Simien Highlands, Ethiopia – the roof of Africa
I must admit that I didn’t greet the new decade with my usual enthusiasm. I’m normally excited to set intentions, and support others in doing the same on the NY Intentions retreat. But something felt different – a sense of downheartedness as I looked around at what Joanna Macy calls ‘Business as Usual’. I have been reading extensively on climate justice, and losing my foundation of trust in the willpower of humanity to act with the conviction needed. Donal Creedon, my meditation teacher, speaks of humanity’s Crisis of Consciousness that is perhaps more worrying than the Climate Crisis… and I agree. Without raising consciousness, how can we act in less self-centred ways?
Predictions point to us having 8 years for huge carbon divestment, yet there doesn’t feel like enough committed and courageous leadership to take us there in time. We need to act at grassroots level, but how? Our brains are still almost entirely programmed for self-interest and to care for our in-group; we find it so hard to expand our circle of care, to out-groups and to the planet. We need to train our minds to encompass all living beings, and be prepared to adapt our current lives as necessary.
The bearded trees – sign of a healthy environment
Mike and I keep heading off on hikes – the Whale Trail, the Inka Trail, and most recently, the Simien Highlands hike in Ethiopia. Half way through, I ask myself ‘why?’ The pain seems to outweigh the joy! I descend into the self pity of being too old, having a wonky leg, and not being fit enough. A Buddhist friend, who leads hiking adventures, reassured me that the mind is more important for hiking than the body… so what do I do when my mind lets me down?
I had delayed for months before buying the air tickets to Addis Ababa, as I felt bad about flying more than necessary. However, if we want to protect our natural environment, I sense that we need to connect with it personally. And in order for countries to preserve their unspoilt spaces, they need tourists to visit. Sometimes, a deep immersion in what we want to protect is the fuel we need to keep the climate justice fires burning.
As with any birth, pain is inevitable, and I always find that new ideas emerge as I place one aching leg in front of the other. Last year, I explored my discoveries in a blog post ‘Beyond Sustainable‘. This year, I am noticing how the different stages of a hiking trail provide a metaphor for Social and Climate Justice Movements. It is tough to keep going when everything seems stacked against us, and the end point seems out of reach.
The challenges of the hike were matched by the joys. The oxygen was in short supply, and the days were long. Each time I was faced with another uphill, all the previous times I have struggled came flooding back. However, I had promised myself not to complain, and to use the focus of my mind to counteract the complaints of my body. For the most part it worked, but when it didn’t, I contemplated how my own pain could connect me with the struggles of others. I started to list the ways in which hiking reflected the work of social and climate justice activists:
There is a destination and a chosen direction, yet focus is required for every step, particularly over dangerous terrain.
Sometimes the terrain opens out and we flow, becoming aware of this marvellous body and heart that are designed to walk, to pump, to swing, to move and be moved.
There are times, just before the peak when, if we look up, we want to give up, collapse and turn back. Yet, when we take the next step, and the next, we navigate forwards, even if it feels too slow.
When we think we’ve reached the summit, a new peak appears.
At that point, it is vital to stop and gaze around, seeing where we have come from, without obsessing about what lies ahead.
There is also the irony that the way down is often the most challenging. How do we descend from a peak experience, back to the banality of daily life?
I remember how, after working in tsunami relief, nothing else felt as if it had meaning. I think it’s possible to get addicted to the adrenaline of crisis, even though it is a simple, sustaining human life that I claim to be aiming for.
The focus on gazing back, in appreciation, seems a contrast to my annual process of setting intentions. The aim of the annual NY Intentions retreat is all about imagining the way forward. Yet, it reflects how my facilitation has changed over the years. I’m no longer so concerned with individual goals and material achievements, but rather how we can use our gifts and roles to support the collective.
What is our purpose, our raison d’etre?
Can we have fun with, and while serving, others?
Can we find joy in the shared purpose of community, even in the face of conflict?
On our hike, it was the whole team that got us up and over 4000m, both human and animal helpers. We had a guide who broke the journey into manageable sections. We had a guard with a WWII gun as our protector, from what, I am not sure! Mules, supported by mule men, carried our tents, food and bedding. We had a cook and assistant who conjured up huge sustaining meals on a single gas hob and a selection of aluminium pots. Most of all, though, we were replenished by beauty; the vast escarpment, awe-inspiring views, ancient bearded trees and forthright lobelia. There were Gelada baboons with manes of a lion, an Ethiopian wolf and the shy Walia Ibex.
On our final morning, Mike went in search of the male Walia Ibex, with his huge horns. We had seen him on top of a hill. I was exhausted and decided to sit amidst the valley view, listening to nature’s chorus and witnessing the beauty. A Lammergeier (bearded vulture) flew over, but I wasn’t what he was looking for, just yet. All of a sudden, a clan of Gelada baboons came bounding down the hill, jumping on the giant lobelia, and play fighting, with hoots and cackles. As I turned to gaze at them, I saw a female Walia Ibex, walking along the crest and then springing down a sheer cliff, reminding me of her goat cousins.
Sometimes we must go out in search of answers, sometimes we need to sit and let ideas come to us. My life seems to be about finding this balance; when to act and when to contemplate.
Wishing you all a balanced and joyful 2020, connecting with the work that replenishes you, while caring for others.