Can Buddhism Help Fight Climate Change?

At an idyllic retreat in California, the architect of the Paris Agreement argues that it can.
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buddhism and climate change

Amid the golden hills near Point Reyes, California, in the sunlit main hall of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris climate agreement, is explaining how Buddhism saved her life.

Her talk is part of a daylong gathering of activists, yoga instructors, Buddhist practitioners, and meditation enthusiasts all intent on bringing more mindfulness and loving kindness to their approach to climate activism. Timed to coincide with the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco hosted by Governor Jerry Brown, Saturday's retreat is about an hour's drive from the city—and a world away.

While the dress code at the summit in the city was "business," there are no shoes allowed here. And when I ask if I can take my purse inside instead of leaving it in an open cubby by the entrance, a custodian smiles sympathetically and says, "You can," before launching into a "funny story" about that time his expensive sunglasses went unmolested in a cubby here for four whole days.

I smile back at him. I take my purse.

The day's featured speakers at this famed meditation retreat include climate diplomats like Figueres, the former head of United Nations climate negotiations in Paris, but also Tibetan-Buddhist scholars and activists like Julia Butterfly Hill, the woman who lived in a redwood tree for 738 days to keep it from being cut down.

Figueres is in the middle of explaining how, a few years ago, when she was working on the pathway to Paris, she experienced the most difficult personal trauma of her life. "I thought, 'I wonder what would happen if I just disappeared at this point,'" she tells the seated crowd of shoe-less climate activists.

Instead of giving up, she reached out to a friend.

"I said: 'I'm suicidal. I have this responsibility. I can't do this. I have to do something,'" Figueres recalls. "He says, 'What do you want to do?' And I say, 'Buddhism.' And he goes: 'Buddhism? What do you know about Buddhism?' And I say: 'Nothing. In fact, I'm not sure I even know how to spell it correctly.'"

Her friend then turned Figueres onto the teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk whose books have become popular in the West. "The teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh saved my life," Figueres says, but, more importantly, "they were the guiding light" for her work on the Paris Agreement, helping her muster the strength, compassion, and focus she needed to do the job.

It wasn't just a personal salve, Figueres insists. Thinking like a Buddha, she says, could help ordinary citizens put their climate ideals into action too. "Finding strength in our pain at the individual level is what we need to do at the global level," she says.

Americans are in what one speaker calls "a moment of awakening consciousness." Specifically, with respect to climate, it's a moment of recognizing that the task of protecting the planet can't be left up to politicians. (After Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, it became clear that the current administration can't be counted on for much.)

Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock, sees this moment of awakening as in line with what Thích Nhất Hạnh has said about how "the next Buddha" might not take the form of an individual, but rather of "a community practicing understanding and loving kindness."

"What's beautiful is the empowerment of people," Kornfield says. "It's also problematic," he adds wryly, "because it means you. That's the downside. Otherwise you can offload the responsibility to the spiritual leaders or the climate leaders."

The Uses of Hope; The Uses of Fear

Figueres speaks of finding strength in her pain, but what does that actually mean?

The emotions typically associated with climate change are fear and anxiety. On the topic of climate messaging, some critics have questioned the wisdom of dwelling on the negative, and have called for more hope in how we talk about our impending doom.

And earlier that week at the Global Climate Action Summit, many of the speakers had seemed intent on splitting the difference.

"It almost puts us in a place of schizophrenia," Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, says of the current state of the climate crisis. "There's never been a reason to be so nervous as today based on the scientific necessity, but there's never been so much reason to be hopeful."

Christiana Figueres.

Christiana Figueres.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti coined a term for this contradictory emotion: anxcited. "It's like every day, this feeling of anxcitement," Garcetti told a gaggle of reporters at the summit when asked about his mood. "Wow, we are finally there and we can do this. And it's getting worse simultaneously."

Political change often starts with anger, which is an animating force in activism and something Figueres called for explicitly at a kickoff event to the GCAS, saying, "We have to get to the point of public outrage."

This Saturday at Spirit Rock, though, no one appears motivated chiefly by animus, or by negative emotions more generally. One speaker even recalls being actively disgusted to hear a political operative say that their "approach is to infuriate and disgust our base so they will go out there and vote." It feels like a cheap trick, the speaker says—manipulating negative emotions (though of course it's also true that voters can be moved by a righteous and deeply justified anger).

