Winter Solstice Reflection

Last week I attended a Zen Rohatsu retreat in Bellingham. The Rohatsu commemorates the Buddha's enlightenment, which tradition says happened at this time of year, when the Buddha took his seat beneath the bodhi tree and vowed not to move until he had gotten to the root of enlightened mind. His enlightenment moment happened at dawn after sitting all night, when he saw the morning star, and was struck by the full, wide-open insight that life, all matter, all form and experience truly is woven together at its core. All is alive. There is nothing whatsoever to fear.

Within the Zen tradition, Rohatsu is the most important retreat of the year. Often it includes at least one all-night sit, where students take upon themselves Buddha's commitment to become awakened, no matter what.

The silent Rohatsu retreat I attended lasted three days instead of the usual seven. The schedule was not so rigorous as it is in the Zen monasteries of Japan. But there were still long hours of sitting each day. As the final day of the retreat came to an end at 9:00 PM, we were invited to sit longer into the night, as the Buddha did long ago, if we felt so moved. I was tired. My knees ached. I was ready to call it a day. But when the last bell had rung, I decided to sit just a bit longer. I joined the half-dozen or so other Zen students who stayed in the meditation hall as the others quietly left for the night.

I didn't stay to prove anything. It wasn't a contest or a marathon. I just felt like it. One hour became two, then three, then four. Time melted into a vigil, held within the deep darkness of a mid-winter's night. Somewhere in the night I napped for a couple of hours on my cushion, then resumed sitting for the last two hours before dawn. I sat with all the things that feel so wrong about the world, and all the things that make no sense about my life. I sat with all the things I have yet to accomplish, and all the things I have given up trying to accomplish. I sat with a deep knowing that my time left on this earth is short, and my life - all life - is precious beyond what anyone can truly comprehend.

It felt as though my snarky contentions about right and wrong became tributaries of a much larger river. All my fears and hopes, insufficiencies and self-doubts, just kept flowing into a great river that was big enough to hold it all.

This is the raft I want to ride on. But it is arguably not as easy as it used to be. And it was never easy to begin with. So much is dying now, so much more to let go of than just my own small life. In his recent NY Times piece, Learning How To Die In the Anthropcene, Roy Scranton has written:

In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?

These are questions that haunt me in the night. Where is the river that is big enough to carry life forward beyond humanity's end, beyond the end of the bio-sphere that gave birth to us? Can I drink even that down, stay in the rapids of that, without losing heart or hope?

Maybe it wasn't so different in the Buddha's time. No doubt it was this same fierce beauty and wonder at our transient passage through Time - this same drinking it all down - that shined through for the Buddha when he glimpsed the morning star all those centuries ago. It is that same fierce beauty and wonder that offers to break things open again in our own hearts - and again and again. Endlessly, forever.

Hafiz writes:

If I were in the Tavern tonight, / I would buy freely for everyone in the world

Because our marriage with the Cruel Beauty / Of time and space cannot endure very long.

Death is a favor to us / But our minds have lost their balance.

The miraculous existence and impermanence of Form / Always makes the illuminated ones

Laugh and Sing.

 

 

Long Wave, Short Wave

I came home from Alaska recently after two months on the "long wave". Over many weeks I lived unplugged, which allowed me to fall under the spell of direct time, and to fall out of virtual time.

This is very bad for business. I should be more concerned. I am as aware as anyone that if I'm not on Facebook or Twitter for more than a couple weeks consecutively, I've effectively ceased to exist. I'm gone. Disappeared. Poof!

Yet here is what it feels like on the inside. It's more like I've "fallen awake." I've "come to." I feel myself immersed again in the world that actually gave birth to my body, the world that will receive my body back into itself when I die. The world to which my mind and senses have the possibility of a direct relationship in real time.

Maybe that's good enough.

I realize that I've squandered whatever momentum I may have achieved with this blog, for example. It's been two months since I offered a fresh entry. But maybe that's okay too. To be honest, these blog posts often feel like putting a note in a bottle and tossing it into an unknown sea. Occasionally a boat picks one up. But it's not the same as actually being on that boat.

There is something thin about online communication. It is a powerful tool, for sure, and I will continue to use it. But it is never the same as actually being with someone, sharing the same piece of ground beneath our feet, feeling the same wind and sun on our faces as we exchange words and body language, hold each other's gaze, sharing our struggles and our successes in actual living presence.

So my goal this fall and winter is to stay on the long wave as best I can, even in the turbulence of a short wave world. To pull this off, I realize I am going to have to do less, to say "No" to more things, and "Yes" more robustly to the things that I still feel called to do. My family and friends certainly deserve that from me. My teaching is also at the center of what feels important to me these days. I love the direct connection with my students. The in-person nature of our encounters, the aliveness of our connections. Let there be more of that.

I will need to give less attention to the menu of daily distractions that keep me from my real work, and to the open-pit mine of psychological manipulation that masquerades as the daily "news". I will need to meet my restlessness and anxiety "at the door laughing, and invite them in", as Rumi put it, not fleeing into busyness or distraction to escape them. This is the hardest work of all for me - to turn toward what is difficult in my life, and invite it in as the essential teacher it surely is. There may be no other way, and I am learning to welcome the challenge of it.

So this is what I plan to do with this next season of my life. Whether it is good for business or not.

 

Postcard from the Edge

As I look out from the lodge onto Keene Channel this morning, I can barely tell where the line is between water, forest and sky. I can barely tell where my own body leaves off, and this wild world begins. I'm writing this by hand. Later, when I load the skiff with laundry and head to town for supplies with my crew, I'll transfer these words to my computer and send it along your way. Consider this a letter, then. "Blog" is one of the least alluring words ever consigned to the English language, in my opinion. I've just completed my first Inside Passages kayaking retreat of the season, with a terrific group of Courage & Renewal facilitators. My co-leaders on this trip have been John Fenner from the Center for Courage and Renewal, Noel Stout as assistant guide, and Emily White as lodge chef. What a great team.

For a week I haven't checked email. I haven't heard a stitch of news either, and yet I feel flush with the news that matters; that I am awash in a still-vibrant world, that there are good people all around doing extraordinary work. William Carlos Williams wrote, "Look at what passes for the news /  You will not find it there."

So I have been busy this week listening to the news that issues from silence, from words carefully chosen, and from the ground beneath my feet. Sometimes it is delivered in human voices. Sometimes in the voice of raven, harbor porpoise, the wind in the spruce forest, or the sheets of rain pelting the water. There is a great deal to ponder here.

In her poem Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?, Mary Oliver writes,

"There are things you can't reach. But                                                                            you can reach out to them, and all day long.  

The wind, the birds flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier."  

 

It is a strange thing, how my stubborn conviction that the world is tragically flawed can suck the life out of me, and make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thought, in my experience, has a bad habit of going negative, almost by design, and it is not a habit that can be cured by more thought. On the contrary, I have been learning to question my thoughts ruthlessly, take them on as the snarky, unruly crowd that they are.

The best way to do that, I've found, is to let my thinking mind hammer away at its grievances, if it must, and in the meantime climb back down into my body, re-establish contact with the ground I stand on, or the flowing water beneath my kayak. That is what I have been doing all week during this retreat. My body knows what is needed, and what to do. Take the next step, or the next stroke of the paddle, but do it consciously. Feel myself doing it. Let go of the physical tension I hadn't noticed I was carrying. Soften my senses. Open back up. Listen deeply. The mysterious thing is that if I keep at this for awhile, if I stay with the sensations of my body in a direct, immediate way, sure enough the mind lets go of the bone it's been chewing on, and the world around me comes back into vibrant focus. The world that was alive all the while comes back alive in me. There it is again. Here I am again. Now, what does the world need from me?

