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How to Meet the Tragedy of Climate Change

What a Zen Buddhist teacher’s lessons on death and dying taught me about climate change activism

The inspiration for this piece comes from a recent Twitter exchange with Anna Jane Joyner, co-host of the brilliant climate change podcast, No Place Like Home. She had tweeted “a strange question: …who are your favorite writers/speakers on death, darkness, loss, winter, grief, heartache, and climate change?”

Anna’s question made me think right away of one man whose lifework, while not focused on climate change, offers a meaningful gift to our diverse community of climate change activists. Frank Ostaseski is a beloved Buddhist teacher, founder of the Metta Institute, and founding director of the Zen Hospice Project. His 2017 book, The Five Invitations, distills his decades of accrued wisdom and experience in Buddhist end-of-life care into an unvarnished, yet tenderly delivered guide for, as its subtitle declares, “discovering what death can teach us about living fully.”

Depending on your point of view on climate change and your alignment with the various climate change activist cultures taking shape in the world today (check out my previous Medium piece on the differences between climate warriors and climate weavers), by now, I wager, you’ve either decided to keep reading or you’ve rolled your eyes, muttered, “oh, great, another %@#! doomist,” and are poised to click away.

But bear with me. I promise that if you stick around, you’ll find out I’m not guiding you down some fatalistic path. Instead, I’m going here: regardless of whether we will ultimately be able to rally the troops and save our planet from disaster or, alternatively, roll out disparate survival strategies during a planetary meltdown, there’s one fact of life that will run through all the scenarios. And Frank Ostaseski states that fact simply and directly: “dying is in the life of everything.”

Whether we are the ones making the beds or the ones confined to them, we have to confront the uncertain nature of this life. We become aware of the fundamental truth that everything comes and goes: every thought, every lovemaking, every life. We see that dying is in the life of everything. Resisting this truth leads to pain. — Frank Ostaseski

Anyone who’s lost a loved one knows this truth. Anyone who’s witnessed their own body aging knows this truth. Yet it feels better, momentarily at least, to push it away in favor of undivided attention to the brighter, more optimistic side of life. As though the two sides were truly separate and not intimately and inextricably intertwined. As though the other side of life could be made to utterly vanish through an act of sheer willpower. Even though, every step of the way, we’re confronted by continued reminders being whispered in our ears or, sometimes, piercing our hearts — in our personal lives, on walks through the woods or down the street, in the news, as the seasons change. Dying is in the life of everything.

But what does this truth have to offer climate change activists? The short answer to this question is that when we don’t acknowledge it, when we don’t integrate it into our thinking and behavior, it doesn’t go away. Instead, hiding in plain sight, it eats away at our resolve, instilling and spreading doubts about our intentions, our strategies, our hopes. If dying is in the life of everything, what’s the point of life itself? What’s the point of fighting for a future whose essence, like the present, contains the seeds of its own demise?

As I write this, the Pacific Northwest of North America is experiencing unprecedented, human-caused, climate change-induced heat waves, which are killing people and fueling devastating fires. Right now, fires caused by drought and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest are destroying more of its precious habitats. Right now, Siberia’s permafrost is degrading in 118° F (48° C) temperatures. Right now, 30% of the North American continent’s plant pollination network has disappeared. Right now, 76% of endemic freshwater species in eastern Africa’s Lake Victoria are threatened with extinction. Right now, coral reefs around the globe are dying. Right now, the most vulnerable people — Indigenous people, people of color, food- and shelter-insecure people, displaced people — are suffering and dying from the impacts of climate change-driven natural disasters.

Photo by Cristina Cerda on Unsplash

A Thought Experiment

Imagine for a moment that all beings on this planet — our fellow humans, animals, plants — are members of your extended family (because, well, they are). Some of your relatives are just being born, some are in the prime of their lives, some are aging, and some dying. Further, imagine that some are the picture of health, some are recovering from illness, some are developing an incurable illness, and some are dying from one. They are all members of your family. You love them dearly. If any one of them needed your help, you would do everything within your power to support them. Indeed, they would do — are doing — the same for you.

Now imagine that you’re planning a family reunion. Your relatives live practically everywhere across the globe — in tropical forests, on the tops of mountains, in the seas, in cities, rural places, even in the deserts. Wouldn’t it be amazing to bring them all together into one place and celebrate your lives together? But wait. Upon reflection, you realize that inviting all of your terminally ill and dying family members to the party might be kind of a downer for the rest. All those pallid, moaning and groaning relatives would surely kill the buzz. Others might not even attend because of it. Wouldn’t it be better to invite only the young and vibrant to the event? Wouldn’t it be much better for everyone to just focus on the positive?

