In December 2009, Gaia House Resident Teacher Rob Burbea and a number of practitioners associated with Gaia House made the journey by train to Copenhagen to be there during the UN summit on climate change. Here he offers some reflections on the experience and on aspects of compassion and engagement.
Back in England, at St Pancras Station, saying goodbye as folks began to go their separate ways, Rachel said something beautiful - “It felt like a kind of pilgrimage.” The others seemed to share that sense keenly, and certainly for me it had very much felt that way.
The truth is, even in the first stages of mulling over the possibility of going, I had, just privately, envisioned it as a kind of ‘prayer’. But foolishly, not even consciously, maybe I had thought that perhaps people wouldn’t understand. So when we originally sent out the e-mail inviting Dharma practitioners to join us in Copenhagen, we wrote that we wanted ‘to be there together as a peaceful presence to ask world leaders to agree to a deal that would respond adequately to the Climate emergency facing the planet and human civilization’. And of course that was true. We were there for that, with a request for decisions and results, to be a few more bodies for the count, to try and persuade the politicians, (though not so completely naïve to believe that our being there would, in itself, make that much significant difference.)
But somehow it felt like there were also other dimensions and reasons for going, reasons which perhaps may not make much sense to a solely ‘practical’ or ‘rational’ mind-set. A desire to be there to give voice to something very deep and very (dare I say it?) precious. Regardless of the outcome. To stand and walk in alignment with our deepest care and truth. To sing the indestructible song of human care, no matter what. We wanted to make a pilgrimage, to pray.
And just to be there. And to bear witness to humanity at a major crossroads, at what seemed to be such a potentially pivotal and powerful moment in human history, not knowing what we will choose together, nor what the future will bring. And in that prayer to be willing to open the heart to the pain and the joy of it all. To drink it all in. All the complexity, all the confusion, all the care, the togetherness, the celebration and appreciation of humanity….and all the seeming indifference too.
The morning after the march, some of us went to the Klimaforum, (one of the alternative ‘summits’ in Copenhagen running parallel to the UN Summit), where there was a vast wealth and range of workshops and lectures on all kinds of aspects of the climate change emergency and the implementation of possible solutions. The first workshop Hannah and I went to was on ‘Debt, Trade, Finance, Agriculture and Climate Change’. Hard not to feel despair and grief sitting there and learning of the ways that climate change is being supported by colossal and complex global financial systems that are inextricably woven into our modern globalised civilisation. NGOs are only just beginning to uncover how vast amounts of public funds (from our taxes) are re-invested as private funds and then into offshore accounts not obliged to disclose their investments, but often investing in projects that at best have a huge carbon footprint, and at worst are causing large-scale environmental destruction and degradation. Investing, for instance, in massive hydroelectric dam projects in Nepal and north-eastern India, displacing thousands from their homes and causing havoc with those regional ecosystems, without benefiting the local population in terms of jobs or even, strangely, power for their own grids (it all gets exported!). Given both the existing legal right to secrecy and the complexity of global financial mechanisms, it is very difficult to even trace the movement of these multi-billion pound funds, let alone hold any one to account.
Hard too to be in the same room and hear from her own mouth the young woman from Ecuador who said that since Texaco arrived 40 years ago to extract oil etc, the rates of cancers and kidney disease have soared, and yet without any acknowledgement or apology or legal compensation by Texaco. We may read about this sort of thing in the newspaper. Somehow though, being right next to her, it brought home the pain of it, almost viscerally. Real flesh and blood human suffering.
‘Compassion’ in the Dharma is a mix of qualities, including empathy and the desire or energy to heal, to alleviate suffering. Often in compassion practice these two qualities can become imbalanced. Practitioners can tend to unwittingly focus too much on the empathy (taking in and opening to the suffering of others) at the expense of feeling the lovely, even pleasant, qualities of the outflow of ‘healing’ energy. This will usually result in ‘compassion fatigue’ and fear of opening to suffering. So if we want our compassion to sustain and be steady, and if we want to be courageous in the face of the suffering in the world, we need to play with this balance in our practice so that compassion feels, on the whole, to be a ‘happy’ state. Yet there are times when we should, and will naturally want to, let ourselves descend to the dark places, to feel the magnitude of the pain in the world, the scope of the unfolding tragedy, to open to the unimaginable enormity of it all, trusting and knowing that we can rebalance ourselves again and regain our buoyancy, so that we can serve in some way.
Because as practitioners, and as humans even, we must act and choose and not simply feel. ‘Compassion is a verb’, Thich Nhat Hanh famously says. And it is many things, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional – our jewel treasure, our gift, part of the core of our humanity. Yes, it manifests naturally, but we very much need to care for it, to nurture it, because it can wither, shrink and dry up in us in so many ways. Yet if we can care for it and water it, and let it manifest and express in our lives more and more, we see it holds one of the most powerful keys to our freedom in life, to a whole different sense of being in the world, and even a whole different sense of ‘reality’.
