My post on November 22nd spoke of my first act of civil disobedience, during which I experienced the greatest freedom from cognitive dissonance I have experienced since childhood.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we experience – mental, emotional, and even physical – when our various beliefs are inconsistent with one another, or when our behavior is inconsistent with our beliefs.
Sadly, the relief I found during my experience of nonviolent direct action quickly disappeared as I resumed my ordinary daily life. I was released from jail before dawn on a Friday, and by Monday I was fully immersed back in the surreal ethical conundrum that is modern life in an industrialized society. I drove my car to the gym. The gym inspires me to maintain my health but it costs a lot of money. Then I went grocery shopping, buying stuff that comes from god-knows-where, much of in encased in plastic. I busily tended to my own personal life, setting aside the great climate drama in which I had been so absorbed only a few days before.
I wasn’t surprised my lovely break from cognitive dissonance didn’t last. I’m a Buddhist. I’m devoted to perceiving and accepting the impermanence of all things. Still, it was sad to return so quickly and easily to living out of accord with my conscience.
A few days later, two beloved family friends came over for Thanksgiving dinner, as they do every year. We had a great dinner, cooked by my husband, and spent many hours conversing and simply spending time together. Later in the evening, each of us tried to come up with interesting Youtube videos to which we could expose one another.
The first hour or so of our social gathering, however, was spent with me and Michiel (a Dutch name, approximately pronounced mi-heel) vigorously arguing about how best to respond to the climate crisis. “Arguing” is not exactly the right word, however, because he and I agree on many things. We both agree this is an emergency. We both drive electric cars, have solar panels on our houses, try to avoid single-use plastics whenever possible, and keep ourselves informed about how live with less of a negative impact on our biosphere. I use the term “argue,” however, to convey the passionate tone of our conversation. Notably, our partners busied themselves in the kitchen rather than take part.
A cool thing happened in this conversation. It’s not that we came to any definitive conclusions about the best way to respond to the eco-crisis, but by talking we explored new territory. At least, I realized something new, although I can’t speak for Michiel.
Essentially, we talked about how impossible it was to live in this society without considerable cognitive dissonance. That is, unless we drop out completely and thereby forsake any influence we might have over the trajectory of our society, we pretty much have to continue participating in a system that sustains itself through injustice, greed, corruption, destruction, and obscene levels of consumption. Our verbal explorations kept coming to dead ends about how we could possibly change that situation.
At a certain point, a thought occurred to me. What if bodhisattva practice, in our strange, modern, pre-apocalyptic world, requires cultivating tolerance for cognitive dissonance? There are essentially two typical responses to resolving the discomfort of cognitive dissonance if it arises from a conflict between your beliefs and your behavior: You change your behavior, or you change your beliefs. When, as is usually the case, you don’t want to – or don’t feel like it’s an option to – change your behavior, you find a way to rationalize it.
I wonder if the truest fulfillment of my bodhisattva vows in the crazy-making situation of this world might be to stay engaged in it enough to make a difference – thereby causing cognitive dissonance – but then cultivate tolerance for the discomfort caused by that dissonance rather than rationalize my behavior. In other words, I will not practice denial mixed with selective case-making in order to make myself feel better. When I do that, I lose touch with the truth, and I fail to respond when the situation calls for it.
What a fascinating idea! Most of the time I feel guilty for not renouncing my entire practical and material life in a full and authentic response to my own conscience. What if there is – as we say in Buddhism – a “middle way” in all of this? Not getting caught in either extreme, whether it’s rationalizing a life lived largely for my own security and pleasure, or it’s leaving everything behind in a relentless search for purity. What if the most useful thing is to endure some cognitive dissonance while going about my bodhisattva activity?
I realize this may sound like the ultimate rationalization: “You’re never going to be able to appease your conscience while participating in this society, so just stop worrying about it! Enjoy yourself and give yourself a break!” But this isn’t the approach I want to take. Instead, I want to remain painfully cognizant of the harm I am perpetrating by participating in our modern, industrial, ultra-consumptive society. I don’t want to let myself off the hook for anything.
But maybe, just maybe, the most effective way to make a difference in this world is walk the middle way, accepting the continued presence of cognitive dissonance as a burden to be borne – letting go of the obsessive drive for the ultimate purity that will disperse it forever. But accepting the cognitive dissonance not for the sake of pursuing my own pleasure and satisfaction, but for the sake of operating in the world in a beneficial way.
Last week I was at a meditation retreat at a Zen monastery. For six days we kept complete silence – not even making eye contact with one another – and sat in meditation for about 7 hours a day. We followed a schedule from 4am until 10pm, trying to stay in the present moment as we ate, worked, and rested.
