Principles of Planetary Hospice

by Zhiwa Woodbury
(Reproduction for other than non-profit, educational use prohibited without express written authorization)
“Perhaps the most important reason for ‘lamenting’ is
that it helps us to realize our oneness with all things,
to know that all things are our relatives.”
~ Black Elk
Planetary Hospice Movement 2
[Cover Quote From: Brown, J. (ed.). 1953. The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of
the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux. Norman, OK: Univ. of Oklahoma Press. (p. 46).]
The response to my paper Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth, has been really
heartening, and also a little puzzling in places. Thanks to the generous endorsement by Joanna
Macy, it quickly went viral - including overseas translations, which is a most hopeful sign. My
paper seems to have provided a timely spark igniting what is now being referred to by many as a
movement. So before delving deeper into some of the issues raised by my preliminary paper,
which was purposely a mile wide and an inch deep, I’d like to acknowledge the real leaders of
this ‘movement’ -- those wise ‘elders’1 that have been laying all the necessary groundwork for a
planetary shift in attitudes revolving around the end of life as we know it on, and the beginning
of a new relationship with, our mother, Earth.
Of course it is safe to say that Joanna’s Great Turning -- “the epochal transition from
empire to Earth community” -- is the mother ship for any Planetary Hospice Movement, but
other luminaries blazing a trail of light into this new, uncertain future include: Llewellyn
Vaughan-Lee, who has just released a book entitled Darkening of the Light: Witnessing the End
of an Era; Charles Eisenstein, who provides a sound philosophy for our movement in his brilliant
book A More Beautiful World Your Heart Knows Is Possible (which is freely available on-line),
Carolyn Baker and Guy McPherson (who, I believe, actually coined the term ‘planetary
hospice’), who have a new collaborative book due soon, Extinction Dialogues, and another
upcoming one tentatively entitled Love In The Age Of Ecological Apocalypse: The Relationships
We Need To Thrive (due Jan. 2015); the Griefwalker, Stephen Jenkinsen; eco-philosopher David
Loy; the amazing ecopsychologist and terrapsychologist Craig Chalquist, and many others as
Elders in the Buddhist sense of those ahead of us on the path we are treading.
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well. Joanna has co-authored a new book with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope, and is
(appropriately enough) about to release a revised version of her amazing book, Coming Back to
Life, and Carolyn Baker graciously took over the recently departed and dearly missed Mike
Ruppert’s weekly radio program, Lifeboat. Clearly, this emergent literary genre is giving birth to
a movement, and ‘Planetary Hospice’ is as good a name for it as any.
I bring a fairly unique perspective to this burgeoning movement, culled from many years
on the front lines (as an eco-activist-attorney) battling the forces of darkness over preservation of
public wild lands and wildlife (and advocating for climate sanity in the media as well), a deeply
entrenched dharma practice, a decade of volunteer hospice service, and now, informed by all of
that real-life-and-death experience, an advanced degree in ecopsychology.2 I have begun to think
of myself as an ‘earthanatologist’ (earth-thanatology, defined here as the study of the needs of
people and communities during a time of heightened global mortality). My intention for the time
being is to add flesh to the bones I strung together in the first paper. Based on the personal
responses I have received to that paper, along with some of the reactions I have gleaned from
surfing the Indra-net, it seems that there is a pressing need to be much more clear about how
hospice principles might guide the development of this nascent movement.
As I am currently serving at the most amazing hospice in the U.S., if not the world - the
Zen Hospice Project started by Suzuki Roshi in response to the AIDS crisis here in San Francisco
in the 1980s, and warmly endorsed by H.H. Dalai Lama as well - I think it would be instructive
to structure this exploration according to the five principles that we apply in our attendance to the
Ecopsychology is meant to supplant, and not be co-opted by, mainstream ‘psychology’, which has increasingly
become a part of the problem, and only incidentally a part of the solution. Thus, while I will never have or seek
board certification, I consider myself an ecopsychologist, with an M.A. in East/West Psychology and a doctorate in
natural law (J.D.).
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dying and their loved ones here at ZHP. These guidelines for mindful engagement can provide a
powerful container for all the swirling emotions, confusion, energies, hopes, and despair that
seem to be engendered by the prevailing uncertainty over climate change.
I’ve seen so much unnecessary burn-out and disillusionment in my career as an advocate
for natural ecosystems, and so much great energy and idealistic enthusiasm dissipated by those
understandable, but misguided, emotional reactions, that I feel some urgency at this formative
stage to forge and temper the spiritual container for the Planetary Hospice Movement, so that it
may become large enough and powerful enough to collectively embody all of our virtuous
aspirations and foster the kind of psychological ‘ecoresiliency’ 3 we are being called upon to
cultivate as we move forward on our own paths and within our collective ‘heartsteads,’ or
ecocommunity circles.
Caregiving Principle #1: Practice Don’t Know Mind
Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is
what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision
you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.
~ Joanna Macy
I want to start here, because I was rather surprised to find some very thoughtful
commentary on Planetary Hospice which represented my view as one of anticipating the
extinction of the human species, and even all life on the planet! In my own circles, I am often
accused of being dystopian. However, I actually strive to avoid assuming that worse-case
scenarios will necessarily come to pass. To read this into Planetary Hospice is to misread our
starting point. In truth, I am an eternal optimist, and I see these mischaracterizations as
Craig Chalquist’s term - he is launching an Ecoresilience Program at Calif. Institute for Integral Studies this year.
