By Penelope Thompson Several months ago, our small sangha met at the beach for a morning of mindfulness. First we sat together, then we did forty-five minutes of "cleaning the beach meditation." After that we shared our experiences together and ended with walking meditation. The experience was extraordinary for all of us, and we have continued it.
Each of us now feels an increased awareness in our connectedness to each other and to the ocean we love. We fill our bags with the detritus that litters the sand—wrappers, styrofoam cups, tampons, cigarette butts, plastic sixpack holders, beer cans, condoms, watermelon rinds, broken balloons and string caught in seaweed, large empty plastic containers for oil or soft drinks—and empty them into the round blue trash containers on the beach, and begin again. Many of us have pain in our backs after so much bending and standing, and we feel more connection to the millions of people all over the world who do this kind of physical labor every day of their lives.
Sometimes no one speaks to us. Most people just stare as we pass them on their blankets, but occasionally someone makes a remark like the man who said to his friend as he walked by, "God, there's another cult group." Another man said to one of us: "You're just doing it for the exercise, right?" The woman replied, "No, we want to clean our beach." He replied, "No, it's really for the exercise, right?" Again she tried to explain. However he could not understand this. A lifeguard came down from his watchtower and said to me, without preamble, "Pick up the plastic first. It does the most damage." I took his advice at once. As he headed back up the ramp to his tower, he said, "Thanks for doing this." A man watched David filling his garbage bag. "You shouldn't have to do this. This is the county's responsibility. Nobody's doing their job anymore." David said later that he wished he replied, " I am the county, too." We are all learning as we go. Lee specializes in picking up cigarette butts. She says she is grateful for the opportunity to pick up some of the thousands of butts she buried in the sand for so many years.
The second time my daughter Ari came with us, she put an extra bag in her back pocket. A man sitting under an umbrella with his wife and children thanked her. She said, "I have to take care of the ocean and the beach.. .and there is so much garbage." The man got right up and said, "I'll help you." Ari gave him her extra bag, and he and his whole family began to help. The young children giggled and raced to see who could find the most. They filled the bag and emptied it in the litter bin three times, and they thanked Ari for a happy time.
Ari and I never go to the beach anymore without extra empty bags. We have both fallen in love with this simple way to take care of the ocean. Several other sangha members now have the same habit. We have become so aware of our love for and our connection to the ocean and to the earth, and our deeply felt responsibility for it.
Penelope Barnes Thompson is a psychologist in West Los Angeles, California.