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.


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)

A Circle Completed

The GPS (my gypsy friend) on my dashboard sometimes sends me on complicated routes, promising they’ll be faster. Often I’d rather go the few extra miles to avoid confusion. But overall my gypsy guides me efficiently on this 8500-mile tour of the U.S., occasionally on routes I haven’t considered. And at the end of each day’s journey, when she announces, “You have arrived,” with that wonderful tone of finality, it’s as if I’ve done something noteworthy.

In reality, all I do is manage to stay alert each driving day, a feat I accomplish by almost constant nibbling. Nothing else—not singing, listening to music or talks, observing the scenery, slapping myself—keeps me as alert as nibbling, especially on puffed kamut and puffed corn (both organic). It’s that crunch of teeth on the puffies that keeps me thoroughly awake.

The last few days of the trip I set out before dawn, the big, brilliant moon before me and the sun slowly brightening the sky in the rearview mirrors. Another kind of alertness, an alertness of the heart, is remembrance that God is the light of the sun and moon and whatever happens is his kindness.

Portland (Rainland), Oregon, where it’s fated to rain/ snow every day this week, marks the end of this book tour circle. The camper, parked in the driveway of a friend’s home on a quiet street, feels extra cozy on wet days. Grateful to be dry, warm, and safe, I’m quite certain that in this lifetime I’ll never become a truck driver.the journey's end, March 22, 2012

Heading East

I had to leave Sedona well before dawn and regretted that I’d be missing the views from 89A North, one of the U.S.’s more scenic roadways. But the moon was out, lighting snow-sprinkled mountainsides and peaks with mystical, iridescent royal blue hues, now appearing, now disappearing behind curves.

My overnight stopover in Albuquerque was near a mausoleum where, to my astonishment, a thick wall with names, birth and death dates, and occasional plastic flowers, held coffins stacked six high. The next morning I again started before dawn, traveling east on I-40 as the sun rose before me, a huge, radiant orange orb that so illumed every watermark, scratch and dust particle on my “clean” windshield that I could barely see. Such bright, head-on light is humbling, I thought, for it shows every flaw and failing. Yet the very light that makes flaws and failings visible is also the light by which a person can rectify them, or perhaps learn to live with them without sorrow and, eventually, see past them.San Antonio dawn

When I crossed the Texas border I half expected to see expensive, shiny pickups parked on the roadside waiting patiently for their owners—weathered Republicans wearing cowboy boots and hats, standing in the open scrub shooting ducks with rifles. Instead, the first words spoken to me in that Lone Star state were from a thirty-something radiant, Afro-American gas station attendant who, smiling and looking right at me said, “Have a blessed day!” What a wonderful thing to say.

I can’t remember any other time in my life when someone has said that to me.

Sedona, Arizona

I arrived early in rainy Sedona to find the place where I was supposed to stay locked and empty. It was too wet to walk any distance, so I passed time at the Sedona Public Library next door. Moseying down aisle after aisle, shelf after shelf, countless books drifted before me, books that delved into innumerable endeavors, emotions, and fancies. The library’s solemn patrons, its silenced ambiance, and the expanse and diversity of the literature it held expanded my appreciation for the human attempt to discover, create, and record, well, everything.

During a few fleeting hours in a library, what extravagant respite can be found in the human mind’s magnitude, preserved in written words that mystically carry a willing reader to undreamed depths.

So many books surrounded me that I wondered what is left to write about. And with all that’s here to read, who will read what comes after? Yet I couldn’t think of not writing. A couple have their own child even though they know billions of people already populate the earth, and a writer writes even knowing that billions of words have already been written. The writer’s contribution may be miniscule, but she wants to write clearly, with impact and freshness, so that readers will feel their time was well spent – maybe even that they benefited a little.

A Buddhist shrine and prayer flag beneath red rocks.

California! Arizona.

