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.