Pamela Boyce Simms on the Necessity of Contemplative Traditions in the Age of Climate Chaos and Kakistocracy
Last weekend, Deceleration ventured up the road to San Antonio’s Quaker Meeting House to attend a talk by Pamela Boyce Simms called “Rekindling the Fire of Fox: Climate Change and the Spiritual Way Forward.” We had gotten wind of this talk at a meeting on climate organizing in San Antonio, where we had picked up a flyer describing Boyce Simms as “an engaged Eco-Buddhist” who “works to transform anger and despair into compassion toward neighbors, communities, and the environment.” Given Deceleration‘s concern not just with questions of climate justice but with the affective (or inner/emotional) work required to sustain effective action in the face of mounting climate and social crises, we were intrigued.
If there is anything like a single, unifying belief to Quaker practice, it is that what is sacred or divine (“that of God”) resides in each one of us, which we can access when we get still and turn our attention inward. For this reason, Quaker meetings are distinguished by a contemplative tradition in which members sit together in collective silence, at times speaking when moved by spirit. Other Quaker values (equality, peace, simplicity) have informed equally long traditions of involvement in movements for abolition, women’s suffrage, peace, nuclear disarmament, civil rights, sanctuary, and environmental justice.
But it was the contemplative tradition and its relationship to climate action that Boyce Simms most centrally addressed in her talk. Boyce Simms identifies as a Buddhist (non-theist) Quaker, and as an engaged Buddhist, described by founder Thich Nhat Hanh in a 2003 interview as “just Buddhism.” In his words:
When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on—not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you. … [At the same time,] you have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.
Boyce Simms worked for many years with the Transition movement, building local, regional, and international networks for community resilience and energy descent, and focusing her efforts in particular within “international Quaker, Buddhist, and African Diaspora Earthcare networks” (see her full CV and read some of her articles here, published on the website Resilience).
Now a representative to the UN with Quaker Earthcare Witness, what brought her to San Antonio and to other Quaker meeting houses around the country was the feeling that the Transition movement had failed to take root to the extent necessary to prompt a wider cultural shift, and that a more fundamental kind of internal work was necessary first.
Some of Boyce Simms’s analysis here was familiar to me from the academic world of the environmental humanities, in particular the work of foundational eco-feminists like philosopher Val Plumwood and historian Carolyn Merchant, who root the ecological crises resulting from capitalist and colonial economies of extraction within a deeper cultural cosmovision endemic to the West, specifically the mechanism and hierarchical dualisms (good/bad, male/female, culture/nature, white/black, mind/body) inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like Newton and Descartes.
Where Boyce Simms went beyond these foundational analyses in her talk was to move beyond analysis itself, and even beyond organizing as the final horizon of our collective efforts to dismantle the political economic structures wrought by Enlightenment thinking (she refers to this work as “holding actions,” necessary but not sufficient for systemic change).
What she calls for instead is a “rekindling” of “the fire of Fox”—a deepening of the contemplative tradition embodied by Quakerism founder George Fox, which in returning attention to present-moment lived experience also awakens awareness of fundamental non-dualism, or the reality that we are not separate from creation/creator (or “the field,” in Boyce Simms’s non-theist conceptualization from quantum physics). Rather, we are always-already held in loving presence; we are in fact a manifestation of this presence. This, then, becomes the grounding for our action in the world.
Coming out of years of work with organizations which offer radical analyses but seem truly “lost in action,” to refer back to Thich Naht Hanh—inattentive to the damage inadvertently done to movement-building when collective efforts get stuck in re/action, refusing to rest/reflect, or which originate in untransformed woundedness—some of the most intriguing parts of Boyce Simms’s talk touch on how we respond energetically to the intense political and ecological violence we currently face, from an administration driven by gut-level white supremacist impulses at mass deportation and ethnic cleansing to the violent weather events that manifest the ultimate logic of an economy organized around extraction and commodification.
Do we direct our energy, which yearns for another world, toward confrontation with the storm? Or do we withdraw this energy first to an internal attention and stillness, so that the decisions we make about how best to create the world we will need in the generations to come—autonomous, post-carbon networks of resilience and care for those most vulnerable—might be made more deliberately, grounded in awareness of loving presence?
Boyce Simms’s reflections on these questions are worth noting in full:
The way we tend to approach it—we see all of these aberrant things. We see mass incarceration. And we see climate change wiping away the people who are most vulnerable. And we see our government, and we see horrible suffering. That’s what we look at. And we are galvanized, because we are good people that want to do the right thing, galvanized to attack that at this level. Engage it at this level. And what that does is precipitate more of that.
