A Plea For the Animals

A recent article on the Dharma Voice for Animals website points out that the common invocation of the metta meditation, “May all being be happy…may all being be free from suffering” refers to ALL beings. The DVA piece goes on to note, “We are taught that suffering is suffering, regardless of its manifestation.” In his plea for animals, Matthieu Ricard is quick to point out that asking us to extend our compassion is not to offer a rebuke; views about animals embedded in many cultures can make it hard to shift our perspective. In focusing on our interdependence with all beings, Ricard taps into the eco-dharma foundation for making that shift.

Some people are born with a natural tendency to be compassionate. From an early age, they show spontaneous kindness toward those around them, including animals. This was not the case for me. I was born into a Breton family, and until I was fourteen years old I often used to go fishing. I also remember when I was very young my friends from the local school and I once grilled ants by focusing the sun’s rays on them with a magnifying glass. Looking back, I am ashamed of this, but it upsets me even more that such behavior struck me as normal.

When I was five, my father took me to see the bullfights in Mexico. It was a celebration. The music was exciting. Everybody seemed to feel this was a great occasion, that all of this was wonderful. Why didn’t I leave in tears? Was it a lack of compassion, of education, of imagination?

We live in an essentially interdependent world where the fate of each being, of whatever kind, is intimately linked to that of all the others. So what I am suggesting here is not concern for animals only but concern for animals also.

At the age of twenty I had the great good fortune of meeting Tibetan spiritual masters, who from that time on have inspired every moment of my existence. The central point of their teachings has been the royal way of love and universal compassion. Although for a long time I had not been able to put myself in others’ places, by training with the masters, I learned altruistic love, doing the best I could to open my mind and heart to the plights of others. I trained myself in compassion, and I reflected on the human condition and the condition of animals as well.

It is far from my intention to rebuke people who in one way or another cause animals to suffer. They often do it without thinking, as I myself used to do. It truly is difficult to make the connection between the latest consumer items, including food and medicines that sometimes save our lives, and the suffering that is usually involved in their fabrication. Cultural traditions also play a major role in our perceptions of animals, our companions on this planet. Some societies have developed collective patterns of thought that encourage the view that animals exist to serve humans, although the outlook of other traditions has long been that every being, human or nonhuman, must be respected.

Certainly there is so much suffering among human beings that one could spend one’s whole life just alleviating a tiny fraction of it. Despite that, however, concern for the fate of the 7.7 million other species of animals that inhabit this planet is neither unrealistic nor misguided, because most of the time there is no need to choose between the well-being of humans and the well-being of animals. We live in an essentially interdependent world where the fate of each being, of whatever kind, is intimately linked to that of all the others. So what I am suggesting here is not concern for animals only but concern for animals also.

In spite of the sense of wonder the animal kingdom inspires in us, we are responsible for an ongoing massacre of animals on a scale unequaled in the history of humankind.

Such an approach does not involve humanizing animals or animalizing humans; rather, it is a matter of extending benevolence and kindness to all. Reaching out in this way is more about taking a responsible attitude toward all that is around us than about making choices concerning what we should do with the limited resources we possess for action in the world.

In spite of the sense of wonder the animal kingdom inspires in us, we are responsible for an ongoing massacre of animals on a scale unequaled in the history of humankind. Every year, sixty billion land animals and a thousand billion marine animals are killed for our consumption. Moreover, this mass killing and its corollary—the excessive consumption of meat in the wealthy countries—is madness on a global scale. It perpetuates hunger in the world, increases the world’s ecological imbalances, and is even harmful to human health.

We continue to live in ignorance concerning the harm we inflict on animals—very few of us have ever visited an industrial breeding site or a slaughterhouse. We maintain a kind of moral schizophrenia that has us lavishly pampering our pets and at the same time planting our forks in the pigs that have been sent to the slaughter by the millions, even though they are in no way less conscious, less sensitive to pain, or less intelligent than our cats and dogs.

Starting with the era of the ancestors we share with other animal species, little by little, by a long series of steps and minimal changes, we arrived at the stage of Homo sapiens. In the course of this slow evolution, there was no “magical moment” that would justify our conferring on ourselves a special nature that makes us fundamentally different from the many species of hominids that preceded us. Nothing occurred in the evolutionary process that would justify our claim to a right of total supremacy over the animals.

