The response by some spiritual leaders is to encourage us to take a moment to breathe, to meditate, to focus on the air entering and exiting our lungs, to live in the present moment. Presumably they hope this meditation will give us the courage to do something to solve the problem. But what exactly does it mean to do breathing meditation in an era of global warming?
I just started reading Longing for Running Water, by Ivone Gebara, a feminist theologian from Brazil. She mentions an ecofeminist group in Chile called the Con-spirando Collective. In the first issue of their journal they write:
"we invite you to participate in convoking a network of Latin American women who seek to develop their own spirituality and theology in order to better reflect our experiences of the sacred. The very name of this journal - Con-spirando - is an attempt to picture some of these experiences: the image of 'breathing together', which in itself evokes images of the planet as the great lung of life" (cited in Gebara, Location 280, Kindle Edition)
This is strikingly similar to how I've been imagining non-escapist spirituality: "We are the dispossessed who meditate with our eyes open, especially when we take to the streets in protest. Our mindful breathing is a small part of the planet's climate, overheated by capital's reckless death drives. "
That image of breathing climate change was inspired by practicing Zen breathing meditation and reading Timothy Morton's book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.
Morton argues that we are already living after the end of the world. The planet and biological life still exist, but our ability to conceptualize these as a "world" or "nature" has collapsed. These concepts imply they are the backdrop to our life stories, the atmosphere that decorates our lives as we go about our business. When we do think of these things, we assess them the way we might assess the atmosphere of a restaurant by writing a review on Yelp. The concepts of world and nature imply that non-human beings are neutral, objectified, and separate from us, to the point where we can take them for granted most of the time.
Morton says this concept of nature and world has collapsed because the atmosphere itself is changing perilously, and the air we breathe in and out of our faces is part of that change. We can no longer objectify it or take it for granted.
He describes leaving the grocery store and having a casual conversation with a stranger about the unusually hot weather. The weather is no longer a comforting, familiar presence you can invoke to find common ground with that stranger. You either end up mentioning global warming or you consciously avoid talking about. In either case, the situation starts to feel more like conspiring than talking about the weather.
Morton argues we are realizing something that was true all along: we are stuck to the mesh of objects that we used to call world. What happens to air, water, and forests affects us. As the Con-spirando collective puts it, "we need to re-situate ourselves, and from there to re-weave our daily lives, the web or relationships that gives form to our societies". (cited in Gebara, Location 283, Kindle Edition).
Some may read this as a call to acknowledge the inherent oneness, holism, or interconnectedness that constitutes our bodies and the planet. That sounds nice, but it's too romanticized of an image. It still implies a tidy, whole world that we can "get in touch with". It implies a Mother Earth that will take care of us and make it all better.
In fact, our task is much more nauseating - we need to figure out how to relate to a multitude of beings we are already stuck to: the trees, snakes, cows, and cockroaches whose leaves, lungs, and faces also con-spire the same air we breathe. This is a process of weaving where we are not the only weavers; other beings, including the climate itself, can weave us.
For this reason, our meditations need to begin from a position of dynamic vulnerability, not confident detachment or romantic wholeness. As Morton puts it, we need to attune to other beings. This is more complex than simply being present in the moment, because it means attuning to beings like climate that are simultaneously present and withdrawn, visible and invisible, local and global, inside us and outside us. These beings have a certain tricksterish, uncanny character. They are real, but we can never tell for sure if they are present or not.
Visual metaphors begin to break down here, which is why I like the metaphor "aroma of the world" so much. Metaphors based on smell help us imagine our relationship with these kinds of ecological realities since smell is so spectral; it sticks to your nose yet it can't be pinned down or located precisely. The aroma of the world is actually billions of aromas coming from billions of conspiring beings all over the planet.
Those are the aromas we sense when we focus on our breath during meditation. Breathing mindfully does not allow us to evade our responsibility to deal with global political problems or to show compassion for the sentient beings affected by these problems.
In our era of anxiety, it may be helpful to relax and stop thinking about global warming for a moment. But we can never stop breathing it. Maybe breathing it mindfully with no preconceived thoughts might help us come up with more creative things we can do about it, instead of fumbling back and forth between apathy, cynicism, despair, denial, and apocalyptic fantasies. But if meditation is about mindfulness, breathing mindfully means con-spiring, breathing with the climate and with all the other beings who circulate the climate in and out of their bodies.
Morton argues that the idea of world is also reproduced by the metaphysics of the toilet. We flush our shit out of our lives and it goes to that magic place called "away". With the ecological crisis we are becoming more and more aware that it actually goes into the ocean, the same ocean we swim in, the same ocean that evaporates into the air we breathe. Feminism also reminds us of all the reproductive labor that people put in, to clean up our shit. Feminists insist that we no longer take this for granted.
So here's a Zen-like statement that can help us keep it real: when we breathe in the aroma of the world, we remember the world is full of shit.
Let's conspire to deal with our shit, and let's conspire to clean it up.