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The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universeShantigarbha

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Most of us in the West tend to shy away from grief and treat it as a form of personal distress. From a Buddhist perspective grief can be an aspect of compassion. If we go deeply enough into grief we come across what is most precious in life. In the next moment we can act on this.  

In the weeks after COP26, XR Buddhists UK, which brings together Buddhists from different traditions, gathered for debrief calls. The question went round, ‘Were you disappointed by the COP agreement?’ I had to say that I had no expectations whatsoever about the outcome. I felt a kind of numbness towards it. In a way, I was surprised that the governments of the world had managed to do anything at all. But beneath my numbness lay grief.  

Who feels grief about the planet that we’re handing on? I mean grief at witnessing the loss of species, ecosystems, and natural beauty? I guess everyone who is reading this. It’s worth looking at, because anxiety, trauma, overwhelm and a sense of powerlessness may block our collective ability to act. 

Rather than trying to fix it or push it away, we can create a space for mourning. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked by his students what they needed to do to save the world. They expected to hear his thoughts on the most effective forms of social and environmental action. Instead he replied, “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

Can you hear those sounds? Joanna Macy picked up this thread in her Work That Reconnects. She pointed out that we ain’t going nowhere with our activism until we acknowledge the weight of the grief that we feel, and she suggested simple rituals to do this. 

Imagine being in a crowd of people who have come to take part in the healing of our world. Stand opposite one of them. Recognise that they love this world. Feel your respect for them, even bow towards them. You’re looking into the eyes of someone familiar with the suffering of the world. They live with it and don’t look away. They know that the polar ice caps are melting and they haven’t let it destroy their commitment to life. 

Just as we need to celebrate, we also need to mourn. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. We mourn when our life isn’t going well, and when our needs aren’t being met. Mourning and grief need not be about the loss of a loved one. We can mourn losses of any kind: loves, hopes and dreams, capacities, species, ecosystems, and trust in life.

When you imagine 2.4 degrees of warming, what images come to your mind? Attend to the breath. Is there tightness or heaviness in your chest? Are you feeling sad, anxious, or upset? 

Breathe the images right through your heart and back into the world. Let them flow through you. Breathe the numbness through, then your own suffering and shame. Does your heart feel like breaking? 

The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. Let the whole world flow through you. What are you longing for? Bear in mind that longing is what is keeping us alive. Longing is our connection to life. It’s how life is moving through us, speaking through us.

Are you longing for the Earth to be cared for and honoured? Are you longing for safety and protection for all present and future generations? If we go deeply enough into grief we reach what is most precious in our life. In the next moment we can act on this. 

When you are fully connected to your longing, how do you feel in your body? Is it a kind of sweet sadness? To complete and ground this process, imagine one concrete step that you can take to honour this loss.



Can you make space for your grief by taking it for a walk or writing about it? Would it help to share with others? Remember that mourning is a need that is most easily met in community. Would it help to dedicate your activism for the next week or month to a particular loss? You can join XR Buddhists’ regular meetings here. More information about the process of mourning and healing in chapter ten ‘Ecological Grief’ of my book here

Shantigarbha is a Buddhist activist and mediator based in Bristol, UK. His second book is The Burning House: a Buddhist response to the climate and ecological emergency. He is a senior member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and long-time certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication. He has worked with Extinction Rebellion both as a Nonviolence and Deescalation trainer and with XR Buddhists. His first book was on empathy: I’ll Meet You There: a practical guide to empathy, mindfulness and communication. Visit his website for more information about his Nonviolent Communication trainings.