Linking Mindfulness with Activism

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.

What a Living Future Means To Me

Kurt Hoelting
Kurt Hoelting

Next month, on April 1 - 3, 2015, the International Living Future Institute will hold its annual conference in Seattle. The theme of this year's conference is one that is dear to my heart: Place and Community. I am honored to be one of the speakers at this conference. In preparation I was asked to write a brief response to the question "What Does a Living Future Means To Me?" I have posted my response here, which will also be featured in the Living Future March Newsletter.


A living future grows out of a living present. This is a truth that often goes missing in the fog of anxiety or overwhelm that can cloud a change-maker's heart. In that sense the words “living future” form a useful but often self-limiting oxymoron.

Only humans, so far as we know, have been gifted by evolution with the capacity to voyage across time. This is an astonishing power. It allows us to house in our memories vast historical and cultural archives, bringing our past into our present. And through the power of creative imagination we can send our innovative footprints far into the future.

But strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “past” or “future”. They are potent figments of our uniquely human imagination. No part of the natural world exists outside the present moment, with the sole exception of the human mind. Like the rest of nature, the human body knows no other time but Now, performing billions of self-regulating processes every second to keep our bodily systems alive, tuned and thriving – always and exclusively in present time. In all of nature, the human mind is the sole outlier in this regard, leaving even its own body behind in the process, often at great cost to our health.

Maybe this is why we have such a powerful need as humans for connect with wild nature. Surrounding our senses in climax ecosystems brings the mind back into alignment with Deep Time. It brings the human heart into the presence of Presence. Experiencing the myriad ways that nature creates beauty by weaving transience and death directly into the heartbeat of life temporarily calms our fear of death. Life thrives in the flow of that elusive place beyond the fear of death. Nature shows us how to end our fruitless human war with nature, and with our own limits, by waking us up to the beauty of Now. Role models for radical, fearless presence exist literally everywhere we look when we can break the trance of human separation and control.

Because of this current of aliveness, the present moment is the place where gratitude and hope also thrive. In that sense, only the present moment can launch the choices that actually lead to a living future. Attuning ourselves to what is alive in the moment, within us and in the world around us, is a radical act of transformation. Knowing how to join the rest of nature in accessing the aliveness of the moment-at-hand is a profound gateway to resilience, restoration and homecoming.

Winter 2014

Dear friends, IMG_1048

In addition to some excellent skiing, and my ongoing work as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher at Seattle's VA Hospital and the Samaritan Center of Puget Sound, I am teaching a first-ever MBSR class for King County employees in Seattle this winter through Mindfulness Northwest. The work of bringing mindfulness training into such a rich diversity of settings is continually engaging and energizing for me.

I have put my four MBSR practice CD's into podcast format now on my website, which is available here to either listen directly, or to download. The CD's include a body scan, a simple yoga routine, a qi gong movement series, and several tracks of mindful sitting. If you are not a part of one of my classes, you will probably find the mindful sitting tracks to be most accessible.

I am also actively involved as a founding member of the Cascadia Climate Collaborative, in partnership with the Whidbey Institute. Our planning team is getting ready for a climate conference this April 11-12 at the Whidbey Institute, designed for climate leaders and community activists within the Cascadia region. We have a powerful cast of visionary speakers lined up, including Kathleen Dean Moore, KC Golden, Alec Loorz and Tzeporah Berman. While this is an invitational conference, there will be a public talk given by Kathleen Dean Moore at the Whidbey Institute on Saturday evening, April 12, 2014.

Our planning team has also released an inspiring nine-minute video on the theme of "Moral Power for Climate Action", produced by the award winning PBS documentary filmmaker Phil Walker. This film can be freely accessed here.

I will be stepping back from this work for the month of March, during which time I will be doing an intensive Zen training period with my teacher Shodo Harada Roshi at Sogenji Zen Monastery in Okayama, Japan. During that time I will have very limited access to email and internet, so I apologize if that makes it difficult to contact me during that month. It is my longstanding conviction that the kind of work I feel called to do, as both a teacher and an activist, requires periods of deep restoration and resilience training, if we are to be fully present to those we serve, and if we are going to sustain our commitments over time. I look forward to this time at Sogenji, and to all the wonderful opportunities for collaborative work that have been given me to do.

"Calling the Choir To Sing" - Climate Conference a Big Success

Last Friday, April 19th, a remarkable conference of over fifty climate activists gathered at the Whidbey Institute from around the Puget Sound region. The theme was "Calling the Choir To Sing", based on our growing sense that the "climate choir" needs to unleash new songs, new voices, new and more powerful harmonies - more profound collaborations, to meet the scale of the challenge we face.

