Mindfulness Comes Face to Face with Climate Change

Peace is all around us, in our hearts, in the world.
It is not just a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.

–– Thich Nhat Hanh

Last month I wrote about faith, stating that I have confidence in the efficacy of certain aspects of the Dharma teachings––especially, though not only, in compassion: the uplifting energy inherent in the attitude, “We can do this.” Faith is important. It is, in Buddhist teachings, the first of the spiritual powers. It gives rise to energy, the second spiritual power. Energy is manifested as action. Without some degree of confidence or trust in these teachings, we won’t put them into action.

Compassion, of course, needs mindfulness to know that dukkha (some sort of harm) is occurring. I have faith in mindfulness, and, interestingly, this month I have been mindfully aware of doubt––both internally and externally, in myself and in others. Doubt, in its unskillful form, is a strong impediment both to faith and to practice in the form of meaningful action. Doubt is the attitude of “I am not sure we can do this.” It further expresses itself in words such as, “What I do makes no difference.” It states, “The little things I can do to create less harm don’t really matter––to the environment––to racial injustice––to prison reform––to some recently surfaced chronic illness––or, perhaps, in relation to the death or dementia of a loved one. There is no joy, no energy, in the doubting attitude of “We can’t do this. It is too late. It is impossible.” Colored by unseen doubt, the heart takes refuge in sorrow and lamentation, or anger, or despair––or maybe in addiction––and certainly, in inaction.

Unnoticed, doubt is the most dangerous of the hindrances because it can bring our practice [our life] to a standstill. When doubt is strong and paralyzes us with indecision, it doesn’t even give us an opportunity to take a wrong turn and then to learn from our mistakes. With doubt, we’re always checking ourselves, vacillating, trying to decide.
––Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness

Doubt bogs us down in our personal lives and in our collective lives. It is an attitude that is pervasive in our world today and one which is a contributor to the stalemates in our global political life. A recent article by Bhikkhu Analayo calls us to the urgent need to move beyond this vacillating inaction around what he names as the most challenging issue humanity faces today––environmental peril. In the article, “A Task for Mindfulness: Facing Climate Change.” Analayo’s analysis is clear, bright, direct, and important. There is no doubt. He places both the causes of this catastrophic crisis and an action plan to address it squarely in the middle of the Dharma teachings.

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The Four Noble Truths are sometimes compared to a medical diagnosis: 1) recognizing the truth of the disease; 2) naming the cause; 3) giving a prognosis; and 4) offering the prescription, the wisest course of action. In keeping with this format, Analayo begins his article with a statement of fact about this worldwide dukkha, i.e., the dangerous and troubling dis-ease we are experiencing right now. He mindfully and honestly states the problem: all of humanity and the earth itself are in dire straits due to the strong impact of human activities:

The destruction of the environment and climate change have reached dimensions that, if unchecked, threaten the very survival of humanity on this planet. The possible future scenarios are truly devastating: oceans becoming acidic and fish dying, extinction of the majority of animal species, large areas of fertile land turning into deserts, massive depletion of drinking water supplies, crop failure, large-scale migration, and warfare in competition for dwindling resources. (page 1)

Just as the dharma’s Second Noble Truth addresses the cause of our predicament, Analayo gives us an initial insight into the causes contributing to the current problem, describing how our tendencies towards heedless, habit-driven reactivity in the face of situations that threaten the status quo make things worse.

Such scenarios are so horrible that one would rather not think about them. Yet, avoiding to think about it is a factor contributing to the present crisis. A tool is required to counter such avoidance and also the tendency to succumb to “catastrophe fatigue,” which tends to prevent the taking of meaningful action. (page 1)

He next offers us the understanding inherent in the Third Noble Truth: this situation is workable. Recognizing that something can be done about this––right now––he points us in the direction of the Fourth Noble Truth, which lays out exactly what we can do to not make things worse, and thereby to begin healing the planet and our hearts. The wisdom of the Eightfold Path guides us in the development of two essential keys in this regard: mindfulness and compassion. The path itself and our practicing it become the prescription to move us towards wellness.

Here, mindfulness can offer a much-needed solution. It can become a central tool to enable facing the horror with inner balance and, based on that, then taking the steps needed to transform what might well be the most serious challenge human beings have ever faced in their history. With mindfulness, this challenge could be transformed into an opportunity to increase global awareness and move to a level of interaction among human beings that gives precedence to the common welfare over individual profit in order to maintain the living conditions required for the survival of human civilization. (page 1)

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A scholar of Early Buddhism, Analayo searched the discourses to see if they might hold any precedents for the current environmental devastation or any meaningful suggestions about how to proceed. Though he found no “environmental ethics” per se, he did find a strong link made between internal states of mind, human behavior, and external environmental conditions. In the excerpt below, a story is told of how an unruly political situation and worsening environmental conditions are both contributing to a spiraling decline in moral standards and civility, thereby making things worse:

At that time one no longer hears in the world the names of ghee, rock honey, dark rock honey, or of any sweet delicacies. Rice seeds and rice seedlings turn into grass and weeds … at that time many thorny bushes grow on this earth and there are many mosquitoes, gadflies, flies, fleas, snakes, vipers, wasps, centipedes, and poisonous worms … on the surface of the earth there appear only clay stones, sand, and gravel … at that time [human] beings are capable of being extremely evil and there is no filial piety towards parents, no respect for teachers and elders, no loyalty, and no righteousness. Those who are rebellious and without principles are esteemed … on seeing one another, [human] beings constantly wish to kill one another. They are just like hunters on seeing a herd of deer. Then on this earth there are many ravines, deep gorges with rushing rivers. The earth is a waste-land. Human beings are scarce. People go about in fear. At that time fighting and plundering will manifest. (page 2)

In these teachings any attempt at creating “environmental ethics” must be directly related to the “ethics of the mind,” which is, in fact, the central factor of our dharma practice. In this foundational ethics is the birth of mindfulness and the basis for compassion, friendliness, and non-addiction as the wisest intentions to guide our lives. As dharma practitioners, we are always called to discriminate between what is wholesome and unwholesome; to distinguish between that which is good for ourselves and good for others and that which isn’t; to distinguish that which leads towards more suffering and that which doesn’t. We are also called upon to incorporate this distinction into every one of our actions. We have to have just enough faith in our assessments to act. We have to try them out in real time.

