Practicing on the Edge of Despair

Oct 04, 2021
Burnt out forest floor with sunrise in background and a small leafy sapling growing from the ashes

This post is based on a talk I gave at the Energy Matters Sangha on the heels of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. You may wish to listen to the recording of the talk, and practice with the guided Tonglen meditation at the end. This post also includes some additional thoughts on practicing with these issues. You 

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, “Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming. For 1.5°C of global warming, there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health. Unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

For many of us, it can feel like watching an accident happening in slow motion, knowing that our country went backwards on climate change policy during a critical time to be moving forward, and are still nowhere near where we should be on greenhouse gas emissions.

When the Buddha attained enlightenment, these are the things he realized: that all of creation is interconnected. That none of us have a separate self that is born and dies - that we all manifest out of numerous causes and conditions that brought us about.

The continuing Covid pandemic and climate change are teaching us in very clear, tangible ways what the Buddha realized when he attained enlightenment: that we are inextricably interdependent with each other and all of creation; we are all one body. Our choices individually and collectively profoundly impact each other, and our ultimate well-being cannot actually be separated from that of others. We wear masks to protect ourselves and each other. The pandemic will not end until most if not all people, in all nations, are vaccinated. The myth of rugged individualism is a story that is harming us all. While this truth may have never been more clear, it can often feel, on a systemic level, that we are still not learning and acting based on this truth. 

On climate change, Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “The collective karma and ignorance of our species, the collective anger and violence will lead to our destruction and we have to learn to accept that. And we have to accept that the worst can happen; that most of us will die as a species and many other species will die also and Mother Earth will be capable after maybe a few million years to bring us out again and this time wiser.”

While that may sound very bleak, all science points to this. Thich Nhat Hanh has also taught that despair is never an option - including when we are confronting vast suffering, individually or collectively. “By recognising the interconnectedness of all life, we can move beyond the idea that we are separate selves and expand our compassion and love in such a way that we take action to protect the Earth.” This includes prevention and planning well for the known impacts to come.

Current media outlets really sensationalize bad news and can feed despair in us, which prevents us from engaging or taking action. We have to see the ways in which solutions are happening, and make them happen ourselves. Here are some sources of good climate news that can help lift you out of despair and live into the possibilities of a sustainable future:,

If you wish to bring more news of actual solutions into your consciousness, you can sign up to get a newsletter of solutions journalism here:

The things we can do, whether they are community initiatives around climate change, or just educating ourselves and others, including realizing the ways we are all so interconnected - are like planting seeds. According to Thay, "It is important we have a sangha [community] and the insight came [to Thay] that the Buddha of our time may not be an individual but it might be a sangha. If every day you practice walking and sitting meditation and generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and peace, you are a cell in the body of the new Buddha. This is not a dream but is possible today and tomorrow. The Buddha is not something far away but in the here and in the now."

We may not see the fruits of our actions today, but our actions still matter. We are seeds, our consciousness, our actions, our words, our impacts on others are seeds. If sometimes it feels like we’re in the midst of dung, our practice, our actions for collective well-being are like planting seeds in dung. Dung is wonderful fertilizer! 

When I went to Mt. St. Helens almost 30 years after it erupted, I saw the destruction, but also so much new life and growth coming out of it. That is how life is: it continues even in the bleakest places. We’ve all seen life even break through concrete to grow. We don’t need to make life happen - life happens. But we can support it, like a gardener. First we tend to our own soil/ consciousness, make ourselves into the seeds we wish to sprout in the world.

Beyond Hope and Despair

Another way I find helpful to practice with climate despair is to live fully in each moment. A lot of what feeds despair are things that are not actually happening in this moment, right now, to us.These thoughts activate fear which can be disabling, or send us into panic. Another contributor to despair is attachment to/ longing for something from the past - wanting things to “go back to how they were.” Again, this takes us out of the present moment and into fantasy, as in: that which is not real right now.

Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, delves deeply into the practice of inhabiting the present moment fully and seeing it clearly. The vast majority of the time, you will find that in this very present moment, nothing is actually wrong with your experience. Tolle had this insight when he was in the depths of despair, homelessness, and suicidality - and it brought him out of that place.

If you find yourself practicing on the edge of despair sometimes, know that you are not alone. Remember too that we can be the seeds for a new consciousness to manifest, and that we must care for our own energies in order for that to be possible.

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