This summer I began taking walks nearly every morning as an active extension of my meditation practice. Each morning, I stood up from my meditation cushion, put on walking clothes and shoes, and did NOT take headphones. Taking my first steps in the walk, I feel into my feet and sense into the rhythm of my increasing breath. I drink in the sights and sounds around me, noticing flowers, trees, sky, people and cars around me.
Flowers, trees and sky weren’t the only things I noticed. Uninterrupted by overstimulating noise, I noticed the recycling and garbage all over the sidewalks and gutters in the busy city streets near which I live. Having just committed to reducing my own plastic use, I was disgusted and horrified with what was on the street — even on those streets with obvious recycling bins placed every few blocks.
My peaceful, calming morning walk was raising my blood pressure in more than one way.
I started picking up the recycling — cans, water bottles, plastic cups — and placing them in the recycling bins I encountered along my way. Soon my hands were not adequate to handle the volume; I began bringing a plastic bag so I could carry and dispose of more.
I attempted to integrate the recycling pick-up into my morning practice — a way to feel that I am more connected to and responsible for the health of our earth. My mind, however, wanted to take this as an opportunity to judge every single stranger I imagined was wantonly dropping their garbage on the ground.
My less-than-generous mind assumed nearly everyone was an inconsiderate drunk coming back from the bars in the early hours, dropping beverage cans and food containers without consideration.
Recognizing that I was steeped too often in judgmental frustration during my “spiritual practice”, I tried something new. I began to imagine, with empathy, the reasons people may be dropping bottles and cans on the ground. Perhaps homeless people — many of whom I see still sleeping on benches and in doorways in my neighborhood in the morning — were stashing some of the bags of food and drink for later. Maybe someone was helping a sick friend (perhaps even from too much alcohol or not) to the car late at night and some of the half-drunk cans slipped mercifully from their hands. I imagined why people might be drinking too much alcohol in the first place — the pain of deep loss and unresolved trauma.
When I managed a mindset of empathy rather than judgement, my attitude changed, my heart warmed and compassion flooded in during my morning practice. I felt joy in serving my neighborhood and the earth by helping to clean up. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who cleaned up on the streets in the early morning hours — I joined employees from nearby businesses and one man carrying a person-sized bag of aluminum cans on his back. I felt part of a community that cared — about how the streets looked, about the impact on the the earth and about the people who walked those city streets. I also extend that compassion toward myself — forgiving myself for the times I am just as careless, forgetful and inconsiderate of others and the earth.
I remember I am blessed to choose to live in a safe, urban neighborhood in which I can walk easily to grocery stores, restaurants and bars. The garbage and recycling, though a problem, is a symptom of the growing, vibrant urban area of Columbus, Ohio.
I only intended to get in a little walk in the morning. I got so much more: I transformed judgement into compassion, just by picking up a little recycling.