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reflecting a very deep, understandable strain of emotional reactivity possessed by those who
reflexively cast these shadows onto my scrupulously sober reflections.
The terminal diagnosis that is the underlying premise of Planetary Hospice is, as I
suppose I could have been more careful in describing, the end of life as we have come to know it.
For an individual, a terminal diagnosis means impending death. But for 7 billion individuals while I personally suspect that a severe population contraction is inevitable - the equivalent of an
individual death sentence is the impending demise of the incredibly rich diversity of
interdependent plant and animals species that we have enjoyed since ‘the time when the memory
of [humans] runneth not to the contrary’ (the evocative legal definition of time immemorial).
As an ecopsychologist, I ponder a lot over just what it means to be ‘human’ - and if we do
not in fact risk losing our humanity when we engender a world without grizzly and polar bears,
penguins and walruses, tigers and snow leopards, elephants and rhinos, choral reefs and whales,
or even, alas, monarch butterflies. Africa happens to be on the front burner of climate change,
and already what were once periodic droughts have become chronic droughts, and last-gasp
water holes that matriarchal elephants have always depended on leading their herds to in the
most extreme droughts have been erased from the landscape, if not their memory. Can we
imagine anything sadder than that exhausted herd of elephants with babies in tow, after the long
ordeal they must endure to survive, an ordeal they have always endured, arriving at a dry
depression of earth where there has always been reliable water? This diminishes us as a species,
as do polar bears drowning at sea for lack of ice and food, and over time these kind of
diminutions in spirit will rob us of our own memories of life on earth. Africa is, after all, the
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place we all emerged from, a place of great seasonal floods that precipitated and nourished the
beginnings of agriculture, and there was once a Garden there...
So it is hardly necessary to presume the extinction of all life on the planet, and it seems
rather incredulous to be so presumptuous as well. I think Thoreau got it right when he observed:
“I have seen how the foundations of the world are laid, and I have not the least doubt that it will
stand a good while.” To unnecessarily descend into the kind of extreme dystopianism that sees
humans snuffing out all life on planet Earth itself suffers from the kind of hubris which has
landed us in this predicament to begin with. In nearly three decades of advocating for
environmental sanity, one of the most persistent foes I came up against was hubris: the idea that
humans actually know what the hell we are doing and can predict how things will turn out.
I suppose it is a natural response to ridiculous climate change deniers to go to the other
extreme, and I think is is a fine subject for cautionary myths and apocalyptic fictions, which have
real utility in themselves. But what really concerns climate scientists the most is not so much
what we know, which is that changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans threatens the
precarious balance that life as we know it evolved with and depends upon, as what we do NOT
know -- which is how all the confounding and hidden variables might play out, and what will
REALLY transpire once we increase the average global temperature by two degrees, let alone
four degrees or more.
WE DO NOT REALLY KNOW! And isn’t that the point here? For our purposes alleviating unnecessary suffering - isn’t it enough not to know the outcome?
We are conducting this grand experiment, like in Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut where
someone drops a beaker full of the new compound ‘ice-9’ into the ocean, and it sets off an
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unstoppable chain reaction that causes all the oceans of the world to freeze up. We have a pretty
good idea that at 2 degrees C, which seems like the best case scenario now, the experiment will
no longer be controllable, and even at that so-called “acceptable” level (i.e., the red-line
presented to politicians by the IPCC), 20-30% of all plant and animal species face a significant
risk of extinction. We even know that current extinction rates planet-wide are a thousand times
greater than what would be expected naturally. But to say we know that will result in the end of
all life on the planet is no different really than saying that climate change will actually make it
easier to grow food and to live in what have always been inhospitable areas closer to the poles.
And, of course, even this analysis assumes that the IPCC can reliably predict average
temperature rises for the future based upon projected carbon loads from fossil fuels, which my
last paper attempted to show is itself another kind of hubris - one driven in part by the need for
politically acceptable consensus from such a large body of cross-disciplinary scientists, knowing
all the while that anything less than the most ‘conservative’ estimate leaves them vulnerable to
the paid hacks of industry whose mission is to debunk climate change as a ‘theory.’ It is no
coincidence, therefore, that the IPCC models consistently underestimate impacts of carbon
emissions on climate, both in scope and timing.
Really, the most we can say with any real certainty is that things already look rather bleak
at 1C average increase (melting, floods, fires, storms, extinctions, etc.), and given the 30-50 year
lag time from emissions to impacts, things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get
better. That’s a safe enough assumption. And operable -- what more do we really need to know?
It is much like the Buddha’s allegory of the man who is hit with an arrow in his thigh. Does he
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really need to know who fired the arrow, from where it was fired, and the motivation for
shooting it into the air before having the arrow pulled and the wound treated?
It is understandable, and from a climate activist’s standpoint probably necessary, to jump
into the abyss of uncertainty regarding the future consequences of our present destructive
actions. However, the Planetary Hospice Movement is not another kind of political activism. It
is instead a kind of spiritual activism that is concerned only with appropriate responses to the
realities we face - kind of a spiritual equivalent to Doctors Without Borders. The fact that the
results of this global experiment are not predictable is actually what should terrify us the most (as
it does the scientists), given the ubiquitous law of unintended consequences that has attended
nearly every environmental manipulation we’ve ever pursued. But psychologically, we seem to
have a defense mechanism against that abyss of uncertainty, which explains both denial and its
opposite - pretending that we know how deep the abyss is, which here manifests as the tendency
to assume that the world will surely end. I suspect the former, and more common, utopian
reaction is typical of those who are unreasonably certain of their religious beliefs (read:
‘insecure’), while dystopian emotional reactivity may be indicative of someone who lacks deeply
held spiritual beliefs.