                                                                                                                                                                        

 

"Narrow path to the deep north"

I love the title that Basho gave his travel journals: "Narrow Path to the Deep North." What I feel as I prepare to sail up the Inside Passage for another season of kayak guiding and commercial fishing in Alaska must be similar to what other migratory animals feel, when the urge for going sets in. There is a physical yearning for the "Deep North" that has been woven into my annual cycle now for over forty years. The salmon are returning. The great migration of birds and whales and humans is in full swing, pulled by the long days and warm weather to a place of Pleistocene plenty.

For most of these years I've been a commercial fisherman, chasing salmon runs from Bristol Bay to the Panhandle, and halibut from Chatham Strait to the Gulf of Alaska. Now my commercial fishing gig is down to a single halibut trip in Southeast Alaska in August, after a month of guiding kayak trips. I'm starting to pull back on the throttle.

But I love both these ways of being in the wild - as a guide and a fisherman - expressions of livelihood, not leisure,  played out in a still-primordial landscape. There are stakes involved, and risks. But being a commercial fisherman also has a powerful contemplative strain to it, which links it to mindfulness; a need to be fully present, and a visceral sense that I am a small player in a vastly more-than-human world.

I'm well aware, as a student of the dharma, that commercial fishing contradicts a core Buddhist teaching against taking the life of other creatures. But many indigenous traditions think about this differently. I've always felt a powerful bond with Northwest Coast cultures, whose survival hinged for millennia on a deeply respectful dependence and reciprocity with the "salmon and halibut people". I understand, as Gary Snyder has said, that one day the table will be set around me, and my flesh will flow back into these other creatures. I don't have a problem with this. It gives me comfort, really, and a sense of powerful belonging on this coast. My work as a mindfulness teacher and fisherman are excursions onto the same wild edge, one inner, one outer. Both edges are alluring and untamable, bound by the poignant, transient nature of all our lives.

I will not be updating these posts often while I'm in Alaska. I need this annual cycle of "time outside of time", to lay my heart back out on the long wave. I don't think we're better for being at the beck and call of our media tools every waking hour of our lives, and I will be on something of a media fast over the coming weeks. May you also find yourself sailing on the long wave from time to time during these long days of summer.

Wherever you may be reading this cyber-message-in-a-bottle, I hope it finds you well.

 

Joe Brewer on "Why global warming is a lousy meme."

 

Joe Brewer is a policy analyst with Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle, and co-founder of DarwinSF. He is an energetic speaker who loves what he does and knows how to be serious and have fun at the same time. Recently Joe joined forces with a Hungarian colleague named Lazlo Karafiath to found the Climate Meme Project. He spoke about their groundbreaking work at a recent climate conference on Whidbey Island.

According to Joe, "Memes are the genetic code of culture. They generate ideas and thoughts. Memes are viruses that replicate and spread throughout society. They activate across social networks to change human behavior. Cultural evolution comes about through the generation of new memes."

The first photos of earth from space, for example, were powerful memes that redefined us as interconnected passengers on "spaceship earth", and helped launch the environmental movement. Memes often function beneath the radar of conscious awareness as they drive our thinking and behavior toward new forms of cultural expression and understanding.

While global warming is arguably the greatest threat to human well being of our era, it has remained a niche concern, and has so far refused to spread virally. Joe and Lazlo started the Climate Meme Project when they realized that “global warming is a really lousy meme. It does a terrible job of spreading. It is really hard to get people to think about it and act upon it, it is really hard to get people on their own to feel compelled to tell stories about it, or to bring it up at cochtail parties.” Their research shows that the global warming meme has infected the minds of at best 5% of the world's population. And given the scale of the actual thread posed to humanity by climate destabilization, this failure of the climate meme to infect our culture, and move us toward large-scale behavioral change, is a really big problem.

The Climate Meme Project is creating an ecological map of the memes that have arisen around climate change - both positive and negative. What Brewer and Karafiath have found is that "a gloomy outlook pervades the whole global warming meme landscape. Choosing between extinction and a long-shot at basic survival is not appealing to the masses." Memes that capture this feeling well include, "I don't want our pale blue dot to be a brown smudge.", and "Climate change is humanity's 'mission impossible'." We tend to develop a culturally immunity to memes that make us feel helpless or overwhelmed.

"The food of memes is human attention", and memes that are not nourishing to our sense of possibility and well-being starve from lack of attention.

Examples of more effective memes include those that elicit a sense of agency, personal power, and the capacity for joy; "We can change really fast when we want to." "There are so many solutions that we haven't even thought of yet, that could be game changers." "A fossil-free future is totally possible, here and now. And our lives will definitely be made better by it."

Joe and Lazlo have identified "symbiotic" memes as especially promising in this regard. These are memes that move our behavior in the same direction as climate memes, but without the baggage and negativity associated with gloomy climate thinking. These would include entrenpreneurial thinking around the new energy economy, social media that connect us in lively and joyful new ways, aiding the rapid spread of new social memes like the local food culture, the new bicycle culture, and new, more effective forms of political and activist engagement.

The Climate Meme Project helps underscore how deeply this crisis is rooted in human perception, and how important the science of perception will be in dislodging our culture from its fossil fuel addictions. A synopsis of the current climate meme landscape, and how we can change it for the better, is presented in their new report. Learn how you can help Joe and Lazlo build and spread new climate memes based on collaboration, creativity, innovation and love.

 

"Tapping Into Dark Optimism" - Whidbey Institute Climate Conference

In my blog post this week I want to share more of the inspiring words spoken at our Whidbey Institute Climate Conference entitled "Calling the Choir To Sing", that took place on April 19th.

Anna Fahey, Communications Strategist at Sightline Institute, gave a powerful talk on "Tapping Into Dark Optimism". Dark optimism, she says, "is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential." She consolidates many of the core ideas that I've tried to highlight in this blog, in a wonderfully condensed and heartfelt way, from the perspective of a dedicated policy professional. How, for example, do we get people exactly like 'me' to care about climate change, if I'm not really facing the hard truth myself? How do we harness the necessary intensity within our movement that has proven so elusive? And how do we confront the difficult emotions that our climate crisis evokes in all of us, with courage and resilience rather than fear and avoidance?

Here is the text of Anna's moving "flash talk" to fellow climate activists:

"[As a communications specialist with Sightline Institute] I usually hand people well-researched talking points and tell them to repeat them as many times as they can, and then go on my way. Here I want to talk about our personal, emotional relationship with climate change, beginning with the question of “how do we get people exactly like 'me' to care about climate change? I'm talking about people who already care a lot, but not quite enough to be really angry, or sad, or energized or motivated. I understand this problem, because when I look at my own three year-old daughter, I almost never allow myself to think about climate change in her future. I don't dare. It's too hard. Maybe you know the feeling.”

“Psychoanalysts tell us that we can both know something and not know something at the same time. Even for someone like me who is steeped in climate policy and climate science day-in and day-out, I find it extremely difficult not to push that emotional part away. I feel that every day with climate change. Maybe you do too. I witness this in my own colleagues as we uncomfortably joke about climate impacts rather than having those deep, meaningful conversations around the office about what it actually means for ourselves and our kids.

“So the problem is to move from the intellectual acknowledgement of the crisis to a more emotional place, and I think that starts with us. I mean, if WE can't do it, how can we help other people do it, right? If we let down our guard, we may feel helpless, skeptical, jaded, sad or afraid. We certainly feel a little bit lost when we think about democracy being broken – a pretty big deal. To cope and stay sane, we have to sort of ignore. This tension between knowing and not knowing makes our job pretty hard, the job of pushing for policy solutions, and getting other people – a bigger percentage of the population – to stop ignoring as well. We have to do it ourselves before we can ask others to join us. . . Dave Roberts of Grist has said that talking about climate change at a cocktail party is like farting. (laughter) You're laughing because you've experienced this too. It's basically a taboo. It's not discussed in polite conversation. . .

