Sunday, August 4, 2019

Buddha Root Farm and Understanding Mahayana Buddhism

"You have stumbled upon the 5 schools of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, in the lineage of Master Hua."  After the first day of retreat, where I was constantly asking questions, Rev Heng Sure said this to me as a precursor to lots more sharing in the coming days.  These were very meaningful days in my life.

I recently returned from my first meditation retreat that was not in the SN Goenka tradition.  Lots of learnings from this and I thought it would support me to process through writing.  The retreat was in the tradition of Rev Heng Sure, who so many have been inspired by in our community.  The retreat was their yearly 'Buddha Root Farm' retreat in rural Oregon (the picture above is the path to our campsite).  Several folks in our ecosystem have attended before (including my partner!) but it was my first time.

Master Hua lecturing in 1975

Master Hua actually conducted the first retreat at this site in 1975, 13 years after arriving in the USA as one of the first people to bring Mahayana practice to the west.  So many people in our community have shared about him and what he invited into existence (including an entire town, City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, +25 lineage locations globally, first-time text translations, and uncountable ripples).  More recently, the retreat has been held yearly, including families and a pace that felt as much like a 'camp' as anything else.

This was not the '10 days of silence' process I was used to!  I was intrigued to hear the spectrum of practice that this community can hold.  Whether it was weekly 45 min meditations and sutra lectures on YouTube, or Buddha Root Farm-style retreats, or more intensive retreats (including a yearly 21 day meditation for 20 hours/day!)  The point was not intensive for the sake of intensive, but rather to build the capacity to serve whatever the conditions that may arise.

The 'Half Can' for Food and Basic Needs

In addition to Rev Heng Sure, 5 other monastics were a part of the retreat - 3 monks and 2 nuns, who provided a sort of backbone to the daily activities.  And the activities taken on were unique from my lens.  While my background of familiarity with eastern traditions is more connected to Theravada Buddhism (along with a few Indian traditions eg Hinduism and Jainism), the lineage here is that of Mahayana Buddhism.  In many ways, there are parallels with the monastic traditions of the others (eg eating once a day, living very simply, developing inner understanding), and in some key ways, there are shifts in framing.  I wanted to outline my understanding of those shifts as I think they are meaningful, particularly from a ServiceSpace context.

The 'Chan' Hall for Practice

The growth of 'Eastern' ideas in the west seem strongly connected to the hippy movement in the USA, particularly focused on the coasts.  Of course there were ideas that were shared earlier (eg Vivekananda's visit to the west 120 years ago), but a sort of mass rooting seemed to have begun in the 1960's.  On the Buddhist side of that coin, that has led to a few viral memes that today, 50+ years later, seem to be all over the place.  Interestingly, they seem to be components of Theravada Buddhism (mindfulness/sati) and Vajrayana Buddhism (tantra).  It may not be commonplace to note that these 'memes' are from much larger schools of practice, but there it is :)

That being said, there are 3 major branches of Buddhism, not 2 - and the 3rd is Mahayana Buddhism, which is what Buddhism became as it traversed the Chinese subcontinent and onwards.  Zen is a subcomponent (and its viral meme, zen as a design aesthetic :)  For some reason the Chinese manifestation of Mahayana has really not grown in awareness in the west very much.  Several potential reasons for that, including limited information sharing due to government, translation difficulty, the non-intuitive nature of the teachings, and the shift in focus of Chinese mainland practice towards 1 form of practice (chanting/mantra Pure Land practice).

After the Rains at Buddha Root Farm, Oregon

Because of this, I had little understanding of what I was in for in this retreat!  So, I asked A LOT of questions :)  Below is a bit more of where I'm standing at this point, recognizing that it is still very early in my journey here, but hopefully of some value to share.

3 key areas that strike me as major shifts from Theravada practice to Mahayana practice (without making anyone wrong)-

1- Maha Prajna Paramita

The Theravada canon consists of that which was written in the original language of Gautama the Buddha (Pali), although it was written long after Buddhas life.  In the Mahayana canon, there are many more sutras/suttas that were put on paper after the Pali period (so the earliest text would be in Sanskrit or Mandarin).  According to the Mahayana tradition, those sutras (or teachings) also included teachings which expanded on teachings of what was shared earlier for those who aspired to become Buddhas themselves. The earlier teachings focused on how to get free from suffering; the expanded teachings connected that freedom to all living beings.

