It's 8:30 AM on a Monday morning in a Pret A Manger at Marble Arch. I’ve been told to meet the group upstairs, and am greeted by the loud, resonant chime of a singing bowl being played – the sound echoing around the shop as office drones try to enjoy their porridge pots. “Can we just take a moment to feel our bodies, feel the space... tuning in to whatever bit of your heart moved you to be here today,” says the group leader, Dhorje Kandro.
I first came across DANCE while scrolling through a list of climate action groups on Facebook. Established in 2013, the group is a network of Buddhists who believe in bringing the ethical and spiritual principles of the Dharma in to the public arena, in order to tackle the climate emergency. A DANCE "action", or perhaps more accurately, lack of action, typically involves sitting in meditation on the road, in what the group describes as a "powerful form of protest that brings a sense of grounded-ness, power and peacefulness to the planet."
I get chatting to Les, a jolly, white bearded guy from Essex, who’s planning to camp for the next two weeks in the back of his van parked in Walthamstow. “It’s the first time I’ve done any sort of protest like this, so I’m a bit anxious,” he tells me.
“I was really shocked by the findings of the IPCC, and this is our last big shot really. My analogy is that if there were people asleep in a burning house, you’re not going to leave them in there, you’re going to drag them out.”
Les is relatively new to Buddhism, having discovered it at a dark time in his life three years ago. “I had a bit of struggling in my head, and was just really lucky that there happened to be a lovely Buddhist centre where I live, out in the sticks,” he explains.
Unlike other DANCE members, Les and crew are part of a small minority hoping to get arrested today. So as they run through arrest protocols, and scrawl solicitors numbers on their arms, I make my way to meet the "non arrest-able" half of DANCE, who are grouping for a pre-action session near Leicester Square.
At 9:30AM, we're at Quaker Meeting House on St Martins Lane. We enter a big room with 40-odd people all dressed in black, sitting in a circle around the flag of the earth, laid out on the floor. This is a space for the group to convene before an action and establish a sense of connection and inspiration towards one another and the earth.
We sit down, and a softly spoken lady begins to say a few words about “offering warmth to ourselves, creatures, people and spirits,” before everyone is invited to introduce themselves.
A large proportion of the group are Triratna Buddhists – an order founded in 1957 by a man named Sangharakshita – whose intention was to make 2,000-year-old Buddhist teachings relevant to life in the modern West. Interestingly, social activism has always been at the heart of Triratna. Before leaving for England, Sangharakshita was involved in a mass conversion, helping people at the lowest of Indian society to step away from the oppression of a class system by converting to Buddhism. For the Triratna community, fighting for the planet is just another application of this activism.
The introduction comes to a close, and an enthusiastic girl jumps out of the crowd to lead today’s group bonding activity, "the milling". I’ve always steered firmly away from anything vaguely group bonding related, so this idea fills me with excruciating horror. However I grit my teeth and the next thing I know I'm standing opposite a woman, our palms touching and arms in the air. She stares intensely into my eyes, smiling, for what feels like ten minutes.
Never have I been more relieved to hear the sound of a gong, marking an end to the activity.
We are led through a closing meditation, before having to reflect on today’s meeting. Words like “inspired”, “grounded” and “healed” float around the room – which of course is lovely to hear – but I can’t help but feel slightly confused as to how these practices can have any physical effect on our planet. Perhaps it's a comfort thing, to make themselves feel better about the sheer enormity of the problem? Or maybe there is something far deeper, that I’m completely failing to recognise?
As we leave the building and begin the meditation walk, I explain my confusion to Maitrisiddhi – a Triratna Buddhist who lives at Taraloka Retreat Centre near Wales. “Well, it's an interesting question,'' she explains. “As Buddhists of course we want to make any changes that are possible, but I think there is a bigger value in just saying that actually, we care, which will later resonate in to other areas of society..."
Our conversation is cut short as we arrive at Edgware Road, where an Extinction Rebellion protest is also taking place. We’re ushered in to a circle to discuss the best plan of action for the day, before everybody whips out their meditation cushions, positions their Buddhist mascots, and sits themselves at the very front of the crowd, eyes closed and legs crossed.
I suddenly realise that I’m the only person without a meditation cushion, so awkwardly perch myself on the curb, and try desperately to exert peacefulness. I struggle, however, as cabbies shout abuse, ambulances force their way through the crowds, and the police begin to get involved. I start to wonder what meditating on the road is achieving other than anger and frustration – both of which oppose the fundamental principles of Buddhist teachings.
However, a few hours go by, and bizarrely, meditating on one of London’s busiest roads begins to feel like a totally natural thing to be doing – people joining together in group solidarity for the biggest existential problem of our time.
I find myself reflecting on the conversations I’ve had and the people I’ve met, and realise that perhaps it's not necessarily about dedicating your life to Buddhism, or trying to enforce physical change. As Maitrisiddhi had said, it's simply about “showing that we care.” Because care, I guess, is what brings us hope, and without hope, there may soon be no life left.