This spring will mark 10 years of trainings and retreats run at the Ecodharma Centre. We’ve decided it’s the perfect moment to take a step back, reflect on what we’ve learned over the decade, and review what we can most usefully contribute in response to the challenges and opportunities of this historical moment.
Balancing action with reflection has always been a strong theme in our trainings. For Ecodharma, we think this is the perfect moment to pause, cultivate a space for deep receptivity, for questions rather than answers, and for listening to what is most needed now. We’re living at a critical moment in ecological and socio-political terms, making it crucial that we use our learning, our energy and our talents well. To do that it’s important to resist the temptation to just keep doing what we do, just because up to now it has worked. It’s important to take a step back and reflect, analyse and plan strategically – to ‘go slow to go far’, as they say.
So, that’s what we’re going to do. From summer 2020 we’re going to stop running trainings and retreats at the Ecodharma site for a year or so. We’ll begin a period of deeper reflection and inquiry. We’ll survey the terrain we operate within, carry out a deeper context analysis, looking at the current social, political, and environmental situation. We’ll review the strengths and weaknesses of the approach we’ve taken over the last decade. And we’ll ask questions about what we can most usefully offer and do with the learning and skills we and our colleagues have acquired.
We first launched our work in 2007, but it wasn’t until May 2010 when we really got going with a full programme of Ecodharma events, resident team and community. We’ve taken a highly innovative approach to integrating Buddhist dharma, ecology and activism for social transformation, leading to cutting edge educational work across three key strands: Engaged Buddhism, Activist Training, and Nature-based or Ecological Learning. The project strapline that informed our work has always been: Radical Ecology – Radical Dharma. To keep it radical requires creating space for deeper questions.
We’ll ask these questions together with close friends of the project and people in our wider network. We expect the process to lead to a renewed strategic vision that has continuity with our past, but that helps ensure our approach remains responsive and relevant into the future.
Our work and community has touched the lives of thousands of people and inspired similar centres and sanghas to take up the idea and practices of Ecodharma. When we started, the term Ecodharma was hardly known. Now there are books, essays, retreat centres and networks across the world using the term. From obscurity, Ecodharma has now become ‘a thing’.
A major development in our work was the birth, a few years ago, of the Ulex Project and its own training centre nearby. Ulex now runs an extensive programme of capacity building training for social movements across Europe – bringing transformational learning to activists and organisations. During Ecodharma’s fallow year for reflection, the Ulex Project programme will be continuing as usual. The fallow year only affects the Ecodharma site.
So, let’s see what emerges. Perhaps a fallow year every decade will become one of our ongoing practices. We’re keen to include our networks in reviewing our learning and assessing existing and future needs and opportunities. So, don’t be surprised if you receive a request to contribute to that in your inbox in the summer. We’re looking forwards to the creative possibilities that can emerge between us from this process.
Tierra, libertad y solidaridad – The Ecodharma Collective
We recently caught up with May McKeith, one of the nature-based facilitators at ecodharma, to find out more about her work back in the UK bringing nature connection to groups of predominantly migrant women and children in urban environments. She tells us why this work matters politically and personally, the challenges they face, and how you can get involved to support the project.
You’ve worked as a nature-based facilitator with Ecodharma for several years, and during that time supported activists to build resilience, self-empowerment and community through connection with the natural world.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re bringing that work to urban environments with the Natural Resilience Project (NRP)?
Sure! So NRP works in wild places in cities – we look for spaces where nature is thriving amongst and despite the pressures of city life – where beauty and wildlife flourish, in the belly of the beast.
We wanted to find ways to bring nature closer to people’s everyday lives, and so we chose to keep it urban – helping people to find that connection closer to home so that they can access it more often. Especially because getting out of the city isn’t possible for lots of people who can’t afford it, can’t get time off work or whose lives make it really logistically tough. And for some people it’s disconcerting not to know what to expect. So with NRP we’ve gone for something local, which is embedded in the familiar, and logistically achievable.
In addition it’s based around the fact that it’s often people in cities who feel most disconnected – the hustle and bustle of city life often limit the opportunities for people to feel connected, so in a way it’s those people who most need the chance to remember how it feels!
In those spaces we’re working with people around the same themes that we work on with activists at ecodharma, as you say – resilience, self empowerment and community to name a few.
We look at the interconnection of life around us, and all the time, by being in nature and community, we’re all learning, and reflecting on our experiences, and those of others. As people reconsider how interconnected things are in nature, and hear the similarities between each other’s stories, it gives pause for reflection around the interconnection of their own experiences, and the systemic nature of the challenges they face.
