Social Permaculture – Designing the Landscape of Relationships Part 1

In the mountains near Guoqing Temple, there lived a wild-eyed poet-philosopher, a great meditation master who spent his days tending his garden, practicing yoga and reveling in the deep stillness of nature. Many students made the long pilgrimage up to see him, and draw on the great wisdom he had learned from a life immersed in nature. 

Each year on the Buddha’s birthday, he would come down the mountain to take dinner and celebrate with the monks and students of the temple. After the meal, the abbot stood up to say a few words. 

“Monks, as we’re gathered here today I’m reminded of what a great treasure it is to have real friends, ones that help us and support us in our goal of seeking true happiness.” He spoke about how such friends serve as models and mentors, challenge us towards excellence, and support us through our troubles, and when we support them through their failures we learn ourselves. “In contrast, it’s very important that we recognize when our relationships are harmful to our goals. It is all too easy to fall into relationships that will lead us astray, cause us to question our own values and goals, or lead us into destructive habits. At the worst, we can inadvertently follow these destructive friends right into the deepest of hell realms. Monks, protect your goals and your own path to true happiness, surround yourself with good friends, and cut these negative or destructive relationships out of your life.” 

The monks all applauded this speech, and made a toast. But then, one of the monks spoke up and said, “what of our guest, the sage from the mountain, I’d like to hear what he thinks of this speech.”

After a slight pause, the wild-eyed poet said, “oh it was very good.” 

Sensing some critique in the hesitation, the monks pressed him to continue. “Everything that the abbot has said seems completely true to me. But also this seems completely true: each person we meet along our path, no matter who they are, or where they are on their path, is a chance for us to learn and to practice true happiness. And when you’re ready, you should be able to descend to the very deepest of hell realms and make flowers bloom.”
I’ve always loved these Eastern stories where BOTH sides in an apparent conflict are equally right, which is very contrary to our Western “right/wrong” way of thinking. This story is about how our relationships effect our search for true happiness from a Buddhist perspective, but I think there’s a wisdom here that can help us all with our goals and our search for a happy life. 
Permaculture is a holistic design system that supports our goals, whether it’s increasing farm productivity, creating healthier social networks, or creating a rewarding right livelihood, by creating the circumstances conducive to naturally achieving those goals. Since these goals take up a lot of our time and energy, and we’re naturally social learners, certainly our relationships must have an enormous impact on achievement. 
Yet, I think there are some really good reasons why it seems very distasteful to most of us to consciously manipulate our relationships to achieve some goal. Because most of the time when we hear this kind of advice from life coaches and self help “experts” they’re talking about changing our relationships to support our monetary dreams, and for most of us our relationships should take priority over things like income goals. 
But it seems to me that good design and conscious living could support us in building better relationships as well as helping us live up to our values and meet our deepest life goals – not just buying the junk on our “vision boards.”
In Part 2, we’ll elaborate on the “pros and cons” of taking a mindful, Permaculture approach to designing our relational landscape. 

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