Bearing Witness to Climate Change

Can contemplative action, and forging a mindful relationship with the natural world, allow for healing in the face of a global crisis?

The Maranasatti Sutta is a Buddhist text detailing how to meditate on mortality. It implores one to practice with the same alertness as one would if one’s head was on fire. It is a compelling image; one that brings to mind the internal conflagration that craving and delusion engender. Of course, these days there is an external conflagration that poses a graver threat. Sure, we will one day die, but climate change poses an existential threat to life on this planet — death on a scale far grander than was thought possible when the Maranasatti Sutta was first composed. Earth is burning, and it might be necessary to approach this issue with the same alertness as one would if one’s head was on fire.

Our conscientious presence in nature, through activities like hiking and skiing and surfing, is a form of bearing witness to climate change. Photo by Peter Morgan.

Yet we are all drowning in the detritus of daily life. Perhaps we feel that the structural change necessary to truly address this issue is beyond our ken. Or perhaps we aren’t sure how an individual can even begin to turn such a colossal tide. In the prologue to Bearing Witness, Bernie Glassman, Zen teacher and founder of the Zen Peacemakers Order, wrote: “This is a book of questions. More precisely, it’s about living a questioning life, a life of unknowing. If we’re ready to live such a life, without fixed ideas or answers, then we are ready to bear witness to every situation, no matter how difficult, offensive, or painful it is. Out of that process of bearing witness the right action of making peace, of healing, arises.”

Similarly, this is an essay of questions: Can bearing witness to our shrinking wild spaces meaningfully inform the actions needed to address climate change? Can the micro act of individual mindfulness make a macro difference? Can contemplative action allow for healing in the face of this crisis?

WHEN MY WIFE and I were on our honeymoon in New Zealand, we undertook a particularly strenuous trek. It rained constantly, yet we powered on, moved by the immensity of the landscape around us and humbled by the opportunity to be a part of it. In my journal, I wrote: “It made me think of a Zen retreat. It can be revealing to learn that your reaction to suffering need not dictate your experience. And such complete immersion, life distilled to its essential needs, is liberating. The abstract woes of contemporary life are cast aside.”

Being in nature can have a profound effect. Like mindfulness practice, it is an experience that can be lived only with the whole bodymind. As we consider ways to protect our planet, perhaps the pursuit of such experiences can offer the beginnings of a solution. If we are unable to relate to our planet in meaningful and personal ways, it will remain yet another item that falls under our collective domain.

A parallel might be drawn with the industrial consumption of meat. In A Plea for the Animals, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard wrote, “We continue to live in ignorance concerning the harm we inflict on animals; very few of us have ever visited an industrial breeding site or a slaughterhouse.” In making such a visit, one would have to bear witness to the pain and suffering these animals endure. When a girlfriend forced a teenage Ricard to reflect on his own fishing experiences as a child, he gave up fishing on the spot. The disconnect between our natural resources and the damaging ways we exploit them is one of the reasons such suffering persists. Further awareness about the plight of both animals and planet would help address this disconnect, and make individuals more accountable for their choices.

Yet bearing witness doesn’t have to mean awakening to a grim reality. Though witnessing the destruction of precious resources and lands might offer a more visceral response, we can also engage with nature in gratifying and replenishing ways, bearing witness by taking the time to seek out wild spaces and enjoy them. Forging a connection with the natural world is a step towards rousing the desire to preserve it, protect it, and nurture it. Enjoyment begets affinity, which begets care and concern.

So how might one bear witness to climate change? There are certainly ways in which one can meditatively engage with nature. Lama Willa Miller, of the Natural Dharma Fellowship, has pointed out that Buddhist practice began under the Bodhi Tree, and scores of monks and yogis throughout history have dwelled in forests and caves. Miller engages in practices such as sky yoga or water gazing, which can be done outside with nature as a focal point. Connecting with the outdoors in this manner has the potential to awaken us to the richness of the natural world; the sights and sounds and scents that are fast disappearing.

There is certainly value to this kind of action, both from a contemplative standpoint and from forging a deeper connection with the outdoors. Through engaging in contemplation in wild spaces, perhaps we can bring some back to our tame lives, to disrupt the complacency that has resulted in our present condition.

But bearing witness to climate change can also occur outside of formal meditation. Making an effort to seek out and appreciate the natural world may create a powerful ripple effect in its own right. Whether we hike, kayak, ski, surf, or go for a stroll in the park, our conscientious presence in nature is a form of bearing witness. It is a choice that puts us amidst our planet, rather than sequestering us behind four walls, in a passive or consumptive state. And such abiding in nature can have an effect. Journalist Will Bostwick highlighted how public outcry over the potential exploratory drilling near a popular mountain biking trail caused the US Bureau of Land Management to reverse course. This is an example of engagement with the outdoors resulting in a rare win for the planet. If more people made the effort to venture outside, perhaps our view of the natural world as a resource to be taken advantage of would begin to crumble.

The German chemist Michael Braungart wrote, “Instead of trying to minimize our ecological footprint, we can celebrate our human footprint… When we are afraid, insecure, or have lost our sense of identity, it is easy to become greedy. But if people feel safe, accepted and valued, they can be warm-hearted and generous. This is the reason why it is so important to celebrate our human footprint — so that we can truly recognize and increase our positive impact on the planet.”

In March of 2019 I had a daughter, and as a present mindfulness practitioner rearing what I hope will be a future mindfulness practitioner, I take this sentiment to heart. My daughter was born on a rapidly warming planet, rife with pollution and palm trees; SUVs and sunsets; landfills and lava flows. My hope is that by exposing her to nature she will grow to be active and joyous in its midst. She might seek out mountains and rivers and maybe she’ll bring a friend along, and maybe that love for the outdoors will spread faster than our capacity to destroy it. Or maybe not. But at least she will have borne witness, and had the opportunity to feel connected, humbled, and awed, just as her parents did on that trek in New Zealand. And no matter how difficult the process of bearing witness is, hopefully she will at least have the chance to make her peace.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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