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Earth in Crisis: What Is Our Calling?

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Preparing food is not just about yourself and others. It is about everything! — Shunryu Suzuki

A few years ago, while visiting my family in Germany, I stumbled into an interactive art installation in Dusseldorf conceived by Tomas Saraceno; a giant spiderweb hung high under the ceiling of a large exhibition space. In small groups, visitors were allowed to enter this vibrating, netted construction that manifested and magnified the movements of every person. It was all about the tensile connection between us—the vigorous bouncing of someone at the other end of the room threatened to throw you off your feet and you needed to place your trust in your body to find its balance. With arms and legs spread wide, we looked like spiders. It was all quite out of control and not without some danger. Sometimes I lay down, which felt safest, and just felt the perpetual pulling through the muscles, tendons, and fascia that pervade the interior of my body in similar, web-like ways. Collectively, we went through rhythms of relative stillness, then stirred again into turbulence. It was a beautiful, slightly unsettling experience of surrender into interconnectedness, and I still feel its visceral echo—as if my body and brain were massaged into remembering a lost paradigm of belonging to a greater whole.

“All our relations” is the governing wisdom of indigenous tribes throughout the world. The African philosophy of ubuntu postulates: ”I am because we are.” In this way of thinking and feeling, past and future generations, animals and trees, matter as much as humans. There is some pride in being a person that future generations may think of as an ancestor worthy of veneration. You would think twice before cutting down a tree, not to mention a forest. If there is going to be a “seventh generation” of the modern global population, how will they think of us, partakers in a mad rush toward devastating climate collapse? As they survey the landscape, will it show the barren aftermath of clear cuts, plagues of insects, and wildfires? Or might there be lush forests, teeming with diverse, mutually responsive life, all connected through immense mycorrhizal fungal networks that distribute water, beneficial microbes, and nutrients, as well as storing carbon? The science on healthy forestry has been clear for decades; isn’t it heartbreaking that we still lay waste to nature in the interests of convenience and short-term profit? Forest ecologist Prof. Suzanne Simard, whose courageous and inspired work led to the term “wood wide web,” writes movingly about her scientific and personal journey in her recent book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (Knopf 2021). I was particularly struck by the pain she felt having to poison alders and birches in a controlled trial, working out whether pines grow better with or without those neighbors. 

Many contemporary analysts agree that we are the generation that may yet be able to turn things around. The gradual ending of COVID-19 lockdowns in many countries in particular is a pivotal moment. We’ve been somewhat shaken up; this has been/is an experience of cataclysmic upheaval, happening now, not in some future decade or century, and denial is perhaps harder to uphold. How can we utilize this opportunity and what role can mindfulness play? It is clear that structural changes alone, although essential, will not be sufficient. We must evolve the ways we perceive ourselves within our universe, from controllers to collaborators, from exploiters to nurturers, from isolated egos to partakers in wholeness. For centuries we have been shaped by capitalist, patriarchal, and colonial forces. The influence is all-pervasive and affects us in ways we don’t fully understand and of which we may be mostly unaware. Domination is driven by fear, and this fear is written on our frowning faces and hunched shoulders, it fuels addictive consumption and leads to a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, and depression-related illnesses. We must seek change in real and deep ways; words alone are not enough.

This is also what Dr. Thomas Bruhn, research group leader of A Mindset for the Anthropocene at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, and Laureline Simon, founder of One Resilient Earth, discussed recently.* Both mindfulness practitioners, I will offer here a condensed version of their dialogue, as I found it relevant, honest, and insightful:

Thomas: What catalysed my shift in this professional context was that I was hosting various strategic dialogues among decision-makers for all kinds of environmental challenges. My observation was that many people would talk of all these things very intelligently, but no real action emerge out of it as long as people do not find ways to connect meaningfully . . . . In the end an approach is chosen when it resonates at both experiential and scientific levels, and when it is introduced by a person whom we trust and who shares our values in terms of diversity. . . . I wonder how I could be entitled to worry about the state of the Earth as a whole. Shrinking to my relational field means being with the people I am connected with, in the place where I live and with the practices I am engaging in, right here, right now.

