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The Spiritual Invitation of Climate Chaos

What is the role of religion and spirituality in helping humanity respond to the tragic situation we face with rapid climate change?

Truthfully, I do not know. Because every religion is different. And each religion has its own flavours of adhesion to dogma versus openness to divine guidance in our daily lives. Yet, religion remains hugely important in providing stories of meaning and purpose, of right and of wrong, as well as modes of communication and solidarity across national borders. It also provides stories for how we might consider and learn from catastrophes.

The potential importance of religion for society as we face climate tragedy, and for me as I respond in my personal and professional life, is why I am enquiring deeper into different religious philosophies and practices. Since my Deep Adaptation paper was published in July 2018, I have been surprised to hear from religious leaders in Judaism, Sufism, Christianity, Buddhism, Animism, Shamanism, Druidism and the Brahma Kumaris. Their interest affirmed my intuition that our climate crisis invites us to consider existential questions that are so routinely displaced in modern society. That is why I accepted the invitation to speak at a Buddhist festival last summer. I want to explore how Buddhist philosophies on impermanence, suffering and loving kindness, are relevant as we face climate chaos. The video of that talk is available here.

Questions of existential meaning have become more important to me since early 2018, as I experienced deeper despair over our environmental situation. After looking at the latest climate and ecological science, climate measurements, emissions data and political-economic trends, I concluded that people of my age (47) will see a collapse in the societies in which we live, in our lifetimes – perhaps even before 2030. That outlook invites introspection on what one most believes in and wants to uphold in the coming years. Some people look at the latest climate science and see the likelihood of widespread early mortality for billions of people due to climate induced malnutrition, migration, homelessness, disease, crime and war. I fear that this foretelling of human ‘mega-death’ could be right. In any case, millions around the world are already suffering due to climate disasters that are happening right now. Poverty in more advanced countries is also being exacerbated by rising food prices, as extreme weather damages harvests. As populations become increasingly fearful, they can turn towards protectionism and nationalism; right-wing political narratives based on fear and false promises of security can become more attractive. Awareness of this situation means we experience an invitation to step forward in engaged compassion and solidarity with those who suffer, and to sow the seeds of future solidarity, compassion and forgiveness. With either outlook – collapse or human mega-death – it seems natural to me that people turn towards religion or their personal sense of the divine in order to find solace, meaning and guidance.

Some people go further. They see our situation as an apocalyptic one. The latest climate simulation models are projecting temperature increases of up to 7 degrees by the end of this century. Unless you have a magical faith in technology, then that level of temperature rise signifies the potential end of our species on planet Earth. With that apocalyptic outlook, suddenly our current stories of meaning and purpose collapse. Those stories are about progress, personal contribution, and deference to established order – ones that were so deep in us that we might not have realised they existed.

The word Apocalypse comes from ancient Greek and means to uncover or unveil. What might be the veil that will be lifted from our consciousness, as we perceive the potential end of our own species? For me, even considering potential human extinction led to a social veil being lifted from stories of human centrality, control and progress. Although I am not yet convinced that humanity faces inevitable near-term human extinction, even sensing it might be possible has invited me to into a realm of despair where old stories of meaning and purpose fell away, like veils from my awareness.

The potential annihilation of all that we know presents us with an incomprehensible and unbearable outlook. Knowing the intense and unsolvable pain of that outlook, but nevertheless turning towards it, is what can transform us. Because it means our sense of self is also annihilated. This death of the self offers us the chance to experience life without our stories of separation. From that place of ‘storylessness’ we can intuit that we are one being with all existence. In this way, our climate predicament offers humanity a global near-death experience.

I have learned that many religions tell us of the importance of such grief and despair in quietening our egos and turning towards the divine. In the Christian tradition it is an aspect of the “Via Negativa” towards opening up to God. Our climate crisis invites humanity into a planet-wide Via Negativa, where more of us may stumble upon moments of surrender and begin to change our lives as a result. Such changes may put truth and compassion at the heart of all our decisions.

