Fierce Compassion in the Anthropocene

Contemplative traditions have much to offer us in an age of climate chaos and mass extinction.

By Willa Miller

During the winter season a few years ago, 108 inches of snow fell in Boston, breaking the record for the most seasonal snowfall in recorded history. And this snow, it did not melt. We watched it drift into six-foot banks in our backyard, burying our dwarf Japanese maple entirely.

Day after day dawned frigid, stinging our cheeks as soon as we walked out the door. Ice crystals grew from the eves. The sparrows fell more and more silent. The squirrels grew thin under their winter coats.

In Boston, we murmured aloud our worries about climate change, the at-risk homeless, and karma.

One morning, I walked from my house to the subway station along a paved bike trail. As I approached the station, a small huddled mass came into view right in the middle of the trail. Fast-walking commuters and the occasional intrepid cyclist weaved around this small figure, barely missing it as they passed.

As I approached, I saw it was a duck. Freezing, it had moved to the trail to huddle in a half-inch deep pool of water melted by the rock salt that had been strewn onto the trail to help the passage of commuters. Its wings were slightly spread, an attempt to capture whatever heat might be emitting from the pool of water.

I squatted for some time looking into one of its black eyes. It looked at me unafraid, perhaps because it could not move away from that puddle and still survive. I felt, for that minute, that the duck and I bonded as animals. In the end, fear wanes when it comes down to survival.

None of us know if the extreme winter of 2014 in New England was a result of climate change. Climate scientists tell us that we have rougher weather to look forward to. Other prognostications include the death of coral reefs, species extinctions, hotter summers, draughts, melting icecaps, and many other distressing possibilities.

To meet the impending future, much more will be needed than technological and engineering solutions. Much more will be needed than energy saving measures. It is time to stop and look into each other’s eyes, animal or human. It is time to look into the reality of the anthropocentric culture we have created.

To meet these conditions, we need to change the way that we live. We also need to change the way we conceive of ourselves as human beings. It is time to rethink our culture of independence and consider our interdependence.

Is it possible to restructure the human psyche for a new world, one that knows its own interdependence? Is it possible to revolutionize consciousness? These are questions that have long interested mystics and sages for the purposes of human enrichment and happiness. But what we believe, value, and prioritize becomes far more critical when the stakes includes survival of the planet as we know it.

In this new world, the tools and models developed within contemplative traditions have a great deal to offer. Meditative traditions have long explored the realm of consciousness transformation, with depth and precision. Contemplative traditions offer methods for self-cultivation, for resilience, and for turning ideas such as “interdependence” into a lived reality.

One such resource is the teachings on love, compassion, and altruism in the Buddhist tradition. Compassion teachings focus on the cultivation of empathy for all that lives, not only for the human race. When we extend empathy from our friends and neighbors to all that lives, our sense of moral responsibility widens dramatically. To act considering only the welfare of those nearby is not—within such a moral frame—enough, but we must rather consider the welfare of the planet and its creatures.

In the wisdom traditions of Asia, the idea compassion is different from our own cultural construct. Compassion, in these traditions, is not yielding or enabling. Compassion is strong and challenging by definition. The bodhisattva, an archetype of compassion, is often depicted as a powerful, courageous, and firm warrior. Sometimes compared to a mother’s love, the bodhisattva’s compassion is deep but fierce.

Four Ways Fierce Compassion Helps Us Move Towards Inclusive Altruism

Lately I have been thinking of the compassion we cultivate through Buddhist practice as fierce compassion. Fierce compassion is not mild. It is courageous and active. It upholds others in their deepest goodness, but challenges them when they fall away from it. Compassion of this sort implies that we can love others enough to tell them the truth.

Fierce compassion that is based in the contemplative perspective helps us to evolve towards inclusive altruism in four distinct ways.

Fierce compassion requires that we lean into our own shadow to see how we avoid truths within ourselves. Fierce compassion is introspective, and curious about our own darkness. Ultimately, we have to love our own darkness in order to work with it, and to hold ourselves accountable.

Even more broadly, this entails befriending our own experience. When we bring meditation into conversation with compassion, we must become willing to be truly present, in the simplest of ways. We cultivate an ability to stay here, with whatever is happening, and with whoever is present.

If what is happening is not pleasant, we gradually learn to come alongside the very states of suffering that we are in the habit of avoiding. We cannot develop a compassion practice without being intimate with our own suffering. In this way, fierce compassion begins with self-compassion.

Fierce compassion asks of us to extend love to those who is it not easy to love. It asks for us to suspend condemnation long enough so that we consider the humanity of those who have done us harm. When we consider their humanity, we, too, become humane.

Fierce compassion leans on a perspective of equanimity. It is broad. In this day and age, we need to broaden our sense of compassion, so that it becomes wide enough to embrace the earth as a whole organism. It is time to envision compassion beyond the traditional framework of humans and animals, to embrace plants and ecosystems.

Fierce compassion builds resilience. Contemplative practices of compassion rely on engaging with suffering as a method to transform it into joyful empathetic responsiveness. This process of transformation involves changing how we see ourselves in relationship to the world. Suffering as opportunity rather than burden.

These four dimensions of fierce compassion turn us towards some of the potentials of contemplative practice to revolutionize consciousness. To address the climate chaos and mass extinction that characterize our time, we will need to draw on our deepest resources. For better or worse, the evolution or devolution of our species rests in our collective hands. In the process of re-visioning who we are as human beings, dispositional compassion has a role to play.

