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When we clean out the refrigerator, we toss out food with great zeal, intent on finishing the onerous chore and giving no thought to what we are throwing away. Yet, it is important to take a moment to be conscious of what we are discarding.

Think of the composition of what the garbage once was. Those leftovers were once a dinner that you shared with those you love, that you prepared with love, that you planned for and shopped for and spent hard-earned money to obtain. Before that, the effort that it took to bring the food to the market was prodigious. A virtual army was needed to grow it, harvest it, package it, transport it and finally put it on your shelves. Depending on the methods used to grow it, a whole community might have been impacted by pesticides or other chemicals, land usage and labor practices. That bit of leftover meatloaf has a global footprint just like we do and that is not just in the history of how it came to be, but in its future as well. Just because we discard it does not mean it disappears.

Food waste is considered the third highest contributor to global warming. It is estimated that Americans throw away 50 percent of the food they purchase. And that is not even considering the food thrown away before anyone can buy it due to spoilage, torn packaging or simply imperfect appearance. All in all, food waste in America is estimated to cost $167 billion each year.

We think of it as food but we do not recognize it as living beings that have been sacrificed for our life, whether they were animals or plants. When we discard it, we not only toss away that sacrifice, but the whole miracle that went into creating that being—for plants it is the perfect combination of sun, rain, and soil – the contribution of insects, microscopic fungus – truly the collective effort of the whole cosmos. For animals, of course, that miracle also includes their families and communities and the other plants or animals that were sacrificed so it could thrive.

Thich Nhat Hahn said, “The food we eat can reveal the interconnectedness of the universe, the Earth, all living beings and ourselves. Each bit of vegetable, each drop of soy sauce, each piece of tofu contains the life of the sun and of the Earth. We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread! We can see the meaning and value of life in those precious morsels of food.”

We have such an abundance of food that we have developed a cavalier attitude towards it and this has created a global imbalance. Thus, there are roughly a billion people who suffer from obesity while 840 million people go hungry.

This retreat is about what we waste—our food, our trash and our time. So, this week use not just the food we eat, but the food we throw away as vehicles for mindfulness. Be aware of how often and how much food you throw away. Think!  Is there is a way to re-purpose the food? Can you use it in another recipe? Start a kitchen compost?  Feed it to the squirrels?

To develop a reverence for all things we must start with the things that we assume are disposable and ask ourselves if this assumption is correct or if, indeed, everything is worthy of reverence.

The Clean-up Walk

The trash and litter of nature disappears into the ground with the passing of each year, but man’s litter has more permanence.  ~John Steinbeck

It might seem like we spend our lives acquiring things, but in reality, we spend much more energy discarding them. One person produces about 1600 pounds of garbage per year. While most of that ends up in the landfill, a significant chunk of it is simply tossed behind us as we go from one place to the next.

Almost 12 billion dollars is spent in the U.S. each year to clean up litter and it doesn’t even make a tiny dent in the problem. It is a rare road that isn’t adorned with human garbage, be it a cigarette butt (which makes up half the litter and can take up to ten years to decompose) or a fast-food wrapper (the next most common item).

This litter isn’t only unsightly; it is dangerous. It kills animals who mistake it for food or get tangled up in it.  It kills plants and fouls the water. It also contributes to accidents.  In the last four years, litter on the road caused an estimated 500,000 accidents.

It is a common sin—75 percent of Americans admit to littering at some point—and that, in itself, is unsettling. Most of us would agree that it would be disgraceful to throw garbage on the living room floor of a friend. So, what message does it send when we litter? Most of us also pick up garbage when it blows into our yard, yet many will walk by litter, even if it is right next to a garbage can.

This walk is about sending the opposite message. It is sending positive vibes to the earth and doing an act of kindness for people that we will probably never meet. Grab a trash bag, put on some gloves and start walking with your eyes on the lookout for litter. If you are cleaning next to a busy street, make sure that you are mindful of traffic and wearing clothing that makes you more visible.

It might be disheartening to see the trash that we normally blindly drive by, but this walk is not about feeling anger for the insolence or ignorance of the people who threw it out. That is another, more subtle kind of waste—the waste of ruminating on something you have no control over. This walk is about compassion and restoring beauty. It is about accepting stewardship for the planet.  It is about being willing to be tired and dirty in order to make a positive change.

And you will feel good at the end. Even though it was time spent picking up waste, the time itself was anything but wasted.

Journaling on Personal Waste

Time is precious – waste it wisely.  K. Bromberg

So far, we have considered waste in general terms. Now it is time to apply that consideration to your own life. This retreat so far has touched on the physical waste that people generate and its potential impact. Yet, there are many more subtle types of waste. For example, we can waste our time, our potential, our energy or our health.

Ponder your life now. What areas do you see where there is some type of waste? How can you become a better steward of that area? Again, it doesn’t have to be actual waste—it could very well be a more abstract form.

Perhaps you are wasting your affection on the wrong people, wasting your career in a job that is not fulfilling, wasting money on unnecessary items or simply wasting your day with a lack of productivity. If it is helpful, start out with a list of five or so areas of personal waste, then narrow it down to the two or three most important ones.

Once you have done that, make a list of some objectives or steps that you can take to alleviate the waste. Try to include objectives that you can do this week and something that you can incorporate into your routine. The objectives should be specific and measurable. For example, if you want to stop wasting time during the day, an objective might be to limit social media time to only 30 minutes once a day. Another might be to only watch TV if it is something that you are interested in and to turn it off once that show is done.

If you have a calendar, mark these objectives down so that you can be reminded of them. If you don’t have a calendar, perhaps reminders on post-it notes will do.

Use your journal to keep track of your progress and how it makes you feel as you advance. If you are stuck, use your journal to brainstorm ways to overcome the obstacle and appreciate more of whatever it is that you are wasting. Explore this but also be compassionate and nonjudgmental towards yourself. If you will excuse the pun, heavy self-criticism is one of the worst wastes of time there is.


Torri’s book is available for purchase here.