What happens energetically … you become what you are focused on. Put it this way: You have a certain frequency and energy field. You have a massive electromagnetic field that is your heart. You have a massive electromagnetic field that is your brain. … You’re a big field of energy. When you learn to harness that field of energy and meld that field of energy with a corporate [collective] body that’s moving in a direction that is positive, you manifest what is healthy.
You manifest what is beautiful. When your attention, all of that energy that you are, is focused on the racism or the sexism or this [indicating slide displayed in the photo below], you’re attuning all of that beautiful energy that wants to do good and wants to do the best, but we’re acculturated because of that mechanistic thinking to only seeing a fragment. So you’re attuning all of your good energy to really low vibrational energy. Which has the effect of vomiting up an administration we have. Because you’re precipitating exactly what that frequency is.
What we can do is realize that above that cloud cover, above all of that stuff going on down there, is light. It’s always been there. It’s really not above it. It really is in the same space at a different frequency.
If in your meditation, if in your contemplation you are focused here, so that you can radiate this down into that—then we’ve got a shot at dissipating some of the horrible stuff. But if our social concerns are so focused, because we’re so focused on duality thinking, on the racism and the sexism and the incarceration, and deconstruct that through reductionist analyses etcetera, we are just making it worse for ourselves.
So we did all this really good work, and look what we got for a government. That’s the answer. We weren’t focused here beaming light in. We were focused at the level of the social concerns, at the level of marches and protests and lying down in front of bomb trains and all the rest of it—really channeling the energy of the pain as opposed to the solution.
There’s lots here that will likely piss off radical folx, who lean materialist in their analysis of problems and solutions. But as one who has worked deeply within resistance movements for many years, I can’t shake the sense that there is something missing from the way we approach this work that would make it more sustainable, less fragmented, less internally dysfunctional and internalizing of the external violence we oppose. I can’t shake the sense that without some kind of grounding practice of contemplation or ceremony, “resistance” remains trapped in a dialectic that only strengthens what we are resisting, when what is required is the courage and the skills to actually build new relationships—to self, to others, to land, and the more-than-human worlds we inhabit.
Another interesting exchange occurs in Part 2 of the video below, in an exchange between Boyce Simms and one of the meeting attendees on how we respond to and work with shadow elements of both self and society (including movement building). Although she doesn’t put it exactly like this, one of her points here is that what colonialism has done is systematically attempt to exterminate cultures that have ceremonial or ritualistic practices for working through and reintegrating shadow. Without such collective practices, Western cultures have repressed and disowned the shadow, which returns in distorted and unrecognizable forms—as illness, as violence, as the current interwined crises of climate chaos and “kakistocracy” (a cool new word I learned from her articles, meaning “government by the worst”).
Closer to home, an inability to integrate the shadow means that our efforts to respond to structural violence are grounded in self-loathing or shame and thus a kind of despair (“I must act because I’m bad, I’m complicit, I’ve done these bad things.”) At the time, I wrote this in my notebook: “depression” as an illness specifically of self-loathing arises when a culture has no collective practice for integrating shadow kinesthetically, at the level of the body.
Her response here to the problem of complicity is a nuanced one, but very important to the moment in which we find ourselves, in which the need to build movements that “stick” is more urgent than ever.
To turn one’s attention to the “field” via traditions of contemplation, withdrawing energy from shame- or despair-based confrontation with institutional violence, is not to deny that these structures are violent or that we may have been complicit in that violence. It is, rather, to ground our individual and collective agency in a very different affect and set of motivations for responding to that violence:
We need to get to a place where not wearing the clothes [as 18th c. Quaker Benjamin Lay refused to do given that they were made by slaves] comes not from “I am bad.” That’s why the storm exists with the light above it. You touch the reality of “something’s not right here.” But you stand in the truth of the vastness of who you are as opposed to “I’m so guilty because I do all this stuff.” The more you focus on that, the more you get paralyzed and buy shirts made of oil. If not … it’s never ending deconstruction of the same thing over and over and over again.
In both cases we refuse to “wear the clothes.” But only where our refusal is grounded in compassion and love for suffering, beginning with one’s own, can this refusal be sustained in a deep and committed way, becoming the basis for movements capable of moving beyond reactivity to the creation of real alternatives.
See Pamela Boyce Simms’s talk below, in two parts: