With the pandemic putting all plans on hold, it may feel like we’ve been locked up in a prison of the present moment. Our planning brain has been furloughed. Why is this so uncomfortable, when we only ever live in the present moment? Cognitive planning is one of the brain's executive functions, located in the frontal lobe. It is a distinctly human capacity, which can be impaired during stressful times. Do not lose hope, however! This may not be the right time for logical planning, but it could be the perfect time for creative envisioning.
Visioning and setting intentions (as I discuss on retreats) are different from planning and goal setting. They provide a compass rather than a map, and offer us an interesting paradox – the integration of our long-term vision with an attunement to the present moment.
How far ahead can we envision, though? How about 1000 years!
This is certainly what we require right now, as we look at climate change and the future of human life on Spaceship Earth. As Duggan, Neale, Quesea and Woo have written, “The earth today is facing a future full of challenges and uncertainty and there is growing evidence that we have exceeded the limits of sustainable growth.” We need a vast and integrated vision. Tonn (2004) asserts that,
“One thousand years [...] is long enough to unmask big picture problems that appear to be invisible to today’s societies. Furthermore, this time horizon encourages the perspective that over the long-term, many problems that seem unsolvable today, and therefore receive little attention and few resources, can indeed be overcome.”
Akong Rinpoche's Thousand Year Vision
I first heard the concept of the 1000-year vision in 2010, when I spent a few days in the company of Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche. He was born in a remote Tibetan village, escaped to India and then travelled to England. He was a quiet man, even working for a while as a hospital orderly in Oxford, in order to support the more charismatic Chogyam Trungpa. Yet, over his lifetime, he inspired thousands of people to study and practice the Buddhadharma and participate in his centres and projects.
He set up the Tara Rokpa Centre, 250km from Johannesburg, knowing that the air, land and water around Gauteng was getting polluted. The purpose of the Centre was to ensure access to a healthy environment where people could come for healing, for spiritual practice and to learn ways to connect with themselves, their communities and to the environment around them. He bequeathed to the Management Committee, of which I was Chair for a while, a 1000-year vision.
To start with, I couldn’t understand how this would possibly work. How could I even imagine what the place would be like in 50 years, let alone 1000, so long after my death? Yet with time, I realized his wisdom. He was inviting us to move slowly and steadily, and not get overwhelmed or bogged down by temporary set backs. Instead, he invited us to be infused with his same vast vision and the sense of expansive potential. We didn’t need to do everything immediately. Transformation, whether personal, political or environmental, is a process and needs to be carried out with spaciousness and ease. Everything is possible, if we have 1000 years.
Indigenous Wisdom Traditions
During lockdown, I read the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass. She writes from the Native American wisdom tradition, and talks of the Seventh Generation Principle where any decision made must take into account those who come after us. This principle invites us to return our focus to the wellbeing of the collective. The indigenous worldview is based on reciprocity between humans and the environment – we need each other. This is not how current day political planning works, with its 5 year targets, but is what is now necessary to ensure the survival of humanity on this planet.
Both the 1000-year vision and the 7th Generation principle demand us to see our individual selves in relationship with our ancestors and descendants. When we are asked to make decisions, we do so considering long term outcomes, not just immediate benefits. This requires responsibility, yet ironically helps take weight off our weary shoulders. We are encouraged not to take ourselves too seriously. Play our role as best we can, while recognizing that we do not need to take all of the burden, or indeed any of the credit. We can shift from the praise and blame tug-o-war, to a place of interconnectedness and reciprocity.
Playing Different Roles
When we recognize that we will not be around to see the fruits of our labour, our role is to hand on. We are in a relay, passing the baton to the next generation. We learn to work beyond our own ego-centric desires. Every link in the chain is important, yet each supports the whole. This is a shared journey where we do what we can, but know that not everything will be achieved. We can infuse our work with a vast intention, and can be agile as changing needs arise. Chaos and seeming obstacles in our path, often open up new opportunities and possibilities.