"It's important to be able to feel our pain and grief," says Spirit Rock co-founder James Baraz. "And it's also important to, when they occur, maintain and increase those wholesome states."

The approach doesn't mean denying emotions like anger as they occur. It means not being derailed or directed by them exclusively.

And today it means trying to look at climate change as though the glass is half full.

Paraphrasing the writer Gary Snyder, Kornfield says: "If you're going to save [the world], don't save it out of fear and anxiety. Save it because you love it."

Mindfulness Goes West

Meditation as a practice has been around for thousands of years, but it has seen a striking rise in modern America, from its introduction through beatniks and hippies to the New Age movement and, more recently, the mainstreaming of yoga and meditation. The surge in interest is not just happening in California—although Californians would have you know that it was happening here first.

"California is a very powerful place because we are the trendsetters for the whole world," Tibetan Buddhist scholar Anam Thubten tells the assembled. "We have to be really careful what we do because everyone's going to follow us."

In fact, everyone's already doing so. Mindfulness techniques are now used in schools and the military. Fortune 500 companies offer them to improve employee well-being and productivity. And Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who's weighing a bid for president and wrote a book about meditation, is saying he wants to cultivate "the yoga vote." A majority of Americans now view Buddhism favorably, according to Pew Research Center data.

Though often subsumed into a multibillion-dollar wellness industry, most mindful practices, including yoga and meditation, were at least originally intended to be free. In the West, of course, even breathing can be monetized. The popular meditation app Head Space turned "peace of mind" into a $250 million business last year.

Attendees of Spirit Rock's "Loving the Earth: Healing the Planet Through Mindful Engagement" today have paid between $60 and $200—a sliding scale at the payer's discretion, with an additional $10 penalty for anyone failing to carpool. All proceeds are donated to the green groups that helped organize the proceedings.

The day's spiritual instructions include the advice, "Don't should all over yourself," a quote from Julia Butterfly Hill, who shares other lessons she learned firsthand from her time in the tree.

"We look at these challenging times and think, This is too much," she says, of the daunting nature of the climate crisis. "But every action is changing our world, moment by moment." Awakening to that means not asking whether you can contribute, she insists, but how.

"I happen to have been well-designed to be the woman who lived in a tree for two years and eight days," Hill says. "No matter what our unique gifts are, there is a way to access them and make a difference."

Later, when we're prompted to make a personal climate commitment and say it aloud, David DeSante, the white-haired ornithologist sitting next to me, offers a refreshingly non-technical idea: "To link arms with others."

DeSante is the founder of the Institute for Bird Populations in Marin County, and will happily chat for an hour about bird brains or what he loves so much about thrushes—did you know they can produce two independent sounds at the same time, harmonizing with themselves? When it comes to climate change though, he's learned not to beat people over the head with "the club" of science, and today he says he's less interested in offering answers than in finding allies.

The Mind-Body Connection

The day's activities focus not just on the mind, or even on the heart (which is Spirit Rock's preferred organ for thinking). They also incorporate the body at every turn.

A session on "mindful movement" takes place in a nearby meadow. During lunch, we're invited to explore the retreat center's many pathways into the hills. Before eating, we're reminded to do so slowly, savoring every bite.

The tip isn't an exercise in hedonism—not strictly. A review of research from an eight-week training program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, famous for its mindful meditation on raisins, "is an effective treatment for reducing stress and anxiety" associated with daily routine and chronic illness.

The imprimatur of science often trails what's anecdotally apparent to the discerning observer—willow bark tea was popular during childbirth long before aspirin was an option—but, unlike that $55 Rose Quartz egg claiming to "intensify" your femininity, scientific studies confirming meditation's benefits keep rolling in. Under the right conditions, mindfulness can reduce pain, help manage stress, ward off depression, and slow down or even reverse neurodegeneration.

Can it help solve climate change though? That null hypothesis has yet to be disproven.

But Figueres, for her part, thinks it is a crucial tool—and not just as a balm for the people who, like her, run high-level climate talks.

"The Paris Agreement is not about me," she says. "It's about the emergence of this true love and solidarity and recognition that we're all here together."

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