One key grouping of teachings, consisting of about 40 sutras, is called the Maha Prajna Paramita, or the great perfection of wisdom.  Of the many teachings therein, some of the most well-known are the Vajra (indestructible/diamond) sutra and the Heart sutra.  In our retreat, we touched on these texts in particular.  While difficult to summarize the takeaways using language (and there are others better suited anyways), a key piece to note here is the idea of emptiness as an abiding insight in parallel to sense-based experience.  The teaching was shared via nested paradox.  No becoming, no object/subject dichotomy, no linearity to time, and so on (including, eventually, no dharmas).  Not as an intellectual concept but rather a lived experience.  If you're interested in more, here's the original translation of Master Hua's text explanation (they are retranslating now because its missing a lot in old languaging)

In some cases, these sutras were discovered quite recently to the modern world.  For instance, the Vajra sutra was virtually unknown until 1900 (!) and then unknown to the west until the 1960's.

Along with this insight was the naming of the possibility of so-called 'instant insight' (which of course is only instant from 1 vantage point), leading to stories like that of Master Hua's teacher, Master Empty Cloud and the canonical 6th Patriarch Sutra.  The reason that Rev Heng Sure shared this (aside from it being meaningful given global situation currently) is that even if the insight cannot be lived moment-to-moment, there is a possibility of holding sense-based reality a little less tightly if there can be a tiny glimpse elsewhere.

Rev Heng Sure (left) holding space in circle

2- Five Schools

In my Theravada practice, the key areas focused on sila (ethics), samadhi (concentration), and panna/prajna (insight).  Here, forms of practice focus on 5 schools and 6 perfections.  The five schools are chanting/Pure Land, Chan meditation, Vinaya (ethics/conduct), Sutra study, and 'Secret' school (matra/mudra/mandala).  The 6 paramitas are generosity, ethics, patience, energy/vigor, concentration, insight.  The variety of practice focus leads to many pathways of growth and reminded me of the multiple approaches to insight from a Vedic perspective (eg raja yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga).

My upbringing was heavily influenced by my father, who I would say came from a rationalist, scientific, and atheist perspective (it has since evolved).  Coming from this place, the Goenka ji tradition was exactly the one I was open to.  It went out of its way to present a form of inner cultivation that a mind based on science, logic, and rationality could accept.  And over the years, I've seen my energy field soften, and I've seen how a broad set of practices have supported (including Goenka vipassana).  And so there I was, curious to practices of bowing, chanting, and beyond that I am open to in ways that I'm not sure I could have been earlier in my journey.

3- Bodhisattvas

Though the concept exists in Theravada, in Mahayana it is center stage.  What's behind it is the approach of 'one vehicle' - that the enlightenment spoken of in earlier suttas, 'becoming' an arahant, is a step on the path, but not necessarily the end.  In a universe imbued with interbeing, a personal enlightenment could be a partial one.  In the Mahayana context, there is only one way through - the path of the Buddha.  That is to say, we are all future Buddhas - not just whole in wisdom, but also whole in compassion.  And what that means is taking on a path that honors that interconnection rather than pull back from it - through a path of service.  A Bodhisattva takes on a vow to not cross the threshold of transcendance until all living beings first cross - and there are many such 'entities' beyond Gautama the Buddha.  This doesn't negate the idea of a personal enlightenment, but rather 'enmeshes' the possibility that personal and collective aren't distinguishable at that level of insight.

There was an interesting story to this effect shared.  A Bodhisattva was meditating and being bit by mosquitos.  Simultaneously 3 directions of thought came up for the meditator - 1) a wish to expand the flesh of the body so that all the coming mosquitos could have their fill without issue; 2) an intention to bind to the consciousness of each mosquito such that those biters would be the first ones the meditator would take across the threshold of nirvana; 3) a holding of the paradox of the existence of the mosquitos, the meditators wish to 'liberate' the mosquitos, and a deeper emptiness where neither exists.  This was a powerful story for me as any one of those perspectives seem a big stretch to hold!

Guan Yin, like many Bodhisattvas, holding the feminine form in highlighting compassion

And like this, many Bodhisattvas, including perhaps the most well-known in the west, Guan Yin/Avalokiteshvar, who is known as the Bodhisattva of compassion.  Each one taking vows that would (in theory) last eons, connecting 1:1 with the 'four noble truths' outlined by Gautama Buddha-

'Pithy' Noble Truths
1-The truth of suffering
2-The truth of the origination of suffering in attachment
3-The truth of the cessation of suffering through ending attachment
4-The truth of a path to follow that leads to this cessation

And since that language is pretty imprecise for what we're talking about-

More 'to the point' Noble Truths                                   
1-Life is not constantly satisfactory
2-Reactivity to sense-experience causes this seemingly unavoidable dissatisfaction
3-Reactivity is not inherent, it can dissolve
4-There is a pathway for this to happen, its simple but not easy :)

Bodhisattva vows as correlating with the truths
1-Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
2-Reactivities are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
3-Opportunities for ending reactivities are boundless, I vow to master them.
4-The pathway laid before me is unsurpassed, I vow to become it.

