Concepts taken from Eastern philosophy to help you tackle “Eco-anxiety” and become a happier activist.
Our society has become polluted with new kinds of fear. Fear of the disintegration of important biodiverse landscapes and an increase in natural disasters. Fear of famine, starvation, new diseases and global pandemics. Fear of a world without bees, diminished polar regions, and not enough trees.
…our feelings are invalidated and taunted by those in power who care so deeply about tomorrow’s profits and their own needless comforts.
Environmental consciousness has bred a new generation of young people drowning in what the American Psychological Association have referred to as “Eco Anxiety.” Not only are we frantic as we fret over the daily reminders of our deteriorating planet, our feelings are invalidated and taunted by those in power who care so deeply about tomorrow’s profits and their own needless comforts. Each day our fear is met with insufficient action, our wounds seldom soothed. I want to tell you that your fear should be acknowledged. You are not a “snowflake”. You are a compassionate person, and you want to make the world a better place, not just for yourself, but for everyone.
I have struggled with eco-anxiety for most of my life. I have been laughed at by my elders, my peers, labelled as “overly sensitive” and dismissed with simple platitudes such as “things will figure themselves out”. So much of my adolescence was spent reading scientific papers containing horrific predictions and watching documentaries that made me both physically and mentally sick. I started to feel guilty for engaging in what had once seemed a normal lifestyle. I tried to give away many of my possessions and even resorted to self-punishment for behaviours I deemed too indulgent. I hated myself and I hated what I saw around me. I decided I wanted to devote my life to environmental activism, yet I so often felt overwhelmed into inaction. This suffering, in the name of sustainable development, was so ironically an unsustainable way of life. I began to address my fear. I observed it and started to understand that it wasn’t serving me and was only debilitating my capacity to serve others.
I DECIDED I WANTED TO DEVOTE MY LIFE TO ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM, YET I SO OFTEN FELT OVERWHELMED INTO INACTION.
I studied different techniques designed to create a state of “Samādhi”, a term used within Eastern philosophies to describe the process of unifying the mind and developing focus. In doing this, I discovered that it was possible to break free from the many prisons of anxious rumination that I had previously felt trapped in. Through observing my mind and body, I started to experience the polarities that motivated me; a desire to serve others, but also myself. I wanted to be idealistic, yet also practical. I wanted to feel important, without subtracting from the quality of life that others could lead. I discovered that I was perpetuating a mass of inner conflict that I had, for most of my life, been completely unaware of.
Spending most days without the practice of self-observation had allowed my fearful subconscious to run riot, exhibiting robotic reactions in quick succession. By examining my thought patterns, without judgement, I began to understand what was helpful to me and what was not. It felt as if I had discovered some sort of superpower, but it is this capacity to observe ourselves that makes being human so very special in the first place. By observing ourselves before we react, we are able to make broader connections between events and how they trigger us. We can even choose to not react at all. Instead, we can act with careful and controlled contemplation from a steady, balanced state of mind. I opted for a daily meditation practice. At first, I felt weak as I struggled to observe myself without getting lost in my thoughts for more than a few minutes. After much persistence, I began to see improvements in my ability to focus, my awareness of my body and my overall happiness.
This no easy task, and I won’t pretend to have mastered it myself, for it is a path that many Buddhists believe to take lifetimes to accomplish. We are all different and will inevitably require unique techniques when it comes to self-care. But, however we get there, there is no doubt in my mind that personal well-being and successful environmental activism go hand in hand.
Well-being and activism
Research has shown those “who favor a strategy of pursuing desirable outcomes, are most inspired by positive role models”. In order to make beneficial changes for the environment without damaging our mental health, we are better suited to acting with positive motivations as opposed to incentives based on fear, hatred and guilt. Self-observation allows us to identify when we are feeling positive or negative forces of motivation. When we are experiencing and reacting to negative feelings, we often become more contrary to those around us and engage in defensive and unproductive conversations. Therefore, it may be wise to take a step back and focus on mental wellbeing. When we are feeling loving, this is when we are best suited to making changes to become more sustainable individuals. We are also more likely to create open dialogues with people of opposing views. Opening these dialogues, with love, respect and compassion for those who think differently, is a proven method for cultivating a returned consideration for your own views. If we are going to save the planet, we need to work on effective communication with those who are not yet onboard, a map for which is well-outlined in Stephen Covey’s acclaimed novel “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.
IF WE ARE GOING TO SAVE THE PLANET, WE NEED TO WORK ON EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION WITH THOSE WHO ARE NOT YET ONBOARD.
Acting with love and compassion for others is not the same as condemning actions of force. Rather, it condemns actions of aggression and violence that come from places of unconscious negative motivation. Take this scenario: your friend decides, in a drunken stupor, that they want to jump into the ocean. You know your friend is a bad swimmer. The current looks vigorous and the water is piercingly cold. They are insistent and move to jump. An action of forceful compassion would be to pull them away and make sure they stay safe. We know that our environment is fragile and facing imminent ecological hardship. It is for this reason that the organisers of Extinction Rebellion encourage forceful action, attracting attention with non-violent civil disobedience, whilst accrediting their mission to a deep powerful and raging… love.
We rise in the name of truth and withdraw our consent for ecocide, oppression and patriarchy. We rise up for a world where power is shared for regeneration, repair and reconciliation. We rise for love in its ultimate wisdom. Our vision stretches beyond our own lifespan, to a horizon dedicated to future generations and the restoration of our planet’s integrityExtinction Rebellion’s “Vision” 2019
Suggestions for self-care
Address your anxiety
Make time to understand yourself. Research different techniques for obtaining discipline over your unruly mind and give these techniques a fair trial. It takes time to change our mental habit patterns, but if you make the time, you will receive great benefits. Examples of such practices, that can be explored with low and even no costs, may include: yoga, vipassana meditation, transcendental meditation and mindfulness. Whatever methods you choose, be it cutting yourself some slack or eating more salad, it is time to fully embrace that taking care of your mental and physical well-being will benefit the environment too.
Generate Love and Compassion for yourself and others
The practice of “Metta Bhavana”, which is Pali for “loving kindness”, is a type of meditation that has been used as supplementary in different Eastern traditions for obtaining inner peace. It works by starting with self-love and then allowing yourself to radiate with love for others. There are different ways to practice metta bhavana and here is a link to get you started.
Make time to connect with nature
This is my favourite as after all, this is what we are trying to protect. So, let yourself enjoy it. Let nature nourish your mind so that you can nourish nature.
Don’t be afraid to reach out
If you are really struggling, talk to those who are closest to you or maybe even a professional. Help yourself to help the planet.
Art by Holly Brown