During the last week of June 2011, I had a series of eye-opening experiences. As the week came to a close, I realized I also had a new direction in my life, the beginning of a new service project. How this project came about seemed almost mystical to me.
Some background first. Amma* has asked us for years to chant the Sri Lalitha Sahasranama** (also called archana) daily. While I have not been consistent in my chanting, I have had numerous powerful experiences when I have followed her direction to chant it daily. This was one of those times.
My normal practice is to read/chant the text while walking. I generally take one of four routes so that I know the terrain and can be focusing on the chant rather than my feet! This is what unfolded during those seven days in June 2011:
I chanted the archana while walking the perimeter of the play yard in a grade school that is a block from my house. After reciting the first 850 lines, I started walking back home. A minute or two after leaving the school yard, I looked down at my feet and saw I was walking through an area of the sidewalk that was full of dog poop. I felt very irritated that the dog owner hadn’t cleaned it up and worried that I had stepped in the poop either coming or going from the play yard. Scowling, I continued on with the archana.
I headed for the school, chanting as I walked. As I turned the corner, I wondered if I’d find the poop still on the sidewalk. When I saw it ahead of me, the thought “What would you do if Amma was about to come this way” popped into my mind. If that was the case, I would certainly clean it up immediately. Then I remembered Amma saying that we should treat everyone as if they were her.
I begrudgingly decided if I found a stick I would push the poop to the side of the sidewalk after I finished the chant. Moments later, I saw a stick that would work. Then the thought, “Pushing it to the side is NOT cleaning up” came into my mind. I internally responded “I don’t have anything to pick it up with and nowhere to put it.”
I noticed a garbage can sitting six feet from me. I’d never seen the can before even though I’d been walking to the school to chant the archana for six months. Then, on my first round of the play yard, I saw a cup that I could use to pick up the poop. So that excuse was no longer valid either. My next thought was, “You aren’t supposed to put loose poop in a garbage can.”
I continued my chanting. At number 700, my bladder instantly filled to capacity. That was NOT a normal occurrence. I didn’t know if I could even make back to the house in time to reach the toilet, but I took off. On the way home, I had the awareness that this bladder episode was happening so I could go home, get plastic bags and take care of the poop appropriately. I finished the archana at home and then went back to the area near the school and cleaned up the mess.
This time I took a different route. As I chanted, I saw lots of litter along the road. I thought “I could pick this litter up on the way home but I don’t have anything to put it in.” Minutes later, I saw two clean plastic bags in front of me, neatly placed beside the sidewalk. I laughed and shook my head incredulously. “Okay I will clean the litter up after I finish the archana,” I responded.
As I walked, Amma’s pledge to clean up India came to mind. (To learn about that project go to: http://www.amritapuri.org/activity/social/abc http://e.amritapuri.org/abc/archives/791 and http://e.amritapuri.org/abc/archives/845)
“Litter isn’t such a big problem here” I thought. There was a slight wind and a bunch of litter was picked up and swirled around in front of me. I also saw how much other litter there was in the area. “Okay I get it!” I responded.
I continued walking and chanting the archana. Strangely enough, I finished it 30% faster than I had ever finished it before, which left lots of time to clean up litter on the way home. By the time I returned to my house, I had an overflowing bag. I decided to add 15 minutes a day cleaning up litter to my normal morning practice (That 15 minute pledge later expanded to about 40 – 90 minutes. Writing this post makes me want to get back to that level of commitment again!).
As I chanted the archana, I saw litter everywhere I walked. How had I not noticed this mess before? It occurred to me that perhaps we could get 108 people to make an ongoing commitment to clean up litter and record their times so we could track the impact of the project. Internally, my response was “108? Why not 1008?” ***
I remembered that when I dig in the dirt in the empty lot behind my house almost every shovelful has plastic in it. To say we don’t have a significant litter problem in this country is most definitely wrong.
I was a passenger in a car. When we stopped at a street light, a man walked into the crosswalk. He had a very difficult time walking. (The friend that was driving the car has multiple sclerosis and she later told me that he probably also had M.S.) As he crossed the street, he stooped down in front of our car, picked up some litter, and then walked on. If he made picking up litter a priority then why didn’t I?
I realized that this seva (selfless service) project had the potential to make a significant difference. It could be part of Amma’s GreenFriends program. It could start as a regional project and then get bigger. We could participate as individuals and we could also have work parties. We could let our friends, neighbors, and colleagues know about the project and see if they wanted to join us. The possibilities were endless.
I googled “Seattle litter” and discovered that someone had written a blog griping about the litter in our area. He said that we pay our taxes and the government has the responsibility to see that our neighborhoods are kept free of litter. He made no mention of any personal responsibility. I realized this could be a seva that could confront our country’s sense of entitlement by giving people an opportunity to join in a project that helps solve an environmental problem.
The following weekend, we had a gathering in Pt. Townsend that included people from many of Amma’s groups. As I told attendees about the proposed project a baby bald eagle flew overhead. We took it as an important omen.
And thus the PNW GreenFriends Litter Project began the first week in July of 2011! We started with 10 members. As of June 2014 we had 365 members. Most of our members come from the Pacific Northwest portion of North America but we have members from other states and other parts of the world as well.
During the last three years we have had many work parties. In addition, between 30 and 50 people report the minutes and hours that they spend picking up litter monthly. As of June 2014 our combined total reached 5388 hours!
Once the project started, in addition to spending a lot of time picking up litter, I spent so much time thinking about litter that I even dreamed about it. I talked to Amma about what seemed like an obsession and she said, “You aren’t thinking about litter, you are thinking about what is under the litter.” I really liked that re-frame. It was true, saving the earth under the litter was my real passion!
The PNW GreenFriends Litter Project is open to everyone from everywhere. If you would like to join us, write me at email@example.com.
* Amma is a humanitarian and spiritual leader from southern India. She has been my spiritual teacher since 1989.
**Sri Lalitha Sahasranama is a chant of 1000 characteristics of the Divine Mother (in Eastern spiritual practices the female part of God is recognized in addition to the male part. Chanting this ancient text is said to bring peace of mind, spiritual upliftment, peace to the world and prosperity to the family.
***108 and 1008 are sacred numbers in India.