Buddhism and collapse – some avenues of relection before the end of the world…

( Thanks to Hilary Mac Rae my zen friend from New-Zealand for the translation 🙂 )

State of collapse, from the Buddhist point of view.

Unless you have lived on a desert island for the last 10 years, the news about the world isn’t brilliant. Theorists of ‘the collapse’ predict dark years for us, a sharp decline in our standard of living, without taking into account epidemics, famines, wars at the doors of rich countries, or even in their heartlands. It’s becoming aware that, whatever we do, it’s already too late. Climatologists have been saying it for years. Scientists too. For a long time, no one was listening. But now things have turned around and for some months now, the message has been gathering speed with the force of a tsunami : you and I perhaps will not live as long as we thought. You and I will probably end up lacking necessities of life. You and I will perhaps see our children, parents, pets die for lack of medicine.

The movement has begun, the signs are already there. Global warming will render many parts of the world uninhabitable. Harvests will be ruined by extreme temperatures, whilst technological solutions are not yet available. Last year in my little corner of Alsace, there wasn’t enough fodder for the animals. The locals organised a mutual aid system whilst counting on plenty of hay for this year …Fingers crossed!

How to approach this?

This article isn’t intended to convince you of the collapse. I’ll leave that to Al Gore or Jared Diamond, whose remarkable work can be found on the Web. It’s also not a question of starting a huge group depression. There too I will leave it to certain medias that are past masters in the art of inspiring collective fear, without the cathartic virtue of this method at least being proved.

None of that then : my proposition is more constructive. That is, to offer some modest pathways – from buddhism – to tame the overwhelming emotions arising from this brutal change of paradigm.

The fact of collapse – brutal or progressive, who knows – having been proposed, how should we react? Why? Is it worth the effort?

A witness statement.

When I discovered these theories about the collapse some months ago, I spent several days in an altered state. A state of shock. My body didn’t really respond : it felt swollen, as if wrapped in a corset. To avoid too much suffering ( “I’ll soon die” “ I will never make it to 80” “ There will be so much violence in society”) and the emotions which flow from this, my unconscious mind created a survival mechanism : anaesthesia. My brain meanwhile, was looking for an escape. Quick, some idea, some reflection to avoid the spiral of suffering and depression.

There are different paths, as those who have travelled them know well, and I summarise them for you.

  • I will disappear, and the majority of the human race will disappear too, but at least the Earth will be saved.” This generally pops up in people who feel close to nature. The ones who already see the grave damage caused to nature every day and are distressed. A special mention goes here to the ludicrous construction project of a highway by-pass a few kilometres away from my monastery. It will cause increased traffic, the extinction of some animal species – the great hamster – and thousands of ancient trees will be destroyed. Perhaps one day the Earth will be spared from mankind,but along with the human race, it is already proved that thousands of plants, fish , vegetables, insects and cells will perish, without having asked for it.
  • Quick! I ‘m going to buy a rifle, create a stash of necessary goods and create a self sufficient community far from the miseries of the world.” This is the second response and not a great one, it’s true and not very durable, as I quickly discovered that villages which had some reserves were the first to be attacked in time of famine. Logical approach –
  • Perhaps we will find an alternative source of energy” This is really the last chance argument. The idea that there is already a new energy source, to replace fossil fuels, and the great powers have managed to conceal its existence for purely financial reasons …hum.. A fully fledged consipracy theory. It’s difficult to believe that for long, and the hypothesis doesn’t hold water in the face of the urgency of the situation.

So after some days and weeks, this is what I came up with…

There is no external soution – we must look within.

Collapse theories all lead to the following conclusion : there is no solution. Once we are over the first shock, this started to really ring in my buddhist ears. Themes of life and death are abundant in our practice. The ancient masters advised us to ‘meditate as if your head is on fire.’ And, when the house is burning – for real- the strength of these teachings appears in all its splendour.

Live with reality, just as it is.

The Buddha’s surname wasn’t Bobby or Pat. We politely call him “ Tathagatha” a significant poetic nickname “ Thus come.” Like all people, he came into the world naked as a worm, just as is. But, unlike a lot of people, he never forgot the spontaneous joy of childhood, this original naivety, this intensity of the present.. and found it again once he grew up. Thanks to his meditaiton practice, the Buddha was able to access the capacity to see the world as it is, without judgement,interpretation, flight or rejection.

And without a doubt, this is the first -difficult- step on our inner path. To be aware of the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. To understand that our future will be very different than we imagined, that in spite of all our tears and fears, shame and depair, this is reality and we have to say “OK’” ‘OK” let’s start from here , this new perspective, these potential scarcities, this ruined earth. And once we have established this, to continue our path.

Gathering the “emotions of collapse.”

But this way is not simple. Or rather, yes, easy to formulate, but not easy to put into practice. For accepting the reality of the moment – collapse- is also having to lug on our shoulders the huge weight of emotions that go with it.

On the subject of emotions – Information No 1. They are felt in the body. Our body perceives and expresses different emotions all day long. A heart in love, beating like a drum, butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the throat before public speaking, heaviness in the stomach when mourning…

On the subject of emotions –Information no 2. It is usually our emotions that govern our actions and create our impression of the world. An example : one day, I was pleased with a piece of my writing, I shared it, I wrote more to try and recover that feeling, and thought of myself as “author, blogger, writer’ or anyone else who could – thinking about it- give birth to the pleasant feeling of writing. Another example. I feel weak and short, I buy a big SUV and get back my self confidence, thinking “ I’m really someone” when I look at my car.

In relation to these two parameters ( the emotions are a feeling and emotions rule our life choices ) the spiritual pathway proposed is as follows:

  • Re – educate yourself how to feel,the body – good and not so good – in real time. As it is. That is to say, dive into the heart of sensations.
  • Feel that these emotions, sensations, are a movement. They appear and then disappear, naturally, following the principle of the impermanence of all things.They disappear … as long as we don’t interfere deliberately , looking for an intellectual/rational/interpretive solution to the said emotion! They disappear.. so long as we remain neutral and don’t force movement.
  • Gather the fears, shame, despair, whilst leaving the emotion in the body, so it doesn’t rise to the head. That way , it can be free in its transitory nature.

This is the way that is proposed in zen meditation, and which I really appreciate the value of today. You can learn it in many places if you are interested.

Make good decisions.

Anyway, this period, this new vision of the future, perhaps invites us to change our life’s priorities. There is a rather radical exercise , well known among adepts of personal development: working on our values. It allows each person to connect to their deepest dreams ( their values) to give some meaning back to life. To cast light on our values, to light them up clearly, the person is invited to take the following position: imagine you only have 2 -3 years left to live and see where your priorities lie.

With the collapse, the exercise loses its imaginary character, and becomes the reality. We may decide, from despair, to burn everything, to cause a revolution, or to end our lives. We can rely on our fellow humans to start a new path together. We can once more take care of those near to us and look people in the eye.

Acting in this way, we connect to a new idea : that humanity can evolve, and it has taken an enormous crisis to begin to learn this.

In knowing our emotions and learning to choose our lives consciously, we take back control of the future. Instead of staying there, at the side of the road, completely helpless, we can work on a solution. Of course, it will be interior,as there is no solution for getting out of this mess. “ I can’t change the world, but I can always act on the representation of it I have made to myself , and in this way give some meaning back to my life.”

Spoken a little more clearly,the way from now on can be as follows “ Because of the collapse, my life will undoubtedly be shorter, but will be lived in the intensity of the present !”

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