The idea for this conference grew out of a conversation last fall between Larry Daloz and myself. Larry had just returned from a scorching summer in Vermont with his grandchildren, where the record heats had cooked off his remaining denial about the urgency of this crisis. I had also been thinking about what to do next, in the wake of my book The Circumference of Home. I was feeling the need to enter a more resolute and collaborative phase of my own climate work.

We soon recruited three colleagues to help us design and facilitate the event - Heather Johnson from the Whidbey Institute, Kate Davies from Antioch University's Center for Creative Change, and Derek Hoshiko from YES! Magazine. Climate Solutions, Sightline Institute, YES! Magazine and the Center for Creative Change joined the Whidbey Institute as co-sponsors of the event. KC Golden, Policy Director of Climate Solutions, agreed to be our keynote speaker, and we were off.

Our invitation to regional climate leaders emphasized these questions for discussion:

  • How can we widen the scope of our collaborations to include arenas beyond those we have touched?

  • How can we deepen our understanding of the institutional and social factors which thwart effective action, internally and externally.
  • How can we gain insight and courage to work more skillfully with the strong emotions evoked by our climate crisis, including denial, despair, anger, judgmentalism and overwhelm?
  • How can we highlight the ethical and moral dimensions of the climate crisis, beyond our usual focus on the scientific and technical aspects of the challenge?

KC Golden's "State of the Movement" talk struck just the right tone for getting us started. He pointed to important shifts he sees happening in the climate movement this year. It isn't abstract or distant anymore, and it isn't just local. The growing immediacy and intensity of our climate crisis has blown us outside the box of the environmental movement and of conventional politics. We have realized that we cannot win this fight if we don't have the fight, and we are starting to really show up.

KC spoke to our need to "approach our activism not just as political strategists, not just as tacticians, but as whole people, and to think about what it means to do right on climate from the perspective of our place and who we are and how we walk in the world. A lot of our time is taken up with relatively short-term tactical and strategy maneuvers, and the opportunity to spend a whole day together, learning from people who are struggling with a lot of the same things, and reaching down a little deeper and see what's really moving us - where we're scared, where we're challenged, where we see hope and opportunity - that's just a rare and precious thing to be able to do."

He goes on to say, "I think we're undergoing a transition now, to a place that is more firmly grounded in what it means to approach the climate challenge as human beings who live and work and occupy a place. I think people are taking it deeper - partly out of fear, partly out of hope - but completely out of a sense that we need to get around to approaching this challenge from a deeper, more powerful place as human beings, if we're going to generate the kind of personal power, and attract the kind of political power, that we need. And I hear that in people's voices in a new way now."

In the coming weeks I will share more ideas from talks given at this wonderful gathering. Anna Fahey of Sightline spoke about "Tapping Into Dark Optimism". Joe Brewer of the Climate Memes Project spoke about "Why Global Warming is a Bad Meme (and What We Can Do About It)". Julie Trimingham of Coal Facts spoke about "Local Organizing for Action". And Richard Conlin of the Seattle City Council spoke about "The Role of Food in Climate Change". Stay tuned.


Yoga Journal profiles Inside Passages

In the May issue of Yoga Journal, Sarah Saffian profiles six teachers who are bringing contemplative strategies into their commitment to restore ecological health to our planet. Focusing on practices that range from one minute to one year, Saffian challenges readers to explore the benefits of similar practices at a level that feels appropriate to them.
My work with Inside Passages Alaska was Saffian's pick for the week-long profile. In her introduction to the piece she writes, "It is easy to feel powerless in the face of an ailing planet, especially when the demands of daily life leave you feeling like the Earth's myriad problems are separate, distant concerns. But each of us is affected by the planet's welfare, and each of us has power to impact it. Get inspired by what six passionate stewards of the environment did to reconnect with their commitment to protect the Earth. Then take a moment, a day, or a week to nurture your own relationship with the planet, and let that inform your actions in the world."
Here is Saffian's short piece on Inside Passages, titled "In 1 Week You Can...Expand Your Boundaries"

"Nearly 20 years ago, Kurt Hoelting, a writer, commercial fisherman, and meditation teacher, longed for a perfect storm of physical and spiritual engagement. "I wanted to combine my Zen practice, my love of being out on the wild edge of nature, and my commitment to environmental activism and ecological literacy," he says from his home in Whidbey Island, Washington. He set out on a backpacking trip in Nevada's Clan Alpine mountains, where he combined silent hikes with morning and evening Zen meditation. It was a profound experience that he says deepened his connection to nature in a visceral way. Realizing that bringing other environmental activists into the wilderness could help them renew their calling, he organized a sea kayaking expedition in southeast Alaska for 10 colleagues. The response from participants was so positive, Hoelting says, that he began to offer similar weeklong trips for activists every year.

