How do you become fully present with the world, just as it is? That’s a question central to 67-year-old Shodo Spring, a Soto Zen priest whose spiritual practice and activism overlap in integral ways.
When she began practicing Zen, a meditative school of Buddhism, in her mid-30s, Spring found that her emotions weren’t running her life anymore. She discovered that one of the “fringe benefits” of meditation, or more specifically, sitting zazen, is calming down and feeling better.
A therapist once asked her two kids how their mother had changed since she started meditating. They responded, in unison, “She doesn’t get so angry any more.”
These days, Spring sees a goal far beyond just stress reduction. “We sit zazen just to allow ourselves to notice the way we are a part of the universe,” she says.
A spiritual path
Raised in a Lutheran family, Spring was very religious growing up, so much so that her peers thought she was “a little weird” because she actually believed the doctrine that they taught in parochial school. At the same time, her “real religion” was going out into the woods and smelling the flowers in the springtime.
After she left the church as a young adult, Spring dabbled in different kinds of spirituality and eventually discovered the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center in Minneapolis. There she participated in a seven-day retreat, called a sesshin, which “kind of blew me apart,” she says.
For Spring, Buddhism means that no one person can “fix” climate change or racism or any other world problems, “but I have to be engaged [in that work] in the same way I have to take care of my body. It’s not separate,” she says.
Activism is very much a part of her practice. She has a vow to take care of all life, both human and other types of life, and that causes her to put a great deal of energy into environmentalism, racial justice and other activist causes.
Spring’s activism took her to the White House in 2011, where she protested the proposed Keystone Pipeline and was arrested. Soon after that, she spent six months at a monastery called Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, part of the San Francisco Zen Center, where she had a vision of herself walking along the pipeline.
“I talked with the senior teachers and with trusted friends, and with their support I gradually became clear that the point of the image was that I should go and actually do this walk,” Spring says.
Walking and living with the earth
The Compassionate Earth Walk took place over the course of three months in 2013. In total, the group walked about 1400 miles, of which Spring personally walked almost half, with people generally walking 10-mile shifts.
Spring had concluded that the only way to stop the pipeline would be a complete change in consciousness. “Civilized society needs to shift from its focus on growth, on profit, and on monetizing everything in the natural world, and learn to live as a part of the community of life,” she says.
Rather than a protest, Spring saw the walk as a ritual. Before the walk, she set out to offer compassion to the earth with each step. As she began, however, Spring would feel the earth supporting her every time she put her foot and staff on the ground. “I would feel the earth taking care of me and making me alive,” she says. By the end of the walk, she felt both the receiving and the giving of compassion between herself and the earth.
The impulse to change the consciousness of the earth also motivated Spring to start the Mountains and Waters Alliance, located on a farm near Faribault, Minn.
“It’s a permaculture farm, which means it’s a place where we deal with the land as a whole,” Spring says. Without the use of pesticides, they try to find out what’s working with the land, and try to harmonize themselves with it.
Spring offers mindfulness coaching, retreats, sitting zazen every morning, and Zen practice and study. Learning oppportunities include intensive time integrating spiritual practice with earth care, including meditation, forest restoration, community building, and more. The Alliance is how “people are learning to take care of the environment and learning to listen to the land,” she says.
Eventually, the plan is to create a sustainable community living space for 5-6 people, with a plan to live “completely off the grid,” with solar panels and greenhouse, wood heat and cookstove, collection and use of rain water, and a zero-waste policy.
“That’s really excellent practice,” Spring says. “It’s harmonizing ourselves with something else instead of trying to make everything harmonize with us.”