A Time for Collective Grief


A personal reflection on Buddhafield’s theme for 2018: A Dance of Life and Death
By Rosie Lancaster

There are many of us, I’m sure, floating lonely on our rafts in a vast void of shame and disbelief that the very life we love causes harm to the oceans, to the fields, to the very air we depend. Desperately we seek to remove ourselves from a ‘tainted’ system and reconnect to beauty, to music, to a golden sunset, to birdsong. But the further out we float, isolated from the humanity we assume to be the cause of all this pain, and alone we drop anchor to face a future of disconnection. Weeping for home, for hearth or for any eyes in which we see ourselves reflected. We harden and close, preparing for the grim narratives that are about to begin. Untended grief can manifest in many ways and at this time of collective turmoil, we should be moving towards connection and never further away.

Currently, there is a common cultural narrative that we are doomed.  Life on this planet will be changed, landscapes will disappear and people will die. The scientific data points to a predicted extreme loss of habitat and species. Some people contest the causes and some people assume the planet will find a way of re-balancing. But the reports are clear that people and animals are already dying. And it is likely many many more will be displaced or wiped out in the not too distant future. According to the UN Environment Programme, scientists estimate that 150-200 species become extinct every 24 hours. This is nearly 1,000 times the “natural” or “background” rate. We are on the edge of the 6th mass extinction and the current rate of loss is 10 to 100 times higher than any of the previous mass extinctions in the history of Earth.


My first response to this information is overwhelm at the enormity of this suffering. It feels too much to hold. The simplest thing would be to not hold it. I can rationalise this information by saying this is just how the planet evolves. I can compartmentalize the changing conditions we are in and say we as a species are just one drop in the ocean of time, and in whatever form, life will adapt. This is a useful response in remaining equanimous. I should not become attached to life or death but instead tune into the cyclical nature of existence. My personal journey through life is just one tiny strand in a great web. Remaining objective allows me to function. I am of no use to the world if I am paralysed by the fear and sadness of my own experience that only exists within a fraction on the scale of time. However, within me I feel a discomfort; a slight nihilism that this is the end and if so, so be it! ‘What’s the point’ is a strong question that keeps welling up inside me. I find my daily interactions with people lose a little of the gloss that til recently brought me joy. My experience of life seems to have gone grey. I am blocking something out and in doing so, protecting myself from the pain inherent with meaningful connection. By refusing to attend to the raw, and fragile experience, I am allowing the part of myself, motivated by humanity, to fade away.

As I probe into this discomfort that sits within me, I feel I am standing on the edge of a great pool of sorrow, while hovering in denial that this pool is for me. This grief is so collective and global that it feels unlikely to be mine. The water is black and sticky and layered with the unwashable stains of shame, despair and fear. I am definitely afraid that if I go in I’ll never truly emerge. But it is probably time. And as I close my eyes and let go I am taken by a great wave of sorrow, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years to grandparents I have never met, and washing out far into the future to children I will never meet. I am grieving for the people dying, starving and homeless because their land is uninhabitable; ravaged by drought, rising sea levels and storms. I am grieving for the millions of people displaced through conflict, caused by ever decreasing resources, such as oil. I feel shame for our desire for industrial growth that has overshadowed meaningful connection with life and love and beauty. I feel despair and hopelessness that my children’s children will be fighting over depleting food and land. I feel fear and uncertainty for what the future will bring. Nothing changes by feeling it; it just means I am feeling.

storytelling fireside

Grief makes us value connection, whether to an individual or to the planet and all its inhabitants. By turning towards grief I feel love for all species. By turning towards fear I appreciate that I truly believe life is good and worth protecting. I’m not suggesting I should put time aside to grieve for every butterfly that dies. Maybe I should?! But I acknowledge the strong emotional aspect of the cultural response to climate change. My grief reminds me I am a single entity within a great web and their suffering is my suffering, as their joy is my joy. Grief is a process towards accepting loss and change. What I held solid will not be the same. There will be death. There will be death of civilisation as we know it now. Everything that is dependent on fossil fuels will change. Culture will change. But the ending of something is not a bad thing. In a cyclical view of time, change is neverending.  When one season ends, another begins. I can take this wisdom to stand back and accept the changing times and see what is already lost, but also, what can yet be changed to reduce impending suffering. This wisdom alone is not enough for me to act. Only through the compassion that arises by entering into the pain of grief do I feel motivated.


When grief feels overwhelming, that is the time to allow others to hold it with us; collectively acknowledging our shared experiences. I am tired of feeling bad about climate change. I want to enjoy living and experience the myriad wonders that abound in this life. I want to celebrate my body as it moves and dances and connects with all beings at every moment. I want to rejoice in the sun on my face and water on my feet. The grief doesn’t stop, it pervades my every moment. But if anything, it enhances the clarity in which I process my experiences. My view of the world is no longer trying to block something out. By moving into grief I am moving further into connection with humanity and the non-human. And my life will now realign with this grief in a positive way. Change is happening, and I welcome it.


Image credits: Caroline Chambers, Sagaravajra and Guy Wilkinson