Many environmental activists, he says, can feel distanced from the environment they're striving to protect—as if they were working on behalf of a separate entity. Wilderness retreats are a way to bridge that gap. "When we work on behalf of threatened ecosystems, we are working to heal and protect ourselves," he says. "It is so important to get that at a bone level, not just at an intellectual level."

Each day on the expedition, sessions of kayaking are punctuated by periods of traditional sitting and walking meditation, yoga asana, and conversation, specifically about "what it really means to care for the well-being of our larger selves—the eco-self," Hoelting explains.

The intention is to bring contemplative practice and meditative discipline to the active exploration of ecological and social issues, and to grapple with how to be fully human in the face of them. "To hold those questions in a spacious way, with an open heart and a lot of curiosity, is rare," says Hoelting, "but that's what usually happens on these trips. We discover that sense of the natural world as an extension of our beings—a more full-bodied awareness of connecting with the vastness of that outer and inner terrain."


This coming summer will be my twentieth season of offering these week-long sea kayaking meditation retreats in Southeast Alaska, and I continue to marvel at the power of bringing a listening heart, and a discipline of contemplative practice, into encounters with wild nature. The combination of meditative practice in a primal setting evokes deep currents of connection to our wider nature, and a more profound understanding of why it matters to care for the well-being of natural systems as a dimension of caring for ourselves.

And if I may add a touch of promotion, for those who find this intriguing, we still have one spot available on each of our two Alaskan kayaking retreats this summer. If what Saffian has described here resonates with you, contact me to ask about joining in this adventure. The skill level required is modest, and the setting for exploring a practice-based life could not be more evocative. Here is what others have said about these trips. Consider joining us.

An End To Self-Care?

SelfCareSmaller A young activist friend of mine sent me an article this week by B. Loewe, entitled “An End To Self-Care”. The article spoke to him, and since my work as a mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher is often seen as an expression of self-care, he was curious what my response might be.

The article begins with a provocative paragraph, and judging from the number of Likes it has generated on Facebook, the author has plenty of company in the sentiments he expresses. “I’m going to say it. I want to see an end to 'self-care.' Can we put a nail in self-care’s coffin and instead birth a newer discussion of community care?"

Loewe's broadside on the self-care industry takes few prisoners. "Self-care stands as an importation of middle-class values of leisure" that have nothing to do with the reality of life in the trenches of work and family. "We must have all of our strength in place to counter the systems which . . . would see us destroyed." And that strength comes from our collective efforts, not from self-care. Efforts to care for the self apart from the "collective" stand as "a replacement for a politics and practice of desire that could actually ignite our hearts with a fuel to work endlessly." Loewe subtitles a section of the article, "THERE'S NO TIME FOR SELF-CARE." He then restates a longstanding tenet of activist culture. "If injustice results in collective wounds, healing comes from collective struggle." Any focus on the inner life of the individual is a distraction from what really matters, which is always experienced communally through the act of shared struggle.

Let's start by taking a peek at the industry that Loewe is railing against. According to Christine Meinecke, writing in Psychology Today,  the term “self-care” became popularized in the 1980's, and “it became irresistibly profitable for advertisers to perpetuate the fantasy that self-care can be easy.” Self-care has thus long since been synonymous in the popular imagination with self-indulgence. According to Meinecki, "the self-care marketing blitz" has convinced most of us that "getting pedicures, choosing hand-dipped dark chocolates, and buying 10,000-thread count bed linens equal self-care." If that is what self-care means, then I am completely with Loewe in prescribing that we “put a nail in self-care's coffin”, and the sooner the better.

Most popular culture and New Age spirituality magazines are filled with advertising that presents this kind of silliness masquerading as self-care. For those like Loewe who are inclined to look no further, it is easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Movement work for social justice is “the highest articulation of caring for one’s own self in a world designed to deny your worthiness of care.” He goes on, “I feel most alive, most on fire, most able to go around the clock, when I’m doing political work that feels authentic, feels like it pushes the bounds of authority, and feels like it is directly connected to advancing my individual and our collective liberation.” Further, “there is no chance of us consistently burning the midnight oil if we don’t at our core believe what we’re working on will get us to a new day, and no amount of yoga or therapy or comfort food we supplement our work with will compensate for that. However, if we can see a better world just over the horizon, like a marathon runner nearing a finish line, we can find endless wells to draw upon as we work to usher it in."