My own journey from seeing widespread societal collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and human extinction as possible, has been one of recognising my grief, allowing despair and then inviting transformation – albeit in slow and awkward ways. In this journey, I have discovered that Buddhist philosophy and practices are helpful to me. Core to Buddhism is the recognition that everything in life is impermanent and that our attachment to things is because of our desire to affirm, protect and project our existence as a separate being. That attachment adds to the pain of any loss and, ultimately, the pain associated with death – whether of others or of anticipating our own. The Buddhist practice of Vipassana, or insight meditation, has also helped me to see how thoughts and feelings I experience can be witnessed in ways that reduce my fear of them, so I don’t act from them, nor distract myself from them as often as I did as before. This practice seems important to me as we seek to help ourselves and each other turn toward the troubles around us and ahead, to engage them with open hearts and minds. It has helped me to accept that our climate predicament means we will experience difficult emotions both now, and in the years to come, and that we can live with the truths of those emotions rather than seek stories of distraction which could lead to further harm.

Being open to insights from Buddhism need not displace interest in, or observance of, other religious or spiritual perspectives. I am still influenced by Christianity and am fascinated by the depth of insight into the human condition offered by Sufism. I am also very grateful for practices like breathwork and mindful walks in nature as ways of calming the chattering of my ego-mind and opening my heart to what wisdom might be offered to me from beyond. In addition, I have found practices of ‘deep relating’ with others to be a gateway to an awareness where my ego is less in charge. While spiritual philosophies, practices, and communities can offer moments of elation, I am aware there is no lasting emotional escape from our predicament. I believe equanimity, rather than serenity or bliss, can be a suitable personal aim at this time.

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Important women in my life have been key teachers for me to develop my perspective on living in fuller consciousness with the troubles. They helped me to understand that accepting pain is the necessary partner of joy; that accepting death and grief are the necessary partners of life and love. This important role of wise women is not a coincidence. One aspect of all the world’s mainstream religions that has been marginalised over the millennia is the aspect that is associated with feminine qualities. It is one reason why such religions have been bystanders or drivers of the cultural norms that permitted or enabled the destruction of our planet. I believe that learning about what the feminine dimension of reality might imply for our time is a central issue for me and anyone attracted to the spiritual and religious implications of our climate predicament. It could be that the source of any future hope will come from a consciously un-strategic attention to a moment-by-moment love and support for creation, without attachment to outcome. Or, to put it more simply: being love. It is why I want any notoriety I gain for my work to bring attention to wise women, who are innately ‘streets ahead’ of me in their spiritual connection. This intuition about being open to the ‘sacred feminine’ has guided my efforts in creating the Deep Adaptation Forum.

As we face up to our climate tragedy, many people are recommitting to curiosity, compassion and respect for others in the process – whether doing so from a humanist, religious or spiritual perspective. Maintaining that approach is key to the Deep Adaptation Forum. We may fall away from it at times – I know I often do – but returning to curiosity, compassion, and respect will help us to promote dialogue and initiatives that reduce harm no matter what happens in the coming years.

If you would like to engage on these questions of religion and spirituality in the face of the climate crisis, you can connect via this thread on the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum. To read more about our philosophy and intention, I recommend this article. We are promoting an approach to Deep Adaptation that is democratic and empowering, without centralised leadership (see my article on Leadership for Deep Adaptation). 

The Deep Adaptation Forum would welcome any financial support you can offer via patreon.com.

13 thoughts on “The Spiritual Invitation of Climate Chaos”

  1. Dear Jem,

    For many years, I have felt that we Jewish people need to draw upon the horrific experiences of the holocaust (Shoah) of the twentieth century to help all peoples face the catastrophes which are now happening in different parts of the world and that are likely to be faced by all in this century.

    Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, We are the Weather, is an excellent expression of this.