While visiting friends in northern California, somehow or other I parked for a week with the camper level from front to back but tilted five degrees from left to right. Living in it was like being in a boat that’s stuck on the side of a frozen wave, and I often lost my balance—it was a strange type of seasickness. Farther south, in Ojai, I parked level all around in a land where oranges burden trees that grow next to cacti and the streets are lined with valued herbs and flowers—rosemary and lavender, gardenias and birds of paradise. Spared of concrete and given a little water, the earth here erupts with bounty and offers it with grace.

Now in Arizona, I start driving well before dawn and watch the sky slowly lighten. Moment by moment the Rorschach-shaped titanic rocks that jut out of the desert to the right and left of the freeway become visible. During dawn and dusk the earth’s rotation through the firmament is more noticeable, a light-induced reminder that every moment makes a difference and can be used wisely—or not. As Phoenix looms in front of me, it’s rush hour and the freeway predictably fills with cars that can’t stand to be behind one another. In this city too, I’ll surely hear stories of suffering from financial lose, soured relationships, illicit acts, unmet expectations, physical woes.

I did hear all that, as well as a Nepalese immigrant’s story. Janardana lives in Phoenix now, but as a boy he herded his family’s five cows in a forest near his village. The milk from these cows, he said, was “nectar,” and just a small amount of it was fully nourishing and satisfying. Processed milk from commercial dairies doesn’t compare, he said, and he’s sure that economic and ecological pressures would oblige us “modern” people to return to a more simple, land-based, God-centered life, which would actually be progress. Such a life is less stressful, more fulfilling, and healthier than our current lives. At least according to Janardana, who has practical experience of both types of living.

BC Hydro Invent the Future winning essay (ages 16-19)

This essay was written by five of the students in Sharanagati Village: Rasa and Kava Moore, Kalindi and Gopal Fournier, and Priya Griesser:

One School Saved – Many More to Go

Nestled deep in the isolated mountains of wild British Columbia, Venables Valley School was a rural school using over $23,000 a year in non-renewable resources, with an enrollment of 12 students. This consuming school continued until the amount of students could no longer keep up with the money required to run the school’s generators, air conditioning and electric heating during the long, cold winters. After 15 years of supporting the small school, the Board of Directors came to the conclusion that they could no longer afford to maintain the facility. In the summer of 2009, Venables Valley School was closed. We were left with an empty building, a disheartened community, and most of all an uncertain future for us – the students. But from the ashes of Venables Valley School, Govardhana Academy was born.

A young couple from Florida came here willing to help and with them came the future of Govardhana Academy. Over the summer, every individual from ages four to seventy-two gave whatever skills they could offer, and as a team created what would become the most energy-saving centre for hundreds of kilometers around.

To replace the gas-guzzling generators, we installed solar panels and instead of paying $10,000 a year for propane heating, we bought and installed wood stoves that the community cuts dead pine trees for. Then came the issue of being able to use minimal energy so the solar panels could power our whole school. To solve this problem, we switched from the energy-consuming computers, to laptops for online schooling, and re-constructed all the lights with energy-saving light bulbs. Everything was coming along beyond anyone’s expectations, but we were far from finished. We developed a worm factory to recycle all of our used paper and compost, and the amazing soil created by the worms we used for our Community Garden. Using this Community Garden, all the parents of the children attending the school take turns cooking lunch for all the students.

We went from using $23,000 to $800 a year. At first, the transition seemed impossible, but with every effort, starting with installing solar panels, the task became a fun-filled, empowering and rewarding mission.

Some might think that it is impractical for everyone to follow along the same path as we did, but it’s not. You too can change your light bulbs, turn off the lights when you leave the room, use laptops or notebooks instead of desktops, wash your laundry in cold water, and turn off the taps when brushing your teeth. It is so easy anyone can do it! Each and every person can contribute in such a positive way. We have all heard that by saving energy you can help “save the world,” but perhaps you didn’t realize how it can actually save your community, your school, well, your world!. Remember, it is never too late to stop wasting energy and misusing what we have been given…but soon it just might be.