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".
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.
In the May issue of Yoga Journal, Sarah Saffian profiles six teachers who are bringing contemplative strategies into their commitment to restore ecological health to our planet. Focusing on practices that range from one minute to one year, Saffian challenges readers to explore the benefits of similar practices at a level that feels appropriate to them.
My work with Inside Passages Alaska was Saffian’s pick for the week-long profile. In her introduction to the piece she writes, “It is easy to feel powerless in the face of an ailing planet, especially when the demands of daily life leave you feeling like the Earth’s myriad problems are separate, distant concerns. But each of us is affected by the planet’s welfare, and each of us has power to impact it. Get inspired by what six passionate stewards of the environment did to reconnect with their commitment to protect the Earth. Then take a moment, a day, or a week to nurture your own relationship with the planet, and let that inform your actions in the world.”
Here is Saffian’s short piece on Inside Passages, titled “In 1 Week You Can…Expand Your Boundaries”
“Nearly 20 years ago, Kurt Hoelting, a writer, commercial fisherman, and meditation teacher, longed for a perfect storm of physical and spiritual engagement. “I wanted to combine my Zen practice, my love of being out on the wild edge of nature, and my commitment to environmental activism and ecological literacy,” he says from his home in Whidbey Island, Washington. He set out on a backpacking trip in Nevada’s Clan Alpine mountains, where he combined silent hikes with morning and evening Zen meditation. It was a profound experience that he says deepened his connection to nature in a visceral way. Realizing that bringing other environmental activists into the wilderness could help them renew their calling, he organized a sea kayaking expedition in southeast Alaska for 10 colleagues. The response from participants was so positive, Hoelting says, that he began to offer similar weeklong trips for activists every year.
Many environmental activists, he says, can feel distanced from the environment they’re striving to protect—as if they were working on behalf of a separate entity. Wilderness retreats are a way to bridge that gap. “When we work on behalf of threatened ecosystems, we are working to heal and protect ourselves,” he says. “It is so important to get that at a bone level, not just at an intellectual level.”
Each day on the expedition, sessions of kayaking are punctuated by periods of traditional sitting and walking meditation, yoga asana, and conversation, specifically about “what it really means to care for the well-being of our larger selves—the eco-self,” Hoelting explains.
The intention is to bring contemplative practice and meditative discipline to the active exploration of ecological and social issues, and to grapple with how to be fully human in the face of them. “To hold those questions in a spacious way, with an open heart and a lot of curiosity, is rare,” says Hoelting, “but that’s what usually happens on these trips. We discover that sense of the natural world as an extension of our beings—a more full-bodied awareness of connecting with the vastness of that outer and inner terrain.”
This coming summer will be my twentieth season of offering these week-long sea kayaking meditation retreats in Southeast Alaska, and I continue to marvel at the power of bringing a listening heart, and a discipline of contemplative practice, into encounters with wild nature. The combination of meditative practice in a primal setting evokes deep currents of connection to our wider nature, and a more profound understanding of why it matters to care for the well-being of natural systems as a dimension of caring for ourselves.
And if I may add a touch of promotion, for those who find this intriguing, we still have one spot available on each of our two Alaskan kayaking retreats this summer. If what Saffian has described here resonates with you, contact me to ask about joining in this adventure. The skill level required is modest, and the setting for exploring a practice-based life could not be more evocative. Here is what others have said about these trips. Consider joining us.
Edmonds United Methodist Church, Sunday, April 7, 2013
This is the text of my Earth Sunday sermon last Sunday entitled “Turning for Home: Healing the Earth by Loving the Places We Live”. I don’t often give sermons, but it is an interesting and useful challenge for me to work on different ways of communicating about why it matters to care. And the faith community is obviously an essential partner in crafting the changes we are now called to make.
Earth Sunday is a special time set aside to explore our deep kinship with the earth that sustains us, and what it means as Christians to honor that kinship, what it means to return that love as stewards and sustainers of the earth community. It’s an honor to be with you on Earth Sunday.