The most striking quality that humans and animals have in common is the capacity to experience suffering. Why do we still blind ourselves, now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to the immeasurable suffering that we inflict on animals, knowing that a great part of the pain that we cause them is neither necessary nor unavoidable? Certainly we should know that there is no moral justification for inflicting needless pain and death on any being.


A Plea for the Animals originally appeared in Lion’s Roar, Jan 17, 2017.


Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who had a promising career in cellular genetics before leaving France thirty-five years ago to study Buddhism in the Himalayas. He is an author, translator, and has been a participant in scientific research on the effects that meditation has on the brain. Ricard’s work is held high regard in intellectual circles in Europe, and two books he co-authored, The Monk and the Philosopher and The Quantum and the Lotus, are best-sellers in France. He lives in Tibet and Nepal.

Thriving Like Gorse: The Ulex Project

Ecodharma organizations generally seek to bring ecological and climate activism to Buddhists, encouraging the recognition that, as Guhyapati says in the following article, “It’s a mistake to think of the development of consciousness as [only] a personal matter…The interplay of radical ecology and dharma points to both a profound cognitive shift and significant social reconfiguration.” The Ecodharma Centre in the Catalan Pyrenees has been providing Dharma-inspired activist training for many years and now is launching a new initiative, called the Ulex Project, to reframe their approach in secular terms, with the goal of extending its relevance and impact.

photo from Pond’s Place

by Guhyapati

Throughout a meandering two and a half thousand-year history, Buddhism has re-shaped itself, again and again. Its forms have evolved as the basic truths and methodologies of dharma have been applied to distinct societies and changing circumstances. The gilded baroque feudalism of Buddhism in Tibet; the austere aesthetic and lean existential comedy of Chan; the contrasting strands of formal Theravadin institutionalism and the shamanic aura of the forest renunciate; these all reveal the evolutionary vitality of a tradition that has enriched itself through creative engagement with cultural diversity.

The founding of the Ecodharma Centre in 2007 was an exploration of the forms Buddhism might take in response to the historical conditions we now live in. We see this as a period of social and ecological crisis. Tensions of social inequality, together with the irrationalities of a growth-based economy colliding with ecological limits, mark an unprecedented point of disruption.

Buddhism has re-shaped itself, again and again…Its forms …reveal the evolutionary vitality of a tradition that has enriched itself through creative engagement with cultural diversity.

Sensing, as Antonio Gramsci had in the 1930’s, that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born…,” we asked: How can the Dharma help us to live meaningfully amidst the dying of the old system – and how can it help us to midwife the new? Ecodharma is a response to these questions.

When we coined the term “ecodharma,” we wanted to imply something more than a form of Green Buddhism, simply folding environmental concern into the dharma life. We wanted Ecodharma to embody (as we expressed it in the centre’s strap line) an exploration of “Radical Ecology – Radical Dharma.”

With the idea of ‘radical dharma’ we point towards the heart of Buddhism. Practicing with a globalized perspective and historical awareness, it is possible to examine the many forms Buddhism has taken and ask questions about the core significance of these traditions. Recognizing that the dharma is not delimited by any of the cultural or philosophical forms it has taken, we can define it as any practices which enable people to develop and realize the potential of wisdom and compassion represented in the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment.

Radical dharma doesn’t assume that Buddhism has a monopoly on truth. Instead, it enables us to draw on diverse disciplines and fields of learning—both religious and secular, scientific and poetic—evaluating their relevance in terms of their capacity to liberate our potential for wisdom and compassion.

Radical dharma doesn’t assume that Buddhism has a monopoly on truth.

Our understanding of ‘radical ecology’ draws on intertwining strands in the ecology movement. From Deep Ecology we acknowledge the importance of cultivating an “ecological consciousness.” Through deep ecological and nature connection practices, we can learn to recognzse ourselves as part of the web of life and free ourselves from anthropocentric conceit. But such practices can stall in romanticism and narcissism, unless complemented by an understanding of the social relations of inequality and domination, such as class, gender and race. So, along with Social Ecologists and Ecofeminists, we apply a robust critique of social structures and the ways they intersect with exploitative relationships between humanity and nature. Consequently, we believe it is crucial to channel an ecological sensibility into concrete social and political action. And, along with many others, we see in ecological thinking the basis of a paradigm shift, the seeds of new ways of understanding the world in terms of relationships and systems.

