Changing the world requires a change of consciousness. Think about the big shifts in human development – the French Revolution; the abolishment of slavery; voting rights for women; equal opportunity for all regardless of race or gender – when these ideas first appeared, the mainstream thought them extreme and they met a lot of resistance, but eventually enough people saw the importance of breaking out of old patterns that our civilisation made these changes, changes that benefitted a huge number of people.
The shift in consciousness required now is essentially one that changes our pattern of plundering the natural world (e.g. burning fossil fuels) to one of caring for it (e.g. using renewable energy sources).
‘Humanity needs a transformation of belief – a drastic reshaping of human values. People around the world must come to see the planet as our “common home,” one that we share with other countries and other species.’James Engell Professor at Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences English Department
The reshaping of human values of which Engell speaks is one based on an understanding of interdependence, impermanence and, at the deepest level, the compound nature of all phenomena. Sound familiar?
But there is enormous resistance in some quarters to making that shift. In Australia our government is practically a puppet for the fossil fuel mining companies, whose greed outweighs any sense of responsibility they might have to future generations. And yet the climate science is so clear. So why can’t those in power in Australia and the US, and those who support them, see what’s right in front of them? Why can they not embrace the necessity of change?
Answer: Essentially they lack the necessary level of mental awareness to be able to escape the fear-driven machinations of their own minds.
Blinded by attachment, aversion and ignorance
“I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation, and eco-system collapse.. but I was wrong. The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”James Speth, former head of the Council on Environmental Quality and a top Washington policy maker.
In other words, the reason some cannot see the evidence before them is attachment to money, aversion to anything that threatens oneself and one’s comfortable life (selfishness), and ignorance or lack of concern or interest.
‘The transformation that Speth speaks about is a shift to a higher level of attention and seeing the world from a more objective vantage point with a witnessing or reflective consciousness.’ … it’s a ‘shift from an “embedded consciousness” that is locked inside the habits of our thinking mind to a more spacious “reflective consciousness” that enables us to become a fair witness or objective observer of our lives. … A reflective or witnessing consciousness also promotes a feeling of connection with the rest of life. We begin to see and sense our intimate relationship with all of life and this, in turn, naturally fosters feelings of compassion and caring.’Duan Elgin, Climate Change Consciousness, Huffington Post
A reflective consciousness uses the skills we developed through meditation practice and that millions of others around the world are developing in secular mindfulness programs.
If we care about our children and future generations, both human and animal, and about our planet, we will care about doing our bit to halt climate change, and for some of you this might mean working to assist people in making this shift in consciousness by teaching meditation in your local community hall.
Thoughts and beliefs give rise to speech, and action follows thoughts and speech.
Mind is the master. Change starts there.
As Buddhists or ex-Buddhists, we should have learned a bit about how our minds work. The idea of being able to look at our own thoughts and beliefs without getting involved in them is not just something for us to do on a mediation cushion; it’s something to apply to our lives. We practice so we can apply that skill of being non-judgmentally aware of our mind to our life.
We also, if we’ve studied a bit, have learned that, according to Buddhism, in order to see reality directly, we have to be able to drop (if even only for a moment) the four things that obscure us. These are cognitive obscurations (our concepts and beliefs), habitual obscurations (our habits), emotional obscurations (the emotions we get caught up in), and karmic obscurations (the actions we take without awareness that are driven by past actions).
We can only truly see reality without these overlays. If we can recognise these concepts, habits, emotions and impetuses in ourselves, then we can start to let them go, or at least step outside of them enough to see without filters for a moment or two.
In meditation we practice doing exactly that. We practice simply seeing, without commentary, without becoming distracted by whatever rises in our minds. We practice seeing reality as it is without the overlay of concepts and beliefs about what we see, and without habitual or karmic reaction or getting carried away by whatever emotion whatever is in front of us might evoke. This makes the skills learned in meditation essential for this shift in human consciousness to occur.
What causes denial and inaction?
We saw the result of Buddhist practitioners not applying their meditation skills to life when many in our old communities refused to believe that our ex-gurus abused people, despite being presented with solid evidence to the contrary. Instead of seeing the evidence as it was, they let their concepts, emotions, habits, and unconscious reactions blind them. Those who made no decision as to the truth or untruth of the accusations of abuse misused the madyamika concept of emptiness and the meditation instruction to not get involved in risings as justification to not act.
Those who thought, ‘It didn’t happen to me, so it doesn’t affect me,’ or ‘Hitting transformed me, so those who felt abused simply weren’t able to work with it in the right way,’ allowed those ideas/concepts to blind them to the truth. They didn’t look with an open mind. They looked with a heavily conceptually and/or emotionally obscured mind (habitual and karmic obscurations would be in play as well). So they didn’t see the evidence as it was.
