It is easy to feel overwhelmed by global problems. Climate change. Children fleeing violence in Central America. Wars across the Middle East. Streams of refugees. Racism. Prison reform. Black Lives Matter. Homelessness. Economic injustice. Political gridlock.
These are part of the fabric of the human race at this time. But the solutions to these problems are also within you. I remember talking with my mother about the problems facing humanity in this era. She reminded me that she was born when her father came back from the first World War. She had lived through worse times, the Great Depression, the Second World War. She reminded me that humanity survived even these terrors. We have eventually found ways to respond, to renew.
Now our task is to renew yet again. It is obvious that there is no outer solution. No amount of new technology, computers and Internet, space technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology will stop continuing warfare and racism and environmental destruction. This is a pivotal point in our history. The powers of science and technology now have to be matched by the inner developments of humanity. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called us a nation of nuclear giants and ethical infants. But this is not the end of the story. We have learned that empathy, integrity, and wisdom can also develop. The research of Harvard professor Stephen Pinker detailed in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, shows how, in fits and starts, global violence has actually decreased in the last few centuries. And with it, slavery has been reduced. The rights of women and children are gradually better than a hundred years ago. The rights of of gays and lesbians, of refugees, and and the disabled have grown. Not everywhere, for there are still too many people enslaved, threatened, or in dire poverty. But collectively we are headed in the right direction.
Humanity must go much further. It is possible. We need an educational system based on compassion and mutual understanding, and a profound sense of interconnection. We need mindfulness and mutual care to guide our communities, our medicine, our politics. We need a new way to approach our problems.
My colleague Wes Nisker interviewed Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder. At eighty-four he is one of our greatest poets and environmentalists, and Gary has been writing about the environment for over fifty years. Wes asked him about the climate problems, global warming, rising oceans, loss of species. Did Gary have any advice for us? “Don’t feel guilty,” he said. “Guilt and anger and fear are part of the problem. If you want to save the world, save it because you love it!”
The problems of the world need your love. Love is the only power great enough to overcome greed and anger, violence, and fear. This is the love that has mothers lift cars off their children. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the nation to embody the power of love. As you gain a greater sense of inner freedom, you become available to the world in a new way. Not as a frustrated, frightened, or burned out activist. But with an inner strength. The inner freedoms you discover, freedom to love, to create, to awaken, to forgive, to dream, to start over all naturally give rise to a greater care for life.
In Zen they say there are only two things: You sit, and you sweep the garden. And it doesn’t matter how big the garden is. As you quiet your mind and listen to your heart, you discover that your spirit will not be satisfied unless you also tend your garden. Pick something you care about. It can be local or global, reducing racism or fighting climate change. Educate yourself, make close friends of others who are different from you, join the local school board, volunteer at the hospital, work for a political cause, or help the school plant a garden. Lower your carbon footprint. Add your voice and energy. Plant seeds for a more compassionate future. You can’t change it all, but your freedom empowers you to contribute to the world, and your love gives you the way to do so.
Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India, and Burma and he has taught meditation internationally since 1974. He is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He is the author of many books, including No Time Like the Present: Finding Freedom, Love, and Joy Right Where You Are, from which this article is excerpted with permission from Atria Books.
On September 1-4, 2017, Kornfield will lead a retreat at the Garrison Institute called “Loving Awareness, Wisdom and Compassion in Tough Times.”
Image: Jack Kornfield ringing a bell at the Garrison Institute in 2015.