Quite a powerful set of intentions to take on!  Especially in a context where there are only 2 guiding forces for what one becomes - inertia/habit and vows.

Mahayana in Society Today, and the ServiceSpace connection

My understanding is that part of the reason Theravada came earlier to the west is because of the openness of Southeast Asian countries - westerners were able to go visit Thailand and Burma etc, and coming back became the Jack Kornfields and Sharon Salzbergs we now know.  Similarly, my understanding is Vajrayana came to the west because His Holiness the Dalai Lama became a sort of political and spiritual leader beyond that of the country he was displaced from.  From that came the Richard Davidsons and Richard Geres.  And of course we have Zen as a Mahayana 'offshoot' that became well-known through folks like Phil Jackson (although the tradition shifted significantly away from its previous tenets due to Japan governmental policy in late 1800's).  But, when it comes to broader Mahayana, we in the west do not seem to have such iconic names or concepts, at least to my eyes.

This is interesting to me because there are several aspects of Mahayana practice that feel deeply resonant to me.  I'm also noticing how much the world of ServiceSpace seems aligned with this approach.  It seems to me that of a few different ideas that could spread through society from this tradition, highest potential could be the Bodhisattva concept.

From a ServiceSpace perspective, the parallels with a Bodhisattva approach are strong.  The intention of selfless/empty service outlined both through the Vajra sutra text as well as through Bodhisattva vows feels deeply connected to concepts such as 'pilgrim heart', 'change yourself, change the world', and 'laddership.'  The 6 paramitas lead with generosity, patience, and vigor, key components of 'gift culture.'  It adds up to an invitation to serve, not from the perspective of benefit for the 'other', or to 'save the world', or even to 'enlighten oneself', but for insight into transcendence.  Cultivating within and service to others becomes 2 sides of the same coin.  To parallel the paradox of the Vajra text, there is nobody who serves and nobody to serve, that is why it is called service :)

And all of this is held by Rev Heng Sure as an elder in the ServiceSpace ecosystem.  I have witnessed him, heard stories about him, his bowing pilgrimage, and personally benefited from his presence for many years, yet I hadn't grasped the more specific underpinnings of the tradition he has been cultivating in for +40 years.  What I found in holding that inquiry felt so alive that I thought others may also appreciate some of the fruit!

In closing, below is the 'song' that has become ubiquitous in this tradition.  Sung daily to close activities, it carries an intention of sharing everything that one is/has for the benefit of others, even intangible merit, so that all beings may be happy and free :)

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Why We Named Him Iver

Our son's name, Iver, solidified in our minds a few days after his birth.

Several weeks prior, we had been gifted a poem at my wife's baby shower.  The poem was from Harshida auntie, who has played a significant role in both our lives for many reasons.  And the poem was by Khalil Gibran, called 'On Children':

The poem continues to hang in Iver's room, and in the first year was right above the changing table for the repeated reminder :)  While we much appreciated the poem, there was no direct connection to a name at the time.

However, after he was born, we were sitting with a small list of potential names.  We had an intention of carrying forward a name from my wife's background, a Scandanavian or Nordic tradition, knowing that his last name would come from my lineage.  And upon looking through, we saw Iver, meaning 'archer' from the Scandanavian tradition.

Our intention is that name acts as a reminder (for all of us!) that while the 'bows and arrows' are what we see in the journey of the family, the grace of the archer is what is behind it all.  

Monday, June 10, 2019

Regenerative Agriculture, Veganism, and Inner Transformation

For the last decade of my life, I've had elements of my work connected to the food system.  As I journeyed on this path of 'waking up' in terms of my relationship to food, I have seen so many systems and approaches to potentially take on.  Of course we have seen innumerable 'diets' and super-foods and questions of privilege and beyond.  I wanted to focus on a couple approaches that I've seen and been involved with - regenerative agriculture and veganism - which some would say are antagonistic but I'm not so sure.  Part of the impetus to reflect on this topic came from being inspired by this post from Dr Bronner (there's a tremendous amount of value there which I won't discuss, highly recommended read).  The point of this reflection is to name that both approaches have value in terms of their affect on earth/mind, both can co-exist, and both have a relationship to the journey of inner development.  This is not a post about health impacts.  In some ways, it is an explanation of the embodied life I have been living.

