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Eco-activism as Buddhist Practice

I had planned to write about my year-long vigil for the Earth, which, at the time of writing, is ending in three days. Before I began, I watched a short video of an activist friend from the campaign group Insulate Britain. This group, an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, has been blocking major roads in the UK for six weeks now. They are asking the government to properly insulate all homes in the UK, starting with social housing. As the UK has the leakiest housing stock in Europe, and as 15 per cent of our country’s carbon emissions are a result of heating homes, this demand has been described as “low hanging fruit” by the media. However, their tactic of blocking motorways has been hugely controversial and they are widely hated and ridiculed by the media, especially the right wing.

My friend from Insulate Britain was being interviewed on a popular morning television program. The presenter, assisted by the co-presenter and another guest, repeatedly asked my friend how she would feel if her own child was in an ambulance that was held up by the protests. Despite the fact that the group has a “blue lights” policy and allows ambulances to pass, this line of questioning was pursued as it drew attention to the method of protest rather than the reason for the protest. Protesters often hear that they are hypocrites, and that they cause harm, alongside the usual tropes of being hippies, posh, or jobless scroungers or self-righteous anarchists. You could feel the hot contempt steaming off the presenter like, well, I won’t proceed with that metaphor.

I was in tears by the end of the interview. I felt for my friend, who was shaking with frustration and fear as she repeated her appeals for more honesty among journalists, for proper government action, for more acknowledgement of the horrors of our already-unfolding future. I felt my own frustration at the interviewers, one of whom asked my friend where the government would find the money to insulate our homes; this “we can’t afford to save humanity, we need to spend that money elsewhere,” argument seems so ridiculous to me.

After watching the interview, I went onto Twitter to read some of the responses. I am aware that this wasn’t the wisest thing to do! There was a sprinkling of messages in support of Insulate Britain’s cause, but the vast majority were hateful:

“Insulate Britain are outside my work! I walked down and told them they’re pathetic!”
“Insulate them all in gloss they will soon stop.”
“Nauseating self-righteous social terrorists.”
“Drivers should carry a cricket bat to hit them with or simply run them over with a truck.”

By the end of all this I felt adrenalized, upset, despairing, and full of grief.

In three days, I will sit in a vigil for a final silent hour in the middle of my local town. I’ll hang around my neck my trusty placard bearing a photo of our green and blue planet and the words “With Love and Grief for the Earth.” I have worn this placard for 362 hours over the past year. What have I learned during my vigil that will help me with these intense feelings? How can I face the worst in other people without turning to the same violence in response? How can I keep my heart open and steady?

Last sit

With all these emotions swirling around inside me, I take my meditation bench and head into town for today’s vigil. David and Marie are joining me, as they often do, and my friends Fi and Tannith are also here for the first time. Fi has brought me some lemon cake. After chatting for a few minutes, we sit quietly. Aaah. As I listen to the noise of traffic, I imagine the calm soaking up into me from the Earth. As this steadiness infuses me, I become clearer about the process that I have been through. This is duhkha! The Buddha told us that we can’t avoid it, and here it is. My intense emotion is exactly what he asked us to practice with.

As we meet the pain of the world full on, as we speak up to those in power, and as we practice nonviolence in response to violence, our Buddhist faith and practice are there to support us. I also see, without minimizing the appropriateness of my feelings, the tiny size of my problems compared with those who are actually being interviewed or sitting on the motorways, those who are jailed for their activism, or those who risk their lives. Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, Nicaragua—227 deaths in 2020 alone.

As I lean into refuge, I begin to see more of the complexity of the situation. I see the emotional energy that I have invested into the value of nonviolent direct action and the protective parts of me that are poised to leap into its defense. I see the polarized positions that activists and the media play, with other powerful forces behind the scenes pulling invisible strings. I even begin to see the suffering of the presenters, who were clearly on the defense from the beginning—what are they protecting themselves from? I know how painful it is to face the truth of the climate crisis. I know how terrifying it is when you truly see that our governments are not protecting us, or our children.

By the end of my vigil, I have found my center again. A woman in her car beeps and gives us a “thumbs up,” and I smile back at her. On the way home I read on my phone that nine members of Insulate Britain, including another friend, will be in court on 16 November. It’s likely that they’ll go straight from court into prison. More dukkha, more opportunity to practice. I’ll do what I can to support them. I’ll keep making space for all the feelings. I’ll keep feeling grateful for the support that I feel from the Buddha. These places of spiritual refuge make it possible for me and so many others to keep carrying on.

See more

Insulate Britain
Extinction Rebellion Buddhists

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