10 Jul Helpless and Hopeful
I read reports that it hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Anchorage, Alaska last week. Humans have never seen this reading there before. Much of Europe also has experienced record-breaking heat this summer. Where I live in New Jersey, we have had unusual amounts of rain. That our climate is changing seems undeniable. Multiple reports say that we have a decade or so to turn around our behavior in dramatic ways, that we need a collective effort along the lines of World War II levels to save ourselves from unimaginable suffering. Faced with these warnings, America yawns, switches the channel to Fourth of July hot dog eating contests, and gets on with the business of tending to life and the pursuit of pleasure and comfort. I am not against the business of tending to our lives or of seeking some fun and enjoyment this summer. I have read enough, however, to be convinced that our climate crisis is real and imminent. In my role as a pastor, I have been trying to educate, engage and inspire response for over twenty years now. The walls of resistance, apathy and denial I encounter are, to put it mildly, disheartening.
I am searching for a more hopeful stance. Feelings of helplessness are understandable. My experience is that those who are not inclined to be persuaded do not find my attempts to enlighten or alarm effective. Religious and community groups which share my concern tend to end up creating events which are inspiring to those who already agree. The collective needle is not moved, or is moved so slowly that meaningful change in our current direction is not achieved. There seems to be some psychic law in place in which our polarization is heightened in direct proportion to the amount of energy that is exerted at persuading the other side. If this is the case, are we destined for climate catastrophe?
Perhaps. Perhaps there is no other way for a deep shift in human consciousness to occur, without severe external pressure. If it is true that polarization is increased by our reactivity to resistance, denial and apathy, then is there another response available to us which will not lead to despair?
The response, I believe, which is most hopeful is a contemplative practice. Contemplation is an attempt to touch into a state of consciousness which is more spacious and trusting than our usual state. It is what all spiritual paths attempt to do in one way or another. The contemplative path I am following is primarily informed by Christian sources. My meditation practice is called Centering Prayer, and is an emptying or letting go practice. The gist of the practice is to let go of thoughts, gently, when one becomes aware that a thought has captured one’s attention. The idea is to embed, deep within the psyche, the possibility of non-identification with our thoughts and the emotions and stories which accompany them. With time, one begins to discover a presence within which is larger than the self of ego or personality. There is something in us which can be nonanxious and compassionate, even in circumstances which are triggering.
If the center of energy in us can be changed, is it possible that the energy in our collective sphere can be changed, as well? If we can hold our perceived enemy in a field of compassion and understanding, will that field lessen the energy of resistance and lead to new, creative possibilities? The thing about climate change that makes it so potentially transformative, is that it can only be addressed successfully in a collective way. There is no win-lose response that is workable. We either learn to create win-win, or we will experience lose-lose. Maybe, something like climate change is necessary to break us out of the prison of our entrenched, dualistic modes of perception. The contemplatives among us speak of the experience of nondual perception. If this is something which is truly possible for humans to experience, does it hold a key to leading us through our current impasses and the experience of helplessness which come with them?
Of course, we have become so identified with the efficacy of our logical and reasoning minds that talk of contemplative consciousness is greeted by many with suspicion. I understand. There are many spiritual charlatans and much spiritual conversation which is more irrational than transrational. I would argue that irrationality is a retreat from human evolution into magical consciousness. Transrationality does not retreat from the rigor of the rational mind. It simply recognizes its limitations and accesses other potentialities. Even science is recognizing the benefits of contemplative practice on health. If its benefits are being established for our individual health and wellbeing, isn’t it possible that the same will be found to be true in our collective life?
Certainly, as we move forward into whatever challenges lie ahead for us as a species, the ability to find a deep energy of hope will be essential for our survival and wellbeing. The kind of hope we will need will not be found on the level of our intellects, our calculating minds. What we are looking for is the sense of hope which comes to us from a source so deep that our minds cannot explain or understand. But the hope we seek will be convincing to that part of us which is connected to energies which are more subtle than the mind. Hope is available to the knowing of the heart, the knowing of the poets and the mystics. Contemplative practice is that which helps to bring these human capacities online.
So, yes, I feel helpless to change our collective course. And I feel hopeful, and I am not sure that I can explain why. At the very least, I hope that a less attached and entrenched energy in me will allow a greater field of possibility to emerge in all of my encounters. More and more, this seems to me like the work of the church for our world.