As context, my own background has been using multiple forms of capital in support of both movements through Armonia and Mobius.  In both areas, I have felt like a cross between a foreign substance and a bridge.  I find myself engaged in activities that support people in increasing their plant-based food consumption, reducing meat consumption, increasing regenerative meat consumption, and increasing regenerative plant-based food consumption.  I am multi-generationally a vegetarian (trending both vegan and regenerative), yet I have also helped with the growth of holistic management of cattle to build soil across the world.  It's this unique background that is what had me thinking it might be of value to offer an integrated perspective.

First off, regenerative agriculture and veganism do not strike me as an apples to apples comparison.  The former is an approach to producing food, the latter is a dietary/lifestyle choice.  That being said, there has been a conflation in recent times of 'regenerative' and 'animal agriculture' - eg regenerative meat, dairy, eggs.  Similarly, there has been a conflation in recent times of veganism and processed foods (nut milks with locust bean gum, impossible burger, etc).  Both conflations are not crazy in that processed food consumption seems to be rising in the plant-based world and the most well-known regenerative products tend to be animal products.  And this whole inquiry gets more confusing with cellular agriculture, creating things like clean meat and cows milk without cows.

The regenerative approach has had plenty written about it, in short the primary question they are asking is 'how can we support nature to have the system as a whole have more life?'  On the vegan/plant-based side, the primary question asked is 'how can we minimize the needless suffering of sentient life?'  I think both questions would of course resonate with everyone, it's a question of what is primary.  Of note that right now, less than 1% of people eat a fully vegan or regenerative diet, but many more folks who are interested in the values behind these approaches and are trending in their direction.

The main point here is that all of this, all of the approaches we're looking at in society, is a manifestation of people waking up.  People are realizing they have been eating (and living?) with a limited conscious awareness of what they are eating, its impact on themselves, their community, their ecology.  That process happening is what unites all these folks - and important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of food produced/consumed in USA (and the world) still reflects this lack of conscious awareness.  This is not to blame any party (we're all in different stages of waking up in different parts of our lives, with different creative constraints), but rather naming that if this is the case, all the more reason to appreciate and value those who are asking questions of waking up.

While the overlap on intention to grow in conscious awareness may be there, what do to about is not so clear.  What I've seen in my work is noticing that plant-based approaches have a pragmatic view in looking to reduce harm in the current system; regenerative approaches are asking how we may be able to transcend the current system.  To me, both make sense.  The current system is highly entrenched, kills >100 billion land animals/year in gruesome ways, provides cheap/unhealthy food while causing untold imbalance - making even a 2% dent in that seems like a major win.  AND, the current food system is degrading the environmental system as a whole, such that its only a matter of time till we have an environmental collapse regardless of slight reductions in consumption; building another approach that works in harmony with environment after the inevitable, even if only 2% take it up right now, seems like a major win.  Of course, both approaches have the possibility to shift the entrenched system very quickly also.

File:Production still from "Final Straw, Food, Earth, Happiness" shows rice harvesting on a natural farm.jpg

These approaches are not either/or.  It is possible to be a 'regenerative vegan' - to support nature, have a system with more life, and not contribute to the intentional killing of sentient beings.  There are approaches trying this today, not just veganic agriculture but natural farming and lots of other alternatives.  Most calories eaten globally, about 75%, are from cereal grains (corn, wheat, rice) - they are mostly not grown in a regenerative way, but could be.  The pathway to eating in this way runs straight through the underlying values of capitalism.  While it may be biologically possible (and healthy) to eat and live in this way, it is not financially profitable to produce - in our system, this means it is not viable.  That raises interesting questions about our collective values - and what happens if those values evolve.