When I was Chair, I asked Akong Rinpoche’s brother, Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, for advice about navigating the 1000-year vision at the Tara Rokpa Centre. Wisely, he invited me to focus on the areas that seemed alive and energized, and let other projects rest until they showed signs of gaining their own momentum. It was so interesting to watch this process unfold over the ten years. Initially, there was a lot of energy in retreats, and it created its own need for buildings to be converted and improved. Then an amazing young couple appeared, with interests in Permaculture. Suddenly, the Training Centre could be developed to offer beautiful accommodation and the Tikologo permaculture demonstration site took shape. Once this couple left, the Centre moved into a winter cycle that initially felt stagnant. Yet, on interviewing others to take over, the Committee found someone who could energize the Community wing. This has been the area to flourish over lockdown. Maybe soon, the fourth wing of activity will gather energy and see TRC becoming the Therapy Centre of Africa. When you have a 1000-year vision, you can afford to be patient, to move like water, without bashing against blocks.
For 1000-year visions, we need to take an interconnected systems perspective, and acknowledge the mysterious relationships that allow life to thrive. Ecosystems do not work on the zero sum gain principle. When an ecosystem thrives, everything in it thrives. A tree does not only flourish if the plants around it die. In a food forest, the layers of the forest support those above and below. Yet sometimes, whole ecosystems die out, and no-one can identify a single root cause. Ecosystems and social movements share similar qualities. “Social movements are messy, emergent phenomena. We never know when and how they will take hold” (One Earth Sangha). We just keep doing the work, day after day, and once in a lifetime we might experience a tipping point, when everything shifts.
Let’s take the example of #BLM. Black Lives Matter had been launched in 2013 by three African American women who were carrying on the work of generations of civil rights activists before them. It was slow, heart-breaking work, documenting and protesting too many cases of police brutality. Then suddenly, during lockdown, the words #ICantBreathe echoed across the entire world – so poignant alongside the global pandemic that was harming our lungs.
Finally decisive actions started happening, alongside changes in the law. Yet, we need to be careful when there is a sudden shift in conscious awareness. We may fall prey to performative reactivity, rather than looking at the slow deep work of personal transformation and real allyship. True transformation is based in deep introspective practice and a felt sense of equality and humanity, and not the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to look woke. We need to investigate constantly what our underlying motivations are. Vast plans require motivation beyond the self. We have so often seen motivation linked to pity or guilt, shame, fear or anger, resulting in actions that create polarization or even cause dependency.
Sustainable, 1000-year action, is grounded in compassion and the truth of interdependence.
What does a 1000-year vision mean to me?
Using our individual talents to generate communal power
Taking care of the small daily tasks while having the vast picture in mind
Ubuntu – each individual in service of the bigger spatial and temporal world
A biological or social ecosystem, where each plant, animal or person is necessary for the health of the whole
Taking care of yourself and those around you knowing that each is of equal value
Allowing for cycles and seasons – times of rapid growth and times of die back.
Moving forward, but not like a bulldozer ploughing through rocks, more like a river, flowing round obstacles.
Not worrying about time – there is enough time and a sense of ease and momentum.
Inviting watchfulness in the present moment, sensing into the future as it emerges, and knowing which move to make.
Flexibility and agility to incorporate the unexpected into the bigger picture.
Taking decisions and actions, without being attached to the results
A willingness to work, both inside and out, on personal, political and environmental transformation
Touching into ‘don’t know mind’ in order to find guidance for the next step forward and trusting the mysterious way that things often emerge
Trusting in impermanence, which means that both good times and bad times soon pass – and sometimes we cannot differentiate good from bad
Your Envisioning Homework
We can create a global, 1000-year vision to inform our lives moment-by-moment. We only truly have the present moment, so let's focus on what is meaningful to do right now. Small daily activities can be carried out with a big intention, like planting seeds with the wish to feed the whole world. The most powerful activism we can do is our personal transformation as this infuses all the other aspects of our lives and every decision we are called to make.
Tonn has advised that “1000-year planners will have to work outside the normal channels of government and work at the grassroots level the world over to publicize their results and mobilize long-term change” so here is your envisioning homework. Enjoy the chance to go BIG!
What can you imagine in 1000 years, if your vision is fulfilled?
What do you see by the end of your own lifespan, when you pass on the baton to the next generation of vision holders?
What will you do next week to move in this direction?
What will you do today?
What can you do right in this moment?