Heather Mann shares in our conversation about the exhaustion she overcame as an environmentalist advocate, how her sailing adventures allowed her to grieve for the environment and accept herself for who she was, and her involvement with Plum Village’s earth justice initiative. She is an Order of Interbeing and Earth Holder Community caretaking council member.
Hong-An: Welcome, Heather!
Heather: Well, thank you! Hong-An. It’s nice to be here. [laughs]
Hong-An: Great! I’m curious about your journey as an environmentalist advocate because I know you mentioned that you have been going through exhaustion. What was it like to be going through that exhaustion and deal with it?
Heather: Hmmm. I founded an organization when I was in my thirties that was the Center For Resilient Cities. This was after finishing my degree. I was raising young children, and my husband had his big job. This turned into a very big job for me to direct a non-profit. It was something I hadn’t done before. I was charging ahead at about sixty hours a week. I did not yet have the practice. When I discovered Thay and the teachings that he has transmitted, I started practicing mindfulness on my own.
And meeting with a Sangha, I began to get some tools that I found incredibly helpful. I was starting to see where some of my patterns of being very dogged and being very direct, strong-willed as opposed to partnering, being open and being more flexible. They were causing as many problems as I was actually trying to address. And so it was a time of a lot of reflection and self care. I was in Wisconsin; and it helped me be one of the state’s longest serving directors in this kind of organization by double because there’s a very high burnout rate for people.
But even so I didn’t realize how tired I was until my husband and I had the privilege of making a dream come true. We had worked and saved for many years and had this aspiration of going sailing and living aboard a boat and cruising and being deeply in nature. When I took that step I realized that there was still a whole ‘nother level of self-care that I hadn’t comprehended. And it was reflected in the fact that I slept about 12 hours a day [laughs] for three years.
I found myself several years into the voyage where I woke up one morning, and I just could not stop crying. It was a beautiful day but what came into my consciousness was this deep grief that I had because the environment was in such greater crisis at that time than it was when I started the environmental organization. I had been so busy trying to do and fix and care that I hadn’t ever really absorbed the amount of grief that I was feeling.
With that grief came a lot of self-recrimination: I should have done this differently, I should have done better, I should have you name it. And it took a while for me to realize that that sense of “I should have done this differently; I was the one to fix this” was coming from a place of ego. And that I needed to let that go and realize that I was just one being in the cosmos that was doing my best. And that included skillful and unskillful means. And that it’s really a societal, a human race kind of challenge that we’re facing right now.
I think that as I look back so many of my colleagues doing this kind of work there were divorces, there were health issues. I mean in my thirties I eroded my stomach. In my forties I started having heart conditions. So it was real issues. And then when I was sailing and doing a different level of self-care suddenly I went off all medication. My body was healing as was my consciousness in letting go of a lot of habit energies.
Hong-An: That’s amazing. So it seems like the way for you to overcome that burnout that you faced as an activist is really to focus on your self-care and for you it was to go on an adventure, go sailing. And that just seems amazing! Having a different perspective, spending time in nature, in water. Really wonderful. I am curious: what is it about sailing adventures that stood out to you. Is there something from the sailing adventures that part of your book, Ocean of Insights, is your biggest take-away?
Heather: Well, you’re right. I was incredibly privileged to be able to just step back and to heal. That took on for my husband and I the form of sort of sailing over the horizon. But I don’t believe that you have to do that in order to heal. I think that part of what we see is with advocacy is that people need to rotate in and out of different positions, so that when you’re on the front line of something that is where you end up having the most focused pressure pushing back and you can only hold that front line position for so long. And then there’s an obstruction kind of action—what Gandhi called Obstruction Program—but and then there’s Construction Program. There’s all kinds of other ways that we can help care and nurture and advance alternatives that are really wholesome and healing. And that work isn’t quite as pressure laden. All the work can be joyous but we have to understand to take turns with our tasks.
