Last night I gave a talk in New York to a mostly Jewish audience who crammed into my friend Rachel Cowan's living room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Rachel is a prominent rabbi in New York who has partnered with me to organize numerous Inside Passages kayaking retreats in Alaska, designed for rabbis and other Jewish leaders. Quite a few alumni from these trips showed up last night, along with some faculty from Hebrew Union College, to have an unusual conversation. We came together to explore the interface between contemplative practice and climate change.
Which I began, interestingly enough,with a period of meditation - a chance to drop in, calm the mind, and metabolize the day's residue of hurry before launching into the more familiar ground of conversation. Even a few minutes of shared mindfulness practice can change the whole tenor of conversation in very enlivening ways.
After our meditation, I talked about the role of spiritual practice in anchoring our ability to respond to the emotionally crippling aspects of climate change. Barely a month has passed since Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City, and the emotional scars are still fresh here. There were numerous rabbis in the room, and many with active meditation practices, so it seemed prudent to engage in a fresh inquiry about the purpose of spiritual practice in light of Sandy? Is our practice primarily a self-improvement project, a mere tool to reduce our stress and return some sense of balance, while making no demands on us, as so often seems to be the cultural assumptions surrounding meditation practice? Or is there a deeper purpose that has to do with clear seeing, with the hard work of burning off the fog of our ego-driven perceptions? This latter purpose is not so easy, because the truth of our lives is rarely easy or straightforward. We need a strong community of practice to give us the courage and moral grounding required to practice for the benefit not just of ourselves, but of a world in need of deep healing.
As we move closer into the painful realities of climate disruption, how do we dislodge ourselves from the sidelines and into a more audacious personal confrontation with our destructive ways of life? And how do we do so without defaulting to guilt and emotional paralysis? Without a strong and courageous practice, how can we face the fear, grief and aversion that often arise in the face of unwelcome realities like climate change? Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has said, "The only thing we have to do to be sure that we will leave a ruined world for our children and grandchildren is to do exactly what we are doing now." Will we continue on this path of doing exactly what we are doing now? Or will we choose to make this a true "hinge moment" for our ourselves, and through the vehicle of our collective choices, for the larger culture?
With so much evidence that we have passed the tipping points of geo-physical climate disruption, I challenged the group to explore their own "inner tipping points". Will Hurricane Sandy prove to be an inner tipping point that moves us from mere concern to concerted action? If not, what would it take? What more needs to happen before we decide to take it personally? And what does taking it personally look like for each of us?
We continue to live as though we are the passive victims of a changing climate, rather than the clear perpetrators of these changes, who alone have the power to alter the trajectory of the crisis. The climate isn't changing. We are changing the climate. The denial and despair that we consistently use to avoid taking personal responsibility are the true drivers of climate destabilization. Kathleen Dean Moore, in her recent interview in Sun Magazine, lays this out in stark relief. She says, "People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity - a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what's right because it's right, not because you will gain from it. There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And ultimately, there s social change in that. . . The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit."
From this standpoint, it is our inner tipping points that matters most in the quest for authentic climate solutions. The geo-physical tipping points are now established beyond reasonable dispute, and we are racing past them. Until we've reached the inner tipping points that launch us into a new exploration of moral integrity, an exploration that results in broad-based changes in how we actually live, the climate will continue to implode, no matter what we say we believe. A walk through the financial district of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn's Rockaway District one month after Hurricane Sandy, makes it clear that the time for reaching these inner tipping points is preciously limited now.