Often this leads to a sense of a collective strength at what has been achieved, appreciation for nature’s capacity to support and provide for us, and a desire to support each other to continue to fight.
Tell us a little bit about the background of the Natural Resilience Project. Who are you working with on this and why was the project set up? How did you identify there was a need for this kind of work?
In 2015 I was running bushcraft weekends, which also drew on themes of resilience and connection with a collective from Co-Resist in Bristol. Anna Rudd, who was to become the co-founder of NRP, came on one of these weekends, and approached me about bringing that work to a wider audience. With a long background in migrant support work, and a job at Hackney Migrant Centre (HMC), she was regularly in contact with people who were really struggling, and didn’t have much access to the sort of support that WildTime Weekends were providing through connection to community, nature and reflective space. I was delighted at her suggestion, because although I enjoyed the work I was doing, I was unsatisfied and uncomfortable that the people who were benefitting were quite privileged people – largely white, middle-class people who were relatively well connected, with opportunities to access support though a range of channels, but also people who benefit from the huge gains that being white / middle class in the Western world brings.
I had a strong sense that there was something missing in the work for me – it wasn’t connecting with my politics in the way that I needed in order to feel deeply inspired to do the work.
And so Anna and I set about developing Natural Resilience Project, to couple her experience of working in Migrant Support, with my experience of facilitating nature based learning, with an aim of creating something for people she came into contact with through her work at HMC.
In the work Anna does she meets a lot of people being brutally affected by the hostile environment, and time and again it’s the women and children who suffer the most. The intersecting of multiple oppressions means that they repeatedly fall to the bottom of the pile, enduring the harshest conditions and experiences of systemic injustices like racism, and patriarchy.
Realising this, we decided these were the people we most wanted to support. So NRP sessions were designed to provide some respite for those women who are enduring so much and childcare for their kids – a necessary provision if we were to support single mums, and a chance to give the kids some nature time too!
With this as a basis, we’ve now run multiple iterations of the project in London, branched out to Bristol, and developed a range of formats for the workshops in response to the changing conditions we’ve been working in.
For the first time this year we developed an event for people supporting those on the front lines – people like case-workers and support workers, whose work is vital to improving the experiences of people being brutally affected by Hostile Environment policies, but who are always overstretched, often volunteers, and frequently on the road to burn out. So 2019 has been about developing the capacity of the project to reach a slightly different audience, as well as working on the much less rewarding but hopefully useful project infrastructure like our website, and a short film which shows what we do.
Why is it a women-only space?
Many of the women we work with are incredibly resilient, and strong, yet they often come holding a lot of shame and low self-worth. Often times, these feelings have evolved through their experiences of abusive men in their lives, and many have survived trafficking, domestic and or sexual abuse. We wanted to create a space where these women could feel safe, but also where they could discover their sisterhood – find alliances and build a support network which wasn’t subject to the destructive forces that are brought in by patriarchy. So by making it a space just for women and kids, we hoped to support those who need it most, and to create a space where they could feel safe to thrive.
What does ‘natural resilience’ mean to you? What does it include? How is it strengthened through NPR on both a personal and political level?
For me it’s about looking to the rhythms of the natural world, and learning from them. Recognising that tides ebb and flow, seasons bloom and thaw, and everything is in constant flux. It’s recognising that nothing is forever, but that if we pause to gather ourselves, we can identify what it is we need to draw up and in, and often, with the help of community, we can help ourselves and each other to find that.
It’s about acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, and finding the courage to reach beyond our comfort zones to where we learn most, into the places where we can feel most alive. It’s about the fire in our hearts that burns when we feel alive alongside other people.
And it’s learning what it is that makes us feel alive, because if we can identify that, and find ways to do it, then we become powerful, acting in solidarity with life to facilitate a world we want to live in.
NRP is doing exactly that on a personal level for me, but through the project it’s also creating opportunities for other people to do that too, and the politics of NRP are fundamental to that – it wouldn’t be NRP if it wasn’t looking to address the political aspects of our needs for solidarity and connection.
In a world where pausing and reflecting is devalued, and productivity is prized above all else, it’s inherently political to provide opportunities to do just that – to ready ourselves to weather the approaching storms.
As Audre Lorde rightly said:
“Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”
What are some of the challenges/difficulties/obstacles you’ve faced on the project? And some of the highlights?
