“If you can feel that Mother Earth is in you, and you are Mother Earth, then you are not any longer afraid to die because the earth is not dying. Like a wave appears and disappears and appears again.”
The full interview with Thich Nhat Hanh will appear on Guardian Sustainable Business next week.
Jo Confino will also be in conversation with Tony Juniper at a lunchtime lecture at the RSA this Thursday