"The only way to save the environment is to address our levels of greed by realising that happiness comes from within".
In the second of our series of articles on the deeper dimensions of our approach to sustainability, Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten writes about our need for happiness, and how we commonly mistake material goods for inner satisfaction.
This blog is written by Gelong Thubten. Buddhist monk, meditation teacher and author of the book A Monk’s Guide to Happiness – Meditation in the 21st Century.
Most of us want to be happy, and that aim underpins much of what we do. We are unsure, however, of exactly how to attain the lasting happiness we seek, and this confusion has put our planet and communities in significant danger.
We assume that if we ‘get what we want’, then we will be happy, but we often end up feeling incomplete. Maybe we don’t really know what we want. We might get what we think we want, but then find ourselves wanting something else, and so we start chasing things again. We have established a culture designed to make us endlessly want more things, and so we are never fully happy. We have built ourselves a prison made of our own desires.
Perhaps the problem lies in that constant search for happiness. The searching becomes a habit, leading to more searching. We are always looking for the next thing, and so we feel dissatisfied. The problem also stems from how isolated we have become.
Historically a sense of the wider community, the tribe, was important to us, but today we live in the age of the self: ‘it’s all about you’. Our obsession with self-identity has made us lonely; we forget how to connect to others. The self-centred mind does not know how to be happy: fixated on one’s own needs, nothing ever feels good enough as the grasping leads to more grasping. On the other hand, widening one’s focus and thinking of others with a compassionate attitude can lead to genuine, sustainable happiness.
We can only breathe because of the world around us. The trees and plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce the oxygen we inhale; we breathe out, sending out the carbon dioxide which nature uses to produce more oxygen. Our food, clothing and survival depend upon the world around us. Even our individuality depends on the community around us. We exist because of others.
When we learn to respect interdependence, a sense of gratitude can arise. In the modern world gratitude is not promoted: we are encouraged to be dissatisfied and to seek more things. By making people feel ungrateful, the wheels of commerce keep turning but at great cost to our mental health and the health of our planet. Through cultivating gratitude, we can live in harmony with ourselves, with each other and with our planet. That gratitude becomes the basis for developing greater compassion.
Additionally, it is helpful to examine our thoughts and attitudes. We could explore the question of where we think happiness comes from: does it come from material objects, or is it a state of mind? If it is a mental state, surely we can cultivate that by learning to master our thoughts. We don’t need more things, we simply need to learn how to be happy. Through tapping into our natural resources of ‘inner happiness’ we could begin to realise we need less, and thus can begin to heal our damaged planet.
The only way to save the environment is to address our levels of greed by realising that happiness comes from within. It doesn’t work to push ourselves to stop wanting things – what we need is an internal revolution, a rebellion against our old ways of thinking. The despot we need to pull from the throne is our pernicious habit of greedy thinking.
We cannot destroy the ego, but we can show it some common sense. We could teach ourselves to see that greed does not actually lead to happiness. The material world cannot satisfy us, because our desires are limitless and the world’s resources are not. The more we want, the more we want, feeding a habit but never finding lasting satisfaction. Genuine happiness can only come from within the mind itself, and it is something limitlessly recyclable and completely sustainable.
If we don’t transform our thinking, then even if we were to continue believing that happiness comes from material things, the resources that we think ‘make’ us happy are going to run dry anyway – and so we are backed into a corner. The environmental crisis is forcing us to wake up.
Training in meditation helps us find inner satisfaction and a sense of compassionate connection, and only then will we stop destroying our world. The prison door is swinging wide open on its hinges and we just need to walk through it.
Did you miss the online session? You can now watch here (only available with a UNDP sign-in) the recording of the first of these series of webinars, led by renowned Buddhist monk, author and global thought leader Gelong Thubten. During the session, he shared the philosophy and practical application of mindfulness to help bring about new approaches to planetary sustainability. If time is an issue, you can watch this short 5-minute highlights video instead.
Click here or tap the image below to access the full UNDP's series on Mindfulness; Embodiment; Transformation; and Systems Leadership programme.