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Last year a group of friends and I worked through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way over a period of about six months.  We decided at the outset that none of us were in a hurry to get anywhere and we weren’t going to have any hard and fast rules for our little group.  And so we met fortnightly instead of weekly, we turned up regardless of whether we’d done our “homework” from the previous meeting and we each set our own pace towards what Cameron calls “artistic recovery.”  No one was excluded or made to feel bad for missing meetings or leaving some tasks undone.  In short, we dispensed with idealism and approached our journey with gentleness.  It was remarkable what we each achieved in that short time.

What if we could form groups like this supporting each other to live more sustainable lives?  Not a twelve-step recovery program based on the disease model of addiction; but instead a spiral path woven organically, uniquely for and by each individual.  No set goals.  No experts on pedestals or prescribed utopia.  No success or failure.

One person’s spiral might travel in wide circular sweeps, tightly layered one above another – little progress apparent from the outside, but from the inside a steady slow strengthening of resolve and deepening of self-understanding across many areas.  With each turn of the spiral we have an opportunity to revisit past issues and insights, taking the lessons deeper into our souls.

Another person’s spiral might move upwards very quickly, impressive from the outside, a gleaming tower of silver coils.  It’s easy to gain height quickly when we narrow our focus.  Such individuals blaze a pathway for the rest of us as we travel more slowly, attempting to gather in all the strands of our complex lives: to parent consciously, to eat healthily, to recycle, to grow our own food, to find meaningful work, to express ourselves creatively, to contribute to our community, to find inner peace etc…

Who can do and be all of these things?  And yet how harshly we judge ourselves when our weakness in one area is shown up against another’s passion and commitment:  the mother of three who rides with her children to and from school by bike every day; the young man who grows most of his food in the backyard and tells us we should all be doing the same; the musician who spends her days and nights writing and recording music to inspire hope and change.

Diane Harwood, lecturer in Conservation and Land Management specialising in Bushland Regeneration.

I think again of our lecturer at the Great Southern Institute of Technology, Diane Harwood, who through decades of commitment to caring for local bush reserves has developed the philosophy of a peaceful eco-warrior.  (I will share some of the guiding principles she has developed over the years for bushland regeneration in another post.)

“If you go out to work with hate in your heart, it’s not good for anybody,” she tells us about weeding the bush.  “Cleaning up and making it all nice is not what it’s all about” (i.e. making it look good for the public.)  She tells us the story of the Bradley sisters working in Sydney in the seventies, who developed an approach to weeding the bush that focussed on working with the good areas or supporting the natives.  “We’re encouraging the bush, not the weeds.”  And that’s very different from setting out to eradicate what we don’t want.

If I apply this approach to my life, I can look at my strengths and ask how I can use those talents, interests or capabilities to create a more sustainable world for myself, my family and my community.  My strengths are equivalent to the native plants that belong in the bush and that thrive when uninhibited by disease, pests, weeds or a harsh climate.

I’m not a gardener (I’m famous in my family for not noticing we had a back lawn until we’d been in our current rental home a couple of years); so growing food looks almost impossible from where I stand now.  I live in a big house with lots of stuff I don’t need (see my first post), with a family who devour boxed cereal, packaged snacks and sugar.  We have two cars and an ecological footprint I dread to measure.  I could go on about all the ways in which my family and I fail to live sustainable lives.  (And sometimes I do ‘go on’ to myself.)

The question is does this help me to change?

Perhaps the most passionate environmental activists are their own worst enemies – setting the bar so high we listen to them and feel defeated before we’ve begun.  Driving home with my twelve-year-old son in the car the other day, he announced out of the blue “I think we should all kill ourselves.”

“Who?”

“The human race.”

“Why?”

“Because we’ve messed up the planet.”

Is that the message we want to give our children – one of fear and despair?  And even if the situation is hopeless and civilization is on the verge of collapse (as some predict), does this mean we shouldn’t try to make a difference in whatever small way we can?

I draw comfort and inspiration from Di’s philosophy.  Bringing it home, I see I have strengths in writing and communication, and this is one place I can make a difference.  In other areas, like understanding the bush or growing food organically, I’m a child taking baby-steps and I know I’m not getting anywhere fast.

I have decided to step slowly and patiently, to seek out and be guided by teachers who are wiser and more experienced than I (more about them in future posts).  Mostly they aren’t people you’ve heard of — unless you live in the small town of Denmark, Western Australia.  They haven’t written any books or won any national awards.  They are ordinary people living quietly extraordinary lives, following their passions, building on their strengths, changing the world for the better and gently inspiring others to follow their lead.

And so I say: Let us be gentle on ourselves — set small achievable goals.  Nurture and build upon those strengths and interests that come naturally.  Anything that undermines or strangles these native talents is a weed requiring attention.  These are the habits most important to replace with self-nurturing behaviours.

One of my bad habits is skipping my morning exercise routine and starting the day feeling fuzzy-headed and unmotivated.  Learning qigong has given me something I can do for ten or fifteen minutes to lift my spirits and energize my body quickly on days I’m in a hurry.  This simple life-style change has helped me find the time and energy to recommit to my writing projects.

Focus on one step at a time.  Set realistic targets and be prepared to let them go, change them or revisit them until they are second nature.  Above all, don’t compare yourself with anyone else.  No one is quite like you: no one has your unique combination of strengths and insights, and no one has lived through the challenges you have met.

Sustainability isn’t just about living in harmony with the Earth.  First and foremost it’s about living in harmony with our selves and each other; setting aside the judgements that arise from idealism or comparison and recognising each of us has access to an innate wisdom that will guide and strengthen us, if only we let it.

Di with some of our merry band of Conservation and Land Management students. We come from all walks of life, each of us passionate about understanding our local bushland and making a difference.

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