In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a troubling time frame for global warming that pointed to a catastrophic and unavoidable temperature increase of 1.5°C by the year 2040 due to global carbon emissions. A dizzying parade of emergency alerts followed. Wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, floods, and superstorms pummeled the planet at an unrelenting pace. It felt as if this blazing, brutal season offered a glimpse into the approaching abyss. 

These are fraught and anxious times. It seems obvious that no amount of meditation will forestall the disasters that are already baked into the climate equation. Yet, much remains to be salvaged and transformed, including in our own hearts and minds. 

The breakdown of our ecological and climate systems poses many questions for Buddhist practitioners. What is the most appropriate response given the nature, scale, and pace of the crisis? How does one stay grounded when it feels as if the ground beneath us is giving way? What can Buddhism offer us at this overwhelming time of fear and loss? 

Tricycle asked three dharma teachers—David Loy, Roshi Joan Halifax, and Mark Coleman—to share their wisdom for responding to the challenges of the climate crisis.

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David Loy calls for engaged activism 

Zen teacher and Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Center founding member David Loy says the climate crisis might be the greatest challenge Buddhism has ever faced. “If we can’t respond to this,” he says, “Buddhism will become irrelevant.” Loy’s recently published book Ecodharma explores the relationship between the Buddhist path and the ecological crisis.  

Though the Buddha’s original teachings don’t directly address climate change, he believes the dharma, particularly the path of the bodhisattva, is a rich resource for activists and all those answering the call for change. Our task now, Loy says, is to do the very best we can without knowing if it will make any difference whatsoever. To vow to save our planet despite knowing that it is impossible to alleviate all of the harm we’ve already inflicted. “We can’t be attached to results. We should act because it’s the right thing to do.” 

Loy calls for a more capacious reading of the teachings where social transformation through activism is as important as anything that happens on the cushion, and believes the communities we form through engaged activism will serve as our strongholds. “We need to address and challenge the institutions of incredible complexity and power whose policies impact the environment and climate,” he says. “Individual action isn’t sufficient. Just as it’s not enough to focus on our own carbon footprint.” 

To anyone feeling outrage or anxiety about our teetering ecosystems, Loy offers a three-part contemplation to prepare people with tools for engagement as the challenges deepen.

  1. Ruthless Self-Evaluation. Make a thorough assessment of all you have to offer the world. Consider your education, skills, interests, abilities, languages, life experience, networks, geography, assets, job, health, and age. 
  2. Realistic Opportunities: Explore all possible opportunities for engagement and service that align with your assets, identity, and skillset. 
  3. Recognize Passions Use contemplative tools such as meditation to tune into your heart’s desire. Reflect on which possibilities for engagement make you come alive and feel passionate. If you follow the energy of the heart, you’re less likely to burn out. It’s important to find some joy in the work in order to develop resilience and sustainability. 

Roshi Joan Halifax says show up with compassion 

When Roshi Joan Halifax, founder and abbot of Upaya Zen Meditation Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, became active in the social movements of the sixties, she says nobody ever anticipated that our problems would be as widespread, problematic, and conflicted as they are now. “We thought a lot about personal responsibility,” she explains. “We didn’t think in terms of global responsibility. We never anticipated the scale of what’s now happening with the climate catastrophe and the political turn across the globe.

Her Buddhist practice and decades of hospice work have helped her cope and respond to this new era. As a former hospital chaplain, Halifax sees all forms of death as a sacred rite of passage that merit our tending. She believes we can bring a quality of presence, dignity, and service to our work with grief and loss around the climate crisis. “In hospice care, there’s this notion of coming alongside. That’s what a chaplain does,” she says. “It’s not a matter of going into emptiness or falling into futility. Compassion means to attend to things as they are, to be present, to experience concern, to consider what will really serve.”

She considers this current moment in time a profound apotheosis and opportunity to “come alongside” the suffering around us. “We can no longer bypass what’s happening to the planet,” she says. “We’ve been sheared off from the old way of life in a radical and sudden way. This process of separation and dissolution is an incredible opportunity to show up with compassion and turn toward the truth of suffering and its causes of greed, hatred, and delusion.” 

Buddhism can be particularly powerful at this juncture, she says, because it offers us tools to track our moment-by-moment experience and course-correct even in the most difficult of times. “We can continue to ask ourselves what we’re learning and how we can use that knowledge to deepen and grow,” she says.

To develop skills for sustained compassionate service around social and ecological transformation, Halifax teaches a practical intervention with the acronym GRACE to help practitioners remember the sequence.

