Dan Black, founder of the Boise Institute for Buddhist Studies, a long-time dharma friend and a man who knows a little about confronting death and dying, having overcome Stage 4 colorectal cancer with only limited chemotherapy (!), recently offered some commentary on Planetary Hospice, and gave me permission to share it with all of you. He begins by correctly observing (tongue-in-cheek here) that Planetary Hospice “represents a profound observation or diagnosis into our collective social illnesses.” You knew I had to include that, right? Dan goes on to say:
“This would include our alienation, political hubris, etc. I think you are right about these things and have given a vocabulary to a sense of malaise that has affected our country and world for the last few decades as we [have] become further out of touch and dissociated from our planet. In the end, it is [our] failure to properly grieve the loss of our planet that leaves us so unresolved.”
I love the use of the adjective “unresolved” to describe us. If you think about it, we do need to re-solve this puzzle about how we coexist with this living planet, and it will take some resolve to follow through with that. So I think ‘unresolved’ perfectly describes our collective psyche at this critical point in time.
“[Your] analysis connects a few inspiring thought traditions. Buddhists’ emphasis on understanding suffering should include the suffering of the world around us. We know from the interconnected nature of things that such a loss wouldn’t leave us un-harmed.”
This is such a key point. It is no longer just Buddhists who deeply appreciate the interconnected nature of all life and phenomena on this planet. That’s the view that has emerged from quantum physics, and especially since the advent of the world wide web, I think it represents a major shift in consciousness that is quite responsive to the situation we are confronted with. I addressed this point in a scholarly debate with one of my heroes, Andy Fisher, in response to the release of an updated edition of his seminal book Radical Ecopsychology, which debate I am including here: Radical Ecopsychology R&R and here: Fisher Response for those who might find it stimulating (it’s kind of a pragmatism – me – vs. superior intellect – Andy – argument).
“Buddhists’ awareness sees this suffering and its causes – and we are open to exploring the sources and remedies for such suffering. The other tradition is Marxist theory. It excels at systems analysis and understands humanity’s latent need to connect with, if not master over, the natural world. Its emphasis on economy has been expanded in recent years by Noam Chomsky and others to include observing the larceny of the natural world by the few at the expense of the many. They have done this, in large part, by co-opting the language of consumption and consumerism. I am ever appreciative how the media/messengers affect our identities and values.”
This point also was part of my debate with Fisher. He believes that ecopsychologists should promote eco-socialism, which is Marxist, as an alternative to capitalism. I think that sounds great in theory, but given the urgency of the situation, I favor the kind of re-definition of capitalism that is being advocated by the visionary organization Share the World’s Resources, as I think it is more realistic given where we are with the global economy and the entrenched politics of the issue here in America. Again, refer to my debate with Fisher if you find this of particular interest.
“The world IS our ultimate family unit. We have only to look at our irrational, tragic and dysfunctional abilities to accept the loss of a family member to understand how the loss of our oceans, old-growth, reef systems and species affects us all. Dissociated, fractured and alone, we stumble from one distraction to the next. Interestingly, the discussion of global warming fails to discuss the ultimate effect of our destructive ways – human extinction and perhaps the loss of all life on the planet.”
This is why hospice is such an important development in our culture. There was a time when people died at home, and death was a more accepted part of life. We lost touch with the dying process at the same time we started losing touch with nature. Hospice gets people back into dealing with what’s real. And we shouldn’t wait till we’re dealing with death to examine this, either. It’s why I keep urging people to watch the documentary Griefwalker – because Jenkinson reminds us how to LIVE with the proper respect for nature and its processes.
As for the “ultimate effect” — it is true that it doesn’t get discussed much, as it is such a profound fear (and thus so difficult to acknowledge). The idea of near term human extinction is starting to get discussed, and my concern is still over the way it is being framed. It’s a real possibility, even a significant risk, which should be enough to shock us into action. My concern is that it is being framed as “inevitable” by those closest to the relevant information. While I have the utmost respect for those who have reached that unfortunate conclusion, I can’t help but think it rash, a little hasty, and even a little hubristic. Climate science is just not that certain.
“Meditation is one of the few ways we have to reconnect to a sense of being whole, full and complete. And as we continue to study, meditate and live with the realities of emptiness, interdependence and loss, we get an idea of the heart’s ultimate imperative – reconciliation. By that, I mean a balanced activism, or compassionate witness. We take nutrition from the earth not to conquer, but to mitigate the harm around us. We are peace-keepers who understand our power, its limits, and our responsibility.”
So well said, Dan. I’ve begun to come to the conclusion that we are all united by and ‘in’ awareness (and by ‘we’ I mean all living beings, including the planet). However, awareness is merely the foundation for consciousness, and we humans have become very adept at using our consciousness as a shield to filter out those depths of awareness we prefer not to acknowledge (e.g., emotional wounding, mortality and grief, harmful consequences of our actions, such as meat-eating, etc.). It is this unique ability to selectively filter out awareness that gives rise to the atrocities perpetrated by humans collectively in spite of individually possessing good hearts – what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil.” That is what is at the heart of the climate crisis, not to mention other injustices, and meditation is our best tool for opting out of that banality. I think there are other ways, like various therapies and getting actively involved in social organizations that put us in touch with humanity (hospice, homelessness, etc.). But really, how we relate to our world comes down to how we relate to our own minds, and some kind of contemplative practice is essential.