Kurt's Blog: Conversations Around the Fire
Since 1994, Kurt has offered contemplative kayaking retreats in Alaska through Inside Passages. His work as a mindfulness teacher now includes regular mindfulness retreats and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes in the Seattle area. Kurt's book "The Circumference of Home", and other essays and writings, are also available on this site. He periodically updates his blog reflections on this page, "Conversations Around the Fire".
As I look out from the lodge onto Keene Channel this morning, I can barely tell where the line is between water, forest and sky. I can barely tell where my own body leaves off, and this wild world begins. I’m writing this by hand. Later, when I load the skiff with laundry and head to town for supplies with my crew, I’ll transfer these words to my computer and send it along your way. Consider this a letter, then. “Blog” is one of the least alluring words ever consigned to the English language, in my opinion.
I’ve just completed my first Inside Passages kayaking retreat of the season, with a terrific group of Courage & Renewal facilitators. My co-leaders on this trip have been John Fenner from the Center for Courage and Renewal, Noel Stout as assistant guide, and Emily White as lodge chef. What a great team.
For a week I haven’t checked email. I haven’t heard a stitch of news either, and yet I feel flush with the news that matters; that I am awash in a still-vibrant world, that there are good people all around doing extraordinary work. William Carlos Williams wrote, “Look at what passes for the news / You will not find it there.”
So I have been busy this week listening to the news that issues from silence, from words carefully chosen, and from the ground beneath my feet. Sometimes it is delivered in human voices. Sometimes in the voice of raven, harbor porpoise, the wind in the spruce forest, or the sheets of rain pelting the water. There is a great deal to ponder here.
In her poem Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?, Mary Oliver writes,
“There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the birds flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.”
It is a strange thing, how my stubborn conviction that the world is tragically flawed can suck the life out of me, and make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thought, in my experience, has a bad habit of going negative, almost by design, and it is not a habit that can be cured by more thought. On the contrary, I have been learning to question my thoughts ruthlessly, take them on as the snarky, unruly crowd that they are.
The best way to do that, I’ve found, is to let my thinking mind hammer away at its grievances, if it must, and in the meantime climb back down into my body, re-establish contact with the ground I stand on, or the flowing water beneath my kayak. That is what I have been doing all week during this retreat. My body knows what is needed, and what to do. Take the next step, or the next stroke of the paddle, but do it consciously. Feel myself doing it. Let go of the physical tension I hadn’t noticed I was carrying. Soften my senses. Open back up. Listen deeply. The mysterious thing is that if I keep at this for awhile, if I stay with the sensations of my body in a direct, immediate way, sure enough the mind lets go of the bone it’s been chewing on, and the world around me comes back into vibrant focus. The world that was alive all the while comes back alive in me. There it is again. Here I am again. Now, what does the world need from me?
I love the title that Basho gave his travel journals: “Narrow Path to the Deep North.” What I feel as I prepare to sail up the Inside Passage for another season of kayak guiding and commercial fishing in Alaska must be similar to what other migratory animals feel, when the urge for going sets in. There is a physical yearning for the “Deep North” that has been woven into my annual cycle now for over forty years. The salmon are returning. The great migration of birds and whales and humans is in full swing, pulled by the long days and warm weather to a place of Pleistocene plenty.
For most of these years I’ve been a commercial fisherman, chasing salmon runs from Bristol Bay to the Panhandle, and halibut from Chatham Strait to the Gulf of Alaska. Now my commercial fishing gig is down to a single halibut trip in Southeast Alaska in August, after a month of guiding kayak trips. I’m starting to pull back on the throttle.
But I love both these ways of being in the wild – as a guide and a fisherman – expressions of livelihood, not leisure, played out in a still-primordial landscape. There are stakes involved, and risks. But being a commercial fisherman also has a powerful contemplative strain to it, which links it to mindfulness; a need to be fully present, and a visceral sense that I am a small player in a vastly more-than-human world.
I’m well aware, as a student of the dharma, that commercial fishing contradicts a core Buddhist teaching against taking the life of other creatures. But many indigenous traditions think about this differently. I’ve always felt a powerful bond with Northwest Coast cultures, whose survival hinged for millennia on a deeply respectful dependence and reciprocity with the “salmon and halibut people”. I understand, as Gary Snyder has said, that one day the table will be set around me, and my flesh will flow back into these other creatures. I don’t have a problem with this. It gives me comfort, really, and a sense of powerful belonging on this coast. My work as a mindfulness teacher and fisherman are excursions onto the same wild edge, one inner, one outer. Both edges are alluring and untamable, bound by the poignant, transient nature of all our lives.