I turned my cell phone off for the duration, and didn’t read or write. Part of me worried about what kind of crazy shit might happen in the world while I was off-line, but I also knew this was the best possible thing I could be doing with my time in order to be strong, resourceful, skillful, and resilient in my usual work in the world. Because I want to be of benefit in the world, I dedicated a week of my life to reconnecting to the Ineffable, to what can’t be destroyed.
In Zen, we say there are two aspects of reality: Relative, and absolute. The relative aspect of reality is the one we’re usually aware of – where the world is made of up countless individuals with complicated relationships, where cause and effect operates, where there is right and wrong, helpful and harmful, beautiful and horrible, life and death. The absolute aspect of reality is always true but subtle and easily missed, where only right-here-and-now is real, where everything is a miraculous manifestation just exactly as it is.
In the relative sense, there’s our climate and ecological crisis, which every day I come to believe is much more real, dire, and immediate than any of us can comprehend. We’re up against huge odds in our efforts to make any kind of changes even to mitigate the destruction, let alone turn this process around.
In the absolute sense, things are just as they are. No one ever gave us a promise this world would work out. Viewed entirely free from any expectations, a crazy confluence of causes and conditions led to This, and here we are. No matter how it turns out, in an deep sense it’s miraculous and amazing any of this exists at all.
All of this may sound crazy, as if “the absolute” is just some cruel rationalization we construct to make ourselves feel better. If it sounds crazy, it’s because the absolute isn’t something we can grasp with our minds or convey using language. It’s something we experience. You catch a glimpse of the absolute when your spirits are raised by awesome music, or a big smile appears on your face because of the completely innocent and earnest actions of a child, or when you stand transfixed by the mist rising from a forest.
The absolute doesn’t conflict with the relative; both are true at exactly the same time, just like your finger is an independent entity and part of a hand at the same time. So our planet is burning and if we have any compassion at all our hearts will be breaking, and everything is precious just as it is.
I attend silent meditation retreats in order to allow the absolute aspect of life to come to the fore. Without denying anything, I enter a largely timeless zone where how I meet the next moment is a matter of life and death. Am I awake to this life? Am I present in my body? Am I actually paying attention to what’s going on around me? In the silence and stillness, boundaries and distinctions dissolve, and the universe is no different from my self. We – me and the universe – breathe and pulse and hope and endure. In the natural quest for truth, fears are uncovered and released, assumptions are recognized as being merely assumptions, and I have to admit I have no way of knowing what happens next.
Continually deepening my awareness of the absolute aspect of reality is what sustains me. Facing incomprehensible destruction and suffering, I ground myself in a larger perspective – one that includes our struggles and pain as part of an epic unfolding drama. It’s like I’m a protagonist in a novel or a movie, and when I only perceive the relative aspect of reality I’m caught up in the drama. When I’m able to include the absolute aspect of reality in my perception, I can appreciate the arc of the story, and how even the awful parts of it, in a sense, belong, and actually lead to the growth, triumph, or tragedy at the end.
I spent last night in jail because of an act of civil disobedience. After 10 hours spent occupying a very hot and stuffy office, 45 minutes with my arms tied behind my back with sharp plastic zip ties, and 5 hours spent stripped down to one layer of clothing (not including underwear) in a grim 10’x12′ concrete jail cell with 11 other women, I’d never felt better.
It was a little weird signing my property-release form next to the prompt “Inmate’s signature,” and a charge of criminal trespass shouldn’t be taken lightly with a maximum (unlikely) penalty of 30 days in jail, but nonetheless the mood of my 20 fellow activists and I when we were released at 5am, in the bitter cold, was nothing less than jubilant.
My good feelings about an act of conscience leading to arrest have nothing to do with pride. I’m only telling other people about it in the hopes that it will inspire them to take bolder action in their own way. My good feelings also have only a little to do with a sense of accomplishment; our specific demand was not met, and probably won’t be. We can hope we made some kind of positive difference, but it’s difficult to tell.
Instead, I think I felt (and feel) great because putting my body on the line for my convictions provided a profound relief from cognitive dissonance, a state of mental discomfort that arises when we experience “conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.” The theory is that we naturally want consistency among our beliefs, and between our beliefs and our behaviors. Acting contrary to what we believe or know to be true causes us mental, and sometimes even physical, distress.
