Blooming Through the Unbearable

No danger that we are facing today is greater than the deadening of our response.

Roshi Joan Halifax, 7/18/2022

These were some of the first words shared at a talk centered on the spiritual Deep Ecology work of Joanna Macy Sunday, and a beautifully expressed warning against meeting immense challenges with despair.

That includes global warming, which refuses to fade gently into the night. And it’s a doozy – the most overwhelming, global, human threat to date, or at least for tens of thousands of years. A friend saw Elizabeth Kolbert speak at a university a few years back and was appalled when she answered the inevitable audience question of “what can we do?” with something like, Nothing. There is nothing you can personally do that will stop the headlong tumble towards an unlivable human planet. Here is where she is literally right: our household recycling, our composting, even our electric cars and solar panels are not enough, individually, to make a difference. The only individual actions that could make a dent would be those of leading political figures or the CEOs of prominent polluting corporations.

Here is where she is wrong: there is no such thing as an individual, isolated action in a living, social species. Not only do we bike instead of driving, we normalize biking and spark interest in others. We get the attention of those who want to sell bikes, who create tempting advertising around biking, generating more participation. Politicians glom on to boost their cred with the voting bloc of cyclists. Communities organize and successfully advocate for safer and more accessible bike paths, and more fearful folks now join in the ~carbon-free fun. The press reports on the changes in city planning. Car companies produce more electric vehicles in attempt to lure climate-conscious riders back. No single action occurs in a vacuum, and all have unseen reverberations.

And here is where she is deadeningly wrong: we have no idea what will actually improve our chances on planet Earth. That Not Knowing isn’t just a Buddhist practice, it is as scientific as it gets. Every scientific “truth” is literally a Theory, even the ones we take as gospel. No one knows how high the temperature will get, what exactly that will mean for our viability, or what might deflect us from that path. We have good models and predictions and explanation that we use to guide our actions, but we do not know what awaits us. Some people find this frightening. Some cling to the best guesses and worst case scenarios and despair in the presumed inevitability of The End. But Not Knowing, as a practice, is ultimately liberating. If we don’t know the future, we are free to accurately assess and focus on the present: is this act loving, kind, compassionate, meaningful, wise? Is it done for its own sake and not to reward my ego? Am I using the terror of the future to justify cruel behavior in the present? Whether it all fell apart tomorrow, or humanity were saved with the sunrise, would this still be a Right Action?

And here’s the other spiritual bit, the bit that Roshi Joan alluded to at the top: If we close ourselves off to action, because we believe it won’t fix anything; to our own heartbreak, because it hurts; to the pain of others, because it’s hard and uncomfortable; to lapping up the beauty of our world, because it will go away; to laughter, because there are so many reasons to cry; to love, because of impermanence, why are we even here? We do the best we can because it’s the right thing to do, not for an anticipated payout. Better to fail to save humanity by using less and loving more than to succeed by brutally annihilating a third of the population, right? It’s not about the fix; it’s about nurture.

Impermanence is the (admittedly shaky) foundation on which the Four Noble Truths sit. Everything is impermanent, including us and our planet. From the Buddhist perspective, it shouldn’t matter whether Earth’s temperature rises by 4 degrees Celsius tomorrow or in 2500. The urgency may increase, but the mindful behavior would be more or less the same.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Certainly the ongoing Heat Death of living creatures and landscapes makes me ponder quitting my job and devoting myself to whatever beneficial behavior I can muster up, and the likelihood of that happening increases as record-breaking temperatures and other environmental events become more dire. But I (breathe) try to return to the center of kindness, empathy, joy, and love. I love being alive. I love this planet so much it hurts. And I’m working on loving the people who share it with me. If I let my fear control the narrative, that love turns to despair. And there is really no reason to despair, because we are here in this unbearably beautiful place, and every moment is an opportunity to help others see it. Sitting with one suffering person is lifechanging. Planting one hazelnut tree is lifechanging. Feeding water to one parched koala is lifechanging. Returning one starfish to the ocean is lifechanging. No single one of us can stop global warming, but the lives we live can contribute to a wave of carbon reduction, and every single one of us can contribute to the wellbeing of a living creature on this gorgeous Earth.

What We Sacrifice: Wynn Bruce

What We Sacrifice: Wynn Bruce

I have been trying to spread the word about Wynn Bruce, and whenever I do I get choked up and blurry eyed. So it seems I should write about him. Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court and died a few days later, a few days ago.

Wynn Bruce was a Buddhist and he cared about the warming planet and he set himself on fire. He was not explicit about why, or only in a coded way, but his father and his friends believe he was intending to call attention to climate change. He would not be the first to do so. I fear he may not be the last.