Anna and I are both very politically active, and finding ways to help the project to thrive while we crack on with all the other stuff we’re involved in has been tricky at times!
I suppose in a way, the politics of the project have been one of our biggest challenges – it’s something which is fundamental to making the project what it is, but because of that, it’s been difficult to bring new people in – we absolutely don’t want the project to lose its politics, but finding people who share that vision, and our understanding of what NRP does and how, hasn’t been easy! Sometimes people get the politics, but aren’t familiar with the resilience work, or the nature based practices that make this project unique – it’s not a gardening project, it’s specifically about nature based practice, and not many people do that kind of work!
Ideas on a postcard for ways to solve this clearly interlinked conundrum!
As for the highlights, probably pulling off the Bristol series with the help of our wonderful crew down there, with Anna’s 3 month old baby in tow (the youngest member of our team!). All this in the middle of my involvement in the Stansted 15 trial was quite an epic achievement.
But much more joyous highlights come literally every session when we see the women breathe deeply and relax for the first time in who knows how long, and their hysterical giggles while they’re playing games like excitable kids!
How might people support the project or get involved?
In simple terms, we always need more money – you can donate to our crowdfunder here:
If you know easy ways to secure more long-term funding with minimal strings attached (our capacity is really limited so applying for funding is not always time effective) we’d love to hear from you.
And beyond that, we’re looking for someone to help with managing our finances, as well as people to help us develop strategically into the longer term. If you can help with any of these, please give us a shout!
In 2018 we ran our first social permaculture training, exploring permaculture as a tool for designing communities and organisations. In December this year the team will return, this time to the Ulex project. Alfred Decker, one of the facilitators of the training talks about his journey to permaculture through social activism, and his ongoing inspiration to build sustainable alternatives within the shell of an already collapsing system.
Throughout the 1990’s I participated in the eco-activist and anti-globalisation movement in North America. We did everything we could think of within a non-violent context to stop the destruction of the incredible natural landscapes around us: sitting in trees, hanging banners off of buildings and bridges, blockading highways, locking ourselves to all manner of objects, and so on.
It was a time of conflict…conflict between “Us and Them”, as well as conflict among “Us”…it seemed like every group was suffering from and often fracturing because of internal fighting.
I read a book called “Creating A Life Together” which extensively studied intentional communities in the U.S. and Canada. It concluded that 90% of the intentional communities that had formed since the 1970s had failed mostly because of internal conflicts.
There came a point when I realised that if even the people most involved in trying to create a better world together can’t live or work together very well, then there isn’t much hope for creating the necessary changes in society to deal with the worsening ecological and social crises.
At another point, I was sitting on a platform high up in a massive old-growth western red cedar tree on the West Coast of Canada. The action was to stop the logging of these lush temperate rainforests that were being clearcut in order to produce pulp and paper products such as toilet paper. I had hours to sit and think and observe the primordial forest – at least, on the side that had not yet been clearcut – while down below a crowd of tree-defenders, loggers, and police were all yelling at each other. I had an epiphanal moment: even though I was defending wild nature and felt totally righteous in doing so, because I didn’t know really anything about the functions and ecology of that forest, I was still a human apart from nature instead of part of it. I had learned the Deep Ecology concept of “I am nature, defending myself,” but in that moment I really didn’t feel like that.
Fortunately, after that epiphanal moment, I discovered permaculture. A poster on the wall of a café announced an upcoming Permaculture Design Course which would train people in how to observe and interact with nature, and there was a contact phone number and mailing address (yes, life really did exist before the internet, as hard to believe as it may be). I had the sense that permaculture was the piece of the puzzle that was missing, and it was.
Permaculture is a holistic design system for creating sustainable and resilient communities and environments. It offers practical tools for creating productive and efficient landscapes as well as organisations and social structures. Permaculturalists place a high priority on developing resilience – the capacity to withstand shocks and disruptions – on ecosystemic, community and personal levels.
Permaculture has three ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share (of the planet’s resources; and not just between people, but between all life). Social permaculture is the People Care aspect of permaculture that all too often gets overlooked and neglected. It asks how can we apply the permaculture principles to groups and social relationships? Are their other principles specific to human relations that we can discover and apply to make our groups nurturing and flourishing places to be?
In December we will organise a second Social Permaculture course at Ulex, the sister centre of Ecodharma, that will explore permaculture as a tool for designing communities and organisations. We will strive to understand things in terms of connection – between people, economies, and governing structures – and how to create the conditions for humans to flourish on a societal level, as well as how to develop beneficial relationships with the ecosystems which sustain us.
