Stephanie Knox Steiner > Healing  > Healing Ourselves, Healing Our World

Healing Ourselves, Healing Our World

To heal the world, says Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, we need to begin by healing ourselves.

He teaches that our greatest hope for addressing issues like climate change is in falling in love with the earth, and in realizing that we and Earth are one. He means this in a literal way: we are made of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the same minerals found in soil. We are not separate from the planet we call home; we are the planet. Therefore, taking care of ourselves is taking care of our Earth.

We have a lot of healing work to do, individually and societally. The toxic levels of pollution choking our planet’s life force reflects the very same toxicity brewing in our hearts and minds. This past year was noted for its continuous stream of familiar tragedies. Another person of color killed by police. Another mass shooting. Another bombing in a country that receives less media attention than it should. More lives lost to the culture of violence we are swimming in.

We are not separate from the planet we call home. Taking care of ourselves is taking care of Earth.

On my bedside table sit books that I turn to for inspiration. Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities, by Rebecca Solnit. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, by bell hooks. But on some mornings, when my news feed is crammed with horrendous violence, books with powerful messages do not feel like enough. Hope is hard to grasp for on days like this, when in my core I know humanity can do so much better, but we are failing ourselves and each other again and again. The hope is there underneath the agony, but the pain dominates.



So I turn to my meditation cushion, where I sit with the despair and a deep desire to transform the world, knowing that any transformation must begin with myself. My heart is crying loudly for the world these days, yet I recognize the anger, hatred, greed and ignorance that lie within my own consciousness. The best thing that I can do now is sit with these strong emotions and hold them like a mother holds a crying baby, gently and with compassion. To deny my inner pollution or engage in negative self-talk about it would only prevent healing. I vow to sit still and observe, realizing that by practicing non-reactivity to my heart-mind pollution, I stop feeding it.

By cleaning up our inner pollution, we can transform the outer pollution that we have created.

Earlier this year, I participated in the Earth Holder Retreat at Deer Park Monastery, an affinity sangha of the Plum Village community following the mindfulness and meditation teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. Our practice of engaged Buddhism includes protecting the earth, in response to climate change and the grave environmental issues we face. At the retreat, we talked about Buddhist teachings on the three roots of all suffering: hatred, greed and ignorance. We can recognize these roots at the individual level, in our own consciousness, and we can also see them manifest at the societal level, where we have institutionalized these drives through our systems. There’s hatred through the war system, greed through our economic system and delusion through our mass media.

By cleaning up our inner pollution, we can transform the outer pollution that we have created.

Because these roots run wide and deep, it makes the suffering they cause harder to see, as if they’re normal. This normalizing of direct (physical) and structural (institutional, systematized) violence is what peace scholar Johan Galtung calls cultural violence — it’s aspects of our culture that portray violence as a part of everyday life, as the only option. It’s our culture that perpetuates the story that humans are greedy and violent, and that’s just the way it is. What an unacceptable, false story.

I tell my Peace Studies students at the beginning of each semester that if they want to get a rise out of me, saying “that’s just the way it is” would probably the best way to do it. Such a verbal shrug of the shoulders is never an acceptable response to any problem — especially ones proposing violence as a solution.

“Do you have hope for the future?” a student recently asked me. He’s a non-traditional student in his 60s, so he has seen his fair share of individual and collective suffering. I told him that teaching is an inherently hopeful profession, that the act of teaching implies that one has hope for a better future. Through teaching, I want to effect positive change in the world by empowering people, young or old, to reach towards their highest potential.

Our culture perpetuates the false story that humans are greedy and violent.

On some days, hope is easier to find than others.

Confronting the structural violence can lead to despair — the systems and institutions can seem insurmountable. I remember learning about climate change as an undergraduate student in the late 90s and feeling utter hopelessness. My courses taught me about how climate change occurs and what is causing it, but they didn’t give me tools to deal with my feelings about it. No statistic or other bit of information told me how anger and despair are natural responses to the inconceivable and overwhelming. There was no lecture on how to “honor my pain for the world,” as environmental activists and author Joanna Macy suggests. None of my textbooks spoke of transforming anger and frustration into loving nonviolent action.

In my classes, I make space for feelings to arise. I encourage my students to practice what Macy refers to as “active hope,” or loving action. When we build our hope around loving action, we can forgo our concern with achieving set outcomes, which can make us feel defeated when setbacks arise. Another way to think about active hope is taking steps to create a world, to paraphrase Paulo Freire, where it will be easier to love. Yet another is through the words of Sister Mai Nghiem: “Joyful, loving action is an antidote to despair.”

Confronting the structural violence can lead to despair — the systems and institutions can seem insurmountable.

Joyful, loving action includes transforming our mind-heart pollution.

It is work that we can do at all times, irrespective of outer circumstances. By addressing the toxicity within ourselves, we learn to channel the anger and sadness we feel about the violence and injustices in the world into hopeful action. Along the way, we strengthen our capacity to overhaul our systems.

One of the monks at the Deer Park retreat said, “If we don’t address our own awakening, we can’t wake up at a societal level.” It’s not an either/or situation — we don’t need to wait until we are fully enlightened to take action. Rather, it is both/and: we must clean up our own inner messes while we take action to evolve institutionalized suffering. Each of us must take responsibility for our own healing while at the same time working to create a healthy system that thrives on love, compassion and togetherness.

We must also change the story we tell about who we are and our place on Earth. As Thich Nhat Hanh said in a 2012 interview with The Guardian, “Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the center and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing. So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realize you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough.”