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Climate Change as a Door of Awakening

By Beverly Alexander and Jerome Freedman

“We are so much in love with our beloved Earth, we can’t even express it. We are so much in pain with what is happening, we can’t even express it.”
– John Bell

We tend to think of climate change as an unmitigated disaster. How can it be a door of awakening? This question framed a Day of Mindfulness on climate change, facilitated by Dharma teachers John Bell and Jo-ann Rosen, in Northern California in February 2016.

John sounded the warning bells of environmental degradation:

BONG! Polar ice caps are melting.
BONG! Sea levels are rising.
BONG! Deserts are expanding.
BONG! Temperature is rising.
BONG! Species are becoming extinct.
BONG! Water sources are being depleted.
BONG! Rainforests are disappearing.

John suggested that Right View is to look at climate change as a door of awakening. It is not just environmental. It is interconnected with racial justice, social justice, economic justice, immigration, food security, and security for all beings. The climate crisis challenges our idea that we are separate and calls us to recognize that as humans, we inter-are with all life.

Personal transformation, John shared, is not separate from social transformation. He mentioned that during the struggle against apart­heid in South Africa, people chanted, “An injury to one is an injury to all!” To link climate change with racism, he paraphrased Zen teacher angel Kyodo williams: “The reason we continue to degrade the Earth is that we continue to degrade each other. So as we heal the wounds of racism, we are healing our relationship to the Earth.”

Jo-ann invited us to move from an extraction economy to a gift economy based on reciprocity with and responsibility for Mother Earth, and from a focus on fear and comfort to one of intimacy with the suffering of our planet. Compassion, she said, will naturally lead us to mindful action. 

John reminded us that when we were children, we did not have the power or skill to deal with things that were too powerful, too big for us. As adults, when we encounter racism, poverty, and climate change, part of us says, “That is too big for me to handle.” Our practice instructs us to look deeply at our feelings and transform their roots. This may mean letting our hearts break open—which points us to developing strong Sanghas as containers for healing. And, if we can move beyond feelings of powerlessness, we may find that the climate crisis is just the right size challenge for us!

In pairs, we practiced Beginning Anew with Mother Earth:

Gratitude: Express gratitude for places, species, seasons, or elements that have nourished you.

Beneficial regrets: Share with Mother Earth what you are sorry for. Ask for forgiveness.

Making amends: Express to Mother Earth how you commit to change your behavior, to help heal.

Jo-ann looked at the intersectionality of racial equity and climate justice by reviewing the process of transformation in Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: getting close to those who suffer, being with discom­fort, changing the narrative, and mustering hope.

We watched an uplifting slide show, “Headlines from the Future.” Even though we knew they were not true, they made us happy—as if we knew they would come to pass:

New AIDS Cases Fall to Zero in Africa
10 Years of Peace (Israelis and Palestinians)
US Imports Last Barrel of Oil
“Child Soldiers” Exchange Guns for Books in
Africa
Last of Nuclear Weapons Destroyed
Snows Return to Mount Kilimanjaro

People left the retreat feeling empowered, gal­vanized, and no longer alone. By sitting and looking deeply, embracing our love for and transforming de­spair about the Earth, and being in Sangha together, we can nourish ourselves and become powerful, loving protectors of the Earth.

For a facilitator’s guide and resources from this retreat, visit earthholdinghereandnow.org.

Beverly Alexander is a member of the Order of Interbeing and practices with Singing & Hugging Sangha and Evening Star Sangha at her home in Petaluma, California. She moderates a Yahoo group for the Order of Interbeing. 

Jerome Freedman, PhD, has taught meditation since 1973. An OI member since 2008, he founded the Mindfulness in Healing Sangha in Marin County, California. His blog is at mindfulnessinhealing.org.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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