One of the elements that inspires me so much about permaculture is the ability to start to live the way we want, in the here and now, without waiting for the glorious revolution that may or may not ever arrive. We can build social organisations that are efficient, based on cooperation instead of competition, and reflect the values of empowerment and solidarity. We can rework the economy so that it serves people and planet. And by working with nature instead of against it, we are creating a new world within the shell of the old one which is collapsing around us. This gives me hope.
Last summer, we supported 16 participants from a wide pool of socially engaged backgrounds to explore what it means to be more effective practitioners, able to turn towards some difficult issues within their working environments and in the world at large. Below we hear from ‘AJ’, who has been working in humanitarian settings on themes such as protection and inclusion for six years. She shares how personal reflection and lucidity can help bring out the best in us for social engagement and how the experience fed back into her work.
“Don’t give up your power” a participant of the ecodharma’s Engaged Buddhist Training told me last August, whilst we were chopping vegetables for lunch. Of course, it made sense to hear this on a training for social change; don’t give up your power to the powerful, fight for your rights and for social justice. But at that moment, it meant something different. It meant don’t give up your power to your fears, your thoughts and your environment. It was an invitation not to self-deceive. That’s why I was there, to discover how I could best contribute to social change while staying true to myself. This sentence struck me and I have since repeated it to myself on different occasions.
I heard about the Engaged Buddhist Training at a time when I was questioning my engagement with humanitarian aid. I was tired and a bit hopeless, unable to imagine a brighter future for the world. I was questioning whether humans can really find a way out of violence, fear, animosity and greed as, even in the aid and social change sectors, I was witnessing such behavior. I felt disillusioned with the sector’s shortcomings – its inability to embrace diversity, and its counter-productive competitiveness between actors; its violence also, often in human relationships relating to power dynamics, privilege, ego trips, cynicism etc. I had seen many committed, engaged people becoming exhausted and bitter and reproducing forms of violence – and I saw myself acting at times in ways I wasn’t proud of.
I am among the privileged few who have been able to choose their line of work. I want it to contribute to my flourishing as a person and not to be shaped, perhaps negatively, by it. I asked myself Can I change for the better or is it too late? Is the kind of change I aspire to even possible for me? My fear was to wake up one day not recognising myself, wondering how I had gotten so far from my aspirations. I knew I needed to take better care of myself but was struggling with the ‘mantra’, the social obligation almost, in the humanitarian world to think of others first and sacrifice oneself for the work as a proof of engagement for the cause. This dichotomy left me feeling guilty – whether to let myself down or to let others down.
Seeing the title of the training, I hesitated at the ‘Buddhist’ part. My knowledge of Buddhism was basically non-existent and the phrases it brought to mind were “think positive” and “accept whatever is”, which I related to a certain kind of naivety and passivity. Then, I read this quote in the training description, from Donald Rothberg:
“Our times desperately call for both spiritual and social commitments. Without spiritual development, well-meaning attempts to change the world will probably unconsciously replicate the very problems that we believe we are solving. … But if the path of spiritual transformation is not socially informed, it too is at risk. There is the irony of attempting to overcome self-centeredness through spiritual practice while ignoring the cries of the world”.
This was my first “aha!” moment, abandoning a long-held belief that I had to choose between taking care of myself and caring for others. Discovering that considering my needs and personal growth can contribute and is even to the wider change, and how transforming the world around us invites us to be personally transformed was liberating.
