Tidying up after an afternoon working in the Orchard, where I have been fixing training wires to the walls for the espaliered apple trees, I sort through the packaging the nails were sold in, carefully separating the cardboard liners from the plastic bags. I put the cardboard to one side for recycling and inspect the plastic bags to see if I can use them again, maybe for keeping my screws and bolts tidy. They are mangled from where I opened them carelessly, so I regretfully throw them in the bin.

Several thoughts run through my mind. I remember my neighbour telling me she finds all this recycling a terrible bother, “It’s such a nuisance having to sort everything out,” she says. I look at the little bits of card, and wonder if it is worth recycling them—it’s not something that going to save the world. Maybe I should just throw them in the bin too.  But it is not that much trouble to put them to one side and drop them in the blue sack the Council give us for cardboard. After all, the recycling slogan holds a deep truth: there is no away to throw anything.

I have no idea where the next thought comes from, but it occurs to me that taking this little trouble to re-use where I can, to recycle where I can’t, can be seen as a kind of prayer. It’s not a supplication or intercession to a transcendental divinity, not a superstitious propitiation of the gods. It is rather a little pause in the rush of life, a pause to honour the things that have been of service, to remember the way we use and degrade the planet as resource, to bring to mind how our little local actions are part of larger cycles.

This separating things for recycling allows a momentary attention to what is here—to what can be used again, what will recycle, and what is long-lasting and pernicious like plastic that will litter the world, degrading and fragmenting into microscopic pieces that last for near eternity. This is prayer as paying attention to that which is beyond ego and the self.  Using the world ‘prayer’ in our secular society reclaims an important and valuable word. Maybe it is a little pretentious to use it to refer to the mundane choice of how to dispose of discarded merchandising. But maybe it helps us reclaim a sense of the sacredness of matter and the belongingness of all things to each other in this materialist world of ours.

I make a few notes about my insight, intending to maybe write a little piece later, and continue with my tidying up.

Next day, as I drive through the spring trees of the Wye valley to a Tai Chi workshop, the Today programme reports a recent study showing that children are half as likely to know the Lord’s Prayer than they were forty years ago. The Archbishop of Canterbury naturally thinks this is a bad thing, not only because it is a good prayer than Jesus taught us, but because it is part of our cultural heritage. The report is followed by a discussion between two supposed authorities on prayer; they also think it is a bad thing that kids don’t know the Lord’s Prayer, but I notice that no one says what a prayer actually is.  

I am amused that this item should come up just as I am wondering about the recycling as prayer, and as I guide the car round the bendy road up the valley I think about my own experience. As a child going to Little Church I was taught to pray, like Christopher Robin, for Jesus to bless me and make me good. I learned to crouch down, put my hands together—we had a reproduction of Dürer’s ‘Praying Hands’ on a stand at the front of the class—and not giggle too much with the little girl sitting next to me.

Much later I learned on Buddhist retreats that prayer could be seen quite differently—not as addressed to the Buddha or to Bodhisattvas, but as ‘aspirational’, prayer to our better selves, maybe to our Buddha nature. These are prayers which recall that which we might be, or more accurately remind us of that which we already are. For example, the grace we say before each meal at the Maenllwyd retreats reminds us that ‘At one with the food we eat, we identify with the Universe…’ and that ‘The Universe and the food we eat partake of the same nature…’

The Native American recitation of the phrase ‘All my relations’ on entering a sweat lodge or at the start of other ceremony has a similar intention. It reminds us that whatever merit derives from our actions is to be shared with all. I do this not for me, but for all beings with whom I am in relationship.

My flow of reflections is interrupted by the red light at the single file bridge over the river, allowing space for another memory to call my attention—Murray Korngold, a Californian Jewish spiritual teacher who spoke about prayer and holistic medicine. Korngold, drawing on the Kahuna teachings of Hawaii, told us that there is only one sin, that of harming another being. The child self in each of us holds a crippling sense of guilt arising from harm we have inevitably committed. I remember him telling us, with characteristic panache, ‘The Lord’s prayer is the greatest piece of psycho-technology ever’ because it contains the words ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.’ Our full adult human intelligence can only be liberated by the experience of forgiveness.

It does not seem possible to live in our culture without doing harm to other beings on the planet. To be aware of this, moment to moment, can evoke a tremendous sense of guilt—it is not possible even to comment on the weather without being aware of climate change. I often feel powerless and complicit—as when I unwrap the food I have bought for a lovely meal and realize I have to throw away masses of plastic packaging.

As the psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp wrote in his ‘eschatological laundry list’, ‘Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again…’ Maybe seeing the act of recycling as a practice of prayer is one way of asking forgiveness for the harm we inevitably do as participants in a developed materialist civilization? Maybe it is part of a spiritual practice that will empower and enable us to take the practical actions that are required of us?

Maenllwyd Retreats of the Western Chan Fellowship:

Kopp, Sheldon. (1974). If You Meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. New York: Bantam.