When I was sailing, I think the thing that surprised me the most was that my agenda didn’t mean anything. [laughs] Because if I wanted to go out and sail from Point A to Point B on a certain day and nature was saying, “Mm mm, not today” when I went out and tried it I hurt myself or I injured the boat. And the thing about sailing, even on a good day, is that you don’t go straight; you have to tack your way to your destination. You’re learning to work with what nature is giving you.
Even things when you’re going you look at your speed through the water, and oh my gosh! You’re going six knots but your speed over land because you’re going into a current may only be two knots over land. All of these realities—that it’s not exactly what it seems—you have an agenda but you have to hold it so loosely and work with what you get. And nature is always, always teaching. This is one of the most profound things is that we have to listen. If it’s not the day to go and you had this idea, oh I’m going to go from Point A to Point B today, nature is very clearly saying. “Mm, mm, not not now.”
And we, my husband and I had this strategy that we would always do because we would be like, “hmmm, do we go today or not?” And when we were traveling with our cat, when we were living aboard for six years, and we–our cat’s name was Dinghy–and we would always get to the point where we would say, “Alright, what would Dinghy do?” because our cat had this innate wisdom to not push it and to not be ridiculous. And so as human beings we even learned we had to consult our third crew member because she was sometimes the wisest one on board. [laughter]
Hong-An: Having an animal on board can be just a great sort of support for us, have a different perspective and with no agenda. That’s wonderful.
Heather: And she was never wrong. [laughter] I think cats know that.
Hong-An: Cats are wonderful. That’s great. What I found very appealing to me when I read your book, probably because I’m fascinated by pirates, how was your experience of dealing with pirates while you were sailing?
Heather: It was terrifying. We had a very real encounter that took us by surprise. We had spent, my husband and I, many years of study and research about how to sail, how to keep ourselves safe in the elements and in all that time we did not consider how to keep ourselves safe from humans. On a very early morning, it was eight o’clock in the morning, on a very warm day when we were motoring, actually, because there was no wind. We were motoring into one of Earth’s main gyres, the South Equatorial Current; it was actually water coming up from Africa and up the coast of the Americas. And we were trying to push into that and we were only going about two miles an hour because the current was so strong.
A boat with three local fishermen with two very large outboard engines came roaring up and started just pacing us at a somewhat distance and there was no one around. So I was watching and trying to figure out, well, what’s going on here. And they started getting a little closer to the boat and my husband said let me take the helm and I said alright and I got out on deck and I stand akimbo and I’m looking at them like, “I see you; this is unusual behavior; what’s going on?” With that they zoomed away.
And then they came about a half hour later back again and that’s when we knew we were in trouble. I asked my husband if he wanted the flare gun and he said, yes, what else do you have? Because we knew that there could be piracy in the area, that sailors had been harmed. Usually there are no guns involved; there are machetes and other forms of violence.
So I was below deck trying to hide knives and do things. And thinking there’s got to be a logical explanation for this, yet not coming up with one. So I remembered as I was sort of scurrying around trying to figure out what to do the story that the Buddha told about the pirates and the captain. And this captain happened to be a disciple of the Buddha’s and when the pirates long ago landed on this ship they lined everyone up, and they were going to assassinate all of the passengers on board. And they had confiscated all of the weapons but the captain had a knife in his boot and he knew that if he allowed the pirates to assassinate people that they would be encumbered with really traumatic trauma. They would have caused a lot of bad things to happen.
In order to stop that the captain ended up slitting the pirate’s throat. So I was pretty aware that in that moment I couldn’t really connect with trying to prevent our potential pirates from their own bad karma. I was experiencing fear. The way we got out of it was actually through nonviolence, through some very clever action on my husband’s part.
The story has a good ending. I’m still here today but it caused in me a reflection about just what am I willing to do to stop those who are harming intentionally our planet today because there are modern day pirates that are profiting immensely. I’m very involved with the Earth Holder community. I’ve been working with the climate challenge for a long time.
There are folks that are wielding immense power and actually robbing our children of their future. I know of environmentalists who have done things like taking a stand to walk across the United States against this. I know others who have taken a stand by being silent for a decade and a half, not speaking but writing and being very clear about what they were standing for. I have myself been involved in environmental groups and with the Earth Holder community. My stand is within my practice, my mindful advocacy.
