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April 4, 2019

Why Totally Sucking at my Mindful Sustainability Challenge is one of the Best Things I’ve done for the Planet in a While.


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I have two great loves: saving the planet and compassionately challenging myself to grow as a human being.

This is why I joined Elephant Academy, and also why I decided to participate in their tradition of a mindfulness challenge. I chose the sustainability challenge of not using plastic straws and disposable to-go cups for at least six weeks.

The point of the challenge is to notice, to shake things up a little, and to wake up from everyday life. From this space, we can make changes to be of benefit to ourselves and the world.

Truthfully, I didn’t really feel like I was taking on much of a challenge.

This is going to be so easy, I thought. I’m already pretty good about not using disposable cups or straws, so it’s not like I’m going to have to change my life or anything. Yeah, I’m going to nail this.

I managed to completely suck at this challenge within the first two days.

Here is an excerpt from my challenge journal:

February 7th—one week into the disposable cup challenge and it is not going well at all. 

This disposable cup is a mighty foe! For instance, I went to a coffee shop to do some writing before I had to go to work and I ordered a latte “for here.” For. Here.

After several minutes, I observed a mug and a to-go cup on the bar. Hopeful, I went up and found tea in the mug and what suspiciously looked like a latte in the to-go cup. I stood waiting, hoping.

“Is this my latte?” I asked the barista.

“Yes, I believe it is,” he said.

My heart sank. “I ordered my latte for here,” I told him.

He looked at me, blankly. “Oh, I can remake it if you’d like.” 

“No, the point is I’m on a ‘no disposable cups challenge’ and this cup is already used, so…”

He looked at me like I was being ridiculous. “I have no problem remaking it for you.”

I sighed. “No, the point is the cup is already used. Remaking it for me won’t make any difference.”

He continued staring.

I took my latte, muttering as I went back to my table, “You see how the system is working against me?”

The disposable cup is also a master of the sneak attack. I found myself holding one in horror during a recent work meeting. I hadn’t even realized I’d taken one from the refreshment table and filled it until I was halfway through the drink!

Clearly, I’m not as good at this as I’d thought.

Buy and throw away, consume and dispose—this is the heartbeat of our economy. So much of our culture has been built upon the concept of buying goods and then throwing them away only to buy more and throw those away too. The convenience and unconscious habit of it is so embedded in our daily lives that it’s just easier to give in when I’m in a hurry or tired.

To break this pattern—to reject constant consumption, plastics, and single-use disposables—takes special, specific awareness and supreme dedication in a world that makes it as difficult as possible to not consume, dispose, and use plastic.

And we have to have this awareness and dedication every single day, multiple times a day, in a world that is working against us. As so many of the people I’ve talked to have said, “It’s really hard! You’ve just got to be so on top of it.”

Otherwise, a well-meaning bartender will put a plastic straw in your drink—even though he made that drink in your reusable cup, dammit!

It’s easy to let these failures get to us. It’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by the enormity of what we are trying to do. And I’m supposed to be good at this: I have a master’s degree in Environmental Leadership, I’ve worked in conservation, I’ve taught sustainability. Yet, here I am completely failing at a simple “no disposable cups or straws” challenge.

In the midst of these frustrations, while I was trying to find solutions, following one problem to the next, and trying to maintain calm even with the understanding that everything is going to have to radically change if we’re going to save this planet, I gripped the sides of my head thinking, “Wow! This world is such a mess!”

Then it all clicked, with a realization reminiscent of the Four Noble Truths shared by the Buddha thousands of years ago.

>> This world is a mess.

>> We have helped make this world a mess largely via our unconscious, habitual participation.

>> It won’t be easy, but there is a way to un-make this mess and start to fix things.

>> We can start to fix things by remembering we are “Warriors of Sustainability,” and by understanding and practicing these principles.

Here’s how we can become Sustainability Warriors, inspired by the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment:

1. Gather a community of support.

This is the best prescription when dealing with an environment working against our goals. If we are going to “break the rules” and create a sustainable life, we are going to need help!

Just make sure this help is a part of your everyday life. It is amazing the changes we can make and great habits we can establish when we go away on a meditation or yoga retreat, only to have them fall apart once we are back in our normal routine. Enlist the help of other like-minded people already in your life and make changes together.

