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.