I speak with Debra Birkinshaw, member of the Sebastopol Green Sangha, over tea. This seems very "sangha-ish" to me, though I'm not completely sure if that's at all true as I have never been to a sangha and am not, at this point, exactly sure what one is or even how to spell it. What I do know, however, is that this is the holiday season, a time of excess and longing, and that even during the best of years, many of us come out of Christmas reeling as if we have just come down off of a four-week drug binge, and the hangover is a bitch.
And this is not the best of years. Far from it. This is a year of lingering war and the hovering dread that all cannot possibly be well when the ice caps are melting.
As a board member of the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center, Birkinshaw is no stranger to activism and community commitment. Recently, her interest in stewardship for the earth led her to the Sebastopol Green Sangha, a politically active spiritual community that offers exactly the sort of direct-action outlet she had been sorely in need of. Birkinshaw and the other Sebastopol Green Sangha members meet on the fourth Sunday of every month to plan and perform environmental action. In the Bay Area, there are Green Sanghas that meet monthly in the East Bay, San Rafael and Sebastopol.
Birkinshaw stresses that, though the Sebastopol Green Sangha begins each three-hour meeting with about 10 minutes of stretching and meditation, concrete spiritual belief systems are by no means a prerequisite. All are welcome. Green Sanghas are run by everyone and there must be group consensus and agreement before an action can move forward. The meetings shift from living room to living room. This is a place where people come together to learn and share, not direct and dictate.
After the meditation, members review an agenda of available actions, write and send letters of concerned protest, and plan environmental actions that any and all can participate in. According to Birkinshaw, the Sebastopol Green Sangha comes together as a think-tank and support system, and even seemingly small actions have impact, like writing to the city council requesting the return of public drinking fountains, or standing outside of Whole Foods dressed in recycled plastic bags, encouraging shoppers to bring their own bags. Each meeting ends in a potluck dinner, creating community the old-fashioned way, with plenty of local bounty and full stomachs.
On the Green Sangha website, I find a mission statement: "Green Sangha brings spiritual practice and environmental work together. Our practice is to love without boundaries. Our mission is to bring healing to ourselves, one another and the earth through thoughts, words and actions rooted in love." Is love really the answer?
Green Sangha actions, evaluated individually, may not be enough to save us from extinction, but they speak to a form of mindfulness that may be our only hope. The New Year looms, and even I, who wear my agnosticism like a favorite hair-coat, must be willing to experiment with new ways for achieving change. To this end, a Green Sangha seems a most welcoming and fruitful place to begin.
For more information on the Sebastopol Green Sangha, contact Debra Birkinshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the East Bay or San Rafael Green Sangha, or to learn how to start your own, go to www.greensangha.org or call 510.532.6574.