It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the realities of the climate emergency and, unless we do something soon, the events of this last summer will only be a prelude to previously incomprehensible levels of devastation and death.
In the face of this kind of existential threat, our natural response is likely to be some form of fight, flight, or freeze. While this survival mechanism worked well in our evolutionary past, with climate change, all three of these survival mechanisms will just dig us in deeper and bring us closer to extinction.
So, what do we do?
First, do something. Give money to a good cause. Plant a tree. Start composting. Write a letter to your representatives supporting legislation that would help move us to clean energy. Join a group. Purposeful action is the antidote to fear.
Next, while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, I invite you to notice how you’re doing it. I turn to sacred activism to help me with this part. At its heart, sacred activism is the fusion of the spiritual and the worldly, the inner and the outer, doing and being. Sacred activism holds that while action is absolutely vital, how I engage with the world is as important as — and sometimes more important than — what I accomplish. What does this mean? Quite simply: Can I engage without hardening my heart? Can I respond rather than react?
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For me, daily meditation is essential. It helps me stay present with what is happening in myself and the world in a way that, ideally, is expansive, non-judgmental, and compassionate. It helps me recognize when I’ve fallen into fight, flight, or freeze and respond adaptively to the psychological and physiological fallout. But it’s not enough by itself; in fact, meditation is only a pre-requisite for going deeper.
I believe that if we are going to do what is required for our species’ survival, we must go to the very roots of this crisis. Since we are the origin of it, that means going inward to the deepest parts of ourselves both individually and collectively. In the language of western psychology, this journey is known as "shadow work’" The term was first coined by Carl Jung to describe the parts of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge and tend to repress. Unfortunately, when we repress these aspects of ourselves, they don’t just go away; they manifest in maladaptive ways. In our personal lives this might show up as road rage, a drinking problem, or compulsive shopping. In activism, it might mean we become insufferably sanctimonious or self-righteous, allow ourselves to become a mirror image of the hate we spurn in others, or burn ourselves out by ignoring our own needs.
This work of becoming conscious is challenging, but not impossible. In the Buddhists Responding group, some of us have taken up shadow work as a way of furthering our activism. We have been using the teachings of Andrew Harvey, a modern spiritual teacher, to inform and guide us. Andrew teaches that it is through bringing the shadow into the light of awareness that healing occurs. As we heal our personal shadows, we are able to see more clearly and intervene more effectively.
At the heart of Buddhism is the belief that there is no separation, that everything in the world is interconnected and interdependent. I cannot harm another without harming myself. I cannot gain by taking. In this view, there is only one way forward: We must search for the seeds of destruction within ourselves and heal them. Because in healing myself, I heal the world.
Heather Krimsly is a co-founder of Buddhists Responding, a local ecumenical group of Buddhist practitioners working to address suffering and injustice in social, political, and environmental contexts.