Life Raft

'Our faces grew familiar to each other in the blue glow of the computer campfire. We spoke of decolonising attention, the Western grasping disease, how to make community, deep adaptation, living on a sentient Earth, how when we eat, we eat the world.'

Jessica Townsend shares her 'life raft' – an example of a contemplative community coming together amid tumultuous times with the purpose of engaging with activism and climate breakdown.

became an activist with XR in 2018, starting a podcast which ran for 40 episodes interviewing luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, Christiana Figureres, Kate Raworth, Amitav Ghosh and Jonathan Franzen. She co-founded Writers Rebel in 2019 and Steve Baker Watch in 2020.

Sangha and the city

There’s a China Mieville novel, The City and The City, in which two metropolises exist alongside each other, but both populations are trained from childhood to ignore the presence of the other. If they catch sight of someone from the other side, their eyes slide away; their brains ignore the informational load. It is their way of living two realities in the same tight space, community juxtaposed with community.

The novel is intended as an extended metaphor for East and West Berlin, but these days I feel I live in just such a divided world, though the schism is cast in a different shape. There are those like me, who believe we live in a society collapsing in on itself, that irreversible climate change is almost upon us and as a species we are failing to address that issue. And there are others, sometimes our intimates and families, who remain in a world in which society is unthinkable without economic growth. For them that is the political and economic reality and always will be.

There is no satisfying ‘I told you so’ at the end of civilisation collapse 

For those of us who have gone through this painful psychological tipping point, it’s only too easy to backslide. Though part of your brain holds the planetary truth in a kind of manic grip, another part slips easily back into the other city. The city in which you can eat smashed avocados on toast at any time, talk about your next long-haul flight, show off your new skirt made with tiny particles of plastic. And parents talk about their children’s exams and career choices as if the vanishing world will be here forever.  

Of course the reason it’s so easy to merge back is because that’s where we’ve just come from. It’s our immediate past. And that past is still all around us. And, of course, we all secretly, desperately, hope that the deniers are right; that it is, after all, a terrible scientific misunderstanding because, believe me, there is no satisfying I told you so at the end of civilisational collapse.

So I’m a queasy time traveller as I sit in the comfortable home my sister has achieved after 25 years’ work, as we chat on her terrace drinking prosecco and talking of my nephew’s wedding, our dresses, his new house and possible family.

Being in the natural world is still a refuge. If I were better educated in Earth Sciences, maybe I’d be reading the landscape for the small cataclysmic changes that mark the subtle beginning of the transition: the thinning insect and bird populations, the seasonal cycles that get earlier each year. But to my untrained eyes, the world is still impossibly beautiful. There are always gifts. On a visit to the country last spring, my friend showed me where nightingales still give their virtuoso recitals in the early morning. And as we cycled home for breakfast, a deer leaned out of the hedge, in which he had been invisible, to take a peek at us and then, seemingly unimpressed, leaned back in again.

So though we are in the throes of an existential threat, my mind can never quite get a purchase. It keeps skidding off the subject. Perhaps this is because of the sheer scale of the hyperobject that philosopher Timothy Morton imagines the climate catastrophe to be; its inhuman scale too large for us to fathom.  Or perhaps it is a deep reflex to sleep rather than face the grimmest realities. Perhaps wilful ignorance is as valid as any other response, there is even some advantage to ignorance. Perhaps to party as the catastrophe approaches is as sane a response as any? 

But for that to work, the end would need to be short and brutal. What we face on an increasingly warming Earth is not a clean break but an uneven trajectory downwards. I imagine it like surfing an earthquake. Most of us will die or be crushed, some might find a lucky way through to the next stable state.

There will be another stable state, right? It will just be unimaginably more horrible than the Holocene whose equilibrium we are in the last throes of destroying.  

So what to do?


Staying with the trouble

I guess everyone has a memory of the beginning of the first lockdown. I had gone on a two-week retreat to Wales, in a lush if sometimes water-sodden landscape in which trees wear lichen coats the colour of old copper. 

This was cut short and so, after a week of no news at all, we were sent back into the world on an almost empty train service. It felt like the beginning of the end of the world.

