When we don’t pay attention, we waste money, we waste resources, we waste time, and we waste our lives. When we aren’t mindful of this moment, we waste. Therefore, paying attention and trying not to waste is a simple mindfulness exercise we can do all day. The simple act of being mindful of and trying not to waste can both help us have better lives for ourselves and and help the world.
There are three parts to this post. You can read straight through or click ahead to whatever part mosts interests you:
- Part 1: How Wasting Stuff Wastes Your Life is about how the inattention that causes us to waste resources indicates an inattention that means we are not really alive to our own lives–we are wasting out lives (click here)
- Part 2: How Wasting Stuff Wastes Other People’s Lives is about how wasting resources, on a global scale, actually means we are wasting the lives of others (click here).
- Part 3: Not Wasting As An Act Of Mindfulness is about how to be mindful of waste in your life as an act of attentiveness and compassion (click here).
Part 1: How Wasting Stuff Wastes Your Life
Here is a little zen story about waste from my book No Impact Man:
[The story] has to do with the five Buddhist precepts, which are akin to the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity. The precepts, as I see them, suggest and ttitutude toward life, or a spirit of living, that brings peace, both for me and those around me. [Consider them an exercise in mindful living, in fact].
The first of the precepts, like the biblical “Thou shalt not murder,” can be thought of as “Don’t kill.”
So… as this little story goes, a Zen master is sitting outside, meditating under a tree, when one of his monks walks past with a big pot on the way to get water from the well. Once the monk fills his pot, he returns down the path, hurrying past the Zen master and slopping water as he goes. “Hey you!” the Zen master shouts from under the tree. “Why are you killing that water?”
The choice of words is important. What the Zen master means is that the monk is disobeying the spirit of the first precept, which extends beyond killing to wasting and destroying. The needless wasting and destroying implies that the monk is not attending to life as it is right now.
Why are you more concerned with where you’re going than were you are, the Zen master might just as well have asked? Why are you more concerned with what you are going to do than what you are doing? Why aren’t you paying attention to how you live your life right at this very moment? Why are you wasting this moment? Why, indeed, are you wasting your life?
This is from a talk I gave at the United Nations in New York for World Environment Day. They had asked me to encourage UN staff to be mindful about not using plastic bags.
Thank you for caring about water and poverty and hunger and war and genocide and so many of our big world problems. I was thinking about all these problems and all the hard work you must have to do to even make a dent.
It made me wonder: When you think of those big problems, why does it possibly matter if you carry a plastic bag or drink bottled water. Aren’t those things trivial? Don’t heroes like you at the United Nations need to forget about them and get back to work getting governments to change?
Then I did an exercise. I thought, compared to war and climate change and hunger, how much do, say, plastic bags really matter?
I thought this. How much oil does it take to make plastic bags? Well, it turns out that 12 million barrels of oil are used each year to make plastic bags in the US alone. But that is trivial, since the US uses some 7 billion barrels of oil a year.
That means plastic bags make up only 0.2% of that. A fifth of one percent of the oil. That is trivial. But then I thought of the Iraq War. I looked on Iraq Body Counts who say that 242,000 deaths can be attributed to the war.
Now, excuse me if I am being political, but I believe the Iraq War was about oil. 242,000 people died because of a war for oil. If 0.2% of oil in the United States is used for plastic bags, doesn’t that mean that 0.2% of our oil war deaths are also for plastic bags?
That means 484 people died for plastic bags. Suddenly, I began to understand why choosing not to use plastic bags might be as important as influencing governments.
Here is something just as important. The plastic bag is an important symbol of our throwaway economy. The plastic bag is the most ubiquitous single-use item in the world.
But it turns out that 80% of the world’s consumer products are made to be use only once. Think of the waste. Think of the labor, the money, the human time, the resources that are used to make things that are only used once.
The question is: How much happiness or good does a plastic bag actually bring to the world or even to any one person? Now think of what all those resources could be used for if they weren’t used on throwaway products.
Think of the production effort, the human ingenuity, the resources that could be used to solve thirst, hunger, war, health and access to education.
If we all stopped wasting, think of what we might be able to accomplish in the world? These are the thoughts that I had about why—when speaking in front of the heroes of the United Nations—I wondered about mentioning plastic bags.
Because not using them, manifesting the world we want in our own lives is a big deal.
So again, I thank you so much for your work. And ask you to wonder, the next time you see someone using a plastic bag or a plastic water bottle, if you too might wonder, how much further we might get if we stopped using them.
So how do we use not wasting as an act of mindfulness? It is just a matter of paying attention to and treating with value the resources we use–treating life itself as though it has value. When we see that waste will occur, try to avoid it.
- When brushing my teeth and I see water uselessly pouring down the drain, I turn off the tap
- When thirsty, I see the plastic bottled water comes in and drink tap water in a glass or reusable bottle instead
- When getting a peanut butter cookie at the bakery down the street, I ask the server to please use the tongs instead of the waxed paper to remove the cookie from the jar and then to put the cookie in my hand instead of in a bag I would instantaneously throw away
- When at my local coffee shop where I often work, I ask to borrow a glass for my drinking water instead of using the plastic throwaway cups they generally provide
- And on and on.
Does this save the world? Does it improve my life? Actually, I believe it does both. I think it helps the world and it helps with my connection to my own life. Paying attention helps me to be more alive and paying attention automatically also leads to more compassionate actions.
What about you? How do you use not wasting as a mindfulness practice. How has the practice helped you? Please let us all know in the comments below.