Mindfulness And Rebellion In The Face of Extinction

Waterloo Bridge, April 2019. A row of police officers stands opposite a crowd of environmental activists on day 5 of the ‘rebellion’, an extended blockade of strategic targets and traffic arteries around London and other major cities across the UK and internationally. Coordinated by the recently-formed Extinction Rebellion movement, this is something that feels very new: a tactical, intelligent, disruptive, peaceful, love-fuelled campaign with clear objectives to change the government’s handling of climate change.

At the back of the bridge, young families dance to a folk band. Kids play around on the skateboard ramp and chalk up the road with messages of hope and rebellion. Further forward towards the barricade the atmosphere becomes more serious; a large group of people in casual clothing hand-printed with the Extinction Rebellion logo stands around in the unseasonably hot sun singing a supportive chorus of ‘peace, love, respect’. Right at the front of the crowd the atmosphere of anxiety and tension is palpable. Some fifty ‘arrestable’ protesters are sitting directly in front of the police, many in meditation, awaiting their turn to be read their rights before they let their bodies go limp and get dragged away to the closest constabulary that can hold them. They are to be amongst over a thousand courageous and passionate men and women who willingly offered themselves up to be arrested over the course of that rebellion.

Before we write these people off as “radicals” let’s remind ourselves of what all the fuss is about. “Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment.” This was the first line of a critical UN (IPCC) Report that came out in October last year, calling out that we have twelve years to turn things around dramatically in order to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. While the report is relatively moderate in its language and scientific claims, it was supposed to be a wake up call. A rallying cry to take our final chance to dramatically change the way we live, the structure of our economy, and to reassess our values before it’s too late.

It fell on almost deaf ears, barely even being reported in the UK news on the day it came out. And unsurprisingly so. It’s difficult for anyone to fully absorb the magnitude of the problem we’re facing – and frankly, who would want to? Except that there is so much at stake and the earth doesn’t negotiate. The earth is already one degree hotter than it’s supposed to be and we’re experiencing more frequent extreme weather events and wildlife depletion. Millions of people across the world are already losing their homes. Beyond 1.5 degrees our planet would be irreversibly altered and become a much less habitable, more savage place. We’re on track to go far beyond this in the coming decades.

The IPCC’s message wasn’t new. Scientists have known about the severity of the issue for years and to a greater or lesser extent we’ve all known for decades that the environment was headed gravely in the wrong direction. But not everyone is aware of the ‘tipping points’ – various feedback loops in our ecosystem which when triggered are like hitting the ‘self-destruct’ button on life as we know it with very little way of going back. Unleashing toxic methane currently trapped in the ice sheets of the arctic as they melt, for example, would be one of those tipping points which it is thought would accelerate global warming significantly.

There is no wellbeing on a dead planet. In an age where we obsess over the tiniest little details of our bodies, where we have multimillion pound cosmetics and multivitamin industries and where we exhaust ourselves to the point of sickness, even death on the hamster wheel of our destructive, zero-sum production-consumption society, we have lost all perspective. We are too busy to notice we are living in a bubble, a kind of perpetual hangover from the industrial revolution which has been carefully woven by industrial interests and fortified by – guess who? – Ourselves. We ARE our culture. We believe and feed our own stories about how the economy and society works, we create our own tastes, and any of us who are working in industries such as fashion, media, advertising, finance, travel, and even wellbeing are woefully complicit in serving to reinforce this bubble for the sake of payment, promotion, popularity or simply out of wishful thinking. We have mastered the art if wilful ignorance. While in many ways this is not our fault, sooner or later, it does become our responsibility, and we’re running out of time. We need a huge mindset and lifestyle shift.