"But rather than changing the subject, many scholars looking at the psychological dimensions of climate change are suggesting that we actually talk about it more, talk about the seriousness, and talk about the emotions. This is important not only for our own mental health, but because what drives social change isn't necessarily broad-based support – like everybody has to get on board, but the intensity of the minority. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations. In fact, research shows that the tipping point, where a minority belief becomes a majority opinion is only 10%. . . Opinion research shows that we already have 10% when it comes to climate change, but I think that that intensity is not there – certainly not the level of intensity that we see among the climate deniers, or the pushers of doubt. So what we need is a core group - maybe more than 10%, because of those pushers of doubt - who feel the climate threat in their bones. And luckily 10%-20% is pretty do-able. Those people are already sort of with us. But the feeling part is really hard. So I'm not alone in thinking that this starts with us, with people like me, allowing ourselves to feel this in our bones – which is scary, but it could actually give us strength. If we are a choir singing, that emotional underpinning gives the song its force, its power, and makes our voices stronger.

"A colleague of mine, Renee Lertzman from Portland, who is a researcher in climate and psychology . . . draws from a tradition called “engaged Buddhism”. She talks about bearing witness – not pushing away our despair and our concern, but relating with it as evidence of our vitality, our commitment and our humanity. She calls it “becoming friends with despair.” That friendship can actually empower and embolden us, rather than dragging us down.

"I'm going to close with Renee's recommendations for starting this process . . . , and allowing ourselves to have those feelings that are so hard.

  •  The first is to pay attention to your feeling and thoughts. Notice when you judge or stifle your own feelings.
  • Speak and write about those feelings. Break that cocktail party taboo.
  • Listen to friends and colleagues, and practice creating space for feelings, rather than downplaying or joking about those feelings.
  • Identify people you can talk to about your emotions without fear of judgment, or being considered too negative.
  • Create support forums in your social or workplace networks - (that's what we're doing today).
  • Recognize that these emotions do not negate the power and importance of the work that we do. It's natural and normal. And it's important to remember that it saps more of our energy to suppress this stuff than it does to let it out . . . there is liberation and freedom in letting out those feelings.

"And I'll add to Renee's list that we need to hold others, and maybe especially our leaders and our media, accountable – but also ourselves - accountable for the seriousness and the emotion that's involved in this. Don't let them dismiss or sideline it.

"And we need to celebrate our victories. Celebrate this community, and celebrate when we get to sink our teeth into something like coal exports or campus divestment. I think all this has helped us break out of a rut, but it is also a process that is going to help us learn how to bring others along with us. So our intensity, and our emotions, and learning how to process all of that, is going to help us bring that 10% or that 20% of the population along with us.

“Dark Optimism” is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential, and I think we can harness that."

****************************************

Why do Anna's words matter? Because we are in this for the long haul, and it will take all the emotional intelligence and personal courage we can muster to stay with the truth of this crisis as it continues to unfold.

This week a number of global CO2 monitors recorded 400 ppm (parts per million) for the first time. This is a huge symbolic threshold, a "dark truth". The last time we had this concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was several million years ago. 350 ppm is now considered by many scientists to be the upper limit to sustain civilized human life on earth. In other words, "If not now, when? If not us, then who?"

 

"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.

"Turning for Home" An Earth Sunday sermon

Edmonds United Methodist Church, Sunday, April 7, 2013                        This is the text of my Earth Sunday sermon last Sunday entitled "Turning for Home: Healing the Earth by Loving the Places We Live".  I don't often give sermons, but it is an interesting and useful challenge for me to work on different ways of communicating about why it matters to care. And the faith community is obviously an essential partner in crafting the changes we are now called to make. 

****************************************************************************

Earth Sunday is a special time set aside to explore our deep kinship with the earth that sustains us, and what it means as Christians to honor that kinship, what it means to return that love as stewards and sustainers of the earth community. It's an honor to be with you on Earth Sunday.

I want to start by acknowleging some of the important steps that your church has taken already, under the leadership of your Green Team, to build an earth-friendly congregation, doing the important nuts & bolts things that make that happen - like changing all light bulbs throughout the facility, eliminating styrofoam cups, and composting food wastes. And doing some of the bigger things too like investing in a new and more efficient furnace. We should never doubt the importance of even small, concrete steps to align our faith with our actions. It is all the more significant when our efforts to make change can grow out of community, and generate a more vibrant community in the process, as your efforts here clearly have. Earth Sunday is a time when we can celebrate these efforts, make them visible, and renew our commitment to grow more deeply into an earth-honoring spirit of faith and practice.

Many of us who care about ecological concerns are feeling a growing urgency these days. The stakes have become huge. It occurs to me that your Earth Sunday this year falls right between Easter and Earth Day, and there is actually a compelling link between the two celebrations. When you think about it, both are rooted in the renewal of life in the face of death.

Earth Day may have more in common with Easter than I had previously imagined. The earth too is suffering a kind of human betrayal and abondonment, just as Christ did on his way to the cross, and this abuse is coming back to engulf us. I think many of us feel this new urgency, this gnawing sense that we have to change much more than just light bulbs. We have to find the courage to change ourselves, to transform the way we live in response to the magnitude of crises facing us. We live in a time of staggering losses to our living earth, losses that are rooted in our human forgetfulness, manifesting as pollution of the air we breath, the water we drink, the soil that grows our food, as loss of habitat and species extinction. And now it confronts us in the form of climate disruption that has been clearly tied to our unbridled patterns of consumption.

The earth itself is developing a dangerous fever. Remarkably, it turns out that we humans are both the cause of that fever, and the doctor on call, the only ones with the power to bring healing. What an astonishing situation!

Quite literally, the fate of our human lives is no longer separate from the fate our endangered earth. This is certainly not a new insight. Our interdependence with nature is part of our biblical understanding. But it could be said that the scale to which this is now true is a new thing under the sun. Who could have imagined that our species might prove capable of changing the very climate upon which all life depends? This presents a powerful challenge to our understanding not only of what it means to be Christians, but of what it means to be human. For people of faith, Earth Day needs to be recast as the moral crucible that it is.

What this suggests for me is an expansion of our moral concern to include the sanctity of nature, and not just the domain of human activity. These two dimensions of moral concern have become inseparable in our time.

I think God has given us these great ecological challenges to see what we are really made of. And I don't think God would have given us these challenges if we didn't already have within us the capacity to meet and heal them, to learn and grow from them, to become better human beings because of them. I think there is no greater measure of faith in our time, or of the call to moral integrity, than our willingness to become dedicated healers and restorers of the Creation God has woven us into, and not merely passive consumers of it. No one who is paying even modest attention to ecological trends can dispute the moral imperative these trends bring to us.

It's an exciting moment to be alive. It could be seen as a great testimony of the confidence God has placed in us that we have been given our life at just this time, with exactly this set of challenges before us. When someone asked the great eco-theologian Father Thomas Berry what they could do to meet this crisis, and not to become mired in despair, he said, “Make a creative response.”

That sounds deceptively simple. "Make a creative response." But is that not what God is now calling us to do. The time of waiting for others to step forward, for others to invent the miracle technologies that will save us from our own excesses, for others to enact the laws that will save us from our own excesses – that time is over. It is time for us to make our own creative responses, individually and together, that will show what a more vibrant and sustainable life on this earth actually look like.

I was invited to join you for Earth Sunday because some of you have read my book The Circumference of Home, and felt that my story is relevant to this task we share of re-inventing our lives along more sustainable pathways. I won't recount much here about that story here. What I want to say this morning is this. My choice to live car-free for a year in 2008, and to stay within walking distance of home, grew out of a growing awareness that I was not walking my talk. An enormous gap had opened up between my profound ecological concerns, and the way I was actually living my life. I felt trapped inside that gap, and it had become too painful for me to take sitting down. Something had to give.