I think I’ve experienced a pervasive sense of cognitive dissonance ever since I was a child, from the first time I realized there was unimaginable suffering going on in the world but I was essentially supposed to ignore it and just worry about myself. On the one hand I held a deep conviction that responding generously and compassionately to suffering was a moral obligation, but on the other hand I did nothing about it. Cognitive dissonance. Then, as a young adult, I realized my society and lifestyle were directly or indirectly connected to a whole lot of injustice and destruction, but there didn’t seem to be any viable alternative to business as usual – that is, if you wanted to be a part of society at all (and I did, if only to change it for the better). So I believed the whole system was wrong, but I continued to participate in it. Cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a sign that I’m living out of harmony with my deeper self – the self that knows I’m interdependent with everyone and everything. The self that knows a clear conscience is a greater joy than the sensual pleasures I can’t let go. When my actions conflict with my core values, my life starts to feel shallow and insincere. My joys are constrained by the need to keep part of my heart closed off to what’s going on. Engaging in my own internal doublespeak, I start to doubt anything is really true.
Bear with me for a moment while I give you some context for my civil disobedience: Yesterday, there was a protest rally in Salem, Oregon, at the state capitol, in opposition to a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline and export terminal in Southern Oregon. Oregonians have been fighting this project, called Jordan Cove, for almost 15 years. Pembina, the Canadian company behind the project, makes bold predictions about job creation and positive economic impact, and argues that natural gas is a clean and environmentally-friendly source of energy that’s the wave of the future.
In reality, after a brief construction boom, the Jordan Cove project would not provide all that many jobs and the company would get huge tax breaks. The pipeline and terminal would have many negative environmental impacts and be extremely dangerous for those living anywhere near them in the event of a forest fire, earthquake, or tsunami. By arguing their pursuit of profits by selling gas in Asia is in the “public interest,” Pembina would be granted eminent domain and allowed to clearcut a 95-ft-wide swath of land and lay an explosive pipeline across private lands, traditional tribal territories, and public forests, leading to bitter opposition from private landowners and indigenous tribes. Not to mention that the project would become one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the state (yes, natural gas burns cleanly, but the process of fracking it, transporting it, and liquefying it produces more greenhouse gasses than it’s worth).
When I heard there might be a nonviolent direct action happening in association with yesterday’s anti-Jordan Cove rally, I signed up right away. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for the opportunity to align my body with my beliefs like this. The chance to participate in civil disobedience doesn’t come often, because to do it in an effective and relatively safe way means you can’t do it alone.
I will write more about my experience later, but right now I’ll focus on the experience of being, for a time, freer of cognitive dissonance than I have been since I was a blissfully ignorant child:
After a perfectly decent rally which might otherwise have gone mostly unnoticed, we starting singing a simple, beautiful song together. “We have got the power, we have got the power, we have got the power, it’s in the hands of us all.” Hundreds of voices joining together and echoing in the most amazing way in the capitol rotunda. Our aspirations had space to ascend as if we were in a cathedral, and the all-embracing human music told us what we were singing was actually true. Click below to listen.
Fifty of us occupied Governor Brown’s office for over eight hours, refusing to leave until she publicly came out against the pipeline. She was away from the capitol most of the day, but did come to talk to us around 9pm. She refused our demand. The amazing thing was that for the whole time of the occupation, stuck together in a relatively small, stuffy room, none of us were bored for a moment. We sang, chanted, shared our stories, gave each other rousing speeches… our sense of solidarity and purpose created a community out of people of all different ages, from various places in the state, with different relationships to the issue: Affected landowners and community members from Southern Oregon, indigenous tribal members, and those of us concerned about climate change and ecological damage. This was the only place we wanted to be.
Twenty-one of us decided, around 9pm, to stay despite the formal warnings from state troopers that refusing to leave would mean being arrested for criminal trespass in the second degree. They really did try to convince us to go, and arrests didn’t begin until we all sat on the floor together, joined hands, and sang. Two troopers escorted me out, cuffed, through the dark, cavernous capitol rotunda about 11pm. The whole scene was strangely beautiful. They walked me slowly and carefully down the stairs so I wouldn’t trip, and as I walked I knew that plenty of people wouldn’t understand or agree with what I was doing. I knew all of this was a big pain in the ass for the troopers. But I was expressing my convictions with my body, and that felt powerful and right. In the quiet, spacious moment, there was no cognitive dissonance at all.
Okay, life isn’t always beautiful. And the ways it can be happy-making in the ordinary sense – good weather, yummy food, a comfortable home, supportive friends, rewarding experiences – aren’t what I’m talking about.