With a kind of weird luck, I had happened to join, a few months before, a new project in which a group of climate activists had decided to try an experiment: to meet once a week on a Sunday evening to try to explore together the mental states and the new reality emerging in the face of the intractable facts of climate breakdown. We could, we decided, talk about anything. But we undertook to make sure that everything would be in the context of a world in collapse. To keep with that truth, or in the words of Donna Harraway ‘to stay with the trouble’.

Each of us was interested in trying to find an activist practice that had a spiritual aspect. A pattern emerged for each session. We began with a short meditation and then we checked in with whatever was going on for us. This could take some time, even half the session, but from that emerged one or two themes that became the main discussion. 

When a person talked the others listened, allowing them to take time to feel any emotions that arose. There weren’t any interruptions. We tried to deploy deep listening techniques. Of course, it wasn’t all worthy. There was laughter, jokes, poetry, sex tales, a song or two and the swapping of recipes for foraged food. One session a couple turned up high on magic mushrooms.

My group knew it didn’t want business as usual, not even activism as usual, but what might be the positive alternatives? We were a heterogeneous gang: the regulars, some people from the Transition movement, a French woman who was also a tenzo (the monk in charge of food at a Zen monastery), a writer and her partner who had a practice of engaging with plants. Several, like me, were Buddhists and meditated. 

We lived in many circumstances. A couple in the countryside. Another couple in a community. One couple were digital nomads, sometimes in Berlin, sometimes in France or Ireland. I was alone in London.

As well as the core group, we had some interesting intermittent visitors: a trainee monk from the States, an XR activist from New York who used to be a professional hockey skater, a philosophy professor, and a rabbi.

We felt the usual approaches of activism weren’t working for us, and were leading us to directly burn out. I certainly felt that. After an initial euphoric couple of years in Extinction Rebellion, when it felt like everything was possible, even perhaps The Great Turning that Joanna Macy’s work looks forward to. But then conditions changed. The government made policies it didn’t implement. Nothing was moving. But what could an individual do when isolated by a pandemic?


How to be an activist in frightening times?

The big truth we discovered during those Covid months is that individuals can’t lead on this. One is the wrong integer.  What we need is to act as a community. 

Very quickly we began to call ourselves a Sangha, which is a Buddhist term for a spiritual community. Why? Because we had a hunch that one of the aspects of modern life that was going wrong was isolation and the hard divisions between people, disciplines, realms. And we were not alone in our hunch. Many are moving in this direction. For example, in his new massive two-part tome The Matter With Things Iain McGilchrist says that the sacredness in life is relational: that it exists between things and that this is true both in subatomic theory as well as at the macro level. 

Our little talking, contemplative community was enough to give us a kind of raft, if not perhaps an ark, to get us through Covid times 

In another area altogether, Merlin Sheldrake speculated in Entangled Life that plants, fungi and bacteria have complicated mutually dependent lives which help every element to thrive. It begins to seem that the dominant paradigm for the Earth in general, and human culture in particular, is not as we were told in the 1980s, one of survival of the fittest. That gets us to where we are now. What we need is to find ways to make more links. 

During those two hours a week, which were stepping stones through the months of isolation, we often laughed, spoke our griefs, confessed to ugly acts, but always came back to the climate breakdown and the cracks we believed we could already see in society around us. If people were going to fight in supermarket gangways for Lidl toilet rolls, what would happen when there isn’t enough food? 

Of course, none of us can map that future – it is unknowable. But it felt good to follow those trains of thought together. Our faces grew familiar to each other in the blue glow of the computer campfire. We spoke of decolonising attention, the Western grasping disease, how to make community, deep adaptation, living on a sentient Earth, how when we eat, we eat the world.

What we didn’t know, as we gathered together online, was that the Sunday evening dates performed another function altogether. Our little talking, contemplative community was enough to give us a kind of raft, if not perhaps an ark, to get us through Covid times. It was perhaps a rehearsal for the bigger climate challenges to come. And when we emerged from the pandemic  it was as great friends. When I could I visited others from the Sangha to eat, to dance and sing, and listen to nightingales in the early morning. 

Perhaps there is no way to prepare for what is to come, but in our attempt to do so over those 18 months we made the life we are living right now into a more sacred and connected space. And perhaps, after all, that is all there is to be done at this time. And perhaps it is enough. 


Dark Mountain: Issue 21

Our Spring 2022 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that revolves around the theme of confluence


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