Soup and broken heart

Extinction Rebellion Buddhists in London. Image reproduced with the kind permission of the author

Last weekend I joined an Extinction Rebellion action in London for the first time since April. A few thousand of us gathered in Trafalgar Square for a few speeches before marching to Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister was due to give a press conference later in the afternoon. We sat on the roads while a samba band played. The XR Buddhists meditated amidst all the noise, and later we sat in a circle and chanted mantras to Guanyin and Amitabha. There were very few police present and no arrests were made – they may have figured out that we’ll all be going home at night anyway, and it’s a waste of police resources to put some of them us in cells.

This protest didn’t make the headlines, especially as we were “overshadowed” by fellow eco-activists from Just Stop Oil, who threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s. Sunflowers painting in the National Gallery. They knew the painting wouldn’t be damaged – it’s behind protective glass – but the action broke a taboo. Soon the two young women who started the soup were horribly abused on social media by what seemed to be most of the UK. I just checked on Twitter and the video of their action had 48.9 million views.

In the days following my return home, I was surprised at how many emotions had been stirred up in me. In retrospect, it was a direct result of being surrounded by a group of people who are as afraid of the climate crisis as I am. As I caught up with friends and co-workers, there were at least two who had had a stint in jail since I had last seen them. It was moving to read all the signs and to see the little children brought by their parents. It was reassuring to know that I was not alone. It was also frustrating and confusing to see how relatively few of us there were and to guess how little effect we had on the world that day.

Being around this “tribe” has also reconnected me to my climatic grief. During my first year of activism, I was accompanied most of the time by this grief, this deep recognition of the harm we have already caused and the harm that is to come. Over time it faded into the background, perhaps because I processed some of it, but more likely because I focused my attention on the tasks of daily living: paying the mortgage, manage the temple, keep an eye on aging parents. As I hung out with these people who had made space in their lives to attend the protests, I often found myself on the verge of tears.

Just Stop Oil protesters. At Reuters.com

The third component of my heightened emotions was how I felt about the audience’s response to the soup action. I was particularly shocked by a Buddhist colleague, who had posted the video of the activists throwing soup. He said he wasn’t going to turn them back on and listen to what these “numpties” were saying, and that he looked forward to them being sentenced to long prison terms. Where does this contempt come from? Many people have said that he “didn’t win them over” or that he “damaged the cause” and I wonder what that meant. Was it because they were previously in favor of saving our ecosystem, but after seeing the soup thrown away, they would rather see the planet become uninhabitable?

I read all those angry comments and then watched the video again. The young women look defiant as they toss the soup and deliver their speech. But was it a waver in his voice? I know from doing similar actions that they were most likely terrified. What fears drove them to do so, risking prison at a young age? How did they feel now as the recipients of so much hate? I felt so protective of them. I thought back to my ‘Rebellion of One’ action, when I sat alone on a road with a sign and a secret support team, and how I felt when drivers shouted abuse. I remembered the late nights when I had leafed through the news during the rebellions, despairing of commentators who drew attention to the reasons for our nonviolent direct action. My heart breaks for these young women, who face many more years in a dystopian future than me. My heart is breaking.

Where is all this leading me? It leaves me in a state of not knowing. I don’t know if the soup action will have a net ‘good’ effect in the world. Will this, and all the other actions of Just Stop Oil, help to change the debate on new gas and oil? We will have to wait a few decades to see. Did it make a difference that a few thousand of us gathered outside Downing Street on Friday? Who knows. Should I do more activism, or less, or some other type? I have no idea. How can we raise awareness of the deadly iceberg our ship is heading towards? How can we do this in a way that helps unite people, rather than polarizing them further? I do not know. I’m lucky that my Buddhist practice helps me be as comfortable as possible in those places where I don’t know. I will continue to be curious and patient, and wait for the answers to unfold.

I know I’m glad I went to London, and will be going again for the rebellion on April 21 next year (join me?). Participating in even occasional, even mild protests helps me stay sane. I know I will continue to write these articles, post “Dear Earth” letters on Facebook, and speak to our sangha about activism and the planet. I know, of course, that I’m just a flawed person with very little power on a planet of 7.75 billion. Sometimes it drives me to despair. I also know that the Buddha supports me and is always present. I know that Buddha’s love is greater than all past, present and future suffering in the world. I can count on it, and I do.

Read more

Why art? Why now? Q&A on yesterday’s action at the National Gallery (Google docs)

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