contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Sacred activism

BOOK REVIEW: THE BURNING HOUSE

A highly recommended illustration of spirituality in support of political action. In The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (1), author Shantigarbha affirms that ‘the ecological crisis is nothing if not a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and direction for our civilisation’. Most Druids would say the same, and see value in his approach.

Shantigarbha (Seed or Womb of Peace) (2) is a teacher of Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He has also trained members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in nonviolence and de-escalation skills. He believes that we cannot wait to change our lives before we change the world, or to change the world before we change our lives: we have to do the best we can with both, together, now. He sees the climate crisis as primarily one of ’empathy, connection and community’ and says that ‘when we use our energy to cultivate our own vitality, we naturally use the abundance we discover in the service of life’.

The book title The Burning House references a traditional Buddhist story about a father trying to get his children out of a burning house. There is no time to pick them up individually, so he simply commands them to leave. But they are busy playing with their toys and ignore him. He has to find a skilful means of getting them out. In his anguish (but also inspiration) he tells them that there are even more wonderful and exciting toys outside. In the parable the burning house stands for a life of samsara and unawareness. Outside there is the opportunity for awareness and the tools to develop it.

The book looks first at the climate crisis and ways it can be understood. There follow chapters on how Buddhist ethics support environmental ethics, and how compassionate action based on wisdom can enable the transformation we need. There are chapters on aspects of emotional intelligence. How to transform anger is the first – rather than acting out our anger or repressing it, we can identify and mobilise ‘the life in it’. Hatred, by contrast, is characterised as always toxic and self-harming. There are chapters on ecological grief and its potentially heavy weight – and also on gratitude for what we do still have. There is a beautiful quote from Francis Weller: ‘How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible’ (3).

Later chapters focus more specifically on nonviolent social change, on being the change, and on the role of nonviolent disruption in the pursuit of climate justice. Practical examples draw on UK experience in 2019, mostly in London and Bristol. Whilst illuminating, they are limited in place and time. The last chapter, Final thoughts: the beauty and terror, summarises what we can do both individually and collectively. It sees some grounds for hope – if we treat the climate and ecological emergency as an emergency. Shantigarbha draws on Sraddha, ‘the Buddhist equivalent of hope’, better translated as confidence or trust. It is not faith or hope in the ordinary sense. ‘Sraddha represents a higher or broader perspective, our connection with vision. It signifies an emotional response to our ideals. In terms of the burning house it represents the father’s cry of inspiration’. We are invited to have the courage and confidence to do what we can, and let the effects ripple out. It is what we can do, and all we can do.

The Burning House offers valuable perspectives both on Buddhist political engagement and on climate action. Each chapter contains a link to a guided meditation, offered as a resource to readers.

(1) Shantigarbha The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2021 (https://www.windhorsepublications.com)

(2) See: https://www.SeedofPeace.org

(3) See: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow)

NAVIGATING TURBULENT TIMES

Ten suggestions for navigating turbulent times: I am interested in the following list by Carolyn Baker and Andrew Harvey (1). They are not from my tradition, but I find their thoughts relevant and challenging. They prompt me to wonder what my list would be. Their book, which I will review in a later post, was published in the USA in 2020, a little before the November elections.

“1. Stay Safe: wear masks when you are outside, continue social distancing as much as possible, and listen carefully to the scientists who are telling us we are in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic. Shun all large gatherings and rallies and find other ways to protest which can be just as effective.

“2. Take special care of your health and keep your body vibrant with exercise and good nutrition. The psychological and emotional demands of unfolding crises will be far more effectively sustained with a healthy body.

“3. Whatever your spiritual practice, plunge more deeply than ever into it. It is essential to pursue realization of your true Self with more faith and intensity in these exploding times than ever before.

“4. Fill your life with inspiration and beauty. Inspiration will keep your heart buoyant and alive, and beauty will remind you of the magnificence of life and fill you with the energy to want to safeguard it.

“5. If you can, spend 20 minutes in nature per day, experiencing your oneness with it and drinking in through every pore its steadiness and radiance. Allow yourself to become intimate with the Earth.

“6. Stay aware of how the pandemic and environmental crises are evolving. There is no security in denial or ignorance. Learn, however, to pace yourself because the ferocious information you will be taking in can become overwhelming.