The facts of climate change are a lot to take in. We struggle to imagine what that kind of barren, desperate world could look like and it’s easy to feel a whole spectrum of emotions when trying to process this information. Indeed, there is an important emotional journey that takes place as part of the process of coming to terms with this grave situation. This journey often starts with feelings of overwhelm and denial, then develops into resentment and rage, frustration, then shifting to grief and loss. Once all of that has been processed, we can begin to connect fully with our love for this planet and all its beings. Then perhaps that emotional cycle begins again on a whole new level. We mature spiritually whether we consider ourselves to be spiritual or not. Let’s be clear, it’s not something that can be processed intellectually and anyone who thinks otherwise is refusing to fully acknowledge what’s going on in their heart-minds. This trauma is something that has to work its way through the body, just like any other traumatic change in our lives. There are no short cuts. Most people in this county have not yet started on that journey. We have a long way to go.

Denial is a powerful thing. But love and hope are even more powerful. Mindfulness based meditation practices can help with this personal and planetary transformation. Indeed, that’s what they’re for. While often portrayed in the wellness media as a way of ‘zoning out’, of ‘escaping stress’, and being associated with retreating away from the realities of life for some ‘me time’ they are in fact quite the opposite. They are not a plaster to patch up our wounded nervous systems, or a quick-fix for our mental health so that we can get back to work. It just doesn't work that way. The anxiety many of us feel when trying to sit still for a few minutes is justified when we have unprocessed emotions and denial simmering beneath the surface of our psyche. I’ll just repeat that: it’s justified.

But the body-mind wants to heal. And the planet wants to heal through us. And we need each other. We are bound to each other in a loving, albeit somewhat broken relationship. Seen through the perspective of mindfulness, the emerging cultural resurgence around climate action tells the full story of our humanity and our intimate connection with nature, with all beings. While it might be surprising to consider meditation in the context of activism, if you look at the lives of monks, priests or other teachers of meditative disciplines (the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn from the Buddhist tradition to name just two examples) you will often find they are deeply engaged in their culture and politics. Likewise, heroic activists such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the flower power generation were deeply informed and influenced by spiritual meditative teachings and practice and their tactics based in these roots proved critical to their successes.

At the heart of this powerful symbiosis lies the insight of fully acknowledging that we are all in this life together. That our fates are intertwined. This is clearer now than at any time in our history as the economic, social and geopolitical interconnections and interactions blinking seamlessly between the billions of people across the world become impossibly complex. It’s clear in a world where a tomato can seemingly be grown and flown from anywhere to anywhere. In a world where we experience terrorist atrocities on our home soil committed by groups of extremists from countries we can barely point to on the map.

Meditation and mindfulness are a training ground for finding happiness. And, at the same time they are a training ground for acknowledging in a mature and inherently joyful way that despite all our focus on trying to find that elusive state of Happiness that it’s not indeed possible to be without suffering for very long unless all other beings are also without suffering. Through developing this realisation, meditation and mindfulness practices can move us towards a shift in values, or rather, a return to what most of us probably hold as our purest values: of peace, a healthy, beautiful world, equality, justice, community and mutual respect. It wakes us up to our own inherent love, resiliency and kindness.

While of course not everyone in the Extinction Rebellion movement is a meditator, having some kind meditation practice was a very common theme amongst the rebels that week. Meditating certainly served to support many of those ‘arrestables’ mentally during phases of arrest and you could also witness meditation circles being held during the quieter times in the camps. Aside from the benefits of the practice to the meditators themselves, there is a quiet power in the signal of unreactivity a person sends out when they sit in meditation in the midst of a chaotic environment. This presence infuses the air with dignity, reflecting the weight of the cause and communicating a potent message of non-violence. The utopian scenes of plants, flowers and peaceful protest on Waterloo bridge and other sites reflected another important role of meditation in society – that it can serve to remind us that another way of living is possible.

Rebellion at its heart is about choosing love and empowerment over fear and apathy. It’s about moving into a place of trust, beyond fear of losing one’s job or economic prosperity and beyond fear of a dark future on a scorched earth. It is an uprising of our highest values. It is the loving act of building a new, kinder, quieter world in the heart of the old one. This is the essence of the rebellion. Not the headline grabbing stunts but the wish for a future that restores respect for the living - our own natural bodies, their rhythms and capacities, all humans on this planet no matter which country they happen to have been born in. And of course, the other beings with whom we cohabit this earth.

Picture: Hazel Dawe