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Beyond Sustainable

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

I’m just back from Peru. What an adventure! I keep asking myself, what did I learn? What struck me most? I could be prosaic about the moments of tearfulness, as I gazed out over views of forests, of dunes, of ancient cities. Or I could talk about the tongue-dancing flours of ceviche and pisco sours. Or the dogs… how I loved the dogs that hang out everywhere, cared for yet free, snoozey yet alert. Yet what struck me this morning was what I learned from the hardest times… climbing all those huge Andean mountains.


Yet what I realized, is that the journey along the tiny Inka trails, and through the forests can actually be sustaining, in itself. The hikes energised me, when I stopped moaning about being over 50 and started paying attention. I learned to pause every so often (and often, quite often) to gaze back. Wow – we came from there! On steep slopes, I would ask for a push from Mike, and the feeling of his hand against my back filled me with the sense that we are in this together. I literally had someone to fall back on! He pointed out little purple orchids blooming in the forest, or we tuned into the orchestra of birds and cicadas. These little moments of delight took me out of my tired body to a less egocentric place. Even when my crooked old leg started to ask for care, Mike cut me a Gandalf staff, which contained the superpowers I needed to keep going. My mindset shifted from misery to magic. The Andes were the Misty Mountains of Middle-Earth, and the elves felt close at hand. I just had to listen for their whispering voices.

So I started thinking more broadly. How can we move beyond what is sustainable, to what might be sustaining? Sustainability is important yet, to me, suggests a closed system of inputs and outputs. How is a sustaining system different? It is an environment where we, and life, can flourish. Look at the rainforests – they thrive at every level, and naturally sustain themselves.

I’ve noticed that when people ask me what I am doing at Wits, I say that I am teaching contemplative practices, so that the work of activists can be more sustainable. Yet today, I realise that this is not enough. It’s time to move beyond sustainability. Our work needs to be sustaining; we must feel nourished and inspired by it. The work itself contains the source of our energy and joy, if we can practice exquisite awareness.

My Andean adventures taught me to cultivate awareness of:

  1. Our powerful intentions

  2. Community support

  3. Moments of wonder

  4. Our very human superpowers

  5. Relationships

  6. The skills and knowledge that we can tap into, with a simple request

  7. Something vast, bigger and more enduring than little me

  8. Celebrating where we have come from

These are the qualities that can shift us. We turn to the work itself, and remember why we are doing it. What world would we like to be (re)born into? Your children, or yourself, if you believe in reincarnation. This is what can get us up in the morning to take that next step, and the next. It is our intention that counts.

Mountain top
When our work is imbued with pure intention, every day can bring us the energy we need to continue.
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