The smoke from the nearby wildfires isn’t as bad today, but it still lingers over the entire coast, covering everything with a translucent and milky haze. Three days ago, our home town was virtually unrecognizable. The smoke was heavy and thick, reducing visibility by at least eighty percent. The pungent smell of what seemed like ten thousand campfires filled the air, but there were no marshmallows being roasted, and there were no fireside songs being sung.
The island across the water from me, which is only a short paddle away, had become a faint outline of a shadow while the massive Coastal Mountains, always towering in the distance, had disappeared entirely. Ash fell from the sky like stray snowflakes on a winter morning, leaving an ashen dust on patio furniture outside and dirtying anything inside that might be close to an open window.
Two days ago, before the winds shifted and cleared some of the smoke away, the sun was nowhere to be seen. Filtered through a plume of smoke, an orange glow was cast onto everything, changing the entire mood of the town I call home. It was as if you were looking through a pair of polarized sunglasses. The world appeared apocalyptic and the entire landscape seemed alien.
The fire still burns and the war still rages for all those fighting it, despite the apparent return to normalcy for everyone who's on its distant edges. The wildfires return every summer, and because they do, many of us overlook them. We see the forest fires as an expected by-product of the hot season itself. We shrug our shoulders and happily carry on, trusting the work to others. That is, until the flames begin to encircle our home and encroach upon our community’s normal way of living. Or until they claim the life of a local, like the life that was lost two days ago; a sixty-one year old man who made it his life’s work to fight forest fires (ones often caused by the carelessness of man), and whose life was cut short in a selfless effort to save our homes and communities, and to save the natural wilds from further decimation.
Our attitudes change as the suffering creeps closer — we take it more seriously.
We take it more personally. This is how it is with everything though, isn’t it? We tend to ignore all of the world’s suffering until we can taste it on the tips of our tongues, and then we scream in petulant disbelief, as if we’re the first to ever be affected.
We ignore poverty, until it knocks on our car window and asks us for spare change. We ignore homelessness, until we have to step over their sleeping bag. We ignore the mentally ill, until we have to cross the street to avoid them. We ignore violence, until we have to look in the blackened eyes of its innocent victims, face to face. We ignore injustice, until our very own freedom is challenged. We ignore war, until someone’s son whom we once knew dies, who fought for a cause that remains as clouded as the smoke-filled air. We ignore compassion, until we’re met with indifference in our very own times of need. We ignore kindness, until we’re left slack-jawed someone’s ill will and dumbfounded by their inconsiderate actions. We ignore hunger, until we have trouble finding a gluten-free, vegan snack when our tummy grumbles. We ignore corruption, until we find ourselves at the wrong end of a crooked deal, or when the promises of our insurance policy are rendered void by a tiny line of text that makes the entire contract worth less than the paper it’s printed on, that renders it nothing more than a false and blatant lie. We ignore the suffering of animals, until our dog or cat has a sore paw. We ignore the inhumane treatment of all the living things within our food supply, until we see bacon's face staring back at us through the horrors of factory farming in a disturbing raw video that’s been leaked online.
We ignore most things, until they enter our field of view, until they reach out and touch us and command their undivided attention — until we can ignore them no more.
But we also ignore ourselves, and this is perhaps the most dire of all our indifferences, as everything both begins and ends with us. We ignore all the warning signs of our own perilous inner conditions, just as ignorantly as the wildfires that burn nearby. We ignore our own suffering, no matter how obvious its signs are, no matter how weakened we’ve become by the many years of enduring our very own self-inflicted pains.
We are complicit in all the things that trouble us, both in our personal lives and in the state of the world around us. Our hands are never clean, they are dirtied by our complacency and they reek of our naïveté and ignorance. We are sullied by the fallout of our selfishness. If we truly want to find global peace, happiness and harmony, then it must become our common goal to end suffering in all of its forms — but it must first begin by tending to the harm we inflict on ourselves through all of our ill-considered actions.
A global awakening and uprising of consciousness is needed now more than ever.
We must awaken to the harm we inflict on one another. We must awaken to the undeniable law of cause and effect, and be mindful of the ripples we create through everything we think, do, and buy. There are repercussions to everything we consume — including all of the media, gossip, and drama we ingest too.
No one is innocent, there are only those who are less guilty, whose actions of good intent outweigh the negative. We all play a part in whatever negative circumstances we find ourselves in; even if it’s the aftermath from generations before us, so too is the mess we create for those that follow our own. Everyone has to sweep up after those who made the mess before us. But how many will rise to the challenge of the cleanup that lies ahead? How many will ignore the flames that continue to burn once the smoke clears?
We need to wake up.
We need to stop filling our minds with pointless distractions (buy more! on sale now! consume, consume, consume!), so that we can recognize the gross reality of the fallout from our indifference that now surrounds us.
We need to stop running away and become aware of all the injustices we unknowingly participate in — to the environment, to the people around us, and also to ourselves.
We need to become a more mindful people. We must consider the potential fallout from all of our deeds.
This isn’t just about plastic filling our oceans, or about global warming changing our climate and ecology. Wildfires burn within us just as violently as the dry tinder in the forests. Our inner selves are in a similar state of emergency.
We will never end global suffering if we don’t first change our attitudes of indifference.
Our illusion of self-importance is destroying us from the inside out, and we’re unable to see the plumes of smoke that billow from our charred soul.
The fuel of the wildfires within us are many. Resistance. Fear. Anger. Hatred. Jealousy. Greed. Discrimination. Callousness. Corruption. Disdain. Denial. Selfishness. We must douse the flames of our suffering with blankets of mindfulness. We must shine the light of our awareness onto the true nature of things, unobscured by the haze of the distractions we pre-occupy ourselves by. We must see through the smoke of our politics, greed, and money-making schemes. We must see through the clouds of our ego, of only thinking about ourself.
As I sit outside and write these words, the sounds of the environment around me have once again returned to normal. Two days earlier, under an orange and smoke-filled sky, a sullen and unsettling silence hung heavy. Nature had been silenced. They had either fled or were cowering in their hollows, wondering what man had done to them now. The world was muffled, dampened by the thick smoke and ash particulate that filled the air. Thankfully the birds have returned today, where before there was none.
Life may appear to have returned to normal, but the wildfires rage on. For most of us, life will continue as it was, uninterrupted and indifferent to change, but only until the ash of our mindlessness falls on our shoulders once again. I wonder, will we wake up then?
We don’t all need to fight in the trenches head-on, or die in service to our neighbours as others so bravely have and do, but by being ever-mindful of the eventual repercussions of all our thoughts, actions, behaviours and inactions, we will each begin to make a lasting and positive difference — within both our spiritual selves, within our communities, and within this precious biosphere we all share and call home.
Ultimately it is our awareness itself that will save us, nothing less.
It is only with a mindful curiosity to the results of our behaviours that we will prevent making the same mistakes over and over again. It is only through our good intentions and wise actions that we will not only save ourselves, but also future generations to come.
But we will continue to burn our entire world down if we are unable to observe ourselves, witness the outcome of our actions, and then make the necessary changes — now. Otherwise it will be our selfish stubbornness that ends it all.
Every action and inaction has an outcome.
How much longer will you ignore the flames of discontent that burn within you?