And most likely these reactions were driven by fear of change and the results of accepting such an uncertain future. Accepting the evidence would mean they would have to re-evaluate their beliefs, their actions, and their place in the world, and likely certain beliefs and the emotional support they give would crumble as a result – a scary prospect. No one wants to have to do that. As human beings we tend to cling to our comfort zone and do whatever we can to protect it. Only a great shock will jolt us out of our torpor of ignorance.
It’s easy for people to reject the evidence of climate change because up until now it appears to have happened fairly slowly or it hasn’t impacted on us directly yet, because media propaganda has made some think that climate change is not real, isn’t as serious as the majority of scientists say or is a matter of belief not fact, and because it suits us to ignore the signs – just as we ignored the signs that Sogyal wasn’t actually the person we thought he was, and we were brainwashed by the Rigpa party line. And it’s easy to reject predictions for the future because they seem too extreme, the same reason some rejected the ‘stories’ of Sogyal’s abuse; they just couldn’t believe it could be that bad. And in the same way, we don’t want to believe that our future could be as bad as predicted. It’s just too scary.
They [climate change deniers] reject the knowledge because it’s incompatible with their worldview, their sense of identity, their anti-government and governance bias, and with all they would have to do and be if they were to take in these truths.Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton
If practicing Buddhists can’t manage to accept clear evidence, to see without obscuration, is it any surprise that ordinary people can’t do the same when it comes to climate change? Is it any surprise that they/we react with fear (emotional obscuration), disbelief (cognitive obscurations), resistance to change (habitual obscurations) and that we continue to be driven by the four hopes and fears – hope for happiness, fame, praise and gain, and fear of criticism, loss, pain and suffering – (karmic obscurations)
The mental health challenge
Of course, acceptance of what the climate science research is telling us is a challenge for our mental health. Anxiety and depression are on the rise – and no wonder. This is why it’s important for us to find out what we can do in our own lives to help and then do what we can.
If we fall into despair, dwelling on the worst-case scenerios and thinking there is nothing we can do, or that we, as individuals, can’t do enough, then it becomes another reason not to act and that only compounds the problem.
The Australian PM, Scott Morrison (aka Scomo or ScottyFromMarketing) often says that Australia only contributes 1.3% of the global total of carbon dioxide emissions and he uses that as an excuse to not cut emissions more. His thinking is, ‘Why bother, if we lack the power to do anything that makes a difference?’ But apart from that figure giving a distorted picture by leaving out some important factors (like that our per capita emissions rate is one of the highest, along with the USA), if we put together all the countries responsible for less than 2% of total global emissions they make up something like nearly 40% of the global total. Imagine what a disaster it would be if they all took the same attitude as the present Australian government. The point being that everything helps. Even if it seems like very little, if enough of us do it, it will have a huge effect. For instance, imagine if all of us put our superannuation into an ethical super fund that doesn’t invest in fossil fuel companies and instead funds renewables.
My key to mental health this year is telling myself, ‘I will not fall into despair.’ Remembering that when I feel really down about it all, stops me from getting depressed and keeps me focused on what I can do, not on what I can’t do. Despair is debilitating. Action is empowering – even if it’s small.
Watch out for distorted truth in this discourse
Near the bottom of a comprehensive article on climate change by Warm Heart Worldwide is a section that warns of how people’s reactions can distort the conversation around climate change. I quote it below. You’ll notice that it’s very similar to the kinds of reactions we saw to the accusations of abuse by our Tibetan Buddhist gurus.
‘Fringe environmental groups, right-wing internet blogs, politicians of all stripes have spread falsehoods far and wide or distorted the truth to serve their own ends. Beware three particular versions of “science” abuse:
”My cause is so critically important that a little exaggeration/a few lies are no sin’: This is the most common version indulged in equally by left and right. Environmentalists feel that “life on earth” or whatever is worth any price; the hard right believes that the “climate myth” is simply another internationalist plot to impose government control on free people – whose freedom must be protected at all costs. In both cases, attention to the truth takes a back seat.
”The sky is falling – Oh, give me a break’:
Here the divide is between the doomsayers (“Climate Change Impacts Could Collapse Civilization by 2040” report) and the perpetually disengaged (“Americans don’t worry much about climate”). The doomsayers will find any excuse to believe the worst; the “whatevers” see no reason for concern about anything. To put these contending positions in context and observe the misuse of science in action, remember, first, the 1970s and the gloom that surrounded the impending exhaustion of world oil resources that led to a policy of “pump America dry first” and then, second, the “oh, give me a break” reaction to the efforts that ultimately led to the 1970 Clean Air and Water Act.
”They only believe in/deny climate change because they are [dumb, insane, evil, deluded, godless, terrorists…]’:
This is such a common type of “argument’ that it must be mentioned, although it is so illogical an “explanation” that it is hard to consider. Most people learned in primary school that such ad homonym attacks do not constitute compelling refutations, but such assertions form such an essential part of what passes for global “public discourse’ today that it bears repeating that any such contention only bears tossing out.’
