Practicing for the Long Emergency

This reflection is offered to the Bay Area Dharma Seminar on Climate, led by Zen teacher Norman Fischer during Earth Month in April 2015. Norman invited me to share some thoughts on my personal climate change journey, and the role of my meditation practice in that journey, five years after the publication of my book The Circumference of Home.   ************************************


Here is the most amazing fact to me about our climate conundrum. It is not that the climate is changing. It is that we are changing the climate. We humans have made ourselves into a geologic force that is changing the basic underlying conditions of life on our planet. Who could have imagined? And what on earth are we to make of that?

Most of us now accept the climate science, and can see with our own eyes how quickly our climate emergency is escalating, how quickly its hospitable temperament is turning starkly against our human prospects. The biggest challenge isn't wrapping our minds around this fact. The biggest challenge is wrapping our emotional bodies around this fact. Or more to the point, unwrapping our emotional bodies from the traumatizing implications of this fact.

Our Buddhist practice teaches us, usually little by little and in great fits and starts, to free ourselves from fear and denial of death. We are all embedded in that denial. It is an attribute of our astonishing evolutionary success as a species. Denial has served us remarkably well in millennia past, keeping our focus on the near-at-hand, and metering out our emotional exposure to the harsh realities of life. As long as we can convince ourselves that we are okay personally, that our own death and the death of those near and dear to us lies at some unspecified future time, we feel safe, and we can go about our lives as if death applies only to others.

As dharma practitioners, we may acknowledge that our human life is embedded in transience and change. But we take comfort in the thought that our small, changing life is also held within an unchanging Nature. We have a psychological predisposition to look at nature as a great constant that anchors us in deep time, and that will carry our progeny on the ship of life far into the distant future. This thought has always been a great comfort to the human spirit when we are brought up against the reality of our own death.

Human-induced climate disruption is changing even that. We now have to make sense not only of our personal death, but of the unthinkable potential for the death of life as we know it, issued not by God but by our own hand. This new truth is very nearly unbearable to us. It has driven the wedge of denial deeper into our collective psyche. Almost nobody wants to talk about this, even those of us whose business it is to face such truths head on. The solution to this conundrum for a large block of American culture is to kill the messenger - to slay the science, and to assassinate the character of the scientists who are trying to bring this truth home to us.

Many deny the reality of climate change outright. Most of the rest of us deny it only in practice, continuing to live as if we did not know this to be true. Our deep psychological resistance and denial is a much bigger problem than the simple fact that we are filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. We cannot change as long as we are stuck in denial. And we cannot face our denial as long as we are lost in the psychological forest of fear.

Isn't this the essence of our Buddhist practice? - learning to open to the miracle of our aliveness, moment-by-moment, by courageously and persistently facing the fear that keeps us trapped in denial? Isn't it the unmasking of that fear that brings us back into the fountain of aliveness that was there all along, and that is not contingent upon things going our way? And doesn't compassion naturally spring from that same immense fountain, once we have learned to tap into it? - compassion for the great suffering we all experience when we are lost in the ignorance of denial and fear.

So here is a little story that may shed some light on this path beyond fear, even when the odds feel overwhelming, as they often do now. All of us can say where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in the fifth day of a seven-day silent Zen retreat, or sesshin, with my teacher Shodo Harada Roshi at Tahoma Zen Monastery, on Whidbey Island near Seattle. We had been up since 4:00 AM, and were well into of our morning practice period when news reached us in the zendo. Our country was under attack. Jets had flown into the Twin Towers in New York. Thousands were dead. Nothing more was yet known.

Fifty of us were packed into the zendo, from several different countries. Some were from New York City. All of us were given the chance to make phone calls home. Anyone who felt they had to leave the retreat was invited to leave. Not one person left. Our rigorous schedule of zazen continued as before.

Over the final two days of the sesshin, Harada spoke in his dharma talks about how the world we would enter at the end of our retreat was a different world than what we had stepped out of a few days earlier. The deep insecurity of our human life had been made manifest in a traumatizing new way. When we left the retreat, Harada said, we would be entering a world of highly traumatized people. There was nothing we could possibly be doing that was a more valuable preparation for this fact than what we were doing right now on our cushions. What the world would need more than anything else in the weeks and months ahead was people who could stand firmly in compassion, in the midst of this trauma, without themselves being traumatized. And there was no other way to establish that capacity within ourselves than to practice, and to practice with renewed vigor and motivation. We were not meditating primarily for ourselves. We were practicing to be present to the pain and suffering of others. And we would not lack opportunity to provide such presence. There was no greater gift we could offer.

So while the rest of the world watched endless video clipsof jets flying into the Twin Towers, heaping trauma upon trauma, we sat zazen. It did not lessen our own pain and confusion, but it built a foundation of calm abiding that changed how we were relating to that pain, and enlarged our commitment to stay present to this pain as we prepared to meet the profound distress of others. That beautiful teaching by Harada has remained a template and a touch stone for me as I walk deeper into the human trauma now being unleashed by climate disruption.

This trauma is not as graphic or locked in a particular moment in time as the September 11th attacks. It is a much longer emergency, bringing much more profound threats to our way of life over time. As a result it is much easier to deny. It is a much harder reality to engage psychologically, let alone politically. We are already suffering from intense disaster fatigue. We are in uncharted emotional territory.

Which brings home again the primacy of our practice. We have only moments to live. And nothing can cut us off from the resilient aliveness of our moments except our choice to lose ourselves, again and again, in the temporary solace of mindless distraction, or the false security of an unexamined denial. These are things we can work on. Denial and distraction cannot survive for long in the light of a sincere practice.

But neither can we find the courage to face this level of insecurity by ourselves. We need more than our own personal practice now. More than ever we need the solace and strength of practicing community – of sangha. We are finding our way here. Nobody knows what to do. But we know how to practice. We can trust the emergent wellspring of insight and creative flair that can only grow out of the soil of sincere, ongoing practice, and that is never completely bound to what has gone before. We can lovingly hold each others' feet to the fire of our practice, at a time when it has never mattered more to the future of life on earth.