Laureline:  . . . ’mindset transformation’ should entail: engaging into the process without knowing where it takes us, not tying ourselves to old ways of thinking, continuously grounding oneself in the moment and questioning the underpinnings of our thoughts and actions.. . . . and if we acknowledge that our actions are largely about controlling even when we wish to find ‘solutions,’ repair or heal, then how do we rethink agency? What would a more relational and less controlling approach to agency entail?

Thomas: I feel science is helping me through the crumbling of my old mindset and emergence of a new one. Complex systems science addresses emergence, self-organisation and more fluid relational dynamics that differ from mechanical systems. That’s exactly what I observe in my own becoming. But I also feel I ‘understand’ less and less, and feel how scary it is to let go of belief systems and assumptions that I have lived with for decades. 

Laureline: This does raise the question of the collective trauma work that may need to be done. . . . Part of my spiritual practice is to ask myself in any situation, what am I afraid of and how do I feel safe? . . . The question of safety is both about the inner feeling and the outer conditions. How do we maintain safe conditions for humans to develop within planetary boundaries? And can the development of our inner safety help us deal better with volatility, ambiguity and uncertainty so that we may not have to rely on existing structures to feel safe?

Thomas: I think the Earth is reflecting back to us that it is reaching certain limits and that the path we have been taking has no future. But I don’t see a kind of breaking, more of new relationship patterns emerging here and there, connecting and forming new resonance fields. At some point it will have become a totally different system, just the way natural systems transform. . . . And this gives me far more hope than a revolutionary shift from an old system to a new one, according to some binary logic. It means that if we stay present in this relationship and grow a full acceptance of that relationality, different relationship patterns emerge in us and around us.. . . . I feel confident that life will find responses that are different from anything that we can imagine in our human form.

Laureline: I can totally relate. At the same time, when I get in that mind space, it becomes almost futile to work for the preservation or the restoration of life on Earth. Do you feel the same? What drives you in your work if your mindset is transformed to the point that you no longer feel a need to preserve, heal, or restore human or non-human life?

Thomas: That’s a very good question that I run into regularly. What comes to mind is that I love the world that I experience right now. I love the people that I know. I love forests. I love the oceans. And I am here to learn how to act out of that sense of love and care for the world. Which doesn’t say that I could ever save anything, probably not, but I feel that process is meaningful, regardless of how much I personally achieve or whether this particular form is meant to persist. I see beauty in this existence.

To finish this article, I am going to list some of the ways in which I play my part in this co-evolving web-dance of sustainable living:

• Taking active part in some of the many, often mindfulness-infused, grassroots initiatives working toward change, for example: Reworlding, the Mindfulness and Social Change Network, and Work that Reconnects

• Cultivating humility as a teacher and communicator; letting knowledge emerge from collective, ground-up, experiential processes, rather than presuming myself to be the expert who tries to controll the situation through top-down presentation. 

• In mindfulness enquiry situations, or any other communication, being alert to and letting go of the desire to fix, to impose my solutions, out of some discomfort with tension. 

• Engaging in trauma work; recognizing elements of it in personal, inter-generational, and collective spheres, and bringing healing by befriending the protectors and exiles. I find Internal Family Systems a most effective tool for that. There are no “bad parts.”

• Taking time for daily mindfulness, compassion, and insight practice, with confidence that it is essential for the prospering of the whole. 

• Enjoying the beauty of nature and the arts; immersing myself in them as much as possible.

• Growing, buying, preparing, and eating food mindfully.

• Not flying.

• Trusting that every little effort counts. Relaxing and enjoying the process of the re-emergence of “we consciousness.”

How can we transform mindsets to address climate change? (One Resilient Earth)

See more

In Orbit (Studio Tomas Saraceno)
A Mindset for the Anthropocene (AMA) (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies)
One Resilient Earth
Reworlding
Mindfulness and Social Change Network
Work that Reconnects
IFS Institute

Buddhistdoor Global Special Issue 2021: Humanity in Transition

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