Gross National Wholeness

Jay Owen Advisors' Forum

Gross National Wholeness

By Martin Ping, Executive Director, Hawthorne Valley; EMM Advisory Board member

By Martin Ping

Few things in life elicit more happiness and joy than the first signs of spring. Especially after experiencing a genuine winter that seemed oblivious to the calendar and in no hurry to depart. The re-emergence of the early optimists in the garden reawakens a sense of the miracle and mystery of life as revealed in the cycle of the year. Standing before these mysteries, I am reminded how much I still do not know. My heart opens in a gesture of reverence and gratitude as humble witness to this becoming.

There are moments of happiness in the garden that are hard to quantify, and yet they contribute to the overall success of the season.  Success not just measured in pounds of produce grown or revenue realized, but in the overall quality of life that can come with entering into a more intimate and connected relationship to the earth.


On a wider societal scale, good questions are surfacing as to how we measure success. The standard for some time in most of the industrialized west has been GDP, or gross domestic product. Yet Nobel laureate Simon Kuznets, the “father” of GDP, recognized that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of income as defined by the GDP.”  Robert Kennedy gave what may be the finest argument against GDP as an adequate way of measuring our nation’s wealth in a presidential stump speech back in 1968, summing up his critique of GDP with, “It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” The conversation is evolving as states and nations look for a more honest assessment tool. Bhutan, for example, is one country that has adopted Gross National Happiness as their metric.

Back to the garden. The reemergence of life in the garden is only made possible because of the dying back the previous autumn and the onset of winter. One could call it a going to sleep, but life and death are certainly two complimentary poles of the narrative in which we all participate. Happiness is only one part of the cycle, the fullness of which is expressed eloquently, if not at times severely, on farms and in gardens. And lest I run the risk of romanticizing farming and gardening through the rose-colored lenses of sentimental nostalgia, implying that they are never-ending havens of happiness, a more honest assessment would reveal there are no shortages of sadness and suffering that come with an avocation that is often commenced with a cocktail of passion and risk taking.

I recently attended a Global Forum with the Presencing Institute at MIT. In a breakout session on Unleashing the Power of Purpose and Compassion in Business, there was a small group discussion on Gross National Happiness. There were four of us in that group, and I listened intently as questions on the role of sadness added dimension and color to the conversation. I was so intrigued by the depth of the exchange that I never spoke. When a small chime summoned us back to the larger group I was asked if I wanted to add anything. Without a moment’s thought I replied that perhaps it is Gross National Wholeness that we are really striving towards.

I am grateful for the seemingly limitless learning opportunities that are provided by the natural world, especially when combined thoughtfully with human activity in the form of agriculture. Farms and gardens can inspire learning in a place that evokes a sense of wholeness, inviting us to embrace the fullness of life and reclaim the fullness of our humanity. Perhaps Gross National Wholeness will be a next step toward a Biosphere consciousness that is more reflective of our interconnectedness and interdependence.

Martin Ping has been at Hawthorne Valley for more than 20 years. During most of that time, he taught practical arts in the High School and for 14 years was director of facilities and served as project manager on several million dollars of new construction projects. For the past ten years as Executive Director, he has balanced his time developing the working relationships amongst the Association’s diverse enterprises, and the 150 coworkers who carry those initiatives, with cultivating collaborative relationships between Hawthorne Valley and other organizations in the Upper Hudson/Berkshire region, as well as like-minded initiatives nationally and globally. He has been instrumental in initiating several new programs and has several more in the works. Martin is also co-founder and storyteller for The Magical Puppet Tree and has served on the boards of several not-for-profit organizations.