Profession: Environmental scientist and advocate
Location: Boulder, Colorado
When did you first encounter Buddhism? When I came to the United States in 2001 for my Ph.D. at Rutgers University in molecular biosciences. I had just spent the summer with my grandfather, a former freedom fighter who had worked alongside Mahatma Gandhi. He spoke to me about what institutional delusion and greed were doing to our society and to our environment. I understood enough to be bewildered and angry, but not enough to help solve the problem. That state of mind, combined with some personal issues, caused a bout of depression that led me to try meditation. My teacher Kurt Spellmeyer is an English professor at Rutgers who offers free Zen classes. Growing up in India, I’d read a lot about meditation but had never practiced it deeply. When I found myself in that flustered state at school, entirely unable to focus on my Ph.D. program, one of my friends said, “Would you like to try meditation?” And I said, “Yes!” It came about during quite a convergence: I found meditation, met my husband, and determined the course of my Ph.D. at the same time.
Describe your job as a senior researcher at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I assess the effectiveness of farming methods in southern India with the goal of alleviating poverty, bolstering food security, and reducing carbon emissions.
It sounds like your job makes you constantly aware of the daunting reality of climate change. How do you keep from going insane? Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and have my “holy shit!” moments. [Laughs.] But then my practice helps me stay rooted. I go through total heartbreak every time I go to South India. It’s a drought-prone area with one of the country’s highest rates of farmer suicide. Every time I go I experience deep pain and frustration, but then coming back to the cushion is that much more meaningful. When I return to the mystery and open-endedness of mushin [no mind], I hold the feelings lightly and say, “One moment at a time.”
What is your advice to Buddhist practitioners who understand the severity of the climate crisis but feel paralyzed in their response? Don’t let yourself feel alone. The scale of the problem brings up enormous fear and pain in all of us. Our sense of isolation is the first block we have to face. Ritual helps us combat this block. Otherwise, we go back to distracting ourselves. We say, “I can’t deal with it. It’s too painful.” We don’t even do this consciously, but unconsciously we’re always doing it. It is hard to reckon with the fact that we are putting our own lives and the lives of all the species on the planet in danger simply by going about our day in the way we always have. This realization cannot be held without a wise and compassionate community. So I would say, first off, talk about it with others.
What are some of the rituals that have helped you talk about and acknowledge that fear? I do climate takuhatsu [begging for alms]. I go knock on doors and introduce myself as an EDF scientist, and say, “I don’t need food in the traditional sense of begging, but I’m here to get to know you and talk about any concerns you might have about climate.” We can explore my Buddhist identity if people have an interest in it; or we don’t have to. That isn’t vital to the initial contact. If I start with my identity as a Zen Buddhist teacher, I am not allowing the other person to open up. She might have a deep sense of identity that revolves around her own family or religion. I have to use skillful means to deal with that potential resistance.
How do people respond when you show up at their door? Some people don’t let me in, some say they’re very busy, and some say, “We are sympathetic, but we don’t have time to talk to you.” Other people let me into their living rooms and we have wonderful conversations. Mostly I just sit across from people and listen—listen very deeply. Sometimes they attend one of our environmental meetings and get plugged in. Do they become activists overnight? Not necessarily.
What have you learned as someone who has become an activist? My on-the-cushion and off-the-cushion lives are not isolated from each other. They’re like a couple. The off-the-cushion action helps me embody the compassion that arises naturally in meditation. Then meditation provides the sense of open-endedness that can accommodate the feelings of bitterness or powerlessness that activism brings.
Interview by Max Zahn, Editorial Assistant
Photograph by Timothy D’Antonio/D’Antonio Photography
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