This is part six of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.
So, where does that leaves us?
I would like to end this essay with a few concrete suggestions. But since I doubt that most people are willing to build their own an off-the-grid log cabin or to live in a kibbutz in the Arava desert, or want to go out and have somebody threaten to kill them, I thought I’d aim for something a little less radical, but perhaps even more important. Something more akin to that little magical moment that Frances Whitehead shared with the sphinx moth.
I call them appreciative reminders. They are humbly re-appropriated rituals that may help to remind us to appreciate our life, the world, the forces that have created it, and on which we continue to depend. And by helping us to such appreciation, they may, by extension, help us towards choosing restraint. I should note that many of these reminders are specific to the local climate and vegetation where I live. Other, quite different reminders may be required in other parts of the world.
Breathing is our most fundamental relationship with the world. With every breath we draw, we reaffirm our continuing dependence on the world around us. It reminds us that we do not, cannot, live in separation from the world around us. We can’t appreciate every breath equally, but once in a while, take the time to savour it. Hold your breath for as long as you can and feel the thrill of life when you finally inhale. In this way, breathing can be a sacrament. That is, a metaphor that has come alive with meaning. Similar to how the bread and wine at the altar can come alive as the body of a saviour in the mouths of some (or just remain bread and wine for the mouths of others), a breath of air can come alive as the direct and immediate connection between you and the world. You are not separate from it, nor it from you. Part of it is always in you. Appreciate it as you would any other part of yourself.
In yoga, the sun salutation is a sequence of poses. One of the most wellknown andwidely used sequences around. Traditionalists contend that it is at least 2,500 years old, and originated as a ritual prostration to the rising sun. The sun, of course, is the source of all energy on the planet. Without the sun, Earth would be a frozen, dark lump floating through space. The flow of energy from the sun is what makes life possible. It flows through all of us every day. Greeting and celebrating it every morning seems appropriate. Just imagine what a day would be like if the sun didn’t rise. So, take your time to appreciate the morning sun with a sun salutation. And you’ll get a good set of stretches with which to start the day, too.
Saying grace is mostly associated with the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But it is used in many cultures and contexts, both religious and secular. It is simply a short moment of gratitude and appreciation for all the wonder and work that has made a meal possible. From the forces of nature to all people who played a role in preparing, cultivating or hunting the food. In Japan, for instance, it is customary to put one’s hands together and say “Itadakimasu” before eating a meal. It translates as “I humbly receive” — and that is pretty much all that needs to be said. It doesn’t have to be a moment of great fanfare or pathos. Rather, it’s a moment of quiet reflection. Saying grace is a just a simple way to remind ourselves that every meal is a gift for which we should be grateful. A reminder that we should never take our food, nor the forces that we depend on to make it, for granted.
Grace in reverse
I don’t know there is any culture or religious practice where anybody actually does this, but it occurred to me that it might be appropriate. All the waste that we produce — both the organic matter such as peels, roots, stems and shells that we discard when cooking as well as the urine and shit that leave our bodies — is also food. Food that other organisms in the biosphere consume with relish, turning it into nutrients that allow new plants to grow. Just as we say “Grace” when we receive food, we should say it when we pass our waste on, for it, too, is food. Every time you empty your compost bin or flush your toilet, take the time to draw a little circle in the air. A little reminder of the intimate connection between the food you eat and the waste you give. A reminder that waste is food.
Before initiating some shared task, it can be a great help to have a shared way of checking in and leaving your thoughts and worries behind. Breathing together is a very powerful to do just that. I’ve experienced it in yoga, where we begin by sitting in the lotus position and then singing three Om’s together. Om is a mystical Sanskrit sound of Hindu origin, which you can chant, sing, hum or drone as a mantra. Singing it together gives a deep sense of reverberating togetherness. You can hear everybody’s voices together at once, but you can’t easily separate them into individual voices. It is one shared voice singing from multiple throats. Singing together means breathing together. You flow together, circulating, sharing and taking in part of each other. Tuning in to whatever you’re about to do together. Through the singing and the breathing, you become present, your mind calm, reminded to appreciate this moment.
In the spring, when soil temperature reaches 6°C, the micro-organisms will wake up, and the seeds in the ground will begin to sprout. This is the time of the planting. This is when you plant the seeds that will define this year’s crops. For everyone who has a garden or a plot of land (or at least has access to a garden), this should be a time for getting together. Invite your friends and family for a planting. A dig-in, a garden day, call it what you will. It will be a lovely day with good food and lots of hectic activity: Digging the garden, turning the compost, sharing seeds and seedlings, spreading the love from one garden to the next. Afterwards, take the time to visit and help others in their gardens. The planting is a reminder of the magic that is the sprouting seed. And a reminder that even a tiny seed can need a little help to grow.
Budburst is the beautiful spring day when the buds of the trees finally burst and cascades of green begin to appear. It is the most vulnerable time of the year for the trees. They marshall their remaining strength saved up over the winter and burst forth with fresh green leaves so that they can begin growing anew through the wonder of photosynthesis. The trees depend on these first, few weak leaves to generate enough energy to allow more buds to burst, reinforcing the process. Budburst is an occasion to celebrate spring, the resilience of life, the overcoming winter, the rising sap and the sprouting anew. So take the time to go for a long walk in a forest or wooded area. Smell the changing air, listen to hopeful chirping of the birds. Take a long, deep breath and let the spring inside.
The longest day and the shortest night. The height of summer. Build a bonfire and let it burn through the short night, marking the turning point towards shorter days and longer nights. A reminder that we get light and dark in equal measure, and that we should appreciate both equally.
All of the crops have been gathered. All the seeds have been collected. The summer is over, and autumn is nigh. And it is time for the most important party of the year. Celebrating not only the end of all the hard work that went into producing this year’s harvest, but also the bounty that we have gathered. That which will sustain us all through the winter, but which is at its ripest and brightest right now. It’s time to have a feast and a dance.
The days are growing darker. The leaves are turning, and slowly falling to the ground. What was once bright green is now yellow, brown or red. It is an occasion for reflecting on the frailty of life. What grew so powerfully, so irresistibly short months ago, is already spent. Take a loved one by the hand and go for a long walk in a forest or wooded area. Maybe even the same one that you visited for Budburst. Smell the changing air, listen to the cold wind rustling through the leaves. Remember all the people who are no longer here. All that you have lost along the way. Remember that one day you won’t be here either. Take a long, deep breath and let the autumn inside.
The shortest day and the longest night. The depth of winter. Stay up throughout the night with friends and family with candles and sweets. Stay awake, sing, tell stories, and play games to mark the turning point towards longer days and shorter nights. A reminder that we get dark and light in equal measure, and that we should appreciate both equally.
Depending on your sentiment, some or all of these reminders may come across as new age pseudo-spiritual babble. I invite you to find other reminders that suit you better.
But no matter which ones you choose, I hope that they will help remind you.
Remind you to be appreciative, humble and grateful for all the wonders of life we all receive every day.
Remind you of this, perhaps the most important, moment in human history. The moment when we need to realise that we’re all in this together, and that we need to develop new forms of communal restraint that allows us to take care of each other and the planet we share.
Remind you to opt for fewer, but better options. Options that don’t tempt us and make us smaller and weaker than we are. Options that help us find the things that we cannot do without. Options that give us space to grow, and to become. Options that make us happier, in spite of all.
Remind you that your choice does matter.
This is the final part of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the essay in its entirety here.