“Gardening is about awareness and relationship—consequential relationship. It’s also about taking a stand and standing by your principles. At the same time, it’s about giving up control and learning from your mistakes…Meditation and gardening settle [us] down into the deep core of the present moment, they also shift shape and take on the world in fresh form, never seen before.” Wendy Johnson, Gardening at the Dragons Gate
During my Buddhist Chaplaincy training at Upaya Zen Centre with Roshi Joan Halifax, my eyes and heart opened to the work of cohort member, Rev. Patti De Santis, who was bringing troubled youth together in Vancouver to explore meditation, and cooking food. Though I had chosen environmental and end-of-life as the focus of my studies, the idea of bringing youth together to meditate and explore food triggered something deeper inside me. This really is where the seeds of serving the youth began for me. Food, the land, and nature awareness have always been important to me, both from my Italian heritage and culture as well as from my love for nature that began in childhood. The seeds have also been watered by my growing concerns about the ecological fragility of the earth and what we are leaving behind for the next generation. Mindfulness and meditation practice have also informed my life for the past 30 years, and everyday, I see them as essential skills in engaging our world with stability and wisdom. These skills keep us grounded and open, give us courage and strength to face our obstacles, motivate us to be part of the change we wish to see, and help us to embrace the necessary compassion to sustain ourselves in facing the complexity of our world today.
For me, the relationship between food and mindfulness practice are two essential ingredients to leading a healthy life. I believe that both provide us with important and imperative practices in transforming our world, practices I believe are needed by our youth…and really by all of us. As I continued to train and study Permaculture, a system that looks at the interconnections between humans and nature, I learned new/old ways of how human activities (i.e., culture, food, land use, building, energy, farming, etc.) can reflect how nature works. I learned more about food systems and how our current industrialized approach is more and more problematic. And I think about the effects of “globalization” that can breed our greed for more and more things. What is the price for our pace of living? And how is this affecting our youth and the Earth?
Not to overstate the global warming issues, ecological degradation is an issue our youth are facing and the future generations will inherit the too. And this concerns me deeply. Each day, we see so much distress, especially as we witness an increase in youth suicide in our society. What does this say? Our world appears to be racing towards increasing levels of stress, insecurity, competitiveness, conflict, economic crisis, poverty, unhappiness, depression, and loneliness. How can I as a chaplain and as a human being engage the world and make a difference?
At a talk I attended with Sufi teacher and activist, Andrew Harvey, he asked us an important question: “What cracks your heart open? Reflecting upon this question, what came to me was how devastating it is to know how the earth and its countless beings—animals, birds, waterfowl, water beings, insects, and the millions of tiny beings you can’t see—are being affected by our human actions and choices. We hear about the losses to both bee and monarch butterfly populations, those friends who pollinate our food. In China, today, human pollination of flower is a full time job for some people, where a declining bee population could threaten our food system. Industrial scale farming leads to soil erosion and nutrient depletion, farm chemicals continue to pollute our water tables, CO2 emissions are a constant threat to our world, and we have major corporations controlling our seed production, our food and water sources, which in turn controls our economies. Who speaks for the voice of the earth?
It is through our ignorance, greed and desire that creates this suffering and devastation in the world. We are all part of that problem and its solutions. So as a chaplain and as a concerned human being, I asked myself, What is one small thing I can do to make a difference? I could only think small as the whole picture is way too overwhelming. And I believe that a small action can really make a difference….Could my passion for food and my concerns for youth make a difference in the world?
Then one day I was searching a nutrition site and saw a video by an inspiring young woman, who is committed to change. At age 13, Rachael Parent wrote a school paper on GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) and from that paper became an food activist. She is now speaking and protesting non GMO’s and ‘Kids Right to Know‘ education about what is in the food that they eat. Andrew Harvey’s question and listening to Rachael Parent inspired me to start close to home and to grow my own food.
To counter the globalization of food as a systemic issue affecting each of us, I decided I need to do something active about how I related to the food we eat. With the help of my husband, Andrew, we began establishing a vegetable garden based on the principles and approaches I had learned from permaculture. While we have all contributed to these serious ecological problems we face, I feel my responsibility and I was seeking what my contribution to this mess could be. The lessons of a garden was a necessary step on my path to finding a way to make a difference.
As an elder, yes, I’m over sixty now, it’s also my responsibility to listen to what the youth need and to offer them back my skills and life experiences. From some, I hear they need mentorship and support from adults who are not their parents and they needs skills. For me, meditation practice is the root of my day to day, moment by moment, in living with awareness. Through my years of study and practice, I see now how my practice is helping me transform my unhealthy and destructive patterns. Facing, accepting and then transforming my obstacles has not been easy, but, it has opened me to a deeper understanding of what it means to live wholeheartedly in whatever time I have left here on our planet. I also made another choice to balance city living with living half the year off the grid and close to the earth. This hasn’t been easy either, but it has opened my eyes to how we take so much for granted. Living off grid is not glamorous and requires constant mindful attention and focus, much like our meditation practice. As I was learning and harvesting vegetables from the garden, I was also learning and harvesting the medicine from the land, too. (I make a delicious Elderberry syrup that is an excellent medicinal to prevent colds and flus.) I began meeting supporting my local food growers, where I began to learn where my food came from and I saw how passionate each of them was about the earth and all its beings.