The greatest gifts Buddhism offers are tried and tested methods for realizing the creative potential of consciousness. Through psychological integration, emotional literacy, and experience of the depth and richness of mind, we can discover resources and insights of immeasurable value. Much of our work at Ecodharma applies these dharma-based methodologies to support individuals to realize that potential. But a radical ecological approach, a truly holistic approach, also attends to the complex interplay of the psychological and personal with the cultural, socio-economic, and political dimensions of life.

…deep ecological and nature connection practices…can stall in romanticism and narcissism, unless complemented by an understanding of the social relations of inequality and domination, such as class, gender and race.

It’s a mistake to think of the development of consciousness as a personal matter. The cognitive complexity we enjoy is both an evolutionary and a cultural accomplishment. As the British thinker, John Gray says:

Human individuals are not natural data, such as pebbles or apples, but are artefacts of social life, cultural and historical achievements: they are, in short, exfoliations of the common life itself.[i]

With this perspective, it becomes conceited to think in terms of personal development alone. The well-being of society, the eco-sphere, and ourselves are interlinked. The interplay of radical ecology and dharma points to both a profound cognitive shift and significant social reconfiguration. Ecodharma points to the inseparability of transforming both self and the world.

Myles Horton[ii] founded the Highlander Education Centre, which played a key training role in the Labour and Civil Rights Movements. In a conversation with the radical educator Paulo Freire, Horton related observations he made during a time at Highlander when focus was placed on self-development, at the expense of the social and organizational development. Horton describes the time as a period “where people thought that consciousness was limited to their own conscious, something inside themselves. I guess some people thought it would start there and spread to society, but most of it kind of dead-ended there, as far as I could find out.” He says, “if it starts [on the inside] it stays there.”

…we believe it is crucial to channel an ecological sensibility into concrete social and political action. And, along with many others, we see in ecological thinking the basis of a paradigm shift, the seeds of new ways of understanding the world in terms of relationships and systems.

Getting stuck on the inside is a developmental dead-end which has become a serious risk for people adopting Buddhist practices today. Decades of neoliberal dogma have contributed to social atomization and increased individualism in many places. This neoliberal legacy compounds individualistic and uncritical application of Buddhist practice that emphasizes inner work and the transformation of personal consciousness. Such an approach can become a vicious cycle, entrenching an alienated sense of self and failing to honor our embeddedness in the social and ecological. In turn, an individualized approach to the dharma reproduces the socially dysfunctional and ecologically damaging tendencies of our times.

It was the genius of Mahayana Buddhism to eschew any sense of merely personal salvation. The Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva places uncompromising solidarity with all of life at the heart of spiritual practice – grounding it in action to support the flourishing and liberation of all. It’s a beautiful ideal that integrates compassionate identification with all beings with the wisdom that we are not ultimately separate from them.

Inspired by this vision, Ecodharma offers tools for radical personal transformation, rooted in an altruistic motivation that seeks concrete expression through social engagement. From this we’ve derived an approach to training that integrates the personal transformation with the ecological and political. The approach takes the form of three strands of training.

Firstly, nature connection and ecological learning which supports the emergence of ecological consciousness. These courses apply wilderness immersion and learning from natural living systems.

The Mahayana ideal of the Bodhisattva places uncompromising solidarity with all of life at the heart of spiritual practice – grounding it in action to support the flourishing and liberation of all.

Secondly, our Engaged Buddhist Trainings apply an explicitly Buddhist approach, to empower people and groups to effectively respond to the social and ecological challenges of our times. We support people to draw on the nourishment that meditation can offer—resourcing emotional resilience. The clarity, cognitive vitality, and insights from such practices help people to keep their analysis and strategizing fresh and creative. And ethical training provides a crucial basis for effective and sustained collaboration.

The third strand draws on the learning we’ve gained from our Engaged Buddhist Training, but reframes it in secular language to support a wide range of activist work. It is this third strand that forms the basis of the Ulex Project, our latest initiative.

We took the name from the Latin for the plant known in English as gorse. Ulex is a thorny-evergreen flowering plant, well known from the northern coast of Scotland to the edges of the Mediterranean Sea. It grows well under challenging conditions and is an excellent successionary plant—a species that contributes to the healing of land that has been damaged, preparing the way for returning health and biodiversity.

We see the work of the Ulex Project as analogous to this. Through trainings for activists, change makers, and organizations, we seek to enrich the conditions that enable social movements to thrive. We’ve carried over the ecological and holistic approach from Ecodharma to develop trainings that help build capacity for social justice and ecological integrity at the level of the individual, the group, and society.