“7. Take time to grieve. No one will escape heartbreak in a time such as this, and not attending to the suffering of the heart that inevitably rises in the face of so much destruction will lead to severe depression or a kind of inner deadness that makes it impossible to respond creatively. Get support from others who are also grieving alone, and there is no need to be alone in a crisis that is now global.

“8. Renew old friendships and relish and deepen the ones you have you have because everything now depends on the sanity and joy that only deep friendship and relationship can provide, Take special care and lavish special love on your animal companions, and they will reward you with their tender and miraculous love.

“9. Despite being mostly in lockdown, make an effort to practice Sacred Activism by giving wisely to those in need. Foodbanks need support as do healthcare workers and the homeless who are afraid of going to shelters because they are Petri dishes for the virus. If you are able to assist those in prison by standing up for their rights, or by encouraging them in any way, do so. Take seriously your right to vote, for everything depends throughout the world on turning back the tide of dark money-financed authoritarianism.

“10. Use this book as a way of training your inner eyes to see and celebrate the signs of the Birth of a new humanity that are rising everywhere amidst the obviously apocalyptic death. Note the heroism of extraordinary/ordinary people globally who are turning up to serve the sick and dying. Note the heroism of protestors after the horrific death of George Floyd. Read great evolutionary philosophers and mystics like Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Bede Griffiths, Satprem, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich, and those who speak of the global dark night, giving birth potentially to an embodied divine humanity.”

(1) Carolyn Baker & Andrew Harvey Radical Regeneration: Birthing the New Human in the Age of Extinction Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2020

XR STORIES

This re-blog, from The Earthbound Report, presents three stories from the recent Extinction Rebellion (XR) action in London. Written from an insider perspective, they illustrate the movement culture that XR seeks to model.

Three little XR stories you won’t read in the papers — The Earthbound Report

WELL-BEING: CONTEMPLATING ACTION

“In The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett put inequality at the centre of public debate by showing conclusively that less equal societies fare worse than more equal ones across everything from education to life expectancy. The Inner Level explains how inequality affects us individually, how it alters how we think, feel and behave. It sets out the overwhelming evidence that material inequities have powerful psychological effects: when the gap between rich and poor increases, so does the tendency to define and value ourselves and others in terms of superiority and inferiority. A deep well of data and analysis is drawn upon to empirically show, for example, that low social status is associated with elevated levels of stress hormones, and how rates of anxiety and depression are intimately related to the inequality which make that status paramount.” (1)

What links contemplation and action? My answer is creative and powerful ideas. In a recent post (2), I cited Brendan Myers (3) proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good (a powerful, creative idea), and that it depends on us supporting each other’s well-being and that of the biosphere and the Earth itself (another powerful creative idea). The Spirit Level and The Inner Level concern ‘developed’ countries in the 21st century and to an extent the last two decades of the 20th. They paint a depressing picture, especially for the U.K. and the U.S.A, and for me it shows the need to champion a social ecology that supports health and well-being.

For some years I worked at the interface between public health (i.e. population-based health, largely concerned with prevention work and the creation of more supportive environments) and mental health. So, I am interested in the recent publication of The Inner Level (4) and may write further about it. Thinking about ‘health’ in the bigger picture (with service provision as only one aspect) is a positive way into social justice work, where powerful ideas can (in principle) be realised through ethical passion and political will informed by scientific evidence. It is a notion of how to do public policy that needs to be kept alive.

I know this doesn’t happen much, now, in a culture like ours with high levels of bullying, confusion, distraction and misinformation. We seem to be living with an orchestrated dumbing down of political discourse in the service of oligarchic interests. So, my first action – not always recognised as action – is personal resistance to any onset of cynicism, numbness and despair within myself. My second action – also not always recognised as action – is to work at maintaining an adequate level of knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world, using the lens of ‘powerful ideas’ to make sense of the information I digest. This includes having an historical perspective – both backwards and forwards – on current events. My third action is to place myself within networks that share my concerns and are responding to them in diverse ways – hopefully modelling cultures of: compassion (including ruthless compassion); openness and creativity; curiosity about the world; and criticality (deconstructive where necessary and appreciative where possible) in the realm of ideas and action. Further developments will come from there, and I will write about them within this blog.

Over time my contemplative life has moved towards a blend of energy work and meditative connection to source, with the practice forms kept simple. It is also the clear, awake space out of which I act in the world.

(1) https://www.equalitytrust.uk/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(4) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being

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