Mindfulness practice is not just about developing a relationship with our own thoughts, its about our relationship with life: it’s about having a relationship with farmers and people where I buy our fruit, veggies, meat and dairy. This journey living on the land has been life changing for me. Now, from May to October I have the privilege of living on 171 acres of diverse landscapes and habitats, just south of Owen Sound. Each day I awake with deep gratitude for the incredible opportunity to live in the beauty of nature and with the surprises that arise in each moment. It is within these moments that awakens a sensory and primordial awareness of the world beyond me, beyond my front door.
So many of us live unaware of the natural world beyond our busy personal, work, technology and TV lives. Many of us are afraid of this world. Rarely noticing the songbirds calls, we walk out our front doors and hear the sounds of traffic, the humming sounds of our electrical grid, and the daily pounding of construction. We are people who rush from one place to another without slowing down and noticing their surroundings. This is where mindfulness practice engages life. When our minds are constantly preoccupied, distracted and disconnected from our surroundings, it means we are disconnected to others and ultimately to oneself.
Enkyo O’Hara Roshi, one of our Zen teachers at Upaya, asks, “How do we get in touch with that deepest, clearest, most intimate self?” As I spend more time in nature, it leads me toward a deeper connection to the earth, to others and, in the end, a deeper connection to myself. So I ask myself, how do I cultivate more peace and sustainability in my life and also help others do the same? What I learned was that connecting to that “intimate self,” that Roshi speaks of, means overcoming my limitations and all the ways I stop myself from the call to action that young Rachel Parent never avoided.
In January 2015, I called the first meeting to explore what a Youth Program might look like. I invited three dear friends, Nancy Meyer, Goldie Sherman, and Kim Scarrow, and we called ourselves, the “Sarana Sisters.” All three were long time supporters in our the community and held the vision of Sarana Institute and were aligned with my ideas for a Youth Program at Sarana Springs. Nancy in particular shared my passion for food sustainability and the need for sharing our wisdom with youth. In coming together, we shared a common commitment to land stewardship, our goals in creating an “intergenerational” community to support youth, the importance of mindfulness practices, and the need to work together in creating sustainable and healthy relationships. We valued and shared our intentions, based on respect, truthfulness, self-responsibility and compassion, as well as shared values drawn from our lived experiences and from Buddhist and Indigenous teachings. We shared a common desire to share our individual gifts in
creating a project based on service and deep spirituality. Each of us wished to contribute to supporting future generations and leaving a better world behind for them, for all beings, including the earth.
After several meetings, our thoughts for the program came into alignment around three key components of practice: Mindfulness and Mindful Listening Practices, Nature Awareness Practices; and Food/Gardening Practices. We also agreed that we first needed to build infrastructure on the land in order to support the program. For me, it was clear, we first needed to build the heart of community life, the kitchen, where community would gather and where food could be prepared. Through the summer/fall of 2015, we held a ‘Kitchen Raising’ crowd-funding initiative to build an outdoor 8×12 modified shed as our 3-season kitchen. Remarkably, we raised just over $6,000. As of the launch of our new website, we are doubly excited as the kitchen structure nears completion. With appreciation and gratitude, we give thanks to all your donations that made this moment possible!
The next step was to begin gathering the intergenerational community of all ages together. Those we invited each had different skills in building, nourishing and supporting our goal in launching the “Youth Project” in August of 2017. It is said that “it takes a village to raise a child”…..and it definitely takes a village to raise a kitchen and sustain this vision. This past May 22nd a circle of 9 gathered together at the Sarana Springs Temple-Barn to envision the next steps. Together we weaved our thoughts, feelings and next steps. As a community we all felt that we needed to clear the path for next year’s vision which became a beautiful metaphor of “clearing the trails of Sarana,” as a step we would all walk together to discover the beauty of the land. That day we ended our meeting hiking to the “Prayer Rocks” where we left offering of rose petals and our prayers for peace.
Then again on July 9th, Maxine, Andrew, Naty with her 2 boys, Theo and Ezra, and myself began the journey of clearing the new growth and brambles on the “Yellow Trail.” In gentle morning rains, we moved through the Yellow Trail that had grown in considerably, since Andrew had first cleared it on his 50th birthday. The trail itself is a wondrous journey of landscapes that wind through diverse forests to the highest point of the land and a ridge that overlooks a deep mysterious bowl formation of land that makes one wonder who could be living there. Along the trail are countless moss covered rocks, a gathering of larger boulders in a cedar forest, we call the Ancestor Stones, where we remember and pray for our loved ones, and we ended in a pine forest we call, “The Nest,” where we hope to have platform tents for retreat. Naty thought the forest looked like a sacred temple, and for me a nest that you want to curl up in.
Together we cut our way through the overgrown pine and cedar, as well as maple and hawthorns…watch out for their barbs… that had over taken the path. Andrew, Theo and Ezra were cutting and sawing down the small trees and branches, while Maxine, Naty and I crawled on our hands and knees cutting back the maple seedlings that were growing in. That day, being in nature was a beautiful way to connect with each other and to touch the earth in a way that is beyond words. And finally, we ended our time with an early harvest feast from my mandala garden.
Throughout the summer, friends will join us to continue to clear and develop new trails with the dream of a vast interconnection web of trails that allows us to travel into all the habitats at Sarana Springs. I live in amazement as this unfolds, and I look forward to sharing with you and with all those who join us on this adventure!
Lastly, I end with much joy as the new kitchen arrives shortly and community gathers to work towards this vision of service. Here’s a sneak peak at the kitchen…it’s really sweet! Thanks again for everyone’s support and contributions….angie