Instead, I’m talking about the way life is beautiful in an absolutely unconditional kind of way. The way you notice out of the corner of your eye – yellow leaves scattered across the green grass… a spider’s web wet with dew… a child’s broad and innocent smile… The kind of beauty that’s not only without fanfare, it’s absolutely silent. This most profound, pure, and unrestricted beauty can’t even be directly shared with other people, except in the intimacy of recognizing someone else has seen it, too.
Before my Zen practice, I was familiar with life’s unconditional beauty, but only as a momentary interlude between the ambiguous and unyielding hard, cold, facts. I believed life was beautiful, but I couldn’t make sense of how that could be so when it was also so incomprehensibly ugly and cruel. My conviction that life was worth it came and went – and when it came, it was often with a strange, poignant sense of sadness and loss because it had been missing for so long.
The greatest blessing of my life has been deepening my relationship to life’s unconditional beauty, which in Zen we call “suchness.” In any moment, in any situation, we have the option to let go of our mental map of the world and open ourselves to our experience. No mental map means no expectations, no shoulds, no assumptions. Just “things-as-it-is,” as Shunryu Suzuki would say. The luminousness of suchness isn’t a passing phenomenon, it’s the way things are when we face reality with complete humility mixed with love.
Therefore my heart is nourished by the birds coming to the feeder outside my office window. Yes, the world is on fire. Yes, bird numbers and species are declining. Yes, I am ready to make sacrifices in order to do all I can to bring about changes in the world. And the delicate little lesser goldfinches, obliviously to all awfulness, stake out good spots on the feeder and sit there munching busily. They cock their heads back and forth, ready to dart away in an instant, but waste no time as long as the coast is clear. Occasionally a Bewick’s wren bounds through the underbrush, bobbing its overlong tail at jaunty angles, and a big smile crosses my face.
This is what sustains me: Beauty that has absolutely nothing to do with denial. Beauty that’s unassailable and ever-present. Of course, birds and sunsets are easy to find beautiful, but even a manhole cover wet with rain can manifest it. Or a Burger King employee enjoying her lunchbreak, sitting rapt while watching videos on her tablet. Or the tangible disappointment at a campaign headquarters whose candidate has just lost. There’s no accounting for where and when suchness shines through, helping me face another day.
I’ve been on this journey of conscience for a while. Here’s a blog post from August 16, 2014:
Occasionally I cry myself to sleep. The last time I did, I just
couldn’t stop thinking about polar bears and elephants. I sobbed as silently as
I could in order not to wake my husband. My whole body clenched in grief and my
pillow became wet with tears as I contemplated a world without any polar bears
or elephants living in the wild.
The question, I feel, should not be about why I
was crying. Instead, it should be about why I don’t cry myself to
sleep every night. If not about the loss of wildlife, then about
widespread human starvation, or about lonely and marginalized homeless people
in my city, or about entrenched racism leading to the shooting death of another
unarmed black man.
Of course, I can’t cry myself to sleep every night without
compromising my own mental health. Descending into despair or depression
wouldn’t help anything.
And so I decide how to relate to the world based more on
pragmatism than on my conscience or the state of my heart. “You can’t let
it bother you too much,” I’ve been told. At other times people remind me,
“You can’t take care of everything, you just focus on doing what you
can.” There is wisdom in these approaches, certainly. I have to find ways
to cope with the cognitive dissonance created by going about my everyday
life while other beings are experiencing unimaginable suffering and
our levels of consumption are threatening the viability of life on our
But here’s the problem. I have to allow
myself to be bothered in order for my compassion and concern to be
aroused. And while I can’t take care of everything, I have to explore with
deadly seriousness whether I am really doing what I can. What
does that mean? Doing what fits into my budget and schedule but doesn’t make me
too uncomfortable? Devoting all of my spare time and resources to good causes,
sacrificing almost all leisure and pleasure? Adopting a radically
self-sufficient lifestyle, setting aside most of the other activities I do to
benefit the world, in order to grow and cook my own food and sew my own
clothes? (Do you have any idea how much time that takes?)
I love nothing more than to feel I am living in harmony with my
conscience. When I feel that way, my heart is calm even in the face of great
trouble and suffering. I am ready to respond and free from defensiveness. My
mind settles down because I stop trying to justify my actions or figure out
what I should do.
I want to live more in harmony with my conscience in a world that might very well be without wild polar bears and elephants in a matter of decades… [Clearly,] each person must make such a journey of conscience for themselves. When it comes to the details, we’ll all arrive at different answers. But when it comes to the essence – finding a way to live as compassionately and responsibly as we can – the journey is the same.
