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The Smell of Guilt

This morning I spoke with a friend who, like me, has been involved in environmental activism over the past few years. My friend has a dilemma as he is a coordinator for his local town but feels that it may be time to move on. However, he reckons that if he steps back, no one will step forward to fill the gap. So should he continue, knowing how important environmental activism is at this moment in history, or should he focus instead on something else?

I told him about the guilt that has been following me around—like a slightly unpleasant background smell or an off-key drone playing at the edge of my awareness. When I was more active—doing my hour-long daily vigil, organizing actions in London, and attending week-long rebellions and being arrested—this guilt was either absent or drowned out. Recently, I’ve stepped back into being “someone who turns up to occasional actions” rather than “someone who centers their life around activism,” and the guilt is nagging at me.

Last week, I asked the Buddha whether I should be using this guilt to propel me into action. Perhaps I would feel better if I could find a substantial activism project in which to become involved? Maybe this was the purpose of my feelings of guilt? The answer that came back was very clear: “No. To use guilt as your motivation will not lead you in a good direction. Just wait.”

As this answer came, it felt the way it feels when a friend gives you advice that isn’t welcome, but is undeniably true. I knew that my attention was required elsewhere. Our small sangha at the Bright Earth temple has been growing. The temple building and its grounds are in need of some extra care. My Beloved and I are launching a series of book study groups, with the intention of creating a two-year “Living the Dharma” program. In this program, we hope to introduce people to engaged Buddhism—to the kind of Dharma that changes them and the way they relate to the world. This is where we hope to share the light we’ve been blessed by—the light that will be increasingly necessary as we move forward into more complicated times. These study groups are the work that lights me up; the work that is asking for my time and my care; the work that is motivated by love.

I feel curious about the guilt. Maybe I can get to know it a little better. I think I’ve been afraid that if I listen to it properly, it will force me into doing things that I don’t want to do. What if I let it speak?

The guilt says: “The world is dying. If you don’t do more, systems will collapse in your lifetime and you will starve or suffer a violent death.” Yes, of course it would want me to pour everything into fixing this, I understand that. The guilt also says: “Your friends are in jail while you sit at your comfortable desk, typing as your dog snores. Do you think that’s fair? You should be there too!” Yes, it’s right. My friend Ana is in prison right now, and I don’t want her to be there. I could take her place. I should. If I don’t, what sort of person does that make me? I don’t want to be that sort of person. And, of course, I am.

What else does the guilt say? “People will judge you if you don’t do more.” I’d rather not admit to this one, but it’s true. Part of my motivation for doing more activism is to avoid being seen as selfish by other activists. I’ve never had this experience when talking to actual activists—they’re mostly too preoccupied with beating themselves up for not doing more! Maybe it links into a part of me that judges other people as not doing enough. This judging part says: “We’re in an emergency, folks! Stop your ordinary lives! Go out onto the streets! Stop cushioning yourself in denial, thinking that someone else is going to save you!” This part is angry. It doesn’t like that I’ve spent so much time and money and emotion on activism already. It hates that people praise the photos I post on social media of me being arrested, but that they don’t get involved themselves. This part says it’s not fair.

It feels good to listen properly to this judging part, and to the guilt. They make complete sense. As they relax back, satisfied at being heard, grief rises up. It’s easier to feel guilty than to meet this sea of grief. The grief is wise. It knows that even if I throw myself into fevered activism, even if I spend the rest of my life in jail, it is too late to prevent the huge damage that has already been done. It knows how much more damage is already “baked in.” It also sees how laden with karma our systems are—our politics, our corporations, our culture, our media. They are saturated in centuries of greed, hate, and delusion. They hold unimaginable power. They will keep crashing forward, regardless of what I do.

It’s good to meet with the grief. Meeting it reminds me of the paradox that my actions change nothing—and everything. That when I perform small good actions, motivated by love and not by guilt or fear, that they do make a difference. That I can listen to what the Buddha wants me to do, do that, and feel satisfied. The grief will come along with me, but the guilt isn’t necessary. The guilt can rest.

This morning, when I asked him how he was, my friend said that he was “blessed” and also “completely lost.” I feel this too. I am deep in the tangled forest and I have no idea which direction to head. What action will make the most difference to the climate emergency? What should my legacy look like? What’s it all for, anyway? When I ask the Buddha, I am shown what my next step will be. This morning the next steps were: share with my friend, write this article, take the dogs for a walk. I will enjoy all three. I will probably stay lost, and that feels okay. Here we are together in these momentous times, all of us, completely lost and utterly, utterly blessed.

Related features from BDG

Activism Is Dharma
Eco-activism as Buddhist Practice
Earth in Crisis: What Is Our Calling?
For the Earth: Buddhist Environmental Thought and Activism
Intimacy, Humility, and Stillness: The Perfection of Wisdom

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