Happy New Year! Or maybe just … New Year!
As we turn the page on 2021 … what have you learned from 2020? What might give you a boost for a fresh start and the long haul?
In the Karuna program we train in time-tested methods that help us keep our hearts and minds open during difficult times. We look at how we listen to, care for and extend compassion to ourselves and others. It seems that now more than ever we need routines that can help us be resilient as we cope with the crises of our changing world. That’s why this month, we are exploring the topic Resolution/Revolution: Fresh Start for a New Year. If you’d like to explore this topic with us more, you can join Senior Teacher Sandra Ladley on Saturday January 9, 12 - 1 PM Pacific Time for an online Karuna Live interactive talk on the topic, and/or read a little in-depth discussion about it from her here.
What resolution do you want to make that will help you in 2021?
New Year’s Celebration/Review/Fresh Start
In the 1980s I worked in downtown San Francisco. At New Year’s we would gleefully celebrate by tossing the previous year’s daily calendar pages off the roofs of our office buildings. The pages would float and join a snowy swirl of thousands of pages descending and blanket the streets. We would then wade ankle deep through the pages with dates and personal appointments of the past year surfacing in random fashion, like a waking dream. This would of course leave a very big mess for sanitation workers to clean up and they would do so with big sweeping trucks the early hours of the morning after. We would come back to work the next work day and all of it would be gone. There was a lot of waste in this and times have changed but the symbolic sequence of a celebratory toss, floating, review. wading through, and clean-up for a fresh start stays with me. If we consider the calendar pages of 2020 fluttering by, or the repetition for many of us of reliving the same day over and over in a “Groundhog Day” kind of way this past year, then where does that leave us? I recently headed out on a walk in my neighborhood and was stopped in my tracks when a neighbor said to me “Hi. We have a lot to look forward to this year, don’t we?” Actually that hadn’t occurred to me. Heads up! As we begin this year with weary hearts, surrounded by suffering and with indefinite stay at home orders, what can we look forward to? What will help keep our spirits up? What have we learned from 2020? How can we change what we want to change?
So we all know that research shows that resolutions don’t work and diets don’t work. And in recovery programs it’s said “don’t do a geographic” meaning you can’t abruptly move away from your issues because wherever you go - there you still are. Yet at the same time there’s the corny but true “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’ve all been inspired by stories from people saying that a major health issue or hitting bottom was the best thing that ever happened to them because it woke them up and helped them change harmful patterns. For many, despite the horrors of the past year, the disruption we’ve experienced has had a similar effect in a “Where have I been all my life?” kind of way. And at the same time just to survive being at home day after day and the onslaught of news and despair we’ve sometimes succumbed to the dangers of a never-ending pajama life and our worst tendencies. How can we chart a course for ourselves that takes these ups and downs into account? If resolutions don’t work then what does?
I’ve gleaned the following shared themes from current research on personal change. During this month’s Karuna Live, on Saturday January 9 from 12-1 PT, we’ll have a time to reflect, identify and develop an achievable or “tiny” personal resolution/revolution plan to help sustain us over the year.
Increasing Success for your Resolutions
A New Year’s resolution is defined as a tradition to resolve to continue good practices, change an undesired trait or behavior, accomplish a personal goal, or otherwise improve our lives at the start of a new year. One half to one third of Americans engage in the ritual of making a resolution at New Year’s. Research shows that we are aided in making change by support from the “environmental nudge” of a new year and similarly to a lesser degree by the start of a new week. These are referred to as the January effect or Monday effect.
In general, things that can help us succeed over the long run are reinforcement for the practice of ‘self-liberation” - that we CAN change, adopting a simple “tiny”good habit instead of avoiding a bad one, rewarding our successes, avoiding temptations, and visualizing our success. Things that can sabotage our efforts include negative thinking and fixating on past harms, berating ourselves and negative self-talk, wishing and pretending there isn’t a problem, avoiding our feelings, and denying and minimizing the dangers of the issue you want to address.
Here is a possible sequence for establishing a resolution plan.
