Updated: Jan 2, 2019
In my first years of college I began to notice that I was anxious and distracted most of the time. I knew I needed to get to the bottom this, and felt that I had to search beyond the horizon of my own culture to resolve my chronic restlessness. This led me on a journey to an undeveloped and remote corner of the world.
I met people in this small third-world country who were happier and more content than anyone I had ever known. They had little of the material comforts and technology I had grown up with in an affluent suburb of the United States in the 1960s. But they had something that my culture had lost long ago – a sense of place.
I was struck by their natural serenity and sense of confidence, which came not from material wealth or status, but simply an intimate familiarity with their environment. Seeing their childlike playfulness and the utter simplicity of their lifestyle, the mystery of my existential anxiety began to make sense.
I understood that in our urge for greater individual autonomy and personal independence,
industrialized first-world societies had often cut ourselves off from the land, nature, and the human community around us. In our drive for freedom, we had lost our roots and grounding.
I would never have known what a sense of place was without seeing and feeling it for myself in the villages of Sri Lanka. Once I got to know these simple, happy people, the contentment, peace, and serenity of being connected to land and community was self-evident - and I wanted it. This revelation profoundly changed my life, and I came home knowing I needed to learn how to farm and live close to the earth again.
It was the late 1970’s and there was a movement among disenchanted young people to go back to the land. I jumped in with both feet and joined a group of like-minded explorers living on a self-sufficient homestead in rural Maine. I felt an urge to reconnect with nature, grow my own food, and live off the land as my ancestors had done for millennia. Being connected to the land became more important than personal mobility, wealth, or status. And it was the perfect way to make my new practice of meditation into a way of life.
In practicing meditation and homesteading, I learned that freedom is not
the same as mobility. I discovered that healthy boundaries and personal disciplines led to true freedom from addiction to an over-active mind. And I saw how devotion to taking care of a homestead over many years enables a rooted presence that leads to sustained contentment and serenity.
Today most of us live in cities or commute to a job and have no experience cultivating the
earth where we live. Distracted by the over-stimulation of our technological society, you don’t realize how strange it is to be so disconnected from the source of your food, water, and shelter.
I knew I needed to reconnect with the earth and become a farmer in order to regain my sanity and give meaning to my life and work. I trusted that slowing my life down to live with the rhythms of nature would make it easier to sustain presence. Just as feeling the sensations of my body brought me into the present moment, working the earth with my hands and feet and grounded and connected me to this enormous planet and all of life.
I have lived on one piece of land now for the past 30 years. My work has been cultivating a
self-sufficient homestead, building a small retreat center, and becoming intimate with all the life forms surrounding me. Along the way I began to teach mindfulness meditation and conscious communication skills – two of the medicines that have been fundamental in restoring my integrity and finding contentment.
Living close to the land enables me to teach mindfulness in a genuine way. I see many
teachers who travel the world offering deep and profound teachings, but who have no connection to place. And I think something is missing for them and their teaching.
I don’t believe in the super-star model of celebrity spiritual teachers that our over-developed culture promotes. It feeds the ego’s destructive habit of projection and encourages us to look outside ourselves for the truth. Too often the result is heady teachings that are not grounded in the presence that comes from belonging to a place, or the humility of taking care of our place.
I believe that my teaching is enhanced by being the steward of this land where my food is grown and people come to attend retreats. Notions of grandeur soften as I weed the garden, shovel manure, or clean the outhouse. These are basic daily maintenance tasks that remind me that I am human, like you, and completely reliant on this beautiful earth for my sustenance.
In mindfulness practice you come to realize that the way out is through the body. As a deep
awareness of your own physical body emerges, you realize that you are much larger than that, and you free yourself from its limitations.
This same process occurs when you farm the earth. When you recognize that you are
completely dependent on the land for your daily nourishment - when you put your fingers into the soil each day and connect with the source of your food - you begin to experience yourself as something much larger than this mortal body or private mind. You realize that instead of being a separate individual, you are actually a process of life occurring, which has no beginning or end. You are part of a much larger event and your being does not have finite boundaries or limits.
This is the freedom promised in the teachings of the Buddha, and other awakened beings. It does not come from unrestricted mobility, but rather from deep rooted connection to the land you walk on every day.