Where Inner Transformation Intersects

Worth noting is the 'shadow' of these approaches.  If anyone, in the process of waking up, holds to this idea that 'this is it, i have found the right answer' - we quickly open up our blind side in regards to where we may miss the next level of integrated approach.
As it relates to plant-based eating, this could include:
-contributing to a degrading system, thus contributing to the extinction of countless life going forward. 'not as bad' does not equal 'good'
-shaming-based approaches and the ramifications of being seen as fringe in society because of it
-contributing to the needless death of countless non sentient life (eg soil microbes)

as it relates to regenerative approaches, this could include:
-contributing to the killing of sentient beings, usually relatively early in their life
-contributing to the maintaining of dominion over sentient beings
-engaging in what has been called psychological refuge, where we feel good if 10% of our consumption is regen/humane, even if 90% is not
-difficulty to compete in current mass-market on price (eg getting into big drivers of CAFOs like McDonald's)

and of course there are some across the board:
-contributing to loss of jobs in conventional paradigm
-contributing to the continuation of financialization of life as the default approach

And it is this shadow that leads to an uneasy coexistence.  Everyone's looking at the missing pieces of the other, and the places where the worldview doesn't overlap (eg, 'but killing is natural!' ... 'one bad day of slaughter is one too many!').  There are 2 different worldviews here - one is that natural ecology is supreme and reverse engineering that is folly; the other is that the level of suffering in the conventional system is so obscene that any approach is worthwhile to take on in addressing it.  And so we have solutions like mom-and-pop farms and genetically-modified burgers, all interested in addressing the tremendous disharmony externalized by the current system.

The point here is that its a long journey and we all may have a ways to go as we walk each other home.  My dietary choices (and beyond) do not reflect any sort of purity either, nor am I advocating for it.  I am, however, interested in walking towards the collective of values that seem present in these approaches.  The pathway there may not be straight-line - there are ways to reduce animal suffering that are not regenerative; there are ways to regenerate the whole that involve suffering along the way; there are ways for the system to shift that follow an emergent path.  By supporting people to walk the path of their own development, I've seen people who manage animals shift their relationship to slaughter; i've also seen advocates of plant-based living start to inquire about how to make sure those plants come from the wisdom of nature; i've even seen folks developing cellular agriculture asking about organic growth medium.

Again and again, those who walk the path of inquiry and growth continually develop and shift in their thought, speech, and action as it relates to this broader topic.  I won't share specific people as this is continual and in-process, but it includes leaders in both movements.  The pathway there seems to be strongly related to relationship and love, which creates the psychological safety and trust to continue the growth journey (as opposed to 'fight, flight, freeze').  I have to be willing to die to my need to be right, to die to my need to think I see the full picture, to die to my assumption that the 'others' myopia doesn't exist in me as well.  If you're interested in this path and work in this space, i'm part of a team that hosts bi-annual farm animal advocate meditation retreats in the spirit of gift culture, happy to share more with you.

To me, the key question is 'are we continuing to grow in our cultivation and understanding?'  There's plenty of human development models that break down what it means to not get stuck in a way of thinking.  Forcing a person to think in a way they are not ready for doesn't seem to produce harmonious results - seems more skillful to support the journey of waking up and help folks keep growing in their upward cycle of wisdom rather than get stuck (which might manifest as 'i am right!' or 'they are wrong!' vs 'how could it be that there is an integrated approach here that speaks to all?')

That's the path I've been on.  Even as a person who has never (consciously) eaten meat, I couldn't avoid that 97% percent of humanity does on most days, and the details of it are tough to swallow.  I also couldn't avoid that my dietary choices were ensuring we'd have no viable topsoil within a couple generations.  Each day is another attempt to dive deeper into how to integrate these and more perspectives into compassion and wisdom.  I've included below the end of the Dr Bronner's post with his suggestions on taking next steps on that path, along with continuing to ask nuanced questions.

Wishing you a continually unfolding food experience that supports your inner journey!

1. Regenetarian omnivores and vegetarians are willing to spend more for, and eat less of, meat, dairy and eggs, sourced only from correctly pastured and fed animals.
2. A boycott of “bad meat” is a hallmark of the regenetarian ethos. Animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) fed conventional carbon/water-intensive grain are an environmental and ethical disaster, inefficiently converting plant into animal protein and calories, especially in the case of feedlot (vs grassfed) beef.
3. Regenetarian vegans are committed to eating regenerative organic grains, legumes, and vegetables, and modelling the discipline for their regen omnivore comrades to just say no to bad meat. The scale of death that attends overuse of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on non-target wildlife in conventional cropping systems makes eating regeneratively a vegan imperative.
For everyone who believes in the power of regenerative agriculture to restore soil and rebalance the earth, I recommend you become a regenetarian. To start, I suggest you go vegan for 21 days to learn how to live life easily on a regenerative organic plant-based diet, and then:
1. Reintroduce a lower level of meat, dairy and/or eggs. Eating only meat, dairy and eggs certified by the Global Animal Partnership 4 or 5 (pasture based); Animal Welfare Approved; and make sure that it is cross certified to USDA organic standards as far as feed; OR
2. You know your local farmer inside out and they are raising animals humanely on pasture as well as using organic feed/grass only, and you eat only meat, dairy and/or eggs sourced from them OR
3. Stay vegan entirely.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Regenerative Living: The Banyan Grove Toilet

Banyan Grove is a relatively new gathering place in the ServiceSpace ecosystem.  I think it's pretty great :)  Yes it looks good, but for me, the approach is what really speaks to me, and I wanted to highlight one place in which that approach plays out - the toilet.