At ecodharma I was given the opportunity to reflect on why I even wanted social change, to reconsider my beliefs about others, the world, and myself, and to deconstruct beliefs and reconstruct them in a fresh way. For this to be possible I needed to feel safe and equipped to fully embrace the challenge. I felt that together we created a space where I could let my mask drop and be seen and see myself more honestly. I could feel three concentric spaces, each one helping me to deepen and connect to my aspirations:
Firstly, thanks to the beautiful setting and its isolation, I was able to create distance from some of my habitual tendencies, my repetitive thought patterns, and also my responsibilities with which I tend to identify. In this temporary community, I felt freed of the responsibility of being my “outside” self. Secondly, with my small base group, I found a place of support and care when I was vulnerable but also a place to be challenged on the way I envisioned social change or myself. It highlighted my need for community or sangha to feel less isolated, but also it offered a fair but loving mirror with which to have myself reflected back to me. And finally, at the center of the concentric spaces was the space within myself, or rather, the space that “I” am – a space that contains thoughts and sensations but is not them. With the meditation guidance, I discovered and sometimes experienced the huge power we have to welcome whatever is present without judgement, but with lucidity and loving kindness. To identify my habitual ways of thinking and doing, and then dis-identify by realising that they are not ‘me’. I therefore discovered another dimension of “don’t give up your power” – giving it up to the mind, because I saw that ‘I’ was more than my thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
This opened up transformative perspectives, particularly around the theme of identity. I saw that the more I cling to certain identities to build a solid sense of self, the more I tend to push away those with different identities, creating an “us versus them” dynamic. The more I identify, the stronger the emotional attachment, and the rejection of anything that seems to threaten it. Identifying these ‘clingings’ helped me understand why sometimes communication was impossible, why I was reacting so strongly to certain people and situations, and helped me to recognise some of my typical reactions when I felt this identity was in danger or being brought into question. Imagine how different our organisations would be if each of us was able to look at our behaviors with compassion, even when acting out of bad faith (not recognising our mistakes or having prejudices), or fear (of rejection or of what others may think) rather than promoting good relationships or finding the most efficient solution.
I took this internal compassionate space with me when I left ecodharma. To this space, and not self-pity, is where I now go when I look at and speak to myself honestly about my shortcomings, without beating myself up for not being perfect and congruent all the time. I’ve also realised that this caring space can extend to others, who may not yet know how to create their own. And perhaps this, in turn, may help them to get in touch with themselves, without judgement.
As a newbie, I got a lot from the teachings on Buddhist principles. It offered new frameworks on themes around suffering, the self, and of time. The work around compassionate action also highlighted the relevance of Buddhist principles to social change and especially how I could sustain involvement without depleting my energy and losing hope. I had previously been quite skeptical about the term ‘compassion’ until I started to understand what it was pointing to – The ability to come close to life, to stay with one’s experience, even though it might contain suffering. I can relate this so clearly to the rage and profound sadness I have experienced sometimes; returning to Europe from a long work period abroad, and witnessing people and families living in the streets of wealthy cities. And the shame of not being able to sustain eye contact, whether I was giving or not, because the suffering was overwhelming me. Being unable to be with that suffering was making me a passive onlooker reacting with guilt rather than a meaningful actor able to more wholeheartedly respond. I’m far from being compassionate all of the time of course, but I feel more hopeful and committed now, knowing what to strive for.
Overall it may be the training methodology that most impacted me. Witnessing the team sincerely enjoying what they were doing was a good reminder that work doesn’t have to be a drag! I also discovered that each one of us took from the experience what we each needed to learn. Most often, after an exercise, we would break into small groups to share our experience. I had so many “aha!” moments just by listening to others sharing their experience, realising how I tend to think and operate in groups, under stress or competition. The fact that there was no need in this setting for a formal ‘teacher’ catalysed a shift and gave me confidence that when good conditions are in place, we can see ourselves with lucidity and are more able to manifest the changes we seek for ourselves and others.
The training also triggered a shift from seeing my engagement from a position of ‘the saviour’, based on a fear of not making a difference in the world, to a more humble position of ‘contributor’ grounded in the joy of contributing to the wellbeing of others and to something larger. This alleviated the guilt that came with thinking “I’m not doing enough to change the world”. This shift in view came from a place of abundance, not scarcity – seeing oneself as a contributor also allows me to see others as such and to trust in our collective capacity to bring about change.
Realising how clinging to my sense of self, although often necessary, sometimes gets in the way, I have started giving more attention to clarify my intentions when acting and to celebrate when I succeed. I aim to hold my sense of self more lightly, accepting that I change and that behaviors, beliefs or values that I may consider as being a part of me, can change too. Social change is an iterative process that brings both social and personal transformation. For me, this is especially important in fields like humanitarian work where we may not always be open to questioning ourselves because we are “good people”, who want to help others. There are much-needed discussions around power, rank, and privilege that would benefit from this non-judgmental approach.
With the different tools, exercises and dynamics I’ve discovered that I feel more confident to take part in a transformative group. I have integrated some elements into my current work, being aware and attentive that it may increase people’s uncertainties and feelings of vulnerability. My main challenge so far has been to discern how to come forward with these learnings. My field of work is based on value-for-money, is result-oriented and perceives itself as ‘realistic’. Speaking about personal development or anything that might be perceived as ‘spiritual’ is not easy. I’m navigating this carefully to find supporters and entry points, such as improving collaborative efforts, communication and conflict management.