And I’m so inspired now by what is happening with Extinction Rebellion, 350.org, the Global Climate Strike, and that this generation is being asked to sacrifice so that others may live. And that sacrifice can take many forms. It can take our political involvement. It can take our lifestyle change. It can take having the uncomfortable conversation and training ourselves to have those conversations in ways that are non-reactive personally and that are opening the doors so that others can see and understand. And so there’s a learning curve here. But I think all of us are being asked to take a stand against piracy and the modern day piracy that we’re seeing, the exploitation.
And this is not new. I’m very aware that this experience with pirates happened off the coast of St. Vincent Island, and that nation has suffered a long history of exploitation and colonialism. These are complex issues and we need to take a stand not only against the environmental exploitation that we’re seeing but also against the human exploitation that has such a long history. And that is still not been effectively addressed, understood, remedied. So I’m very pleased to be working with the Earth Holder community right now whose focus is at the intersectionality of social, racial, and environmental justice. And we’re really working together to figure out what that means and how we can help to ease the suffering that is at that intersection, that crossroads.
Hong-An: I appreciate how you are relating your experience of dealing with the pirates while you were sailing to the piracy that’s happening with climate crisis and in our environment that’s robbing future generations of living happily or living out their right livelihood. What is your aspiration as part of the Earth Holder community for our future generations and what you want to do now with the community?
Heather: So, one thing I’m just so excited and grateful for is that our caretaking council recently doubled in size because we looked very deeply at our leadership and realized that we were all of a similar age and race and that those that are experiencing climate change first and that will experience it worst in the coming years are black, indigenous, and other people of color. We need to at this crossroads, this intersectionality we need to have other voices. We need to learn how better to be and to give up our white supremacy habit. We’re just now beginning to walk this path. I’m so very grateful I have a community to walk this path with.
I would love to have Earth Holders find a way to inspire our Sanghas to find their way where they live. And I think that our practice and our Sanghas and our monasteries have the unique potential to be true places of refuge because it’s difficult today and it’s going to get so much worse. We have been practicing for a long time in our lives. Some of us may be new to practice but here we are. And the tools are there. Thich Nhat Hanh has given us the courage and the means to walk through the fire of great war. We can do it with love and compassion by taking care of ourselves and each other and all beings. I think this is a time very much when our community is waking up to the fact that we are the earth, and that we are earth protecting itself, loving itself as we love each other and as we learn how to walk a different path.
Society is really entrenched in its economic ways and its market ways and its relating ways that people are talking to each other or not, the ways that people work together or don’t, and the way that people live or don’t live. And we have gotten ourselves sort of into a mess where all of it now is up on the table to be reconsidered. Joanna Macy calls it A Great Turning. I think that’s an incredible was to look at it because there are so many people now who are part of A Great Turning, who are looking and saying, no, this hasn’t worked. We’ve really run this course to its logical conclusion and something new is beginning to be born. We know that that something new is going to be much more of the nature of recovering our humanity, recovering what it means to be an earthling, providing much more care so that others may live.
Hong-An: Thank you so much, Heather. Do you have any suggestions for first time practitioners who want to take care of Mother Earth?
Heather: I do. And the first would be to go to EarthHolder.org which is a website that is full of suggestions. It has resources for Sanghas to practice and it has direct links to Thay’s teachings on earth holding and protecting. And one of the things that I think is quite extraordinary is the monthly online Sangha, where people are able to come from all over the world and hear a talk about earth holding and protecting. And then to share what’s in their heart with other Earth Holders and be nourished by the community. So there are lots of resources at EarthHolder.org.
Hong-An: Great. Thank you so much for sharing your insight as an activist, as a practitioner, and about Earth Holder.
Heather: Thank you for the invitation, Hong-An.
Transcribed by Diane F. Wyzga
- Earth Holder Community
- Heather Mann’s book Ocean of Insight: A Sailor’s Voyage from Despair to Hope
- Intro song: The Sisters and Brothers of Plum Village—Listening to the Bell
- Outro song: Joe Reilly—I Love Nature