Both of these extremes, utopian denial and dystopian despair, seem to be emotional
reactions to deep-seated fear. Fear is not a problem. Only unacknowledged fears create
emotional disturbance. A big part of the spiritual work we each need to do on our own is to
confront our fears and process through them, asking ourselves what their source is. One of the
most powerful responses I got to my first paper was from a fellow hospice caregiver who told
me, with wide-eyed wonder, that reading my paper put her in touch with her own denial.
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This utopianism vs. dystopianism is an incarnation of the age-old eternalism vs. nihilism
reactive world view dichotomy which prompted the Buddha to elucidate a more sensible middle
way. As earthanatologists, we need to see both utopian denialism and dystopian fatalism as the
twin causes of unnecessary suffering, and deal with each compassionately and wisely while
hewing to a middle way that eschews moral judgment over such understandable emotional
responses. Both views are symptomatic of an inadequate spiritual container. The whole point of
Planetary Hospice is to offer an alternative framework, a spiritual container, which is up to the
task of holding suffering, no matter what form it takes. That begins with each of us, and if those
we encounter are inspired to meet us in the middle, so much the better.
When someone comes into hospice, there is a strong psychological predilection to think
that they will die before we hospice workers will. But guess what? We don’t know that!
Sometimes people come into hospice and get better. Sometimes hospice workers die in car
accidents on their way home. The most humane attitude we can adopt, therefore, is what Suzuki
Roshi termed “don’t know mind.”
There is no question that climate change has already begun to cause widespread
migration and mortality, just as the International Energy Agency predicted many years ago would
happen. This much, we know. Here is a very apt summation of this fact from a rather unlikely
source (an evangelical Christian blogger, bless his soul): 4
The catastrophic 2011-12 droughts in the Russian, Australian and American
breadbaskets drove global spikes in grain prices that resulted in intense food riots
in North Africa, later known as the Arab Spring. The multi-year drought in Syria
drove a tide of small farmers off their land into urban slums, intensifying pressures
that led to the bloody civil war that still rages there. The Darfur genocide of the
I say unlikely because of my perception that there is a strong tendency with Christian Evangelicals to quickly
resort to end-times Biblical prophecy, which assumes of course that God, and not humans, is in control of the
situation. It is encouraging to see something constructive like this instead.
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last decade has been widely called the first climate change war, as Muslim
pastoralists fleeing persistent drought clashed with Christian agrarian villagers.
And since Planetary Hospice was written, a report has been issued by the United Nations
University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security acknowledging that “[h]undreds of
thousands of people are already migrating because of climate change...” Finally, there is no need
to “predict” the extinction of salt-water fish species -- according to one of the lead researchers
from an international study, it is happening “right now.”
So it is enough to simply recognize and acknowledge what is unfolding all around us, the
very real suffering associated with these cascading developments and the prevalent absence of
psychological tools for dealing with all of this calamity, without speculating about the survival of
the human species. Regarding future outcomes, there is wisdom in the practice of “don’t know”
mind. This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the whole range of unattractive possibilities.
Rather, it means avoiding unnecessary fatalism regarding those future outcomes, and dealing
instead with witnessing and accommodating what is unfolding in the present moment.
For this movement to take hold, which it must if we are to alleviate untold and ongoing
suffering, then we must content ourselves with the already prodigious task of getting a handle on
what is happening globally, locally, and individually right now. Leave the grandiose predictions
to others, if you will. This is a compassion movement, not a political one. It requires humility,
and there is no room for political, scientific, or spiritual hubris.
Hospice is a subset of palliative care, and the concern of the Planetary Hospice
Movement is itself palliative. 5 To ‘palliate’ means “to lessen the severity of (pain, disease, etc.)
without curing... [to] alleviate; mitigate.” It doesn’t mean that palliative care is incompatible
I suppose I could have avoided some misunderstandings by choosing this term rather than hospice, but it is
important to push people’s buttons on issues of impermanence, death, and species extinction.
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with a course of treatment that may lead to a cure; rather, it is the physical, psychological, and
spiritual suffering that is of concern to the palliative care team. That is the nature of the spiritual
container for the Planetary Hospice Movement as well. It is concerned neither with saving nor
condemning the world during this time of great dying and grieving. Instead, it’s over-riding, if
not sole, concern is to alleviate the suffering attended with these most unfortunate times.
At the risk of betraying just how jaded and pessimistic I used to be, I much confess that
one of my favorite cartoons ever is weirdly instructive here. It shows Chicken Little seated at a
bar with a beer in front of him, and he says: “Man, it’s really coming down out there...”
Caregiving Principle #2: Be Integral in Your Approach
Perhaps the noblest private act is the unheralded effort to return: to open our
hearts once they've closed, to open our souls once they've shied away, to soften our
minds once they've been hardened by the storms of our day.