Such denigration of the impulse toward self-care has been a staple of activist culture for decades. It is almost always couched in "either/or" terms. Self-care is for people who do not have the requisite commitment to "consistently burn the midnight oil" in service to their activist cause. Solidarity with other change makers who share this commitment offers more than enough self-care to sustain that commitment over time.

There are several problems with this prescription. For starters, the last time I checked, no specie of animal is designed to work "around the clock." Why is that expectation put forward so consistently by activists? I once worked for fifty-six hours straight on a halibut longliner in the Gulf of Alaska, and take my word for it, I was a walking hallucination and good for nobody by the time we got back to port. Humans, like all our fellow creatures, must sleep, must take rest, in order to maintain optimal functioning. All cultivated fields must periodically lie fallow in order to regenerate their productivity. This is not a failure of motivation, or a design flaw of nature. It is simple biology. To defy that biology indefinitely only invites burnout and breakdown in the long run.

Second, this “new day” that is “just over the horizon” is by definition perpetually out of reach. We never get to the finish line. We never finish that marathon. There are, in this vision, no internal sources of personal well-being apart from that “better world” that is forever future oriented. To seek moments of wholeness or presence in the here and now is a betrayal of the marathon ethic. Yet strictly speaking, the moment we inhabit now is the only moment we ever really have to live, to create and to connect. Deferring all sense of meaning and purpose to a future-oriented goal blinds us to the aliveness and beauty that is all around us right now.

Third, such a view postpones the experience of wholeness until we have achieved our desired results in a perfected world of our own making. We can never rest or feel whole until we get the specific results that "fulfill our vision" for such a world. And it is implicitly our fault if we fail to do so. Our well-being is always dependent upon circumstances outside of ourselves, and outside of our current situation. If, instead, we can bring the aliveness of the moment at hand into our awareness as we do our work, resilience emerges from the integrity of the effort itself. Our sense of well-being is no longer shackled to specific results.

Finally, by lumping disciplined practices like  "yoga" and "therapy" in the same category as "comfort foods", Loewe dismisses the effort, courage and fierceness that authentic self-care requires. No one who has ever engaged in a serious practice of self-transformation thinks this work is supposed to be easy or casual. Nor can one get far in such a practice without hearing the call to work just as fiercely on behalf of our collective liberation. The courage and tenacity it takes to face into our own greed, hatred and self-delusion is derived from the same inner fire that burns in our efforts to create a more just and sustainable world beyond the personal realm. In my experience it is impossible to accomplish one without the other. It is the same work. The challenge, always, is to weave these strands of "self-care" and "community care" into an integrated life that draws from the power of each, while sustaining the inner fire that animates both.


Looking at the world through bird shit

As a climate activist, I take the novel approach in my activism of doing nothing for the cause from time to time. If you've read this blog with any regularity, you know that I have a strong – perhaps unfortunate – habit of participating in silent meditation retreats several times a year. I can assure all my activist friends that this habit of mine is completely useless. By “useless” I mean that nothing tangible is produced. Nothing is accomplished. And since we live in a culture that considers it offensive – even obscene – to deliberately accomplish nothing for an entire week, I will make no attempt to justify this habit. That would also be useless. Typically I opt for Zen retreats, which means that I accomplish nothing in a very boring and colorless kind of way. This time, however, it was a little different. This was a new kind of Vipassana retreat called Insight Dialogue, in which we broke all kinds of rules, wearing normal (IE colorful) clothing, sleeping in luxuriously until 6:00 AM every morning, and actually talking to each other for much of the time. The retreat was led by Gregory Kramer, the founding teacher of this unusual practice technique. You can follow the links if you want to read more about it, but I warn you, you may find it very interesting, especially if you're an activist.

That's not what I want to talk about in this blog though. I'm here to talk about bird shit.

The place where we held this retreat was on a beautiful island peninsula in north Puget Sound. I will not disclose the actual location of the retreat, for fear that to do so would unleash a hoard of tourists (all four of you reading this blog), to descend upon this place in yet another fruitless attempt to do nothing. But as you can see from the photograph, the view was beautiful. Except for one unfortunate complication.

The dining hall was located on a rise with a particularly spectacular view of the surrounding waters, islands and mountains. Lots of swallows had built nests in the eves above the picture windows in the dining hall. These swallows had mastered the art of releasing their excrement at precisely the right moment, as they swept into their nests, so that it collided directly with one of the picture windows. Which just goes to show, once again, that humans are far from the only intelligent species with a mischievous sense of humor.