The insight that led me to this yearlong vow – my “Ah ha!” moment – was that I could turn toward this crisis as an adventure of the spirit, rather than languishing on the sidelines in fear and despair, which I was becoming very good at. As I wrote in my introduction, “If I can't change my own life in response to the greatest challenge now facing our human family, who can? And if I won't make the effort to try, why should anyone else? The question is no longer whether I must respond. The question is whether I can turn my response into an adventure.”

I was actually quite nervous when I began this experiment. It carried some real risks. By swearing off cars for a than I already was, more isolated from my community. Would it unsettle my marriage and make me even harder to live with? These are fears we all face when we meet with big changes. Change is hard. It can be scary.

But for me, once I had begun my experiment, the opposite happened. I have rarely felt more alive, more engaged, more held by community, less burdened by self-doubt, than I was during that year. My wife still tells people that she has never seen me happier. And as she shared in parts of my adventure, it brought us closer together.

By drawing a circle on the map with my home at the center, and by spending a year exploring this home circle on foot, by bicycle and sea kayak, I not only loosened the shackles of fear and despair that had held me in their grip, I not only gained in health and vitality, but I fell back in love with the place I call Home. I fell in love again with the ecological and cultural richness of this bio-region. I discovered deep reservoirs of local community that I had forgotten in my too-busy, far-flung lifestyle. I shared grand adventures with my wife and children close to home, deepening our affection for each other, even as we grew more intimate with this place on earth that we all so love. I learned how to get almost anywhere in my home region by public transportation and bicycle, transforming my addiction to cars into a more embodied and creative way of moving through my home terrain. And in the process, I lowered my carbon footprint dramatically, easing that painful gap between my beliefs and the way I was actually living.

Of course I still have a long way to go in healing these personal gaps. That year was just a beginning. I never meant these actions as a blueprint for others to follow. Nor was it intended as a permanent solution for me.

I do drive again. But I am a lot more careful about when I get in my car, and why. I'm committed to using the best available technology when I do drive. I drove my all-electric car here this morning, a car that gets the equivalent of 112 mile per gallon. But that's no reason for complacency either. My bicycle gets 1,000 miles per gallon. The bicycle is still the most efficient machine ever invented for moving a human body through the landscape. Just give the driver a sandwich, and you have all the fuel you need.

So I still use my bike whenever I can. And when I ride these days, it's not to make a moral statement. I simply feel better when I do. I feel more alive when I ride my bike or walk. I feel more hopeful. I feel more connected to my community. It is a long term shift in my lifestyle that has made my life richer and better.

The important question this morning isn't what I've done, or what I'm doing next. The important question is what are you going to do. What are we willing to do together to make a creative response, to turn these challenges into a shared adventure. Our unborn grandchildren are watching to see what we come up with. Their life is literally hanging in the balance of the choices we make now.

So may the adventure continue. May we share in it together. May we gain in confidence and resilience. And may this Earth Sunday mark a fresh beginning in our commitment to bring that adventure Home, to live joyously and simply in the miracle of our lives, right here in this exquisite place on earth.

How has Inside Passages changed over 20 years?

It's hard for me to believe that this summer will be my 20th season of guiding Inside Passages kayaking retreats in Southeast Alaska. So much has happened since that first trip in 1994, and so much has grown out of that early impulse. When I started Inside Passages, I had a clear purpose in mind. I wanted to augment my commercial fishing income with time in the wild that was more contemplative, less driven, and more in line with my love of silence. My ulterior motive was to bring leaders into that majestic wildness, where they might find convincing new reasons to care for the fate of our endangered earth. My medium was wilderness. My method was the practice of listening and paying attention. I still have that purpose. I still love these deep annual immersions in the silence of a wild landscape. And by most accounts from my clients, these trips have spurred a deeper passion in them too for the fate of the earth that sustains us all. The Tongass wilderness has been a terrific partner in that effort.

I began this project as a veteran of the fight for new wilderness in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, and I have enlisted new allies in that effort through my trips. This was, and remains, important to me.

But a lot has changed since 1994. The scale of our environmental threats, and the stakes involved, have grown radically larger than what I understood them to be back then. It's not that I think habitat protection isn't still important. Every place is precious, and I will always fight for the protection of the places I love.

But with the rapid escalation of global trends like climate disruption in the intervening years, it is clear that no place is safe from the impacts of human activity, no matter how remote they may seem from our direct presence. This is a sea change in how we have come to understand the nature of nature itself, and of our place within it. With temperatures now rising 50 times faster than at any time in the last 15 million years, the damage done by development to places like the Tongass is peanuts compared to the systemic changes that are assaulting every ecosystem on the planet at once. I no longer see Alaska as a "place apart" where we might escape the engines of disruptive ecological change.

So I increasingly enter the human wilderness of the city on this same quest for restoration. If the sources of imbalance ecologically reside with us, then the sources of restoration reside within the human heart and mind, and not merely in the protection of external nature, or the development of cleaner technologies. This deeper exploration of wholeness is what my Circumference of Home project was all about in 2008, when I stayed close to home and lived car-free in an effort to renew my local practice of place.

That's also why I don't think of my climate activism as separate from my work as a mindfulness teacher. The forces that stand between ourselves and ecological resilience are less technical than they are psychological and spiritual. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to confront the depth of our own fear and aversion to the challenges we now face. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to accommodate the accelerating scale of change that is confronting us all. There is a great deal of inner work which must accompany our activist agendas.

This process of discernment starts, as it always has and must, with our individual choices about how we are going to live, what we value most, and what comes between us and the living of those values. How we move around on the planet, and how much we need to consume, are choices that have never carried higher stakes.

As I enter the third decade of my work with Inside Passages, these questions are active and alive in me. The uncertainty, and unknowability, of what is to come actually gives me hope, because I am learning to trust the deeper intelligence of a living world that refuses to give up, and that is erupting with new expressions of aliveness, even amid the painful litany of losses. That emergent world is fully capable of finding its way. And it will. The question is whether we humans will prove, in the end, to be on the side of that emergent aliveness, or swept aside by it.

 

Big surprise. Outdoor exercise more beneficial than the gym.

I missed last week's blog post because I was playing hooky, kayaking in the San Juan Islands with Sally. My last several posts have been the kind that leave me needing to play hooky, which is part of the activist's conundrum. The climate wars are heating up and getting ugly. A new generation of activists is getting more creative and aggressive in their tactics in taking on the fossil fuel giants. I've been tracking this rising intensity in the climate movement. I feel encouraged by what has been emerging within the movement, but it can also feel overwhelming. We are in a "long emergency" here, and even the most ardent climate warriors are going to have to figure out how to pace themselves. I don't know why it is so hard to do the things that sustain emotional balance, but it just seems to be how we are wired.

Anyway, with all this intensity in the air, my get-away to the San Juans was the first time in months that I've put my kayak in the water, and as usual, I wondered why I've waited so long. It was glorious being on the water, feeling the familiar tug of the paddle against tide and waves, the immensity of space around, below and above me, and the rejuvenating soundscape and aroma of the Salish Sea. What a tonic for the soul. With spring coming on, I've also been riding my bike almost daily again as well. For me, getting in my kayak or on my bike are the most reliable mood-enhancing drugs I know of. The benefits are hard to quantify, but undeniable.

There is something about being outside, unplugged, and physically vigorous, that is almost magical in its restorative powers. Gretchen Reynolds in the NY Times recently wrote that "emerging science suggests there are benefits to exercising outdoors that can’t be replicated on a treadmill, a recumbent bicycle or a track." Surprise, surprise! Whether walking, running or cycling, you burn more calories outside than indoors during comparable workouts, because of the added effort needed to adjust to changes in terrain, wind resistance, hills, etc.

"But there seem to be other, more ineffable advantages to getting outside to work out. In a number of recent studies, volunteers have been asked to go for two walks for the same time or distance — one inside, usually on a treadmill or around a track, the other outdoors. In virtually all of the studies, the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more and, on subsequent psychological tests, scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside."

