What do We Mean When We Talk about Sustainability and Wellness?

Quick! When you see the word sustainability, what comes to mind?

Maybe you thought of a verdant forest, maybe you rolled your eyes, maybe you searched frantically to remember a dictionary definition. Whatever your response, this term is having its moment in the spotlight, along with other terms like wellness. Some of us celebrate that these are becoming mainstream concepts, while others cringe at the trendy ways we see them being used to sell products. We may even tune them out altogether, finding that any meaning becomes watered down when a quick computer search generates an avalanche of results – 493 million hits for wellness alone! And yet, these refer to profound concepts that must not be dismissed as only buzzwords, particularly for those who are committed to living in alignment with Buddhist teachings. They express ideas whose time has come, values that are closely linked with the Dharma. The connections between Buddhism, wellness, and sustainability offer places where our own behavior can strengthen our commitment to true health as individuals, as members of communities, and for this Earth we share.

Many Dharma students will be familiar with the 5 Precepts, guidelines given by the Buddha for householders to live by. They are vows to:

  • Refrain from harming sentient beings, to practice kindness and compassion
  • Refrain from taking that which is not freely offered, to practice generosity
  • Refrain from sexual misconduct, to cultivate a healthful and joyous way of embodied living
  • Refrain from false and harsh speech, to practice speech that is true, timely, useful, and kind and
  • Refrain from clouding the mind with intoxicants, and to cultivate lucid, clear awareness.

Many of us who seek to live an ethical life guided by the Precepts find that these change more than our meditation practice. The Buddha offered teachings 2600 years ago that can be used to discern how to live in balance with our personal and planetary ecosystems today. We discover that our commitment to harmlessness, in particular, has wide-reaching implications. In exploring our actions through this lens, we learn that real, sustainable health can be experienced in deeply personal ways, as well as writ large in the Earth, air, and waters on which our lives depend.

Many of these realizations are gaining popularity in the general culture, and  broader conversations about them are taking place. However, in this very moment when a critical momentum seems to be gathering, we may also sense that the power of these intentions is at risk of being co-opted by commercial interests, and thus the potential for them to generate positive change in the world weakened. Our response to that risk can be to engage with health and well-being with new determination, as expressions of how we live the Dharma.

Let’s start with defining our words. When we discuss sustainability, we may bear in mind the warning of ecological author Bill McKibben, who notes that “sustainability is a vexed term – no one knows quite what it means”. Yet we intuitively understand that sustainable systems are those that build at least as much long-lasting health and value as they use up or destroy. The system may be one living being, a community, or the entire environment of our planet. If we are creating, consuming, and leaving behind debris, toxins, and waste, then the system will be unable to sustain itself in a robust and wholesome way over time. Sustainability relates to how we care for and steward the system of our planet. Our own choices around daily behaviors and use of resources, as well as any public activism we may engage in, together create an impact that may not be immediately apparent, and yet can support a shift toward widespread ecological sustainability in the world.

Another word for what we are interested in cultivating here is wellness. Wellness can be understood as the result  of holistic personal behaviors (such as how we choose our meals, commute to work, and select cleaning products for our homes), and we could define it almost interchangeably with sustainability. Both refer, after all, to healthy, durable practices and systems that are beneficial over time to the beings who participate in them. Both depend upon an ongoing series of discerning choices that together create the fluid, organic, changeable balance that is experienced as a state of well-being. However, wellness also points more directly to the personal, lived experience of health, while sustainability pertains to a broader sense of connection and the impact of our behaviors on ever-widening spheres of community and environment.

We will use wellness here to refer to the individual and to those practices which support personal physical and mental health. In this context, we can explore our choices around food, physical activity, and self-care, identifying some of the many avenues available that promote well-being, so we can find the paths that resonate. We can even consider the health of our personal gut microbiota, communities of trillions of microbial cells that we host within our own digestive systems, and which wield tremendous influence over our immune health, inflammatory status, and even mood!

Sustainability and wellness are not goals or destinations, so much as they are practices we engage in, and the results that unfold. They are practical, relevant frames through which to understand karma (intentional action), expressed through the embodied experience of an individual or a world. The words of Insight meditation teacher Amma Thanasanti, on practicing in the face of environmental disaster, can be expanded to include our own inner and outer environments. She writes,

“living with wisdom and compassion, framed by integrity and simplicity opens my heart… It allows me to listen deeply to what I feel called to do, what the land and others have to say and to find ways to include these truths into what needs to be acted upon.”

We practice inclining our intentions and actions toward harmlessness and the well-being of all sentient beings, including ourselves. When we are skillful, mindful, and live simply we do not strain the systems upon which we depend, and we have more energy available to practice living the Dharma, experiencing vitality and joy, rather than in crisis management. Let’s continue exploring these ideas, and supporting each other in making choices that will create clean, clear, radiant health for ourselves and the Earth.


*This article first appeared in buddhistdoor.com.