~ Mark Nepo 6
Everyone suffers. For those brave among us who are globally aware and empathically
engaged, we are all hurting at this point in time. And it doesn’t do a whit of good for any of us to
stuff that wounded sensibility. We are not martyrs here. We’re humans being. If we are holistic
beings, then nature’s wounds are our own. In fact, they are what unites us. Our weakness in the
face of climate catastrophe can actually be a source of strength -- but only if we have the courage
to acknowledge it. As anyone who has served in hospice or explored Buddhism knows, until we
find it in our wounded hearts to have compassion for our own suffering, we can be of no real use
to others. At the same time, however, we are not victims. We own our own pain, rather than
looking outward to affix blame.
From Hearing the Cries of the World, excerpted from Mark Nepo’s book in progress in the Summer 2013 Parabola
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Integrity walks hand-in-hand with humility. It requires us to integrate our strengths and
weaknesses into our increasingly whole self. Before I first cross that sacred threshold into the
room of someone who is dying, what helps me the most is to take just a moment to reconnect
with my own sacred woundedness. The only way we can really be open-hearted, after all, is if
our heart has been broken open. Most people contract tightly around a broken heart, letting it
scab over and then fiercely protecting that scar. But if we are able instead to accommodate our
wounded heart, which is a golden gateway to spiritual life, if we are able even to recall the pain
from time to time without the contraction of emotional reactivity (our “buttons”), then we find
that there is actually a sublimity to suffering which unites us with all who are ‘other.’
There is nobody walking this earth who has not had their heart broken. If we develop the
spiritual container to carry that broken heart around in our life, to keep it fresh without feeling
like a victim, to own up to our pain, then it becomes an amazing, inexhaustible source of
compassion, nourishment, and even joy. I think this might be the secret to Seva, or service. I
heard a Tibetan lama, Anam Thubten, once say that we should not be afraid to take on more and
more suffering in tonglen (taking and giving) practice, because the human heart has an infinite
capacity for expansion through compassion -- when it is open, that is. In a similar vein, Joanna
Macy says that “[w]hen we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts,
we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole
universe” (Tricycle 2011). Certainly, nobody is a better example of this than His Holiness the
Dalai Lama, whose heart breaks every day for what has happened, and is happening, to his
people. And still, nobody’s joy for life is more infectious than the Dalai Lama’s.
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I call this vital, responsive quality my “broke-open-heartedness.” By touching the
rawness of this open-hearted awareness just before walking into the place of someone else’s
suffering, I am able to simply be present with them, to do whatever it is I can for them in the
moment. That often means just sitting with them silently. But if we are able to sit with
compassionate presence, people invariably respond to it. There is no sense of fear or despair,
and certainly no pity, from the side of the compassionate caregiver -- any one of which would act
as an emotional wall. And if the hospice resident is experiencing fear or despair, or feeling sorry
for themselves, then there is room in the caregiver to contain that, because we are not contracting
around our own psychological suffering, closing ourselves off to the other’s difficult emotions.
Simply stated, emotional reactivity blocks our capacity for empathetic responsiveness, because
one is a contraction (in Buddhism, dukkha) while the other is an expansion (sukkha). They are
mutually exclusionary.
This all may sound very basic and simple - because it is - but if someone is wanting to
devote their time and energy, their life even, to alleviating the suffering and emotional turmoil
that is now beginning to flow from ecological disruption, and will continue to build for at least a
few more decades to flood stage, then it is essential that they begin right here, with the matter of
their own wounded heart.
One of the founders of ecopsychology, Theodore Roszak, called this capacity having a
psyche (or heart) as big as the world. As Roszak put it, “freeing the ecological unconscious may
be the key to sanity in our time.” 7 This liberation of our eco-psyche begins with facing into the
emotional storm inside us that is quite literally now our ‘wounded nature’ -- in order that we may
Roszak, T., from the book Ecotherapy (2009), edited by Buzzell & Chalquist (S.F., CA: Sierra Club Books), p. 36.
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recover the full measure of our own sanity. In most of us, that storm is raging in the depths of
our subconscious, and may actually be stored (stuffed) in the neural tissue of our heart.8 We
must be able to stare into the abyss while maintaining our composure with grace. Once we have
developed this capacity that connects our psyche (anima) to the Earth’s wisdom (anima mundi),
which is not quite as mysterious as it sounds, then no matter what we are doing to contribute to
the necessary, compensatory transformations that are already starting to take hold in the world,
this quality of compassionate integrity, this unity of weakness and strength, will strike a resonant
chord with those around us. It will not only sustain us, allowing us to avoid burn-out, but will be
a source of strength for others as well, resulting in a cascading benefits for the planet.
An important point needs to be made here, in the nature of a disclaimer. We cannot wait
until we are whole, or fully healed, before tending to the healing of others. As long as our psyche
is bound up in nature, as long as we remain heart-connected to our mother, Earth, we will never
be fully healed. The point of getting in touch with our broken heart, or even picking the scab off
an improperly healed heart, is not to finally heal it or even find closure. Rather, it is to learn to
live in a state of constant healing, knowing that we can never be whole. That is a hard spiritual
pill for some people to swallow.
What’s the alternative? Exactly so. This is the only rational response. Even in that
sobering acknowledgment, there is solace. And when we know we are doing all we can do, there
is room for joy in our efforts. People who don’t know about hospice have all kinds of funny
ideas about it. They think it is a sober, solemn, even morbid thing to do. But people who work
and serve in hospice know otherwise. It is actually a joyous form of service, though everyone
Neurocardiologists now tell us that over half of the cells in our heart are actually neural cells, not muscle cells as
was previously believed.
