Walking the Barefoot World, Part 2
Emily Howard participated in Metta Earth’s Wilderness and Ecopsychology Leadership Intensive in the summer of 2015 and sat down in February 2016 to reflect on how the experience has influenced her life since. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and blogs for Metta Earth. This is Part Two in a series of two. Part One can be found here.
In the late winter sunlight, I look at the beautifully landscaped neighborhood in which I live, which was once farmland and before that, prairie. Such a place, with its professionally maintained lawn and ornamental cherry and peach trees, is designed to keep me from feeling the pain of the world—or much of anything. Places like this were designed to bubble-wrap the world for the privileged. Here, climate disasters and environmental injustice seem hard to come by. I must make a special effort if I want to learn about my near neighbors in Flint drinking lead-poisoned water, or those in the 48217 zip code of Detroit who live within hundreds of feet of power plants and industrial refineries.
Right now, a stanza from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva turns over in my mind. One of the beloved texts of Mahayana Buddhism, this 8th-century poem gives precise advice for dealing with difficult people, situations, and emotions. Shantideva’s goal is to instruct the reader in becoming a bodhisattva—a being dedicated to the welfare and liberation of all. One of Shantideva’s most well-known metaphors for approaching challenges in our lives points out the impossibility of a bubble-wrapped world:
To cover all the earth with sheets of hide—
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But simply wrap some leather round your feet,
And it’s as if the whole earth had been covered!
Instead of covering everything with leather, just slip on a pair of shoes. Shantideva’s point is that you can’t control other people’s behavior or the vagaries of life, but you do have control over your reactions to them. Instead protecting yourself from harm or annoyance by trying to control the world, cultivate your mind. This passage has been very useful to me over the years as a reminder that I am accountable for my own behavior internally and externally.
But as I think about the marshy ground near Metta Earth with its face warmed by the summer sun, or the cool woods, with ground so airy and composed of dead things that it sounds hollow under footsteps, I wonder if a new metaphor is necessary for our times. Perhaps instead of covering either the world or our feet in leather we need to be willing to take our shoes off and feel the ground directly.
Because of this reciprocity of pain, we tread more lightly, with more attention and more respect. Pain is part of a negative feedback loop which allows us to take care of ourselves and others. But it’s not just pain that matters here. The pleasures of bare feet cooling in a stream or wading through long grass help us know and love the world intimately.
As any child learns quickly, it is not wise to run across a clover-filled yard without shoes, since you may very well end up with a bee’s sting in your foot. Walking barefoot in the world requires vigilance because we need to protect ourselves and others from pain. The pain of the bee sting arises because we’ve crushed the bee; the pain of stepping on thistles arises because the thistles have evolved to make their stance on personal space very clear. Because of this reciprocity of pain, we tread more lightly, with more attention and more respect. Pain is part of a negative feedback loop which allows us to take care of ourselves and others. But it’s not just pain that matters here. The pleasures of bare feet cooling in a stream or wading through long grass help us know and love the world intimately.
Nonetheless, Shantideva’s practices and advice do have a place here. At this time, knowing and grieving the pain of the world is as important as knowing its beauty. My views on this have been deeply influenced by writers like Joanna Macy and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Going barefoot means not just hearing the cries of the world, but deliberately engaging in practices like ritual and ceremony, mindfulness and yoga, which allow us to express both gratitude and grief, and which bring our attention to the joy and pain of this very moment. Without consistent practice, we may recognize neither beauty nor loss.
As I think on Shantideva, another metaphor comes to mind: the “carbon footprint.” Our contribution to global warming has often conceptualized as a footprint since the 1990s, but “carbon footprint” always seemed rather dull to me. Perhaps it’s unfair, but it seems to me that by having small carbon footprints, we may do good, but we will also be able to assuage our feelings of personal responsibility for the troubles of the world. But what do carbon footprints have to say about reciprocity, about being able to feel our way as we walk through the world, about discovering in the bee’s sting our mutual pain at crushing and being crushed? Carbon footprints are important to think about, but our own footprints are important to experience. While literally going barefoot may be a start, I think the most important thing is to take a barefoot stance toward the world, which means neither hiding the pain of the world from ourselves, nor keeping ourselves from its pleasures. Contact. Connection. Going barefoot in the world means both “leaning into the sharp points” and letting the mud squish between our toes.
