The Unseen. Felt.

After four days of suffering in hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, a bitter Long Islander said, “I am screaming mad because this is an inhumane way to live in the highest property-taxed area of the state.”

Some years ago I’d have agreed with him, but now I don’t. Money can, no doubt, reconnect power lines and repair damaged homes, but it won’t solve the problem underlying the cause of this inhumane living. The destructive winds and rains of hurricane Sandy, widely seen as a result of global warming, are byproducts of our modern lifestyle. Lower impact living, not higher tax dollars and levies, is the answer.

Lower impact living means being satisfied with less. But how is that possible in a culture that continuously beacons us to buy? It’s not possible—until we realize the deep flaw in our modus operandi: rampant consumerism not only creates ecological disasters, it doesn’t even deliver its promised satisfaction. Our possessions don’t bring lasting happiness, and the cumulative effect of consumption creates the havoc of a Sandy. The intelligence we used to create the global warming disaster can also be used to make the life changes necessary to counteract it: By reassessing and simplifying our wants we can become responsible consumers.

At Saranagati Village, B.C., the community where my family and I and about twenty-five other families live, our electricity is homemade (from solar panels), our water gravity-fed from mountain streams, and our heat from wood. If you ask any one of us, we’d tell you our happiness level hasn’t declined from this simple lifestyle. On the contrary, we’ve become more appreciative of life’s beauty, of its bounty, and of each other.

Most people won’t choose to live so naturally, but everyone can do something to help reduce humankind’s negative impact on this planet. The alternative, as the bitter Long Islander has discovered, is bleak.


Cycles and Their End

One morning last month we woke to find our entire bed of lettuce had been eaten to the ground by a bear and her cub (we saw their pawprints). Also last month, my husband suffered a severe backache, our daughter got a painful sunburn, I had a toothache that caused a fever, and it was over a hundred degrees for weeks together.

after a black momma bear and her cub visited our garden last monthNow it’s August. The lettuce has grown back, all three of us have recovered, and the weather is glorious. Our little garden is prolific, providing lunches of salads and steamed greens, which, combined with dressing and homemade whole wheat bread, fully satisfy us. But this phase will also be short-lived. Soon approaching hibernation time will make the bears ravenous, the lettuce will go to seed, and our daughter will be leaving for her first year of college.

The Gita tells us miseries and pleasures come and go like the winter and summer seasons and that we shouldn’t be gloomy in one and elated in the other but equipoised in both. Although it seems like we’ve been in this world forever, we’re here only for a lightning-strike visit. This place is not where we’re supposed to be.

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery where repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains My abode never takes birth again.” (Bhagavad-gita 8.16)


After months of traveling, with its constant stream of new people and places, I’ve reunited with one small tract of unhurried land and watched my seedlings grow into Swiss chard, red leaf, romaine, and butternut lettuces, basil, oregano, and parsley. Here my good-hearted neighbors, the pulse of country life, evenings filled with the cows’ bellows and the bluebirds chanting their final chorus, all give me a sense of rightness, of connectedness. Life’s frailty and temporariness, as well as my body’s inescapable, gradual demise, somehow become vivid during the quiet, closing moments of a country day. I won’t be getting out of this world alive.

In my simple, off-the-grid life, I don’t want to settle into complacency but into soul qualities: faith, gratitude, happiness, and the sense of abundance. Why splendid and tragic things happen in this world is beyond me, but I know it’s not happenstance. The hand behind all happenings may appear tender or iron-fisted, but the heart behind that hand is always a loving one. We miss that point when we think the sliver of life we’re experiencing now is all there is. Actually, this one lifetime is like one drop is to the Pacific.

Last Saturday was Sharangati’s annual farm festival, complete with a parade, singing, dancing, an epic play by the students, games, a bonfire, and feasting. My husband and I got more than a few compliments on the bean salad we spent two hours making. Plus there was rice, vegetables, fresh salad, cauliflower pakoras with chutney, sweet potato fries with ketchup, cake, and a refreshing lemon drink. Please join us next year!

water dunk game by Lake Sharanagati

Rite of Passage

Last Saturday here at Sharanagati Village in British Columbia, we had a ceremony for the three students who graduated from our small, K-12 school. All the village parents, children, friends, community members, teachers, and former teachers attended. Many spoke at the event.

Ms. Cummings said, “I’ve been teaching for nineteen years, and that one year some eight years ago when I taught at the Sharanagati school remains my best teaching year. I don’t expect that to change in my teaching career; my year here will remain my best year.”

graduation gratitude and ecstasyGopal Fournier, one of the graduates, said “At first I didn’t want to be emotional at this time, but then I realized when I see all of you, the beautiful people who have sheltered, supported, encouraged, and loved me my whole life, I couldn’t help but be emotional from the gratitude and love I feel for each one of you.”

Afterwards, some of the teachers and I talked about how small village schools are healthy for both students—who, with their friends, are nurtured close to home—and the community—which is infused with the youthful energy of their own children. Students at our Sharanagati school are happy, which means discipline problems are virtually unknown and academic achievement is often high. Schools like ours aren’t experimental but were the norm a century ago.

