Earth Medicine: Practicing Presence with Collective Climate Grief

Earth Medicine Retreat Altar: every participant brought something to share and placed it on the outdoor Earth Protector altar.

We are an inter-connected web of life. A body always inter-permeating with all of life. As I sit here, the wind and sun caress my body, the scents from the cows grazing next door mix with the peppermint and catnip growing in my front yard. My body is digesting greens from the garden and coffee from Colombia. As air composed of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and other molecules breathes me, giving my body the oxygen it needs to live. As my body digests, crows, chickadees, robins and goldfinches sing, call and fly overhead. A neighbor’s dog, open mouthed and panting, runs through the tall grasses. All of this is me. And I am all of this.

This body is a bump on the earth. This body is the earth in motion. These thoughts are the Earth thinking through me. These dreams are the earth dreaming. Is it perhaps more true to say that the earth is dreaming us into existence?

And through this finite body/mind/heart I see/experience/interpret life from so many lenses and vantage points. Sometimes I conceive of myself as separate, lost in my ideas, my pain, distress and fear of the unknown future. Sometimes my heart isn’t lodged in this sense of exile and I am able to appreciate our interconnection. That what I experience as pain, grief, rage and fear is perhaps the reaction of the Earth or of the human collective, as we bravely face our new world.

The call to embrace the reality of the climate crisis is an urgent spiritual matter. Or maybe the call is to embrace the climate crisis as the urgent spiritual matter it is.

How do we open ourselves to the healing, awakening and transformation possible in this moment? If we let the climate crisis in, it means opening to the reality of our own mortality as a species, as the planet that we know and love, and as a global community that is not only human but composed of a rich and diverse biological intelligence whose many forms, voices and expressions give life to this life. The climate crisis asks us to confront the basic existential question, who are we? What are we? Why are we here? What is life? What are we doing with this life? It also asks us to feel. Part of being human is loss. We are all initiated into the human soul through loss. As we learn we don’t always get what we want, as we grieve the loss of loved ones–died too early, unexpected and sometimes in ways we can’t understand or justify.

Earth Medicine Retreat Ritual Circle, we spent the weekend outside listening to the Earth, practicing presence and grieving together.

When we don’t make space for grief, we harden–we avoid and we lose something innately human. For is it not through the power of grief and deep feeling, that we discover resilience, joy and creativity. When we allow ourselves to enter the unknown, we find space for true transformation. Grieving is a transformational process. We move from the mind that thinks it knows what is best, has its list of shoulds and shouldn’ts, its rationalizations and plans, to the heart of feeling what is–the messy, the harrowing, the confusing. If we allow it, grief can take us down–into the dark. A rich and soulful descent into the heart of the human being. Into a place unknown, where mystery awaits as we fall apart. Each loss is an invitation from mystery to let more of the unknown into our sense of self. Each loss is an invitation to feel with the community of all beings, the collective grief that we are all a part of. For the human psyche is not lodged inside one person’s brain, but  is a shared field of experience.

If collective grief is shared, so too is collective healing. 

And loss grants us the opportunity to heal. And healing starts right here in the soma of our own bodies. In the dreams and thoughts that move through us. In our embodied imaginations that give shape to this human experience and the earth as we know it.

How do we heal? The tradition I am steeped in is Zen Buddhism, here healing comes through the practice and art of presence, awareness, attention. This simple word presence includes so much and is basic to our experience. It is an invitation to listen deeply, to listen to the murmurs of life outside of the self-centered thoughts, it is an invitation too though to listen to this body, as part of the body of the earth. It is an invitation to feel deeply. To bear witness to what is happening. It is a full-on being with this life–which includes what is not-known by the ordinary thinking mind. It is using all of our human capacities, the intuitive, the creative, the expansive capacities of consciousness. It is getting out of our own way.

In Zen, we talk a lot about practice. Presence while it may be our innate, most natural capacity–is also something we train in. For as many of us feel, we have lost our way. We have let the self-centered parts of ourselves take control. We have been conditioned by the values of our societies and so our sense of true home, of genuine centered-ness is obscured. We can re-discover true home. We can find our way back to the connected life that we are. We can and are healing, transforming and awakening. The way of presence is the way.