“Sit with it.” (Paul Kingsnorth)

This is the second of two excerpts from Paul Kingsnorth’s essay, “The Witness”. In the first excerpt, he meditated on the changing nature of nature from an eco-centric (as opposed to an anthropocentric) perspective. In this second excerpt, Kingsnorth wrestles with the apparent contradiction between the need to accept reality (i.e., change) and the felt need to preserve what is sacred to us. His tentative answer is that, only by paying attention (“sitting with it”) may we come to know what the right action for us is. This paradoxical wisdom is expressed by Bayo Akomolafe when he says, “The times are urgent. We need to slow down.” It was this idea that inspired me to create a climate grief group.

You can read Kingsnorth’s complete essay here. You can also hear Michael Dowd read the essay here.


… And yet … I can understand and be awed by the ever-changing nature of this ever-changing Earth. I can appreciate my own smallness and know the importance of not clinging to temporary states. I can sometimes chide myself for my arrogance in assuming that what I appreciate as “nature” is some unchanging state that should be preserved for my benefit, or even that of my species. …

But when all this is said, if I see an old-growth forest being logged I will want to lie down in front of the logging trucks. If I see a river being poisoned I will want to stop it from happening. I can’t abide factory farms or oil terminals or the destruction of clean air and open space. I have a sense of ecological justice that comes from something far deeper than mere principle. Because I am here, because I am nature, because I am Earth, these things, to me, are a violation of something sacred. And this sense of violation comes with a strong desire to try to prevent such wrongs from being enacted, even if the trying may in the end turn out to be futile.

How to square this circle? It was one of the questions I asked the teacher at that first retreat of mine last year. The world may be ever-changing, I said, and my perception of it may not relate in any way to its reality. Yet when I look through the window at this wild landscape, I know that I would want to protect it if it were threatened. I feel a sense of what nature needs and what my duty is here. What is the reality of this? Is it an illusion I should try not to cling to—and if it is, does a Buddhist response demand passivity in the face of destruction because clinging causes pain? Can this be right?

And my teacher, who is from the Chan/Zen tradition, said simply: sit with it. Sit with what is, and what you are, and watch it. If you are concerned about the forest, go to the forest, sit with the forest, and pay attention. And then you may know what to do.

While I can see the danger in seeking to control the earth, to define and lock down a version of “nature” that suits us, to freeze time, to put humans at the heart of things, I can see the danger also inherent in too much sitting. While you sit, the world may be burning around you. While you sit, others may be active, and their form of action may result in destruction and abuse. There is a danger in assuming we know what the earth needs from us. But there is a danger in ceding ground to the powers that run the system that grinds this world to dust in the name of money. …

“Sit with it,” the teacher said. It is a common Zen response, and though some see it as a kind of shoulder-shrugging, to me it looks like the opposite. What it really says is: Pay attention. Our culture is hopeless at paying attention. It glorifies action and belittles contemplation. Responses to the ecocide currently unfurling around us are usually couched in aggressive demands for immediate “action”—any action, it seems, however ineffective, is better than none. But it doesn’t work like that. My years in green activism have shown me that false hope is worse than no hope and that ineffective action leads only to despair, particularly if frantic movement is a substitute for facing up to the realities of our limited powers. Sooner or later, that dam will burst. Before you can act on anything with effectiveness, you have to understand it—and that is where the sitting comes in. That is where the attention matters. That is when the stripping back of your self before the indifference of nature will come to serve you.

What happens if you sit with the earth? If you reach down and touch it, if you call it as your witness? What happens if you let your own needs and demands fall away, and see the world outside you for what it is? I would suggest that, with the right quality of attention, we may come to know what is right for us as individuals, and what we can usefully do. This doesn’t mean that all will be well. All will not be well. It doesn’t mean we will necessarily end up any less confused or conflicted, either. It doesn’t mean we will never again experience the despair of knowing what we have done and what we are still doing and of all the things we are losing and can never bring back.

But it does mean, or it could, that we are able to hold those feelings within us, to understand them and maybe reconcile them. It does mean that we can be done with denial and projection and false hope and false hopelessness. If we sit with the earth, with the trees and the soil and the wind and the mist, and pay attention, we may know what to do and how to begin doing it, whatever burden we carry with us as we walk.


You can read Kingsnorth’s complete essay here. You can also hear Michael Dowd read the essay here.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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