We all know how frustrating it is to deal with these kinds of responses, but if we are to help shift consciousness, we must restrain our anger when we’re trying to have a conversation with those who use these tactics. When you’ve finished talking, go yell into a pillow, not at the object of your anger; it only polarises people and causes them to be even more protective of their own beliefs.
Anger feeds a divisive politics that cannot help us to address our big collective challenges. By retreating into social media echo chambers where mockery and disrespect are the norm, we risk losing entirely the social cohesion and trust needed for democracy to work.theconversation.com/not-everyone-cares-about-climate-change-but-reproach-wont-change-their-minds-118255
A whole-of-society discussion about our collective future is urgently needed. Now is the time to reinvent how we communicate about climate change, particularly with those who don’t see it as an urgent concern.
Not everyone cares about climate change, but reproach won’t change their minds. We know that all too well from trying to converse with those who don’t care about guru abuses. This article from The Conversation gives some excellent pointers for communicating with those who simply don’t seem to care enough.
The good news
The good news is that by merely accepting that we need to make major reductions in carbon emissions and radically up our level of environmental care, we contribute to the necessary shift in global consciousness. Just that awareness and understanding, even with no other immediate action on your part, contributes to a positive future. Why? Because you’ll naturally transmit that understanding to others, and it will eventually have an effect on your behaviour and the behaviour of your friends and family.
But we need more than acceptance of the facts to deal with the plethora of issues involved in turning this around, we need a level of genuine awakening, the kind that many of us who have studied and practiced Buddhism for decades already have, one based on an understanding of interdependence, impermanence and the compound nature of all phenomena.
Climate change is not the concern of just one or two nations. It is an issue that affects the whole of humanity and every living being on this earth. This beautiful planet is our only home. If, due to global warming or other environmental problems, the earth cannot sustain itself, there is no other planet to which we can move. We have to take serious action now to protect our environment and find constructive solutions to global warming.HH Dalai Lama. Message to Delegates to the COP24 UN Climate Conference December 5, 2018.
When we see photographs of the earth from space, we see no boundaries between us, just this one blue planet. This is no longer a time to think only of ‘my nation’ or ‘our continent’ alone. There is a real need for a greater sense of global responsibility based on a sense of the oneness of humanity.
More good news is that this shift in consciousness is already happening. The Beyond the Temple community is evidence of that in the way we support each other on this journey of awakening, and our communication technology supports us in those efforts, enabling us to share ideas with others across the globe. The amount of information and opinion open to us through social media is enormous if we’re interested enough to access it.
With the combined power of our communications technologies, we are fostering a new level of collective consciousness that can overcome our apathy, selfishness, and greed and enable us to discover a common future of sustainable prosperity. We are a witnessing species. Assisted by the communications revolution, we are becoming more fully awake and able to respond to the supreme test of climate change from a higher level of perception and understanding.Duan Elgin, ‘Why Climate Change Requires a Consciousness Change.’
In his new book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton argues that we are living through a time of increasing recognition of the reality of climate change, a psychological shift he refers to as a “swerve,” driven by evidence, economics, and ethics. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to take the stand of climate rejection,” he says, “because there is so much evidence of climate change and so much appropriate fear about its consequences.”
Compassion is another means to facilitate the shift
Like Australia, Bangladesh is also feeling the disastrous effects of climate change and so is Indonesia – for them it’s trial by water not fire. And like Australia, Indonesia also faces government inaction even though 60 people died in recent floods. People in these countries are already suffering from climate change, and their poverty makes it all the more harder for them to takes the necessary steps to cut emissions and to deal with the results of not doing so. All the more reason why we, the affluent nations responsible for the majority of the emissions, do more.
As the huge generosity of people in supporting bushfire victims in Australia shows, many people find it hard to stand by and do nothing when people and animals are suffering. The suffering they witnessed in their own backyard, or in a culture so similar to their own has been the impetus for many to find out more about climate change and its role in what we actually are experiencing now. I have seen a shift in my own friends and family to a consciousness that wants to actually do something to help thwart the gloomy picture of the worst-case scenario future. Because of my raised awareness of the issue, I am looking into what changes I can make in my life, and no doubt others are doing the same.
As people with a greater understanding of mind than the average person, I believe that we have a role to play in facilitating this shift of consciousness. How that will play out in our own lives and actions, I have no idea, but if we are true to deepest ourselves as experienced without obscurations , I’m pretty sure we’ll naturally have a positive effect on the climate change discourse and therefore the future of the planet and its species. Caring is key.
“We have to make an effort, so that even if we fail we have no regret. Ultimately this is a matter of our survival. … Taking care of the planet is taking care of our home.”HH Dalai Lama
Do you have any additions, comments or suggestions on this Buddhist perspective on the consciousness change required to thwart climate change?
If you need facts of climate change, click here to read a post I wrote on Medium.