Zen and the art of not freaking out
Christiana Figueres credits it with landing the Paris Agreement. NASA’s Peter Kalmus says it keeps him going, organizing scientists in disruptive rebellion. I find mindfulness to be the keystone practice for dealing with climate anxiety — stabilizing the rickety structures and wild swerves of our minds.
We’ve covered several strategies for handling the onslaught of news about our overheated planet in recent weeks. I’m heading into a few weeks away from writing Zero Carbon, and I want to make sure we explore the most obvious approach to dealing with our minds — checking in on them.
It’s actually very weird that mindfulness should be a topic at all. Our minds are fundamentally all we have, mediating every experience, generating every thought and every reaction. Getting to know them should be core curriculum in the basic training for living a human life. Instead, we spend most of our lives caught up in thoughts, identified with emotions, under a kind of spell punctured only by the briefest moments of awareness. We pay much more attention to what we wear than what we think.
Mindfulness is itself a kind of miracle, as sages like Thich Nhat Hanh have been saying for millennia. And it can be used as a multi-tool in the climate era.
At the most basic level, when climate chaos gets overwhelming, we can turn to mindfulness to regulate the nervous system. If we’ve practised outside of emergency mode, we have a kind of break-glass tactic when anxiety spikes. Perhaps some simple breathing exercises to calm the racing mind and panicked body. A practice like “box breathing,” which Jay Michaelson recommends in What to do About Eco-Anxiety. An ordained rabbi, activist and muckraker, Michaelson recorded a guided meditation for the Ten Percent Happier podcast, which I’ve plugged before and will link again here.
As you probably know, mindfulness has become incredibly popular in recent years. There’s a bewildering buffet of teachers and approaches out there. The path you pick will depend a lot on your own temperament and tolerance for the kookier corners of humanity. If you’re turned off by westerners in eastern robes, mystical mumblings or dubious dogma, there are many secular programs based on solid science. If you’re just getting started, I hope the smattering of resources we cover today will get you going.
It needs to be underscored that meditation is not a substitute for professional help. If you or someone you know is in real psychological crisis, good therapists and psychiatrists can be essential. You will run across studies showing that mindfulness programs work just as well as medication for anxiety. Over 200 studies have found mindfulness helps treat depression, pain, addiction and stress (even surprising physical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, immune response and fibromyalgia). But psychologists like Margaret Klein Salamon and researchers like Britt Wray, who focus on climate anxiety, all stress the importance of mental health professionals.
Nor is mindfulness a cure-all. It might be a multi-tool but it’s not the only tool we need. You may remember Mingyur Rinpoche, the Tibetan monk who recommended gratitude as the surprising antidote to despair. He recommends daily formal meditation and also punctuating daily life: “Short times, many times — anytime, anywhere.” He also urges exercise. I remember one moment after a public talk quite vividly because it was so unexpected. A distraught questioner asked for advice. The entire auditorium fell silent, anticipating a jewel of contemplative wisdom.
“Try jogging,” suggested the meditation master. “Or some aerobic exercise.”
So much stress and anxiety is held in our bodies. Rinpoche’s point was that exercise can help release some of the excess. And physical sensations can also become a therapeutic part of mindfulness practice. Once we’re calm enough to see and feel clearly, we can train the spotlight of attention on body sensations.
Finding the specific location of a feeling and then its distinct qualities — precisely where and precisely what it feels like — can be a powerful entry point for processing emotions. A deceptively simple technique to address avoidance, denial and the tendency to bypass painful experience.
Kelly Boys is one teacher I discovered recently and find very helpful on somatic stuff. A useful bridge between breaking glass and more deliberate mindfulness. You’ll actually be lying down and calming down as you uncover the natural, underlying clarity she promises is always available (she’s also really good with guidance to improve sleep, if that’s your thing).
You’ll find Boys’ meditations on her own site, but she also has a series on the Waking Up app. Both Waking Up (“a new operating system for your mind”) and Ten Percent Happier (“meditation for fidgety skeptics”) are excellent resources to explore the broad range of practices and varied approaches to mindfulness.
One way of thinking about mindfulness practice is a kind of training for your mind. Just like you’d go to the gym for muscles. As we train in concentration and non-distraction, the mindfulness “muscle” strengthens, and if you’re like most, you’ll find a shocking amount of distraction. A firehose of thoughts sweeping you off on tangents and into cycles of rumination.