    Only by facing the worst may we find the necessary energy and areas of action open to us to do all that we can in our own context and situation (as individuals, in families, communities, organisations, businesses) to build the collaborative relationships which may as far as possible sustain us.

    The spiritual and religious traditions provide practices and texts which we can draw upon.

    Thanks, Jem, for all the work you are doing which is inspiring to so many of us.

  2. Well said Jem. Once the enormity of the coming crisis is registered it does present us with an opportunity that is spiritual. It seems we can either face our fears and grow through them, rising above the self with all its desires and self absorption into kindness and seeking of true solutions to our dire predicament, or we can descend into the lower nature, closing our hearts and minds in one last attempt to preserve the self. Humanity needs another way of being upon the planet and this ontology can only come from what it has rejected, what it does not want to admit, a power greater than the self, beyond its logic and understanding.

  3. Your article reminds me of Christian De Duve (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1974) explaining in ‘Genetics of Original Sin’ (2010) how religion can be a vehicle to transform human nature.

  4. Thank you Jem for your honesty. We all die in the end but one may consider that our death yields to life only because of separation. What most of us have done is keep life and death apart and in doing so we have lost their meaning.

    The perfect model of transformation from this dire climate predicament is one that will end in the spirit of objective neutrality, beyond any fundamental concern for this reality. So, until then, do as much good as possible, and hurt no one.

  5. Hi Jem, Thanks for this. In Australia we are constantly reminded by our first nations that existential crisis, in their case decimation, is recent history for them, and ongoing, starting in 18th C under British colonialism.Their stories of bare survival and hotspots of thriving really were lived in the face of deliberate annihilation and seem to be starting to take on the eery quality of a lesson for the near future for us all. Jodie

    On Fri, Nov 1, 2019 at 6:15 PM Professor Jem Bendell wrote:

    > jembendell posted: “What is the role of religion and spirituality in > helping humanity respond to the tragic situation we face with rapid climate > change? Truthfully, I do not know. Because every religion is different. And > each religion has its own flavours of adhesion to dog” >

  6. Deep bows Jem for the depth of reflection you have woven together))) A few musings here in response with inspiration from the Buddhist contemplative traditions and neuroscience:

    1) Advice to begin each day with the contemplation of the inevitability and unpredictability of death to vivify how we dedicate ourselves to living this precious day of life. Our Tibetan teachers often say, “You don’t know which will come first, you next breath, or your next life…!”

    2) These challenging times offer a profound opportunity to explore, embody, and engage in awakening the Bodhisattva spirit – which is based on the fierce dedication to awakening fully to our true nature and highest potentials – in-order-to be ever more skillful and inspiring in helping others to awaken to their true nature and highest potentials. This is really fuel for taking these difficult times to heart in a spiritually potent and transformational manner. The Dalai Lama’s life and teachings are deeply rooted in this tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. (See https://www.dalailama.com/videos )

    3) Useful guidance and insight for our Deep Adaptation community can also be found in a wealth of recent research that shows that the notion of “compassion fatigue” is actually a misnomer. According to the science, this would be more accurately described as “empathy fatigue.” As sensitive social beings, our lives are interwoven with all other living beings and our natural environment. The parts of our brains that light up when we are in pain are closely intertwined with the parts of our brains that light up when we encounter the pain of others. We are neurologically wired to empathically register and resonate with the suffering in our world. It touches us deeply, so deeply that if we don’t know how to manage it, we can become empathically overwhelmed and fall into empathic distress or burnout. (See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4040103/ )

    The research shows that the remedy and protection from empathic overwhelm is actually to move toward compassion. Compassion is engaged responsiveness – i.e. “compassion in action.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu reflects this wisdom saying, “Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!”

