Touching eternity: Thich Nhat Hanh on ecological collapse

In the spring of 2012, during a retreat in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh answered questions concerning global ecological collapse, from over-consumption to species extinction. Thay’s answers focused on solutions that are within our power, far from the much discussed quick techno-fixes that, although necessary in the ongoing sixth extinction, fail to tackle the real causes of our species’ predicament. 

One of the main takeaways from this talk is the importance of changing our perceptions of happiness, successful lifestyles, and ultimately the relationship with ourselves and with the other species we share our common home with. 

Facing the sixth extinction and touching eternity

▪️ Do you believe humans can avoid a global ecological collapse? Or are we driving ourselves towards one? Are we a vulnerable species or one still in control of our destiny?

When answering this question about the current species extinctions unfolding on Earth, Thay referred back to another extinction event, more than 250 million years ago, when a six degrees Celsius rise in temperature caused by volcanic eruptions killed up to 95% of species. It took Earth another 100 million years to restore life. In this instance, the greenhouse gas effect that led to the extinction occurred naturally. 

Now the planet is again undergoing extinctions, but this time they are man-made, and the excess carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere “comes from our lifestyle and our industrial activities”. 

Thay uses this series of geological events to explain the Buddhist teaching of “no birth and no death”, and how it can help us face the current predicament and embrace impermanence:

“After extinction, things will reappear in other forms. So we have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact we humans may disappear in just 100 years on Earth. And we have to learn to accept that fact. We should not be overwhelmed by despair. The solution is how to learn to touch eternity in the present moment”.

The Earth has the capacity to restore balance in its ecosystems, but if our civilisation disappears it may take the same amount of time (100 million years!) for life to re-establish itself in some form. 

Faced with this reality, learning to touch eternity will mean that we do not fall into despair. And by not falling into despair we can channel our energy into positive action.

Our relationship with the environment

You know how to practice touching the Earth by walking meditation, by lying down. Allowing nature to heal you. You know how to release the tension in your body. To reduce the pain in your body. Not to work your body too hard. All these things – we can do.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Most societies’ general perception is that the environment – what we call the natural world – is merely a resource, something separate from us, but of service to us and our needs, both real or imagined. 

Thay states that “we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the Earth.” We are organic matter, we are made from the Earth’s elements, and we require air and water to function.  Acknowledging this will not only improve our relationship with the natural world, but also bring peace within ourselves. Engineering solutions may help, “But that is not enough. What we need is a transformation of our consciousness. Our idea of happiness. Our lifestyle.”

Changing our consciousness 

▪️ Is there an alternative lifestyle strong enough to convince us to discard this high-consumption lifestyle?

Over-consumption is a symptom of a disconnect between ourselves and the values that should lead us. Our bodies and minds are wondrous and this present moment is full of wonders. But because we don’t know how to touch these wonders, we don’t know how to appreciate life – the here and now. Instead, we keep pursuing the mirage of happiness created by a consumerist society: the promise that ‘stuff’ will fulfill our lives.

“We are seeking for happiness but there is suffering inside of us. There is a big vacuum inside of us; that is why we are looking for things outside, in order to fill up the vacuum inside. That is our situation. We are getting sick. We don’t feel at peace with ourselves. We have a big vacuum inside and we don’t know how to fill that up with better things. So we look for consumption. We think that if we can buy new and exciting things then we can forget the vacuum inside. But that does not seem to have an effect. We are buying more and more but we do not feel that kind of fulfillment. We need love. We need peace. But we do not know how to create love and peace.”

Thay further discusses a lifestyle that can help us create love and joy – which cannot be purchased. For instance, enjoyment of walking meditation brings your mind back to your body; being body and mind in the moment allows you to touch happiness, meaning that the need to reach for external ‘things’ diminishes or disappears.

Being aware of the miracle of life can help us to reconnect with the natural world. By reconnecting and appreciating all life around us we can understand the need to protect it. And in an ecological crisis, this need to appreciate and protect life is an essential step that requires our presence, body, and mind. 

