What Does Zen Have to Do with Climate Action?

What Does Zen Have to Do with Climate Action?

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.

I Need You

I Need You

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.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Dueling Realities

Dueling Realities

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.

Just Below the Surface: Grief

Just Below the Surface: Grief

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.

Like-Minded Souls

Like-Minded Souls

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.



Photo Credit: Wired Magazine, Pipeline Vandals Are Reinventing Climate Activism