On the way back from the march, Hannah said, “It’s funny, my feet ache from all this walking, but it somehow feels like a very different feeling than if I’d spent the day walking around Copenhagen sightseeing, for myself. The ache feels different walking for all beings.” On the scale of it neither the discomforts of the journey, the sleeplessness and the minor aches etc… of the body, nor (for some) the expense of the trip were really that much to bear, yet Hannah’s observation voiced a glimpse of something profound and important.
When we do something for the welfare of others, when we are willing to take on some unpleasantness or even pain for the sake of others’ happiness and well-being, this transforms our experience of the moment. We are no longer approaching the experience through the habitual lens and orientation of self, of ‘What’s in it for me?’. And, as all that we experience is empty of inherent existence, dependent on the way we see it, the experience opens up, it lightens, as it is not burdened and solidified by so much self-view. This is one of the secrets to the Bodhisattva’s practice of ‘Exchanging the Happiness of Self and Other’. And the more we begin to realise this, the more we want to and feel able to give and to give up (our comfort, our convenience, our sense pleasures, even our seeming ‘securities’ etc…) for the welfare of others. And so it goes round…We carve out a greater and greater capacity in the heart for service, for offering, for love.
Perhaps it’s not easy to admit, but it might be true to say that one of the factors supporting climate change is our lack of feeling strongly and deeply enough our connection with each other; so that somehow it becomes easier not to attend to or prioritise the plight of those ‘far away’ and ‘out of sight’ in the Third World, those who will likely suffer most immediately and terribly as the climate becomes more destabilised. We may not always say it or even consciously think it, but with this unawareness of our oneness and interconnection easily comes the attitude of ‘me (and my) first’.
I think we all found it beautiful and inspiring on the march to see all that glorious expression of human care and indomitable vitality, all the diverse creativity and good humour on display. To feel oneself part of the miracle of humanity and its endless resourcefulness. On the train back to Devon, we read an English newspaper, which seemed to be mostly reporting on the arrests of activists in Copenhagen. We wondered if we’d been on the same demonstration! We felt we had experienced a very celebratory and joyful large congregation, walking together extremely harmoniously. If there was some unrest or even ill-will, it was a very small part of the whole.
And the evening after the march, yet another gift! We found a cheap vegetarian restaurant that had been put together for the fortnight of the talks catering to demonstrators and those attending the alternative forums etc… Two professional chefs volunteered their services, and a collection of locals volunteered as waitstaff. What a wonderful atmosphere of goodwill! The chef seemed literally overjoyed at cooking for us, and she and the waiters and waitresses were given the most raucous applause of appreciation and gratitude by the hundred or more hungry demonstrators and activists.
We sat at a table there with a group of others including a young American student of Environmental Studies, and Gavin asked him if he thought the demonstration that day (an estimated 100,000 marched, we had heard) would make any difference to the politicians at the Summit. He replied that he thought it might make a little impact, but that perhaps what was more significant was the support that being there gave to all the activists and NGO groups, those who day in and day out do the difficult work of trying to mobilise change in the way we as a species care for the earth and for each other. I don’t do that work everyday. It feels important to support and nourish those that do, to give them a sense that it is worth them keeping on. It feels like we owe them a lot. And it must be easy for them to despair sometimes, to feel that not enough people are really listening or care enough. I hadn’t really realised that that too was a reason for being there.
Sitting in the Klimaforum lectures and workshops and witnessing just how much care and intelligence and thoughtfulness there is in the service of combating climate change and the structures that support it was impressive and inspiring. And yet I also couldn’t help noticing how these parallel forums, despite all that intelligence and research and creativity, did not seem to be adequately funded, (and certainly of course not funded anything like equally to the UN Summit!). The microphones and sound systems in the first lecture kept failing so it was hard to hear for many, and then as those speaking started to speak louder, a TV cameraman came in from next door where they were filming a workshop and asked us the speakers to speak more quietly! It seemed a shame that the brightness and willingness to act that was present in that hall was not being supported financially to any degree that might enable it to begin to make a difference in the world.
And it was also the case, it seemed to me, that some (not all, I’m sure) of those activists in the room were easily, perhaps understandably, drawn into mind-states of divisiveness and blame and anger. And again, though I could be wrong, some perhaps did not seem to intuit that at root the multiple crises of the planet (global climate destabilisation, species extinction, the degradation of the environment, over-population, world poverty, the decline in natural resources etc…) are spiritual crises, symptoms and manifestations, now obvious on a global scale, of greed, aversion and delusion, to put it in Buddhist terms.
If that is so, it seems necessary that together we address the crisis on that level, as well, of course, as on the immediate practical level. And as practitioners this may just be part of what we have to offer in the way we meet the issues – by speaking up, acting, making choices, being involved, but without feeding blame, divisiveness, anger and fear; and also by never losing sight of the need to inquire into and to address deeply the root causes and conditions of this common dukkha, to work to try to support a collective change in human attitudes and consciousness, in the ways we see and relate to the earth and to each other – even as the debates and consequences of climate change and environmental degradation become more heated and more intrusive and demanding in all of our lives.
