February 1, 2011

Visual Pollution. ~ Dr. Bernie Weitzman.

We’re honored to have this guest post from Dr. Bernard Weitzman, a psychologist and awfully smart, kind gentleman. ~ ed.

Cleanliness is Mindfulness?

On the intersection of contemplative practice, eco-responsibility, an elegant home & sane society.

Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche characterized the refuge vow (the vow one takes to become a Buddhist) as leaving home—becoming a refugee.

This metaphor has many meanings and implications.  Anything to which we cling—any favoritism, any us/them points of reference, any belief system, family, community or relationship is a way of trying to secure ground.  Such ground is what is meant by “home” in this context.  We cause suffering for ourselves and others by clinging—by our desperate search for comfort, security and stability—our dream of a nest in which we can kick back. We imagine that if we could find such security, we could let go of the anxiety that haunts and torments us.

Becoming a refugee is acknowledging our understanding of this dynamic and vowing to give up our addiction to nesting. Ultimately we discover that this very world with which we always struggle to escape is our true home.  In doing so, in giving up our struggle, we have repossessed our birthright.  It is traditionally said,

“And so ends the journey which need not have been undertaken.”

The pollution that is poisoning our world, destroying its vulnerable life forms, depleting its resources and defacing its natural beauty is a graphic expression of alienation of people from home—from this earth.  Generally, people keep their homes neat and clean.  Often there is considerable care given to making home welcoming and beautiful.  On the other hand, when people feel alienated from the places they live, they tend to throw their garbage in the streets, break windows and deface property.

Places that are trashed in these ways feel less and less like home — people become less caring about them and they get worse.  It has been documented, for example, over and over again, that if broken windows in abandoned buildings are fixed, the new breaking of windows diminishes.  If graffiti are painted over, there is less likelihood of new graffiti in that neighborhood.

Trungpa, Rinpoche suggested that we always keep our home “ready for a visit by the queen.”  I tried it—and doing so has had a profound impact on my life.  A number of times I have suggested to a patient (in my work as a psychotherapist) that bringing order into the household might be helpful for all concerned.  The result has sometimes been surprisingly profound, particularly in the long run.  If we are going to succeed in restoring sanity and decency to our society, the places people live have to come to feel welcoming to their inhabitants—people need to see this world as “home.”

Visual pollution is just one case of sensory pollution.  For example, in most environments it is quite difficult to find a quiet place to sit and read, or to just enjoy the sounds of the natural world. In NYC, horn honking, garbage trucks, boom boxes…are almost always audible and, in my view, could well be called “auditory garbage.”  Sitting on the deck of my summer home, situated in a remote woodland on Cape Cod, I can frequently hear traffic, or the voices of distant neighbors.  During a retreat in a tent at Karme Choling, I was able to hear the sounds of trucks, far in the distance.  I could hear the endless shifting of gears and roaring of the engines as the drivers negotiated the mountainous terrain.  A single truck might be audible for half an hour or longer. Auditory pollution is as prevalent and as powerful as visual pollution.

However, beyond the pollution of the sensory world is the growing ecological disaster we are witnessing.

Visual pollution has been the focus of this discussion because vision is, in dharmic terms, the most highly charged of the senses.  It is the most finely discriminating, the most finely textured and is our most detailed sensory access to the world.  When people use sound to help them ignore the visual world, they are reacting to visual pollution.  The more visually polluted the environment, the more likely you are to see people with ear buds—listening to music or a book—as they walk down the street.

Because of the intensity of the impact of the visual world on us, cleaning up visual pollution may be a place to start in trying to move our society in the direction of decency and sanity. Although the enormity of the larger environmental disaster we are facing must be directly addressed, at the same time, a gradual approach, working with the senses that are most compelling to people and working up towards the monumental ecological challenges we face might have a constructive impact.

If people begin to feel that this world is their home, our motivation to clean up the larger challenges will, I believe, grow.


Bernie Weitzman is in private practice as a psychotherapist in NYC. He became a student of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche in 1972, and has taught at Karme Choling and at the New York and Philadelphia Shambhala Centers.

When the Buddha said that for every person who seeks the truth, a unique path must be found, he formulated the basic principle of contemplative psychotherapy. Similarly, Carl G. Jung said that a new psychology must be created for every patient. Grounded in this view, contemplative psychotherapy recognizes the inherent wisdom and sanity of all human beings and seeks to support the dignity, intelligence, and compassion that are innate in all of us.

By identifying the basic sanity and intelligence, hidden in our confused moments, we find the strength and courage to work with ourselves with sympathy and gentleness. Respect is fundamental for attitudes of spiritual aspiration, and for views grounded in science, reason, or the world’s non-spiritual philosophies.

Contemplative development, which involves the deepening of one’s intimate and direct knowledge of one’s self, the world, and others, opens the heart and allows innate wisdom and compassion to flourish. This is the goal of contemplative psychotherapy.



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