Waking Up to Climate Responsibility: An Encounter with the Great Atlantic Teacher

This blog post was first published in the Huffington Post, November 6, 2016. 

On a sunny Caribbean morning, the radar mounted to s/v Wild Hair's mast is visible.
On a sunny Caribbean morning, the radar mounted to s/v Wild Hair’s mast is visible.

It was 2:00 a.m. on an ink-black night in 2011 and I steered our sailboat, Wild Hair, between Caribbean islands. My husband was asleep below, but I cruised in the company of a second boat: Extreme. I busied myself taking in the sensations of my body, meditating  in a state of heightened inner awareness to calm seasickness, when a blip appeared on the radar nine miles right of course.

The yellow speck signaled an oncoming ship. Instinctively, I wanted to stop Wild Hair to let what I assumed was a commercial vessel cross well ahead of my path, but my companion boat, Extreme, had a talented skipper plus advanced technology capable of evaluating the threat of impact.  Extreme’s skipper radioed the approaching ship, Generate. After that, my friend radioed me and suggested our two boats reduce speed a bit. I slowed Wild Hair, but still our sailboats advanced. As I watched, the radar blip grew uncomfortably close.

All at once, daylight exploded. An excerpt from Ocean of Insight: A Sailor’s Voyage from Despair to Hope explains what happened.

A spotlight mounted 10 stories overhead illuminates not only Wild Hair but also an impenetrable curtain of red steel just fifty yards ahead. Sailing vessel Extreme splits the difference between Wild Hair and the wall. I’m on my feet, spinning the wheel hard to port; Wild Hair’s bow swings. I yank the throttle into neutral and check on Extreme. It too is coming to a standstill and avoiding collision. Heartbeats thud in my ears as a wall of rivets, rust, and peeling paint glides past my view. The mass has no beginning, top, or end––there is only an endless, red middle. Generate is a dry bulk cargo ship as long as a city block and weighing nearly two-hundred-thousand metric tons. Her spotlight remains concentrated on our smaller boats, an effective command to stay put.

After many long minutes, the spotlight went out and the yellow blip appeared left of course. Shaken and alarmed, I wondered how a near collision could happen while I was being mindful. Had I disregarded my own knowing—abdicated my personal responsibility—because my faith in technology was stronger than my awareness of reality? It didn’t take long for me to make a connection between the unskillfulness of the moment and a concern I carry in my heart: my response to Earth’s changing climate. Ocean of Insight reflects:

It’s not enough for me to just sit in a bubble and be deeply mindful of my interconnection with Earth when I know danger is on the horizon, barreling down, about to strike….  The lesson I heard loud and clear from the Great Atlantic Teacher was I need to keep track of what’s happening in here and out there and apply what I know in order to stay safe…. No longer will I take my lead from those who appear unconcerned or indiscriminately assume people with expertise will keep me safe. Becoming mindful of my environment means I can no longer put absolute faith in anyone (scientists, politicians, commercial interests, or technology—especially technology).

This realization shook me. I’m an environmental advocate who spent shy of 20 years working to restore the beauty and ecological function of damaged urban landscapes. I learned about the climate crisis in the 1980’s but left the task of finding a solution to other people–those who seemed better equipped. But in time, the ever-increasing sense that I should do something about the heating planet grew uncomfortable. So when my husband suggested we take a multi-year sabbatical to sail the ocean wilderness, I embraced the time-out as a chance to regroup and figure out—on a deep spiritual level—the best way for me to engage with the global climate challenge.

I realized the night I nearly sailed into a container ship, my intellectual and emotional separation from events when urgent and decisive action is what’s called for has a name:  “spiritual bypass” –taking the road that skirts the heart of the matter.  The Great Atlantic Teacher made clear that dark night that the safety and quality of my life doesn’t altogether hinge on the actions and opinions of leaders or the remarkable powers of human technology. Because my inner-knowing matters, I cannot allow my thinking to be shaped by those who are unconcerned or hand off my autonomy—my responsibility—to know and act with skill.

I offer this story as a wake-up call for the climate concerned to intentionally cut off dangerous, semi-conscious group-think. Civilization’s future depends on as many of us as possible becoming intimately aware of what’s happening, accepting climate responsibility, honestly weighing the consequences of inaction, and each of us deciding to do the simple thing within our reach to keep us personally and collectively safe.  After all, many individuals altering course a few degrees isn’t nearly as tough as society running headlong into catastrophe.

Excerpts from Ocean of Insight are reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA.

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