Monday, Jun. 12, 2017
M.A. Candidate, Clinical Psychology
Spirituality Mind Body Institute
Teachers College, Columbia University
“NO WAR NO WARMING,” large black and red letters proclaimed, floating overhead on a billowing, fabric banner. Underneath the words, a brown hand and a tan hand grasped each other, symbolizing the collective unity of all races, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds in the fight against climate change. Other signs bobbed in the crowd with phrases like, “We Are Rivers, We Are Ocean, We Are Water” “Don’t Eat Me(at),” “Solar Plus Wind = Fossil Fuel End,” and “Save the Bees,” among others.
In April, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend the People’s Climate March on Washington, D.C. with New York Insight Meditation Center, a local offshoot of Buddhist Global Relief. While I felt greatly disturbed by the underlying reasons for the protest, I found the overall atmosphere to be one of hope, compassion, and inspiring community. Participants hailed from all corners of the country fighting for specific environmental protections most dear to their hearts.
Another key observation stuck out; these protestors seemed to be profoundly aware and appreciative of the interconnection fundamental to all life on Earth. I could not help but draw parallels between the march’s philosophy and what I had learned throughout the year as a student in the Spirituality Mind Body Institute: What affects one, affects all.
The notions of interconnection or universal oneness are sometimes difficult to fully grasp. Oftentimes I wonder where I end and other begins. Is my skin the boundary? When oxygen from trees makes its way past my lungs into my blood and to all parts of my body, does the tree become part of me? When I drink water and ingest minerals and nutrients provided by this planet, do I become Earth?
Upon further investigation, I discovered that millennia before Emerson and Thoreau romanticized the transcendental qualities of the natural world, indigenous and native peoples across the globe placed enormous value in their connections with the planet. Ancient wisdom traditions including Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism promote harmony, understanding, and great compassion for the divinity of nature.
More recently in 1986, Harvard University Press published Biophilia, biologist Edward O. Wilson’s hypothesis that human beings have an innate, biological attraction to the natural environment and other living organisms.
So, the human relationship to the natural world has been well documented and examined and is deeply rooted in philosophical, spiritual, and biological support. What has transpired in recent centuries to have disconnected us from nature to such an extent that is has spurred the environmental crisis we now face?
According to research conducted by Dr. Stephen Kellert of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, “Places where people live, work, and go to school generally discourage contact with the natural world.”
Indeed, a recent poll by the United Nations concluded, “Fifty-four percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas,” a statistic projected to increase to 66% in the next three decades.
Dr. Kellert’s research also suggested, “Declining direct dependence on the natural world for livelihoods and subsistence allows Americans to orient their lives towards other things. New technologies, especially electronic media, distract and captivate.”
Furthermore, with President Trump’s recent decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Americans may no longer rely on government regulations and financial support to enact necessary environmental protections, deepening the divide already prevalent in our nation.
Instead, we must favor intrinsic motivations that result from purposefully reestablishing our lost connection to the natural world. But how do we reignite the respect and love for Earth venerable voices knew so well?
On a quest to understand such a spiritual response to climate change, I interviewed an environmental scientist, a documentary filmmaker, and a Buddhist monk.
First, to gain a more thorough understanding of the depth at which human activity influences nature, I interviewed Roger Willis, Environmental Project Manager at Environmental Consulting Services, LLP.
“Climate change, as we understand it, is happening, is anthropogenic in origin, and it is accelerating,” he informed me.
Although human activity may not have induced a natural warming cycle, the copious amount of carbon dioxide we emit escalates the warming, resulting in widespread ecosystem devastation, species decline, and global imbalance. According to Willis, the three main contributors of atmospheric carbon dioxide impacting climate change are energy production, commercial vehicles, and concrete production, each of which contributes about a third. Even to an environmentalist, human-nature interconnection is undeniably evident.
“As with any kind of grand exchange in the environment, every species on the planet is going to suffer some kind of impact, whether it’s positive or negative,” he continued. “Insects will do fantastically… You’ll see more bacterial and viral proliferation… Large mammals, birds, and reptiles will suffer for it.”
The effects of climate change that were once difficult to detect now present themselves in unparalleled, extreme weather events. “In central Texas in the last three years, we have had two, 500-year floods and one, 100-year flood, which is a massive event which should not be occurring at this rate,” Willis said. “Storms will get worse. They’ll have more water. They’ll have more energy. Worse lightening. More tornados. More rain.”
Finally, he added, “Humanity is in the unique position of being able to engineer its environment to a degree, so we will suffer for it, but we won’t suffer as much as other species.”
Curious to understand the Buddhist spiritual philosophy on environmentalism, I next spoke with Colin Beavan, author, life coach, and Dharma Teacher, best known for his environmental documentary No Impact Man, and Bhante Suddhaso, Buddhist monk and Co-founder of Buddhist Insights.
“At the root of any spiritual or religious traditions, Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, or anything, are the fundamental questions like, What am I, and What is my relationship to the world?” Beavan said. When we embrace these questions, we are launched into the what is, which is essentially just each moment blossoming into the next moment.
He continued, “As soon as any of us seek to attain peace through spiritual disciplines… your own mind and spirit become more peaceful… you really become more open to the suffering around you… You can’t obtain final peace…because we are connected.”
Emphasizing this perspective further, Bhante Suddhaso added that the Buddhist practice has two wings, wisdom and compassion. When we start considering the implications of compassion, “It is wishing for the welfare of all sentient beings - humans, animals, insects, spirits, everything,” he said. Furthermore, “…when one applies that with a degree of understanding, it does become clear that the impact that we have on the environment affects other sentient beings.”
He discussed his personal involvement against chemicals and pesticides used in industrial agricultural, as they harm animals and insects and spread toxic elements into the earth.
“The [Buddhist] path is the one of acting in ways that cause the least harm to other sentient beings and brings the most benefit to other sentient beings,” he informed me.
He suggested mindfulness, one major element of many forms of Buddhist meditation, as a method to closely tune into one’s physical experience. Noticing physical sensations without biases or judgement will help develop a sharp awareness of the body.
When one begins to pay attention to the body, one becomes acutely aware of the effects certain choices have on the body. This may result in greater awareness of how climate change and environmental degradation affect the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of consciousness.
So, where do you end, and where do you begin? Are you one with the sound waves of an enchanting melody? Do you become color when sunlight floods your retinas?
Perhaps it is time to begin asking these questions, not only for the sake of personal peace, but for the future prosperity of Earth - our mother, our home, ourselves.