Many years ago there was a great storm. One through the ocean waves in every direction, and pulled all the starfish from the bottom to the seashore.

An Old Man was walking along the beach and saw the millions and millions of starfish struggling to return to the ocean. Thousands of starfish were dying by the second.

The Old Man began to pick up one starfish at a time, and throw it back into the ocean. One at a time, the Old Man picked up a single starfish of millions that were bound to die and threw each one back into the ocean. 

A young man was watching the Old Man’s attempts to save the starfish. He yelled to the Old Man, “Hey, you stupid Old Man, what are you doing? You can’t save all these starfish — it is pointless…go find something better to do with your time…it meaningless.

The Old Man looked at the Young Man. Paused and then scanned the millions of starfish drying up — dying on the beach. He picked up a single tiny starfish, looked at the boy and said, “You see this starfish, it means the world to it.” And, he threw the starfish back into the ocean. He picked up another single tiny starfish, looked at the boy and said, “You see this one, it means the world to it.” And, the Old Man continued…

~ A Story from My Bhagavad Gita Teacher during my Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training

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I woke up this morning to take an early run. I put on my contacts, comfortable sneakers, running shorts, an undershirt and my iPod. I could not have been more comfortable and conveniently ready to take a run — I knew the run would reenergize me and get me pumped up for an awesome day.

As I was running alongside the wealthy suburbs near Mercer Country Park, NJ, I saw trash. Every 100 yards I would see a bottle, a piece of plastic, a piece of paper or can laying by the side of the road ready to join the waterways. As I have done for years, I stop and pick up trash and simply throw it out at the next trash can that I see alongside the road. I don’t do this for every piece of trash — just a couple because otherwise it would spoil my run.

Today, I couldn’t help but wonder — who will be picking up the remaining pieces of trash? I had no answer…the reality is no one. We pay our kind and generous Waste Management City Staff to pick up trash once a week from our homes, but their responsibility ends at our doorsteps. Sometimes, you might see incarcerated individuals picking up trash on the highway to work off their prison sentences, but that does not happen in our neighborhoods. At the end of the day, there is no one who goes alongside the streets to pick up random pieces that may have blown out of our trash cans. Not only is such a proposition costly, but it also inefficient.

If we have a couple of individuals hired to go around the towns, picking up trash by the sides of the street — they will not be able to keep up with the trash that is floating around everywhere. So, we have downgraded this problem to to our voiceless neighbors…the animals and the earth. We have silently said, “Our trash is too complex — to inconvenient — of an issue to manage, therefore the random pieces that fall in-between homes, parks and waters must be managed by …”

Birds, turtles, ducks and many others unknowingly are cleaning up our neighborhoods by eating the trash. Plastic does not breakdown naturally — the plastic breaks into little shards and tiny animals eat these pieces of shiny plastic. Since plastic is not standard in any humans diet or an animals diet, it remains in their digestive system and continues to build up until their stomachs are filled with plastic and can longer absorb any nutrition from actual food.

Instead of finishing my five mile run, I stopped at mile 2 and simply began picking up trash. I would see a piece of trash — inspect it and make sure that there was nothing sharp on it, and pick-it up. Over the course of three miles, I had picked up netting, a couple of trash bags and a bunch of plastic bottles.

I won’t lie, I simply wanted to run this morning, and picking up the pieces of trash was inconvenient and not particularly pleasant. But, I also know that we shape who we are when we listen to the voiceless. When our paradigm is larger than ourselves, we are able to let go of the overpowering story of me; we are able to let go of the thoughts, emotions and actions that bring us down; we are able to let go of all the “inconveniences” that stop us from living in the world that we each know we want to live in.