Buddhism today takes many forms. Ecodharma is one attempt to stay true to the radically transformative potential the dharma offers. And whilst aspects of it may not look like Buddhism, we think it is more radically dharmic for that. Our work supports people to understand themselves as inter-connected—and it offers the skills needed to express that understanding through action in solidarity with life.

[i] John Gray, Gray’s Anatomy p325

[ii] We Make the Road by Walking, Conversations on Education and Social Change, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, 1990.


Guyapati

Guhyapati is the founder of the ecodharma centre in the Catalan Pyrenees, which combines a retreat and education centre with post-capitalist community living. Thirty years of Dharma practice and social activism, together with an astute sense of group dynamics, inform his facilitation of participatory and holistic learning. He was ordained in the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1994. In recent years he has given much of his time to the development of trainings focused on engaged Buddhism and sustainable activism. His love of the mountains finds expression in guiding wilderness immersion retreats and teaching radical ecology.

When the Tree Stops Bearing Fruit

In this article, Gil Fronsdal brings us back to the basics, describing why the practice of Buddhism leads directly to care for the planet and all beings, since “greed, hate, or delusion underlie all large scale human destruction of the environment.” Our individual dharma practice, compassion for the earth, and engagement on climate issues all inspire and inform one another, leading us onward.

Photo by Aimee Ray

Caring for the Earth as Buddhist Practice

By Gil Fronsdal

Buddhism teaches that personal practice and safeguarding our environment are closely connected. This is because both of these endeavors ask us to overcome the forces of greed, hate, and delusion. The intimate relationship between the world and ourselves means that when we properly care for ourselves we will care for the world, and when we do what’s best for the world, we benefit ourselves.

After his awakening, which took place as he sat outdoors underneath a tree, the Buddha continued to live and meditate in forests throughout his life. He explained that he did this for his own benefit and out of compassion for future generations. Because nature is a tremendous support for the path of liberation, the Buddha instructed his followers to meditate in nature.

Practicing mindfulness outdoors in nature cultivates a greater appreciation of the natural world. Building on this appreciation, a healthy respect for nature can come from understanding how dependent our lives are on the natural environment and how easily human activity can damage this support system. When the Buddha was alive, human impact on the natural world was evident mainly on a small, local scale. Today, the evidence of this interconnectedness is global—for instance, the greenhouse gases released through human activity in some parts of the world affect climates across the planet.

There’s an ancient Buddhist tale that tells of a mythic tree whose vast canopy provides shade and whose abundant fruit can be harvested freely by anyone. But when a greedy person stuffs himself with fruit and then breaks off one of the branches, the tree stops bearing fruit.

As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant.

Another early Buddhist myth depicts an ideal world of abundance and ease that progressively falls into decay in response to the deteriorating ethics of the people who live there. The decline begins as people become greedy and continues with the gradual appearance of arrogance, lust, laziness, theft, lying, and violence.

These ancient myths no longer feel fanciful—they quite accurately represent our modern world. Rainforests have been clear-cut and the land can no longer support people living there. In some parts of the world the soil and water have become polluted with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, sickening nearby residents. The air in metropolitan areas is filled with smog, and children who breathe this pollution have higher rates of asthma and autism.

If we look closely, we can see that greed, hate, or delusion underlies all large scale human destruction of the environment. Greed drives exploitation of our natural resources, hate destroys vast lands through the ravages of war, and delusion perpetuates environmental harm when we don’t understand the impact our actions have on the natural world.

Of these forces, delusion (and its partner, indifference) is perhaps the most widespread and thus the most destructive. Even those of us with the best intentions can be blind to the effects our actions have, especially when the repercussions are out of sight, removed in space or time. For instance, large dams built in order to improve people’s lives have destroyed the watershed that sustained the very communities they were meant to serve. Cutting trees in the Himalayas in order to care for one’s family can have disastrous consequences when hundreds of thousands of people do the same thing. When farmers in Sumatra set fires to clear land, they neither know nor care much about the record air pollution that falls on Singapore as a result. One person thinks that his or her driving contributes a negligible amount of pollution, without considering what happens when that contribution is combined with the millions of cars driving in the same region. In the California Bay Area, for example, the smog from its 5 million cars kills trees in the Sierra Mountains, far out of sight of Bay Area residents.

Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.

