Our sangha has been involved in an ongoing discussion of how the dharma might guide us in response to the current climate crises. While on vacation, I wrote this short reflection piece on the topic.
Navigating my kayak along the Maine coast a strong headwind blows whitecaps at my bow and I struggle with my nascent paddling skills in an unexpected headwind. I am not used to handling a 17-foot sea kayak yet and hesitate to turn when I hear, to my left, the shrill piping call of a bald eagle as she descents delicately, wings outstretched, and lands on the gravel shore. I shift slowly, careful not to jerk my body and upset the boat. Paddling lightly so to not lose headway I see her up close, a mere ten feet from me and she is enormous and glorious. I guess it is a “she” for soon a vociferously complaining brown fledgling descends, settles and pokes her with his beak, “let’s go, mom, why are you taking me here?” I anthropomorphize, watching them interact. But her eyes are on me, and then beyond me. And then I hear the piercing, haunting giggling tremolo of two loons off my starboard. They are not happy with this encroachment of their territory. As a light fog envelops me, the call of the eagles and loons pierce my heart and the hair on the back of my neck rises in pleasure and awe, and I feel myself dissolve into the sea, wind and grey-blue sky.
We live in a world of profound beauty. For decades I have wandered the remaining wild territories of the U.S. Such sojourns assure my continuing sanity, and brings me a peace I find almost nowhere else. Long before I formally learned to meditate, sitting alone in wooded and mountainous territory taught me to listen and observe and feel through my senses directly and completely. But during the decades I have explored the wilderness areas of our continent, I have also witnessed the unmistakable signs of change wrought by human blindness and greed. I do not need to read the science (although I have done so) to understand what is afoot and threatening to undermine the wellbeing of our earth and all who inhabit it. I have seen, felt, and directly taken in the increasingly damaging impact we humans have had on almost every aspect of our environment. Last summer, choking and sooty, I was forced to abort my traverse of Mt. Hood and beg a ride back to my car when a nearby fire enveloped the mountain in thick smoke, obliterating its view entirely, and made walking a distinct health hazard. While traveling that summer I was chased by smoke and fires from Colorado to Idaho, Montana to California, and experienced one of the hottest summers (save the current one) ever recorded. I saw landslides and clear cuts, evidence of poor land management policies dominated by greed and desire for quick profit. The Midwest and East coast are beset by unprecedented and ferocious storms and our mighty Western glaciers are disappearing by the day. I have seen all of this up close and in person. I could go on, but I suspect anyone still reading this is well versed in these unfortunately common climate created crises.
In our market economy, we measure the worth of almost everything in terms of its dollar value, including our natural resources. Even the term “resource” suggests an artificial and misleading duality of consumption and consumed. We speak of nature and ourselves as if they are not the same thing. We treat ourselves as if we are not inextricable intertwined and interdependent with everything else in the world. This is our first and most pernicious error in thinking, and one that leads us into blind overuse and unending consumption.
But I am aware that the array of alarming and fear-inducing descriptions of what is taking place in the Anthropocene is not inducing us to change our behaviors enough to stabilize our eroding natural world. Psychologically speaking the extreme fear induced by such descriptions creates reactive avoidance, rather than an agency.
So, what can we do? And what might Buddhism have to offer us in terms of understanding and dealing with the current climate crisis? When it comes to human created harm passive acceptance has never part of the Buddhist ethic. But what, if anything can Buddhism and mindfulness practice do to help us face this crisis?
Bhikkhu Analayo, a scholar-monk, and prolific author, in a recent talk and soon to be published article, addresses this struggle. Mindfulness and compassion, he proposes, are the basic tools with which we can face and overcome the threats to our environment. He sees our environmental catastrophes as arising out of the three “unwholesome roots,” of greed, hatred, and delusion, qualities deeply lodged in our human psyche, and which underlie most of our suffering. Mindfulness and compassion are the tools for overcoming these three poisonous mental attitudes that cloud the mind and impede appropriate action.
The task is to recognize the particular form of greed, hatred, and delusion that arises in our relationship to our environment.
Greed is what got us into this predicament in the first place. It is present when we mindlessly consume when we humans place ourselves first and view the bounty of the world as our entitlement. Mindfully recognizing our impulse to grasp, to take and use up without thought, is the task here. Greed, according to Bhikkhu Analayo, is also what underscores denial, our natural tendency to turn our heads in the face of truths that ask us to do what we may not wish to do. We want to perpetuate our comfortable lives and so denial allows us to pretend, often through allying with those who deliberately misrepresent the scope of the crisis, that things aren’t really so bad. Countering greed requires us to look squarely at our lives and find the means to simplify, to pare down and act deliberately in our habits as “consumers.”
Anger, or aversion, arises when resources are in short supply, when we, overwhelmed by the current situation, project blame for it, or when we perceive ourselves as having to relinquish a way of life we feel entitled to. Yet even righteous anger, as understandable as it may be, is never seen as an effective response in Buddhist thought and practice. Anger breeds anger. In-your-face aggressive responses, even when the aim is to effect positive change, is likely to simply create more of the same. When caught in the talons of rage we simply lose the capacity to see clearly what the correct course might be. It is the moment after the anger that we may mindfully calm the self and perceive the way forward. This does not mean repressing our anger. It means managing it, and not responding solely from the vantage point of anger. It does not preclude firmness and directness in addressing the problems we face. Buddhism simply recognizes anger as an agitating emotion, ineffective, in the moment of its arising, in charting a true and steady course.
Confusion and Resignation are responsible for the belief we are individually too small and insignificant to do anything of real value to impact what is happening around us. It is this form of confusion that leads us to pull the covers over our collective heads and be grateful for the fact we will not likely be around for the worst of it. Such resignation is deluded in that it negates the very real impact we can have and the influence we have on one another simply by engaging in more healthy, helpful behaviors. As we each engage in composting, recycling, finding alternatives to fossil fuels, eschewing plastics, walking whenever possible, advocating and joining others in peacefully resisting the status quo, we have the capacity to effect real change in our world. Tiny gestures accumulate into grand ones. We have to start somewhere, and we always start with the self.
Mindfulness. We cannot effectively enter the fray if we cannot see what we are doing and understand our motivations. Mindfulness allows us to ride the waves of our internal experience and more distinctly detect the presence of grasping, aversion, and confusion in our actions and motivations, which occlude our perceptions and limit appropriate action. Furthermore, mindfulness practice calms the nervous system so we can turn into the reality of any situation, including the decay of our environment, without being overwhelmed and traumatized.
To beleaguer the paddling metaphor a bit further, mindfulness is like the delicate relational balance of the sea kayak and kayaker. Paddling demands constant vigilance. Thin hulled and impossibly narrow, the sway and slap of the sea beneath your seat and legs as you cut through the water requires a slew of minor and ongoing corrections to remain upright and moving forward effectively. The balance is in you, not the boat, and as soon as you forget this, plop! You’re in the drink. But when you finally get it, when your body instinctively and calmly works with the motion and momentum of the sea and the boat, your course is swift and true. Like mindfulness, practice kayaking demands patience and persistence. Like kayaking, with practice and diligence, the mental balance of mindfulness becomes second nature and available to you when the storm of anger, the waves of confusion, and the tide of greed threaten to unbalance you and sweep you away.
In a future post, I will explore the role of compassion in addressing our environmental crises.