The Lesson Of The Hummingbird

Minimum means, maximum joy -
"Trusteeship" is a wonderful and fulfilling way of life

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 30
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

In times such as ours, one often wishes that Gandhi were alive to speak his simple, compelling truth. But of course, Gandhi does live on in the hearts and minds of the many people whose lives he touched – many of whom are now significant teachers in their own right.

Eknath Easwaran is such a teacher. Born in the state of Kerala on India’s southwest coast [see related article in this issue, Kerala: A Lesson In Light Living], he rose through academic life to a professorship in English literature before realizing his true vocation [see sidebar that follows]. Easwaran is the author of numerous books on spiritual matters, including Original Goodness and his new work, The Compassionate Universe, from which he has adapted the following article. For more information on Easwaran’s books, contact Nilgiri Press at PO Box 477, Petaluma, CA 94953.

You see things; and you say, "Why?"
But I dream things that never were;
and I say "Why not?

– George Bernard Shaw

Often, as I eat my breakfast, I see a flash of iridescent orange zip by the kitchen window and hover in midair at the lip of a flower. A hummingbird threads its long, delicate bill into the center of the flower, not even touching the petals, and sips its breakfast. A moment later it is gone, having drunk only what was necessary and leaving the flower pollinated. Precise, efficient, agile, respectful: I think humanity can find no better teacher in the art of living.

To me, the hummingbird holds out a promise: this is how we all can live, gradually outgrowing a way of life in which we gulp down all the nectar, spoil the flower by pulling off the petals, and finally uproot the plant. "Such a way of life," writes E. F. Schumacher, referring to our overuse of fossil fuels, "could have no permanence and could therefore be justified only as a purely temporary expedient. As the world’s resources of non-renewable fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – are exceedingly unevenly distributed over the globe, and undoubtedly limited in quantity, it is clear that their exploitation at an ever-increasing rate is an act of violence against nature, which must almost inevitably lead to violence between men." The same could be said about any of our precious resources, from bauxite to rainforests.

To put it in economic terms, we are frittering away our capital when we should be living wisely on the interest, leaving the capital to bear rich dividends for future generations. This is what Gandhi calls "commerce without morality," a way of life in which all our nobler goals and aspirations are subsumed in the desire to produce and consume more and more.

Just as what Gandhi calls "science with humanity" is not solely the concern of those who wear white coats and work in laboratories, the ultimate responsibility for commerce with morality does not fall only on multinational corporations or governments. Recently, Time magazine, in an editorial that declared Earth the Planet of the Year, said, "No attempt to protect the environment will be successful in the long run unless ordinary people – the California housewife, the Mexican peasant, the Soviet factory worker, the Chinese farmer – are willing to adjust their life- styles. Our wasteful, careless ways must become a thing of the past."

As far as I am concerned, this has the potential to become a very promising situation. If it were up to bureaucracies and boards of directors to determine our fate, it would be far more difficult to change things. But it is not up to them. It is up to us. In matters of commerce and the environment, we are the President, the Supreme Court, and the Congress. We decide what to buy and what to ban, what to support and what to discourage.

In other words, the solution is not revolution but evolution. Lasting change happens when people see for themselves that a different way of life is more fulfilling than their present one. This does not happen through government decrees, although they have an important place. To a limited extent, laws do enforce changes, but they rarely inspire people or make them happier. Laws change the way people fulfill their desires, but they cannot show people the beauty of a simpler, more artistic way of life. Only fellow human beings can do that.

I submit that our image of the human being – of ourselves – influences every aspect of our lives, from politics and economics to education, health care, and relationships. If the quantum theory – a new image of matter and energy – has made revolutionary changes in the sciences, a nobler image of the human being can lead to a much more important evolution in daily living.

The question is, how can this higher image replace the current low image, which is so deeply reinforced by conditioning? How can ordinary people – the California housewife, the Mexican peasant, the Soviet factory worker, and the Chinese farmer – be inspired to find a new, more efficient way of living, one that is deeply satisfying and joyful yet sensitive to the needs of all?

