Meditation in an Age of Cataclysms

Meditation in an Age of Cataclysms
Illustration by Daniel Mendoza |

When despairing thoughts about climate collapse become overwhelming, try turning towards feeling. 

By David Edwards 

If consciousness is an ocean, thoughts are waves that can be churned into vast storms.

Have you ever awakened in the wee small hours, adrift on your tiny raft of awareness, to find yourself confronted by such a storm?

Perhaps an icy wind is whipping up the memory of something you read about COVID and slapping you in the face with it:

So now I have to tell the daughter that both her parents are dead in a matter of three days. Her dad’s not even buried yet.

You blink up at the ceiling and take a deep breath, before being struck by another blast:

“It is very concerning, extremely worrisome,” Peter Tans, senior climate scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Financial Times. “This last decade, the rate of increase [of carbon emissions] has never been higher, and we are still on the same path. We’re going in the wrong direction at maximum speed.”

In the distance, you can’t quite make out how far, the big black wave of your own personal death looms. In front, around, and behind it, other great waves—the loss of family, loved ones, friends—rise and fall as they approach, like steel-grey pistons driving some inexorable engine of death. Is it any wonder you’re trembling?

Beyond even these, like a range of mountains on the horizon, the mile-high tsunami of climate collapse glints faintly in the light of your night-time awareness. You can see from the sheer size of it that it’s threatening the annihilation of all humans and most complex life on earth. And here, truly, there be sea serpents: fully one-fifth of Australian forests—one-fifth!—were wiped out in a single period of fire. What will happen to the other four-fifths in the future with temperatures and carbon emissions rising all the time, with next to nothing being done?

From your raft of awareness, you gaze up at this advancing tidal wave of death in awe and fear. It’s too terrible, you think. It can’t happen, somebody will find an answer. Amazingly, you find that thinking such nonsense helps somewhat—cheap but priceless denial. Perhaps denial would be enough to let you sleep, except…

Except that, closer to hand, treacherous whirlpools swirl with personal memories: “I’ll always be your friend, but I’ll never love you.” Or: “If you can’t even perform this simple task, you shouldn’t be sitting there!” Thoughts and emotional wounds, ancient and modern, spin round and round, sucking you in. 

You try to think-swim away from these treacherous vortices, to keep your head above the waves of anxiety, grief, guilt, and regret, but thinking just makes it worse—thinking is precisely the problem! This mental chatter is so exhausting, so useless as a response to the overwhelming forces of the world. But what, then?

Traditionally, people have had to be beaten, battered, and half-drowned by these internal storms of mind before they finally turn to meditation. The classic modern example is supplied by Eckhart Tolle in his book, The Power of Now:

I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train—everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing for the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence.

The understandable conclusion: “I can’t live with myself anymore.”

But Tolle noticed a strange contradiction—who exactly was this “I” who couldn’t live with “myself” anymore? Was he, in fact, two people, then? He realized that he was sick of the exhausting, obsessive, thought-churning mind. In other words, sheer suffering caused him to realize that he wasn’t, after all, “the little voice in the head”. Rather, he was an inner witness, an awareness, that perceives those thoughts. After all, computers also have all kinds of information and messages rattling around their mechanical skulls but, unlike us, they have no awareness, no witnessing presence that sees those messages.

Our identification with “the little voice in the head”—our feeling that this mental noise is “me”—is so deep-rooted that it can take deep suffering of the kind Tolle endured to break free from it…


Meditation in an Age of Cataclysms

F. Kaskais Web Guru

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