Steps for a Creating a Resolution Plan
1. Reflect and celebrate
Research shows that it’s hard for us to take in the good of our lives. We are wired to fixate on the negative and self-criticism. Take time to reflect on what went well for you this past year and where you did follow-through, no matter how small. This strengthens our own intrinsic health and embodiment of the sense that we can change.
2. Have gratitude
Another corny but true platitude is no person is an island. Let yourself take in the support and connectedness you have in your life, and your good fortune. Count your blessings. Sometimes this brings up the opposite, a sense of poverty, loss or longing and that’s good information but see if you can touch the connectedness and support or belonging you do have, This sense of being part of a support community is also strengthening for us as a foundation for change.
3. Identify the resolution and motivation for it
Identify what it is you want to change. Be as specific and realistic as possible. Why do you want to change it? Research shows that knowing and staying aligned with our motivation helps us, and that internal vs external motivations are more likely to succeed over the long run. So, for example, losing weight to feel better and lessen health problems is more likely to succeed than doing it to meet societal body image expectations.
4. Set a tiny achievable plan - a 1% change
Break the resolution down to the smallest step you can take. It’s said we will increase our success by making 1% changes over time. This way we can recognize and gain strength for continuing from our successes and operate under the radar of the “shoulds” and negative self-talk. In Karuna Training we recommend ongoing meditation practice which is hard for many of us to start and keep going. So you wouldn’t go from zero to 100 and set your resolution as “I’ll practice meditation a half hour every day” you might set it as “I’ll meditate 5 minutes at 9 am each day, or three times a week.” There is data that supports starting anything with 5 minutes is achievable and we can leverage that habit as a foundation for continuing change.
5. Identify a cue, link it to another behavior
Find a cue and ongoing behavior you already have to link your resolution to. So, for example, I wanted to stretch in the mornings. I committed to stretching while my kettle was heating to make coffee. Visual cues also work. People often use their sneakers as a cue for walking or working out.
6. Write it down, see it
There is data that shows that writing down our resolution reinforces and strengthens it. Know where you’ve written it down and refer back to it. Some people find tacking it up for you to see a help. Putting the activity in your calendar as a routine also helps you to see and prioritize it.
7. Tell your friends, engage their support
Going on record and telling people you are doing this helps you tap into support from your community for it. In addition, where can they join you in this? Having a walking or meditation buddy or group can really help keep you on track. Take advantage of zoom and other online support for your resolution.
8. Go gently, ups and downs are part of it
In Mahayana Buddhism there is the helpful slogan from Atisha “not too tight, not too loose.” If you hold yourself too tightly you are bound to backlash. If you are too loose then you can lose the momentum and it can be hard to find your way back. Both tight and loose can be ways of making it harder on ourselves. Go gently with a long view. Every morning brings a fresh start. Sense of humor and having a comedic perspective on our foibles also helps.
9. Plan to reward yourself
Research shows that rewards work in making habits stick. A square of chocolate, a small purchase, a gathering, a ticket to something - what rewards will work for you?
10. You did it! Take time to recognize, celebrate and embody your change
Coming back full circle … recognizing and celebrating our successes is seen as pivotal to accomplishing our goals. An uphill battle or trek does not work. Using hiking as a metaphor, periodically stop to rest, take in the view, appreciate and adjust, then move on. You could schedule these rest stops in your calendar.
I feel we all need help and can support each other in creating personal safety nets of good routines that hold us and strengthen our resiliency this year. I hate to say it but who knows what’s coming next?
Are you struggling with eco-anxiety? The state of our environment is an ominous message these days. From climate change, to pandemics, to wildfires and unpredictable weather, it is stressful to contemplate the state of the natural world.
However, if we stop and feel deeply into ourselves, we know that we are not actually separate from the natural phenomenon. Now is the time to recognize and draw on the wisdom that is already present within us and in all situations.
Living with Eco Anxiety
“What does it mean to live with the knowledge, where the energy behind the emotions can engulf you and create a maelstrom of fear and reaction?”
This question was posed by Dr. Renee Lertzman at the start of a Touching the Earth Online seminar. Dr. Lertzman identifies herself as a psychologist inspiring climate and environmental action, working with those on the front line and administration in mental health . She is all about working with our own emotions, and her approach is completely in line with Karuna Training.
