Mountain top

Beyond Sustainable

I’m just back from Peru. What an adventure! I keep asking myself, what did I learn? What struck me most? I could be prosaic about the moments of tearfulness, as I gazed out over views of forests, of dunes, of ancient cities. Or I could talk about the tongue-dancing flours of ceviche and pisco sours. Or the dogs… how I loved the dogs that hang out everywhere, cared for yet free, snoozey yet alert. Yet what struck me this morning was what I learned from the hardest times… climbing all those huge Andean mountains.

ClimbingI’m familiar with the insight that we can only climb mountains one step at a time. It’s often used as an intention setting metaphor. We look at the peak and think we’ll never make it, and yet we get there, with sustained commitment. We hold the ultimate in mind, but focus on the daily tasks that build towards it. But that is not what struck me this morning. There are certainly ways to make mountain climbing sustainable – be fit, eat right, acclimatise first. Our guides were experts at this; taking us slowly, stopping for coffee and snacks, advising us to chew coca leaves to ease altitude sickness, and even offering a mule as an alternative to tiring legs.

Yet what I realized, is that the journey along the tiny Inka trails, and through the forests can actually be sustaining, in itself. The hikes energised me, when I stopped moaning about being over 50 and started paying attention. I learned to pause every so often (and often, quite often) to gaze back. Wow – we came from there! On steep slopes, I would ask for a push from Mike, and the feeling of his hand against my back filled me with the sense that we are in this together. I literally had someone to fall back on! He pointed out little purple orchids blooming in the forest, or we tuned into the orchestra of birds and cicadas. These little moments of delight took me out of my tired body to a less egocentric place. Even when my crooked old leg started to ask for care, Mike cut me a Gandalf staff, which contained the superpowers I needed to keep going. My mindset shifted from misery to magic. The Andes were the Misty Mountains of Middle-Earth, and the elves felt close at hand. I just had to listen for their whispering voices.

So I started thinking more broadly. How can we move beyond what is sustainable, to what might be sustaining? Sustainability is important yet, to me, suggests a closed system of inputs and outputs. How is a sustaining system different? It is an environment where we, and life, can flourish. Look at the rainforests – they thrive at every level, and naturally sustain themselves.

I’ve noticed that when people ask me what I am doing at Wits, I say that I am teaching contemplative practices, so that the work of activists can be more sustainable. Yet today, I realise that this is not enough. It’s time to move beyond sustainability. Our work needs to be sustaining; we must feel nourished and inspired by it. The work itself contains the source of our energy and joy, if we can practice exquisite awareness.

My Andean adventures taught me to cultivate awareness of:

  • Our powerful intentions
  • Community support
  • Moments of wonder
  • Our very human superpowers
  • Relationships
  • The skills and knowledge that we can tap into, with a simple request
  • Something vast, bigger and more enduring than little me
  • Celebrating where we have come from

These are the qualities that can shift us. We turn to the work itself, and remember why we are doing it. What world would we like to be (re)born into? Your children, or yourself, if you believe in reincarnation. This is what can get us up in the morning to take that next step, and the next. It is our intention that counts.

Mountain topAs you go to work tomorrow, why not take the chance to remember why you do what you do. The work itself doesn’t matter. You could have a well paid prestigious career, yet find no meaning in it at all. You could be an Uber driver who wants to give people safe passage on their journey of life, or a hairdresser who knows how to bring out the inner beauty within every client. I can either be a lecturer just to earn an income to go on holiday to Peru. Or I can be a lecturer because I love to share what has helped me, and I have a deep passion to pass on that information and those practices. In fact, if I can keep tapping in to the love for my work – the deep-seated ‘why’, then I can participate wholeheartedly, and won’t even need to take holidays in Peru!

When our work is imbued with pure intention, every day can bring us the energy we need to continue.

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