I just spent the night in Eugene, Oregon, with a dear friend and Dharma sister, Seido. We’ve been practicing Zen together for over 20 years. Way back in the day, I would travel to the Eugene Zendo with one of my teachers. After he gave the evening talk to the group, Seido and I would stay up until the the wee hours, passionately discussing the Dharma. What did it mean to be fully awake in this life? How did we bring about such awakening in ourselves?
Twenty years later, Seido and I are in the role of teachers. On this visit to Eugene, I gave a talk to the vibrant Sangha Seido started. Then, as we have so many times before, we stayed up late talking, curled up in chairs with mugs of tea balanced on our knees. One topic flowed naturally into the next, and periodically one or the other of us would sit up straight with excitement over a new insight, or a fresh idea cooked up in collaborative conversation. We didn’t quite make it to the wee hours, but then, we’re twenty years older than we were when our conversation started.
This time, one of our main topics was climate change and what to do about it. How can we help our Sangha members and students wake up to the urgency of the crisis? How can we lead our Sanghas out of denial, overwhelm, or despair, into a sustainable practice of facing reality, supporting one another, and taking action? We both agree action can take many different forms, but needs to consider systemic issues and collective karma as well as individual behavior.
Seido has lots of really cool ideas about how to engage Buddhist folks in a conversation about addressing climate change and the larger ecological crisis, but what was most compelling to me – to both of us, I think – was the underlying existential question posed by our current situation: Do Buddhists, like all people, need to address the climate crisis primarily for the sake of survival? Or is addressing the climate crisis an opportunity to challenge and strengthen our Zen practice, and, ultimately, to awaken?
In other words, is our responsibility as Dharma teachers to mobilize our Sanghas into action because everyone is needed in the fight, and we have a certain amount of influence with that group? Or is our responsibility as Dharma teachers to challenge our Sanghas to face the climate crisis because it’s nothing other than – as we Zennies put it – The Great Matter of Life and Death? I believe our climate and ecological crisis presents us with both a need and an opportunity, and our responsibility is both practical and spiritual.
This reminds me of an email exchange I participated in recently, with other Zen teachers, about responding to climate change. One teacher pointed out that it’s important to awaken to, and remind people about, what we call in Zen the “absolute” perspective. He said that although effective action was important, he hoped to “also point to the wholeness, infinite creativity and sacredness of life as it is.” I responded:
“Indeed, and this conviction is a precious thing we can offer not just to our Sangha members but also to activists, many of whom struggle with despair and burnout. We’ll definitely have important roles in the coming years helping people deal with overwhelm, fear, and grief. There is no greater medicine than the taste of suchness, which neither comes no goes, and cannot be destroyed.
“I just get uncomfortable when, as Zen teachers, we spend so much time emphasizing this aspect of reality, which people can, and often do, take as an excuse not to take action. Apathy, paralysis, disconnect, and acceptance of the status quo in the face of the climate crisis seem to me like a bigger problem than too much concern, especially in the white, middle-class, privileged folks that make up the bulk of our western convert Sanghas. I’m not a priest in order to relieve middle-class people of their sense of grief, guilt, and responsibility; I love my Sangha members and wish for them true happiness, but I question my Dharma teaching when they say they’re too busy to find their own, unique way to take action to bring about what they hope for in the world, but they still have time for overseas vacations.
“As Joanna Macy points out, it’s grief that calls us to action. I hope to find a way to help people turn toward their grief for the world and transform it. I haven’t found it yet, but I’ll keep trying, because it’s the bodhisattva vow that saves us from hinayana (self-interested) practice, and it’s not just a metaphor.”
I found the other teacher’s subsequent response deeply inspirational. To me, it offers an interesting take on the question I raised earlier about whether responding to the climate crisis is a practical or a spiritual matter. He said, “In my limited experience indifference has nothing to do with deep acceptance. When we are in accord with the way things are, what is revealed is fearless love; Kindness without boundaries. The basis of our functioning is no longer reactive anger and fear over an imagined future, but fearless engagement with the vital present.”
Well said, brother, well said! The climate crisis is pushing us right up against our materialism, and our tendency to see self-interest as separate from, and even in opposition to, the well-being of all life. It’s challenging us to find a way to work with others instead of simply vilifying them; it’s bringing us face to face with our fear of death, loss, and change. At the most profound level, it demands we reconnect with what matters most – because only that will sustain us.
One thing I didn’t anticipate when considering increased involvement in activism was the amount of support I’d need from my husband, my family, and my friends.
I’ve always been an independent-minded kind of person. I can’t abide anyone telling me what to do unless they’re paying me, or I’ve explicitly requested them to teach me something. I’ve probably been especially sensitive about this because women throughout history have been subject to the authority of their parents, husbands, and male relatives. I’d rather die than obey. Most of the time, then, if I think someone in my life might have an objection to what I’m about to do, I’m even less likely to ask their opinion about it.