The journey isn’t finished but the Buddhist Engaged training did kick off something important. There is no easy path, no magic solution. But for those like me, who see no other choice than seeking meaningful ways to contribute, who cannot give up and look the other way, this may be a valuable step in sustaining or regaining our power.
As our experience with the nature-based strand of our work deepens, we’re keen to emphasise how this kind of engagement with the natural world, coupled with communities of inquiry can nourish a sense of interconnectedness that has the potential to galvanise and sustain ongoing, active participation in change making within our social spheres. Kara Moses, an experienced nature connection facilitator and team member on our Roots of Resilience training talks about the importance of this work and how our reconnection to nature can be, in itself, a political act.
I’ll never forget the sight of that bird struggling against the wind
that dark Winter evening. The Canada goose, small eyes squinting and long neck
strained forwards, was trying for all its might to move along the water against
the wind and driving rain. I could almost see its feet pedalling furiously
under the filthy water of the canal. But it was going nowhere. I’ve never felt
so much empathy and solidarity with a creature.
It embodied exactly how I was feeling at that time: it was taking all of my efforts just to keep afloat. No matter how hard I tried, the wind was against me, forever driving me back. The work needing to be done felt endless, the enormity of the problems overwhelming, and activism a thankless task in a world that had decided not to care.
When I got home that night, I crashed big time. I lay in bed for a
week, curtains closed, unable to face the world. I fell into a hole so dark I
couldn’t remember what light was. After a few weeks of recovery in the
countryside, I gained enough clarity to see what I had to do. I overhauled my
life to live more closely to nature, quitting my desk-bound city life and
moving to rural Wales. I retrained in outdoor education, field ecology and woodland
The rugged Welsh landscape held me as I continued to recover. My new
home was embraced by hills on all sides, giving a sense of security and safety.
Whenever I felt like my emotions were too big for me to hold, I could just walk
outside and the landscape held them for me. It became less clear where I ended
and the land began.
This process of regeneration through connecting with nature has
brought me back to life numerous times. Now it is my main source of sustenance,
energy and inspiration to continue engaging with the world – and I haven’t
crashed in a long time.
I see it working for others too. In the nature connection courses I
run, I see time and time again how connecting deeply with the natural world
lights people up – it’s like watching them come alive. Witnessing the process
of transformation from the people I meet at the beginning of a course – tense,
guarded, hard, perhaps a little sceptical – and those that head off at the end
– open, playful, expressive, energetic and tuned in to the magic of the
natural world around them – is quite
remarkable. Having had many of these transformative experiences myself – many
at Ecodharma – I have become convinced of the power of this work.
What excites me most about it though, is the harnessing of this power
to bring about social change.
Post-modern Western society has become deeply disconnected from the natural world. Most people live highly alienated lifestyles. Our whole socio-economic system is designed from a worldview of ecological disconnection, affecting all areas of our lives – our lifestyles, resource use, buildings and urban design, transport, economic, education and health systems. Research shows that disconnection from nature is linked to mental and physical problems in individuals, and increased conflict, violence and crime in communities. On a societal level, an alienated, exploitative relationship with nature fuels the ongoing destruction of the ecosystems upon which we depend for life. And, research shows, it is a major barrier to social change towards a more sustainable and just society.
like the foundations of Western society, our separation from nature is closely
tied to colonialism, built on foundations of violence and slavery. As lands
were invaded and colonised, indigenous land-based cultures were forcibly taken
away – making people more easily exploited as a workforce.
Our disconnection from nature is
relationships with nature, ourselves and each other all inescapably influence
each other. As long as white people oppress people of colour, men oppress
women, the heteronormative oppress the queer and humans oppress nature,
oppression will poison all of our relationships. Liberation can only take place
if it takes place on all levels.
Equally, our reconnection with nature is
political. It is part of the essential decolonisation process.
Ultimately non-productive, time spent
simply connecting with nature is a subversion of post-modern productivist
culture; an inherently rebellious act. And as a powerful way to sustain and
resource social action – to take a twist on Audrey Lorde’s famous quote – it
can even be seen as an act of political warfare.
However, on its own it is not enough. Connection that does not result in meaningful acts of solidarity remains in the realms of alienation, and therefore cannot be true connection. When we really connect, we see through the false construct of the self, to our true identity as a part of nature defending itself. Within this expanded sense of self lies an abundance of energy, strength and resilience. Action that comes from this place of connection can be sustained, can be regenerative – it loops back into the cycle of things.
The more connected we are, the more resilient we are. The more resilient we are, the more powerful we become. When directed towards the collective good, this power can be a truly liberating force.
