Spiritual Footing for Environmentalists

By Grove Burnett Ed. note: This letter to Thich Nhat Hanh was read during the sutra recitation period following morning meditation at the March 25-30 Retreat for Environmentalists in Malibu.

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I have been practicing environmental law for eighteen years, representing public interest environmental organizations in five states in the Western United States, both national and grassroots, on a wide variety of issues ranging from pollution of our air and water, cutting of our ancient forests, and protection of our vanishing wildlife. Being a lawyer has offered me a strangely unique perspective that no other work in the environmental movement - or for that matter our society - can provide. Sadly, the legal profession is a pretty unwholesome gathering that practices all too diligently the universal principles of greed, hatred, and delusion! It's a challenge that continuously tests my practice.

I came to this ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness by way of the occupational hazard of this movement and all activists: bum out. I crashed, suffering a severe physical illness and a classic life crisis. In the darkest hour of all this, however, some door opened and I stumbled into a seven day Vipassana retreat with Jack Kornfield. Suddenly and with a clarity that changed my life, I understood what I was looking for: that hole inside of me that I had been trying to fill with all sorts of things during my life could only be filled by a genuine spiritual teaching and practice. I've been studying and practicing in the Vipassana tradition with Jack for the last five years, and attended your retreat two years ago where my wife, Linda, and I received the precepts.

The most compelling issue facing the environmental movement - at least the mainstream movement in this country - is its lack of spiritual footing. Without a solid spiritual foundation, the movement lacks wholeness and wisdom and the personal happiness and effectiveness of those involved is severely compromised. The environmental movement struggles desperately to ground itself on something other than standard political and social rhetoric; without a genuine spiritual grounding, however, it is largely rootless, casting about for a center. We all know and feel that the present environmental destruction is unjust and unacceptable, yet we tilt about trying to fit those feelings into inadequate political frameworks. What we are really searching for is a deeper religious and spiritual framework in which to articulate and act on these feelings.  This lack of solid spiritual footing means that we involved in the struggle suffer, on a personal basis. Too often - I see this with all my colleagues all over the country - environmentalists operate from a level of panic and crisis in our mission to rescue the planet. We become warriors battling in a war zone - confronting one impending disaster and crisis after another, trying to save the planet. The results, of course, are predictable: being dedicated soldiers we take no time for our own personal and spiritual nourishment and our lives, health, families, friendships suffer and sometimes break apart under the tension.

In addition, our effectiveness to effect change and relieve suffering is severely compromised as we push ourselves harder, sacrificing our lives for saving the planet, until often we are consuming enormous amounts of time and energy with meager results. The consequence of reduced effectiveness is one that comes with the terrain of being a dedicated, angry activist who has no spiritual place of rest and healing. When we work in the panic zone we begin to think that the best and only strategy is to put other people into the panic zone. Clear thinking and wisdom, of course, are not characteristics of the panic zone and does not produce quality actions or work.

As my personal practice has deepened I have recognized that the mentality of a warrior is not the appropriate model or course for the environmental movement. We don't need warriors - and we certainly don't need more lawyers. What we need are guardians - guardians committed to the middle path of mindfulness and dedicated to the enormous task of restoring and healing our ravaged planet. Guardians who have penetrated the anthropocentric notions of our civilization and who, as Aldo Leopold said, can begin to "think like a mountain" and acknowledge that we are only "plain members of the biotic community."

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Grounding our engagement in a spiritual practice offers us the extraordinary opportunity - which has been confirmed in my own life - to find a middle way. Instead of reeling from one crisis to the next, motivated by anger and outrage towards those we deem responsible for the precipitous state of the planet, this practice, with its profoundly spiritual grounding, can bring us to a path of equanimity and peace about what we are doing. This is a profound teaching. We cannot heal our ravaged planet unless we have the ability to heal ourselves. True healing only comes with the surrender of stepping on a spiritual path. Unfortunately the environmental movement does not have a spiritual path.

Stepping upon the spiritual path, especially the path of mindfulness, has immense rewards for environmentalists and all activists who are committed to active engagement in our society. We environmentalists are frequently overwhelmed by the magnitude of the global environmental crisis and the enormity of the task to restore and heal this fragile planet of ours. Tending to our own healing and spiritual work should be a matter of the highest priority. If environmentalists connect with the profound spiritual dimension of our work, we will be able to acknowledge the need for healing ourselves - not just the planet we are frantically and desperately fighting to preserve.

For myself, the effects of a spiritual practice have been truly rewarding. Not only has my own personal suffering diminished as I have attended to my own healing, but, most surprisingly to me, my effectiveness as an advocate in the movement has increased dramatically. I did not enter upon this path and take this teaching to become more effective in my work - it was the furthest consideration from my mind. I embarked on this journey to heal my battle scared and weary soul and body. The gift of this path, however, has been not only the personal healing, but increased effectiveness in the world.

Grove Burnell is an environmental attorney in New Mexico.

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