Living with Eco-Anxiety

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. 

Article written by Mairead

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