Psycological Ecology

— Walking the Rice Paper
John Smith—04/2002
If we want to save this planet, we need to learn to live with minimum physical impact. But minimum physical impact can only come from practicing minimum psychological impact in every aspect of our lives.

THERE WAS AN OLD 70's television series called Kung Fu which starred David Caradine as a wondering monk. In one of his flashbacks to his childhood, his master unravels a large roll of rice paper along the floor and asks the young monk to walk along it. He walks the length and turns around. Behind him he sees his footprints. The master says that when he can walk the rice paper without leaving a trace, he will be ready to leave the monastery and go out into the world. This is a lovely analogy of harmlessness, for when we leave no trace, we have harmed nothing.

On the other side of the coin, if we leave a trace, and we have not been mindful, then we have probably harmed something or someone. Examples include our damage to the environment, and our meddling in other countries affairs (one cause of terrorism). Close to home, mindlessly "leaving a trace" can hurt our families, destroy communities, block communication and bring unhappiness.

It is one thing to want to mindfully make the world a better place, it is quite another to want to leave our mark in the world for the glorification of ourselves or our abilities. Leaving our mark for the sake of our own self-importance has become endemic to modern society: we puff ourselves up; we raise our voices; we walk with our nose in the air; we exaggerate our accomplishments; we wear designer clothes and expensive watches; we drive ridiculous cars; we flaunt the accoutrements of success; we try to be interesting, intelligent, sexy, wise, spiritual, decisive, violent, aggressive, loving, positive, witty, all in the name of personal impact. God forbid if anyone should label us as ordinary or forgettable!

We aspire to those who have made a large impact in the world, whether good or bad. We admire the powerful and the confident, not the humble and the sensitive. The name of the game is self-empowerment, self-expression, having what we want, making an impact on those around us. We go to weekend courses, read books, flirt with and mimic those who have attained it. We want to become like gods, able to control every aspect of our reality and our destiny. Imagine a planet of over 6 billion people trying to have maximum impact, trying to demonstrate how special and unique they are! Individuality and self-expression have become the goal of modern society.

And yet, the happiest moments of our lives are usually when we allow our individuality, our personality to drop, just for a moment. For in that moment everything becomes quiet and the pressure to "make our mark" has been replaced by a pure and simple open awareness. Bliss! The world can go its own way; people can think what they like about us; we are free. And in those moments we might realize just what a burden it is to always be trying to stamp our identity on life.

The imposition of identity or personality on the world is of such primary concern because most of us are terrified of simply being. For in that moment of being, we become NOTHING: all that we think others love and support us for; all that we have worked for; all our personal attributes, our body, physical looks, our health, our gender, our intelligence; all that we have done, our past, our parentage, our schooling, our family; all our tragedies and our successes; all that we believe makes us special and unique is discarded to make room for the present moment. And for most of us, that is completely unacceptable.

Mark Epstein describes in his book, "Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart", having an interview when he was a young man with the former psychologist Ram Dass (who used to be Professor Richard Alpert before embracing Eastern philosophies). Epstein expounded on his issues, expecting Ram Dass to give him good advice and clarity. But what Ram Dass unexpectedly gave him was pure being: he sat there looking into Epstein's eyes in silence. He didn't leave his mark. The result was a very powerful experience for Epstein, for he realized that the gift of being was the highest gift that another can give us… pure, uncontaminated being. Ram Dass was leaving no trace on the rice paper, and in doing so gave Epstein the room to make the most profound changes himself. "Leaving no trace" is what a real master does, for ONLY that can lead to real healing.

Here is an exercise: try walking into a room of people, friends or otherwise, with minimum impact. Watch what you think each moment as you are in that room, and listen to what you say to others. Chances are that most of our interaction is an attempt at expressing ourselves, our opinions and our ideas. What happens when we stop doing this and rest only in pure awareness? We are no longer on a social battlefield, involved in an escalating "aren't I special" race. Suddenly we have room to embrace the essence of others, and in that embrace we find our common spirit. It is amazing how even the most egotistical person will often change, just for a moment, when confronted with another coming, as best he or she can, from pure being.

That exercise above is harder than we think. Each part of our minds is crying out for expression, for we are not yet practiced in the art of being. We abhor being a nothing! How boring and uninteresting — a sure way to be unloved, so we think. And we believe that expressing nothing is akin to repressing everything, a recipe of unhappiness and frustration. Isn't it better out than in? Repression is a mechanism by which we block feelings and thoughts that are moving through us. When we are in pure being, we freely acknowledge feeling and thoughts that come up, but we do not identify with them. We do not get lost in them. The important thing is that their existence has been noted by us. Much of self-expression actually perpetuates a cycle of psychological dissonance; for example, by freely expressing our anger to those around us, we identify with anger and become angrier — the "anger grove" is just worn deeper. (If the "express it to let it go" theory really worked, angry people would by now be peaceful!)

This is what might be called psychological ecology; we have respected our being by not trying to make our mark on it. And psychological ecology leads to real ecology, otherwise, it makes no sense to expect a society to have less impact on this planet when each member of that society is positively encouraged to have maximum impact in that society. We don't know how to tread lightly, so how can we expect human civilisation to tread lightly? It has to start with us teaching our children that they don't need to be special; they don't need to shine. The paradox is that we shine the most when we don't try at all. We are most impacting on those around us when we make a conscious and mindful effort to be least impacting. We are most interesting, when we are empty. We do the most good in the world, when we know how to be without swinging our psychological baggage around. We are most powerful and impacting when we try to be least powerful and impacting.

Psychological ecology: the ecology and psychology of the future. Minimum impact is where is has to be if we to have any chance of bringing ourselves out of this hole of self-glorification. Walking the rice paper in our minds, in our relationships, and in the world, without leaving a trace, can perhaps do more good then every good intention put together. And that gift of pure being will surely change leaders, for only the meek have ever had true lasting impact, for they speak to the heart and not the mind. Only the meek are bold enough to live the solution, and teach by example. Only the meek are simple enough to freely walk through the old system without fear, for they carry no weapons either in their minds or their hands. Maybe that is what Jesus meant, at the Sermon on the Mount, when he said that the meek shall inherit the earth. But that humility has to be real — it has to be grounded in minimum psychological impact. We have to be able to walk the rice paper and leave no trace.