Strange that we need all these studies to tell us that. Mind you, I go to the gym for weight workouts once a week myself. But I remain bewildered by the impulse to take our whole active life indoors. We are creatures, after all, of the elemental world - the "great outdoors." Just like everything else in nature, we humans are fabricated of rock and wind and flowing water, literal expressions of the forces and elements that make up our physical bodies. We are psychological and spiritual extensions of the earthly matter that has molded itself over thousands of millennia into these transient forms that house the miracle of human consciousness.

Which is another way of saying, I'm going to go outside every chance I get. I won't be effective in the climate work I care so deeply about if my inner climate of heart and mind get thrown out of balance in the process.

 

 

"Why is Gaia angry with me?"

Eric Nagourney, in the New York Times on Feb. 15, wrote:

You may not carry a laptop case made out of recycled fixed-gear bicycle tires. And it has probably been a while since you used yak dung to heat your home. But, hey, you’re an environmentalist. At least, that’s what you and your fellow boomers tell those pollsters whenever they ask.

So why is your carbon footprint bigger than the footprint of the T. rex that turned into the oil you’re using in your Prius?

When researchers tried to calculate carbon dioxide emissions by age group in the United States, guess who scored worst? You in the old Grateful Dead shirt — we’re talking to you.

Ouch.

It's true. My generation, the one behind the first big wave of environmentalism, the generation that staged the first Earth Day Celebration, pushed through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the American Wilderness System - we're also the ones who made giant carbon footprints fashionable. And this study by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft shows that personal carbon emissions tend to reach a peak around age 65. We boomers are environmentalists as long as no one questions our freedom to engage in as many high-carbon activities as we damn well please.

The good news, for climate, is that personal emissions trend downward after that, as we get tired of all that travel, or start spending all our discretionary income on medical procedures rather than rather than airplanes and gas.

Where I live, in a haven for wealthier boomers, sixty is the new forty, and eighty is the new sixty, and I don't see much sign of the newly retired easing back on the throttle around here.

About this generation of aging activists, Michael Grunwald of Time has written, "They recognize the emergency but feel uncomfortable about the sirens. They endorse the war, but like armchair McClellans, they are always finding excuses for why we shouldn’t fight."

That's why I'm siding with the emerging generation on the Keystone Pipeline, the coal trains, and the David-against-Goliath effort to divest from oil stocks. In this "battle of the century", as Grunwald is calling it, "you don’t always get to choose where to fight. You still have to show you’re willing to fight."

 

 

The Keystone Principle: Stop making it worse

"The Keystone Principle: Stop making it worse"

I live in the one narrow strip of land in the continental United States that was slightly cooler than normal in 2012. Puget Sound was the only place coded green on a national weather map for average yearly temperatures - a small spot of coolness in a sea of raging heat. Mind you, what kept us cool was the unrelenting rain. We got soaked. But it did keep us cool.

On this particular map - (I can't seem to dig it out of the cyber-pile, so I'm not able to reference it here), the great body of the continental U.S. east and south of the Cascades was a tangle of yellows, oranges and dark reds, indicating average temperatures ranging dangerously above normal. The map looked to me like the very picture of a fire burning. It seems we are starting to learn what it means to live inside of  a burning fever.

Partly because of this, the U.S. climate movement is surging, and last Sunday's climate rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. was a heady day for the movement. I want to give some reasons why we should not only tolerate this new fervor, but join it.

Mark Hertsgaard described the rally in D.C. this way;

"Braving frigid cold, at least 35,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington on Sunday for the largest climate change rally in U.S. history. With a second climate and clean energy rally planned for Earth Day on April 22, Sunday’s demonstration had the feel of a first act, an opening statement of what the burgeoning U.S. climate movement is demanding from a government that for decades has denied and delayed action on the most urgent problem of our age."

KC Golden of Climate Solutions issued a rousing moral commentary on the meaning of this rally in a terrific piece in Grist earlier this week. He calls it "The Keystone Principle", since the centerpiece of the movement right now is stopping the Keystone oil pipeline from the Tar Sands in Alberta to the Texas oil refineries. Why is this so important? KC puts it this way:

After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future. It’s about physical and moral consequences, now. And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement. It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: Stop making it worse.

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.

It’s true that stopping a single pipeline — even one as huge and odious as Keystone — will not literally “solve” climate disruption. No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation. The question — for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks — is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.

He goes on to say:

If you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits. It is your business strategy, precisely. For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water. We must not buy that ticket.

This is the Keystone Principle. It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

It is the scale of moral consequence that has been largely missing from this debate, and the scale of action that legitimate moral fervor can engender. Moral abdication has been perpetuated by placing climate disruption in the category of 'just another issue' among many, and by continuing to hand the media megaphones to climate deniers long after the scientific consensus has become crystal clear.

The line is stark now. Again to quote KC Golden:

No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now. Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like.

President Obama has a scorching decision to make on the Keystone project, if he is to build moral authority into his rousing words on climate action in his State of the Union Address. This "pipeline in the sand", as Bill McKibben calls it, is rapidly becoming a moral rallying cry with enormous potential to leverage change. Citizen activism will continue to blossom on this front regardless of Obama's decision on Keystone, but the symbolic power of saying "No" to big oil on this one would be huge.

Because things are moving so fast on the climate issue through the organizing power of social media, and because the mainstream press continues to portray the movement as marginal, it is easy to miss this fervor, and to dismiss it as just another fad. It isn't. We will all be climate activists soon. Our unraveling biosphere will leave us no choice. So why not get started now? Join a rally near you. Cash in that next luxury vacation and explore the treasures close to home. Keep those jets grounded. Divest your oil stocks. Occupy your bike! Pester your Congressman. Lay down on the tracks. We are all living in the tongue of the rapids.

Is Obama our "New Abolitionist"?

Last fall, during a grueling hike out of the Glacier Peak Wilderness with my son Alex, I found myself riffing on Abraham Lincoln to distract both of us from the numbing pain in our legs. We had been driven from the high flanks of Glacier Peak by an intense early blizzard in September, and were running on fumes near the end of our fifteen-mile hike back out to the trailhead. I had Alex as a captive audience when I got going about my admiration for Lincoln as the hinge person of his extraordinary times. And with a looming presidential election, I wanted Alex to know why I thought this election mattered so profoundly, and why I thought President Obama still had a chance to become a great president, possibly even on the order of Abraham Lincoln.

If slavery was Lincoln's crucible, climate change is rapidly emerging as the great moral crisis of our era. Lincoln chose to enter his second term by facing directly into the political storm of the 13th Amendment, seeking to bring a legislative end to slavery once and for all. He did so against powerful resistance from both his opponents in Congress and his own cabinet. He risked the hard-won legacy of his presidency on a cause that seemed to his advisors doomed to fail. Such a failure by Lincoln to meet this "inflection point in history" likely would have kept the slavery question festering far into Reconstruction, even after the Confederate surrender. And if that effort had failed, we might not still be making blockbuster movies on his presidency a century and a half later.

But Obama's historical crucible may prove even greater, the stakes even higher, and he may need to become our "New Abolitionist" in chief to move the dial forward on climate action.

Denis Hayes, who oversaw the first Earth Day event in 1970, argued this week in Crosscut.com that, "While economic prosperity and domestic tranquility are vital to winning elections, no federal monuments will be built to honor the fiscal stimulus package or Obamacare. The stature awarded President Obama by future historians will be very largely determined by his response to one issue: climate disruption." If Obama is to rise with Lincoln from "Good" to "Great", he must meet his own historic inflection point with a similarly fierce resolution.