All of the retreat participants were given a daily chore to help keep things running smoothly. Mine was to clean the toilets in the men's bathroom, which I diligently tended to, in spite of my initial intention to do absolutely nothing during the retreat. Unfortunately, no one was given the job of cleaning the bird shit off the picture windows. So for the first several days, I pretended, along with everyone else, that the bird shit wasn't actually there, obscuring my view of the gorgeous surroundings. By the time we were several days into the retreat, I had become quite adept at mentally screening the bird shit from my field of vision.

But as I was having breakfast on the sixth morning, an unsettling question arose in my mind. “How long am I going to look at the world through bird shit before I stop waiting for someone else to clean it off the windows?” And as I pondered this obviously deep and profound question, I got the uncomfortable feeling that these windows were a metaphor for my own mind, and the bird shit was a stand-in for the fear, resentment and anger that so often obscures my perception of a heartbreakingly beautiful world.

That did it. When breakfast was over, I scrounged up a ladder, a bucket, some soap, and a long-handled brush, and set about cleaning those windows. When I returned to the dining hall, I was scolded by some for interrupting their meditation on bird shit. But most thanked me for having the gumption to actually clean the windows that had been obscuring their view all week as well. Which only goes to show that when we remove the excrement that is obscuring our own vision, it usually opens things up a bit for others as well. And sometimes we have to do nothing for awhile before it becomes clear what actually needs to be done. Acting skillfully from a place of composure is usually far more effective, even in small doses, than flailing around for days and weeks at a time, however sincerely, in a fog of anxiety and fear.

Composure and peace of mind sometimes get a bad rap in activist culture, for the simple reason that they are the fruit of non-doing, which is patently against the rules. Such composure is evidence of a flawed commitment to the cause, since, as the saying goes, “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.” This belief has always troubled me. What are the implications for our lives if to pay attention is automatically to BE outraged? This is not the kind of attention I'm talking about here. The Zen teacher John Tarrant has described meditation as “a fasting of the heart in which, for a time, we do not go with our wanting and our fear. We cease to attach so strongly to the things of our lives. This is not because they lack worth, but because, when we are full of them, there is too little of us; we cannot discriminate between things, or love them enough.”

One of the fruits of skillfully paying a more open-hearted kind of attention, one that is not hemmed in by a habitually judging mind, is that such attentiveness orients our perception toward what is whole and complete in the world, and not merely what is broken and in need of fixing. Seeing into the deeper textures of wholeness that undergird our lives makes room for spontaneous waves of gratitude. And when such gratitude is present, the need to be somewhere else vanishes. The need for things to be different (and better) than they are disappears into the upwelling generosity of now. The persistent undercurrents of anxiety and inadequacy that drive our frenzied and often unskillful actions cease stalking our every move, and a sense of ease can settle in to inhabit even the most ordinary moments and tasks.

In other words, meditation helps us clean the bird shit off the windows of our own mind, revealing a world both inside and outside that is much more beautiful than anything we might otherwise have dreamed possible.

Northwest Dharma Association Talk

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to the Annual Gathering of the Northwest Dharma Association, which took place at Seattle University. It was a fascinating event, with participants from a wide spectrum of both traditional and non-traditional Buddhist groups around the Northwest. The theme was "Buddhist Practice & Social Transformation: Exploring the Connection Between the Practice of the Buddha's teachings & Their Impact On Society". I was especially impressed with powerful new initiatives to bring the fruits of dharma practice to young adults in this turbulent cultural moment. Sith Chaisurote, PhD, presented on the Peace Revolution Project, of which he is President, and Rachel Moriah Beals, leader of the Seattle Dharma Punx group. Both are part of a worldwide movement that is growing rapidly on the wings of social media and great cultural need. Peace Revolution is based in Thailand, and draws heavily on the Theravada tradition in conversation with emerging cultural forms. Dharma Punx was founded by Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, and "stands for an international crew of counterculture individuals willing to look within their own hearts and minds for a path through the fear and confusion that comes with being human. Wisdom, compassion, kindness, and generosity - aka freedom- is the alternative and we all have the ability to attain it." This group has a particularly strong draw on disaffected youth in the community. It is another good example of the dharma jumping the banks of traditional Buddhism, while still keeping the essence of dharma practice at the center.

In my talk I focused on my path to the dharma as typically American in its very quirkiness, and on my work teaching MBSR to vets at the VA Hospital in Seattle as typical of the movement in Western Buddhism outside traditional forms of practice, while still working to maintain the essence of those forms. Here is a summary of what I had to say:

"I grew up in a culture where Buddhism had no place at the table. Like many American Buddhists, I stumbled into the Dharma along new and unexpected pathways. I was raised Christian, became an evangelical Christian in high school, and a recovering evangelical in college, pulled always toward spiritual practice by the yearning that all humans have to connect with something much larger than ourselves. I followed that same yearning to Harvard Divinity School, and was ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ in the late '70's.