I will not be updating these posts often while I’m in Alaska. I need this annual cycle of “time outside of time”, to lay my heart back out on the long wave. I don’t think we’re better for being at the beck and call of our media tools every waking hour of our lives, and I will be on something of a media fast over the coming weeks. May you also find yourself sailing on the long wave from time to time during these long days of summer.
Wherever you may be reading this cyber-message-in-a-bottle, I hope it finds you well.
Joe Brewer is a policy analyst with Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle, and co-founder of DarwinSF. He is an energetic speaker who loves what he does and knows how to be serious and have fun at the same time. Recently Joe joined forces with a Hungarian colleague named Lazlo Karafiath to found the Climate Meme Project. He spoke about their groundbreaking work at a recent climate conference on Whidbey Island.
According to Joe, “Memes are the genetic code of culture. They generate ideas and thoughts. Memes are viruses that replicate and spread throughout society. They activate across social networks to change human behavior. Cultural evolution comes about through the generation of new memes.”
The first photos of earth from space, for example, were powerful memes that redefined us as interconnected passengers on “spaceship earth”, and helped launch the environmental movement. Memes often function beneath the radar of conscious awareness as they drive our thinking and behavior toward new forms of cultural expression and understanding.
While global warming is arguably the greatest threat to human well being of our era, it has remained a niche concern, and has so far refused to spread virally. Joe and Lazlo started the Climate Meme Project when they realized that “global warming is a really lousy meme. It does a terrible job of spreading. It is really hard to get people to think about it and act upon it, it is really hard to get people on their own to feel compelled to tell stories about it, or to bring it up at cochtail parties.” Their research shows that the global warming meme has infected the minds of at best 5% of the world’s population. And given the scale of the actual thread posed to humanity by climate destabilization, this failure of the climate meme to infect our culture, and move us toward large-scale behavioral change, is a really big problem.
The Climate Meme Project is creating an ecological map of the memes that have arisen around climate change – both positive and negative. What Brewer and Karafiath have found is that “a gloomy outlook pervades the whole global warming meme landscape. Choosing between extinction and a long-shot at basic survival is not appealing to the masses.” Memes that capture this feeling well include, “I don’t want our pale blue dot to be a brown smudge.”, and “Climate change is humanity’s ‘mission impossible’.” We tend to develop a culturally immunity to memes that make us feel helpless or overwhelmed.
“The food of memes is human attention”, and memes that are not nourishing to our sense of possibility and well-being starve from lack of attention.
Examples of more effective memes include those that elicit a sense of agency, personal power, and the capacity for joy; “We can change really fast when we want to.” “There are so many solutions that we haven’t even thought of yet, that could be game changers.” “A fossil-free future is totally possible, here and now. And our lives will definitely be made better by it.”
Joe and Lazlo have identified “symbiotic” memes as especially promising in this regard. These are memes that move our behavior in the same direction as climate memes, but without the baggage and negativity associated with gloomy climate thinking. These would include entrenpreneurial thinking around the new energy economy, social media that connect us in lively and joyful new ways, aiding the rapid spread of new social memes like the local food culture, the new bicycle culture, and new, more effective forms of political and activist engagement.
The Climate Meme Project helps underscore how deeply this crisis is rooted in human perception, and how important the science of perception will be in dislodging our culture from its fossil fuel addictions. A synopsis of the current climate meme landscape, and how we can change it for the better, is presented in their new report. Learn how you can help Joe and Lazlo build and spread new climate memes based on collaboration, creativity, innovation and love.
In my blog post this week I want to share more of the inspiring words spoken at our Whidbey Institute Climate Conference entitled “Calling the Choir To Sing“, that took place on April 19th.
Anna Fahey, Communications Strategist at Sightline Institute, gave a powerful talk on “Tapping Into Dark Optimism”. Dark optimism, she says, “is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential.” She consolidates many of the core ideas that I’ve tried to highlight in this blog, in a wonderfully condensed and heartfelt way, from the perspective of a dedicated policy professional. How, for example, do we get people exactly like ‘me’ to care about climate change, if I’m not really facing the hard truth myself? How do we harness the necessary intensity within our movement that has proven so elusive? And how do we confront the difficult emotions that our climate crisis evokes in all of us, with courage and resilience rather than fear and avoidance?