In my world, we talk a fair bit about this concept of regeneration.  It's used a lot in some agriculture circles.  The concept is fundamentally about leaving something better than we find it.  And the path there is about understanding nature - that over time, abundance inevitably arises when we surrender to nature.  The below graphic is one that'll I'll keep referencing to this end.

The Toilet System

On the Banyan Grove volunteer team, I've been the one most focused on sanitation.  I've felt like I won a sort of prize as that shook out, given that many of my inspirations focused on sanitation for those who had none, and even setup a Toilet Cafe to bring awareness!  We stand on the shoulders of giants :)

At Banyan Grove, one could say that the water system is not in abundance.  That is for a variety of reasons, but primarily because the 'out' line of water, the septic system, is not connected to a city system.  It is fundamentally 'off grid.'  So that means we can't just add it to a city's use and have it average out.  The off-grid system is made for an 'average use' by common USA standards.  And within the 'average use' paradigm, that means the average family uses about 80 gallons of water a day - more than half a days total water use, for flushing alone.  Those 80 gallons relate to about 4 gallons flushed into an industrial processing system for every use of toilet.  Once it's processed, we don't drink it - it actually takes a long time to make it back to be usable water.  In industrial systems, we treat this water with chemicals to just make it usable for non-human things, like industrial or agricultural uses (where most water goes nowadays), and is part of the reason why we are 'running out' of freshwater.  We would call this a conventional, degenerating system - and unfortunately this is more than 90% of all toilet systems in the western world.  At Banyan Grove, this approach doesn't really work, so we had to be creative.

What you'll find at Banyan Grove are 3 levels of 'choose your own adventure' as it relates to toilets.  They are not exhaustive or holistic, but a manifestation of working with the circumstances that are available.  Each are a major step up from prior approach, and perhaps a paradigm shift, transcendent of the previous. 

The 1st are toilets in the house.  They have been retrofitted to be 'ultra low flow' - what that means is that instead of 4 gallons of perfectly good water being put down the drain at every flush, there is now 1 gallon.  75% reduction in water 'wastage' - yay!  The toilets look not very different from what you would normally see in the western world, and a lot better in resource usage.  We would call this a green system, which is to say it is 'less bad.'  Actually, it's significantly less bad, and a large step up from most systems out there... AND, if we used only that at Banyan Grove, we would not be able to handle the total effluent that would come into the system.  

That's actually a great metaphor for society more broadly also - the way of thinking espoused by green approaches fundamentally has our civilization still heading towards a cliff, but now at a slow jog rather than a sprint :)  And there are even more green options out there - .75 gallons a flush! .5 gallons a flush even!  and if we push that logic to its logical conclusion, we find that of course the best possible solution would be for us to die - then finally we will have achieved 0 gallons a flush.  I don't mean to be overly negative about green solutions - I am grateful for them, but not as the ultimate solution - rather as a functioning bridge on a path.  It is a solution that in its implementation is 99% the same as a 'conventional' toilet, and should thus be easy to behaviorally adapt to, and yet provide major benefits.

But of course there is the 2nd level!  At Banyan Grove, that means a system that exists outside a house.  There, you'll find solar, waterless toilets.  Run by solar panels installed on the roof, they incinerate waste at a temperature of over 1000 degrees, leaving just a fine dust of ash - which can actually support flower growth in the garden :)  We would call this a restorative system.  Aside from the obvious benefit of not using a single drop of water, the toilet also is not dependent on a grid electrical system (which in most cases is powered by coal).  Furthermore, it functionally operates quite similarly to a 'conventional' toilet.  Amazing!  But there are drawbacks.  