To live with eco-anxiety is to live with this question all the time. The news on climate change and environmental devastation is so haunting, we end up asking ourselves, ‘what can we really do to make a difference?’
The Climate Crisis Is Getting Personal
In the mid-August heat of Denver, Colorado, Sloan Lake, my neighborhood respite, the place where I resource myself daily, has had a major drop in oxygen levels in the water due the high stagnant heat and fire smoke throughout Colorado. The result is hundreds, if not thousands of fish died and floated to the surface. On my morning walk I met the stench of dead fish two blocks away. The fish were laying on their bellies gasping for oxygen - which immediately mimicked the gasping for oxygen that COVID-19 inflicted patients are going through. There is no air, we can’t breathe. Sound familiar?
Ecological mishaps tend to motivate us when they affect us directly in our own backyard. Many of us have either been through a major fire, an earthquake, a mudslide or a hurricane, or we came close enough to know that the disruption is daunting. Eco-anxiety is now in the weave of human fabric, something that we live with daily.
These haunting incidents are occurring so frequently that I dread the news. If we believe science, we know it is only getting worse. The crisis is upon us!
Noticing Eco-Anxiety Paralysis
We are living with these climate change events, as if we’ve been diagnosed with a terrible disease with a poor prognosis, and we’re frozen by not knowing what we can really do to help. We know that unless we do something... yesterday, it will continue and likely get worse.
And yet, even though I consider myself a champion of ecological issues, I’m not consistent in my activism or carrying through with good ecological habits. I personally tend to move in wide swings of extremism; one year eradicating all paper in my house, except toilet paper… another several years living with a Permaculture food forest front and back yards in California --- but paying extreme water bills to keep it alive. At the same time flying off to offer seminars Worldwide and agonizing over my carbon footprint, but not stopping.
Many of us become intentionally inactive and ignore the situation altogether, falling into what Dr. Lertzman calls the ‘hope and despair option’. This option doesn’t motivate us but leaves us wallowing in ambivalence and paralysis.
Many of us have given the eco crisis a lot of consideration. Maybe we’ve become a vegan, created permaculture gardens, or chose local farm supported agriculture. Still, we constantly find ourselves head to head with issues of giving up our comfort and convenience.
It is a challenge to maintain the truth of the crisis consciously and consistently. We live our lives in modern times with a multitude of unnecessary conveniences that are bad for the environment. It is easy to grow ambivalent and complacent to just keep ourselves and our families healthy and housed. Now, during the COVID-19 crisis, there are many behaviors I roil around in my heart about. For example, I order way too much from Amazon when it appears that is the only place to get what I want. The point is that we live our lives conveniently, and it is easy to go unconscious around the urgency of the issues. Meanwhile the earth is becoming uninhabitable for humans and a multitude of other species.
Working With Eco-Anxiety Contemplatively
What is called for, from a contemplative psychology perspective, is facing and feeling the underbelly of our anxiety, and finding a way to resources ourselves while doing so. We cannot move forward on any of our aspirations to make personal or planetary change to be conscious stewards of the environment without learning to relate to the emotional dimension of eco-anxiety. If we don’t embrace the emotions we are sitting with, we will never be consistent or successful in changing habits that need changing.
Step one is meeting and feeling our anxiety directly for what it is: helplessness, fear, stubbornness, attachment, etc.. We need to take the time to feel all the aspects of what is really there and why we are feeling the anxiety we do. The problem is that meeting our anxiety is the last thing most of us want to do. Often we are looking for anything, any fix we can find in order to not feel the tinge of our anxiety.
In Karuna Training, we understand that our emotions arise for a reason, they are there to inform us, and are full of wisdom, if we are not being ruled by them. If we are busy avoiding and managing our feelings, they become like demons that rule us, and yet ultimately they are our teachers. The way to meet our emotional energy directly is to feel into our emotions directly by listening to the body, as opposed to the thoughts in our head. Learning how to do this is a contemplative discipline, it takes mind training and building the muscle of awareness that habituates us to come back to our bodies as an anchor to feel the energy of emotions.