Here is the text of Anna’s moving “flash talk” to fellow climate activists:
“[As a communications specialist with Sightline Institute] I usually hand people well-researched talking points and tell them to repeat them as many times as they can, and then go on my way. Here I want to talk about our personal, emotional relationship with climate change, beginning with the question of “how do we get people exactly like ‘me’ to care about climate change? I’m talking about people who already care a lot, but not quite enough to be really angry, or sad, or energized or motivated. I understand this problem, because when I look at my own three year-old daughter, I almost never allow myself to think about climate change in her future. I don’t dare. It’s too hard. Maybe you know the feeling.”
“Psychoanalysts tell us that we can both know something and not know something at the same time. Even for someone like me who is steeped in climate policy and climate science day-in and day-out, I find it extremely difficult not to push that emotional part away. I feel that every day with climate change. Maybe you do too. I witness this in my own colleagues as we uncomfortably joke about climate impacts rather than having those deep, meaningful conversations around the office about what it actually means for ourselves and our kids.
“So the problem is to move from the intellectual acknowledgement of the crisis to a more emotional place, and I think that starts with us. I mean, if WE can’t do it, how can we help other people do it, right? If we let down our guard, we may feel helpless, skeptical, jaded, sad or afraid. We certainly feel a little bit lost when we think about democracy being broken – a pretty big deal. To cope and stay sane, we have to sort of ignore. This tension between knowing and not knowing makes our job pretty hard, the job of pushing for policy solutions, and getting other people – a bigger percentage of the population – to stop ignoring as well. We have to do it ourselves before we can ask others to join us. . . Dave Roberts of Grist has said that talking about climate change at a cocktail party is like farting. (laughter) You’re laughing because you’ve experienced this too. It’s basically a taboo. It’s not discussed in polite conversation. . .
“But rather than changing the subject, many scholars looking at the psychological dimensions of climate change are suggesting that we actually talk about it more, talk about the seriousness, and talk about the emotions. This is important not only for our own mental health, but because what drives social change isn’t necessarily broad-based support – like everybody has to get on board, but the intensity of the minority. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations. In fact, research shows that the tipping point, where a minority belief becomes a majority opinion is only 10%. . . Opinion research shows that we already have 10% when it comes to climate change, but I think that that intensity is not there – certainly not the level of intensity that we see among the climate deniers, or the pushers of doubt. So what we need is a core group – maybe more than 10%, because of those pushers of doubt – who feel the climate threat in their bones. And luckily 10%-20% is pretty do-able. Those people are already sort of with us. But the feeling part is really hard. So I’m not alone in thinking that this starts with us, with people like me, allowing ourselves to feel this in our bones – which is scary, but it could actually give us strength. If we are a choir singing, that emotional underpinning gives the song its force, its power, and makes our voices stronger.
“A colleague of mine, Renee Lertzman from Portland, who is a researcher in climate and psychology . . . draws from a tradition called “engaged Buddhism”. She talks about bearing witness – not pushing away our despair and our concern, but relating with it as evidence of our vitality, our commitment and our humanity. She calls it “becoming friends with despair.” That friendship can actually empower and embolden us, rather than dragging us down.
“I’m going to close with Renee’s recommendations for starting this process . . . , and allowing ourselves to have those feelings that are so hard.
- The first is to pay attention to your feeling and thoughts. Notice when you judge or stifle your own feelings.
- Speak and write about those feelings. Break that cocktail party taboo.
- Listen to friends and colleagues, and practice creating space for feelings, rather than downplaying or joking about those feelings.
- Identify people you can talk to about your emotions without fear of judgment, or being considered too negative.
- Create support forums in your social or workplace networks – (that’s what we’re doing today).
- Recognize that these emotions do not negate the power and importance of the work that we do. It’s natural and normal. And it’s important to remember that it saps more of our energy to suppress this stuff than it does to let it out . . . there is liberation and freedom in letting out those feelings.
“And I’ll add to Renee’s list that we need to hold others, and maybe especially our leaders and our media, accountable – but also ourselves – accountable for the seriousness and the emotion that’s involved in this. Don’t let them dismiss or sideline it.
