By Beth Norcross
It is the destruction of the world In our own lives that drives us Half insane, and more than half. To destroy that which we were given in trust: how will we bear it? -Wendell Berry
Let me be honest.
The Climate Crisis is scaring, well, let’s call it “the stuffing” out of me. Perhaps it is just as daunting for you. Finally, it seems that the mainstream media is giving appropriate attention to what can only be described as an existential crisis. We hear regular reports of disastrous wildfires, overwhelming storm events, damaging floods, and record temperatures. Reminders of the dangers of climate change are everywhere. When I took my granddaughter to an indoor playground to celebrate her fifth birthday, in the midst of colorful scaffolding, tubes, bridges, slides and mazes, a prominent sign with a picture of some very sad penguins warned: “Did you know? Our planet is warming up!”
Climate news can be so overwhelming that it can numb us into inaction. But we have to do something, don’t we?
There is a growing understanding among activists that the climate crisis will take more than a collection of small actions, no matter how significant. Rather, this enormous ecological challenge will require an entirely new way of being. This new way of being will entail radical changes to our supersized lifestyles. In this new way of being, we will live simpler, slower, smaller lives. We will walk more and drive less. We will ask for less. We will share. We will take turns. We will live with delight and wonder inside the natural world, rather than against it. We will embrace an economy that distributes its resources equitably. We will know and delight in our fellow creatures. We will understand that justice extends to all creatures, in particular those humans and non-humans who live at the margins.
The question then arises: how do we come to be different?
Recent findings from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications suggest that if we are to make the fundamental changes necessary for successfully confronting the climate challenge, it will start not with intellectual arguments but rather with touching people’s emotions. “Emotions were a far greater predictor...(of attitudes towards climate change)...than people’s politics or their cultural/group affiliations.”
And how better to tap into these deep emotions regarding the Earth, than to turn to the Earth itself. Regular spiritual practice of mindful attention to nature invites us to go deep within ourselves to find an old and visceral connection to the land, our home. In his beautiful book, We are Home: A Spirituality of the Environment, Shannon Jung makes the case that the natural world is the place “where our identity finds its fullest range of expression,” as well as a place of comfort, solitude and refuge. Here we delight in our sister and brother creatures. We want to get to know them better. We fall in love.
Emotions were a far greater predictor...(of attitudes towards climate change)...than people’s politics or their cultural/group affiliations.
Through our practice in nature, our minds are quieted by paying attention to our own breath and to that of Spirit, who breathes life into all who share our Earth home. As we regularly return to this unified breathing, we begin to see ourselves and fellow creatures differently. We discover reality and truth. Our ability to rationalize, obscure and hide is diminished. The kaleidoscope is shifted. The focus is sharper. Perspective emerges.
In the silence of spiritual practice in the natural world, we allow our minds to be still and our attention to be sharpened so that our spirits are enlivened and our hearts are stirred to act.
The insights born from spiritual practice are not always pleasant and are often at odds with our persistent inability to face up to human-caused ecological destruction. In her transformative work around grief and healing of the Earth, Joanna Macy warns: “The very danger signals that should rivet our attention, summon up the blood, and bond us in collective action, tend to have the opposite effect. They make us want to pull down the blinds and busy ourselves with other things.” Macy argues that we use our energies to numb ourselves to what she calls the “anguish beyond naming.” In so doing we drain ourselves of the “energy we need for action and clear thinking.”
Spiritual practice in nature lays bare the complexities of eco-destruction. It invites us to experience and embrace the grief of a crying planet. Eco-theologian Jay McDaniel calls this participating in “The Great Compassion,” in which we listen for, and experience, both the joys and the sufferings of others. Through the sharing of breath, we become one with the “other,” so, we too feel the loss and the pain of a groaning planet. As the Earth and its creatures suffer, we suffer.
But if we stick with the spiritual practice, it will eventually provide the courage to face the deep hurts, individual or collective. In the practice, we can safely confront our individual brokenness and the brokenness of the world. Buddhist scholar Ruben Habito describes the fruit of regular spiritual practice as the “embodiment of enlightenment in one’s daily life” where the boundaries between inward and outward, human and non-human blur. It is this union, this “living sense of oneness with the mountains, rivers, the great wide earth lived and felt as one’s own body, which can provide us humans with a key to the way out of our critical ecological situation.”
Through spiritual practice in nature, we experience a deep knowing, and our sense of the self and the universe shifts. We are changed. We experience a new reality. And, we begin to live into that new reality. The pain of the earth that we now feel as our own becomes the source of energy that will lead to transformation, healing, and renewal -- for ourselves and the Earth.