Last night I attended the Eco-Crisis Practice Group at the Bristol Buddhist Centre. The theme was how do you engage with the climate and ecological crisis in a sustainable way? People shared how they oscillate between anxiety about the future and diversion, indifference and shut-down.
The Buddhist tradition suggests that compassion is the only sustainable fuel around. Everything else saps your energy.
Horrified anxiety is one of the near enemies of compassion. You fix a doom-laden vision of the future, and become completely engulfed and entangled in it. It’s not compassion because it’s self-referential: you get caught up with your own responses. So you’re not really open to the experience of suffering, to being with it.
Indifference is a far enemy of compassion. It includes denial and shut-down. There’s a similarity to horrified anxiety in that you’re not open to the experience of suffering, to being with it. Last month I visited Melbourne to lead events at the Buddhist Centre and train Extinction Rebellion organisers and trainers. We were lucky to escape the smoke from the bush fires – it just happened that while we were there the wind was blowing in a different direction. In the media, it’s very striking that there’s so much denial, even now. As an activist, if you increase your volume to break through that denial, you can easily get into agitation and horrified anxiety.
The Middle Way between horrified anxiety and indifference is compassion. With compassion there’s emotional engagement – an openness to experience suffering, a willingness to look it in the face. This is combined with a desire to alleviate the suffering and an objectivity about what needs doing.
So what do you do if you find yourself caught in horrified anxiety? At the Practice Group, we tried out various methods to find and maintain a compassionate response.
1. In a guided meditation, we were invited to connect with an inner resource: perhaps an inspiring figure, or a place in our body that feels safe. From this resourced place, we were encouraged to bring to mind something that ordinarily would stimulate horrified anxiety (in my case, photos of koalas with bandaged paws), then come out of it again.
2. Allowing love in. This is a variation of no.1. Allow love in from wherever it’s available. Bring to mind your partner, if you have one, your family, friends, inspirational figures, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas etc. Don’t try to manufacture something, just feel what’s there for you. Allow love in and through you. This can really soothe your heart.
3. Horrified anxiety is a ‘hot’ emotion. To ‘cool’ it down, you can bring in uncertainty. We all want the comfort of certainty about what will happen, however there is none.
4. You could try ‘unhooking’ from repetitive thinking by sensing what’s going on in your body, and bringing kindly awareness to it.
5. Reflecting on conditionality. Bring to mind all the conditions that have given rise to the current climate and ecological crisis. When we understand the complexity of these conditions and how we’ve all contributed to them, it’s likely that compassion will arise.
6. A broader perspective. What’s the bigger picture here? Pan out to Samsara (conditioned existence). This is the human condition. Eco-suffering is an aspect of conditioned existence. There are parallels here with embracing the reality of death – it can lead to a renewed sense of the preciousness of life. From this big view, give yourself to a specific action to alleviate suffering.
7. Reflect on the figure of Green Tara. Green Tara is a beautiful Bodhisattva associated with active, engaged compassion. She is shown with one leg up in meditation, resourcing herself. The other leg is stepping down, ready to take appropriate action in the world.