“And we need to celebrate our victories. Celebrate this community, and celebrate when we get to sink our teeth into something like coal exports or campus divestment. I think all this has helped us break out of a rut, but it is also a process that is going to help us learn how to bring others along with us. So our intensity, and our emotions, and learning how to process all of that, is going to help us bring that 10% or that 20% of the population along with us.
“Dark Optimism” is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential, and I think we can harness that.”
Why do Anna’s words matter? Because we are in this for the long haul, and it will take all the emotional intelligence and personal courage we can muster to stay with the truth of this crisis as it continues to unfold.
This week a number of global CO2 monitors recorded 400 ppm (parts per million) for the first time. This is a huge symbolic threshold, a “dark truth”. The last time we had this concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was several million years ago. 350 ppm is now considered by many scientists to be the upper limit to sustain civilized human life on earth. In other words, “If not now, when? If not us, then who?”
Last Friday, April 19th, a remarkable conference of over fifty climate activists gathered at the Whidbey Institute from around the Puget Sound region. The theme was “Calling the Choir To Sing“, based on our growing sense that the “climate choir” needs to unleash new songs, new voices, new and more powerful harmonies – more profound collaborations, to meet the scale of the challenge we face.
The idea for this conference grew out of a conversation last fall between Larry Daloz and myself. Larry had just returned from a scorching summer in Vermont with his grandchildren, where the record heats had cooked off his remaining denial about the urgency of this crisis. I had also been thinking about what to do next, in the wake of my book The Circumference of Home. I was feeling the need to enter a more resolute and collaborative phase of my own climate work.
We soon recruited three colleagues to help us design and facilitate the event – Heather Johnson from the Whidbey Institute, Kate Davies from Antioch University’s Center for Creative Change, and Derek Hoshiko from YES! Magazine. Climate Solutions, Sightline Institute, YES! Magazine and the Center for Creative Change joined the Whidbey Institute as co-sponsors of the event. KC Golden, Policy Director of Climate Solutions, agreed to be our keynote speaker, and we were off.
Our invitation to regional climate leaders emphasized these questions for discussion:
How can we widen the scope of our collaborations to include arenas beyond those we have touched?
- How can we deepen our understanding of the institutional and social factors which thwart effective action, internally and externally.
- How can we gain insight and courage to work more skillfully with the strong emotions evoked by our climate crisis, including denial, despair, anger, judgmentalism and overwhelm?
How can we highlight the ethical and moral dimensions of the climate crisis, beyond our usual focus on the scientific and technical aspects of the challenge?
KC Golden’s “State of the Movement” talk struck just the right tone for getting us started. He pointed to important shifts he sees happening in the climate movement this year. It isn’t abstract or distant anymore, and it isn’t just local. The growing immediacy and intensity of our climate crisis has blown us outside the box of the environmental movement and of conventional politics. We have realized that we cannot win this fight if we don’t have the fight, and we are starting to really show up.
KC spoke to our need to ”approach our activism not just as political strategists, not just as tacticians, but as whole people, and to think about what it means to do right on climate from the perspective of our place and who we are and how we walk in the world. A lot of our time is taken up with relatively short-term tactical and strategy maneuvers, and the opportunity to spend a whole day together, learning from people who are struggling with a lot of the same things, and reaching down a little deeper and see what’s really moving us – where we’re scared, where we’re challenged, where we see hope and opportunity – that’s just a rare and precious thing to be able to do.”
He goes on to say, “I think we’re undergoing a transition now, to a place that is more firmly grounded in what it means to approach the climate challenge as human beings who live and work and occupy a place. I think people are taking it deeper – partly out of fear, partly out of hope – but completely out of a sense that we need to get around to approaching this challenge from a deeper, more powerful place as human beings, if we’re going to generate the kind of personal power, and attract the kind of political power, that we need. And I hear that in people’s voices in a new way now.”
In the coming weeks I will share more ideas from talks given at this wonderful gathering. Anna Fahey of Sightline spoke about “Tapping Into Dark Optimism”. Joe Brewer of the Climate Memes Project spoke about “Why Global Warming is a Bad Meme (and What We Can Do About It)”. Julie Trimingham of Coal Facts spoke about “Local Organizing for Action”. And Richard Conlin of the Seattle City Council spoke about “The Role of Food in Climate Change”. Stay tuned.