One thing is certain: nothing will happen if we all wait for others to do it first. The first step in creating a healthy, peaceful post-industrial era is for a few of us to start basing our lives on a higher image of who we are and a deeper understanding of what we need for a satisfying life. In the midst of a quickly changing world, such "evolutionaries" can provide an inspiring example of what Schumacher calls "a viable future visible in the present": a life built on cooperation, artistry, thrift, and compassion; a life that is not only ecologically sound but vastly more fulfilling than modern industrial life. There may be only a handful of such people to start with, but that should not deter us.

We need men and women who can, as George Bernard Shaw says, dream of things that never were, and ask "Why not?" Our present way of life is characterized by a lack of sensitivity and inventiveness, by a lack of freedom, by hypnotization by the profit motive. We need men and women who can think and invent with a mind filled with compassion, charged with the kind of creativity that finds a place for the smallest songbird and the largest elephant. We need people with the artistry to live in simplicity as the hummingbird does, enjoying the nectar without bruising the flower. We need men and women who delight in working together for a common goal.

This is how we can heal the environment. We have the answer to the environmental crisis already present inside us; it does not have to be invented. But neither do we have to do all the work: biologists tell us there are powerful natural forces that can reverse the damage we have done to the health of the ecosystem. Just as the human body has healing capacities, nature is filled with restorative processes that can heal the wounds we have inflicted, if we will only give her a chance. Where attempts have been made to reverse environmental illnesses, nature has been quick to respond. It’s only when she is overwhelmed by pollution and abuse that she begins to fail.

But I would go much further: we, too, have great capacities that can be harnessed to restore the environment – restorative powers as great as any found in nature. And we have them in abundant supply: intelligence, discrimination, will, judgment, and – most important – love. Do not underestimate the power of these resources. They too can do much to heal the Earth, if we give them a chance.


Whenever an important decision had to be made in my village [in Kerala, a state in southeastern India], each family was expected to send a representative to take part in the decision-making process. When they had all gathered, the head of the panchayat – that was the name of this institution – would stand and give the instructions. His remarks were brief, and whether the decision was about politics or village economics or education or religion, he always said the same thing: "There is only one consideration to take into account. Don’t look at this matter from your own point of view. And don’t look at it from the way those living in the village now will be affected. Look at it from the point of view of our grandchildren."

That is wonderful advice. Now, when the papers are full of reports on the precarious environmental conditions in which we are forced to live – not by an act of God but by our own consumer frenzy – I think it is time for all of us to ask that question every time we buy something or sell something or pour something down the drain: "How will this affect our grandchildren?"

I was happily reminded of the panchayat recently when I read an article by William U. Chandler of Worldwatch Institute on sustainable economics. "Traditional economics asks how to produce what for whom," he writes. "Sustainable economics examines these same questions, but includes future generations in the ‘for whom.’"

This is not just advice to the Federal Reserve Board or multinational corporations; it is good advice for all of us. Ordinary people like you and me are the real economists: even though we may not realize it, we all have a choice between consumption oriented and sustainable economics.

How will this affect our grandchildren? Before we buy something that might pollute the environment, before we take an unnecessary trip, before we do anything that might leave the Earth a less secure, less green place for our children and grandchildren to grow up in, let us ask that simple question. We are the ones who will decide what kind of Earth we leave them. In that sense, we are their trustees, and the first term of the trust is that we are trustees of their environment. It is up to us to see that the environment those children inherit will be at least as healthy as the one we inherited.

I’d like to make it clear that when I say "trustee" I am implying not only the caretaking role known as "stewardship" in environmental circles, but much more. It’s true that working in cooperation with nature’s restorative processes is essential work, to which all of us should give our best, but just as essential is the task of developing the restorative powers within ourselves. These two cannot be separated. We can discover and learn to use the restorative powers of nature – its cooperative principle, its thrift and artistry, its compassion – only by discovering and using these powers in ourselves. In this process, every crisis becomes an opportunity to learn what nature is teaching us about life and ourselves. It is not so much a duty as an adventure – an adventure in which we discover that, like every other living creature, each of us is a unique and essential member of a compassionate universe.

As my grandmother once told me, the elephant does not know how big it is because it looks at the world through such tiny eyes. We too are unaware of our tremendous power to change things. But once we open our eyes to cooperation, artistry, thrift, and compassion, we begin to see thousands of little things we can do to help restore the environment – and restore dignity and deeper fulfillment to our own lives. Each of these things – each "tremendous trifle," to use G. K. Chesterton’s lovely phrase – is small by itself but has a broad, beneficial impact.