I try to be kind whenever it is possible. It is always possible.” – Dalai Lama

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The modern Insight tradition has it that when Ajahn Chah (or U Pandita; the story varies) first came from Asia to visit the then new IMS retreat center in Barre MA in the early 1970s, he remarked on the diligence of the meditation students practicing there. He was impressed to a degree, but he reflected on limitations of their practice with a metaphor. He said it was as if they were rowing boats with great strength and increasing skill, but they had not untied their boats from the shore. To him, ethics––the taking of practice into daily life––was the missing piece. I think this has something to do with the “unseen doubt” referred to at the beginning of this essay, and with their not having enough trust in the wise understanding presented in the first factor of the Eightfold Path, part of which is: “What we do in this world (or don’t do) has an effect in this world.”

In his explanation of the “ethics of the mind,” Analayo reflects that the stumbling blocks in the mind, in regard to both clear understanding and wise action, are the three heedless, reactive tendencies toward greed/desire, aversion, and delusion. He sees these as manifesting in three mental attitudes that support the acceleration of climate change. These are: 1) denial that there is a problem, combined with an attitude of getting as much pleasure as possible now; 2) anger at those in positions of power who are making things worse; and 3) resignation to the situation combined with a depressed helplessness.

For those of us with some understanding of and commitment to Buddhist teachings, it is obvious that all three of these attitudes indicate some level of doubt or confusion. Certainly, they show a faltering of heart around the analysis based on the Four Noble Truths, which is presented so clearly in the structure of Analayo’s article. They also show a lack of confidence in the “Three Jewels”: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. One meaning of faith in the Buddha is having trust in our own ability and that of others to see clearly and to act wisely and kindly from this clarity––for our own sake and that of others. This is a trust in the potential goodness of all human hearts.

It is through trusting in the Dharma or teachings that we untie our boats from the shore. When we practice relying on open, mindful awareness and friendliness as a way of life, we are on our way to becoming compassionate in action. We grow to know deeply that what we do has an effect in this world. We see that things do change in relation to causes and conditions––some of which we can influence and some we cannot. This is wise understanding, the first factor of the Eightfold Path. So is the realization that nothing is perfect, permanent, or to be taken personally. It is all changing.

Confidence in the sangha asks us to practice placing our trust in our interdependence with every being on this planet. Human beings’ role in climate change is an issue that can only be addressed if we work together as a global community. Instead of saying that this will never happen, we begin to act as if it will. Compassion as a way to relate to one another is firmly established in the second path factor, that of wise intention, which tells us we can lessen the harm happening all around us through: non-ill will (coloring our interactions with kindness and friendliness); non-harming, i.e., compassion; and renunciation, which is being described lately as non-addiction––a powerful force well worth developing in this consumer-based culture.

To some degree, almost all human beings contribute to the problem. Let the one who has never driven a car, taken a flight, eaten food imported from abroad, worn clothing manufactured in a distant country, etc., throw the first stone … Besides, at least from an early Buddhist perspective, even righteous anger is a defilement of the mind. There is definitely a place for stern and strong action, but this should better come with inner balance rather than aversion. Inner balance is crucial for any possible activity to achieve maximum benefit. From the viewpoint of mindfulness practice, getting angry equals succumbing to one of the root defilements and thereby to what has contributed to and sustains this very crisis. Anger is a problem and not a solution. A solution can only be found when the mind is not clouded by defilements and therefore able to know and see things accurately. (Analayo, page 4)

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Turning off the tap water as your brush your teeth and knowing why you are doing it matters. Remembering the suffering of the oceans and intentionally limiting your purchases of items wrapped in plastic matters. Writing to policy makers matters, so does cultivating friendships across philosophical divides and among strangers. And––joy matters. Encouraging contentment matters. Spending time with spiritual friends who also practice these teachings is invaluable.

The path is not one of grim duty; it includes happiness and the uplifted energy of compassion inherent in knowing that “we can do this together.” Though doubt and fear may loom large, dare to practice having just enough faith in the teachings to act and go see for yourself––even in light of the overwhelming news about the accelerating speed of melting ice caps and ice fields, rising seas with their islands of plastic-depleting oxygen, the ever-increasing carbon-emissions raising temperatures, wars over land, water, and food, or mass migrations.

And definitely remember and trust the very important sixth factor of the Eightfold Path: “It takes practice.” You can choose to have confidence in our collective practice and in our ability as humans to join together and actively engage in the important work described by Analayo in his article: “We can do this.”

The cultivation of mindfulness facilitates approaching the disastrous external repercussions of the three root defilements without succumbing to them oneself internally. Such cultivation rests on the intention for the absence of harm as an expression of compassion. It monitors and fine tunes the contribution made by compassion, ensuring that one neither succumbs to its near enemy of grief nor switches off due to being unable to face it any longer. Viewed from this perspective, facing climate change becomes a mindfulness practice all the way through. Not only that, but its final goal is precisely a raising of the level of awareness on a global scale. (Analayo, page 10)

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