But during this time I also discovered the poetry of Gary Snyder, and the writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, both of which planted in me a deep affinity for the Buddha's teaching, and Zen in particular. My first Zen teacher was Fr. Bernard McVeigh, Abbot of a Trappist Monastery in Lafayette, OR. During the time I was working as a campus minister at the University of Oregon in Eugene, I took periodic contemplative retreats at the Lafayette monastery. It was a very un-Protestant thing to do, but I felt a deep letting go within myself whenever I went there. I became friends with Fr. Bernard, who invited me to join the monks in their daily Zen practice, which they had instituted alongside their daily Offices of Prayer. I later joined these monks in my first Zen retreat, or sesshin, with Robert Aitken Roshi, and that was it. I fell so in love with the practice that I put my Christian ministry on hold, and have never looked back.

In 1994 I took my first steps beyond Zen and into dharma teaching when I founded Inside Passages, and began leading wilderness meditation retreats in Alaska by sea kayak. These week-long journeys pulled Deep Ecological principles into the presentation of the dharma, and represented my attempt to link my environmental activism with the perspective of a practice-based life.  These trips were filled with non-Buddhists – clergy & rabbis, activists, healers and scholars who wanted to explore meditation practice without taking on the beliefs and forms of traditional Buddhism.  trips were filled with non-Buddhists – clergy & rabbis, activists, healers and scholars who wanted to explore meditation practice without necessarily taking on the beliefs and forms of traditional Buddhism.  I took another big step beyond Zen when Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) came to Alaska to lead a retreat with me in 2003. Jon helped me hone my skills as a dharma teacher, and later introduced me to MBSR as a practice lineage. In collaboration with Dr. David Kearney(who I also met on one of my trips in Alaska), I now teach MBSR classes to vets with PTSD at the VA Hospital in Seattle.

My practice training still happens primarily within the Zen tradition, but my teaching lineage now happens almost entirely outside that traditional form. While this can seem like a contradiction in terms, it is actually the face of American Buddhism at this fascinating juncture in its development. The explosion of Mindfulness-Based programs, including a growing number that are based on the MBSR model – programs like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for work with depression and depression relapse, and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for people struggling with addictions, all are based firmly on the Vipassana practice of Insight Meditation, while being stripped of most of the Buddhist scaffolding that would often be a deterrent for non-Buddhist participating in the programs. A growing number of other therapeutic approaches, like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, also utilize mindfulness as a tool in the path toward emotional self-regulation and healing.

During MBSR training sessions at the VA Hospital, I work with vets who would never darken the door of a conventional meditation center. Everyone who is not present in typical Buddhist sanghas in America is present in these MBSR classes – African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, fundamentalist Christians, right wing Republicans, high school dropouts, even vets living in homeless shelters – all are routinely represented in these groups, diligently practicing yoga and sitting meditation because they are desperate enough to try anything. Suffering, after all, is a powerful motivation for change.

Most of these vets don’t know that what they are learning is rooted in ancient Buddhist Vipassana and Metta practices, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t know. What matters is that they experience for themselves actual relief from their suffering by opening to the practice of non-doing in a systematic and disciplined way. By becoming more intimate with the workings of the mind around pain and resistance, in a non-judging way, they learn to take control of their own responses to physical and emotional pain through the tools of mindfulness.

And remarkably, many of them do embrace these tools, becoming serious meditators who would still never darken the door of a traditional Buddhist training center. And that’s fine by me. I have developed enormous respect for the courage, fortitude and inventiveness of these non-traditional practitioners of the dharma, and am continually inspired in turn to go deeper in my own practice because of their efforts. What began as an experiment in a very alien environment - the basement of the VA Hospital - has become part of my heart's home, and a joyous opportunity to serve. These vets have become an important part of my wider and ever growing community of practice."

Never Forget the Thousand Year View

Twice a year I go “down under” right here on Whidbey Island. For the past fifteen years I have studied Zen with Shodo Harada Roshi, a Japanese Zen Master who comes to Whidbey from his home temple in Okayama, Japan, to lead a traditional week-long Zen retreat at Tahoma Zen Monastery. The sesshin retreat is a bracing, full-on immersion in the rigors of silent meditation, beginning well before dawn each morning and extending far into the night. Under Harada’s tutelage there are no concessions made to our Western compulsion to ease back on the throttle. The wakeup bell rings at 3:45 AM, and we get up whether we feel like it or not. By bedtime we will have spent ten hours on the cushion, with short breaks for meals and daily chores. Why I engage in such rigors is not always easy to explain, even to myself. There are many forms of spiritual practice one could choose that are far less demanding. But after thirty years of Zen practice, I take it as a given that this kind of effort and intention is part of the deal if I want to gain traction against the power of fear and delusive thinking within my own mind. It’s just part of what I have to do in order to stay awake and human in a world that trends relentlessly toward self-indulgence and distraction.