When I decided to get more active about our climate and ecological emergency, then, I just did it. It didn’t occur to me to ask my husband about how he’d feel about me being away from home an extra evening every week, or participating in civil disobedience and risking jail time, court cases, and fines. I didn’t ask my family how they’d feel about me deciding to forgo airplane travel for good, even though it makes visiting them much more difficult because a trip across the country by train takes two full days. I didn’t ask my friends who babysit my dogs whether they’d mind taking care of them for the substantially extra time it would take me to travel by train. I didn’t ask the people at my Zen center whether they would mind if I devoted more time to climate activism, even though it might mean I’m less available to them.
Part of me thinks, “Of course I didn’t ask all these people for their permission to make decisions about my own life!” But just today I had a radical insight: Talking with the people in your life about whether to do something isn’t about permission, it’s about asking for their support.
Ha, only took me 48 years to figure that one out.
I used to think people clung to the status quo rather than trying to change things primarily because we’re lazy or selfish, or because the bad guys were controlling things so much. Now I appreciate how much our failure to act according to our consciences is due to something else entirely: Our concern for our social relationships. If we get too wrapped up in a cause, or live in ways too out-of-sync with the people around us, we’re probably going to get serious push-back from our loved ones. Our choices affect them. Time and energy we put toward making a difference in the world is likely to take away from the time and energy we spend with and on them. When we confront difficult issues like diet or racial justice, it’s likely to make the people in our lives feel some amount of pressure or judgment unless they do the same. Most of the time, when people spend time together, they just want to relax and be happy, not review the latest litany of horrible news about the climate.
It really can feel, at times, like we have to make a choice between following our consciences and maintaining our relationships. Fortunately, it’s rarely an either/or proposition for most of us, most of the time.
There’s a positive way to frame the tension between following our conscience and being in harmony with others: We can respectfully ask people to support us in our choices and actions, and in doing so, indirectly contribute to the cause. If you don’t care to be a climate activist yourself, can you help support one? Come pick me up from jail when I’m released on my own recognizance after a civil disobedience action. Donate money to the legal fund of people like the activists from Mosquito Fleet and Rising Tide who just did a dramatic action to stop the shipment of materials for building another giant pipeline. Still using airplanes? Have patience and sympathy for the people in your life trying to limit travel or use trains instead. Don’t want to be vegan? Be encouraging of someone you know forgoing the deliciousness of animal products, especially if they manage to avoid pontificating about it. Make sure there’s a vegan pizza at the party. If you listen to my Zen Studies Podcast and feel annoyed that I’m including posts from this journal about facing extinction, please be patient with me and just skip those episodes.
In other words, we need each other. I may not like to admit it, but I need my husband’s moral support or I’m likely to end up stressed, discouraged, depressed, and lonely. When I see he’s shared one of my posts on Facebook about an upcoming protest rally, even though he’s never going to go, it fills my heart with relief and joy. The efforts of my family and friends to at least try to understand my decisions and actions gives me great strength and encouragement. It was a huge relief to me that when I recently uploaded these journal entries to my Zen Studies Podcast – even though they’ll rarely have anything explicitly to do with Zen or Buddhism – and I wasn’t flooded with angry messages, or discouraged by a bunch of people unsubscribing from the podcast. Your opinions, attitude, speech and actions really matter to the people around you, whether they admit it or not. Thanks, everyone, for your support, in ways large and small.
Today my little Extinction Rebellion group met at the Beaverton Farmer’s Market to stage a very mellow “action.” Six of us wore sandwich board signs with tombstones, each one reading “RIP” something-or-other. We had RIP birds, RIP forests, RIP coasts, polar bears, bees, and the last sign read “RIP Humans?” We processed solemnly and slowly through the farmer’s market, which was pretty busy considering it’s already November. At the end of the procession, someone not wearing a tombstone greeted anyone who looked interested, and offered them a flyer about how to get involved in the fight against climate chaos.
You may think this sounds cool, or you may think it sounds inconsequential. Maybe you don’t have an opinion, but its seems most people do these days. The reality of it was poignantly mixed.
You had basically sympathetic people looking for locally produced or organic vegetables, fruits, and various other neat products. As one observer commented quietly, “You’re preaching to the converted.” But many of these folks, while generally supportive, still lack a sense of urgency about the climate crisis. At least we were demonstrating that some people really care, and we were inserting a reminder into an ordinary weekly activity.