Trusteeship as a way of life is an artistic combination of great comfort and great simplicity: using minimum means to achieve maximum joy, without ever hurting nature. The personal benefits are enormous. When you spend less money on unnecessary things, you don’t need to spend so much time working to pay for them. You can slow down a little. You have time to go to the beach with your children and bask in the beauty of the sea, to listen to the birds and admire the sunset, to watch the stars appear in the evening sky.

I am not speaking theoretically. A group of friends and I have been doing our best to live this way for the past twenty years. We all lead active lives, some holding jobs as doctors or teachers or carpenters or artists, others raising families, and all of us enjoying the benefits of modern life. We have found that making changes brings us together as friends and makes us healthier and more secure, knowing we are helping to make the Earth a little greener for all children to grow up in.

The lesson of the hummingbird is that beauty and nobility are to be found not in having more but in having just what is necessary. I always make it clear that I am no fan of poverty; I don’t think anyone should live in poverty. But isn’t it a little vulgar to pile up material possessions as an indication of our own worth when more than half the world lives in aching need – and when the very production of those things often harms the environment for our own children?

To be trustees, there is no need to live in misery or to give up the things we need for a long, healthy, enjoyable life. Nobody need deprive him or herself of legitimate comforts, of equipment for work, of attractive clothing, good schools or healthy entertainment. Let’s simply post a question mark on the door of the mind, addressed to every desire that requests entrance: "Halt! Who goes there? Are you a friend to all of life? Do you contribute to my health and the health of all creatures? If so, you may pass. If you injure me or those around me, even if you are tempting, go knocking elsewhere. You will find no welcome here."

Regardless of what Madison Avenue tells us, our real hunger is not for things but for a higher image of ourselves. No amount of material possessions will ever make us secure or fulfilled.

The practical suggestions found in books like the excellent 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth are a few first steps all of us can take right away. They will help the environment, and they will help us discover just a little more of our own capacity for cooperation, thrift, artistry, and compassion. In scientific terms, they are a way to start testing the hypothesis of a compassionate universe.

Nevertheless, it is important to be realistic: the conditioning that has caused such damage to our environment and made the world such a dangerous place will not disappear just because a few of us start planting trees or using our cars less. It will take a long battle to triumph over our common enemy, the uncontrolled rage for profit and consumption. I am firmly convinced, however, that it is a battle we can win.

The program of trusteeship I present in The Compassionate Universe takes environmentalism a step further than it is usually taken, into the place where our environmental problems begin: the mind. That is where the real fight for the future of the Earth will be waged. The environmental crisis is not a separate, isolated concern. It is connected with all our attitudes, conscious and unconscious: toward each other, toward other countries, toward our children, toward ourselves. Until these attitudes change, we will go on damaging the environment, no matter what sort of surface changes we make.

Of course, this is not going to be easy, and the first steps will be among the most difficult. It is rather like using muscles you have not used for a long time: you need to build a bridge between your knowledge and your will, and that is sheer exertion. Yet those first steps are also exhilarating. The moment we look beyond our own small satisfactions, we begin to see a whole new world, filled with opportunities.

I remember watching my friends’ little girl, Christina, take her first steps. For a few months, I had seen her crawling – or "swimming," as we say in India – around my study. Her style was eclectic, a kind of Australian crawl, and to look at her it was hard to imagine that the thought of walking would ever cross her mind.

Then one day I was working in my study with Christina sitting on the floor near me. Suddenly the world seemed to hold its breath: slowly, little by little by little, she began to pull herself up. It was poetry in motion; even the deer and birds outside the window seemed to wait and watch. But it was also solid science: unable to stand on her own power, she used my chair as support; and she didn’t keep her feet close together but placed them wide apart to keep her center of gravity close to the ground. Finally, standing bravely on her own, she looked at me with such a triumphant smile that I applauded. As the years passed, she has learned to walk, to jog, to run, to play tag; I doubt that she can remember a time when she couldn’t walk.

