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This Is Happening, but It Can't Be Happening: Interview With Susan Murphy Roshi

05/01/2013 12:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013
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John Stanley: What moved you, as a Zen teacher, to address the global ecological crisis in your new book, "Minding the Earth, Mending the World"?

Susan Murphy Roshi: I've been feeling, for at least a couple of decades, that there's a kind of low-grade haunting going on -- inside of me and other people as well. A sense of something that was almost impossible to turn to and address, yet we all knew what it was. It was so big it made you shrink away or feel numb. Your heart sinks as you think "What can I do?" What is the something that no one has thought of yet? I've always been in love with the Earth, but I don't see that in everybody around me. I don't see it being cultivated in children, and that does worry me.

So this book is like standing up on the deck of the Titanic and saying, "Sorry to interrupt your good time, but there is an iceberg right ahead and we are sailing right towards it." Coming as I do from a Zen and Buddhist position, I felt it is imperative for Dharma to rise to meet this amazing occasion we are in. I count myself lucky to be here at this time. Frightening as it is, it is also the first time when everybody on Earth is utterly in this together, and also able to be aware of what we know led up to this moment -- the story of the Earth and of the Universe. There is a strong sense in me that if I'm a teacher of Dharma, I need to let this wake up in my own heart, and bring it forth.

Letting it wake up in one's own heart is by no means easy for a lot of people.

It's damned hard to turn to something that is so difficult to bring into words or imagine with coherence. Global warming is a symptom of a deeper and wider planetary crisis. Our stressed relationship with the Earth is so counter to the terms of life here that it cannot continue. We are approaching something extraordinarily painful -- a major correction in the imbalance of that relationship. The Earth is posing us a singular and extraordinary koan.

It feels to me that we are suffering inter-generational trauma. We are leaving our descendants with such a horrific prospect. We can't claim to be handing on the Earth in a condition that is easy to love, or even endure. Our shame is a large part of what keeps our tongues locked away. Inter-generational trauma is an untellable story. So we have to find some mythic structure to hold the facts -- so we can talk about them, instead of living inside a parallel thought-world and ignoring what is real.

Yes, the appalling betrayal of it all. That kind of inter-generational trauma is beyond even the horrific sexual abuse of children that keeps emerging nowadays. Nobody could talk for generations about an abomination in plain view.

Parents would say "No that can't be happening." Isn't that what people have been saying? "This climate collapse can't be happening. It's better that it isn't happening, so it just isn't."

One is continually shocked by what a "strong force" psychological denial is, on the scale going on now. Of course there's a complementary reason nobody can talk about it: what Chomsky called "the triumph of propaganda".

That makes it easier to retreat from your own shame, doubt and fear. Yet I don't think there is anyone on the planet that isn't hearing that siren going on somewhere in their soul. In the film "Downfall" (about the last days of Hitler) Eva Braun throws a party in the bunker as the mortars are landing. When somebody says, "Soviet mortars landing overhead," she replies "Oh well, let's party on." Someone else says, "This can't be happening. I know everything's OK, but I'm really afraid." Now we are all at that stage of this-is-happening-but-it-can't-be-happening.

Neuroscientists have discovered the human brain is something of a "believing organ." It typically commits a lot of neurological networks to one workable story, which then becomes "reality." So to overcome a collective story is also to overcome one's own neurology. And we are embedded in a social world, built environment and virtual electronic world that has nothing much to do with the rest of nature.

It's hard not to be inside the prevailing mono-culture. Yet you know from your own experience as a meditator that the neurological pattern can be profoundly changed.

On an individual level, certainly -- what about the collective level?

Well I have a sense that you cannot step outside the whole of what you are -- even if you dream your whole life away in confinement. We are actually inside the whole of what this is, and nowhere else from beginning to end. We are all moving together. Even the egregious things that are happening are a kind of testing of what is viable, that will produce its own dire feedback: "This is not the way, go back. It won't work. It's impossible and absurd." To many of us, of course, this is already all too obviously so.

We have to assume it's not the whole story. If human beings were not more than their worst moments, you and I wouldn't be here. We are the outcome of 10 trillion trillion acts of altruism, of some form of recognition that your life is also my life. If that were not so, nothing would survive the kind of ruthlessness going on. Acts of kindness and care, the large but distributed network of activism and projects -- and there are millions of - them -- passes unknown and does not even surface in the public discourse. What is reported in the news could kill all your hopes and dreams. It could kill your heart if you took it to be the entire story ... but it isn't. Ecology is the voice, the sentience, the clear teaching of the Earth. Everything moves together, and we have to trust this. We can't dualistically insist, "I am going to survive against the whole." And neither can we crush ourselves with "What can I possibly do that can change anything?"

I hope there is a collective awakening before we find we have committed to our own elimination, because among many well-qualified scientists there is a tacit understanding that it could soon be too late for humanity. That does lead me to question simplistic insistence on "optimism."

I'm not proposing a collective awakening that is going to inject grace in time. No one can know that. Even hope is meritricious unless it is connected to some kind of action you are taking. It becomes a free-floating thing like a kind of aerosol.

The first part of my book acknowledges how desperate and difficult it is to turn toward this great matter. It is not easy and I want to admit that, to let people know. I almost feel as if it's an "interruption of ordinary transmission" to even mention it. People don't want to go there. It's hard not to feel a little shrill just mentioning it. That's how far the repression of this matter has gone in our culture. Furthermore, I look into the possibility that so much is so desperately wrong ... and yet all is well. I can't possibly analyse that in a logical way. So what comes to mind is a Zen koan, The whole world is medicine. It begins by saying that medicine and sickness exactly correspond.

When I was 12 years old, my siblings and I got into a harrowing rendition around our kitchen table, of all that was so desperately wrong in the world, and would be wrong in our lifetimes and get worse. I took that on as a 12-year-old, and then suddenly I was also swept into complete joyful trust in everything, just as it was. The whole world was medicine. It's not just consoling, it can be relied on. This is a difficult thing to convey. It allows people to just try out the possibility of directly facing what is happening, and respond very profoundly and deeply from there. To trust what is happening is very different from hating it. It means dealing with whatever you can, and trusting the genius of each person to provide the best it can at each point. It is thinking as an ecology rather than thinking as an individual -- as Thomas Berry would say, "as a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects."

Dr. Susan Murphy Roshi is founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia. She is a writer, radio producer and film director, as well as teaching and mentoring writing. Susan taught film for many years at the Sydney University of Technology, co-wrote three books on the subject, and directs the annual Buddhist Film Festival in Sydney. She has a special interest in the way Zen and indigenous Australian sense of 'care for country' come together. Her latest book is 'Minding the Earth, Mending the World: The Offer We Can No Longer Refuse,' a Zen response to our planetary emergency.