A Meditation on the Environment
Like many, my worry over the way we humans have and continue to trash the planet seems to grow worse with every headline. Yes, I realize that even writing this essay means I’m increasing my carbon footprint! I’m using my desktop computer and, if it warms up just a bit, I’ll turn on my ceiling fan. To say nothing of driving to the auto parts store, the grocery store and the chiropractor, all coming up this afternoon. It all adds up, I know. It’s a constant puzzle, trying to decide what to do and what I can stop doing or reduce using.
I live and practice at Sweetwater Zen Center, and in addition to zazen, we practice Council once a week — a group process of deep listening and speaking from the heart. A week or two ago, a man I admire greatly wondered this out loud:
There is suffering, we know that and the Buddha affirmed that suffering is real. He also pointed the way to end suffering by, in part, living in the present moment. What does living in the present moment then mean for wanting things to be different on the planet?
I want many things to be different than they are in this moment. I want to stop pollution, I want a solution to Fukishema and the plutonium buried at Rocky Flats. I’m rooting for solar roadways because their solution to paving and repaving our roads makes so much sense to me. I want my grandkids and great grandkids to see real live elephants, navy blue starfish, and wild King salmon — in the wild, not just at zoos. I want to save the bees mostly to save humanity and partly because their honey is so very good.
The list of changes I want to ‘save the planet’ and my fears around them seem endless. Of course, when I focus there, I’m far away from the present moment.
What’s a Buddhist to do?
Like many, I work to lead a reasonably sustainable life, at least by American standards. Because I write out of my home office, I don’t drive every day. When I shop for groceries I’ve trained myself to take the reusable bags — it took almost of year of practice, but I made it. I buy recycled ink for my printer and I compost and I sign petitions, contact my representatives, and donate when I can.
I struggle to really understand emptiness and to truly “grock” my interconnectedness with all beings.
And it doesn’t seem like enough.
So I sit. I think — a meditation of sorts.
I read to understand and learn the right, most helpful things to do in essays like the Dali Lama’s A Buddhist Concept of Nature, which toward the bottom says:
… in order to achieve more effective results and in order to succeed in the protection, conservation and preservation of the natural environment, first of all, I think, it is also important to bring about internal balance within human beings themselves.
Pema Chödrön makes a similar point in her book, When Things Fall Apart:
Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.
I take seriously what Thich Nhat Hahn said to a journalist, which I’m not, but close:
Without collective awakening the catastrophe will come. I think people in the mass media, journalists, film makers and others, you can contribute to the collective awakening if you are awake and then your life will embody that awakening.
The way you eat, the way you live your life, will embody the awakening and what you say and what you do will have the power to create the collective awakening or we will be destroyed.
Civilisations have been destroyed many times before and this civilisation is no different; it can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and after that life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us is very urgent but geological time is different.”
I sit and I write.
Grieving for the planet
Years ago, I got to attend a workshop with Joanna Macy. My major learning from her was it’s not only okay for me to grieve about the damage we’ve done and continue to do to our world, when I allow myself to experience that grief I release that energy of denial to take action that might help.
Recently, thanks to reading her book, Active Hope, I’ve begun to grieve again. I hadn’t recognized that in the face of all the destruction I’d stuffed those feelings once again, hidden them behind the false comfort of denial.
As a result I’ve become willing again to face my own grief and horror at what’s happening to our planet and the beings that call this place home. I’ve also began to speak about it, first at Council and then to friends.
That speaking up wasn’t easy at first. A horrible wave of rage overtook me briefly, but anger is becoming an old friend in many ways. After I’d made apologies, I sat some more with all of this, this time asking, as Macy suggests, the planet what I could do. My answer came through loud and clear — write! And so I am.
If you ask, your answer will be different, but it will come.
12 steps, no expectations
The 12 Steps are another major influence in my life. When I recently re-read Step 7 in AA’s 12 Steps and 12 Traditions I was reminded that living a life of unsatisfied demands leads to inner turmoil. Those demands, which morph for me into expectations, also move me right out of any and every present moment I might be lucky enough to experience.
I’m coming to realize that part of my very real angst about our global climate change problems is an unspoken demand that ‘they’ fix it. That ‘they’ might be my government, or some other government, or organization, or corporations or . . . who knows who or what.
When that fear and anger about environmental degradation surfaces, if I look deeply, it’s triggered by my demands that ‘people, places and things change!’ That does nothing but upset me; it has absolutely no effect on others.
I’ve also realized that there is real hubris that I think I know how things should change. I don’t. It’s easy enough to say I want a world that works for everyone. When, however, I try to imagine what that might be for a person of a different faith or a different country, I realize I do not know how it might look, let alone should look. My solutions are not the solutions for others. I suspect, if asked, and given an opportunity, they have their own solutions.
When I slow down, when I sit, I can see that many things actually are changing; I see that many people are working to lesson and repair the environmental damage. I know that many of those changes are helpful for the planet. It helps to be grateful for the progress I see.
When I grieve for the damage already done, I am somehow buoyed up and encouraged to take more action, action that is probably helpful and action that I can sustain.
I suspect the same thing will be true for you — in your own way, of course!
Have you looked at the grief you feel for the damage done to the planet? What actions have you been led to take?
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