The Five Mindfulness Trainings as lifestyle

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are an ‘alternative’ lifestyle born from the vision known as Interbeing: the idea that everything is connected to everything else, and that our happiness and the happiness of other species interare:

“Your life and the lives of other species are interrelated. And when you try to protect the life of other species, you protect your own life. In order to protect ourselves, we have to protect others. And that is the practice of the First Mindfulness Training.”

Protecting Mother Earth and other species is to protect yourself. This is the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings 

“When you breathe in mindfully, you can see that Mother Earth is in you. And you are in Mother Earth. And that kind of insight helps you to remove your fear of dying. And helps you to see that in order to protect yourself, you need to protect Mother Earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As an intelligent, young species, we can use our talent and technologies, but also our love to protect the well-being of other species.

Thay reminds us that “all life is one” and that it “cannot be chopped into several pieces.”       

Protecting life is a joy, an act, and “a kind of lifestyle, that comes from the insight of Interbeing.” 

The second mindfulness training is true happiness

When we realise that happiness cannot be reached with money alone, or through buying things, we can generate and create a true happiness which depends on mental attitude more than external conditions. Once we are aware of the suffering caused by “exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression”, we can commit to practicing generosity in thinking, speaking, and acting.

Sharing “time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need” is another step towards true happiness. The suffering and happiness of others are not separate from our own happiness and suffering.

“[T]rue happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion.” 

The third mindfulness training is about true love

Kind, patient, compassionate, generous beings can generate happiness for themselves and those around them. By practicing true love, we are paving the way to a kind and compassionate future, “because love can only build, heal, rebuild, heal.” 

“[W]hen you have love in yourself, you don’t have to run and buy things. Because love is fulfilling. Love makes you peaceful and happy.”

The fourth mindfulness training is about how to restore communication

A deeply divided society is a society whose members fail to communicate. Fear, anger, discrimination, and despair take over, because there is not enough communication between members of our species. And sometimes we fail in communicating even with ourselves.

“We are not only killing other species, we are killing ourselves as a species; that is why technology is not enough. We have to learn how to listen and how to speak lovingly.”

Thay mentions that we have to learn to practice compassionate listening to ourselves – our deepest desires and suffering – to promote peace in ourselves and those around us. When we understand suffering, we can understand the aspiration and suffering in the other person. 

Through awareness of “the suffering caused by unmindful speech, and the inability to listen to others”, we should commit to “cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening, in order to relieve suffering and promote reconciliation and peace in [ourselves] and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations.”

The fifth mindfulness training is about nourishment and healing 

“Every time we look deeply into the nature of suffering and see the causes of that suffering, compassion in us will be born as a kind of energy. Whether that suffering is in us or in the other person. So getting in touch with suffering and allowing the energy of compassion to arise is something we can do.”

That illnesses afflict so many people is another symptom of a disconnect from nature. We need to replace unmindful consumption with mindful eating, drinking, and consuming, cultivating good health – both physical and mental – not just for ourselves, but for our families and society. 

On the importance of communities

▪️ The urban population across the world is growing. What, if anything, is lost by our increasing transition towards being an urban species?

Thay points to the fact that, because urban and rural are connected, with the countryside feeding the city and a rapid increase in urban population, pressure has been felt in rural areas too. As a result, industrial agriculture, with its overuse of pesticides and antibiotics, poisons the countryside.  

“The countryside has to use a lot of antibiotics, poisons, insecticides in order to provide the cities with food and things like that. So the countryside is no longer safe for us. And even if we go back to the countryside, and continue the same kind of consumption, there is no solution. Whether you are in the city or you are in the countryside, we are losing. We are losing a lot.”

But even under these circumstances, there are “more chances to touch nature, to touch the earth; it’s a little bit easier to heal ourselves with the practice of touching the Earth in the countryside.”

Therefore, we need to reconsider our relationship to what we consume, and not take for granted any life-giving products and commodities, as they all come at a far greater cost than that printed on the price tag.

He further mentions small, preferably rural communities as a solution, where cars, gardens, schools and other resources can be shared in a spirit of mindfulness, with inhabitants generating the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood. And we have to learn how to organise our lives in order to have enough time to love.


  1. The best writing on climate collapse I’ve ever read. Pure truth and wisdom. It does make me profoundly sad, even with no birth, no death. For one thing I think of all the suffering to come for animals and people in mass extinction.

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