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What Is Your Role in These Times of Crisis?

We are all living through unprecedented global trauma. As a result of human activity, our rich ecology is being stripped away and global temperatures are still rising. As I move away from regular involvement in climate activism, a question keeps resurfacing: what should I be doing in these times of crisis? What is my role?

I pause, look up from my computer screen and out into the temple garden. As I hold these questions in my consciousness, guilt immediately roils in like dirty floodwater. The guilt tells me: “You should be doing more!” Overwhelm threatens, and all at once I find myself nicely blanked out, anaesthetized, numb. Luckily, at that moment, a wren appears, rooting around in the weeds, her delicate tail at the usual perky angle. Here is a blackbird too, his glossy dark coat setting off a yolk-colored beak. They bring me back down to earth—to the here and now.

I have been learning to surf the flood of overwhelm over the past few years of engagement with the climate crisis. I am getting better at the delicate balance between knowledge and denial, that sweet spot where I can feel the grief and fury without being swept into either disassociation or unbearable pain. Many things have supported me with this: my Buddhist practice, activist colleagues, taking direct action. But my most reliable guide and support is dear Earth herself.

Dear Earth is always teaching me. This morning, she is reminding me—with her wren and her blackbird—to start here and now. These birds are busy looking for their breakfast. What is my work today? What is my work right now? How can I honor the Earth in the small choices I make? How can I continue to absorb the truth and to share it with others in ways that are kind and effective? What is it possible to contribute, as I acknowledge my considerable limitations, and what is mine to do?

Many of our usual activities here at the temple take on a different significance under the looming shadow of the climate catastrophe. Three important themes present themselves: building community, encouraging self-reflection, and introducing people to spiritual principles. It occurs to me that these have helped me the most in my own journey. As part of a like-minded community, I have felt less alone and have appreciated being able to share out the practical and emotional burdens with others. I have found it useful to continue my personal work through studying the Dharma, therapy, and conversations with friends, becoming clearer about the shape climate grief takes for me, and why. I also lean on my Buddhist faith, taking refuge in the permanence of the Three Jewels and using spiritual principles to console and direct me.     

As we work in these three areas, we can also continue to make links between the Dharma and the Earth. We begin our Saturday morning Buddhist practice with a half-hour slow walk around the temple garden. And we’ll continue to do this, as well as mindful walks in the Malvern hills. Next year, we’re planning a “Bioblitz” to see how many plants and insects we can find and identify in the temple grounds. We sometimes mention our activism in our Dharma talks, and we encourage people to join our local vigil for the Earth. We can also be explicit when introducing spiritual principles—that being grounded in faith can help to bring us the courage necessary for taking part in formal or informal activism.

I hope that my work with the Bright Earth Temple is helping to spread the Dharma in these ways, but there is only so much of which I am in control. I remember the teachings of Rev. Gyomay Kubose, who encouraged us to simply be who we are. This is the most important thing—to live my own life in the best way that I can, just like the birds I watched earlier. A blackbird’s job is to just be a blackbird, and a wren should just be a wren. A Satya should just be a Satya.

I wonder what is stirring inside you as you read this article. What is your own role in these times of crisis? Of what might the Earth be reminding you? What is your small part, taking into consideration your own limitations? What support is already around you? What extra support might you need?

I am grateful for the help that surrounds me. I don’t always feel it, but when I can open my eyes and my heart, it seems endless. The wisdom of the Earth, the comforts of a sangha, the relief of the Pure Land teachings. The ordinary, wonderful things with which I am blessed: electricity flowing through this laptop, my heart and lungs working tirelessly to keep me upright, the excellent sourdough toast with raspberry jam I just ate for breakfast.

The catastrophe is still there, casting a shadow over everything. It will continue to unfold, and we will need to adapt and to bear our suffering with courage. Also, there will always be sweet spots amid the chaos. Let’s taste them while we can. Let’s bow in gratitude and lay ourselves gently down on the ground, knowing that we are held.

Go gently.

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