Both of these aspects may be easier said than done. Sometimes, when reflecting on our own relationship with all this, we may realise that we do not speak up much or change our actions and choices too much. In 2008, David Loy and others edited a book called ‘A Buddhist Response to The Climate Emergency’, which contained many thoughtful, insightful and moving reflections on the climate crisis and its psycho-spiritual roots, yet, as one reviewer pointed out, on the whole there still seems a relative paucity of (even suggested) concerted action on the part of the wider Buddhist Sanghas to really take a stand on climate change.
I feel it’s important to ask ourselves why that might be. What’s in the way? (While the tangle of reasons why we as a species do not seem to be meeting this challenge with a great enough sense of priority is complex in the extreme, surely it behoves us as Dharma practitioners to inquire into our own choices, hesitations, confusions, and the cauldron of inner forces operating, just as we might in our practice in relation to purely ‘personal’ dukkha? Even this much is way beyond the scope of this article, but I want to offer, in the briefest sketches, a few of the possible factors at play within us.)
I wonder if one aspect may be that traditionally Buddhist practitioners have always been ‘better at’ (certainly more inclined and habituated to) meditating rather than taking action. While we may feel our practice to be primarily meditative and our sanghas to be a support for that, perhaps we don’t really, for the most part, think of our practice or our sanghas as active, and as taking action together or supporting each other in life-style changes and other choices that may impact the way we live or even the way the sangha operates.
So, is there something more we could collectively be doing together? Some ways of taking action together and supporting each other in that? Is it possible for sanghas to send a clearer and louder message of real and manifest care? There are many possibilities. For instance, do we want to, individually and collectively as a sangha, examine our attitudes to flying? (Not necessarily easy, or simple.) Do we want to inquire into and challenge the subtle and seductive reach of consumerism into our lives? (Also not necessarily easy.) Do we want to find real ways to support each other in lowering our personal carbon footprints, and prioritise finding ways that Dharma centres can do the same? And find ways of becoming more educated and involved together? Can we unleash our innate creativity and resourcefulness around this? If the Dharma is really to take root and flourish in a healthy and vital way in the West long-term, it seems to me that both the contemplative and the active, engaged dimensions need to be included equally. The true fullness and expression of wisdom and compassion must require both.
Sometimes, in inquiring into what may be ‘in the way’, if we look inside really honestly, it may even be that we realise that we don’t actually seem to care that much. What is happening here? Sometimes this is in fact a sense of despair or overwhelm in disguise. Or perhaps it all seems unreal or unbelievable, or doesn’t seem to concern us. One potential dark shadow side of spiritual and psychological inner work is that it becomes just another manifestation of ‘me first’- ‘me and my practice, me and my process, me and my problems’. Understandable sometimes, but a dangerous trap, a cul-de-sac of limiting and ultimately painful self-contraction. Can we find ways and resources together to open our sensitivities to the cries of the Earth and the plight of those not granted a voice?
And again, if we investigate a little more carefully, we see that both individually and collectively of course fear usually plays a role in our resistance to making certain choices or (what can seem like) sacrifices. There are so many possible ways, often not even immediately obvious, that fears can manipulate our thinking and feeling with respect to these crises and their implications. It may not be easy at all, but it’s pivotally important to expose and challenge these pathways of fear, without condemning ourselves.
Because what can also stall and corrupt the whole process is the all-too-frequent presence of the ‘inner critic’ and the ‘self-judge’. Here we may get stuck in feelings of guilt about it all, or, perhaps fearing that we might feel guilty, we disconnect before we feel much at all. The ‘inner critic’ can turn everything into a case for self-recrimination or a desperate trying to prove we are ‘good enough’, so that it then becomes so much more difficult, or sometimes even close to impossible, to find a genuine desire to stretch ourselves for love. How to proceed when that particular inner structure is operating may not be obvious.
But to offer that fullness of response as practitioners we need to find ways to see through all that prevents us. I truly hope that together we can help and support one another in these explorations, that we can uncover ways to be catalysts, fomenters of a deeper opening of the heart in ourselves and in each other.
And as we do it will become more and more clear that we cannot offer our fullness just by sitting in meditation (mindfully or with a feeling of compassion) or just by activism, acting and choosing in the world, without the supports of wisdom, compassion, fearlessness, equanimity and non-reactivity. As we begin to walk it, we gradually begin to see how the path works: that these qualities we cultivate in meditation should and will help us to act, to choose, to speak up for the welfare of all, especially when these things do not feel easy. And the more we choose that way, the more those qualities are developed in us and actually bring a whole other dimension of joy, of freedom. And then the stronger and wider and more capable of giving the heart becomes, or realises itself already to be…. And so it goes round….how beautiful and how blessed…the opposite of samsara.
Rob Burbea is Resident Teacher at Gaia House, and is a co-founder of Sanghaseva, an organisation dedicated to exploring the Dharma through service work internationally.