On Earth Day 2022, Wynn Bruce set himself on fire in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. For eight years, I have known Wynn as a beautiful friend, Buddhist meditation practitioner, lover of nature, selfless, brave, fun loving and creative man.

Kritee Kanko

I cannot know what exact reasons led Wynn to take this action. What I do know, as a climate scientist and climate-justice advocate, is that Wynn, like many others, felt a dire urgency about the global climate crisis. We live with ongoing distress about achingly slow and catastrophically insufficient actions those with power have taken so far to mitigate the causes of exploding climate disasters. 

As I write this, people in India are already facing 115-120 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, and it isn’t peak summer there yet. I have been in evacuation zones of three wildfires in Boulder in just three months. I know in my bones what the ongoing climate crisis already means.

In addition to the devastating climate-related events,  there is an exponentially growing chasm of inequality between the dominant elite and the vast majority. The chasm affects the poorest and least privileged among us, women and children, who bear the brunt of polluted air, poisoned water and climate catastrophes that are yet to come. 

Changemakers commonly get burnt out by the layers of family, economy, race, gender, health and ecology-related traumas. There are days when it seems like there is nothing we can do that is meaningful and will make a difference. Given this sense of powerlessness, psychologists have repeatedly pointed out the need to take strategic climate actions and improve our mental healthcare system to address climate grief, depression and increasing suicide rates.

In my spiritual life as a Buddhist meditation teacher and grief circle leader, I have argued for years that the grief, fear and anger that any activist working for justice and peace feels is completely natural. And my focus is on helping climate and social-justice activists work through despair.

I routinely observe how regular meditation can calm activists down and take them away from the reactive states of mind towards a joyous engagement with the present moment. I teach communities how to embrace what cannot be solved even under the best-case scenarios. I teach how to “compost” what is buried deep and currently lying discarded as waste in our minds and fertilize our collective actions.

At the end of Ecodharma retreats I lead, I notice to my deep satisfaction that the energy of individuals’ grief and anger has gotten “composted” into clarity, courage and joy in the presence of a wise and loving community. You can read some testimonials yourself. 

In the hours after the news of Wynn’s painful death broke out on social media, I was shocked and heartbroken. My primary impulse was to stand up for him and say how compassionate and courageous he was. After a week of reflection, I hold the issue of Wynn’s deepest aspirations in taking this action as a Zen koan: I don’t know.  

No one can be sure about Wynn’s psychological and spiritual state in the months leading up to his action. Did he feel a conviction and a hope that his act will inspire people to speak their truths? Did he feel any despair or anger in spite of how deeply he was loved as a community member?

The crucial part is that we don’t have to know Wynn’s intentions to feel whatever we need to feel. We don’t have to understand him completely to decide our own next steps.

Some impacts of the climate crisis are inevitable now, but every action we take is important to bring more protection to the most vulnerable ecosystems and people. The goal of keeping the planet’s average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times has all but slipped away, but we must do our best to keep it as low as possible. Every effort, every fraction of a degree matters. While the situation is dire, we don’t have the collective luxury of giving up. We need to act courageously in every moment.

We must work on our own layers of trauma. We must learn to slow down and hear our friends when they are in distress.  We must develop equanimity and vulnerability if we’re going to develop a loving community around us. We must learn to ask for help when we are overwhelmed. We must learn to calm down and access joy in the midst of agonizing tragedies. Every time we collectively speak our truth in creative ways, every time we strategically campaign for changing unjust laws or take nonviolent direct actions, we get closer to being wise ancestors to people who will live seven generations from now. 

We can be deeply alive, resilient and even joyous in this moment as we do our very best to avoid catastrophes. This is what my decades of Zen practice has taught me. That is what our relatives living in harmony with their lands and people have done for millennia across the planet.

Kritee Kanko lives in Boulder.

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