The connections between my Zen practice and my life as an activist are subtle but crucial. The point is not to achieve some special state of mind. It is not to escape the stresses and challenges of the world. It is not to become someone else, but rather to remember who I already am, beneath the layers of delusion that can so encrust my everyday life. Who I already am is invariably much bigger than I thought, much bigger than the roles I play, the titles I carry, the achievements toward which I typically bend my life. And that includes my efforts as an activist to change-maker. Taking time for silent contemplation, I can occasionally catch a glimpse of that much larger Self, and there is enormous freedom that comes from this act of remembering. What seems daunting in the context of my small life falls into a wider perspective. Learning to align my everyday choices and actions with this wider perspective is what the practice of mindfulness is all about. As the Zen saying goes, “Never forget the thousand year view.”

The purpose of cultivating a “thousand year view” is not to place my life above the fray, or to get lost in my head, but to plant my feet more firmly on the ground, to bring my heart more fully into the game, moment by moment by moment.

Here is a story to illustrate that point. I was in the fifth day of a seven-day sesshin with Harada here at Tahoma Zen Monastery one sunny morning in September, 2001. Walking up to breakfast from our early morning meditation periods, I saw a woman I knew from the community standing outside the kitchen. She was clearly weeping. I broke from the line and went over to find out what was wrong. “We’re at war!”, she wept. “Our country is at war.” The details came out later that morning about the jets flying into the twin towers and the Pentagon. Thousands of people had died. No one yet knew who or what was behind this atrocity.

Of the fifty retreat participants, many were from the East Coast, and a few were from New York City. All of us were given the opportunity to call home, and if necessary leave the retreat early. Not a single person chose to leave. During the final two days of the retreat we continued our sitting practice as usual, but Harada’s dharma talks dove right into the fire of what was unfolding in our culture. He helped us wrap our minds around what would be asked of us when we returned to our regular life. He told us that the world we were about to re-enter would be a very different world from the one we left a few days earlier. There would be much hysteria, and great emotional and psychological trauma. The need would be huge, he said, for people who could be present to all that pain without being swept under by it. The need would be huge for people who could hold the thousand year view in the very midst this turmoil. What we were doing here was the best preparation anyone could have for meeting this tumultuous moment in a creative and open-hearted way. We were sitting in the intense heat of the fire, preparing ourselves to be agents of healing and understanding in a world gone temporarily mad, a world at war with itself.

This is why I continue with my Zen training, why I continue to make time for periods of extended silence and contemplation in the midst of a world still very much at war with itself. If I can act, at least some of the time, from a place of compassion for the world’s suffering, rather than merely reacting to it with anger and hostility, I am more likely to act skillfully in ways that ease that suffering. My actions are more likely to be of genuine use to others, and I am less likely to get stuck in reaction to my own personal pain. I am more likely to maintain contact with a spirit of gratitude and humility for the simple gift of being alive at such an extraordinary moment in history. Though I may be stepping back for a time from the long list of tasks (however important) that await me on my return, this time in silence contemplation will make my engagement with those tasks more fruitful, more abiding and courageous than it otherwise could possibly have been.

Dueling Intensities

Jan. 23, 2012

I just got home from an Insight Meditation retreat with Rodney Smith this weekend at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Southwest Washington. It was a good weekend for hunkering down in a meditation hall. The snow that had piled high in the days leading up to the retreat, and the ice storm that followed which left such carnage in the forests of Southwest Washington, gave way all weekend to sheets of rain and gusts of wind. January has not lacked drama on the weather front. Sitting for hours in the silence of the meditation hall, I felt as if I was inside the pounding of the rain. I could feel the fierceness and beauty of it. But I could also deeply sense how this is something new – a world that is beginning to break its tethers with what we have known before.