Buddhism emphasizes the impact our individual actions have on our lives and the world around us, and it follows from this perspective that caring for the natural world begins with each of us. As practitioners on this path, it doesn’t make sense to ignore what we can personally do by relying on others to take responsibility for our environment. Instead we view our own actions as significant. Because of the staggering number of people now living on the earth—7 billion—the combined actions of many can either preserve vast ecosystems, or destroy them. If we fall into passive acquiescence in the face of environmental destruction, we give up our individual “response–ability”—our ability to respond.

Many of us can make the choice to consume fewer natural resources and to act out of compassion for the earth. Doing so doesn’t have to diminish the quality of our lives; it can increase it. We can choose to see reducing our carbon footprint not as an act of deprivation, but as an opportunity to gain the spiritual benefits of a simpler lifestyle. If the natural world is to be our teacher, as Buddhism suggests, maybe we can learn more by walking in a forest or a local park than by speeding by on the highway; perhaps we’re closer to the heart’s freedom when we sit undistracted in nature than when we’re plugged into our various electronic devices.

In each of our lives we’re presented with myriad opportunities to make small and large changes to reduce the negative impact we have on the natural world. When we make these changes as part of a spiritual practice, they support our spiritual growth. Contributing to the well-being of all of life can give joy and provide deeper meaning to our actions.

Still, as individuals we can’t make sweeping changes all by ourselves. Political action is needed to ensure that we all work together for sustainable usage of our natural resources. It takes public policies and laws to ensure that we all share in creating mass transit systems, reducing pollution, and protecting open spaces. History has shown that governmental action is needed as a safeguard against the nearsighted systems within which commercial and industrial interests often operate. Only governments have the ability to negotiate environmental agreements across many states and between nations.

… Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.

So where does that leave us as Buddhist practitioners? When Buddhist practice is applied to our political efforts, generosity can be our motivation, goodwill and compassion our guide, and learning can replace our quick judgments. Guided by these wholesome qualities, political action can be passionate, energetic, and effective. Some people mistakenly believe that Buddhism, with its emphasis on equanimity, is incompatible with political action. But Buddhism doesn’t discourage political engagement. What it does discourage is divisive, hostile, and exclusively self-serving efforts at making political change.

There’s no doubt that human activity now challenges the health of our natural world more than at any other time in history. Unfortunately the damage to our environment has been increasing every year. If we are to reverse this trend, all but the poorest of us need to make changes in our lifestyle and patterns of consumption. Buddhism provides a way to embrace these changes as part of a path to freedom, peace, and compassion. Our ability to respond to these challenges is also our ability for spiritual growth. We can improve the quality of our environment while we deepen the capacity of our hearts.

Caring for the Earth as Buddhist Practice was originally published at Insightmeditationcenter.org


 

Gil Fronsdal is the founder and co-teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California; he has been teaching since 1990. He has practiced Zen and Vipassana in the U.S. and Asia since 1975. He was a Theravada monk in Burma in 1985, and in 1989 began training with Jack Kornfield to be a Vipassana teacher. Gil teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where he is part of its Teachers Council. He also serves on the SF Zen Center Elders’ Council. He is the author of The Issue at Hand, essays on mindfulness practice; A Monastery Within; a book on the five hindrances called Unhindered; and the translator of The Dhammapada, published by Shambhala Publications.

Climate Change is Making us Crazy: Interview with Norman Fischer

In writing about the basic principles of ecopsychology (a term he coined in 1992), scholar Theodore Rozak points out that traditional psychology and psychotherapy have examined “every form of dysfunctional family and social relations, but ‘dysfunctional environmental relations’ does not exist even as a concept.” Rozak is one of the founders of the discipline that recognizes that there is a “…synergistic relation between personal health and well-being and the health and well-being of our home, the Earth.”[ii] From his point of view, depletion of the rain forest, climate change and ecological crises arising from human activity represent a form of collective insanity, a social pathology. While the word “crazy” is overused and ofttimes without sensitivity to ableism, we might make the case for a kind of disconnection from reality indicated by our collective self and world-destructive behaviors. In this interview, originally published in the National Observer, Zen teacher and former Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center, Norman Fischer examines what Buddhist principles and practices, including a “big sky” practice, can offer when we are affected by the unfolding craziness of climate change.

Photo by Martin Duggan

To get things started, what does a Zen teacher have to offer on the subject of global warming?