When I arrived back in Michigan from Metta Earth in early August, I had to set to the work of finishing my dissertation. And then defending it. And then revising it. And then, finally, submitting it. I could not feel the approaching coolness of September and October, my mind being so crammed full of words and deadlines. But in the weeks following graduation, the world around me began again to include more than the small circle of my daily concerns. My work at Metta Earth, the remembrances of what I felt in my heart and beneath my feet, began to creep back in and subtly direct my actions.
In particular, restlessness about having my shoes on too long directed my feet toward a panel at the University of Michigan held by climate scientists and policy experts who at attended the COP 21 in Paris. As I listened to a series of talks by both graduate students and faculty, I could hear their disappointment and rage, as well as hope. As they laid out the facts, I leaned into the sharp points, stepped into the thistles, let Global Warming sink not just into my mind, but into my heart. For the first time, I was able to hold the reality of irreversible climate change before my eyes without turning away, without turning to apathy, distraction, or despair. I spent most of the night after the panel awake in bed, the grief moving through me with the outbreaths of my meditation practice….hana …dul…set…net…tasut…kong. I remembered for the first time in many years how much I love life, and how much I don’t want it to disappear from this Earth.
When the morning came, there they were: sun and frost and birds and squirrels, each irreplaceable. My task became clear: to help people love and understand the preciousness of life. I am not a climate scientist or a policy expert or an ecologist, but that is all right. My training as a teacher and literary scholar has prepared me well. My trade is opening eyes to beauty.
It is a sunny mid-February morning. Last year the polar vortex in Michigan made it the coldest February on record. This year is an El Niño year, meaning that it has been quite mild. Our little crust of snow is melting away from bases of the trees on the southeast side. Crocus leaves and daffodil straps and iris spears begin to poke through. The goldfinches, still in their winter drab, began singing a few days ago, and the robins seem to be splitting up into smaller groups to feed. I look at the snow in front of our house on the thin strip of lawn that separates us from a wooded utility easement, itself a thin strip of the wild that separates us from a large parking lot. This snow is a testament to the density of urban wildlife, for it is absolutely covered in tracks—squirrels, rabbits, robins, sparrows, as well as feral cats and our neighborhood dogs.
Somehow it never occurred to me that the snow would keep a record of my presence here, but it does. Somehow it was never taught to me that the Earth knows of my existence here, but she does.
It occurs to me then that I have never walked in the snow barefoot. The part of me that had objected to pulling cattails in bare feet objects to the idea immediately, but a sense of mischief creeps in. The snow is inviting perhaps because although it’s only 20˚F on this sunny morning, snow is dripping from my eaves and the birds and squirrels seem so alive. I open the front door and look around. The only person in sight is a UPS man taking a break in his truck over in the parking lot. I’m wearing longjohns, but put on my jacket and hat so I won’t look too insane from a distance, and walk outside.
The snow is just a thin little crisp, set down in quarter-inch-thick layers over several nights and partially melted during each day. My feet crunch. Three steps in. It’s cold. Five steps in. It’s really cold. I look back toward my front door and see—my own tracks in the snow! I laugh out loud, caught in my own tomfoolery. I do my best to kick up the footprints and run back inside, my feet now aching with cold, not just in my toes, but through heel and arch. Somehow it never occurred to me that the snow would keep a record of my presence here, but it does. Somehow it was never taught to me that the Earth knows of my existence here, but she does. My precise footprints startle me with their clarity; without the anonymity of a shoe’s tread, my steps are unmistakable. In my life on this Earth, it’s not just that I’m accountable; I’m also counted.
 Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva:, trans. Padmakara Translation Group, Revised ed. (Boston: Shambhala, 2006), 64.