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comes into it with unresolved grief to work through. As a rule, people are incredibly sweet at the
end of life. It’s an extraordinary privilege to be allowed into that sacred space. We laugh a lot
more than we cry. And when we do cry, it is almost always cathartic. We become a little more
whole. Tears of laughter, joy, and sorrow all share the same salty sweetness. Hospice makes one
feel, and in that feeling there is the fullness of humanity, that place where we are able to touch
sacred ground. It’s why so many volunteer caregivers keep coming back - it’s so fertile.
Remember, the word “human” comes from the root “humus” - soil, the death and decay
from which all life takes root. For some reason, we have increasingly segregated death from life
in our culture. But sit in a grove of old growth trees in the middle of a forest, and we see no such
separation. Instead, we see how nature uses death to nourish life. That is the nursery from which
the Planetary Hospice Movement is emerging.
Caregiving Principle #3: Resistance is Futile!
Though you hold fast, you cannot stay
What benefit is there
In being frightened and scared
of what is unalterable?
~ Buddha
The growing sense I get from surveying the responses to Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing
Planet Earth is that not everyone involved in this movement has really done this inner work, or
perhaps hasn’t gone as deep as they need to. And I’m not necessarily excluding myself here. In
fact, what I think I am really beginning to understand is that denial is not an either/or
proposition, but is instead an evolving state of mind that continues to shape-shift according to
whatever fears remain unacknowledged inside us.
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For example, it seems climate activists simply do not want to hear the word ‘hospice’
used in relation to the planetary situation - probably because they are too invested in the
outcomes of their noble efforts. I suspect this is part of the reason the inconvenient truth of the
30-50 year lag time between what we do and the contribution of that action to climate change is
rarely mentioned. People, especially those most concerned and most active in advocating for
changes, are understandably afraid of the idea that things will continue to unravel for a period of
decades on the already tenuous ground we currently stand on - even if we finally get a handle on
fossil fuel emissions. What is at the core of that fear?
Joanna Macy believes we have become such control freaks with all the conditioning from
pursuing manifest destiny that we are simply unwilling to admit that we are losing control over
this ongoing global experiment. Politically, I think climate activists in particular justifiably fear
that they will not be able to effect the necessary political changes if the rewards they are pushing
for lie far in the future. As a long-time activist myself, I could never stomach dishonesty in
political advocacy, without regard to the motives. Early in the Obama administration, there was
a concerted effort to pass carbon-trading legislation that would have given the appearance of
“solving” climate change without actually being anywhere near adequate. My response in
opposing this was that if you are standing at the edge of a chasm, you don’t try to convince
people to jump half-way across it on the basis that this is the best that can be accomplished.
What is to be gained by selling false hope? Hospice teaches us it is far better to redefine hope
from a more genuine perspective that honors life.
At its core, hospice is about learning what it means to bear witness to situations that we
naturally, or at least reflexively, resist. In order to develop the kind of presence that allows us to
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bear witness in a most powerful, healing way, we are called upon to reach deep inside and find
the courage and wisdom to not just accept, but actually welcome distasteful truths. All of our
aversions are the product of conditioning. To the extent we allow these conditioned responses to
hold sway over us without deeply questioning their premises, we are not able to bear witness.
Our presence becomes disempowered. We feel powerless. Despair is not far behind.
There is a lot of wonderful literature out there on bearing witness, and I will leave it up to
anyone who wants to become an effective caregiver to research that topic if they are not already
familiar with it. I will just offer a few insights from the planetary hospice perspective.
Usually when we speak of bearing witness, we use the term “to bear” in the sense of
holding up, supporting, or remaining firm under the strain of some burden. This is useful in the
context of bearing witness to social injustice from the perspective of one who is powerless to do
anything about it. You might think that is the sense intended for a caregiver of the Earth as well,
since it is common to feel powerless in the face of something as vast and complex as climate
change. However, the sense of the term as used here is “to bring forth” or “to give birth
to” ( Many people simply have overlooked, or chosen to ignore, that the subtitle
of my paper Planetary Hospice is Rebirthing Planet Earth. In fact, the full title appears almost
nowhere in the hundreds of citations and discussions across the internet. For instance, in a
description of a talk by Dr. Taigen Dan Leighton from Roshi Halifax’s Upaya web site, we read:
“In contrast to the ‘Planetary Hospice’ point of view, which sees the effects of climate change as
terminal... Taigen encourages us to follow [Joanna] Macy’s advice and meet the environmental
damage with activism, social work... and changing the way we think and feel...” 9
This is not to imply for a minute that Roshi Joan would make such a mistake herself - she is one of, if not the, most
inspirational leaders of the Zen Hospice movement, and surely does not manage the Upaya web site herself!
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So here, Macy’s approach is depicted as optimistic, while Planetary Hospice is clearly
being depicted as a pessimistic kind of despair -- this even though Macy herself recommended
Planetary Hospice to all her colleagues as framing “our work in a way that can release fresh
understandings and energy,” and even though the skillful talk itself from Taigen Leighton offers
no such negative depiction. I was very careful in that paper to specify that the planetary
equivalent of an individual’s terminal diagnosis was the end of life as we know it -- a distinction
that is entirely lost by noting simply that the paper represents climate change as “terminal.” And
yet this is not an isolated instance. The thoughtful and insightful blogger referenced earlier starts
out his commentary on the paper this way: “Environmental activist Zhiwa Woodbury concludes
that climate change will lead to the extinction of life on our planet...” Yowza!