This is at the heart of the ‘Roots of Resilience’ – an exploration that uniquely brings nature connection and resilience into an explicitly socio-political context: to sustain and galvanise resistance to oppressive and destructive structures and forces; to inspire regenerative action that creates conditions for the flourishing of human society and the ecosystems within which we are embedded; that recognises that the social and ecological are not – and can never be – separate.
As Edward Abbey reminds us: “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. And I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies… You will outlive the bastards.”
An important strand to our Engaged Buddhist work is the Deeper Resources for Action training, which offers systematic in-depth meditation training to social change makers looking to harness meditative practices to empower their action. Annabel Pinker, a Social Anthropologist whose research interests include grassroots social and political movements, reflects on her experience during last years training.
At the end of October last year, a small group of us brought our restlessness and dilemmas to the wintry Pyrenean valley of Abella de Conca. For two weeks, we slipped into a daily rhythm of sitting meditation, yoga and teachings, accompanied by the spit and crackle of the wood-burner, the sweep of wind and vultures’ wings above the canvas of the meditation space. Already less familiar to myself, I gradually submitted to the deepening quiet, nourished by good food, sleep, companionship, and the awkwardly intimate encounter with this ‘me’ that gradually seemed to lose its singularity, fracturing into uneven layers of tensions, surges of energy and emotion, images, achingly repetitive storylines. Such movements gave way at times, so unexpectedly, into far less familiar terrain – as if crashing all of a sudden out of tangled thickets of impenetrable jungle into a spacious moonscape, stretching way beyond the limits of sight, dissolving the jagged rushes of feeling, my tight witnessing gaze, my burning questions, my drive to get through to the next thing, whatever that was, into – something vast, benign and profoundly mysterious. Sometimes it was possible to dwell there for a while, even explore unknown strata; then all of a sudden, I would be popped out, as magically as I had found myself there, back into something like ordinary, familiar experience.
What do such minute encounters with the visceral, often boring and painful, occasionally delightful stuff of being a being have to do with activism? The collective experience of our group – a bunch of 20, 30 and 40-somethings from the UK, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, and Hungary – included training activists and humanitarian workers; providing policy, legal, and research-based support for non-profit organisations; organising protests and campaigns on climate, environmental, and socio-political issues; facilitating engagement with and between young people through music; working to establish an action-research cooperative for the promotion of socially just housing; and developing research and spaces of public engagement concerning energy transition. The versions of activism at stake were as numerous as the people on the training.
But beyond these roles, many of us were variously exploring the boundaries of more established understandings of activism. In one way or another, most of us had been drawn to Ecodharma because fighting the good fight in the old ways didn’t seem to cut it anymore. Some had experienced burn-out after particularly intense periods of engagement. What sort of transformation was being modelled if activists brought to their work the same kind of driven, productivist, disembodied or hyper-rational ethic that generally predominates in the West? Wasn’t that orientation just another instantiation of the world we wanted to change? Others questioned what activism really means at a time when the old dualisms – humans and nature; mind and body; individual and collective – no longer serve as descriptions of reality at a time when new ‘hyper-objects’, like climate change, have exposed how radically plural and entangled things are. It’s easier to act on phenomena when filed neatly away in compartments labelled, ‘politics’, ‘environment’, ‘social’, and ‘economy’. Less so when seen as interconnected parts of complex, overlapping, ultra-globalised systems in which we (as individuals, collectives and institutions) are profoundly implicated. Less so too when personal and corporate responsibility is routinely overridden by the right to consume conferred by the dominance of free market liberalism.
In short, all of us, in different ways, had discerned that scant transformation was available without turning our gaze back on ourselves. We had recognised that we were minute parts of these larger wholes, conditioned and shaped by them even as we railed against their injustices. In my case, my usual strategies for making things happen didn’t seem to work very well anymore, and – partly through my early experiments with meditation – I had begun to wake up to the frankly terrifying possibility that the political and social worlds that appeared to be outside of me mirrored to a large degree my patterns of seeing, thinking and feeling. The reassuring schism between my ‘inner’ life and a stable, objective ‘outer’ landscape that I could act on became more fragile. How far was I co-creating this outside that I had taken to be separate from myself? Patriarchy, black-and-white thinking, and bigotry – I began to experience as well as cognitively understand – had their ground in the rigidities, aggressions and fears that often registered in my body as critical thoughts, dark images and contractions in musculature. I uncovered a strong strain of puritanism in my critiques of the power structures we inhabit – a whiff of ‘I am on the side of the good’. The labour of sitting with my internal movements, the continuous work of gently pulling myself back from my tedious storylines, was humbling. Staying with anger long enough to experience the grief, vulnerability, or potent lifeforce that so often quivered behind it has begun, over the past few years, to demystify the righteous rage I had taken to be all about what was going on ‘out there’. What has come in its stead is something sadder, more ambivalent and – I think – softer and more humane. This is not the kind of change I have expected or wanted; when I set out on this path – which has taken me down the avenues of herbalism, body and energy work, though always with a meditation practice at the core – I envisaged some more transcendent, complete and victorious outcome probably, in keeping with the mind that started out on the journey. So far, I see no end in sight – just a constantly unfolding horizon of new terrain, whilst the old patterns are always ready to reassert themselves.
