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Contemplating Action on Climate Change, Part II

Calling for Meditation in Action on Climate Change –A Further Exploration

by Acharya Marty Janowitz

Part Two

photo of an Earth Rise by astronaut William Anders

photo of an Earth Rise by astronaut William Anders

From our Buddhist teachings and more vitally our meditative experience, we do have means to traverse the seeming abyss between our path as practitioners and our path as citizens and activists. We have learned that the underlying problem is rooted in our mistaken perception that we – and within that our thoughts – are solid, enduring and valid. This is what Trungpa Rinpoche called the ‘basic twist,’ the belief that we might grasp solid ground by focusing on the bits of thought while ignoring the space in between – first projecting solidity and then believing those projections. But our meditative practice relentlessly reminds us that even our most vivid thoughts, emotions and impulses are ephemeral.

‘Good or bad, happy or sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.’ This teaching, contained within a practice liturgy composed by Trungpa Rinpoche, has both infused and confused me since I encountered it in the very week I stumbled into the dharma. In theory I ‘get’ it, but learning how to hold and work with this understanding has been a challenge in both practice and action, especially when most needed. Fortunately the practice ultimately speaks for itself. I’ve learned through decades of intermittent attention to my nature that all thoughts and projections do vanish and that all clinging to false concepts of solidity ultimately leads to nothing essentially productive.

Clinging to thoughts is a case of not trusting our nature, or not even knowing what it is. When we don’t trust our nature, the world we face just feeds our insecurity and fear, so that the seeming ‘other’ is a threat to the seeming ‘us.’  This lack of integration is something like a war within us, which is ultimately magnified to the scale of warring ideologies. It is this split and hardening that has resulted in so much of humanity’s difficulty – climate change being merely one of the latest and most devastating in its global implications. As we know, such grasping is the root cause of suffering, and also the origin of attitudes of separation, divisiveness, violence and isolation. Alternatively, if our ‘world’ is not conventionally solid, it suggests both unfettered freedom and uncertain groundlessness. Freedom gives a free rein to aspiration or vision – anything is possible in the absence of fixed boundaries or constraints. But groundlessness implies there is nothing certain to rely on.

old-oak-treeThe dharma suggests that these attributes of our personal and communal worlds do not inherently lead to disconnection and separation, but rather to fluidity and openness. Viewing the world this way – as less than solid – is something we can touch each time we let a thought go and come back to the heart of awareness. This experience sows seeds and wakes up certain aspects of our being, particularly our direct connection to the way things naturally, primordially are. When we open our direct sense attention, we touch the energy of this basic nature which is inherently open and curious, and we become available to touch the energy of the environment. We recognize this directly and describe it as best we can using terms like bodhicitta and tatagatagharba or in the language of my Shambhala lineage, basic goodness.

From this we access the 4th Noble Truth – the Path that frees us from suffering. When we can retain this intimate connection to openness in activity, we are working with what Trungpa Rinpoche called ‘meditation in action.’ We hold the aspiration that our commitment to personal openness, gentleness, self-knowing and societal decency will in some ways contribute to and encourage wider appreciation of the heart of awake – a ripple effect. That can to some extent be the case, but strategic activism requires more than that. Crucial to a strategic vision is knowledge – especially self-knowledge – and a view of the whole that seeks to bring conflicting views into a larger perspective within which we are discovering and executing activity that generates next steps. This view shows a path from where things are, to where we aspire for them to be. Our spiritual credentials or even accomplishment may not necessarily translate into accomplishment on the ground. Just because we may have a compelling philosophy and some ability to connect with awareness or avoid being sucked into passing emotional traps does not mean we will be effective organizers, activists or advocates. How do we bring together and empower our view, practice and action?

Trungpa Rinpoche described this apparent distance between what we aspire to achieve and the constraints we actually encounter as the seeming separation between the fruition of ‘heaven’ and the ground of ‘earth.’ Dynamically advancing an energetic path from earth to heaven is our challenge. This teaching points to the missing link and energizing force as ‘humanity.’ This is, lo and behold, the same quality of awake or goodness that we touch directly through the practices of mindfulness-awareness, but in this context we are expressing our nature and raising our unconditional confidence explicitly to energize the path.  In the Shambhala teachings we call such a path-oriented approach to practice raising windhorse. Windhorse is the self-existing energy of basic goodness in action. We can contact this energy within ourselves and work with it in concert with others. Doing so is in essence acknowledging the strength within our nature of awake on a concrete, even physical level, and applying that strength with generosity.

ASC_buddha_treeThis is not theoretical. We can do this by focusing our mindfulness-awareness practice in a more expansive way, simultaneously sensing the solidity of our ‘earth’ and the spaciousness of our ‘heaven,’ and joining them through an intentional flash of connection.  But this flash of connection is merely the beginning. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has pointed out that it is hard and continuing work to feel, appreciate, and embody our nature. In most cases that is neither our training nor our habit, as we exist within societies that do not nurture such an attitude. Our modern world promotes a strange combination of speed, sleep and escape, magnetized by technologies and now social media. All of this “dulls us to our own brilliance and tenderness” – two essential qualities for workability, much less leadership, on a path.

I believe it is possible to hold or at least return to such a centered (not self centered) attitude – engaging and leading from the heart of awake, moving forward and learning to work with conflict in a more profound and effective way. The basis of such effectiveness will be renewed appreciation of interconnectedness, where projected barriers were never true barriers to begin with. This is not philosophy – it’s accessible, touchable, recognizable experience. An interconnected world must inevitably point to an interdependent world or, as Thich Nhat Hahn famously describes, a world that highlights ‘inter-being.’

As modern spiritually oriented activists, we sometimes suggest that such thinking points to the world as sacred, as Gaia or as Mother, using words like mandala, ecology, systems thinking, holistic, organismic, energetic or quantum – big ideas with potentially fancy implications. But the essence of sacredness is its fundamental ordinariness. When we participate in practices that allow us to directly experience that sacredness, we touch the foundation of what we might consider sacred activism. A sacred activist is someone who is starting to experience the inner joy and outer effectiveness of this force, who knows that the world’s profound crisis is challenging everyone to act from our deepest compassion and wisdom, and who is committed to ‘being.’ in the face of growing chaos, suffering, and violence. In Shambhala terminology we call this the way of warriorship.

When there is fear and doubt about human society’s place in nature, social tendencies arise that cut us off from the experience of sacredness. By recognizing the interconnectedness of all life in such a personal way, we can move beyond the idea that we are separate selves. We can have the basis to expand our compassion and love in such a way that we take action to protect the Earth. From an activist’s or warrior’s perspective we are not focused on philosophy, but on actual change and transformation – a movement, if you will, towards more enlightened societies.

Acharya Janowitz

Acharya Janowitz

I propose that participation is a choice: first to be open to ourselves and others, then to extend ourselves with unpretentious interest and curiosity, and ultimately to engage, motivated by some combination of shared goodness and responsiveness to needs. Building environmentally awakened society arises from authentic confidence in unconditioned goodness, in community with all beings. This approach to ecology or to any socially oriented action is to actualize sacred world on the spot.

Editor’s note: see related presentation by Acharya Janowitz in this Shambhala Eco-Forum video.

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1 response to “ Contemplating Action on Climate Change, Part II ”
  1. Irene Woodard
    Oct 25, 2015

    Big thanks Marty for this monster of an article.
    deep bow

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