The coolest thing about the action might be the reactions of children and parents. Children, naturally curious, ask their parents what this procession means. Adults say something like, “They’re reminding us about climate change. That’s why we always recycle, or turn off the lights.” For once, as I heard this explanation while processing along, I wasn’t frustrated by the idea that climate chaos could be averted by recycling. Kids have to start somewhere, and you don’t want to squelch their aspiration from the get-go. Although I was trying to be somber while wearing my tombstone, I couldn’t help but smile when I overheard a mother reply to her son, “No, volcanoes aren’t causing climate change, people are.” I couldn’t hear exactly what the boy’s further comment was, but he clearly argued with his mom, somehow convinced the problem really lay with volcanoes. I’m guessing there was some kind of superhero comic involved in his thinking.
But of course, how much good did we do today? Who knows? We only processed for about a half an hour, and most people were more interested in procuring artisan jams or fresh pastries than contemplating the climate crisis.
As we walked, my brain struggled to contain the dueling realities before me. On the one hand we were in the midst of a peaceful community celebrating the harvest. The produce was truly exquisite, laid out in artistic arrangements that would inspire the lamest cook to try to make dinner from scratch: Purple cauliflower, broccoli grown in the shape of a fractal, copious bunches of carrots with delicate roots still attached, squashes in an practically infinite variety of shapes and colors. Why would anyone think there was anything awry in this world?
At the same time, in my heart I hold the comments of a friend of mine who has been an organic farmer for 20 years. She shared recently, with the stoicism I imagine you need to have as a farmer, that her farm just had its worst season since it began. Apparently, small farmers plan their crops very carefully, depending a wide variety of crops to carry them through; if one crop doesn’t do so well in a given year, another one will. This is the standard and sacred practice. But it didn’t work this year.
I chose the sandwich board saying “RIP birds.” I’m a big fan of nature, but birds really get me. They’re like perfect jewels, living miracles. Especially the tiny ones, no heavier than a watch, but more elaborately decorated than a cathedral. At times a certain part of me wondered, “What are we doing? What difference does this make?” But then, hidden under the sandwich board, I put my hands over my heart and thought about the birds.
I have work to do and relationships to maintain, but not far below the surface is a deep well of grief.
Certain things tap into that well, and as a result, tears flow from my eyes. Stories of human kindness. Good writing that points toward the ineffable experience of being alive. Things that are noble and true. Occasionally a sentimental commercial.
Sometimes I hate how thin the layer is between my ordinary daily reality, and this vast, still reservoir of heartbreak. People who know me are familiar with my tendency to choke up when deeply touched by something – and it can happen at any time: While I’m giving a public talk, while I’m describing an article I read in the news to my husband, while I’m driving, while trying to present my competence in a job interview. I once interviewed for a position that might have changed the course of my life; I suspect I was a pretty great candidate, but they asked me a question in the interview that tapped into my reservoir of grief and I shed some tears. I didn’t lose my cool, and I thought they would give me some points for openness and authenticity. They didn’t. The main interviewer afterwards suggested I had some “grief work” to do.
Grief work? What does that even mean? That I process everything with a therapist until there’s a thicker layer between my everyday mode of operation and my grief? That’s ridiculous. I’m not incapacitated, or even struggling in my daily life. I just cry easily sometimes, and not because my feelings are hurt. Maybe “grief work” means draining the reservoir of heartbreak that’s accumulated, drop by drop, over a lifetime – a drop falling in every time the indescribable beauty of life is juxtaposed with an ugly, dead, cynical argument for why the status quo can’t be changed.
Today, while driving to visit a dear friend, I listened to an episode of the Extinction Rebellion podcast. It featured audio from an event that happened during the recent October actions in London: Writers rebel. Writers from all over the UK assembled and offered their own new works, or relevant older ones, or read the works of other authors, such as Ursula K. LeGuin. Several times I was moved to tears, and I don’t just mean moist eyes, or a single tear tickling the cheek as it slid down to my chin. I’m talking weeping, copious tears streaming down my face. A swelling in the chest. A determination to stand up for the beautiful things in this world or die trying.
Writers. Even having written three books, I don’t consider myself a writer because of them, because they were Idiot’s Guides. I don’t know if I count as a writer even though I produce 5-10 pages of material 3 times a month as part of my Zen Studies Podcast, because it’s all nonfiction, and specialized. But I do consider myself a writer because I don’t understand myself unless I write, and I can’t communicate what I really think or feel except by writing. I hope this humbling offering helps someone, somewhere, somehow.
