I had the great fortune of attending a week-long gathering in the Black Hills of South Dakota last month in which more than 100 Buddhist practitioners camped together and listened to the voices of native people share about their history and their lives. There was a lot of suffering voiced, which was both eye opening and challenging to digest.
Each day we met in small groups to give us an opportunity to connect more intimately with one another and to reflect on what we were hearing. On Wednesday, a Lakota woman who was only able to come to the retreat for that day, joined our group. When it was her turn to say something, she picked up the talking piece and held it in her hands for several minutes without speaking. When she finally began to speak, she was crying.
She talked about water, especially the water on the Pine Ridge reservation where she lived, and how her family and relations had always relied on that water – to drink and to swim in. She lamented how much her children, grandchildren and future generations were losing because of the nearby abandoned uranium mines which polluted the water. She had been fighting to save the water for decades with nothing to show for it. She cried and cried while the rest of us breathed along with her.
When she finally set down the talking piece, nearly twenty minutes later, I began to think about what she said. I remembered growing up in Michigan and my mom’s stories about fishing and swimming in Lake St. Clair and the St. Claire River. By the time I was old enough, we were told not to swim in either body of water and to minimize fish consumption because of the mercury poisoning. I remembered finding hypodermic needles while walking along the beaches of Lake Michigan. During long hot summers in DC, where I now live, I long to swim in fresh water, but neither the Potomac or Shenandoah rivers are swimmable because of pollution.
I realized that what our Lakota friend described wasn’t an American Indian problem, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. We all need water to live and I had been exposed to the issue of water pollution my entire life. And I wondered– why wasn’t I crying about it?
When I left the retreat in South Dakota, I met my husband in Chicago and we took the train to visit my family in Michigan. We decided to rent a car and drive from my birthplace on Lake Huron and down along the St. Clair River to Lake St. Clair. I was reminded my some of my Michigan friends, that the majestic Lake Huron was now nicknamed Lake Urine because of the disgusting condition of the water. I noted that several beaches along the lake were closed that summer for bacterial contamination (likely from farm run-off) and the river was lined with even more paper mills and utility factories. In the local paper I read that Canada had just decided to dump a bunch of radioactive waste into the river on “their side.” And yet I still didn’t cry.
”IN THE WAY OF SHAMANS AND BUDDHISTS, WE ARE ENCOURAGED TO FACE FULLY WHATEVER FORM OUR SUFFERING TAKES, TO CONFIRM IT, AND FINALLY, TO LET IT IGNITE OUR COMPASSION AND WISDOM.” –ROSHI JOAN HALIFAX, THE FRUITFUL DARKNESS: A JOURNEY THROUGH BUDDHIST PRACTICE AND TRIBAL WISDOM
I’ve kept on wondering why I’m not crying, and it’s not because I don’t feel sad about the state of our water. For one thing, my privilege allows me to be buffered from the day-to-day realities of climate change and pollution. I can buy water filters and fresh water to drink and travel to places where the water is clean and swimmable. That’s a big part of why I’m not crying. I’m also afraid that if I open up to all of the sadness, I might never get out of bed. There’s a big advantage to not feeling the suffering of the earth – it means I don’t have to change. I don’t have to think about how much energy was wasted renovating my house or flying around the world to see my kids. I don’t have to stop doing what I want to do.
Listening to this woman speak, I realized that because I was overwhelmed with the suffering of the earth, and because I had the socio-economic means to do so, I had chosen to ignore it. So I decided to try to turn toward the suffering that our earth and our water and all of us who rely on it are experiencing. I am trying to open my eyes so that, like the ice caps, my denial can slowly melt away and I will be able to feel and know the truth of what it means to lose access to fresh water. If I stay asleep, I can’t be a part of the solution.
Just last weekend I was on another lake, this one much further north in Canada in the middle of federal land where the water is safe enough to swim in, and clean enough to drink occasionally. I felt so much gratitude for the health of this lake that I sat down and sang to her. She answered me back with the most beautiful sunset – orange, pink and red stripes over the deep blue water. I drank in the beauty and connection of that moment. And I realized how lucky I was to be able to experience it.
”RESTORING BALANCE TO OURSELVES, WE CAN BEGIN THE WORK OF RESTORING BALANCE TO THE EARTH. THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CONCERN FOR THE PLANET AND CONCERN FOR OURSELVES AND OUR OWN WELL-BEING. THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HEALING THE PLANET AND HEALING OURSELVES” –THICH NHAT HANH, LOVE LETTER TO THE EARTH
Sometimes I still shut down when I am overwhelmed. Recently, my son has started talking to me about the flooding that is predicted to happen as a result of climate change. It’s pretty terrifying to think about. So sometimes I make a joke about it. But I’m starting to face the fact that such a catastrophe may happen to my children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren. And it is starting to make me cry.
Opening to the suffering, my own and others’, reconnects me to the earth and her inhabitants and inspires me to get up off my comfortable couch and go to a climate change rally, join a community of people working out solutions, buy a few more solar panels, write a blog about it, or sit down and have a good cry. I know it’s not much, but it feels better than staying frozen.