How does that scenario land with you right now? Take a few moments to process your reactions. What thoughts and emotions are coming up?

Here’s what happens for me: I feel fear. Is death contagious? If I expose myself to it, will it contaminate me? Will it cast a dark and suffocating pall over my world? Will turning toward it alienate me from hope? But I also feel a sense of betrayal. I am denying my dying family members’ existence. I love them — they deserve to be seen and cared for, even though I feel helpless, powerless to restore their health. I feel the intense pain of loss, too. Not only because I am losing them forever, but also because I have denied myself access to whatever they might teach me, whatever beauty and wisdom I might find in their lives — and in their dying — while they’re still here. And I also feel closed. I feel my heart contracting as I turn away from them in a reflexive act of self-protection.

What would it be like, instead, if you decided to welcome all of our relatives to the reunion, regardless of their condition? What if the theme of the party wasn’t celebrating our lives together, but rather, simply celebrating our love for each other? This is what Frank Ostaseski is talking about when he writes, “I have witnessed a heart-opening occurring in not only people near death, but also their caregivers. They found a depth of love within themselves that they didn’t know they had access to.”

Lessons from death are available to all those who choose to move toward it. I have witnessed a heart-opening occurring in not only people near death, but also their caregivers. They found a depth of love within themselves that they didn’t know they had access to. They discovered a profound trust in the universe and the reliable goodness of humanity that never abandoned them, regardless of the suffering they encountered. — Frank Ostaseski

Five Invitations

Frank Ostaseski shares five invitations in his book, which are disarming in their simplicity, but profound in their ramifications.

I. Don’t Wait.

II. Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing.

III. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience.

IV. Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things.

V. Cultivate Don’t Know Mind.

He crafted these for all— those in life’s blush and those in dying’s embrace — who wish to make the most of the miracle of existence. As I mentioned at the outset, he didn’t write his book specifically for climate change activists, but I think his invitations are especially applicable to that community now, when we are increasingly surrounded by climate change-related loss and looking for a path forward in the midst of it all. In the next section, I’m going to present his five invitations, let Ostaseski describe them, distill their teachings for climate change activism, and offer some guiding questions.

I. Don’t Wait.

Embracing the truth that all things inevitably must end encourages us not to wait in order to begin living each moment in a manner that is deeply engaged. We stop wasting our lives on meaningless activities. We learn to not hold our opinions, our desires, and even our own identities so tightly. Instead of pinning our hopes on a better future, we focus on the present and being grateful for what we have in front of us right now. We say “I love you” more often because we realize the importance of human connection. We become kinder, more compassionate, and more forgiving. — Frank Ostaseski

Teaching: “Instead of pinning our hopes on a better future, we focus on the present and being grateful for what we have in front of us right now.” The climate change crisis is happening right now. Biodiversity loss is happening right now. Relaxing our grip on our own conceptions of the future, on our own conceptions of who we are or must be in light of that imagined future, invites us to love more fully what and who we are coexisting with right now, regardless of their condition and prospects.

Guiding Questions: How might practicing “don’t wait” change your priorities? How might it change your work?

II. Welcome Everything, Push Away Nothing.

When we are open and receptive, we have options. We are free to discover, to investigate, and to learn how to respond skillfully to anything we encounter. We can’t be free when we are rejecting any part of our lives. With welcoming comes an ability to meet and work with both pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. Gradually, with practice, we discover that our well-being is not solely dependent on what’s happening in our external reality; it comes from within. In order to experience true freedom, we need to be able to welcome everything just as it is. At the deepest level, this invitation, like life itself, asks us to cultivate a kind of fearless receptivity. Welcome everything, push away nothing cannot be done solely as an act of will. To welcome everything is an act of love. — Frank Ostaseski

Teaching: “In order to experience true freedom, we need to be able to welcome everything just as it is.” This means being fearlessly receptive, welcoming and caring for what is ugly inside the beautiful (and vice versa), what is broken inside the whole, what is dying inside the living — in ourselves, in others, and within our planet’s biosphere. “To welcome everything is an act of love.”

Guiding Question: How might practicing “fearless receptivity” foster resilience and responsiveness in the face of both climate change action and inaction?

III. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience.

[M]ore than once I have found an “undesirable” aspect of myself, one about which I previously had felt ashamed and kept tucked away, to be the very quality that allowed me to meet another person’s suffering with compassion instead of fear or pity. … It is not our expertise, but rather the wisdom gained from our own suffering, vulnerability, and healing that enables us to be of real assistance to others. It is the exploration of our inner lives that facilitates us in forming an empathic bridge from our experience to theirs. To be whole, we need to include, accept, and connect all parts of ourselves. We need acceptance of our conflicting qualities and the seeming incongruity of our inner and outer worlds. Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means no part left out. — Frank Ostaseski

Teaching: “It is … the wisdom gained from our own suffering, vulnerability, and healing that enables us to be of real assistance to others.” Sometimes the undesirable parts of ourselves — our suffering, our failures, our shadows — are, counterintuitively, the very parts that, when recognized and integrated, allow us to build connection, “empathic bridges,” to others. This includes those whose perspectives on climate change might even be harmful to themselves and other beings. “Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means no part left out.”

