What is 11 tonnes of rubbish really teaching?

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Thursday 24th of June- a sweltering hot day and everyone understandably flocks to the beach. The result was a record amount of 11 tonnes of rubbish left behind. Equally understandable was the amount of complaining that ensued. Too damn right! It was truly horrific! Although there is a 'but'.

We will nearly always see the binary 'good' and 'bad' in aspects around us, including people. This has gone on for...EVER. Adam and Eve? Or in yoga, the battle between the Kauravas (adharma- against the 'greater good') and the Pandavas (dharma- for the 'greater good') as told in the epic tale of the 'Mahābhārata'. This week it could be seen as the 'litter droppers' and the 'litter bemoaners'. We know that dropping litter is a horrible and harmful thing to do and so feel outraged (or any number of other feelings) towards this action, which in yoga would be considered adharmic (against the natural order or things) and actually a form of himsa (violence- in this case against Mother Earth and her inhabitants).

Here is the thing though. On that beach there probably was an equal amount, or possibly more of [the number is irrelevant really] people who saw that rubbish and were horrified! I am sure some picked up a bag or more of rubbish as they left. I just wonder how many looked in horror, but thought 'someone else will do it', 'it is not my job', or any number of similar thoughts.

A well known psychological effect is the 'bystander effect'- if there are people present we are less likely to help a victim. The greater the number of people around, the less likely we are to help. The victim in this case was Mother Earth, and there was a huge number of bystanders, meaning so many did little about this littering.

Firstly, if you did nothing, this is not saying you're a bad person. This is most definitely not an attack and I am most definitely not 'holier than thou' in any way. This is a well-known phenonema which has a myriad of possible causes. Yet, it is one we can- and perhaps really need to- break through in order for changes to occur in society. This mass littering is just one example.

If we are aware of this effect happening, we can watch ourselves as it takes over. 'Why am I seeing something I 'disagree' with but not doing anything?' This can help us override this effect which is unconscious, making a conscious choice instead. That moment of stopping and pausing, opposed to rushing from one thing to the next. 

A big part of what went on may have been the thought that 'someone else will do it', or 'it's not my job'. I know I've definitely thought these things. Again, it's not a 'bad' thought as such. It is one which is deeply ingrained in our psyche. We pay our taxes so someone else will do 'the job'. We have the media so someone else can do the job of research. We have the NHS so our health is someone else's job. The message of 'someone else's responsibility' go on and on.

I am sorry, IT IS OUR JOB. We are collectively responsible for one another; for each and every living and non-living entity on the planet; AND for the planet. We are supposed to live in conjunction/harmony, not in opposition/disharmony. Imagine if each person who saw the litter and was dismayed had picked up a bag full. Would there have been 11 tonnes left? Would there have even been 1 tonne? Probably not. Oh 'but the litter droppers are bad people'. I'm sorry, but if we sit and just watch, we are complicit. There may also be times the same litter droppers would look at you or I and be dismayed by an action. What if they then took action to rectify that on our behalf? This is living in conjunction.

We are also programmed from an early age to perform action for reward. This is taught to us as a child, and continues through so much of our life, such as payment for our 'job'. In yoga we would say it is an attachment to the end result; I take action and expect a reward. So when an action may not receive any reward- this is not just payment, simply receiving praise for an action is probably the more common one- we are naturally less likely to do it. This is from years and years of conditioning, so again doesn't make you a 'bad' person. It's part and parcel of society at present.

From Bhagavad Gita- In the Light of Kashmir Shaivism. 'Do all actions in this world before public without being attached to those actions'

In the 'Bhagavad Gītā' we are taught of karma yoga. One aspect of this is action without attachment for the end result. So the yogi(ni) picks up the litter- a dharmic action for the 'greater good'- without any need for reward. In fact, without any thought of the after-effects. Of course, this type of action sends ripples far and wide. That mentality does not happen over night as conditioning or socialisation runs deep within us. We can take lots of little steps though.

What about flipping it and seeing it as a service (seva). I am sure many who left their litter were day-drinkers. If your behaviour is perfect when you're drunk you are a far better person that I! These people are having a good time, so how about thinking 'my 5 minutes of litter picking has helped them enjoy their day care-free'? Is that not a lovely gift to give someone? Or how about, 'my 5 minutes of litter picking may mean someone who's 'job' it is to do it, can do something else of benefit to society instead'? This is an attachment to the fruits of our labour, but it's a starting point in shifting our mentality. 

The focus here has been on the litter on the beach, but applies to all areas of our lives. This is a yoga practice. You don't have to wear some 'Sweaty Betty' leggings and get your arse up in the air. It is this inner awareness- of our conditioning and biases from factors such as bystander apathy. The inner practice of yoga changes our outer- our actions- creating action for the greater good, without any desire for fruits from them. That is yoga, and a yoga we can all practice.

(Any thoughts are those of my own and in no affiliation to any organisation or person. Any inaccuracies in the teachings of yoga that there may be are from my own limitations of understanding and not a measure of my teachers)

[Edit: it has been pointed out to me about the Covid-19 and litter picking. Please make sure if you do decide to pick up any litter, that you keep your hands away from your face after and wash your hands with soap and water as soon as possible. This should of course be done whether there was a 'pandemic' or not. If you have a spare bag that can also make a makeshift glove.

The post uses the event of the litter to highlight factors that affect us in numerous ways so even if you make an informed, conscious decision to not pick up litter next time, there are many ways the teachings can be applied elsewhere]