I want to start by acknowleging some of the important steps that your church has taken already, under the leadership of your Green Team, to build an earth-friendly congregation, doing the important nuts & bolts things that make that happen – like changing all light bulbs throughout the facility, eliminating styrofoam cups, and composting food wastes. And doing some of the bigger things too like investing in a new and more efficient furnace. We should never doubt the importance of even small, concrete steps to align our faith with our actions. It is all the more significant when our efforts to make change can grow out of community, and generate a more vibrant community in the process, as your efforts here clearly have. Earth Sunday is a time when we can celebrate these efforts, make them visible, and renew our commitment to grow more deeply into an earth-honoring spirit of faith and practice.
Many of us who care about ecological concerns are feeling a growing urgency these days. The stakes have become huge. It occurs to me that your Earth Sunday this year falls right between Easter and Earth Day, and there is actually a compelling link between the two celebrations. When you think about it, both are rooted in the renewal of life in the face of death.
Earth Day may have more in common with Easter than I had previously imagined. The earth too is suffering a kind of human betrayal and abondonment, just as Christ did on his way to the cross, and this abuse is coming back to engulf us. I think many of us feel this new urgency, this gnawing sense that we have to change much more than just light bulbs. We have to find the courage to change ourselves, to transform the way we live in response to the magnitude of crises facing us. We live in a time of staggering losses to our living earth, losses that are rooted in our human forgetfulness, manifesting as pollution of the air we breath, the water we drink, the soil that grows our food, as loss of habitat and species extinction. And now it confronts us in the form of climate disruption that has been clearly tied to our unbridled patterns of consumption.
The earth itself is developing a dangerous fever. Remarkably, it turns out that we humans are both the cause of that fever, and the doctor on call, the only ones with the power to bring healing. What an astonishing situation!
Quite literally, the fate of our human lives is no longer separate from the fate our endangered earth. This is certainly not a new insight. Our interdependence with nature is part of our biblical understanding. But it could be said that the scale to which this is now true is a new thing under the sun. Who could have imagined that our species might prove capable of changing the very climate upon which all life depends? This presents a powerful challenge to our understanding not only of what it means to be Christians, but of what it means to be human. For people of faith, Earth Day needs to be recast as the moral crucible that it is.
What this suggests for me is an expansion of our moral concern to include the sanctity of nature, and not just the domain of human activity. These two dimensions of moral concern have become inseparable in our time.
I think God has given us these great ecological challenges to see what we are really made of. And I don’t think God would have given us these challenges if we didn’t already have within us the capacity to meet and heal them, to learn and grow from them, to become better human beings because of them. I think there is no greater measure of faith in our time, or of the call to moral integrity, than our willingness to become dedicated healers and restorers of the Creation God has woven us into, and not merely passive consumers of it. No one who is paying even modest attention to ecological trends can dispute the moral imperative these trends bring to us.
It’s an exciting moment to be alive. It could be seen as a great testimony of the confidence God has placed in us that we have been given our life at just this time, with exactly this set of challenges before us. When someone asked the great eco-theologian Father Thomas Berry what they could do to meet this crisis, and not to become mired in despair, he said, “Make a creative response.”
That sounds deceptively simple. “Make a creative response.” But is that not what God is now calling us to do. The time of waiting for others to step forward, for others to invent the miracle technologies that will save us from our own excesses, for others to enact the laws that will save us from our own excesses – that time is over. It is time for us to make our own creative responses, individually and together, that will show what a more vibrant and sustainable life on this earth actually look like.
I was invited to join you for Earth Sunday because some of you have read my book The Circumference of Home, and felt that my story is relevant to this task we share of re-inventing our lives along more sustainable pathways. I won’t recount much here about that story here. What I want to say this morning is this. My choice to live car-free for a year in 2008, and to stay within walking distance of home, grew out of a growing awareness that I was not walking my talk. An enormous gap had opened up between my profound ecological concerns, and the way I was actually living my life. I felt trapped inside that gap, and it had become too painful for me to take sitting down. Something had to give.
The insight that led me to this yearlong vow – my “Ah ha!” moment – was that I could turn toward this crisis as an adventure of the spirit, rather than languishing on the sidelines in fear and despair, which I was becoming very good at. As I wrote in my introduction, “If I can’t change my own life in response to the greatest challenge now facing our human family, who can? And if I won’t make the effort to try, why should anyone else? The question is no longer whether I must respond. The question is whether I can turn my response into an adventure.”