Like Christina, all of us have passed through a time when, if we had been asked to walk, we would have been utterly bewildered. "Walking? What is this walking? I’ll just lie here and wait for Mommy to do everything for me – pick me up, feed me, carry me – that’s what life is for." And yet, even as she crawled about, Christina had been watching me carefully. In her subconscious the desire to stand up was waiting in the wings, whispering with mounting impatience, "Just a little longer. Just a few more months, and I, too, will be striding around the study." If we listen carefully, we can hear a quiet voice inside asking, "Is this all there is to life? Are we human beings so weak and insecure that we must content ourselves with sports cars and vacation fantasies while the world falls apart? Are we so limited in our understanding of each other that we must fight over profits and ideology while children starve and the Earth is destroyed?" Anyone who can muster the daring and perseverance to listen to this inner voice, and follow its call to the core of personality, will testify that the stature of the human being is so sublime that we will remain hungry and thirsty until everyone learns to live in freedom.

Because we have not taken the time to look past our conditioning, we see ourselves as a few dollars’ worth of chemicals, driven to compete with one another and exhaust our Earth. How could anyone be taken in by such a mediocre portrait of human nature? Believing that this is who we are, we have let ourselves be so hypnotized by the desire for profit and pleasure and power that we now seem practically helpless before the forces that are greedily devouring the Earth.

But this is only a case of mistaken identity. Scratch the portrait’s surface and something altogether different begins to shine through: a much different image of who we are.

According to the industrial hypothesis, we are insignificant specks who can find fulfillment, or consolation for the lack of it, only in having more and more things. In the industrial context, competition for resources has provided the only legitimate motivation for human conduct.

The alternative hypothesis is far from new. It was enunciated three thousand years ago in the Bhagavad Gita, and it can be found at the core of each of the world’s great religious traditions: in every one of us, beneath the surface level of conditioned thinking, there is a single living spirit. The still, small voice whispering to me in the depths of my consciousness is saying exactly the same thing as the voice whispering to you: "I want an Earth that is healthy, a world at peace, and a heart filled with love." It doesn’t matter if your skin is brown or white or black or whether you speak English, Japanese, or Malayalam – the voice, says the Gita, is the same in every creature, and it comes from your true self.

I do not offer this as a dogma or tenet of faith. It is a scientific hypothesis that can be tested by anyone with the daring and determination needed to pursue the course of investigation. Nor is it an intellectual theory. It is an experience that revolutionizes the individual’s perception of the universe and brings profound changes in character, conduct, and consciousness – changes that leave their mark on everything he or she does, and deeply influence everyone he or she comes in contact with.

The practical, day-to-day implications are enormous. A trustee lives according to the realization that the world is home to billions of living creatures, all of whom have an equal right to a healthy environment and a life in peace. A trustee understands that human beings – the most powerful creatures on Earth – are meant to find happiness not in exploiting or manipulating their fellow creatures but in protecting them and enriching their environment.

In this way, trusteeship is exactly the opposite of the industrial hypothesis, which looks on our Earth and resources as a kind of treasure chest to be plundered by the most cunning or powerful. To the trustee, the Earth – Mother Earth – is a beloved friend. The trustee’s abiding desire is to adorn her with all the things she loves: trees, clean water, a rich topsoil, and all the needs for countless generations of healthy, secure children. Such a person stands at the crown of life, a protector and safe refuge for all that lives. Is there a nobler goal for humanity to strive for?

There is surely none more challenging. The sages of ancient India compare such a way of life to walking the edge of a razor, and from my own small experience I can attest that they were not exaggerating. Self-transformation is a long, slow process, requiring patience and determination, but there is no human being who is not capable of it.

When a person takes up this challenge in earnest, it is only a matter of time before an ever-increasing circle of people see the beauty and common sense of such a life. We are entering a period of great change; people are beginning to see the limits of the industrial hypothesis, yet they have nothing to replace it. As the scientist W.I.B. Beveridge remarks in his book The Art of Scientific Investigation, "It is easier to drop the old hypothesis if one can find a new one to replace it. The feeling of disappointment, too, will then vanish." When we live as trustees, we are offering that new hypothesis to everyone we come in contact with.

