Buddhist teacher Willa Blythe Baker called for an “embodied revolution,” in speaking to an MIT audience on May 5, to create a world in which we realize we are connected and interdependent with each other and with our natural environment. She envisioned a world in which we always ask of every question: “How will this affect our bodies, trees, plants, mosses, water, air around us?”
Authorized as a dharma teacher and lineage holder (lama) in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, Baker holds a PhD in religion form Harvard University and is founder and spiritual co-director of the Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston. As experts warn of warming oceans, rising sea levels, turbulent weather, mass extinctions, droughts, hunger, and global pandemics, she said, “Much is made of what we must do, but little is made of how we must live and who we must become”
The climate crisis has been “framed as a set of problems that need to be solved through intellectual ingenuity, engineering, and technology. These solutions are critical, but they do not require grappling with the underlying issue ... They do not look beyond doing, to being.’“
Part of the problem, Baker pointed out, is that in discussing climate change, we frequently approach it in terms of what we must give up to live more sustainably — but not in terms of what we gain by living simply and mindfully.
Baker outlined her view that “disembodiment” is a key underlying cause of the global environmental crisis. This disembodied state causes us to feel separate from our ecosystem, and from one another, and from our own bodies, leading to a state of constant worry about the past or the future, and to a constant desire or ambition for more. Disembodiment is the state of being “up in the head” and out of touch with the body, and being disconnected from the here and now.
The climate crisis, Baker put forward, is in part a result of society’s long journey away from the embodied ways of being in earlier agrarian societies in which there was a more intimate relationship between humans and their natural world.
The contemplative tradition
Baker said the contemplative perspective, and the practices of meditation and mindfulness, have much to offer climate activists. Rather than viewing meditation, prayer, or contemplation as passive acts, these practices are active pursuits, according to Baker, as “engagements of attention and embodiment that steward novel ways of knowing and being.”
She explained further how an “embodied contemplative perspective” re-frames the climate crisis. Instead of viewing the crisis as external, the climate crisis calls for us to look inward to our motivations and values. “It is asking us to inquire into who and what we are, not just what we do.” Rather than seeing ourselves as “stewards” of the planet, we should see ourselves as part of the planet.
“The idea of embodiment gets us to explore who we are in the deepest sense ... Embodiment is a journey from our isolated sense of separateness, our sense of limited cognitive identity, back to the body and senses, back to our animal wisdom, back to the earthly organic identity of being bound by gravity.”
Baker pointed to the central Buddhist tenet that we live with the illusion of separateness, and, she said, “the task of this human life is to see beyond the veil of that illusion.”
Embodiment will bring us “back to the body and senses; back to our animal wisdom; back to the earthly organic identity of being bound by gravity. These wisdoms remind us of who we are — that we are of the Earth.”
How much is enough?
A lively discussion was held following the presentation. One audience member asked how to reconcile the idea of looking to the body for wisdom, when some of the climate crisis is fueled by our need for bodily comfort. Baker replied, “We have started to associate comfort with plenty ... That’s a point of reflection. How much is enough?” She said that part of the Buddhist path is the cultivation of knowing that whatever you have is enough.
One MIT student studying mechanical engineering asked how to reconcile these ideas with a capitalistic society. He pointed out that “a lot of industry is driven by the need to accumulate more capital … Every year, you want to increase your balance sheet ... How do you tell companies that what you have is enough?”
Baker agreed that that our current economic system constantly encourages us to want “more.” “Human happiness is at stake, in addition to our planet’s survival. If we’re told that the ‘next thing’ will make us happy, we will be seeking happiness externally. I think the system will change eventually. I don’t think we have any choice. The planet cannot sustain a world where we’re producing and producing more and more stuff for us to need and want.”
One audience member asked how to meet the challenge of being embodied in our busy world. Baker said that “embodiment and disembodiment is a continuum. Sometimes we have to be in our head. We’re taking a test, or writing a paper. But we can get 'up there' so much that we forget we have a body.” She called for ‘bringing your attention down. Pausing and bring attention all the way down, and feeling the Earth below your feet ... There’s a calming and centering that comes with coming down and connecting with the Earth below. Being present and grounded and in tune.”
Baker said the body can show us, “Just here. Just now. Just this.”
The speaker was introduced by Professor Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at MIT. This spring, Teng introduced a new class 21G.015 (Introduction to Buddhism, Mindfulness, and Meditation), a half-term subject that met with the class PE.0534 (Fitness and Meditation), taught by Sarah Johnson, so that students learned basic ideas of Buddhism and its history while having a chance to learn and practice mindfulness and meditation techniques.
This event was the latest in the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series. This series engages the rich history of Buddhist thought and ethical action to advance critical dialogues on ethics, humanity, and MIT’s mission “to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.”
Baker’s books include “Essence of Ambrosia” (2005), “Everyday Dharma”(2009), “The Arts of Contemplative Care” (2012) and “The Wakeful Body” (2021). Her guided meditations can be found here.