Lama Willa Miller talks to Lion’s Roar deputy editor Andrea Miller about how to build a movement that can change the world.
Lama Willa Miller offers advice for activists on working with emotion, community, and uncertainty.
Read Lama Willa Miller’s article from the May 2018 Lion’s Roar magazine “5 Buddhist Practices to Face the Truth of Climate Change and Take Action.”
Andrea Miller: This is Andrea Miller, deputy editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. Joining us today is lama Willa Miller, the founder and spiritual director of Natural Dharma Fellowship. You’ve said that climate denial is not our worst enemy. What did you mean by that?
Lama Willa Miller: I think that’s a temporary situation, because before long no one’s going to be denying that climate change is happening. We are already seeing the effects of climate change palpably and that is only going to increase, unfortunately. So climate denial is not a permanent situation. What our real enemy is isn’t climate denial, but a subtle turning away from the issue of climate change because we do believe in it. Our problem is not that we don’t believe in it, it’s that we do believe in it and it is very challenging to hold that truth and to move forward with our lives, to have children and grandchildren, to continue to live is even difficult when we really accept what’s happening to this planet. So that’s our most subtle and deepest enemy: the tendency to turn away from the issue all together. And I think that contemplative practices really offer us ways to face into this truth of climate change in a way that is graceful and resilient and can actually move the conversation forward.
Andrea Miller: It is terrifying. Climate change is terrifying and it involves a lot of unknowns. You’ve said that one way that we can work with facing climate change is by becoming comfortable with uncertainty. What’s a practice that you’d recommend for becoming comfortable with uncertainty?
Lama Willa Miller: For uncertainty I love the meditations on impermanence in the Buddhist tradition, the meditations that reflect on, just in a very kind of creative and natural way, the impermanence of our world, the impermanence of everything in the world, and the impermanence of our own body. Sometimes in these impermanence meditations impermanence is divided into two kinds: the outer impermanence of the world, and the inner impermanence of our own human body And I think the more deeply we reflect on that impermanence we begin to see how precious every moment is and how precious our own life is. When we can really accept that preciousness and really live from that preciousness we want to do things that are meaningful and that make an impact on the world.
Andrea Miller: Anger is a motivator for a lot of activists, but anger also really leads to burnout in activists. What’s the way that we can work with our anger skillfully? How can we work with our anger skillfully?
Lama Willa Miller: You know, anger isn’t in itself a negative. Anger can be a kind of protective energy that wants to step between something that we care about and something that is threatening what we care about, and that kind of protective energy is actually something that we need to have in order to protect those that we love and in order to protect the planet that we love. So I think anger in itself can be a very useful energy. In the tantric traditions, like in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, anger is actually not to be rejected, not to be discarded. We have these images we find in Tibetan Buddhism of wrathful deities. These wrathful deities are both compassionate and they are also fierce, so anger can actually feed our compassion, feed our love, and in fact give it a kind of edge and a fierceness that at times we really need to enact the right kind of activity on behalf of helping another person or, in the case of climate change, helping the planet.
Andrea Miller: Do you think we can work with our grief in a similar way?
Lama Willa Miller: I do. I think every emotion can be seen in that way, as an energy that has potential. And the closer we come to those emotions, and the more that we hold them in a place of compassion and a place of care, the more we can actually learn about compassion for others and compassion for the planet. You know, we can never develop compassion without emotion, so we don’t really want to get rid of even these things that we have framed as negative emotions because those emotions are the doorway for our compassion for others who are going through the same kind of loss and grief. We need our emotions to really relate to others, especially with these larger issues of climate change and social issues too, like racism and sexism. We actually need to feel the pain of those situations in order to empathize with the pain that others feel.
Andrea Miller: Why is sangha or community so important for both Buddhist practitioners and also activists?
Lama Willa Miller: Community is such an overlooked resource. We live in such a kind of urban and somewhat isolating society. We all live in our own little cubicles and sometimes, you know, we move away from our family of origin and we live so far away from the communities we grew up in. So, to build community wherever we are is really important just for our own human health and resilience. We need other presences to lean on, you know, we need community for our own mental health and emotional health, but we also need community because actions that we engage in together are more powerful than actions that we just engage in alone. I think in the article in Lion’s Roar I quote Kathleen Dean Moore who’s a good friend of mine, and she said at one point, “One person is a nut, two people are a wake-up call, and three people are a movement.” And that really stuck with me as talking about the truth of community. The more people that we have around us who have common goals and aspirations, we can build a movement that can change the world.