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.

Creative Imperfection (Perfection, pt 5)

Paris through the Window, Marc Chagall

We would have stagnated and likely died off as a species if we had settled for perfection. Evolution requires variation – a mutation from expectations, from what was extant or even conceivable before it happened. Our selectively cultivated foods – our pluots and actually tasty apples – came out of a desire for variety and difference: improvement, not perfection. When the focus shifted to profit, perfection took primacy over variety. (In the narrowest sense of the word profit, meaning a strictly financial benefit for the titular “owners” of the item in question, because the loss to the world has been enormous.) When we move from variation to perfection, we get shit. Look at the strawberry. Mass produced, global strawberries are engineered to be very red, very large, and very firm – the perfect image of a strawberry, and perfect for easy picking and long, bumpy transport. They are also flavorless. We are so averse to imperfect looking foods that we created a space for an alternative, radical industry based on selling “ugly” produce to people on subscription, because grocery stores won’t sell them. Because we won’t buy them. Perfect-ly good food, wasted because it doesn’t fit our model of what a particular food should look like.

Likewise, any ideal is just as timebound, subjective, and limited. Who created these standards? In the US, certainly, they are largely male, wealthy, White, able-bodied … you can keep adding privileged identities. What are those guys missing? The answers are infinite. Their idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. Perfect children were quiet and still and obedient. Perfect citizens conformed with social expectations and followed laws, which have at many times been exceptionally cruel and immoral.

What even is imperfection? Is it just a name we give something that doesn’t fit the way we want it to be, the way our necessarily limited human expectations circumscribe the parameters or potential of a being or object? Is perfection simply acceptance? Is that what Neem Karoli Baba demonstrated when he instructed Larry Brilliant to eradicate smallpox while unironically insisting that everything was exactly as it should be? Is a world without pain and horrors a perfect world? Or is the world always perfect, regardless of Global Weirding, genocide, pick your cause; and is our empathy and grief and work to change those circumstances as inextricable a part of the perfection as the ghastly circumstances themselves? Is a perfect world one in which suffering is present for us to relieve? Is that super self-serving and monstrous? That, just as plants and animals must die to feed other plants and animals, and forests must burn to allow for new growth, our human world must be filled with resource extraction and cruelty? Maybe. Or maybe we just throw out the idea of a perfect world and instead live the paradox of simultaneous acceptance and opposition.  

Buddhist, Native American, and other religions imply the idea of an individual entity being perfect independent of the community which literally and figuratively keeps them alive is absurd. Our selves don’t end at our “skin-encapsulated ego” (Alan Watts), and neither does the strawberry’s. That perfect strawberry is here reinterpreted as a massive failure because it poisons the soil, the farm workers who pick it, the air we breathe through the chemical inputs to grow it and fossil fuels to ship it; and denies nutrients and spreads disappointment to the people who eat it. In these interconnected worldviews there is no place for perfection, which attempts to delineate something that is by nature fluid. As the infinitely amazing Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, we have deluded ourselves with the idea that power, or success, means domination. “This is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”[i] Evolution is never just personal; our environment decides which mutations are worth reproducing. Every creative act, every change is a collaboration between living things and their environments and cultures.

In the creative realm, the concept of perfection puts restrictions on what a thing can be, and creative potential can be smothered by such boundaries. If there is perfection to be reached, there is an idea of what is acceptable or appropriate, and therefore an unspoken idea of what is unacceptable, which is pretty much anything unfamiliar and innovative. If War and Peace is “the perfect novel,” where does that put The Vegetarian?[ii] Or Beloved? Or any number of works from other cultures that I have not been exposed to? What is a perfect face and who decides that? We’ve all seen the destructive potential of “the perfect body” and many carry that burden to the detriment of our health and happiness. The idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. At one time, perfect art was representative, and representative only of the “noble”. Every genre of art rejected the previous genre’s idea of perfection. Nadia Comanechi achieved “perfect 10s” in her Olympic routines in the 70s. Now that same performance wouldn’t even get her into the Olympics. But that’s just time, you might say. Indeed, time is a characteristic of culture, and just as arbitrary and whimsical in classifying excellence. Think of all we would want (in the dual, Shakespearean sense of the word) if previous standards of perfection were enforced. Future creators will say the same thing about our standards, even though that is hard to imagine. A culture of perfection makes the new harder to imagine. We assume that we know what a thing can be, and knowing is the beginning of the end. A beginner’s mind is a space for exploration, creativity, and growth; an expert’s tends to resist change

With perfection out of the way, there are so many more ways to be. Perfection is static, proscriptive, and therefore inhibiting. If the nature of all being is boundless, as Buddhism and psychedelics tell us, then either nothing is perfect, or everything is. And if we are perfect and thereby liberated from the pointless goal of achieving perfection, what could we do with the energy we now spend on self-improvement and material comforts to salve our cravings? We could make gloriously imperfect art, perhaps, or grow imperfect tomatoes, or form imperfect, diverse, messy, mutualistic communities that cultivate the joy of future imperfections.


[i] World as Lover, World as Self– 30th anniversary edition, p.152

[ii] The Vegetarian, Nan Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last decade. (©2007, English translation ©2016)