This isn't quite a post about permaculture per se, but yet it is because it is focused on ideas of relations and connection, which are at the heart of the philosophy of permaculture; as Toby Hemenway (2000) writes, permaculture focuses less on “objects themselves than on the careful design of relationships among them – interconnections – that will create a healthy, sustainable whole” (5). It is a dharma talk (my first ever!) that I delivered this spring as an assignment for my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Yoga joins permaculture as one of the core philosophies and practices of my life, my ritual practices of connection and relation. And so I thought I would share this with you all, here. <3
In thinking about the notion of the true, authentic self, my thoughts often drift to a perhaps unexpected place – to the 1997 film ‘Contact,' which is a film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel by the same name. Some of you might remember this movie…a scientist, played by Jodie Foster, finds evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make first contact. The signals coming from the extraterrestrial life contain plans for a transport machine for a single occupant that will allow Jodie Foster to reach them. The plans contain no mention of safety features such as a seat for the passenger, a harness, even a seat belt, but the team constructing the machine insists on putting them in. So when the departure date arrives Jodie Foster enters the machine’s pod, which is dropped through four rapidly spinning rings, causing the pod to travel through a series of wormholes. Of course in the end the big question is whether she traveled anywhere or not, because from the spectator’s perspective the pod fell right through in a matter of seconds, but to her she traveled through space and time and experienced this encounter with great consciousness that she defends through faith even when it seems there’s no scientific proof. But before all that there’s this scene that I always think about in which Jodie Foster is dropping through these wormholes, she’s very securely strapped into the seat, which is shaking aggressively, more and more violently, and at the last minute she unhooks herself from the harness, the safety belts, the chair, and she is immediately still, floating peacefully, while not two seconds later the chair she was sitting in is ripped from the floor and is sucked violently to the ceiling of the pod, with a force that would surely have harmed her.
And I always think back to this scene…about the things that we think we need to keep us safe, whether we believe these things ourselves or we’re told that we need them by others, by our parents who want to keep us safe as children, by society that turns us into citizens of consumption. And this notion that through layers of padding, through safety belts and harnesses, things that we cling to, whether that be harmful relationships or self-image or beliefs or addiction, they weigh us down and distort our true selves, muffling them, suffocating them. But like the sun on a cloudy, rainy day, it’s always there, whether we see it or not.
Understanding the true self, the pure self, is to understand that all we need is already within us, that at our core we are supreme consciousness, we are truly light and love. That is our true nature. But there is a story or myth in our dominant culture that veils this truth, that is really in fact comprised of the opposite of this truth. That we are flawed and need to be fixed, that we aren’t good enough, that we need this possession or that one, that one day when we’ve finally made enough money or consumed enough things or our house is big enough, then we’ll be happy.
But by adding this padding, these layers upon layers, we’re weighing ourselves down, we’re distorting the nature of consciousness, and we’re doing so because we’re afraid. I truly believe that at the root of all of the elements that distort the truth of our inner nature – violence or non-truthfulness, stealing and excess and possessiveness (the yamas), is fear. We’re afraid that we won’t be good enough, that we’ll fail, that we won’t be loved, that we’ll look silly, and this paralyzes us, suffocates us. If we turn to the niyamas – purity, contentment, self-discipline, inner exploration, and surrender – what is needed in each case is the overcoming of fear, letting go of all of the weights and the patterns and the clinging that fear has motivated in us.
This reminds me of one of my cats, Gillian, well really all of my four animals, but Gillian in particular was a 6-year-old tiny black cat that we adopted at the Humane Society in Eugene, she was the longest resident and was in a room by herself because she didn’t get along with the other cats, and she had never been adopted because every time visitors went in to see her she’d end up swatting them. I could tell immediately that she was so full of love, but she was so afraid…she came from a neglectful home, had her long hair shaved off because it was so matted when they found her. And so we adopted her and for weeks she hid under our futon…sometimes I could make contact with her, and I could literally see the love brimming up in her, and then her immediate reaction to that sensation was fear, fear of letting go of the walls she’d built up to protect her, and she’d immediately swat me. Now it’s been two years this month and she is just this ball of love, she sleeps on my back, she follows me everywhere, and she’s just proof that at the core of all beings is love, love, love, and that we distort it out of fear.
All of my animals have similar stories, and I’m sure many of you have similar stories, whether it’s with animals or plants or humans. And it’s the truth that this applies to humans as well that our culture distorts; there’s this myth of human nature, that it’s human nature to be greedy and selfish and to consume and to be apathetic. I hear this from my students constantly, I do an exercise with all of my classes at the beginning of a new semester from a framework called ‘The Work that Reconnects’ from spiritual ecologist Joana Macy, in which I ask them to share with a partner, among other things, what they love about being alive and what breaks their hearts about the world. And when asked to share what breaks their heart about the world, without fail someone always says ‘humans,’ followed by greed, selfishness, apathy, qualities that they link to humans. And what I try to encourage them to think about over the course of the semester is the implications of that belief…if it’s human nature to be greedy and selfish and apathetic, then we have no hope. But what if that story isn’t true, what if human nature is consciousness and love and connection and relations, what if all we have to do is remove the false beliefs and patterns and structures that distort our view of the truth.
This is truly my belief, this is what motivates me to teach and to want to expand my teaching to yoga, and what brings me back to my mat and my practice to help me remember these truths, because they can be so elusive, this game of hide and seek, and that’s why it’s so vital, why I have so much gratitude for yoga and the tangible philosophies and practices it gives us to return again and again to this truth and to ourselves and to the potential for a new paradigm of humanity, a shift in consciousness that the world desperately needs.
Hemenway, Toby. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Hartford: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009.