I also considered that for those who accept the idea of reincarnation, high school graduation, which marks the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood, is a bit like death: it means stepping out of one stage and into another—it’s a change of bodies. In the words of the Bhagavad-gita:

“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.”

family, friends, teachers, neighbors, students


I notice with dismay that an apple tree my daughter and I planted seven years ago as well dead for no apparent reasonas my dear Montmorency sour cherry tree that my friends and I feast from each summer aren’t leafing out this spring. It was a mild winter, so it wasn’t the cold that killed them.

I’m discouraged. Why buy trees, chip holes for them into the rocklike soil, plant, fertilize, water, and prune them only to have them die for no apparent reason? I’d rather lie in the sun reading the Bhagavad-gita.

That reasoning wilts before my wise, pious friend Patricia. Now nearing 60, she’s successfully battled serious cancer and today has the buoyancy and brightness of a youth. Unhesitatingly she tells me, “Try again or try something else.” Her simple words lift me from my defeat. She’s right. Two trees died but ten lived. Why not see that?

Humans are not meant to give up—on trees, problems, people, or ourselves. In consistently, optimistically trying to bring health and spirituality into the world and its occupants, we gain the same for ourselves.

I can try again. And then I can read that book in the sun. And when I do read, the Gita’s words will enter my heart – the heart of a budding optimist – and resonate there, as they would never do for a cynic.

Behind the Scene

Armed with chutzpah and other people’s credit, Marc Dreier, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, hatched one ingenious scam after another and used the proceeds to maintain a lavish lifestyle, including owning a $10,000,000 apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, beachfront properties in the Hamptons, a valuable art collection, several expensive cars, and an $18,000,000 yacht.

Gita Nagari farm, Port Royal, PABefore he began committing his crimes, Mr. Dreier earned about $400,000 a year. So, one may ask, why did Mr. Dreier engage in fraud? The classic spiritual treatise, Bhagavad-gita, explains that a person in the grips of the mode of passion (called raja guna, in Sanskrit) has unlimited desires and longings.

Gita Nagari farm, Port Royal, PAA guna is a quality that, due to our desires and activities, entraps us. In the case of Mr. Dreier, after pleading guilty to his crimes he wrote a letter to the judge explaining that he began stealing in 2002, taking money from the settlement proceeds owed to a client. He had hoped to repay the money quickly, but instead he stepped into “a quicksand of spending” and found himself “running a massive Ponzi scheme with no apparent way out.”

When there is an increase in the mode of passion, the Gita tells us, uncontrollable greed develops.

In his letter, Mr. Dreier also told the judge that colleagues and clients were doing “better financially and seemingly enjoying more status” than he was, and he felt “crushed by a sense of underachievement.”

A person in the grip of passion is never satisfied with the position he or she has, covets higher positions and more possessions, and becomes disturbed by not having them and envious of those who do. Then, the intelligence smothered, that person ignores morality.

Or, in Mr. Dreier’s words, “I can’t remember or imagine why I didn’t stop myself. It all seems so obviously deplorable now. I recall only that I was desperate for some measure of the success that I felt had eluded me. I lost my perspective and my moral grounding, and really, in a sense, I just lost my mind.”

Greed, the Gita tells us, is one of three gates to hell, and any action done under its influence tastes like nectar in the beginning and poison at the end.

Mr. Dreier was convicted of fraud for bilking hedge funds and other investors out of at least $400 million and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He commented: “It’s easy to say you would never cross the line, but the line is presented to very few people.”

And it’s true. Anyone can succumb to greed – and have to experience the misery it brings.

There is a bright side, however. Anyone, including Mr. Dreier, who is sixty-two and may spend the rest of his life in prison, can reflect on and learn from the glorious Gita. This passage, for example, could give all of us pause:

“In the mode of passion, people become greedy, and their hankering for sense enjoyment has no limit. One can see that even if one has enough money and adequate arrangements for sense gratification, there is neither happiness nor peace of mind. That is not possible, because one is situated in the mode of passion. If one wants happiness at all, his money will not help him…” (Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 14.17)

Ample Space, Divine Opportunities

One of the more noteworthy statements I heard while traveling was, “As yoga enables us to stretch in ways we couldn’t before, so the Bhagavad-gita enables our mind to stretch to accommodate ideas we couldn’t entertain before.”

Recently—and unfortunately—my absorption in the mind-stretching Gita has been disappointing. Although I had great intentions and read the Gita daily, I’ve been preoccupied with keeping my camper functioning, maintaining my stock of books and DVDs, having exchanges and farewells with friends along the way, forging future plans, keeping a wary eye on the weather, and trying to stay healthy and safe.

suburban samenessMy lack of absorption in the Gita may have been due to all that, or it may have been due to my feeling like a zombie after so much driving. Or from feeling suffocated after driving through cities with office buildings and houses so similar I could hardly tell them apart, buildings so close together that children couldn’t play between them.

At Saranagati, where my family and I live, each house is pleasantly quirky in ways just suited to its residents, as if the house and its residents morphed a bit to fit each other well. There’s ample space between them—space that doesn’t separate the residents but draws them closer.

The poet Cowper says the city is made by man and the country by God; perhaps that’s why the mind breathes deeply in the country, expanding to encompass dimensions suffocated elsewhere. And in the country the spirit, stretching toward that unknowable Person who’s within and without, basks in the enchanting freedom of real, divine intangibles.