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The Inner Dimensions of Climate Change

View of the clouds from an airplane

A 2010 letter to my future self

This morning I stumbled upon a reflection I wrote back in 2010 but never published, and was struck by the relevance in terms of recent conversations. It felt like a letter I had written to my future self. In it, I discussed three key insights: 1) Being the change we wish to see in the world, 2) embracing our gifts and offer them to the world, and 3) simplifying our lives by consuming less and appreciating more. These insights feel more true for me today, and also more possible, than I ever could have imagined.

I spent a beautiful and transformative weekend participating a conference called “The Inner Dimensions of Climate Change: A Retreat for Young Contemplatives,” held at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, NY.  The retreat was sponsored by the Global Peace Initiative of Women, and brought together about 50 participants from around the country to experimentally explore the relationship between action and contemplation, between spiritual change and climate change. While there, I met a diverse and lively group of passionate young people—all with a committed contemplative practice—and stood in awe of the dramatic ways that silence is speaking in the world today. I’d like to offer three insights that I think capture some, but not all, of the key strands of conversation that took place at the retreat.

One of the larger waterfalls in Cascadilla Gorge, which runs from Ithaca to Cornell campus

Be the change you wish to see in the world,” said Gandhi. In a world that is hurting, really hurting, it’s easy to find a cause to fight for and to begin marshalling support for that cause. Yet Gandhi did not admonish us to “fight for the change we wish to see in the world.” That would have been a very different teaching. Instead, we’re called to embody the change we seek. 

Whenever I find myself standing in righteousness and pointing out some “evil”, I try to add “just like me” to the end of my condemnation. “People are so wasteful,” I exclaim… “just like me.” “Americans are so greedy,” I cry out, as if I’m not one of them. Our suffering world is a mirror that reflects the state of humanity, which is really a reflection of my own internal state. I often remind myself that “we teach what we’re trying to learn.” I find that particularly instructive, and often humbling. As I learn to more fully embody the change that I seek in the world, I am discovering a deep well of integrity that yearns for expression. It takes courage and commitment to embody our deepest longings, but I believe it is exactly the change that the earth needs in the face of the devastation that humanity is doling out.

The changing leaves outside my bedroom window

The second theme of the weekend, for me, was the call to embrace my gifts and offer them more fully, in a spirit of service. There is a beautiful story from Michael Jones, a Canadian pianist. For many years he left his passion for music in lieu of the business world. Late one evening, while playing piano for a few minutes in a hotel lobby, an encounter with a stranger changed the trajectory of his life. After playing, the stranger asked him about the unfamiliar tune. “Just something I wrote,” said Michael, adding that he was not a musician, but just there at a conference. “Well if you don’t play your music,” the man asked, “then who will?

Richard Leider defines a calling as “the inner urge to give your gifts away.” Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle is quoted as saying “where your talents meet the needs of the world, there lies your vocation.” It’s a simple notion, but has been painfully difficult at times to embody. There exists an apparent tension between the desire to follow our dreams and embrace our calling, and our need to pay the bills. One of my takeaways from the weekend was a reminder that in a world that needs so much, there are countless ways to offer myself in service. The heroes’ myth figures so prominently in the Western mind that we forget most change is initiated by many small elements working in tandem. As I embrace my gifts, even in small ways, I become an agent of transformation that ripples out into the world. This has a powerful impact, as evidenced from the anonymous insight that “if you think you’re too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.”

Sunrise over a river in the Adirondack mountains

The third key insight the weekend had for me was the call to recommit myself to simplifying my life, consuming less, and appreciating more. One day I was walking through the forest, and randomly picked up a stick along the path. My mind was absorbed in chatter, and I began swinging the stick gently as I walked. Each time the stick struck something, pieces of it broke away and flew through the air. I thought of my own life, and how I, too, feel stretched too thin. Like the stick, I often feel delicate and fragile, and pieces of my life seem to fly haphazardly through the air as I navigate the everyday ups and downs of relationships. Then, a point came when I could no longer break the stick; as it shortened, it became stronger. So on the one hand, I feel called to figure out ways to trim the chaff of my life, and return to the inner core of strength that I possess.

Upon deeper reflection, I realized something that felt even more important: that brittle stick had once been connected to a living tree, allowing it to be both strong and flexible at the same time. In my life, simplifying is one of the essential ingredients, but even more so is the need to remain connected to the source of life, however we experience it. Contemplative practice grounds me and nurtures me, nourishing my body, feeding my soul, and enlivening my spirit. I am at the same time deeply interconnected to the earth and yet so delicately aware of that interconnection. As I more fully embrace my relationship to both nature and silence, and how the two enhance and support one another, I find the strength and flexibility I need to “play my music” in the world.

Calligraph reading: There is no doer, nothing to be done, nothing to be lost, nothing to be won

I’ve been on many retreats in recent years, and the return is always bittersweet. Yet something feels different this time. I notice that it’s a bit easier to forgive myself when I’m feeling angry with my kids, and just allow the emotion to be there without judgment. I feel a new sense of empowerment, allowing me to more fully embody the deep well of wisdom within me—that source that I so often ignore. And most of all, I feel a real sense of hope, both individually and collectively. I often feel alone in my practice as a young contemplative. Our technologically over-connected, stress-inducing, work hard/play hard, it’s-all-about-me consumer culture is so seductive. It’s counter-cultural to embrace silence every day, but by committing to “get my tush on the cush,” as one friend puts it, and in knowing that I am not alone in the silence, I am discovering a radical sense of hope in humanity, even at this dark hour.