I was actually quite nervous when I began this experiment. It carried some real risks. By swearing off cars for a than I already was, more isolated from my community. Would it unsettle my marriage and make me even harder to live with? These are fears we all face when we meet with big changes. Change is hard. It can be scary.
But for me, once I had begun my experiment, the opposite happened. I have rarely felt more alive, more engaged, more held by community, less burdened by self-doubt, than I was during that year. My wife still tells people that she has never seen me happier. And as she shared in parts of my adventure, it brought us closer together.
By drawing a circle on the map with my home at the center, and by spending a year exploring this home circle on foot, by bicycle and sea kayak, I not only loosened the shackles of fear and despair that had held me in their grip, I not only gained in health and vitality, but I fell back in love with the place I call Home. I fell in love again with the ecological and cultural richness of this bio-region. I discovered deep reservoirs of local community that I had forgotten in my too-busy, far-flung lifestyle. I shared grand adventures with my wife and children close to home, deepening our affection for each other, even as we grew more intimate with this place on earth that we all so love. I learned how to get almost anywhere in my home region by public transportation and bicycle, transforming my addiction to cars into a more embodied and creative way of moving through my home terrain. And in the process, I lowered my carbon footprint dramatically, easing that painful gap between my beliefs and the way I was actually living.
Of course I still have a long way to go in healing these personal gaps. That year was just a beginning. I never meant these actions as a blueprint for others to follow. Nor was it intended as a permanent solution for me.
I do drive again. But I am a lot more careful about when I get in my car, and why. I’m committed to using the best available technology when I do drive. I drove my all-electric car here this morning, a car that gets the equivalent of 112 mile per gallon. But that’s no reason for complacency either. My bicycle gets 1,000 miles per gallon. The bicycle is still the most efficient machine ever invented for moving a human body through the landscape. Just give the driver a sandwich, and you have all the fuel you need.
So I still use my bike whenever I can. And when I ride these days, it’s not to make a moral statement. I simply feel better when I do. I feel more alive when I ride my bike or walk. I feel more hopeful. I feel more connected to my community. It is a long term shift in my lifestyle that has made my life richer and better.
The important question this morning isn’t what I’ve done, or what I’m doing next. The important question is what are you going to do. What are we willing to do together to make a creative response, to turn these challenges into a shared adventure. Our unborn grandchildren are watching to see what we come up with. Their life is literally hanging in the balance of the choices we make now.
So may the adventure continue. May we share in it together. May we gain in confidence and resilience. And may this Earth Sunday mark a fresh beginning in our commitment to bring that adventure Home, to live joyously and simply in the miracle of our lives, right here in this exquisite place on earth.
It’s hard for me to believe that this summer will be my 20th season of guiding Inside Passages kayaking retreats in Southeast Alaska. So much has happened since that first trip in 1994, and so much has grown out of that early impulse.
When I started Inside Passages, I had a clear purpose in mind. I wanted to augment my commercial fishing income with time in the wild that was more contemplative, less driven, and more in line with my love of silence. My ulterior motive was to bring leaders into that majestic wildness, where they might find convincing new reasons to care for the fate of our endangered earth. My medium was wilderness. My method was the practice of listening and paying attention. I still have that purpose. I still love these deep annual immersions in the silence of a wild landscape. And by most accounts from my clients, these trips have spurred a deeper passion in them too for the fate of the earth that sustains us all. The Tongass wilderness has been a terrific partner in that effort.
I began this project as a veteran of the fight for new wilderness in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and I have enlisted new allies in that effort through my trips. This was, and remains, important to me.
But a lot has changed since 1994. The scale of our environmental threats, and the stakes involved, have grown radically larger than what I understood them to be back then. It’s not that I think habitat protection isn’t still important. Every place is precious, and I will always fight for the protection of the places I love.
But with the rapid escalation of global trends like climate disruption in the intervening years, it is clear that no place is safe from the impacts of human activity, no matter how remote they may seem from our direct presence. This is a sea change in how we have come to understand the nature of nature itself, and of our place within it. With temperatures now rising 50 times faster than at any time in the last 15 million years, the damage done by development to places like the Tongass is peanuts compared to the systemic changes that are assaulting every ecosystem on the planet at once. I no longer see Alaska as a “place apart” where we might escape the engines of disruptive ecological change.