The State of the Union Address this week gave further evidence that Obama is beginning to rise to that challenge. He has clearly stepped out of the shadows on the climate crisis, signaling the beginning of a much more forthright effort by his administration to meet this historical challenge. Here are some prominent statements on climate from his second term's opening State of the Union Address last Tuesday:

"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it is too late."

He goes on to say,

"if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

While specific proposals were lacking, and that is troublesome, several significant precedents were set here. First, the unofficial gag rule on even mentioning climate change at the highest levels of public policy is officially over. Second, the illusion of a legitimate "debate" about whether the climate crisis is real or "a hoax" has been broken. We are unlikely to return again to an era of officially-sanctioned climate denial. Third, the immediacy of the climate threat has been acknowledged. It is no longer being framed as an abstract or possible threat to our future, but as a real and present danger that is already upon us, with clearly observable catastrophic effects. And finally, Obama has signaled that federal action to more aggressively address the climate crisis will no longer be held hostage to a recalcitrant Republican wing of Congressional extremists. The President has committed himself to take executive actions to the limit of his power if Congress refuses to do so.

These statements of principle and commitment are also in line with Obama's choice of John Kerry as Sec. of State, and of Sally Jewell as Sec. of Interior - both fierce advocates for climate action in the policy domain.

This feels to me, at least, like a remarkable moment of turning within American climate policy. Alex and I were together on the night of Obama's re-election, and we recently watched the movie Lincoln together as well. The President's striking emergence onto the climate stage since his re-election strengthens his potential for greatness.

A lot of climate history has been written already since our conversation on the Glacier Peak trail. Hurricane Sandy and last week's epic blizzard in New England are only the latest installments in our climate's accelerating unraveling. Obama's new display of confidence and commitment to lead on climate is heartening. But whether he rises to genuine greatness as a leader on this issue - whether he has truly recognized climate as his over-arching historical inflection point, is a story that will be written in the coming months and years.

It is essential that we do our part as citizens to hold the President's feet to the fire, and our own as well, in meeting this defining crisis of our era.

 

"Only love can save us from climate change"

Thirty years ago a group of Trappist monks at a monastery in Oregon introduced me to sitting meditation, and invited me into my first Zen meditation retreat. At first I found this practice awkward and rather jarring. Sitting still could be very uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. Why would anyone want to put themselves out in this way? But something in the cleansing physicality and heart-based orientation of the practice took hold of me. The burdens of a life based on abstract "belief" found relief in the act of just sitting and watching. The experience of direct insight seemed to reside in this simple act. Slowly, often by fits and starts, my commitment to meditation practice spread into the core of my life. It took years of trial and error for the roots of practice to gain personal traction. But these day my regular sitting practice, and habit of doing silent meditation retreats several times a year, has a profound impact on how I experience my life in the world. The flow line between my active and contemplative lives grows more intertwined with each passing year.

So this recent interview with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh resonated deeply with me. Last week I shared a story about the power of love in the domain we're all most familiar with - personal relationships. This week I want to share Thich Naht Hanh's reflections about the power of love in a domain where it is seldom considered - climate change and climate activism.

In a recent piece by Joe Confino in the Guardian, entitled Only love can save us from climate change, Nhat Hanh that makes this connection explicit. Among living Buddhist teachers, perhaps only the Dalai Lama is better known than the 86-year-old "Thay", as he is known to his followers. Thay's commitment to living within the simplicity of his Plum Village monastic community in France has not stopped him from writing over 100 books, and building thriving monastic communities in Thailand, Hong Kong, the U.S. and Germany. He has hundreds of thousands of followers world wide.

Thay believes the reason people remain in denial of global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, is that most of us are mired in our own personal suffering, and are too afraid to open to the plight of Mother Earth. In his conversation with Confino, Thay suggested that "our search for fame, wealth, power and sexual gratification provides the perfect refuge for people to hide from the truth about the many challenges facing the world. Worse still, our addiction to material goods and a hectic lifestyle provides only a temporary plaster for gaping emotional and spiritual wounds, which only drives greater loneliness and unhappiness."

To a heart that is open, this spectacle of self-imposed suffering ought to engender compassion rather than judgement. Leading with compassion is not only the best way to change hearts, it is the only way. Many people "want to get busy in order to forget. We should not talk in terms of what they should do, what they should not do, for the sake of the future. We should talk to them in such a way that touches their hearts, that helps them to engage on the path that will bring them true happiness; the path of love and understanding, the courage to let go. When they have tasted a little bit of peace and love, they may wake up."

For us climate change "is very alarming and urgent, but for Mother Earth, if she suffers she knows she has the power to heal herself even if it takes 100 million years. We think our time on earth is only 100 years, which is why we are impatient. . . "Mother Earth is very talented. She has produced Buddhas, bodhisattvas, great beings."
Grassroots movements for change are necessary, but such movements are effective only if activists first deal with their own anger and fears, rather than simply projecting them outward onto others. He cites the example of Gandhi, who "was capable of urging his people to boycott a number of things. He knew how to take care of himself during non-violent operations. He knew how to preserve energy because the struggle is long, so spiritual practice is very much needed in an attempt to help change society."
"Compassion is a powerful energy," says Thay. "With compassion you can die for other people, like the mother who can die for her child. You have the courage to say [what is true] because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that understanding and love is the foundation of happiness. But if you have fear of losing your status, your position, you will not have the courage to do it."
"Now is the time to begin to learn how to love in a non-discriminatory way because we are intelligent enough, but we are not loving enough as a species. . . The Buddha of our time may not be an individual but it might be a sangha [practicing community]. If every day you practice walking and sitting meditation and generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and peace, you are a cell in the body of the new Buddha. This is not a dream but is possible today and tomorrow. The Buddha is not something far away but in the here and in the now."

I know that I am still a beginner in manifesting this kind of love. Perhaps I always will be. The complexity of our human life has a way of subverting even our best intentions, and perfection is never possible. But I can also feel how the tendrils of compassion are growing stronger in me, often beneath the radar of conscious awareness. Each time I take my seat on the meditation cushion, each time I turn back toward my work in the world with a listening heart, I water these seeds of compassion. So I am coming to trust that Thich Naht Hanh is right. Even if it takes 100 million years, I will do it. And that part of me that is still alive 100 million years from now will continue to do it. It is when I feel the strength of this kind of resolve that my fear falls away.

 

A wedding to break and heal the heart

I call this blog "conversations around the fire" for two reasons. First, I love the way conversations bubble up around a campfire, tapping into deep reservoirs of story that tie us to older ways of being human. Second, we live on a planet that increasingly feels “engulfed in flames”, and learning to live with the rising heat is a big part of our contemporary assignment. I think we need both old and new ways of working with fire.

As we move "deeper into uncelebrated winter", as Nancy Hiles called this time of year, a good fire in the hearth is always welcome. John Howard Griffin wrote of these mid-winter days that, "Everything waits, suspended in calm, and underneath - a profound ravishment of the senses. . . You don't go rushing after what is already there. You wait, give it time, give it time gradually to reveal itself in you. Nothing is lost. No time is wasted."

That is how to celebrate "uncelebrated winter." Make of it a flow of daily sacraments built out of the most ordinary moments. Too often obsessed by my own blinder of lists, by all that I have to do on the conveyor belt that I construct out of my days, I lose myself in distraction, and the moments of grace flow by unnoticed, unacknowledged, unseen.

Yesterday something happened that threw me headlong back into that current of grace. A good friend, whose wife died of cancer a few years back, recently found new love. My wife Sally and I had a serendipitous role in bringing him together with his fiance, both friends from different parts of our lives. We have taken a special pleasure in watching their happiness unfold at the delight of finding each other. Their wedding was planned for this spring. 

When I saw my friend at Christmas he looked tired, and that is when I learned of his illness. I was concerned, but I soon got busy, and another month passed before I saw him again. When I did, I was stunned by how quickly his illness had progressed. By yesterday he barely had the strength to sit up in bed. His hopes of recovery were clearly receding, and my friend spoke openly of the nearness of death. Excruciating choices needed to be made, and made quickly.

