How can we engage in action on behalf of Earth and not get consumed, not go crazy? We who have aligned ourselves with this effort to transform a civilization are faced with something very different from the kinds of challenges that our foremothers and forefathers faced. Six peculiarities of our situation occur to me.
First, there is the staggering range of the crisis, from the soil to the forest to the air to the seas to the rivers to the spasms of extinction. It's overwhelming.
Second, there is an overwhelming amount of data. You can never know enough. Every time you hear mention of a new development, you think, "I'd better bone up on that too."
Third, it appears that our chances of pulling through are slim. We recognize this, but we don't say it much. For example, the chlorofluorocarbons we've already put into the biosphere will still be eating at the biosphere for the next 15 years. How do you find the energy and motivation to act when it may be too late?
The fourth peculiarity is the taboo against acknowledging the situation, against speaking out and naming what we're doing to ourselves. It still feels inappropriate to acknowledge in polite society what is happening. On one level, we intuit the severity of the crisis we're in; on the other, we're going along business as usual.
Fifth, it's increasingly dangerous to act on behalf of Earth because of repressive actions of the F.B.I. (as in infiltrating Earth First!) and attacks on environmentalists by corporate-sponsored movements like Wise Use. I know when I speak, I sometimes hear ancestral voices whispering, "Shut up or you will be burned." We carry this fear.
And sixth, we feel so pressed--the letters to answer, the lobbying, the meetings, the fund-raising, the calls to make--that we get sick and tired, and tired and sick. Some of the people I most admire work on issues of contamination, and they are physically ill.
If those are the problems, what do we have going for us? A lot. First, it helps to remember your true nature. Action is not something you do, it's something you are. In other words, you are not a noun, you're a verb. In our old paradigm, the world, rocks, atoms, molecules, trees, people, nation states were seen as separate entities. Now we see reality as interconnecting currents of matter, energy, and information. Systems thinker Norvert Weiner said, "We are not stuff that abides, we are patterns...in a river of ever-flowing water."
So action isn't a burden to be hoisted and lugged around on our shoulders; it can be seen as an awakening to our true nature, where this flow is at every moment directed by our choice. We're like a lens that can focus and direct this flow.
Our true nature tells us what our power is. Understanding power is absolutely critical, because you can have all the smarts, devotion, and information to carry forth a campaign of action, but if you are still falling for the old notion of power, you are crippling yourself. The old notion tells us that power is what one substance does to another substance. And what can it do? It can push it around. It can exert its will. Hence we have identified power with domination. And we've imagined that power means having strong defenses so others don't push us around. In contrast, an image frequently used by systems thinkers is the nerve cell. In a neural net, nerve cells are constantly interacting and interdependent, allowing flows of matter, energy, and information among them and transforming those flows.
Second, there are two symbolic gestures, or mudras, in Buddhism that help me a lot. The abhaya mudra, palm outward, means "Fear not." When I wonder where is my refuge, my safe haven, it reminds me that my real refuge is in my action, in the flow going out of the heart.
The other mudra is the gesture of touching the ground. When the Buddha was sitting under the bodhi tree, Mara said, "By what authority are you doing this." Gautama didn't recite his pedigree or what he had accomplished in his life, he reached down and touched the earth. This is my right to be here; this is my right to seek freedom from endless suffering and inflicting of suffering. The scriptures say that when he did that, the earth roared.
Third, it has also been helpful to me to reflect on the meaning of apocalypse. A theologian brother who knew his Greek told me that the real meaning of the word is "to uncover," "to disclose." If we face the magnitude of the dangers, what can be revealed in us? People think that if we don't look at it, we won't be paralyzed. But what if we were to live each moment as if it were our last? That's a central spiritual teaching. Look into apocalypse and let it free you from triviality and evasion. Use that sense of being on the brink to come alive, to discover who you really are, to let all the falseness that we imprison ourselves in be stripped away. Before Lakota warriors went into battle, they said, Today is a good day to die.
It also helps to remember that each one of us had been called into being at this time. I am convinced that we are not here by accident. Is it not a privilege to be incarnating at a time when the stakes are high, at a time when everything we've ever learned about interconnectedness, about trust, about courage, can be put to the test? Each one of us, I believe, is a gift the earth is giving to itself now. Every anguish, betrayal, and disappointment can help prepare us for the work of healing. If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.
Finally, we need to be ready for surprises. The first property of systems is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each time new systematic patterns form through interaction, something emerges that wasn't there. You cannot predict what is going to emerge. That is why it's okay not to have a blueprint. Give up the notion that you have to know what the best thing to do is. Lewis Mumford saw this years ago when he said that the era of the individual saviors, a Buddha, a messiah, or a Christ, was over, and that wisdom was going to erupt though each and all of us. Transformation now is a collective event.
Excerpted from "Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism," edited by Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft and published in January 2000 by Shambhala Publications, Inc.