One drawback is functionality.  It's not as simple to use as a conventional toilet.  One needs to put a small filter in the toilet bowl before utilizing.  instead of a flush mechanism, there's a pedal to step on.  instead of a push flush, we now have a button that results in a 'whirring sound' of a lot of heat being generated :)  Additionally, as we dive deeper into its function, we find a limit to it's eco-friendliness.  solar panels are amazing - compared to coal.  that being said, they also are created using plenty of precious metals (which we are running out of and do not have a circular system to handle waste) and have a life span of about 30 years.  That's a long time, but far from the timescales of nature.  Eventually, even a solar, waterless toilet results in mountains being blown up and quarries being dug up for precious metals, and at some point, it's not clear that even that approach would do the trick.  As I said before, I don't mean to be negative about this approach - it is amazing!  and it has limits to it.

And that brings us to the 3rd level :)  Another system that exists outside the house.  On the surface, it is simple as grass.  Inside some bamboo curtains are some hay bales for urination - a compost toilet.  We would call this a regenerative system.  Here, we find that not only is no water used for processing, but we use no additional energy at all.  Once the hay bales are saturated, they are moved using human labor (pitchfork and a wheelbarrow) to function as compost (not for human edibles just yet, but not far away).  

Again, there are drawbacks.  It doesn't smell the best.  It doesn't look like a conventional toilet at all.  Manual labor is involved in processing it in order to maintain usability.  And yet, it is a different approach entirely, not just in manner but in paradigm.  Using the hay bales, every time the toilet is used, the world gets more compost, better soil, more life being supported - one can make an argument that every toilet use is now an act of service! Whereas, in the conventional system, toilet use is thought of as something that degrades our resources.  

These are the options available on site at Banyan Grove, and they are all of value.  It now turns out that as it relates to water and septic at this location, we happen to have enough for everyones need, but not everyones greed :)  This doesn't mean everyone uses the hay bales, but rather that everyone stands at the edge of their comfort zone, and we trust each other to commit to our personal and collective growth.  After all, each of these 3 options is far beyond the conventional system in use today, and more than espousing a 'right answer,' the ServiceSpace approach is about inviting inner development and then trusting.

The financial costs vary for personal implementation of these septic approaches, but over 10 years all are personally and collectively cost effective over the traditional approach, as far as I can tell.  Interestingly, the most regenerative approach also requires the least financial input, and of course creates the most wealth as a result (through soil building and cycling water).  And yet, again, more than 90% of systems are trapped in the conventional approach.  Why is that???

It's Not About the Toilet :)

This gets me to the point of why I felt compelled to reflect on this topic.  It's actually not about toilets at all.  The toilets are a metaphor :)  There is a shift in living that occurs from all of these admittedly wonderful approaches.  In each case, joyful utilization requires some sort of shift to happen, but it is only the 3rd option that is in deep alignment with nature, and consequently strongly regenerates ecology.  

And regenerating ecology is what it will take to actually feel abundance in our life - if we deplete natural stock and then keep repeating an abundance mantra, it may not do us much good.  It's not just septic systems.  The food we eat can be produced in a regenerative manner (fyi, 'organic' certification is basically a green approach).  The clothes we wear, the same.  The products we use, the waters we swim in, the forests we breathe in, the medicine we take, and beyond.  It all touches the environment, and there is a way to engage with it so that by using it, we have engaged in an act of service.  Of course, at this point that is not a collective reality - but also at this point, for the most part its rarely even conceived of.  

The upcoming regenerative organic certification aims to bring this approach to food

This starts to get important when service is applied to approaches where the system continues to degenerate, or is green.  Seeing from this lens, there's plenty of examples of how big and small approaches fit into an approach that has varying amounts of surrendering to nature.  the green revolution was about service, but not necessarily about regeneration.  Today, we build levees on fundamentally non-viable cities and create robots to pick strawberries in service to the hard lives of migrant farm workers.  On the other side, kernza is quickly turning into a viable regenerative grain.  It's all 'service' - and like the toilet analogies at Banyan Grove, I'd say it's all of value - but not because it's a final solution.  Rather, it provides a scaffolding for humanity to step forward in wisdom and understanding, and to keep stepping forward beyond the initial step.

But that's not the crux of it either :)  The elder, Satish Kumar, has talked about the 3 forms of wealth that are 'real' in the world - Soil, Soul, and Society (ie, everything else is a collective agreement that we can withdraw).  I'll build on that to speak to what I believe he is referring to - Ecology, Inner Transformation, and Community.  It's not just ecology that benefits from a shift to a regenerative lens, but the other two as well.  