    Modern researchers on compassion speak of three
    elements of compassion:
    1. noticing others’ suffering
    2. empathically registering the person’s pain as a feeling within us, and
    3. acting to ease the suffering
    As compassion is engaged and embodied in action, it may be expressed by reaching out from our hearts with kindness… offering food, shelter, protection… speaking kind and helpful words… or reaching out from our hearts with lovingkindess, compassionate or healing thoughts/prayers/energies such as in the meditative practice of “tonglen” – a profound practice from the Mahayana tradition of gathering and transforming the experience of suffering and radiating compassion and healing… See notes on this practice in the latter portion of this page: http://www.wisdomatwork.com/wp-content/uploads/Leveys-Essential-Practices-for-Daily-Life.pdf )… All of these are examples of being moved into responsive compassionate engagement that can protect us from the dangers being empathically overwhelmed by the suffering in our lives and world.

    There are also the practices of “self-compassion” which can be very helpful to turn to in moments of overwhelm or distress. Kristen Neff offers a 4 fold formula for self-compassion that blends mindfulness and caring toward ourselves: 1) Ah, this is a moment of suffering… 2) Suffering is a natural part of life… 3) May I be kind to myself… 4) May I give myself the compassion I need…

    4) In our own practice, and in teaching in widely diverse communities around the globe, we have found it skillful to always “begin with gratitude” as Joanna Macy suggests in her brilliant “Work That Reconnects.” (https://workthatreconnects.org)
    As we have adapted this practice, one is mindful of whoever/whatever one is grateful for, and then in the spirit of reciprocity, one “completes the circle” of receiving, by radiating thanks as waves of light/blessings. This practice of gratitude+blessing can begin to dissolve what Einstein referred to as “the optical delusion” of a separate self, and open our hearts-minds to access a much vaster, abundant, and multidimensional field of spiritually ennobling resources and allies. In many spiritual traditions there are practices of affirming our intimate relationship with, and access to, spiritual allies. Such practices invite us to envision/sense ourselves as a shining receptive node in communion with a vast constellation of generous and radiant spiritual beings. In this spirit, we can simply rest for some timeless moments in a contemplation of “receiving” and “radiating” waves of inspiration… and blessings ))) (See: http://www.wisdomatwork.com/wp-content/uploads/Leveys-Essential-Practices-for-Daily-Life.pdf )

    Compassion and gratitude practices can give us the strength, endurance, courage, renewal and revitalization we need to make this long and challenging journey together.

    Regardless of how things unfold, this could be a profound time of spiritual awakening as the suffering in our world breaks our hearts-minds open to depths of selfless, engaged, compassion in ever-widening circles to embrace ourselves, each other, all beings, in this world, and in all worlds, all times, and all dimensions )))

    “This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings…. Our sorrow is the other face of love, for we only mourn what we deeply care for. The sorrow, grief, and rage you feel is a measure of your humanity and your evolutionary maturity. As your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.” ~ Joanna Macy

    For more inspirations:
    • Change of Heart: A Guide to Bodhisattva Peace Training https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VQVQDU8/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
    • Practicing Peace in Times of War – Pema Chodron: https://www.amazon.com/Practicing-Peace-Times-War-Perspective-ebook/dp/B00BBXJGXM/ref=sr_1_1?crid=39CGQLI3SI2AV&keywords=practicing+peace+in+times+of+war&qid=1572636129&sprefix=practicing+peace+in+the+time+%2Caps%2C196&sr=8-1

  7. Jem, a small but important point from your Buddhafields talk – perhaps it has already been mentioned to you. Important because the sceptics will seize on it and criticise you.
    An ambient temperature rise of 1.5C over the 1750 reference temperature of 13.5C does not indicate an 11% rise in the ambient energy – we’d be cooked if it did! -but has to be in proportion to absolute zero, which is approximately -273C. Scientists use the Kelvin scale which starts from this zero, the degree intervals being the same as for Celsius. So a 1.5C increase from 13.5C indicates an energy increase of 1.5 in proportion to (13.5 + 273), i.e. about 0.5% .

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