Responding to Ecological Crises – Part 1

Domains and Defining Characteristics of the EcoSattva Path

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Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

What does response to ecological crises look like? What forms might it take? Just as the path of the Dharma is nuanced, so too the path of engaged practice that we are cultivating here. While fundamentalist activism falls prey to reducing then blaming and shaming self or other, fundamentalist Dharma practice negates our concern for worldly phenomenon and instead suggests with should “sit with that.” Seen in this way, the Path of the EcoSattva is already a Middle Way. While there are no recipes on this nonlinear journey, there are foundations, progressions and characteristics we can identify and explore together as EcoSattvas in training.

What does response to ecological crises look like? What forms might it take? Just as the path of the Dharma is nuanced, so too the path of engaged practice that we are cultivating here. While fundamentalist activism falls prey to reducing then blaming and shaming self or other, fundamentalist Dharma practice negates our concern for worldly phenomenon and instead suggests with should “sit with that.” Seen in this way, the Path of the EcoSattva is already a Middle Way. While there are no recipes on this nonlinear journey, there are foundations, progressions and characteristics we can identify and explore together as EcoSattvas in training.

Rooted in BuddhaDharma

As a foundation, the EcoSattva in training is a Bodhisattva in training, committed to the development of a non-violent heart and mind.

We are developing not just mindfulness but the through the awakening factors and perfections pristine wisdom, a vast heart, and fierce courage. Though our hearts may be breaking for the world, we can cultivate joy in the simplest experiences, the precious miracle of being alive. We can come to know from direct experience the unfindability of a separate self and the entangled nature of lived experience. We explicitly invest in the development of noble heart qualities: unbiased kindness, active compassion, uncomplicated joy, and equanimity with all things.

This Dharma is endless and the Path pays dividends all along the way. As we develop, our speech and actions naturally change. We just know better. We understand where happiness can and cannot be found. Most importantly, we become less reactive, no longer helplessly controlled by external conditions that, if they go our way at all, do so only temporarily. Instead, our responses arise from compassion and are guided by our relationship with the virtues.

We might think of this as first domain as relationship with our selves, with our own internal experience. We are coming to know and lovingly guide our own mind. Activity in this domain is bhavana, formal cultivation of the heart and mind. We are investing our internal attention ways that have beneficial outcome. In this way and in this domain, the EcoSattva, the Bodhisattva, and the dedicated practitioner are no different.

In Response to a Calling

Beyond this first domain of relationship with mind, we come to the first outer domain: relationship with the calling, even the one who calls. For some this may be a relationship with Mother Earth, Nature, Truth, Beauty, the Dhamma itself, perhaps God or Goddess, or less specifically, Divine Spirit, Spirit of Life, or Divine Essence. What do we love that is timeless, so much larger than ourselves, unshakable and brings with it some kind of calling? However we conceive of this that calls us, we experience a sense of meaning, perhaps even devotion, and a helpful shift in our priorities.

Those of us raised in the hardened worldview of scientific-materialism can feel disoriented and even suspicious when invited to conceive of, say, our love of truth this way. For others it will feel quite easy; we might go so far as to “feel seen” by this other and to have conversations. Opening to and developing relationship to calling in an explicit way is rich terrain and may come to inform and infuse all other domains.

Because of the intensely personal nature of the calling, activity in this domain is wildly variable and yet characterized by deep listening. From formal ritual, movement, “being in nature” to simply sitting in silence and opening ourselves at a deep level, we invest here in whatever may build our sense of being connected to this vast other. We’re in in-between space, beyond the purely internal terrain of the first domain but not yet in relationship with a conventionally “real” other. Situated outside the purely material / conventional world, these connections can become invaluable sources of inspiration, meaning, energy, resilience, and stability. However, it is activity beyond these first two domains that distinguishes the Bodhisattva and the EcoSattva.

Serving the Ecological Other

In the Mahayana tradition, the Bodhisattva is one who forgoes a transition to nirvana and instead dedicates themselves to the liberation of all other beings. Characterized by selfless devotion to others, the archetypical image is that of Kuan Yin or Avalokiteshvara, a gender-fluid being who hears and skillfully responds to the cries of the world.

For the EcoSattva, ecological, other-than-human beings are the subjects of service. These may be members of specific species, all other species, entire ecosystems, lands, waters, or all in the living Earth community including those not-yet-born. Activity in this domain is investment in their well-being, protecting them from harm or assisting their ability to thrive. That includes big projects for the protection and restoration of ecosystems. It also includes small acts of loving service. Service to the living Earth community will have positive outcomes beyond the immediate recipients. They benefit not only the beings directly impacted but so too the ecosystem of which they are a part.