Please do not miss my point here. I have no interest in quibbling or ‘setting the record
straight.’ Rather, it is simply fascinating to me what even thoughtful, intelligent people project
onto an admittedly loaded term like ‘planetary hospice.’ If we steer clear of the ‘he said/she
said’ silliness, there are some deep insights to be gleaned from these startling misrepresentations.
If not from my paper or me, then where is the pessimism coming from? Why do people (Taigen
Dan not among them, by the way) regularly leave out the rebirthing aspect of the title, when that
was really the whole point of writing the paper?
Obviously, I chose the terminology of hospice in order to provoke deep feelings. We are
all in a process of self-discovery, we all have unconscious tendencies and, I believe, share a
collective unconscious as well. In hospice training, it is incumbent on us to bring some of these
shadows to the surface, to acknowledge that we all carry unresolved grief inside. If left
Planetary Hospice Movement 19
unresolved, these shadows will obscure the light we bring to those in need. Awareness liberates
and unites us. One way of cultivating awareness is to look at our projections.
I actually do consider myself an optimist, and I do not think that climate change will lead
to the extinction of life. Of course, it is already causing untold numbers of species to go extinct,
but that is hardly the same as saying it will extinguish all life on Planet Earth. Heck, even the
most severe extinction events in the Earth’s geologic history could not wipe out all life. And I
happen to believe that humans will definitely survive climate change. For anyone to read my
paper and come away with a contrary idea on that question is not, I believe, a reflection on the
paper at all, but is instead a reflection of their own resistance to the nature and scope of what is
unfolding (unravelling) right before our eyes.
So this is why it is important to understand the meaning of “to bear” in bearing witness to
climate change and the havoc it is wreaking on Earth. One thing that has struck me in sitting
with people who are actively dying is the similarity of the process with giving birth. In fact, the
key indicator for even saying that someone is actively dying is that their breathing becomes
labored. It sounds a lot like someone going into labor, and just as with birth, the length of time
they remain in that labored state is completely unpredictable -- it can be minutes, or it can and
often is days. From the scientific materialist point of view that we have all been conditioned to
believe in modern society, consciousness arises from electro-chemical reactions in the material
of the brain, and once the body dies, life is at an end. It would be extremely difficult to attend to
an actively dying person if that was your belief.
From my own perspective, the body is dying, of that there can be no doubt, but at the
same time it seems very apparent that something else is being borne. This is not just superstition,
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either -- it is a more modern scientific view, a quantum view of non-local, non-temporal
consciousness, in contrast to the outdated but still dominant view that dates back to Decartes. If
you don’t believe me, and there is no reason you should on this point, then maybe you would
take the word of someone like cardiologist and researcher Dr. Pim van Lommel, M.D., Dr. Ian
Stevenson10, Dr. Robert Lanza or many other skeptics who have been convinced by a large body
of evidence that consciousness continues quite “consciously” after the body dies. Stated simply,
modern quantum science supports a world view where matter (body) is an emergent property of
consciousness (mind), and not the other way around - as science has assumed since Decartes.
Much more probably needs to be said on this, but for the purposes of this paper, just stop
reading and think for a second the implications of that emerging quantum world view on how we
think of the great dying involved in the climate crisis. Then combine that idea of bearing witness
to some kind of spiritual rebirth with the ‘don’t-know’ mind discussed earlier. What are we
bearing witness to when somebody dies? We don’t really know, but it is some kind of difficult
birthing process we label “dying” based on the materialist (physical) evidence, and if we can just
welcome the whole experience without rejecting the parts we’ve been conditioned to resist, if we
can simply hold their hand and let them know they are loved and we are there for them, then we
become spiritual midwives.
So now, apply this to the end of life as we know it that is unfolding with the climate
crisis. What are we bearing witness to in this century of rapidly accelerating climate change?
We don’t really know, but it is some kind of difficult transformation of life on Earth we label
‘ecocide’ or ‘the great dying’ based upon the disappearance of species at unprecedented rates, or
The book Life Before Life is a fascinating treatment of the topic intended for more general audiences, and a must
read for anyone who is interested in, but skeptical of, reincarnation.
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‘climate catastrophe’ based upon the mass mortality and migrations of our species that are
beginning to spread across the globe due to food and water scarcity.
The challenge of our time is to take a really long-term view, and welcome the whole
experience as some kind of necessary (admittedly difficult) transition from the spiritual vacuity
of the industrial age to the spiritual vibrancy of a post-industrial, non-exploitive human society.
Welcoming the difficult parts does NOT mean we do not continue to advocate for sensible
solutions, as progressive changes will continue to be necessary to minimize impacts to the
greatest extent possible. There is nothing mutually exclusive about welcoming reality in all its
messiness while continuing to work for a better future -- if anything, it is our refusal to accept the
distasteful elements of a changing world that limits our effectiveness in adapting to it.
Imagine a situation where a midwife refused to acknowledge and accept the fact that a
baby she was trying to deliver had the umbilical chord wrapped around its neck, in spite of all
the evidence this was the case, simply because she didn’t want to believe that babies could even
survive that kind of trauma (or should have to). Rebirthing the planet Earth is not going to be all
that different than this metaphor. We’ve been wrapping that chord around our necks for some
time now. It is time to acknowledge that this happens to be the situation we face, and focus on
making the best of a difficult situation. It is an undeniable fact of human existence that it is
through adversity that we grow. This is likely to be the greatest adversity we have ever faced as
a species, and thus represents the greatest spiritual growth potential we have ever encountered.