Find resources in your local area. For example, here in Seattle we have The Eco Collective, which sells the plastic-free, non-disposable, eco-friendly supplies you need while also hosting workshops and creating a community hub space. This blog from them has been a huge help to me.

There is also the Seattle Zero Waste Facebook group where members can ask questions and give advice and support. Search Facebook and see if there are similar groups in your area.

Keep looking for these resources and groups where you live—you never know when they will pop up! The Eco Collective didn’t even exist a few months ago. Once you start looking, the resources will find you.

2. Develop an attitude of devotion rather than discipline.

Buddhist monk and teacher Thích Nhât Hanh said that when we practice meditation and mindfulness, we should try to approach our practice from a place of devotion rather than hard discipline. Our practice can be a joy.

This same perspective can be applied to our efforts to reduce waste and save the planet. We’re doing this for love—for the planet and humanity.

3. It’s all about compassion.

We are going to fall. The mainstream, cultural system will sometimes get the better of us, so we’re going to need ample compassion to help us get back up again.

We need to practice compassion for ourselves and for others in our community. We are here to help each other, not shame each other.

4. Try a “Middle Way” approach. Perfect isn’t the goal—balance is.

We need to understand perfection is not an ideal state of being—it is a static and dead state. We are trying to find a dynamic balance.

It is all too easy to fall into a puritanical, elitist mindset, shaming and judging others who aren’t living up to standards. This is what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described as the trap of spiritual materialism. The goal isn’t to be “better” than others or to establish ourselves as status symbols.

It is also all too easy to bring the mainstream’s values of destructive competitiveness, hierarchy, and superiority into this new world we’re trying to create. But we need to find ways to leave them behind and create something new.

We don’t want to become so complacent in our efforts that we can’t recognize how far off track we’ve fallen (ahem, like me), nor do we want to feel so futile we don’t even try.

5. We’re always going to have an impact. That’s just part of existing on this planet.

Is it possible that maybe we humans can be good for the planet?

As the founders of The Eco Collective said when I spoke with them, “‘Zero-waste‘ is not really possible, and really what we’re trying to do is ‘low-impact living.'” So, let’s focus on maximizing our beneficial impacts while reducing our negative impacts.

6. Embrace challenge with a willingness to be uncomfortable.

Since we live in an “everything is disposable” kind of world, reducing our waste and living more sustainably means we’re going to have to radically change how we do our day-to-day lives and how we show up in the world. I have to remember my cup. I have to forgo that plastic wrapped snack. I have to be that customer, who kindly keeps reminding everyone they don’t want a disposable cup or plastic straw. I have to speak up in a way I’ve never wanted to before.

Things become far less convenient for me.

Embrace this. Embrace all of it. Be self-reflective. Be willing to self-audit. Be willing to change and grow. Be willing to suffer some discomfort in service of something better.

7. Spend some time learning about our planet, how the environment works, and how things got the way they are.

To become a “Save the Planet” warrior, start by finding an old ecology textbook in a bookstore, take naturalist workshops, and spend time in nature—both in the wild and in your neighborhood.

Curious about how the plastic straw became such a staple in our society? Look into it. The Story of Stuff Project is also an excellent learning resource.

8. Be inspired.

Create a vision: what kind of future are you working toward? Read and watch the positive stories, too; they do exist and change is happening!

I always find inspiration and solace from Joanna Macy and her presentation of The Shambhala Prophecy, and her books, particularly Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy. Look for this book at your local, independent bookstore or online from Better World Books—they support world literacy and are a certified B-Corp.

Check out the Bioneers conference of everything amazing happening in sustainability. Their website is chock-full of resources and information!

And, of course, your humble Elephant Journal authors are brimming with wisdom, tips, and inspiration—like this article: “Tools for Fighting Despair in Tumultuous Times,” by Susan Rubin.

I’m glad I failed my mindful sustainability challenge. This failure has inspired me to fully participate with like-minded communities, to honestly look at my day-to-day choices, and to keep striving to be better—which is ultimately good for all of us and the planet.

So take the challenge. You never know what you’ll learn or how it can make you better.


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