At the urging of Michael, a hospice friend, we pulled together a spur-of-the-moment wedding, with me officiating. Sally, Michael and I gathered around the bed with the luminous couple as they spoke spontaneous vows of unabashed love and devotion. I did my best to offer a blessing that could begin to touch the scale of joy and sorrow that this moment had brought together. Tears flowed, and unexpected laughter also, as the faces of bride and groom glowed with gratitude and relief that they had seized this moment to do what they most longed to do, to become husband and wife.

Rarely have I witnessed such a potent and courageous expression of love. Michael invoked the healing power of love to sometimes work miracles, even when the medical prospects are grim. He has seen the unexpected in his hospice work many times.

Yet come what may, I have never seen love triumph over loss and pain more powerfully than yesterday, or felt so honored to be in its presence. The joy in this wedding was focused with laser intensity on the "fierce urgency of now", amplified by the knowledge that their shared life may be counted in days or weeks rather than years. The rapture on their faces carried a full awareness of this truth.

It was a moment of grace, in the depth of "uncelebrated winter", that Sally and I will never forget.

 

Yearning for the continuity of place

As mid-January passes, I feel the first ticks toward a growing light. Last evening Sally and I walked the trails of the Chinook lands we are blessed to live nestled against. Emerging from the forest, we watched the fading light of sunset at 5:30. A half hour of new light has started the swing toward longer days. Soon we will feel its quickening pace. For now it is cold, and thoroughly winter. Marv Hiles writes: "We live our years in a courtly dance, circling through a roundel of sun, tides, and seasons of body and soul that extend farther than our brief lifespan. We are ripples on a pond of incomprehensible depth."

My own life has become a dance between what is enduring about that cycle - the refuge of seasonal continuity and grace, and what has broken that cycle into something incomprehensibly new. It is more important than ever that I remember to take refuge in the "roundel of sun, tides and seasons", daily and hourly, so that I can be alive as well to what is breaking open, even when it feels as if things are merely breaking apart.

These days I long for the simpler rhythm of work and place that I remember from an earlier era in my life, bound to a small fishing village on a remote island in Southeast Alaska, where my children were born and spent their first decade of life. Doing carpentry in the winter and commercial fishing in the summer, it was all held within a scope of place and belonging that feels far away now. We moved south to Puget Sound when my children came to an age that was confining for them on that small island. My work has shifted away from matters of craft and endurance, toward matters of the heart and mind - teaching and writing, networking and organizing - work I love. But I spend many hours a day now in front of a screen that did not exist through my first four decades of life, wielding powers of connection that earlier generations could not even have imagined. I have become a different person inhabiting a global culture to which place is often an afterthought, if it is a thought at all. A culture in which the mind and body rarely occupy the same place at the same time.

I live in a house that I built with my own hands, though I too-rarely pick up hammer and saw and chisel these days. The yearning of my heart is strong for more of the continuity that characterized my life as a carpenter and fisherman - a single habitat containing work and family, leisure and the intimate fabric of a local community that actually depends upon each other for social and economic sustenance. That possibility of a place-based life feels gone with the wind, and working with that fact is a big part of my "practice" now. My children will be the last born on this earth who spent any portion of their life uncoupled from the internet and the withering reach of social media.

But so it is, and therefore so it will be. Perhaps I am merely of an age where the backward glance is becoming more frequent. I will have to be vigilant not to give myself over to this impulse. But I also feel it is my job - my calling in a way - to be one of those outliers whose desire is to keep to the old ways - work that is connected to earth, soil and sea, physical labors working the material of that earth into something useful and visible and available to the touch. And a community that is not always just passing through, using this place as a launching pad for forays to the far ends of the rainbow.

The part of that vision that endures is the part I have in each moment of pause, when I allow myself to feel the pulse of the place I am now standing, the fragrance of the winter air, the continuity of decades spent in in the same valley. And the yearning of a heart that is still beating within it.

Training as warriors of the spirit

"To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous strength and courage, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place for this warrior strength is in the heart."  - Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart 

After lots of rain this fall, we've had clear, cold weather for almost a week here in Puget Sound, which has been sweet. The mountains are plastered with snow, nearly to tidewater, and the skiing in the Cascades has been fabulous. I love the clarity of clear winter days after so much rain. The fresh scent of the air and the feeling of a moist, palpable cold on the face is invigorating. We even had a dusting of snow yesterday, which never fails to stir an old childhood longing in me for the kind of real winter that rarely reaches us here in the Puget lowlands.

Such days offer an all-too-brief refuge from the bigger picture on climate that is so "taking the world by storm." Even as I enjoy the respite of a winter day that ties me to comforting childhood memories, I am never quite free of the burden of knowing the larger inconvenient truth. As it becomes more clear that the ship of climate change has already arrived at the dock, our human focus is shifting from prevention to adaptation. By any measure, this past week has offered unusually grim reminders that climate disruption is here to stay. How to live with it, and to navigate the difficult emotions it arouses, is critical now.

Let's start with the breaking news. Here is some of what has come down the pipes in the last week alone. The Seattle Times carried a piece last Saturday entitled "Climate Change Moving Faster Than Expected."   It highlights the newly released National Climate Assessment report, which states, “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer.”

While mountains of scientific evidence alone have failed to convince many Americans of the seriousness of these trends, we tend to believe our own eyes. The monster heat waves of the last year got our attention. Hurricane Sandy certainly got our attention. Monster wild fires across the midwest got our attention. Temperatures are rising fast, rainfall is more intense and erratic, drought more severe, and rising sea levels and storm surges are increasingly threatening our coastal cities. It's in our face now.

The NCA report came just days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its annual State of the Climate Report, declaring 2012 the hottest year on record in the United States, exceeding the 20th Century average by a whopping 3.2 degrees fahrenheit.

Also this week, the heatwave gripping Australia is so intense that the Dept. of Meteorology has been forced to create new colors on its weather maps to depict temperatures now climbing between 122 - 129 degree F. 170 wild fires are raging in New South Wales, and the fire danger there is currently rated as "Catastrophic". An intense dust cloud (image at left) caused by extreme drought and high winds, moved offshore into the ocean near Onslow, Australia. Nothing like this has been seen before. It is new under the sun. Australia's bizarre climate extremes are seen as a harbinger of what will soon become common in other parts of the world as well.

This is no longer a reality, in other words, that we have any prospect of escaping. Nor is it a reality that lurks in some abstract, indeterminant future. It is a reality that we must now learn to live with as the new baseline of our shared life on earth, even as we ramp up our determination to alter the deep habits of carbon consumption that has led us to this unexpected new precipice.

As I attempt to wrap my mind and heart around these painful truths, I know that we will have to find antidotes to the fear and anxiety (and subsequent denial) that such events naturally arouse in the human mind. We will have to find antidotes to the "disaster fatigue" that can leave us feeling disempowered on the sidelines. We need to become warriors of the spirit. Lately I have felt drawn to the Buddhist archetype of the Shambhala Warrior. Unlike the traditional image of a warrior as aggressive and ruthless, this warrior archetype combines the best masculine qualities of strength and fearlessness with powerful feminine qualities of wisdom, compassion and a commitment to non-harming. In her book So Far From Home, which I riffed on last week as well, Meg Wheatley describes the path this way: "As warriors for the human spirit, we discover our right work, work that we know is ours to do no matter what. We engage wholeheartedly, embody values we cherish, let go of outcomes, and carefully attend to relationships. We serve those issues and people we care about, focused not so much on making a difference as on being a difference."

The path of the spiritual warrior is a tough assignment. It always has been. It requires, in Jack Kornfield's words, "tremendous strength and courage". Its grounding is in the heart.