Illness, pain, and death are all necessary aspects of the human experience. But suffering
is not. This is the radical insight of Buddha’s awakening. Suffering is an emotional reaction to
these inevitabilities, a way that we rage against impermanence, and only one way of responding.
Planetary Hospice Movement 22
By accepting reality and acknowledging our deepest fears, those very fears can be transformed
into a source of fierce intelligence and wise power, liberating us in a way that releases us into
service. By contrast, our reflexive contraction around a wounded sense of self, or around an
unnecessary despair over the fact that we now are facing a difficult, even dark, age will only
layer added suffering onto the pain of rebirth. We’ve experienced dark ages before.
While it is beyond the scope of this paper, this points to the importance of ritual and myth
in meeting these challenges. There is a reason, for example, we bring a living tree into the
warmth of our homes at the coldest time of the year, and decorate it with lights on the longest
night. We have always, as a culturally vibrant species, been able to keep the light alive in the
darkest of times, and there is no reason to think we will not do so again now. More to the point,
what greater honor and calling can there be during such times than to be a keeper of the flame?
Caregiver Principle #4: Don’t Hesitate
May we realize that there is no time to waste,
Death being definite but the time of death indefinite.
What has gathered will separate, what has been
accumulated will be consumed without residue,
At the end of a rising comes descent,
the finality of birth is death.
~ Losi Chokyi Gyeltsen (Panchen Lama)
Humans crave certainty, especially in relation to the future. I am quite certain that
anyone reading this, and anyone they happen to love, will be dead 100 years from now. What the
world will look like then, by contrast, is quite uncertain. Waiting for the future, like nostalgically
dwelling on our past, robs of the rich experience and vibrancy of the present moment. What is
the appropriate response to our justifiable concern that our beautiful national forests are
increasingly at risk of extinction due to longer fire seasons, increased UV radiation, depleted
Planetary Hospice Movement 23
snowpacks, and the virulent beetle infestations resulting from an absence of prolonged coldsnaps? To get out in the wilderness and enjoy its immense beauty! Beauty, like life, is
impermanent, and when we fully appreciate this, and stop taking it for granted, then our capacity
for joy and awe in the face of beauty and life is immeasurably increased.
In the transformative documentary Griefwalker, Stephen Jenkinsen says that if we truly
love someone, then we love them knowing from the start that they will die, and we even have to
love - not just accept - their dying process when it comes. This is a truly radical idea for taking
grief onto the spiritual path of our waking, daily life. If we think about what he is saying deeply,
it is such an enlightening way of seeing our life. What we tend to do instead is fall in love with
something that doesn’t exist - our fantasy of what a human should be, or how the world should
exist, which happens to include unchanging, eternal, ever present beauty. As one of my dear
friends and former partners likes to say, “we should all over ourselves!” By loving something
that does not exist, not only do we set ourselves up for terrible grief when the inevitable curtain
of mortality begins to fall on the busy stage of our life, but we also rob ourselves of the
opportunity to truly, deeply, madly love living being-ness from the start, with all its frailty.
As the Dalai Lama points out, everything and everyone arises containing the seeds of
their own destruction. Were it otherwise, life would not be the miracle that it is. Once we see
this, we appreciate the miracle, and we love out of a sense of awe and wonder rather than from a
fixed and rather cramped psychological space of projection and expectation. Only then are we
free to advocate for life while embracing the dying, to love humanity and the world while at the
same time lamenting the banality of our collective malignity and the terrible loss of biodiversity.
Planetary Hospice Movement 24
It may seem perverse to some, but the fact is that we live at a time that offers us a wider
spectrum of feeling and awe than at any previous time in human history. We are able to glimpse
far into the cosmos, while losing sight of what is most important right in front of us. We are
closer than ever to a grand theory of everything while at the same time we risk losing all
‘thingness.’ Even the internet has this double aspect to it, allowing us to finally see just how
interconnected and interdependent we all are, permitting us to connect across the globe in ways
unimaginable just a few decades ago, while at the same time permitting our corrupt governments
to monitor everything we say and do.
It is not surprising, therefore, that some of us are paralyzed or numb with fear and
trepidation, while others are experiencing an unprecedented depth of conscious inter-being,
loving connection, and spiritual immersion. It is quite as if the living force of axis mundi that
unites us at a deeply subconscious level is prompting us to make the collective, quantum leap in
spirit that it will take for us to transform as a species to a more evolved, cooperative and
compassionate state of being,11 and all the messiness and mortality and disruption and turmoil
are as much a part of that process as are the unprecedented levels of information and creative
exchange and scientific wonder and spiritual compassion and wisdom.
And we are just at the start of this immense mystery of life and death! Those who
hesitate will be left behind by the exigencies of circumstance. They will feel lost and bereft,
bitter and remorseful. Those who engage at whatever levels and in whatever ways feel
appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, with courage and open-heartedness and creativity
and awe, will find themselves being called in exactly the direction the Earth needs them to go.
For those who think this is “new age” speak: “This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and
intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.”
~ So saith Plato (!)
