There is so. much. smoke. The air is unbreathable in the Sierras, and only just ok down in the San Francisco Bay Area.
My heart is broken. Equanimity feels like a tall order. I've eaten far too many peanut butter cookies, as solace.
On the other hand, where there's smoke, there's fire. How do equanimity and motivation work together? What if we could find a balance between the two, taking good care of ourselves and also saving the planet? Don't we owe it to ourselves, and the seven generations to come, to give it a try?
Wake Up Call #315: The Smoke and the Fire
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call #315, on August 26th.
Today let’s stay with Chapter 6 of the Dhammapada and consider this verse:
Virtuous people always let go. They don’t prattle about pleasures and desires. Touched by happiness and then by suffering, the sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.
This resonates for me because: the fires, here in California.
Sometimes the Wake Up Call is happening from our place at Lake Tahoe. I grew up spending summers and winters at the lake, hiking, skiing, fishing, swimming, being a little kid, being a difficult teenager. Then my daughter migrated to Tahoe in her mid-20’s and will probably go back after grad school. I love Tahoe.
And, the AQI – air quality index – at Tahoe has been in the 300 and 400’s. In case you’re not familiar with AQI yet, and I hope you’re not, clear is between zero and fifty. So 355, which was what it was when we finally said, “Uncle” and packed up for the summer and came home to Sonoma, is an insane number. At 355, it looks like Tule fog outside, only it’s not fog, it’s smoke. You can’t take a deep breath, or really any kind of breath, without coughing, even with a mask. Everyone who can get one, and afford one, which definitely isn’t everyone, is running air purifiers indoors because otherwise it’s hard to breathe indoors, too.
The Dhammapada says, “virtuous people always let go. They don’t prattle about pleasures and desires. Touched by happiness and then by suffering, the sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.”
If this is true, I’m definitely no sage. When the smoke clears, I’m elated – because: breathing. There’s nothing quite like it. And I know others can breathe. Other humans, and also, birds, insects, animals, maybe even fish are impacted by smoke and can breathe better when it clears.
Then the smoke comes back, and I’m depressed. It’s awful, and, I feel horrible because I’m contributing to it. Or at least I’m contributing to climate emergency every time I get in my car, get on a flight, use a plastic bag, buy something in a plastic container (which is just about every household product) – and who knows what else. And I don’t know if we can fix it – if we can repair the earth.
So how to understand this verse in the face of the climate emergency right before our eyes? One key, I think, is the beginning of the verse. “Virtuous people always let go. They don’t prattle about pleasures and desires.”
The truth is, a minute ago I was prattling. Not only do I want clear skies (pleasure), but I want permanent clear skies. I want the climate to be like it was when I was a kid…and, I want it to stay that way. That seems like prattling about pleasures and desires: talking day in & day out, about what I want things to be like, how sad I am – how scared I am – that things aren’t the way I wish they were, about how terrifying it is to look out across one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and see nothing but smoke.
The verse says, “virtuous people always let go” and continues with, “touched by happiness and then by suffering, the sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.”
Is this literal? Should I be touched by happiness (clear skies) and depression (smoky ones) but not show any sign of being elated or depressed, even though I am? And should I let go entirely of those feelings – is that what a virtuous person would do?
Maybe, but let’s look at it in two ways: the relative and the absolute. On the absolute level, I think a true sage has all the feelings: feelings of depression, hopelessness, rage, terror, confusion, when there’s so much smoke they can’t breathe. And, feelings of elation, relief, relaxation, hope, when the air clears.
And, maybe on this absolute level, a sage doesn’t get caught by any of the feelings. Sometimes I think of myself as just a body with all these little pegs inside and out, and things flow through me and a lot of things getting caught. The smoke, and my terror and hopelessness, get caught. The relief and joy get caught, too. But a sage – she feels all those feelings, doesn’t turn away from any of the feelings, can RAIN all the feelings, but doesn’t get caught. He doesn’t prattle about pleasures and desire (or pain or aversion, or anything else). There’s no prattling because they see that everything is just arising and passing away: the moment, the smoke, the day, their own lives, the earth itself. It seems like equanimity: “Virtuous people always let go.”
On the relative level, things seem quite different to me. On the relative level, there’s no smoke without fire – and internal fire, too. On that level, I feel like it’s incumbent upon us to put everything we’ve got, into action, wise action.
And what is wise action if not speaking truth to power, on a systemic level, which we, as lawyers and law professors and law students and mediators are uniquely positioned to do? And what is wise action on a collective level if not speaking up at our firms and in our schools and organizations to implement mitigation measures, to encourage or even incentivize everyone to switch to electric vehicles, to support organizations on the front lines of climate change and species preservation? And on an individual level, installing solar panels and buying electric cars and recycling and using reusable and compostable bags and using less water in the West – and all the small and big things we can do – many of which are sacrifices – so there’s a chance that future generations can live on a habitable earth.
So it’s really the smoke and the fire. It’s remembering to be as fiery as we can be, and also take care of ourselves. Do everything we can, then relax and take the long view. Universes come and go, say pretty much all the wisdom traditions. We are just here for a moment. During the workday, take fierce, fiery, action, because we have no choice anymore. But before the workday, remember we’re just these fragile bodies, waking up, eating, walking, working, making love, sleeping, one day passing on. And after our workday, too, letting go, and maybe just remembering our fiery intentions: chanting as the Zen students chant, “beings are numberless, I vow to save them all….”