Gaia Consciousness

Because global climate change has reached crisis proportions in 2014, Dharma teachers around the country are joining together to raise awareness about the crucial importance of mindfully caring for the planet that is our home.

Howie Cohn’s recent retreat at MAC started two days after Earth Day.  He commented that, “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.  The world is the way it is because people are the way they are.”  Since we have chosen to be on a Dharma path to increase consciousness in our thoughts, words, and actions, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to re-establish and enhance our connection with Gaia, the wise spirit and equanimity of the Earth.

I recall that when I was on a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in March of 2003, John Travis gave a Dharma talk that was titled “The Sure Heart’s Release.”  He read a poem about the river of life, flowing between pleasant sensations on one shore and unpleasant sensations on the other.   Our task is to surrender our hearts to the current.  In gratitude, we can recognize that all is perfect as it is, with nothing missing.

John told a story about a retreat in rural Nepal, where he had repetitive dreams about a huge snake.  One day, he emerged from his hut to find local villagers attacking an eight-foot snake that had crawled out from the space beneath his sleeping quarters.  Because of their fear, these Nepalese farmers killed the benevolent animal that had been eating rodents who robbed their grain supply.  So often, we react fearfully against the very element that could be an ally if we would welcome it.  How can we learn to befriend all of life?

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is situated on 400 acres of a wildlife refuge in Marin County, California.  Meditators have an extraordinary opportunity to do walking meditation in proximity to deer, turkeys, lizards, hummingbirds, butterflies, and other innocent creatures.  When I am on extended silent retreats, my compassion extends to whatever wildlife I encounter.  As my heart opens, it seems impossible to conceive of intentionally harming any living being.

During the March retreat in 2003, my awareness was so expanded that I sensed the moment that George W. Bush ordered the bombing in Iraq.  With profound grief, I felt connected to the enormous suffering of people being tortured and killed in that country.  I had images of war victims without food or water or shelter.  Other horrible images emerged of bombed out fields without vegetation or flowers.  Physically, I had a sensation of a heavy weight on my chest, queasiness in my belly, and intensified pain in my left knee.  My body seemed to be absorbing some of the agony of people being hit by bombs.  My mourning was not only for the maimed and dying people, but also for the plants, animals and land that was being destroyed.  I resonated with the suffering of Mother Earth.

The anti-war song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Peter, Paul and Mary ran through my head, and I wept about the ignorance of human beings who still try to resolve conflicts through violence.  Verse Five of the Dhammapada, the most widely read Buddhist scripture, reads “Hatred is, indeed, never appeased by hatred in this world.  It is appeased only by loving-kindness.  This is an ancient law.”  But so few people live according to that law.

Meditation centers like Spirit Rock and the Margaret Austin Center in central Texas provide crucial refuges, where people learn to honor all life and to find peaceful ways to resolve differences.  In times of crisis, the “suchness” of a metal spoon in my hand and crispy nuggets of cereal in my mouth seem like balm for a worried mind.  The night that the bombing in Iraq started, I walked out under brilliant stars and saw the Great Dipper directly above the meditation hall, as if it were protecting the sacred space inside.  The constellation seemed to provide a large enough container to hold all the world’s joys and sorrows.

As I consider the urgent matter of climate change, the main question for me as a Buddhist practitioner is, “How can I make a positive difference without viewing climate change deniers as enemies?”  I want to continue to support organizations like World Wildlife Fund, without acting superior to people whose work entails fracking and other jobs that cause environmental damage.  There is no easy answer to this dilemma, but I know that I will not persuade persons who hold different viewpoints about the environment if I treat them as my opponents.   Now let us open up a discussion about this vital matter.