The sense of devotion is not to my family or other human community although people will certainly benefit from this service. But the primary focus is on those who do not have a voice in the world of markets, policies and culture. They may speak but they do not speak human either because they have not yet been born, are of another species or exist as lands or waters, a place, even the one wide Earth.

Seen another way, we are just returning or perhaps forwarding what has been given. The living Earth is always giving and we are the recipients. We exist enmeshed in and because of a mysterious, wildly creative expression, a constant pushing out and going forth, the original generosity. We can take of the Earth for there is no problem with taking. But the problem, indeed the existential crisis, comes when we only take. We can, should, and, if we want to survive, we must reciprocate in equal measure.

Forms of Service

Joanna Macy in the Work that Reconnects names three dimensions of service to the world: preventing harm, nourishing life-sustaining alternatives, and shifting consciousness. The Work encourages us to think at the collective level, countering the institutions that systematically harm and investing in those that systematically nourish ecological well-being. There are visible and obvious forms of service, like organizing protests against extractive industry, inventing authentically sustainable products, or scaling up environmental education programs. Effective action is hard won as it requires enormous persistence, effort, insight, and skill. The most important ingredient is cooperation so the ability to form and sustain good relationships among collaborators is foundational.

EcoSattva activity in any of these three dimensions can also be less obvious, quiet and without any sense of heroism. Creating a complete accounting of the emissions from an economic sector, say, just for instance, spiritual travel, that conforms to standards [1]The most widely used for companies and industry is the Greenhouse Gas Protocol might take years of diligent and difficult work with no promise of real impact. Yet in combination with efforts by those in media and advocacy, could lead to a dramatic shift in collective behavior.

The form or forms of service that you pursue will be the most durable, most resilient to inevitable setbacks, if they emerge from the depths of your heart. If your actions are in response to that which calls you, your work for the world will be disentangled from any specific outcome. But there’s another form of service, one that is overlooked and underestimated.

Skillful Conversation

Skillful conversations about ecological crises matter. They have the power to change the narrative and are the stuff of culture shift. Climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe argues that talking about the climate crisis, normalizing the confrontation with the massive changes underway, is our most powerful tool.

But why do most of us in dominant culture avoid the topic at every turn? Perhaps because we have found that our habitual approaches don’t work. Perhaps we’ve tried and end up alienating our conversation partner with some form of shaming, moralizing, or terrorizing. Or, if we go the “we can solve this route,” we find ourselves stuck in disingenuous happy-talk and somehow alienated from ourselves. While understandable in response to our underlying anxiety, none of these approaches seem to effective. All are, in fact, counter-productive [2]See the work of Rene Lertzman, either in this keynote from Climate-KIC, Innovation Experience Keynote, this talk from the Climate Mind-Institute or, for a longer read Environmental Melancholia: … Continue reading. So it’s really no mystery that we go quiet. Rather than alienate, we chose to avoid and hope for a better opportunity.

In a culture where we respond to ecological crises with problematic silence and problematic conversation, skillful conversation emerges as an underestimated form of service. Mastering this skill utterly depends on having a mature internal relationship to the issues, the foundation of EcoSattva activity. If we haven’t developed the capacity to come to terms with and transform our own fear, grief, and anger, we’re probably just talking to others in order to dissipate our own stress. When we have a understand our own vulnerability (surely with the the help of trusted friends), we can meet the other without projection, attachment, or any form of reactivity. We can instead bring sensitivity, a willingness to truly listen, and an ability to respond with insight and compassion.

Our conversations can then take an entirely different course, one that can lead to connection and discovery. [3]Brene Brown’s advice to leaders on sharing vulnerability may be helpful here Now we’re not just countering avoidance but we’re demonstrating the possibility of full acknowledgement of our collective challenges held with ease and compassion. We might even talk about our active service, sharing the struggles as well as the joys yet absent of any reactivity or judgment. Now we’re illustrating the possibility of empowered response.

Once we know the power of being deeply rooted in our own sense of calling, we’re less attached to how we’re received. We’re less likely to bully the other into joining our view. The priorities of our conversation partner, their own sense of calling, might lie elsewhere. If the conversation is truly open, we can explore the ways our pursuits are mutually enriching. This doesn’t mean we avoid conflict, but rather that we can investigate conflict without making any enemies.

With some sense for the breadth of depth, the wild responsiveness of falling our calling, we can explore the attributes characterizes of EcoSattva activity. That’s next in part two of this series.

References

References
1 The most widely used for companies and industry is the Greenhouse Gas Protocol
2 See the work of Rene Lertzman, either in this keynote from Climate-KIC, Innovation Experience Keynote, this talk from the Climate Mind-Institute or, for a longer read Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement
3 Brene Brown’s advice to leaders on sharing vulnerability may be helpful here
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