Of course, the inevitable – and legitimate – next question in the face of all of this is, that’s all well and good, but what about action? Injustice may be more complex and ambivalent than meets the eye, but surely retreat is not an adequate response. We are all familiar with recent wellness trends – which so often seem to prescribe yet another kind of commoditised hyper-individualism – one crafted around the desirability of a muscular body, zen-like mind, and kale-rich eating regime. Meditation has all too often been hauled onto the same ground. It is here that Ecodharma’s work has most deeply influenced me. I’ve heard no assertions from Ecodharma folk that meditation is the great panacea for social change, or that we just need to ‘do our internal work’ and then we can act. Instead, there’s an emphasis on a life of activism, collective living, and meditative practice all at once; it’s possible to live actively, contemplatively and communally, even if the nature of things is that one of these may dominate more at any one time. Whilst a high value is placed on best practice – and no doubt there’s some perfectionism in that – that this labour of living is necessarily imperfect, ambivalent, processual, and never complete is readily acknowledged. We’re not gods-in-the-making on a journey towards paradise; instead we act in the world and co-create with others to the best of our ability even as we courageously, haltingly explore our internal lineaments.
I had brought a question with me to Ecodharma: how to bring my work as an anthropologist into more active engagement with the closely imbricated spiritual, political, and ecological concerns that have come to play an ever more central role in my life? How to deploy anthropology for more generative purposes, for contributing to change, rather than simply as an extractive mode of knowledge production for academic audiences? Since first bringing this question to Ecodharma in 2016, allies have serendipitously appeared, and – after a colleague and I co-hosted a public conversation on post-oil futures in Aberdeen with a local arts organisation earlier this year – a small, but growing, local network of arts organisations and social scientists has formed with an interest in curating public dialogues, activities and events on energy transition in Scotland. The work is slow. I have no idea where it will lead. But it is an evolving process that is, for me at least, supported by a view that I began exploring more fully through my encounter with others at Ecodharma: that meditative and spiritual practices support the development of an activism that arises from deeper, more intuitive places in ourselves, that is willing to embrace mystery, rework old dogmas around what should constitute social and political action, and remake itself in tune with our times.
The development of social change practice underpinned by the dharma is at the heart of ecodharma’s vision. We have been running our Engaged Buddhist Training course for almost eight years now, developing the theory and curriculum and widening the pool of trainers and groups we work with. This year’s team will bring two facilitators into the Engaged Buddhist work for the first time, and we are very excited about it!
Joining Alex Swain, who has been living at ecodharma for almost 10 years and is a key voice in the development of ecodharma’s engaged buddhist work, will be Kathryn Tulip. Kathryn is a long standing social justice campaigner, and has been training and facilitating in grassroots movements for over a decade. Much of this work has been achieved as part of the Seeds for Change/Navigate collective, of which she is a co-founder. With them will be Eweryst Zaremba, social activist, trainer and member of SPINA and EYFA. Eweryst has been involved in a whole range of social and environmental struggles, and is currently focusing most of his energy on feminist, trans* and queer issues – writing, performing and training.
This has freed up Guhyapati to do more work with the ulex project, which is about to complete its first full year of programming, having worked with over 200 activists from over 20 countries. The project has run courses in a wide range of skills from activist resiience to movement level strategy. If you’re interested in following the progress of the ulex project you can sign up for our newsletter.
We can’t wait to dive into what promises to be a fruitful and inspiring collaboration, gathering the wealth of experience and wisdom within this team and creating something fresh and current. Come join us for two weeks of stimulating learning and exploration, as we collectively investigate: What does Action from Depth feel, sound and look like? And how do we get there together?