Guiding Questions: What “undesirable” parts of yourself need your caring attention and integration? How might they support your construction of empathic bridges to others in the service of climate change action?

IV. Find a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things.

We often think of rest as something that will come to us when everything else in our lives is complete: at the end of the day, when we take a bath; once we go on holiday or get through all our to-do lists. We imagine that we can only find rest by changing our circumstances. … The Fourth Invitation teaches us that … we can find a place of rest within us, without having to alter the conditions of our lives. This place of rest is always available to us. We need only turn toward it. It is experienced when we bring our full attention, without distraction, to this moment, to this activity. With sincere practice, after some time, we can come to know this spaciousness as a regular part of our lives. It manifests as an aspect of us that is never sick, is not born, and does not die. — Frank Ostaseski

Teaching: “We can find a place of rest within us, without having to alter the conditions of our lives.” Dissolution is an inextricable part of the nature of things, but it is also being accelerated by human-caused climate change. By diligently cultivating a mindfulness practice, we can find an unconditional place of rest in the middle of this. One that doesn’t require everything to be under control, doesn’t need us to be in charge, doesn’t depend on happy endings.

Guiding Questions: What beliefs, agendas, and habits of mind place obstacles in your path toward an unconditional place of rest? What happens when you practice setting them aside?

V. Cultivate Don’t Know Mind.

Don’t know mind … is beyond knowing and not knowing. It is off the charts of our conventional ideas about knowledge and ignorance. It is the “beginner’s mind” Zen master Suzuki Roshi spoke of when he famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Don’t know mind is not limited by agendas, roles, and expectations. It is free to discover. When we are filled with knowing, when our minds are made up, it narrows our vision, obscures our ability to see the whole picture, and limits our capacity to act. We only see what our knowing allows us to see. The wise person is both compassionate and humble and knows that she does not know. — Frank Ostaseski

Teaching: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” When it comes to climate change, there is no shortage of experts — climate scientists, engineers, economists, political scientists. The list goes on. Each one’s knowing shines the bright, but narrow beam of its own light on our situation. What it doesn’t illuminate — teachings on impermanence, pathways to more intimate relationships, the gift of action in the face of futility — remains in shadow. Cultivating don’t know mind explores the intersection of innocence, courage, and curiosity. It invites us to feel our way into full participation with the world.

Guiding Questions: When you practice don’t know mind, what new possibility spaces around climate change action emerge? How are they different — in their spaciousness, inclusiveness, or depth — than those recognized only by the knowing mind?

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Where Do We Go From Here?

These five invitations mark a point of departure. They offer practices, not destinations. And they are not a package deal, either: some of them might feel right to try right now; others might need to wait until another time. That’s as it should be. Depending on your state of mind or situation, it might be best to titrate your practice, too — start small and adjust upward and outward as you go.

Bear in mind that we all have different windows of tolerance, that is, a comfort zone whose boundaries we should explore, but not impulsively try to exceed, until we’re fully provisioned to venture beyond them. In these circumstances, it might help to have a trusted mindfulness teacher or therapist (or both) to partner with you as your guide.

Lastly, don’t go it alone if you don’t have to. In my opinion, the key to our survival and the survival of every other living being on this planet won’t be found in scientific knowledge or exciting new technologies. It will be found in how we restore and reimagine functional human communities. Accepting Frank Ostaseski’s five invitations within the context of community, for our own well-being and the well-being of our planet’s biodiversity, will help us embark on that journey. As Ostaseski puts it in his book:

The contemplation of life, death, and the inherent mystery in each moment is too important to be left to our final hours. Coming to terms with our fears and discovering what dying has to teach us about life are essential to our transformation. These Five Invitations are a call to that transformation. They can take you to the threshold, but it is up to you to walk on. As Rumi wrote, “The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”

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Anthropologist | Mindfulness Teacher | Climate Weaver | Author of Ethnowise | “I am what I am and cannot be otherwise because of the shadows.”—Loren Eiseley.

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Michael J. Kimball

Michael J. Kimball

Anthropologist | Mindfulness Teacher | Climate Weaver | Author of Ethnowise | “I am what I am and cannot be otherwise because of the shadows.”—Loren Eiseley.

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