  1. G stands for gathering attention. Here we use the tools of mindfulness to ground in the present moment. The quality of our attention is essential. Our attention should be panoramic, inclusive, unperturbed, non-judgmental, and reflective like a mirror. 
  2. R reminds us to recall intentions. We set your focus on the area of concern and create clarity around our purpose. Our intentions should ride on a felt sense of connection and concern for the wellbeing of others. 
  3. A signals us to attune to our own embodied experience. The body is a repository of so much information that we often disavow. Take a moment to connect with the sensations of the breath and the physical body, the affective stream of feelings emanating from the heart, and the mind’s thoughts that come in the form of aversions, attractions, and biases. 
  4. C asks us to consider what will best serve. Determine the most appropriate response based on unselfish intentions. We can touch into our vulnerability with an attitude of humility to take perspective and see a variety of causes and conditions. From there, we sense into what might best serve. 
  5. E suggests we engage in ethical action. We do our very best to engage, serve, and act for the greater good, while letting go of selfish concerns and any attachment to outcomes.

Mark Coleman encourages a deeper relationship with the natural world 

Mark Coleman, a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and author of Awake in the Wild, responds to the ecological crisis with the assumption that people work to protect what they’ve grown to love. For over a decade, he has led wilderness retreats with the aim of helping meditators foster a loving connection with the natural world. One of Coleman’s upcoming “Awake in the Wild” retreats, scheduled to take place at Mount Shasta, had to be relocated suddenly due to wildfire concerns, underscoring the urgency of this work. 

“In California, we can’t go outside without seeing evidence of the fires. Everywhere I go, I think it’s going to burn,” Coleman says. “This is the reality now. We have to be fluid and resourceful in order to cope and adapt.” 

He hopes that his retreats help foster a deepening love for life on Earth and usher in a sense of stewardship, care, action, and concern. He finds the principles of dharma almost effortlessly accessible when he brings retreat participants into natural settings. Examples of impermanence and interdependence are abundant and obvious once we step outside, he says. In nature, we have more access to both grief and gratitude, which helps build resilience and connection at this time of great upheaval. “It’s harder to access our grief sitting indoors,” Coleman says. “We need to be able to feel and process the emotions so we don’t become paralyzed. Nature helps provide the container to feel and work through those feelings.” 

Practicing outdoors helps us experience more prosocial feeling states such as intimacy, wonder, awe, reverence, and, ultimately, love. “We may find ourselves falling in love with a hawk, or a caterpillar, or a rock, and our hearts open,” he says. These states help us cultivate a sense of inner stability so we don’t simply drown in negative news. “The data can be paralyzingly bleak,” Coleman adds. “If we exist in a mind state of despair, we’ll miss the beauty of a blue bird’s wing or the small jasmine flower. We may forget there are still daffodils in the spring.” 

Coleman shares a few practices from his book to help us step outside and deepen our relationship with the natural world. 

  1. Lovingkindness Nature Walk. Go for a walk in the woods, a park, or along a shore. Approach that which draws your attention, perhaps a maple tree, lupin, flower, waves on the shore. Notice what attracts your interest. Let yourself be fascinated and absorbed in relationship to the subject of interest. Attune to your breath, your footfalls, your heart rate, and the temperature of your skin. Recall the classic mantra of lovingkindness. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be happy. (If you wish, you can also create your own mantra tailored to your specific intentions.) Send these wishes of lovingkindness to a beloved honeysuckle, bullfrog, or cherry tree. Allow everything you see to open your heart in this way. Finally, offer yourself the same blessings you offered others on the path. 
  2. Become an Engaged Participant. Find a quiet place outdoors to contemplate, perhaps a meadow, or on a log beside a stream, or a stretch of beach. Take a moment to regard the place as a casual observer. Walk around with your headphones on or let your mind make lists or plans for later. Note how that detached experience feels. Then remove your socks and shoes. Feel your feet and toes on the earth. Register the pressure and density of your body on the ground. Feel the subtle shifts in weight, the temperature of the soil, the grasses tickling your skin, your toes sinking into the sand. Now dig your hands into the earth. Note the texture and smells. Like a child, let yourself play with the soil, the sand, the grasses, the stones. Draw or make shapes on the ground with a stick. Observe how your senses come alive. Now sit with that open sense of awareness. Drop all agendas and stories in your mind. Reflect on how this sensual and intimate contact has changed your relationship with the life around you. 
  3. Attune to the Song of the Land. This is a practice to help you develop intimacy with your favorite place in nature. It’s helpful to spend time in this place each day or at least once weekly. Visit the place like you would a good friend with whom you’re having an ongoing conversation. During your visit, listen to what the land might be saying. For example, tune into the sound of birdsong in the canopy or skittering on the forest floor. Observe animal tracks or skat on the trails. Experience the place with your eyes both open and closed. Lie on the ground and gaze skyward. Note the changes in light, weather, temperature, seasons. Feel the energy of the place and trust your response to it. Take your time there, without rushing. Sit with the silences between the sounds. As you sit, notice what you bring to the relationship with this place and how that might change or deepen over time.
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