“Well, probably not much, but it does occur to me that climate change isn’t really a technical or scientific problem. The technical, scientific part of the problem is already understood: we know how to improve things if only we had the will to do it. It’s a problem of human beings thinking and behaving in a way that’s guaranteed to compound our problems.

“We’re all freaked out about our collective future. The feeling many of us now have, that we don’t necessarily have a bright future, is new. For the last few hundred years we took it for granted that things would always be improving over the generations. It became part of who we are, what we expect of ourselves. Before that though, human beings thought they were in kind of a steady state; that each generation would be more or less the same as the last.

“But somewhere along the line people got the idea that life could be, and would be better. And now we’ve lost that idea and I think it’s probably making us crazy. Especially with climate change being the reason and all these unknowns that we can’t predict. It’s scary: we really don’t know what’s going to happen (not that we ever did) and we seem pretty sure whatever it is will be bad. It’s frightening, almost like a child’s nightmare. Spooky stuff in the dark.”

You know people who are in deep despair over global warming?

“Therapists’ offices around the world are full of people who are traumatized by reading the newspaper. Bad social problems and climate change seem almost to be the same thing. People feel scared and powerless. It’s beyond having identifiable bad guys we can get rid of.

“But as I said, we actually don’t know what is going to happen. If we are in despair it is because we are assuming a lot of stuff that may or may not be the case. We think we are smart enough to know what’s going to happen in the future. No one knows what happens in the future.”

But climate scientists are telling us that really bad things are going to happen.

“Big changes are coming, yes. But we can’t know exactly what they are or what life will feel like when they come.

“There’s a Zen saying: knowing is an exaggeration and not-knowing is stupidity. So yes, we know something but we don’t really know the most important things. And there’s a more profound kind of not-knowing: knowing that everything I know is subject to revision. Maybe what I know today will prove to be wrong tomorrow. Maybe something totally unexpected will happen. Whatever I know is provisional and limited.

….of course we work for positive change — we have to have hope. Hope is wisdom. The wisdom to realize that the next moment is always unknown.

“To practice not-knowing in this way doesn’t deny our very real problems. At this moment, it seems pretty clear that we need to change our fossil fuel energy system to a clean energy system. It seems pretty clear that our economic system as is can’t work for the future. And all this it’s a huge project, no two ways about that.”

So, we avoid despair by acknowledging what you call ‘not-knowing’ about the future. But it’s not fatalism either? We still work for positive change and hold out hope for the future?

“Not fatalism! And of course we work for positive change — we have to have hope. Hope is wisdom. The wisdom to realize that the next moment is always unknown. Bad things can happen but good things can happen. I don’t know. I can’t know. Life is not subject to my limited knowing. It isn’t subject to my specifications for the future, but the future always comes.

“There’s always a next moment, an unknown moment. And that moment is inherently hopeful. Hope is built into time. If you don’t know that then, yes, you could feel despair. People can actually die of despair — die of “a broken heart,” as we used to say a few generations ago. It happens. Some hope is necessary.”

Do you find these ideas about hope and ‘not-knowing’ actually help people who come to you in a state of despair about climate change?

“Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. He was becoming increasingly upset about climate denial. It became a real mental health problem. His situation got worse and worse until during one conversation something just popped into my mind: ‘this is not about climate change.’ Everything he was saying was true, but I was suddenly certain his feelings were not actually about climate change, though he believed they were.

“So I told him that and he got really angry. He thought I was acting like another climate denier. At that time (during the George W. Bush administration) there were lots of climate deniers, which was one thing that was driving him crazy. So, he got mad at me. But eventually he came back and said, ‘You’re right. This is about me aging and what I’m going to lose. I care about climate change a lot, but the pain of what I’m feeling isn’t about climate change.’ To this day, he cares about climate change and he’s active about climate change, but he’s no longer in despair.

“I’m convinced this is true for a lot of us. The facts about climate change are true and they are serious and devastating. A certain amount of dismay makes sense. But when we have dark and despairing feelings, it’s about ourselves. It’s about mortality. It’s about our own lack of control over the world we live in. It’s our disappointment, our guilt.

In political discourse….there’s really no place for hatred or the demonizing of enemies. There’s plenty of room for disagreement with the understanding that we all share the same heart and the same legacy.

“Somehow, we justify our feelings and fail to take responsibility for them by pawning them off on climate change. If I’m freaked out, I ought to take that on as my own problem. Otherwise we go down the road of increased despair and hysteria, and then we won’t be able to take positive action.”