In this way, we can slowly but surely lead the world back to health. It is we – not governments or corporations but ordinary people like you and me – who can ensure that the twentieth century will be remembered not as the nuclear age, or as the last century of a habitable Earth, but as the beginning of a post-industrial era, an age of compassion.

We need people in every field who can serve as a bridge between humanity and its highest aspirations. We need mothers who dream of their children growing up in a compassionate society and ask: why not? We need scientists, businesspeople, politicians, and journalists who have the courage to dream of a world where people, animals, and the environment are more important than profits or national rivalries and ask: why not? We need ordinary people of every nation and color who dare to look beneath the iron mask of self-centered conditioning, see something they never believed they could be, and ask themselves: why not?

An Indivisible Whole

by Eknath Easwaran

I was already well-launched on a career as professor of English literature before I had even the slightest idea that I would be called upon to do this work. At that point, I had no complaint against destiny at all. Almost without seeking it, some moderate notoriety had come my way in the Indian world of letters, and I was quite content with the satisfactions of writing and of sharing my passionate love of English and Sanskrit literature with responsive students.

Then, without any external cause or warning, all those things that had promised such satisfaction turned to ashes. Books that had fascinated me for decades ceased to speak to my condition. The speakers I went to hear – including some of the most important figures from the West as well as the East – seemed to be speaking about things on a distant planet. The bottom had fallen out of my academic boat.

It was a very difficult period. I didn’t quite realize it, but my life, my goals, my entire perception of the world were rapidly changing. Through the precious grace of my spiritual teacher, my grandmother, who had prepared me for this experience throughout my childhood, I began to turn inwards and take up the practice of meditation.

At the same time, I became captivated by the promise and the daunting challenge which Mahatma Gandhi was offering the world. He was in his sixties when I went to see him, and he was faced with a new political or social crisis almost every day, yet everything about him – the sparkle in his eyes, the teenage spring in his step, the ease with which he smiled and laughed despite a grueling schedule – gave me the unexpected impression that he was really having a grand time, even as he worked fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, for the benefit of us all.

I was haunted by the joy I saw in his life. He radiated a contentment which I, in my thirties, had almost despaired of. Somehow, Gandhi discovered a way to find complete satisfaction in every moment. "My life is an indivisible whole," he wrote, "and all my activities run into one another, and they all have their rise in my insatiable love for all mankind." There was nothing else I wanted so much: I wanted to see through his eyes, to hear with his ears, and to live in his world, which had a population not of millions, but of one – a single, undying spirit dwelling in millions of bodies.

But even more haunting was the challenge his life threw down before me. "I have not the shadow of a doubt," he had said, in words that still thrill me to the core, "that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she would make the same effort and cultivate the same hope and faith."

Since then, every day of my life, I have tried to live up to that challenge. Gandhi often referred to himself as a child of the Bhagavad Gita, India’s great mystical scripture, and I too, in a very humble manner, am a child of the Gita. I try consciously every day, not always successfully, to translate the teaching of the Gita – that all life is one – into my personal life. "A true votary of the Gita does not know what disappointment is," wrote Gandhi, and the fruit of my many years of meditation is that, through Gandhi’s example and my grandmother’s grace, I have lost all sense of disappointment.

Indeed, I am filled with hope for the coming decades. I have been privileged to witness – in my own life and in the lives of people close to me – just how much any human being can change his or her patterns of living and thinking. If enough of us dedicate ourselves to this most important task during the coming years, we will be sure to write one of the most glorious chapters in human history.

Waking At 3 A.m.

by William Stafford

Even in the cave of the night when you
wake and are free and lonely,
neglected by others, discarded, loved only
by what doesn’t matter – even in that
big room no one can see
you push with your eyes till forever
comes in its twisted figure-eight
and lies down in your head.


You think water in the river;
you think slower than the tide in
the grain of the wood; you become
a secret storehouse that saves the country,
so open and foolish and empty.


You look over all that the darkness
ripples across. More than has ever
been found comforts you. You open your
eyes in a vault that unlocks as fast and
as far as your thought can run.
A great snug wall goes around everything,
has always been there, will always
remain. It is a good world to be
lost in. It comforts you. It is
all right. And you sleep.


A broadside originally published in 1972 by The Slow Loris Press, Amherst, New York.

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