“Don’t believe everything you think,” has got to be one of the world’s greatest bumper stickers. And it’s very applicable to minds grappling with climate chaos. Anxiety is so bound up in thoughts about the future (or rehashing the past). Discovering that you are not your thoughts can be one of those simple but liberating shifts in perspective.
Turn awareness onto thoughts themselves and they’re revealed as gossamer wisps, arising from some mysterious nothingness and dissolving back into it, unless we perpetuate them.
Is this summer’s barrage of climate records a signal we’re in some kind of phase-change to a more dangerous acceleration of climate breakdown? An important question. Also, a thought that we can choose to pursue but need not define our being.
Are carbon emissions rising relentlessly or is climate pollution peaking with replacements now proven and set to eat away the dominance of fossil fuels? Is 1.5 degrees still within reach? Is exceeding 2 degrees inevitable? Will we need radical change in our economic system to have any hope of climate safety?
Incredibly important questions. Ones where top climate experts differ in their answers. And ultimately thoughts about a future we cannot know. As the great master Oogway tells Po, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift … that's why they call it the present.”
If you’re looking to get systematic about training your mind, you might try RAIN. An acronym developed by Michele McDonald, it’s a progression of steps to deal with whatever is actually happening in the present. Beginning with R for recognizing and moving on through acknowledging, investigating and non-identification, RAIN is easy to remember and useful in all sorts of situations, from painful feelings to persistent thoughts.
Mindfulness teachers promise benefits beyond your own life and sanity. The practice will make you more effective as well because you’re operating with more insight and less from a place of panic. I’m constantly surprised by the people who are dedicated meditators. From Lebron James to Yuval Noah Harari, Oprah to Nelson Mandela, who emerged from Robben Island counselling “regular meditation, say of about 15 minutes a day.”
You might remember that when we last checked in with Peter Kalmus, the NASA scientist had locked himself to a JP Morgan bank branch as part of the great scientist rebellion. One of the most outspoken of over 1,000 scientists engaging in disruptive civil disobedience, Kalmus credits meditation with easing anxiety and increasing effectiveness.
“When I meditate regularly, I do not have anxiety, and I am far more effective at science, activism, writing,” Kalmus wrote while en route to a 10-day retreat this spring. “I find it to be a gem of a practice. When I stop practicing the anxiety floods back. Meditation is one of the most important things I do — it lets me keep going & with joy.”
And the astrophysicist-turned-Earth-scientist certainly keeps going. Just this week, he penned a cri de coeur in The Guardian. “We’ve passed into a ferocious new phase of global heating with much worse to come,” he writes. “I’m terrified by what’s being done to our planet. I’m also fighting to stop it. You, too, should be afraid while also taking the strongest action you can take.”
Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and a key architect of the Paris Agreement, told me this spring that she credits the negotiations to studying with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “I attribute the Paris Agreement to Thay’s teachings,” she said.
Thich Nhat Hanh died last year. His last book is impishly titled Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, and the monastic community of Plum Village has doubled down on his climate mission. Along with Figueres, the team has been developing a seven-week online program to “nurture mindful action in service of the Earth.”
“We have entered a period unseen before in human history that requires all hands and all hearts on deck,” says Figueres. “Whether you’re a climate activist, a scientist, a parent, an outdoor enthusiast or someone who simply doesn’t know where to begin, this course will help you respond to the current crisis from a more grounded, thoughtful, connected and effective position.”
I was lucky enough to be invited (along with the founder of Canada’s National Observer, Linda Solomon Wood) to a week-long climate retreat led by the monastics this May. A condensed version of the online program, which several participants described as “life changing.”
As you might expect if you’re familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s “engaged Buddhism,” the program is comprehensive and also gentle. Kind towards our neurotic tendencies and compassionate in addressing common fears like inadequacy. The program includes a healthy dose of connection with the Earth — “interbeing” — and is aimed at increasing the effectiveness of advocacy in the face of suffering, injustice and destruction.
You’d have to decide for yourself whether you’re down with the Zen monastics’ more ambitious aspiration for global awakening. I think I land more in line with Jay Michaelson’s view that great swaths of humanity meditating towards sustainability is simply not in the cards. Tackling climate change will have to come through the messy process of culture battles and the nasty sausage-making of pluralistic politics.
“Where meditation and mindfulness do have a role,” he says, “is enabling us to be part of the actions that do make a difference.”