In traditional Chinese thought, “Tao” is sometimes described as the intuitive understanding of life that is known through one’s everyday being. Tao is often described as a “path” which one follows, resulting in feelings of aliveness and connection to all things. Daoism is philosophical system that follows that path, developed by Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu advocating a simple, honest life and noninterference with the course of natural events. “Sustainability” at its simplest is the capacity to endure. And when you put Tao and sustainability together, you have a recipe for abundant and joyful living.
I tend to subscribe to the idea that there are four areas of human life that are essential to feeling fully alive, and when optimized, allow us to live well, sustainably and at peace on the earth.
First, human beings need healthy food, water, soil, and air to live fully. Eating responsibly grown food and doing our part to live in a way that honors the rest of life on the planet and the earth itself is a core element of being able to live well. Second, the human body is meant to move. In today’s modern culture, we spend more and more time sitting and less and less time using our physical body to help us sustain life. So often we forget what our bodies are for — but we need to honor the body’s true purpose in order to live in aliveness. Third, we all have a vocation, a true calling – a purpose to fulfill during this human life. We need to figure out what that is, and do it in a way that makes sense for us and for those we love. And finally, we need to practice presence. Being fully present in each moment is a rare thing today. We are bombarded from all sides by the media, by advertisements, by busyness. Coming into the presence of Nature – of wildness – allows a force greater than our human selves to invite peace and grounding, and provides a foundation that allows us to step into our own power and be the change that we wish to see in our lives, and in the world. In short, following the Tao of sustainability could do us and the earth a lot of good.
Greg Ripley is the owner of Primal Health & Wellness and is an Acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, licensed by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. He received a Master of Acupuncture degree (M.Ac.) from NWHSU in Bloomington Minnesota. He has studied Tai Chi and qigong for over twenty years and is a certified Instructor, as well as the author of Primal Energy: An Introduction to Qigong.
Before studying acupuncture, Ripley worked as an organic farmer in New Mexico, and he’s also a MovNat Certified Trainer, a system of fitness and physical education which emphasizes natural movement skills. He is committed to encouraging people to rekindle a connection with nature via a healthy lifestyle, which of course fits in perfectly with Chinese medicine. And now he’s written a book that weaves it all together.
I met with Greg on a cool autumn afternoon in the Hamline Midway area of St. Paul, Minnesota at a small, busy cafe. Over cups of fair trade coffee and amidst a sea of other voices, we discussed his latest book, The Tao of Sustainability: Cultivate Yourself to Heal the Earth and what has lead him to embrace living a life that centers on promoting sustainability, natural movement and eastern healing practices.
Barr: What made you decide to write this book at this point in your life?
Ripley: I wrote this book initially in response to a discussion I had with a patient about “environmental despair”. That was really the catalyst for a lot of what I discuss in the book. I wanted to reach out to more people and let them know that all they need to do to start overcoming hopelessness and despair about the state of the environment is to begin to reconnect with nature. When we reconnect with nature we can observe and participate in the eternal optimism of life. So often we slip into thinking about these things in the abstract and forget that nature is all around us all the time. We let ourselves become disconnected, we let ourselves lose that awareness, and we can easily feel lonely, hopeless, and cut off from the rest of life. If we look at the global situation we can easily be overwhelmed. But it is not all on one person’s shoulders. It is not just your burden to carry. We have to start with changing our own lives and build from there. This can also be very empowering as it is a lot less overwhelming to think “What can I change in my own life?” than “How can I make everyone else change?” You can’t! We can see this as discouraging or we can see this as a relief. As one of my Daoist teachers likes to say, “Your happiness returns the moment you resign as general manager of the universe.” There is so much that is beyond our control which distracts us from the things that we actually can do something about. As you change yourself and you begin to influence those around you through your attitudes and actions, you can start some small ripples in the world which will change others. And of course as long as we think of nature as “other” we are deluding ourselves into thinking that what we do to nature doesn’t affect us as well.
Barr: What about your life’s journey has impacted your views on sustainability the most?
Ripley: My views on sustainability have probably been most heavily influenced by the inspiration I’ve found over the years in Eastern wisdom traditions such as Buddhism and Daoism, my training in Chinese medicine, as well as first hand experiences directly with nature. I really feel like a shift in consciousness or perspective is one of the key elements to this problem and its solutions. I think it’s important for people to start to think about sustainability not just in terms of the environment, but also in terms of their own health, the health of their communities, as well as the health of the planet. Living a sustainable lifestyle doesn’t make sense if it’s only about “the environment”. If your own lifestyle is self destructive or unsustainable than how can you square that with taking care of the Earth? You are nature too. In taking care of nature we must begin with taking care of ourselves, our families and our communities. If we jump straight to the big picture in our thinking we can easily be overwhelmed. And yet if each of us builds from the inside out starting with our own bodies and minds, we can have a profound effect on the world.
Barr: Living in a way that puts “sustainability” at the center is challenging for many of us, even though the rewards to ourselves and other forms of life are great. What is challenging about that way of living for you? What do you find most rewarding about it?
Ripley: So much of our modern lifestyle is built around convenience and instant gratification. It is sometimes hard to avoid the influences that we get bombarded with constantly. We’ve become so impatient that if a page on the computer doesn’t load instantly we think we are going to die. It can be hard to slow ourselves back down to a natural rhythm. When we garden or cook or meditate, we slow down. These can be very rewarding times as well when we can connect with each other and nature.
For me personally I think having kids is a challenge when trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle. What will they eat on any given day and are you worn out and just need a break, so maybe you make them the packaged mac and cheese and let them watch shows on an iPad instead of going outside. Many people also lead very busy lives. Sometimes we don’t have time to do things in the most sustainable way. We can’t beat ourselves up about these things, we’ve got to just keep moving in more positive directions. Each of us has our own contributions to make, but we’ve also got to retain our sanity along the way.
Barr: You outline a number of practices in the book, from meditation to qigong to simply going outside regularly. Which of these do you incorporate into your life most regularly?
Ripley: I try to connect with my self in terms of meditation of some sort everyday. This is most often a few minutes of standing meditation followed by seated meditation. I try to do it outdoors when possible or at least with a view outside. The five element qigong practice is a favorite of my for connecting with nature. I also incorporate some form of movement practice into my day whether it is qigong, taiji, or natural movement practice. This might be a few minutes at a time throughout the day or it might be longer sessions if I have the time available that day. I try to keep flexible, realizing that something is always better than nothing. Most of the practices in the book can be done anywhere, anytime.
Barr: We use the world “wildness” around here a lot, and we’ve found that it means something a little different to everyone. What does wildness mean to you?
Ripley: I like to think of wildness in terms of being in touch with your true self, or being truly and fully human. All other life on the planet which we think of as “wild” seems to have an easier time staying in touch with who or what they are and acting accordingly. Humans seem to be the only species which is able to over-think ourselves out of alignment with our true selves and the rest of nature. I also think of wildness in terms of the Daoist idea of ziran which means something like “self-generating” or “self-regulating” and is used to refer to nature spontaneously being as it is. I think we could easily translate this as “wildness”. Frank Forencich has suggested replacing the word “wellness” with “wildness” and I think that’s great.
Barr: What else do people need to know about the Tao of Sustainability and how it can impact life?
Ripley: If you live a hectic lifestyle in what seems a very artificial environment you might wonder how you can reconnect with nature without moving out to the country or going backpacking all the time. We can begin to reconnect with nature and wildness when we connect with ourselves first of all as being a part of nature.
With a voice both wise and practical, Greg Ripley provides an essential perspective on the joy and importance of reconnecting with nature, and by doing so, with our deepest selves.—Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Program.