What would it mean to ‘take responsibility’ for our feelings about climate change?

“I think you need a religious — or anyway — some kind of larger, wider, perspective. When you have a religious perspective, you develop the capacity to fully take in suffering, to minister to it and see beyond it. You see a bigger picture. It’s related to what I was saying about hope: you see the hopefulness inherent in life, regardless of what happens.

“The religious perspective sees that this world is much bigger than it appears to be. What happens is more than it seems to be. And that “more” is not entirely knowable to human beings. I’m not saying that everybody has to belong to a religion or have spirituality, but I’m saying that everybody has to engage in imaginative practices of some sort for the purposes of cultivating what’s needed to get through these times. Facts and direct actions are crucial of course, but they are not enough.”

Can you make this more concrete? What’s your own spiritual practice?

“The centerpiece of Zen practice is Zazen — just sitting down in the middle of this present moment. In Zen we say that to sit in meditation is not meditation, it’s sitting in the present moment of being alive and discovering what that is.

“So we sit down in this unknowable and ineffable present moment. When we do that we are going to question all our assumptions. From the point of view of our ordinary assumptions, nothing could be more useless than sitting down and doing nothing. The whole idea of Zen sitting is already exploding every assumption about what we are, what time is, what imagination is, what’s worthwhile about life.

“Zen practice is wonderfully immediate. It requires no faith, no ideology. It’s possible that all forms of spirituality and all forms of art come down to this: a human being in the present moment, confronting reality without an agenda or an idea.”

How about advice for someone not ready to take on a serious Zen practice?

“Try the practice of ‘sky gazing.’ Try an experiment for a week, either on a schedule or randomly interrupting yourself. Go outside and look at the sky. Literally just look at the sky and see what you feel in your body and what thoughts come into your mind and how your eye focuses on what it’s looking at in the sky. And practice that for five minutes once or twice a day. Do it for a week and see what happens. That would be pretty easy to do.

….everybody has to engage in imaginative practices of some sort for the purposes of cultivating what’s needed to get through these times. Facts and direct actions are crucial of course, but they are not enough.

“Or maybe just breathe — take three conscious breaths as many times a day as you can remember to do it. And notice your thoughts, you feelings, your state of mind at that moment. See how that changes your point of view.

“These are simple examples of contemplative practices — something you do on your own to bring yourself back to yourself. It’s also important that people are willing to share their lives and be in dialogue with one another. It’s a great thing when people talk about their inner lives with some depth and some trust in one another. I think this too is a big part of what we need.”

And how does this carry into working on issues like climate change out in the world?

“Spirituality is politics. That’s what religion is: caring beyond oneself; recognizing that one’s self is beyond one’s self, and that love and concern for one’s self beyond one’s self is an absolute necessity. I actually think that the weakness of left politics is that it’s only grounded in facts and ideas, not in the heart and the soul. This makes it less convincing to many people.

“If you have a spirituality that is grounded in concern and love for others you realize that politics is important. Politics is people interacting with one another over how we live together. We need this! We need to express ourselves to one another. All politics is supposed to be an expression of what we most deeply cherish.

“In political discourse, you are making a case and you’re not hating anybody. There’s really no place for hatred or the demonizing of enemies. There’s plenty of room for disagreement with the understanding that we all share the same heart and the same legacy. If you appear to me to be a selfish monster, that’s because my eye isn’t seeing deeply enough and your heart is not open enough to its own inmost desires.

“There’s nobody to hate and no reason to hate. How about that for a starting point for political activity?”


Reprinted with permission from The National Observer

Norman Fischer is a poet, author and former Abbott of the San Francisco Zen Center. He is a strong advocate for inter-religious dialogue and the founding teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation.


[i] “What is Ecopsychology,” posted at www.ecobuddhism.org

[ii] Definition from the website of the International Community for Ecopsychology.

Love Letter to New Activists

As each new protest march helps more people become engaged, it also garners not only backlash from those who favor the status quo, but reasonable and reasoned doubts from long time organizers in social justice, who know what the nitty-gritty of working for specific political goals looks like, and are skeptical about what can be achieved with any one event.

Almost a month out from the People’s Climate March, you may be asking yourself a string of questions, like “What did the march achieve? Are street protests a successful tactic? How do we define success anyway?”