Anxiety can be debilitating and habitual. It's not uncommon to develop a free-floating feeling of anxiousness that we then hunt for reasons why we feel the way we do. Thus we need support to distinguish clinical anxiety which is debilitating and can need professional attention and care from habitual feelings of overwhelm; in this case, specific to the environment and climate change.
We need to be extremely gentle and kind toward ourselves when we say “meeting our emotions directly” because in actuality the practice is really a process of befriending our emotional energy, and learning to listen to our emotional pain as an informer, versus an obstructor and/or debilitator.
What is needed is a strong supportive environment, and a means by which we can resource ourselves to be brave and experience the wisdom of all that we feel. This can take many forms; a therapeutic container, a class, a group dedicated to the grief over the loss of our planet. Some kind of exploratory container with other like-minded people who support us in this kind of relationship to emotional energy is necessary.
When and if we do face our fears, anxiety and complacency (and we dare to feel them directly), at that moment we are enacting fearlessness, because we are leaning into our truth in the moment. This can look like a breakdown or a strong display of vulnerability on the surface, but just the willingness to touch into and feel our unpleasant emotional energy is an enactment of strength and resilience. Meeting our energy directly has the ability to empower us on the spot. We gleen energy and resources within ourselves by facing and feeling our emotions directly.
Finding Support In Community
I want to champion the work of Irene Woodard, who is the founder of Touching the Earth forum, a google group on Shambhala Online. This group is providing a network and forum to support genuine inquiry and a safe space for holding the fear and ambivalence of eco-anxiety. They’re offering us information on what we and all species are facing in the environmental crisis. I mention this group because this is who I’ve recently found as a resource, and there are multiple other such resources available if we look for them.
For example, the day I discovered the dead fish in Sloan lake, I was fortunate to have a group to attend and to share my feelings about it. That resourced me so that when I got out of that group, I began to look into what is actually going on with Sloan lake versus making a lot of things up in my head about what could be causing it. Later I read a lot of such speculations from my neighbors on the Nextdoor posts, such as: “Someone put some blue chemicals in the water,” “The lake is dead and the spring has dried up.'' These speculations are anxiety speaking. I am learning that when dealing with Eco-anxiety we need to get beneath those initial reactive fears, and find out what is actually happening, get the facts.
Once we discern our true feelings and resource ourselves enough, then we find out the facts. We need to be educated on the facts before we can start opening up to the question, “What can I do?”
In order to work with my anxiety around the lake, I turned to my neighbors for support. I’ve now started a channel on the NextDoor app ‘Let’s Help Sloan’s Lake’, and we are brainstorming options on what to do. I’m finding out that issue is bigger than I thought. The lake has indeed lost its original spring, it dried up already and therefore the lake is fed with runoff from the neighborhood. That means all the neighborhood runoff is feeding the lake. I mention this because often when we resource ourselves and look more deeply into the facts; we end up peeling back a layer of hidden truths and find out even worse news.
What is important here, from a contemplative perspective, is we need to keep feeling what we feel directly, and finding like-minded communities. Thus resourcing ourselves for a journey where we are able to make whatever changes we feel are appropriate and in accord with our values.
Living with eco anxiety is about finding a way to hold ourselves in loving kindness and be responsible simultaneously. It is a journey of realizing the anxiety is real and there's a reason it's coming up - its intelligence! The environment is speaking to us, the elements are raging from a human perspective, and the question is “are we listening?”
Living with eco-anxiety is embracing the notion that we are all interconnected with this sacred earth and all its inhabitants. They’re health and sanity is directly related to our health and sanity. When we begin to touch into, feel into and embrace our earth and its inhabitants as family - we will naturally want to find ways to act, even small changes congeal to make a difference, and to ease our anxiety. The earth doesn’t write emails, the connection we have with the environment starts in the heart, flourishes in the mind and is lived through the body.
We all need to find ways to be resourced by and through our connection to each other.
Resourcing ourselves and staying resourced and focused is 99% of the effort. The rest is just following through. Resourcing ourselves to live with eco-anxiety is and will become an endless task in our lifetimes. I aspire to reclaim the wisdom as human beings that we were born with, and that we will be guided by our heart as responsible stewards and co-inhabitants of our beautiful planet. She needs our attention and love right now, we are not separate.