Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Jennifer speaks on the connections between racism the climate crisis, and how to use mindfulness to help us find our calm through eco-anxiety.
BIO: Jennifer is the co-founder of Nashville POC Sangha, a facilitator at One Dharma Nashville, and serves on the board of the non-profit organization Asian Pacific Islanders of Middle TN. Jennifer grew up in sunny Los Angeles (Tongva land) alongside her twin sister, younger sister, mother, and father, who moved to the US as teenagers from Taiwan and Hong Kong, respectively. She now splits her time between Nashville and Los Angeles.
“To me, addressing climate change is inextricably tied to addressing racial injustice. They are not separate. We have a limited time to turn both around.”
How did you become a mindfulness instructor, and what drove you to become passionate about the climate crisis/environmentalism?
My introduction to mindfulness was provoked, like for many, by suffering. I was living in London, working a stressful job, and spending what little free time I had trying to make it through a tumultuous relationship while trying to live up to the life I thought I was supposed to be living in Europe. Looking back on it now, I cringe a bit at how privileged of a life I was leading on the outside, while glossing over the intense loneliness and suffering I was holding on the inside. Then my grandfather passed away in Taiwan and that loss was a wake-up call for me to look for meaning beyond the ups and downs of my daily life. I had heard good things about Buddhism so decided to check out the London Buddhist Center. Their weekly Sunday gatherings involved learning to meditate, so that’s what I did. It was my first encounter with self-care. From there, I started reading books and eventually taking classes, joining retreats, and deepening my practice.
I’ve always loved teaching. Funnily enough, my introduction to teaching was as a second-year investment banker, when we were expected to start mentoring the new first-years on how to do their jobs. I learned that in order to teach something I had to know it inside and out down to the most basic unit of understanding. After that, I gravitated towards teaching in many things I loved to do - I became a spinning instructor as a side job (yes the stationary bike kind of spinning), entered a training program to facilitate meditation groups, and even tried to combine spinning and meditation into a single class (not the greatest combination in case you’re curious). That was about 6 years ago. Over those years of teaching mindfulness, I continued to learn and be nourished by the sessions I led, whether they were one on one with a friend, or with a larger group. Co-founding and co-facilitating the Nashville People of Color Sangha has leveled up that learning and opening, and has been one of the greatest honors of my journey on this path.
Becoming aware of race and racism in the US has been an awakening for me in the sense that it has opened up the Buddhist teachings to me on a deeper level than I had experienced in the past. I’m talking about learning about race on a personal, visceral level, including waking up to my own race and its role in my life. Realizing, for example, that all the times I was told I wasn’t vocal enough to be promoted at work could have been not so much an ongoing “weakness” of mine, but instead a symptom of a common stereotype of Asian-Americans being good workhorses but not strong leaders.
My journey of continued learning about race led me to climate justice and climate change. Multiple pennies dropped for me when I watched a video of POC youth fighting for climate action because their communities were the ones being most affected by the devastation of climate change. I felt in my bones how this injustice was just one part of a greater web of racial injustice, as Ruth King calls it, a constellation. I kept reading and watching and learning - digging into the roots of the climate crisis and its links to white supremacy culture, feeling enraged at the genocide and mass theft from Indigenous peoples of North America.
To me, addressing climate change is inextricably tied to addressing racial injustice. They are not separate. We have a limited time to turn both around. My practice and my love for my nieces and nephew do not allow me to turn a blind eye to either.
What can the principles of mindfulness teach us about the climate crisis?
Buddhism, as well as Indigenous wisdom and other wisdom traditions, offers teachings that are closely tied to how we relate to ourselves as part of this earth. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”
We are part of a much larger fabric of life and spirit than we may think. The Buddha taught that everything is interconnected, no things exist in a vacuum, and all actions have a consequence (aka karma). Thich Nhat Hanh taught that when we drink a cup of tea, we are also drinking the ocean, clouds and rain that made the water, and the sunlight, soil and farmer that made the tea leaves. If you take that circle a step farther (what went in to making the farmer?), and a step farther than that, perhaps you can start to see how all things affect all other things. That means when I take care of the earth, I am taking care of myself, and when I injure the earth I am injuring myself.
Mindfulness gives us many supports in working with climate change, from helping us directly experience this all-encompassing interconnectedness, to treating our eco-anxiety with compassion, to understanding our craving (I must buy that thing!), to nurturing the space to "mind the gap" between our response to frightening events and news and our immediate leap to action - in some way the speediness that got us into this mess to begin with. Perhaps there is wisdom in allowing ourselves to pause to feel the love as well as the pain coming from the effects of climate change hitting us NOW, in order to take the wisest action that aligns with the lane where we can be most effective, whether that is through activism, politics, donations, or shrinking our personal footprint. For me, thinking of it all as a work-in-progress has been a more sustainable way for me to keep progressing on the path from a place of resourcing and care.
Many people are waking up to the systems and structures that have wreaked havoc on the planet and oppressed people for centuries. What advice do you have for those confronting these truths? And for those burned out from explaining it?
This question touches me on a personal level because I have been through my own journey of awakening to this truth, all the while continuing to work and live within these systems and structures. Talk about an opportunity for self-compassion practice and “both and” thinking! I recall the extractive, productivity-driven, individualistic, binary, self-righteous characteristics underlying my education, professional life and even social and family interactions, and while my heart drops at how pervasive these characteristics are, my mind is uplifted by the opportunity we have for transformation as it becomes crystal clear that they lead to stress, burnout, disease and a general sense of misalignment, not to mention a profound toll on the planet. I see so many people come through the doors of meditation and yoga centers looking for healing from the internal fractures that keep arising from living these characteristics. Human beings were not made to be machines (sorry, Amazon).
To those waking up to the prevalence of these characteristics - what has been called white supremacy culture, not because they are inherently “white” but because they have been used to justify the subjugation, conquering, and discarding of non-dominant people and beings that don’t fit this mold - I would say the first thing to realize is that it is the water we have all been swimming in for centuries. It’s not your fault. The work you can start to do immediately (and that I strive to do every day) is to wake up more and more to how these characteristics are alive in your world. Then, do, say, write, listen to what you can. We all have our own lanes to make change. And most importantly, as you go about your ongoing processes of learning and changemaking, be mindful of slipping into the same ways of doing things that enforce these characteristics. Are you thinking in a “my way or the highway” type of way? Are you sacrificing collaboration for urgency? Are you allowing the end to justify the means?
Whether you’re in the camp of people going through an awakening process yourself, or the camp of helping others awaken (actually it’s really just one giant camp), I implore you to not forget self-compassion. This is not an indulgence, it is a necessity. Without kindness, resourcing, and care for ourselves, this type of disruptive work can feel overwhelming and draining. Only from a well of caring-for-self can we care for eachother (human and other-than-human) with true generosity. Even taking a moment to notice how you’re talking to yourself in moments of overwhelm can make a huge difference, or sometimes I like to just put my hand on my heart to check in with my body and give it some TLC.
For those taking it upon themselves to help awaken their communities to these truths, I offer the same reflections. Start with self-compassion - we are all a work-in-progress. This realization has been so key for me on days when I get panicked about not doing enough to make a dent in the climate crisis. You can help provide information and resources, but you cannot reach into someone’s mind and heart and force them to understand, care, and change. Similar to what is said about Buddhist teachings, teachers can only point to the moon to guide the way to its brilliance and fullness, but they can’t force students to experience it in their own bodies and lives - that is for each of us to experience on our own.