Still, every winter as the first snow falls, I remember the eyes of my winged friend on the bike trail. They remind me that my responsibility as a human on this planet is not restricted to my own family and friends, or even to my own species. To be human is also to care. To be human is to exercise the ferocity of my compassion. Contemplative practices can help.

Willa B. Miller, PhD, is a dharma teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She is the founder and Spiritual Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston, MA and its retreat center Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, NH. She is leading an upcoming retreat at the Garrison Institute with Colin Beavan, “Fierce Compassion: Where Activism Meets Spirituality,” on September 14-17.

Images courtesy of unsplash.com

2 comments on “Fierce Compassion in the Anthropocene”

  1. banana says:

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  2. jim says:

    I’m impressed when you talk about ‘fierce compassion’, about the intrinsic value of activism to protect the environment from destruction when you mention the anthropocene it means we humans are responsible.

    How to behave responsible other than with a fierce compassion in mind is beyond me really. Us destroying the planet, all life and everythingliving on and of it is unacceptable. Also climate change and the unpredictability it brings with it , the impact of it will most surely affect the poorest and most vulnerable the defenceless. E.g. with the rising water level of the oceans we know for certain that a country like Bangladesh will completely flood in the next decennium as will Vanuatu often called the ‘poster child of climate change’. The population of Bangladesh alone consists of roughly 160 miljon people (mditate on this!) that will flee to neighbouring countries.

    Lets keep this a secret while discussing proxy wars in the region or the collective silence of the media (pun intended) . I’m afraid a lot of questions we ask ourselves about how we live our lives comes from our luxury western perspective, ftom our western, priviliged, neocolonist, imperialist and conquering nature enabling the power over as much as possible and ruling over it and all even our own identity construct and selfesteem. Our developed society is rooted in and based on exploitation and the robbing of natural resources. Taking not giving, conquering instead of living in harmony. Our economic kapitalist model based on endless growth has its equivalent in nature mirrored in the ideology of a cancer cell nowhere else. Inequality is what it creates untill the very organism itself becomes overpowered and unsustainable.

    Personally I cannot stand the usage of a concept like mindfulness (or the abuse of Zen as a metaphore for something it doesn’t represent at all) nowadays. Since it became the latest fashion it became inflated. For it is taught as a ‘technique’ part of the certified skillset of personal mindfulness trainers in management circles it is not take for what it is it has been taken out of context. Management experts are teaching it producing bullshit mistake the finger pointing for the moon. Such bullshit stinks like hell, is poluting minds, the environment and the value of the concept begets a new meaning, becomes lost in a selfcentered narcist notion where everything can be taken for what can become of use for getting richer or for more prestige or simply for personal gain posing as personal growth or even to the extend of making hedonist pleasures fully enjoyable.
    It does not extend, it has become fully relationless. A vehicle serving succes.

    I’m not even sorry for this rant, it’s about time to set things straight. We don’t even need to elaborate on Chogyam Trungpa’s spiritual materialism or Shunryu’s beginners mind as oposed to the experts mind. with fullblown nonsense.

    When Friedrich Nietzsche said: ‘There is not enough love in this world to permit giving any of it to imaginary beings’. It almost sounded subversive to the cleric, the church and no particular religion in general. It was a plea for humanism and imho it stands as such today. Once buddhism can be defined it becomes an obstacle, hence monks burning statues to keep warm. It was a very enlightening and important lesson when the almost unacceptable became acceptable. It is not like tolerating intolerance, on the contrary. That is why I like it when you speak of fierce compassion” I agree with you all this abstract and even intelectual small talk on concepts and sitting with such questions is almost ignorant while arrogant for the zafu on which we sit is – mind you – full of war and famine and inequality and abuse and exploitation.

    Contemplate innocent children dieing in these wars or of cholera or starving from malnutrition or detained without charges or robbed of their families, made homeless and with little perspectives, chances are! It really should make us angry with the world, the establishment and the priviliged with petty worries full of selfpitty.

    Meanwhile we can train with, of and in our close surroundings be it of human or animal nature if one wants to make these distinctions which might be delusional for even things deserve our love and gratefulness if only for enrichening the environment. Things often also last longer when loved. I have an ancient washing machine I thank it every time it kindly helps me clean my clothes our relationship has become special over time. People that have to do with less, the poor might better understand what I’m talking about.

    Compassion imho must indeed consist of maintaining that angry young mind while growing older. Must contain that subversive character where we keep fighting for those with less chances with poorer upbringing with endangered health with diminished quality of life with being shut of and shut out of education community and work. If we care we should not forget we cannot not be activists or reject responsibilities we’ll have to also remind each other and support each other in the struggle. Like a boddhisatva’s vow taking care means choosing sides and fight together support each other with fierce compassion for equality, healthy relations with love and kindness for all untill all are freed. Taking away hindrances with fierce compassion tearing down walls caring for what suffers from the absency of love and attention and fierce compassion. (Almost to where ‘mother instinct’ becomes second nature and extends to other species. There are plenty other impressive and inspiring examples btw .)

    Oh a lot of words spoken, weitten down they always sound so absolute, hard to express with less words so be it but Willa you touched me and I felt I had to express my apreciation. Thanks.

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