There is no minimizing the scope of the crisis we now face. But despair is only one option for a response, and denial is just another. Neither is inevitable. And neither is particularly helpful. Somewhere between denial and despair lies a third way. Call it the path of the spiritual warrior. This path finds its strength in moments of open-hearted presence. It taps into the inexhaustible aliveness of Now. From this place we fall naturally into fearlessness. Fear falls away like mist in the morning sunshine. Acts of courage and service can now flow freely, unimpeded by fear and cynicism. Joy can catch up with us, right in the midst of our simplest daily offerings. It is not an easy path. It takes discipline and lots of practice. It requires a community of dedicated fellow spirit-warriors. It does not guarantee that things will turn out the way we want. But it is the path I choose, and I welcome fellow travelers on this path.

Letting go of our need to impact the future

This post begins my second year of offering weekly "conversations around the fire". If you are one of the friends sitting with me around this virtual campfire, welcome back, and Happy New Year! As with last year, 2013 began for me with a men's retreat on the first weekend after New Year's Day. What better place to begin this round of weekly reflections.

Our tradition celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year, with eleven of my closest male friends and colleagues meeting for three days of conversation and adventure. This year we traveled to Doe Bay on Orcas Island for our retreat. It is not an event that any of us would consider missing. In fact, we plan our whole year around it, and most years all eleven of the original members of the group show up. We range in age now from 52 to 84, and cover a professional spectrum that includes an architect, an attorney, a psychiatrist, a filmmaker, several clergy, a meditation teacher, and three commercial fishermen. Not your usual mix.

We began this adventure two decades ago with a strong desire to address the ecological costs of our current way of life. We still share that purpose, and most of us still see ourselves as "change-makers". But we have become more circumspect over the years about what that change entails, and less strident perhaps in how we hold our aspirations for change.

Most of us would describe ourselves as having a spiritual practice, though that practice varies in nature and context. Several of us, including some of the Christian clergy among us, have strong meditation practices drawn from Buddhist insight meditation. We always begin our days together with a half-hour of silent meditation, beginning in darkness, and sitting through to the first light of day. As a practice, this carries for us some symbolism about how to inhabit the darkness of our times, and an honoring of the annual return of the light, just now beginning to make itself felt.

The friendships that have been forged over these years feel especially privileged, considering the level of isolation and fragmentation that too many of us endure as a given in our lives. This annual retreat offers an expression of continuity and care in long-term friendships that is a wonderful antidote to the trend away from direct, in-person connection. We have a lot of fun together, enjoy a penchant for fine single malt whiskey, and build outdoor adventures into all our gatherings. But we also make time for more serious conversations, hosted each year by different members of the group.

This year we riffed on Meg Wheatleys' new book So Far From Home: Lost and Found In Our Brave New World. In the book, Wheatley takes on many of the assumptions that have anchored our activist culture for decades, and that have been core to our own activist agendas. She says, "I wrote this book for you if you offer your work as a contribution to others, whatever your work might be. And if now you find yourself feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and despairing while also experiencing moments of joy, belonging, and increased resolve to do your work." As an alternative to the activist warrior mentality, she offers the image of a "warrior for the human spirit." With issues like climate change and cultural polarization continuing to deepen, despite our best efforts to turn them back, she articulates a middle way between anger and passivity, denial and despair, that can enliven our efforts to bring healing to the world, while freeing us from the burden of our attachment to specific results.

This is an operative paradox that I return to often in this blog - the elusive middle way I have sought in my own life and work between the truly daunting challenges we face, and our capacity to work joyously for the common good independent of whether we are "successful" in creating the changes we seek.

Our group's conversations about Wheatley's book were heated at times, and not all of us agreed with her proposed path of the spiritual warrior. These are emotional fault lines not easily reconciled with a culture of activism that is often anger driven, constricted by a sense of urgency, and bound to a feeling of personal failure and deep discouragement if reality doesn't accept our specific "demands". Wheatley's proposed path through this quandary requires a measure of spiritual discipline and trust in the "emergent" nature of reality that is often missing among activist networks. We could all agree with Wheatley's prescription that  we seek to "embody values and practices that offer us meaningful lives now." But some heat was generated by her next assertion that "we let go of needing to impact the future."

This challenge to the results-driven ideology of our culture is always a hard case to make. Why would we even want to let go of our need to impact the future? Yet it is our NEED to achieve certain results that causes the imbalance, not the efforts themselves. We can continue to give our best efforts, no matter what the outcome, and this is precisely what offers us access to resilience and joy in the midst of our efforts. The integrity and whole-heartedness of our desire to be present to our work, and to each other, is where our aliveness springs forth. And when you think about it, where else but from this aliveness - this joyful and unhurried embrace of the moment at hand - can a "future" worth striving for ever find purchase and take root?

May 2013 be a hinge time for all of us, in which we choose, again and again, to turn back toward that kind of aliveness, the kind that is always as close as our next action, and our next breath.

"If kids knew Santa's home is melting . . ."

Christmas has come and gone, and another New Year is upon us. Happy 2013! - or, as the saying has gone this time around, "Happy New Era!" And may it be so. I don't have any statistical proof to go on, but Whidbey Island may have more Holiday gatherings per capita than any other place in North America. There might be some pockets of extreme revelry off-continent, like in Brazil, that rival us. But we've got All-Pro standing in El Norte. I'm sure of it. I probably wouldn't even know this, except that my wife Sally is on the All-Pro Party team. This poses a challenge to me as a contemplative, pushing me beyond my ordinary limits, and - I'll be perfectly honest - I made it to the finish line this year on fumes.

But there were great moments, and here is one of them. Our friends Chris Swenson and Abigail Halpern came up from Seattle to join us for the final push to New Years. Chris received this email while he was with us from his colleague Jessica Plumb of Port Townsend, WA. I'm passing it on to you with Jessica's permission.

Jessica is an award winning filmmaker and visual artist who works the rich terrain of Washington's Olympic Penninsual. According to Jessica, "The intersection of place and human experience is a theme that runs through my work and my life. . . Many of my films explore the idea of inner cartography, the ridges and valleys carved inside us by experience, and by the places we've called home." This is the same terrain I've been exploring for years in my writing, teaching and guiding.

Jessica's daughter Zia is 6 years old, and a regular companion on her journeys to remote parts of the Olympic Penninsula. "Zia's favorite place to be is in Olympic National Park." says Jessica. "She loves the outdoors, and is quite preoccupied with environmental questions. I'm making a film about the Elwha River, so we talk about these issues often."

This Christmas, Zia made some connections in her mind between the disappearing Arctic ice cap and Santa's long term prospects. Jessica stated that, "this was the first time Zia put Santa's predicament and global warming together - and I think she's onto something." Here is the summary of  their conversation on the subject:

Zia: "Santa lives at the North Pole, right? And the North Pole is just ice, not land, and it's melting?"

Jessica: "I'm afraid so."  (Zia's eyes grow huge in horror.)

Zia: "This has got to stop! What can we do about it?"

Jessica: "It's complicated. Lots of us need to change how we live. One thing we can do is drive less; it's why we walk to school."

Zia: "Kids don't drive, Mom. If kids knew Santa's home was melting, they'd walk everywhere!" She gets very serious. "I don't believe Santa comes down the chimney, Mom, and I think he has millions of helpers. But I am sure that melting the North Pole is a very bad idea."

Ah, to have the clarity of a six year old on things that really matter. It should be as obvious to us as it is to Zia that depriving Santa of a place to live and work (not to mention his millions of helpers) is "a very bad idea." Maybe its time to give polar bears a rest, and focus more on Santa Claus in global warming messaging. If more kids connected the dots the way Zia has, their parents would catch holy hell until they decide to actually do something about it. Something a six year old can understand, like walking more places and driving a lot less. A bunch of really pissed off six year olds might be able to move the dial more than a mountain of scientific evidence. It's worth a try.

Go Zia!