I designated today, a Wednesday, as a “day off.” When you’re self-employed, like me, there’s never really a time you can put work down with complete mental ease. There’s always something you should be doing, and it’s only your self-discipline and hard work that will allow you to make a go of it. However, I’ve found it’s useful, when possible, to designate a day “off” – when I do all kinds of stuff, just not the stuff I do the rest of the time. And, ideally, “day off” stuff does not involve sitting at the computer.
This day off began with meditation and a leisurely breakfast. While eating my cereal I read the news. Sure, I read the news online, but somehow sitting at the dining room table and reading it on my phone is a special treat, as opposed to eating and reading in front of computer, which inevitably leads to more time at the computer. Today was warm and sunny – not the kind of weather we really ought to be having in Portland in November, but it instilled in me a hope that I might be able to spend some time out in the yard.
I never got out in the yard, however, because I spent the bulk of my day meeting with a local climate activist, Ken Ward. Ken’s a bit of celebrity in climate activist circles because he’s the subject of a short but very good documentary called “The Reluctant Radical.” The documentary follows, among other things, Ken’s attempt to shut down an oil pipeline as part of a coordinated action by the “Valve Turners” on October 11, 2016. Across the country – in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Washington – the Valve Turners broke into enclosures and shut down the valves on five different oil pipelines, more or less simultaneously. This stopped the flow of about 15% of US crude oil imports for the better part of a day. The action was symbolic, because they knew the pipelines would be turned back on almost immediately, so they didn’t try to hide their actions and expected arrest. In fact, so the action was safe, they phoned the respective energy companies ahead of time, informing them of where and when the shut-downs would happen. Part of the action’s strategy was to get into the courts and argue for the right to present a “necessity defense.” That allows a defendant to present their motivation, including the presentation of climate science and testimony from expert witnesses, and argue that their action was necessary in order to prevent greater harm. Ken won the right to use the necessity defense in Washington state, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be acquitted or avoid jail time. He’ll find out in February.
I had very briefly met Ken before, at a climate rally in downtown Portland, but I really didn’t know what to expect when meeting him again. I’d sent him a message online saying I was interested in maybe starting a chapter of Extinction Rebellion over here on the “Westside” – the western suburbs of Portland, and surrounding wine country – and I knew he also lived over on this side of town. I didn’t know whether he’d respond at all, but I was excited that he was, indeed, interested in what I was thinking about, and was happy to meet. Although I was excited to meet Ken, I didn’t know what to expect. I tried to emotionally prepare myself for an awkward conversation, a lack of rapport or connection, or a basic lack of interest in whatever I might be able to offer to his ongoing effort to find the most effective form of climate activism. After all, Ken’s in the big leagues. He’s spent his life in the field of environmental activism, most of it in paid positions. He took part in one of the highest-stakes climate actions ever. He’s the subject of an award-winning documentary that will soon be featured at a film festival in Ireland, where he’s going to be on hand to speak. I’m an idealistic Zen priest who has fantasies about civil disobedience but has never done anything more than carry clever banners at rallies.
I was sitting on a curb in the sunshine when Ken arrived, and as I stood up I knew this meeting would go much better than my consciously-lowered expectations. He smiled openly and seem enthused to be there. We grabbed a snack at the nearby fancy grocery store, took a seat in their bright and airy cafeteria, and proceeded to talk for almost three hours. By the end of our conversation I had to pee so badly it hurt, but I couldn’t bear to break it off… there was always one more thing to add…
It’s relatively rare for two people to meet who both have a conviction that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and who feel a deep sense of despair about that fact (as opposed to the strange, emotionally-disassociated resignation expressed by some people), along with a passionate sense of responsibility for doing something about it. Neither Ken nor I are newcomers to these feelings. We weren’t converted by the IPCC’s recent conclusion we have only until 2030 to radically alter business-as-usual, or else face a significant possibility of runaway global heating. We’ve felt like this all of our lives as we watched our society rape and pillage the Earth as if there would never be any consequences – at least, no serious consequences to the comfortable lives of those of us with wealth and privilege.
Those of us who walk around with this sense of existential angst and responsibility with respect to life on this planet are pretty damned lonely much of the time. Daily life is a careful dance between authenticity and learning to shift into an adaptive mode more in harmony with the people around us. Because we love those people, and we love our lives, and we love the sunlight filtering through the fall leaves, and we love art and laughter and pointless pastimes like reading mystery novels. If we spend too much time focusing on injustice, destruction, and impending doom, we succumb to depression, despair, anger, and bitterness. And we alienate our loved ones, who do their best to sympathize but just don’t see things the way we do.
Ironically, then, the increasing number of people in society convinced we’re in an ecological and climate emergency means some of us are less lonely that we used to be.