Teachings on The Middle Way encourage practitioners to avoid extremes. When it comes to the environment, it seems clear that core climate change issues stem from our excessive indulgence in the earth’s resources. On the other hand, our society doesn’t seem set up for (or interested in) total deprivation. So how can we all live healthy and comfortable lives while protecting and caring for the earth?
This was one of the many issues explored at a panel on Friday night at New York Insight Meditation Center called “The Middle Way: Climate Change and the Sacred Economy.”
“We organized this panel to help engage and activate people around this topic,” said Bob Kolodny, a New York-based organizer and coordinator for the Buddhist Climate Action Network (BCAN). “I’ve been to a lot of moments at New York Insight and other centers focused on this issue and other issues of social change and civic responsibility. This is the biggest turnout that I’ve seen. It’s heartening to see people so engaged in this conversation.”
After a brief meditation, the panel began with discussions about the concept of despair. Colin Beavan, a dharma teacher and the executive director of No Impact Project, acknowledged similar feelings that arise around climate change discussions, such as fear and anger. He also provided an encouraging perspective about how to work with these emotions.
“I try to ask myself: to what extent are these feelings an escape from me taking responsibility for the problems I see around the world?” Beavan said.
Beavan explained that growing up, he associated the word “responsibility” with his mother telling him to wash the dishes and make his bed. He now prefers the phrase “ability to respond.”
“Meditation provides me with an ability to digest my anger and my fear and my despair to a place where I know that it is an indication of what everybody else feels,” Beavan said. “I don’t have to be attached to that to the point where I can’t act. In the Buddhist community that is a really important thing to talk about: how we can use our practice to digest feelings of despair and turn them into actions.”
Meditation teacher and certified Integral coach Sebene Selassie moderated the panel. Early on, she mentioned a recent ruling in New Zealand that legally designates land as people. A New York Times article describes this kind of legal protection, jointly proposed by the New Zealand government and the indigenous Maori people, as a “profound alternative to the human presumption of sovereignty over the natural world.” Selassie asked the panelists: can these kinds of non-Western, non-scientific, cultural, and local responses to climate change ever make it to the big stages of government and civil society organizations?
“There is space,” said Lou Leonard, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund and cofounder of One Earth Sangha. “In our best moments, that’s what we try to do: open the door, and not just for indigenous groups, but for other smaller groups that are active not just where we’re active.
“If the only thing that matters for your own contribution to the world is that you have the idea, or you have the impact, then it becomes a lot harder to listen to others and make space for others.”
Charles Eisenstein, a speaker and writer known for his book Sacred Economics, suggested that senseless killings and lack of empathy are also contributing factors to our environmental crisis that can’t be addressed by “cleverly calibrated” climate policies.
He then provided a stirring analogy that compared current climate protection policies to child neglect.
“Let’s say I’ve got a 3-year-old boy,” Eisenstein said. “How would it be if I asked you, “Why should I take care of him? Why?” And you said, “Well, if you don’t take care of him, then he won’t support you in your old age, and you might get imprisoned for child neglect.” Imagine I then said, “Oh, alright then, I guess I should take care of him.
“This is the essence of a lot of environmental arguments,” he explained. “The solution won’t be stricter enforcement of child neglect laws. The solution is to connect me back with my sensing … my feeling … my love. We must discover what’s blocking that.”
The conversation then turned to the sacred. Beavan posed two important questions to the audience: how many of you feel that you’re not spending as much time as you should with the people that you love? How many of you feel that you don’t spend the majority of the hours in your day doing what fulfills you? About half of the people in the room raised their hands.
“Spending time with your loved ones and pursuing lives that are in line with your values are sacred things,” he said.
This connects to an earlier perspective Beavan shared about writer Joseph Campbell’s explorations of hero myths. He explained that each of us has the capacity for heroics within us simply by using the gifts and talents that we have.
“Hero myths are actually stories about each of us discovering—and having the courage to embrace—that which is different about us as a special power and bringing it back to the community to help,” Beavan said. “What it means then, to be a hero, is to become yourself in order to save the world.”
Panelists also examined the reasons people act, and explored why some might not feel empowered to take steps and help. Leonard cast light on a cultural belief about the sequence in which some of us feel we must work, noting our desire to want to figure ourselves out first and then act in the world.
“There’s a subtle primacy of our internal experience and our ability to get some sort of control over it through the practice,” Leonard said. “The truth of that aspect of the practice, however, is that there is no singular experience. There is only an interconnected experience. There is no moving down the path without acting and experiencing what it’s like to be facing the emotions and the stories and all of the reality that comes when we act in a system.”
Toward the end of the event, one audience member asked the panelists what people can do to help. Eisenstein elaborated on some thoughts he offered earlier in the panel, explaining that small, humble, and seemingly invisible acts not only pierce our sense of despair but also deeply connect us with others.
“The deepest story of our civilization is what I call the story of separation, or the belief in the experience of being a separate self in a world of other competing or hostile separate selves in a universe of random forces that don’t care about you,” Eisenstein said. “Many of us have that experience.
“Anything you do that disrupts the story of separation—anything you do that gives other people the experience of connection, the experience of generosity, or the experience of kindness—changes the conditions that generate ecocide on every level. What we’re called to do may not be explicitly about stopping climate change. It might be on the story level, on the human separation level.”
Beavan concluded by encouraging people to embrace feelings of uncertainty as they discover their ability to take action.
“Stand up, use your voice, tell your truth, and risk being publicly wrong,” he said. “Don’t worry so much about being wrong. Just help.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.