People who study protest movements and creative non-violence  have some answers. To begin with, taking the long view on how to define success and when to look for greater positive response to mass protest may help. Some protest movements that are now held in high regard were not supported by the majority of the public at the time. For example,  the civil rights march on Washington garnered only a 16% favorable opinion of the planned protest in a national Gallup poll, and the Vietnam War protests only had a favorable rate of about 18% of those polled during the demonstrations.[i]

In an article in 2014 talking about the popular perception that the Asian protests of that year, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan were not successful because the protestors’ demands were not met, the author, Jolan Hsieh, argues that the long-term, residual effects of such protests lie in their ability to encourage a questioning mindset and to draw people in through participatory learning. Such movements, he suggests, lay the groundwork for re-envisioning and working collectively to develop pathways for social change.[ii]

In Rolling Stone, Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, quotes Tobita Chow of Chicago’s People’s Lobby saying that participating in a protest “… expands your sense of freedom about what you’re willing to do and what you’re capable of doing. It has a really liberating effect on people.”[iii]

Participatory learning matters, but while the effects of joining in civil disobedience may be incalculable, certain factors do help predict concrete success in affecting repressive regimes. Erica Chenoweth, Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and host of The Rational Insurgent, suggests that these factors include:

  • mass participation (of more than 5% of the population, some suggest)
  • diversity among the protestors
  • a mix of dramatic, higher-risk and lower-risk tactics (think: street marches vs. blue flu), and
  • avoidance of violence.[iv]

Sarah Vekasi, M. Div., well knows what it is to be on the ground organizing for social justice. As a member of the national network of trained facilitators of The Work That Reconnects, created by Joanna Macy, and a long-time engaged environmentalist, Vekasi addresses the importance of a mindful approach to  the path ahead that recalls  the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on walking meditation: The Long Road Turns to Joy.

Photo by Chris Ensey

Dearest new activists:

I love you and I see you. Welcome! We need you, and you do not need to have everything figured out. One step and then another. Please find that seed of outrage and grief and nourish it – this is your need for justice, your love of community, democracy, science, it is your heart yearning for equality and liberation for all, etc., and these seeds are so precious. It is important to let them get nourished with water and sunlight (compassion for self, measured reaction time, breaks, and most of all—willingness to grow).

As someone who has been engaging in community organizing and direct action for over twenty years, I want to let y’all in on a few secrets of how we keep it up. These are fiercely held secrets shared across movements, so listen closely: we have potlucks, music nights, shared story circles, art projects, long walks, sharing circles, and cultural work in all its glory. ❤

There is room for everyone in this time of great unraveling.

We also figure out what our passions are and focus more there. Some of us love spreadsheets and logistics, others love being on the front lines stopping destruction with our bodies, others love writing, others love speaking to the press, while others thrive cooking for large groups and chopping firewood. Some of us enjoy legislative action, others direct action, others building alternative structures and schools, others helping our hearts and minds shift…and we need it all. There is no superior way to engage in change. We waste precious time fighting over which strategy is the most important, or engaging in something we think we should be doing instead of the thing our heart yearns for. The key is to stay connected and work together.

New organizers—make sure there is time for music and getting to know one another at the postcard parties and phone banks. Creating friendship and building trust is what keeps us going. Soon doing resistance work and spending time with your favorite people will be the same thing! Imagine that!
Being a part of active resistance means so many things, including being more vigilant than ever about making time for art, exercise, healthy eating, taking on only so much, finding more friends to share the load, and taking care of your body—this in itself is a revolutionary act.

There is no superior way to engage in change.

Re-remember or learn to meditate, to pray, to make time EVERY DAY for spiritual practice. This can mean anything appropriate for you, but I mean engaging in some form of practice centered on that which is greater than yourself and transcends the mundane, (or sacralizes the mundane). This is another secret to renew yourself every day. Find your passion, explore your intention, engage in action, and acknowledge that the results might outlive all of us. Spiritual practice can help you find that bigness and help you find the courage that is needed for the long haul.

There is room for everyone in this time of great unraveling. Together we can turn the tide into a truly diverse, intersectional great turning. Thank you. I look forward to working with you, and watching this resistance grow and thrive.

Love,
Sarah


[i] Going Too Far: The American Public’s Attitudes toward Protest Movements[ii] The Unseen Effectiveness of Social Movements and Protests[iii] Why Anti-Trump Protests Matter[iv] Creative Nonviolence Can Defeat Repression