ServiceSpace's Regenerative Role

In the context of community, there are many 'technologies' within the ServiceSpace world that are utilized to support regeneration.  It's an interesting question to ask - what are the lessons from nature that are applicable to community?  Holding space, being in circle, talking stick, supporting ripples, assuming value, integral nonviolence, service, generosity, gift culture, and so many more.  As time has gone on, we've seen more relationships, deeper relationships, depolarization, and continued emergence of what is referred to in shorthand as 'many to many.'

And the same approach to the inner landscape.  What is in deep alignment with the evolution of human nature?  There are many ways to engage with the inner life which are degenerative, which are sustainable, and which are regenerative.  Again, we see the ServiceSpace approach, utilizing broad tools of meditation, compassion, gratitude, kindness, and beyond.  To be so bold, I would say it's an inquiry into love :)

The kinds of exemplars in the ecosystem speak to a sort of ultimate trust in nature, whether Vinoba Bhave (community) or Masanobu Fukuoka (ecology) or SN Goenka (inner development).  Learning how to skillfully get out of the way so nature can do its work may be the core of regeneration, and it may be applicable moreso in life as a whole than in any particular area.

Yes there are projects going on in ServiceSpace, but the point of them is not in the doing alone (especially considering the gift ecology approach) - they are vehicles to engage with a life of regeneration.  Learning to trust nature, witnessing abundance arise as we practice the tenets of a regenerative life, and thus diving into a virtuous cycle supporting a transformative process.

Which brings me to the earlier question - why is it that most toilets are the opposite of regenerative?  is it that people just don't know, and if they did, everything would change?  Evidence shows this isn't the case.  The solutions are out there, the explanations are out there, but they are not utilized.  What holds us back seems internal and communal.  This is a core of why I feel called to offer in my particular context - in my experience, it has been the journey of inner regeneration, that then flows to community regeneration, that then flows to ecological regeneration.  

What it takes seems to be the inner practices, and over time, we see the qualities arise that allow for other components to head in a regenerative direction.  In my case, it's a slow process (and I mean that not just in a self-deprecatory way), but, like nature, it seems to grow in non-linear ways.  Metaphorically, we all get to choose the practices that support the edge of our comfort zone, and grow from there - whether it's food, relationship, meditation, or the simple toilet!

Monday, April 15, 2019


Some conversations in recent years that happened...

Lift Economy conversation and Greater Good conference

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Years have passed

It's been a few years since i've written in this format.  Partly related to a bit of a block.  I'm not sure if there is much of meaning to say.  And what I do have to say doesn't seem best suited to a medium such as this.  I have written a little on the ServiceSpace platform in the intervening time.  I've also done a fair bit of journaling.  But I think mostly it is related to life's pace.  I'm now the father to a wonderful baby boy, who is 18 months old :)  Though I won't be sharing much about him on this medium as his story is his own to share.

I think I do want to write again, but more from a perspective of helping me see me.  Others may of course read along the way, this is not meant as a journal :)  I think of times in my life, usually when I'm in the process of something - maybe driving, or exercising, or feeding my son - and i'll think of a topic that is meaningful to me.  And I'll think 'oh, i really want to write about this.  to process it through prose.'  and i think that's why i'm writing this now, and whatever comes out later.  less about polish, although i do have a lifetime of bullet point thinking to work through!

One of the topics that has been a guide for life in these last few years is gratitude.  Just how much there is to be grateful for, and paradoxically just how much there is to grieve.  To my body, they feel related in some way.  I don't mean this just in a macro sort of way, but in a 'my life' sort of way.  the list for what i'm grateful for in my life is long, and very micro.  while i had seen it before, i'm not sure i had felt it.  what it feels like to be in touch with the first conscious breath in the morning.  to see my parents for a video chat.  to touch my family.  to simply know that certain dear ones exist.  to hear a poem that i can't really understand, but something in my heart aches anyways.  it's not owed to me.  it can go at any time.  i'm not sure i'm really in touch with that.

And grief.  to be willing to feel it.  to tear up, to sob.  for whatever reason, whether the underlying driver is my separate self feeling hurt and small or my separate self slowly dissolving into a glorious whole.  i've been appreciating the opportunity to feel it consciously, to the extent i can metabolize it.  trauma, my own, my inheritance, our inheritance.  where i don't feel seen.  where i feel scared.  and where i feel lifted and looked around and wondered how i could have lived a whole life and missed this

All this to say i'm going to be writing a little more.  that's my intention at least.  and it'll be less coherent, or meaningful, or complete, or depolarizing.... that actually sounds really good to me :)