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We must attend to our inner processing as if our house were on fire, and we must not wait to see
how things are going to develop before we start engaging with our friends, families, and
communities - including the global community that is coalescing right in our laps, on our laptops
- in meaningful ways that are aimed at enriching our lives while at the same time attending to
suffering wherever we encounter it and in whatever form.
Why wait? What have we got to lose??
Caregiver Principle #5: Carving Out Sacred Space
Awakening is neither far nor near, and neither does it come nor go.
It’s whether it is seen or not - right in the midst of our afflictions...
~ Nāgārjuna
It is only in the darkest night of our souls that we learn the true meaning and value of
refuge. As Stanislav and Christina Grof have clearly shown, hidden right in the heart of any
spiritual emergency is our greatest potential for spiritual emergence.12 Life teaches us that if we
want to live a spiritual life, a life of meaning, then we must learn to carve sacred space out of the
wicked turmoil of the profane world we find ourselves immersed in. We can’t always wait to go
home and sit on our cushion, or take solace from our loved ones, or retreat into the wilderness to
find refuge from the storms in our turbulent lives. The whole point of developing a spiritual
practice, including meditation, in the peace and quiet of our tidy home or temple is so that we
can stabilize the peaceful ground that always lies within, learning how to access it at a moment’s
notice, and bring it to bear on the most difficult situations we encounter.
See, e.g., Viggiano & Krippner (2010): “Spiritual emergency can be defined as a crisis involving religious,
transpersonal, and/or spiritual issues that provides opportunities for growth. Spiritual emergence, meanwhile, lends
itself to gentler transformation.”
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It is presumed when people volunteer for the Zen Hospice Project that they already have
a spiritual foundation that includes a meditation practice. I know what an ineffective eco-activist
I was until I became grounded in the spiritual tradition that made most sense to me. It should be
presumed that anyone who comes to eco-activism has such spiritual grounding. Unfortunately,
that is not the case, and it becomes pretty easy to identify those who will burn out quickly and
never be heard from again. It is definitely presumed that anyone who is interested in becoming a
Planetary Hospice Caregiver is spiritually centered, compassionate, open-hearted and committed
to maintaining their composure while all those around them are losing theirs.
That is the whole point, really. The Earth may well be our witness, but she is calling us
to be hers. To witness what is disfiguring her without turning away. To dress her wounds with
love, and care for her children without regard for how naughty they have been. She is, after all,
our mother. It is because of her nurturing bosom that we live. It is because of us, alone among
species, that she has fallen ill. It is therefore up to us to nurse her back to health.
The following passage from a palliative care physician captures the symbiotic, sacred
nature of this caring relationship quite evocatively. Please keep in mind that this is a metaphor,
and it is the spirit of the relationship that is the point here. Read it first in its hospice context,
and then think about how it might apply to your own spiritual activism, to Earthanatology, and to
how we engage in service to others:
As we reach out to the other who is dying, and we help that other person to move
into depth, we are simultaneously reaching out to the one who is mortally
wounded and suffering in the depths of our own being. At that moment we are
not there as altruistic heroes helping the victim other. We and the other are both
there as wounded ones, each searching for healing, and in this reaching out and
reaching in we become wounded healers to self as we are wounded healers to
other. Until we recognize this inner dynamic for ourselves, we will either
mistakenly continue to believe that we as caregivers always have the answers to
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the other people’s problems, or, as patients, continue searching in never ending
circles for that someone or something ‘out there’ who will at last take all our pain
away (Kearney, M., 1996, Mortally Wounded, p. 151).
I think that passage more than anything else I’ve found captures the true spirit of the
Planetary Hospice Movement. It is a movement of wounded healers brave enough to have their
hearts broken over and over again, to keep the wound fresh as long as needed to bring healing to
the Earth and all its diverse inhabitants and, perhaps most significantly, to see dying not as some
horrific ending, but as another form of healing more mysterious than all the rest. In sacred space,
the boundaries between death and birth, self and other, living and dying, grieving and rejoicing,
all dissolve in the blinding light that bursts forth and fills the room when the doors of perception
are cleansed of all dualistic ‘I/me/mine’ thinking.
We and our mother, this sacred, living and dying planet, are both here as wounded ones,
each searching for healing, for wholeness, and in this reaching out and reaching in we become
wounded healers to self as we are wounded healers to other.
As Steven and Ondrea Levine teach in their lovely ‘bible’ for hospice caregivers, Who
Dies? (1982), “As long as death is the enemy, life is a struggle” (p. 205). Before they can work
with the dying, healers must open to death until “[l]ife and death are seen as the perfect
expression of being, each in its own moment, in its appropriate time” (p. 203). ‘Who dies?’ is
one of those koans we carry with us in hospice, like the question from Perceval that finally
brings healing to the Fisher King’s eternal wound in the Arthurian legend: “What ails thee?” It is
by appreciating and holding questions such as these that we are able to hold open in our
engagement with the world that sacred space we first carve out on a cushion in a corner of our
home. While we may not ever really know the answers, we nonetheless act from an unshakable
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faith in the mysterious and cyclical dance between death and life to bring open-hearted
awareness into every situation.
This is the sacred spirit of the Planetary Hospice Movement. If you can feel it, please
join us. Our numbers are legion. We are here to serve.
Life is so fragile, no more than a bubble blown to and fro by the wind.
How astonishing to think that after an out-breath there will be an inbreath, or that we will awaken after a night’s sleep.
~ Nāgārjuna