So I increasingly enter the human wilderness of the city on this same quest for restoration. If the sources of imbalance ecologically reside with us, then the sources of restoration reside within the human heart and mind, and not merely in the protection of external nature, or the development of cleaner technologies. This deeper exploration of wholeness is what my Circumference of Home project was all about in 2008, when I stayed close to home and lived car-free in an effort to renew my local practice of place.
That’s also why I don’t think of my climate activism as separate from my work as a mindfulness teacher. The forces that stand between ourselves and ecological resilience are less technical than they are psychological and spiritual. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to confront the depth of our own fear and aversion to the challenges we now face. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to accommodate the accelerating scale of change that is confronting us all. There is a great deal of inner work which must accompany our activist agendas.
This process of discernment starts, as it always has and must, with our individual choices about how we are going to live, what we value most, and what comes between us and the living of those values. How we move around on the planet, and how much we need to consume, are choices that have never carried higher stakes.
As I enter the third decade of my work with Inside Passages, these questions are active and alive in me. The uncertainty, and unknowability, of what is to come actually gives me hope, because I am learning to trust the deeper intelligence of a living world that refuses to give up, and that is erupting with new expressions of aliveness, even amid the painful litany of losses. That emergent world is fully capable of finding its way. And it will. The question is whether we humans will prove, in the end, to be on the side of that emergent aliveness, or swept aside by it.
I missed last week’s blog post because I was playing hooky, kayaking in the San Juan Islands with Sally. My last several posts have been the kind that leave me needing to play hooky, which is part of the activist’s conundrum. The climate wars are heating up and getting ugly. A new generation of activists is getting more creative and aggressive in their tactics in taking on the fossil fuel giants. I’ve been tracking this rising intensity in the climate movement. I feel encouraged by what has been emerging within the movement, but it can also feel overwhelming. We are in a “long emergency” here, and even the most ardent climate warriors are going to have to figure out how to pace themselves. I don’t know why it is so hard to do the things that sustain emotional balance, but it just seems to be how we are wired.
Anyway, with all this intensity in the air, my get-away to the San Juans was the first time in months that I’ve put my kayak in the water, and as usual, I wondered why I’ve waited so long. It was glorious being on the water, feeling the familiar tug of the paddle against tide and waves, the immensity of space around, below and above me, and the rejuvenating soundscape and aroma of the Salish Sea. What a tonic for the soul. With spring coming on, I’ve also been riding my bike almost daily again as well. For me, getting in my kayak or on my bike are the most reliable mood-enhancing drugs I know of. The benefits are hard to quantify, but undeniable.
There is something about being outside, unplugged, and physically vigorous, that is almost magical in its restorative powers. Gretchen Reynolds in the NY Times recently wrote that “emerging science suggests there are benefits to exercising outdoors that can’t be replicated on a treadmill, a recumbent bicycle or a track.” Surprise, surprise! Whether walking, running or cycling, you burn more calories outside than indoors during comparable workouts, because of the added effort needed to adjust to changes in terrain, wind resistance, hills, etc.
“But there seem to be other, more ineffable advantages to getting outside to work out. In a number of recent studies, volunteers have been asked to go for two walks for the same time or distance — one inside, usually on a treadmill or around a track, the other outdoors. In virtually all of the studies, the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more and, on subsequent psychological tests, scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside.”
Strange that we need all these studies to tell us that. Mind you, I go to the gym for weight workouts once a week myself. But I remain bewildered by the impulse to take our whole active life indoors. We are creatures, after all, of the elemental world – the “great outdoors.” Just like everything else in nature, we humans are fabricated of rock and wind and flowing water, literal expressions of the forces and elements that make up our physical bodies. We are psychological and spiritual extensions of the earthly matter that has molded itself over thousands of millennia into these transient forms that house the miracle of human consciousness.
Which is another way of saying, I’m going to go outside every chance I get. I won’t be effective in the climate work I care so deeply about if my inner climate of heart and mind get thrown out of balance in the process.