It’s hard to know how to feel about this. That is, it’s hard to have one feeling about it. It’s horrifying, brave, ridiculous, extreme, understandable, admirable, and frightening. As a pseudo-Buddhist, I rest primarily on honorable and heartbreaking.

Bystanders said he didn’t scream as his skin burned.

I can’t say this is the wrong thing to do, if he wanted to do it. It appears that no one ever suggested it, so there is no fault to be laid. I can’t say it’s the right thing to do – causing pain to loved ones in a deadly act that will have little, or any, impact. Removing yourself from the playing field, instead of staying in the loving fight. I wouldn’t argue with a chronically, fatally depressed person who took their own life.

Is it even suicide?

The only thing I can say, the only thing I may know, is that if he burned himself alive in order to call attention to Climate Change, we owe him the honor of paying attention to Climate Change. I don’t know what paying attention means to each one of you; I just believe that we bear witness to his death by bearing witness to the deadly changes in our living environment.

He attributed this beloved quote to Thay:

The most important thing, in response to climate change, is to be willing to hear the sound of the earth’s tears through our own bodies.

thich nhat hanh?

There is more than one way to do that. It will be painful, but it may also be generative and invigorating. The end is uncertain, but despair is not an extreme reaction. I hope we can move past it.

Do What Works, Instead of What Makes You Feel Good (The End of Empathy pt. 3)

cc imageSorry for the inconsistent posts, folks. I’ve been wrapped up in a State Fair exhibit and thus entrenched in Climate Change lit. It’s taken an emotional toll, to be honest. I’m not proud of that. Oooh, middle class American White Lady feels bad about the warming planet. Pooooor American White Lady. Yeah. I’d like to come up with a better excuse for the depression that engulfed me when I dove into this swamp, but this is what I’m left with.

Happily, a different kind of climate change book has been helping me cope. I just finished Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which got me to jump off the doom train and mount the bipartisan babble bicycle (sorry). I loooove books about the human brain and how it fucks us up. The Invisible Gorilla, Why Buddhism is True, and the somewhat discredited Thinking Fast and Slow are all excellent. This is another in that genre, but with the specific task of improving communication about climate change in order to push us towards a critical mass of action.

There is a lot of excellent information here: about our attachment to identity, our need to conform to the ideologies of the social group we’ve chosen, the way we assess risk, confirmation bias, etc. I could nerd about all of it for paragraphs, but I’m committed to the same goal as the author; improving communication and action on climate change. With that in mind, here is my biggest takeaway from the book.

Do whatever the fuck it takes to get people to move on climate change.

Maybe that’s a big extreme, or maybe it’s not. I could say that whatever the fuck it takes means chaining myself to an oil derrick or lying down in the middle of a freeway or  blowing up a CAFO, but would that really be more effective that building support for carbon-reducing legislation? Most likely any non-believers who heard about my awesomely dramatic actions would be gifted with yet another reason to shun (what they view as) my “beliefs,” so those performances aren’t actually what it takes to get shit done. Let’s adjust:

Do whatever the fuck it takes to actually get people to act on climate change.

This is harder, because it’s not about declaring my convictions or self-righteously putting myself in harms way. It’s about doing what actually works, instead of what makes me feel good. And what works is letting go of my own narratives and beliefs and biases in order to join with my Others to fight the real enemy: the end of humanity and the world as we know it. (I don’t say the end of life as we know it, because that’s not necessarily an enemy or a bad thing. Moving towards a lower carbon lifestyle is necessary and can be even fun.)

This means I have to stop thinking of CC nonbelievers as stupid or sheep and start seeing them as vulnerable little human beings just like me whose circumstances have led them to the same kind of groupthink and bigotry and skepticism as mine have, just from the other political side. They critically distrust authority like I critically distrust the White House. They believe their community of caring, like minded people just like I do. They mold evidence to match their ideological beliefs just like me.

If I want them to join the fight against global warming, I have to make it their fight. I can’t just wait for the government to draft them into my war.

How do I do that? My embracing religious perspectives, by expanding the consequences of CC beyond the realm of environmentalism, by moving away from blame. It feels so good to blame, but it’s worse than unproductive. We have shared values, and if we identify and build on those, we may actually be able to fight the corporations that don’t have values because they’re not people with consciences but vehicles of production and profit, and the politicians who don’t have values because they’re only interested in what will get them through the next election cycle.

What are the shared values? Protecting children, being responsible, enjoying life, making decisions for ourselves, and maintaining good health may be a few.

So I clearly have the brilliant idea. I could work on turning it into actual communication. And I’ve tried a bit of that with the abovementioned exhibit. But how much is that really going to do? Who else should I be reaching out to? Through what medium? Why would any of the nonbelievers believe me, a believer, anyway? Any ideas on how to disguise myself? Help?