Susan Murphy Roshi:
Minding the Earth
Part 1 of 2: This-is-happening-but-it-can’t-be-happening
"We live inside a parallel reality & ignore what is real, almost like Silent Scream"
What moved you to write your book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World?
Susan Murphy Roshi:
The simplest thing I can say is that I had no choice. It felt like a kind of pressure building in me over many years. It came from my whole life in many ways. 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. And it was so big it just made you shrink away or feel numb. Your heart sinks when you think “What can I do?” What is the something that no one has thought of yet?
Of course that is not what my book is about at all. My book tries to find the non-thing that can restore the relational basis of mind and the Earth--if that can be re-established. It’s about settling into caring for the Earth and about whatever we need to do to wake that back up, or retrieve it from wherever it’s been pushed away to. It’s never been pushed away from me. 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 worries me deeply.
So I was moved to write this book. It’s like standing up on the deck of the Titanic and saying to people, “Sorry to interrupt your good time and tell you this, but there is an iceberg right ahead and we are sailing right towards it.” It was a sense of urgency. Coming as I do from a Zen and Buddhist position, I strongly felt it is imperative for Dharma to rise to meet this amazing occasion we are in. I always count myself lucky to be here at this time. Frightening as it is, it is also the first time when everybody on Earth is both utterly in this together, and also able to be aware of the whole extraordinary revelation about what we know led up to this moment—the story of the Earth and of the Universe. That’s a very unusual moment, the first time it has ever happened. 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.
EB: Letting it wake up in one’s own heart is not at all easy for a lot of people.
SMR: What I try to address at the beginning of the book is that it’s damned hard. To turn to something that is so very difficult to bring into words or imagine with very much coherence. We can say global warming or climate damage, yet that is a symptom of a much larger and deeper stress. The urgent need to divest from fossil fuels is the start of seeing that climate damage is symptomatic of a deeper and wider planetary crisis. Our stressed relationship with the Earth cannot go on. It is so counter to the terms of life on Earth that it can’t continue. We are approaching a situation that will be extraordinarily painful—a major correction in the imbalance of that relationship. The amnesia of that relationship is being corrected. The Earth is posing us a singular, extraordinary koan.
Poetry is strong language, and until you reach the strong language you can’t begin to get your tongue around the reality of our collective situation. That’s one of the reasons why I spend a lot of time in the book on the need to find a story that can carry us into forming a new relationship with the Earth. And to look at the formative stories human cultures have previously created—so that we can get our tongues and our minds around this crisis in a way that engages with it. The culture now is global. It does feel to me as though we are suffering inter-generational trauma. We are doing our descendants such harm, leaving them with such a horrific prospect. We can’t know how it will unfold, but it can’t be a good legacy. There is no way we can claim to be handing on the Earth in a condition that is easy to love, or even endure.
It is shaming. And I think that’s a large part of what keeps our tongues locked away. With inter-generational trauma, people can’t talk about it. It is by its nature an untellable story. So we have to find some mythic structure to hold the facts. Then we can talk about them instead of existing in a strange parallel universe that feels no sense of awe about being here, a thought-world that is almost livable. We live inside this parallel reality and ignore what is real, almost like Munch’s Silent Scream.
EB: Yes, such an appalling betrayal: that kind of inter-generational trauma is like the horrific sexual abuse of children that keeps emerging. Nobody could talk for generations about an abomination in plain view.
SMR: 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.”
EB: One is continually shocked by what a ‘strong force’ psychological denial is, on the scale going on now. There’s another reason nobody can talk about it: our compulsion to conform, and the triumph of propaganda.
SMR: Certainly there’s a lot of that in it, which makes it easier to retreat from your own shame and 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. It’s like that film ‘Downfall’ about the last days of Hitler. There is a party scene where Eva Braun is dancing around in the bunker, as the mortars are landing. Somebody says, “Oh there are Soviet mortars landing overhead.” And she says “Oh well, let’s party on”. Someone else says something like, “This can’t be happening. I know everything is okay, but suddenly I have a terrible fear.” It’s hard to describe the moment, but It’s exactly the same now.
We are at the stage of this-is-happening-but-it-can’t-be-happening.
EB: Neuro-scientists have discovered the human brain is something of a “believing organ”. It doesn’t necessarily have much interest in truth, just a workable story. Then it commits a whole lot of neurological networks to that story, which becomes “reality”. To overcome that means really having to overcome one’s own neurology. It is not trivial at all—especially since people have become increasingly alienated from the natural environment. As social animals, we are embedded in a social world—but now that is largely a built environment having nothing to do with the rest of nature, or a virtual electronic world.
SMR: 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.
EB: On an individual level, certainly, but what of the collective level?
SMR: Well I have a little bit more confidence in the collective level. I suppose it comes from 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 and of the whole of what this is and nowhere else, from beginning to the end. There is nowhere else to be. We are all moving together. Even the egregious things that are happening are a kind of testing of what is viable that is going to produce its own strong, perhaps dire, feedback: “This is not the way, go back. This won’t work. This is impossible and absurd.” I have to say, the extremism of politics in America now around all the truly pressing concerns facing the world is diabolical. It’s gotten to a situation where nothing serious can be said and nothing can be taken seriously. Nothing.
That has to wear itself out, to implode. To many people this state of affairs is all too obvious, absurd and dangerous. But I think we have to assume that it’s not the whole story, that human beings are more than their worst moments. Otherwise you and I wouldn’t be here. We are the outcome of ten 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. Of course, acts of altruism or ‘mutuality’, sometimes called kindness, go entirely unreported. If it doesn’t sell news it doesn’t go into the news. The acts of kindness and care, the large but distributed network of activism and projects—and there are millions of them—that passes unknown and does not even surface in the public discourse.
What is being 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. I am fascinated by the sense that ecology is the voice, the sentience, the clear teaching of the Earth. What interests me is that everything moves together. If everything moves together, in a way we have to trust it. We can’t have a dualistic I that insists “I am going to survive against the whole.” Or that can crush itself with ‘What can I possibly do that can change anything?’ We can’t be in that position anymore.
EB: Well, I hope there is a collective awakening before we find we have committed to our own elimination anyway. Among many well-qualified scientists there is a more or less tacit understanding that it could soon be too late for humanity. And that does lead me to question our conventional insistence on “optimism”.
SMR: Look I’m not talking about a collective awakening that is going to inject grace in time. We can’t know that. 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 or something.
The first move of the book is to acknowledge how desperate and difficult it is to turn towards 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”, if you know what I mean, to even mention it. It’s difficult to access. 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. The first part of the book examines that fact. Furthermore, I look into the possibility that so much is so desperately wrong...and all is well. I can’t possibly analyze that in a logical way. It doesn’t work that way. There is a Zen koan I wanted to name the book after: 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.”
→Go to Part 2
Susan Murphy Roshi, the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle, leads Sesshin trainings in Sydney & Melbourne. She is a writer, radio producer & film director who has also taught writing & film for many years. She co-wrote three books on film, directs the annual Sydney Buddhist Film Festival, and teaches embodied dreamwork & imagination for artists, therapists & actors. Her new book is Minding the Earth, Mending the World (2012).