I came into the retreat looking for balance points between the dueling convictions that have come to characterize my life these days. On the one hand, as a climate activist, I believe we are at a make-or-break moment in the history of our species, and that there is no time to lose. I feel deep frustration at the lack of progress to address the climate crisis at all levels of American society. I watch in bewilderment as the opposite of progress seems to be taking hold. A whole industry has arisen to propagate climate denial, in defiance of an overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary, at just the time when we need clarity of purpose and broad commitment to action. And it seems to be working. As the poet William Butler Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

So on the face of things, my frustration seems completely justified. Yet the wide-open spirit of inquiry demanded by my mindfulness practice tells me that we can never know the whole story. We really don’t know what’s going to happen next. Living in fear of a future I cannot really know or predict places me at odds with the possibilities of the moment at hand. In my better moments, I can taste those possibilities, and my mind relaxes its grip on needing to have things go a certain way. Almost always, my actions are more fruitful and skillful when that grip is relaxed.

Rodney Smith, in his book Stepping Out of Self-Deception, writes that “We hold the world in place by our narrow-mindedness. . . Asking questions requires an attitude of non-conformity. Conformity gives away the freewheeling attitude of inquiry for the benefit of safety. . .We would love our self-questioning to confirm what we already know, and therefore threaten nothing. . . Questions must be ruthless in order to delve deeply beyond our conformity.”

These two positions lay out the internal fault lines pretty well for me. Legitimate urgency and a call to arms – a “passionate intensity” - on the one hand. And on the other, the cultivation of enough presence and inner calmness to know the truth of our interdependence with all life on a visceral level, and to cut through the filters of anger and impatience that obscure our view of reality. On any given day, I can cycle back and forth across this internal divide numerous times.

Coming into this retreat, that balance point was on the side of anger and frustration. I felt constricted, brittle, and ready to butt heads. Coming out of the retreat, having heard the counsel of the rain, and having shared an unhurried conversation with the circling rhythm of daylight and darkness, my grip has loosened again. I feel free to put myself back out on the line, to fight for what I love, but without so much fear that it will be for naught. The fear, I now remember, is extra. It is optional. And it is invariably confining. The desire to serve life doesn't come from a place of constriction. It just doesn't. That desire is innately freewheeling. It is as free as the wind, and that doesn't change just because the wind blows hard.

Facing the Risk of Self-Discovery

When I was a college senior I stumbled on the writings of Thomas Merton, opening up a contemplative exploration that has shaped my life ever since. A Trappist monk and hermit, Merton wrote some of the most incisive essays of cultural criticism I have ever encountered. He was the first to show me that the contemplative life and the life of an activist are not mutually exclusive.

Merton was also the first to fire my enthusiasm for the rich traditions of Buddhist pratice. My introduction to Zen came during a personal retreat at a Trappist Abby in Oregon in the late ‘70’s. Inspired by Merton, the monks there had begun a regular practice of Zen meditation alongside their daily offices of prayer, and they invited me to join them. Something in the ground-level physicality, pragmatism and rigor of Zen met my need for a more engaged spiritual path than I had found in my training as a Protestant clergyman. I fell in love with the practice.

Merton’s voice resurfaced last week at a dinner with several colleagues who are applying the contemplative arts to a range of professional endeavors, from environmental policy to undergraduate teaching to filmmaking and the arts. David Levy, a professor at the UW Information School, was at the table. He is the author of No Time To Think, and is studying the impacts on college students of immersive social network technologies. David spoke of how his encounter with Merton's writings in college had also been a turning point for him, especially these words from the essay Learning To Live:

“Life consists in learning to live on one’s own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one’s own – be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid. . . The world is more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive; that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. . . A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here or there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions, is simply a sham. . . It is not free because it is unwilling to face the risk of self-discovery.”

I teach and practice meditation because it is the best way I have found, on a nuts-and-bolts level, in real time, “to be more fully and humanly alive.” It is the most direct expression I have found of a commitment to continually “face the risk of self-discovery.” Self-discovery is risky because we don’t get to choose what we find when we enter the wilderness within: the fears, aversions and hostilities that – left unrecognized and unchecked - can send us fruitlessly to war against others and against the world. Unable to make a “conscious and lucid use of our freedom”, and driven to distraction by an ever-expanding menu of superficial options, the end result is that we have declared war on the planet itself. This is why our efforts in the activist arena so need to be leavened by a practice of regular reflection and open-hearted inquiry. What am I not seeing here? What aspects of the truth do my "adversaries" hold? Where does our common humanity lie?

This does not mean that we become passive. On the contrary. Bold and wise action that actually serves the common good is much more likely when it grows out of a soil of honest reflection, and when it is not driven primarily by unexamined anger and fear. As much as any external force one might name, our refusal to look honestly at our own inner habitat of confusion, resentment, and intolerance lies at the root of our great social and ecological challenges. Facing these challenges in a fruitful and sustainable way means also finding the courage to "face the risk of self-discovery", and being brave enough to expand a too-small identity and ideology in response to what we find there.