Coping During Australia’s Bushfire Crisis: MSC Teachers Share Their Stories
By Emma Willoughby, Carmel Herington, Lyndi Smith, and Tina Gibson
Compiled and edited by Mara Elwood
Since November 2019, bushfires have been burning all over Australia. Several of our immediate CMSC community live in Australia, and we are grateful for their courage and willingness to share some of the impact of this ecological tragedy on their lives. This is one event in a series of fires, floods, and other ecological disasters all over the world causing suffering for people in our communities. May we find ways to support all those who have been, and will be, affected by this and other disasters. Perhaps giving rise to some fierce compassion for our beautiful planet, ourselves, and each other.
Making space for grief as a pathway to healing
Jill Shepherd, the Insight Meditation teacher, has just published a guided Compassion meditation for the Australian bushfire situation on Dharma Seed… found it beautiful… and provocative. And definitely aroused my sadness, compassion and willingness to act.
It’s triggering, the images she’s asking us to visualize ARE triggering. But the bushfire devastation is real. I found it useful for my heart to actually feel into that, to feel a little more pain, and, in doing so, open up and care more.
Camping at Christmas and walking into Nightcap National Park and seeing the charred remains of ancient gum forest was a wake up call. So sad to see green, lush rain forest with lyre birds singing turn into an eery, silent graveyard. My friend and I could only hike in silence. Allowing the sadness to slowly seep in and touch our hearts.
We were inspired to see the green shoots coming from one burnt tree. Although many more old gum trees are now stumps, and won’t be returning to serve the animals and birds with food and shelter. But we felt some hope. Things are growing, there is still life here. But so fragile and so in need of protection.
Lyndi Smith, New Growth at Nightcap National Park, Dec. 2019
I practice Jill Shepherd’s meditation every morning, so at least for a short while I can be touched, can remember the horror that people and animals face every day, just a few hundred kilometers away.
Finding stability during this “great turning”
Personally I have needed to go slower than my usual slow. I feel like I am actually getting not much done, but this is the pace that is needed. Almost like there is a great turning happening as Joanna Macy says, but not the way I would like it to turn. I feel I really do need more and more time up my sleeve so as not to be caught off guard by something I cannot really put my finger on, to not become unbalanced in these extremes of the spectrum.
There is distress, overwhelm and anxiety; but also, a waking up, standing up for sustainability, and love pouring in from the world.
Here is an adaptation of a practice you may like to try, but go gently:
A practice to open to the limitlessness of compassion
In this practice we will open to the vast and limitless capacity of our loving, compassionate heart. Trusting the capacity of our heart, we then open to the suffering of another being, bringing that suffering into our hearts and transforming it to send out our loving compassion to the them.
Anchor: First, Get clear on what can be your touchstone for this practice — the anchor that can steady you when needed. Take a little time and care, noticing what is true for us and tending to what is there in a loving way. Attending and befriending whatever struggles you may find. What is your anchor? It may be your breath, sound, supportive touch, or feeling gravity holding you.
Open to the suffering: If and when you feel ready, slowly open to the suffering that the fire has / is bringing. Allowing yourself to be present to whatever comes to mind, staying with just one aspect at a time.
Send what is called for to self and other: Tending to each thing that arises, sending what is called for to self and the other. Moving slowly with this practice and opening and closing as much as is needed. Remembering this practice is about deepening loving connection to self and others in this time of tragedy, not trying to fix anything.
The nature of impermanence is palpable, and I feel like a part of me just wants to forget all this is happening and just be lighthearted again. But when I see people acting lighthearted, a part of me wants to stop them and say, “Don’t you know there is something wrong?” A knowing arises in me that I need an anchor, a way to find balance for my nervous system, in this time where my window of tolerance is limited, this anchor is what keeps me moored, and gives me some stability to hold onto. Without that I become a mess and am unable to be of service to myself or anyone else. Compassion, Equanimity and Gratitude practices are all a tremendous help for dealing with the difficult emotions that come up, and the feeling of helplessness. In addition to the question from MSC, “What do I need?” I am adding, “What is real and true here?” Knowing I can sit with this reality, and make my own intentions of true, real changes I can make in my life that will affect others.
If all else fails, I call a friend, because community is what it takes to survive in a time of crisis.
Taking solace in common humanity
I have been pondering and to be honest managing some pretty tricky overwhelm at times as my brother was (and is) still in among the immediate response to some of the fires. Thankfully not at the fire front, but effectively a first responder of sorts. I am grateful he is safe, eventhough exhausted. Like Tina I am finding the call for me at the moment is to go slow.
One thing that has really stuck out for me in the midst of all this is common humanity – how willing people have been to be with, offer up money, time, food, and all sorts of support from near or far. And I have been finding loving kindness practice helpful especially alongside soften soothe and allow – sort of being able to soothe and allow by offering loving kindness from a distance.
Letting extremes of emotion be an impetus for deepening practice
I have experienced, and been holding, some of the most extremes of emotions of my life at the same time, and some I’ve never experienced before – holding raging anger at the same time as shame, and so much love for people who are out there fighting the fires and helping the animals.
It’s brought out the best in us as a nation, but also some not so good things are exposed for the whole world to see.
I’ve felt shame to be an Australian at the manner in which some politicians have presented themselves to the world as our supposed political ‘leaders’, at the same time as being so proud of how ‘ordinary’ Australians have helped each other.
I’ve felt horror like never before, at the loss of native animals and their habitat, as well as the native fauna, not to mention the stories of the size and ferocity of the fires.
I’ve felt guilt at being personally safe, at not seeing that it could be this bad (let alone the thought of it getting worse!), at feeling that I’ve not done enough myself to curb my unsustainable habits, at my personal contribution to this disaster.
This has been a new engagement of my personal practice, and it isn’t easy.
We would like to thank these teachers and voices from our community that are living in Australia and experiencing the fires first-hand. From all of us at CMSC we send our compassion and gratitude to all of you, your loved ones, to those you don’t know that are fighting the battle, and love for the innocents that are taken by it. May there be some relief soon, and may we all as a community stay strong together in the face of this and all other crisis situations in this world of ours.
There are numerous ways that you can donate money if you are able. The Victoria Bushfire Appeal and the South Australia Bushfire Apppeal, are two organizations that will get money to those directly in need. For donations to help the animals hurt in the fires Animals Australia will help.
Finally, if you would like to use one of the MSC practices that may be helpful with holding space for this crisis, we invite you to try the MSC meditation, Giving and Receiving Compassion.