It's Not Easy Being Green
Why our minds make it hard to prioritize the planet and one thing that can help
Allison Kelly :
We are bombarded with so many terrible things facing our world that if you're anything like me, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. The planet is warming at unprecedented rates and we have only 10 years to turn things around. Over twenty-thousand babies and children are dying every day from poverty and malnutrition. Some 65 million refugees are forced to leave their countries with nothing, and we are turning them away, leaving them to die. We are killing each other, blowing each other up, desecrating each other and our planet.
It's no wonder we are more anxious than ever before. Facing the reality of our species and the terrible things we do to ourselves and the Earth can be paralyzing. I've noticed that I often stop breathing when I scroll through the news, and too quickly feel compelled to turn away. I feel hopeless, helpless, with no sense of where to begin to try and reverse the world's tragedies. So, I dissociate. I check my e-mail; I scan through my Instagram account; I think about when to book my next haircut. I get caught up in thinking about things my mind is better equipped to deal with. What do I need to get done this morning at work? What groceries do we need for the week? What podcasts should I download for my next commute? What new clothes do my kids need this season? I can make lists and execute. It feels like I'm accomplishing something and there's somewhat of a thrill at feeling productive. As a bonus, I am distracted from the suffering of the world.
But a quick glance at my news App, and my inner turmoil resurfaces. I become aware that I'm not accomplishing what deep down I feel is most important to be accomplishing, what the world needs us all to be accomplishing. And so, the cycle continues.
It's hard to be human.
Why is it that we struggle so much to do the things we know deep down are important?
Are we all just evil people, as Greta Thunberg questioned, or are we simply struggling to manage our tricky minds, as Professor Paul Gilbert might suggest. I think it's the latter, and the more compassionate we can be with ourselves and with each other, the better supported we will feel in trying to use our minds for good. To do this, we must first understand how our minds make it hard for us to do the "right" thing, and how this is not our fault.
Facing the state of the world involves feeling painful emotions. We don't like this. Through our conditioning, our minds have developed an aversive reaction to pain; we try to push it away. Watching Greta Thunberg's heart-wrenching pleas is just that. Hearing about the (lack of) future that we are leaving for today's children is extraordinarily hard. As someone with young children, a part of me would rather not listen to this speech as I know how it will make me feel. I already feel sad about this, and I know how bad that feels, so why feel even sadder? Scanning through my Instagram feed or watching Schitt's Creek can feel like far more inviting options. They don't help me tackle climate change but they can help me feel temporarily less distressed, which is what my mind wants. This push to not feel negative emotions is a major force we're up against and is a hard one to overcome.
Our brains are hardwired to seek out and gather resources. Our brains evolved over hundreds of millions of years when resources were scarce and closely tied to survival. Our minds still operate as though this is the case. We are thus easily propelled into drive-mode, focused on achieving and acquiring. When we're successful, we feel bursts of dopamine that keep us wanting to acquire and achieve more. It's like a voice in our head that says "Yes! That feels good! More of that!" This would have been adaptive in our hunter-gatherer days of scarcity obut for most of us reading this, resources are anything but lacking. Yet here we are on a treadmill of constant acquisition, trying to satiate the insatiable. Our minds make it hard to slow down and reflect on the greater state of affairs in the world, and on the planet. These bigger-picture issues we face would not have been on the radar of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The "old brains" we acquired from them are far more concerned with acquiring resources, finding mates, and forming tribes. So, left on auto-pilot, our minds are of no help in solving the challenges of the world. We need to foster deliberate reflective thinking about these issues and how we would like to attend to them in our lives, and this goes against what our minds want to think about.
Our minds are constantly pulling us in competing directions. I want new shoes. I want to reduce my waste. I want to fly somewhere tropical. I want to reduce my carbon footprint. I want a new phone. I want to help those who have less than me. I want a kitchen renovation. I want refugees to be welcome in our community. I want my kids to have lots of opportunities. I want to end famine and poverty for all the world's children. I want more disposable income for travel. I want to stop climate change. In addition to equipping our minds with competitive motives to acquire things, evolution has equipped us with a motivational system focused on noticing and alleviating suffering. This system initially evolved to ensure that we would keep our infants close to us and free from danger so our genes would get passed on, but over time has become more widespread in its focus. The care-focused system tunes us into the suffering of those around us - and to our own suffering - and motivates us to try and alleviate and prevent it. There is always inner-conflict between this system and the competitive system, and so it's not so easy to replace our competitive instincts with caring ones. Indeed, if our ancestors had done that, they would never have survived. So, we can feel deeply threatened by the prospect of shifting our focus to more communal pursuits like trying to take better care of the Earth. This is again understandable and not our fault.
None of this is our fault. We did not choose our minds. We had no say in the evolutionary forces that shaped our brains. So, this is nothing to feel ashamed of. Your struggles are likely the same as my struggles. We'd all be lying to each other if we said this was easy. We are all in the same boat, and we must recognize that. But it is now up to us to keep our boat afloat.
One thing we can all do: Mindfulness
The Dalai Lama said: "Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace. Many of the problems we face today are our own creation. Creating a more peaceful world requires a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart."
Although we did not choose our minds, it up to us to take responsibility to understand how they operate and manage them for good. In my personal life, research, and work as a psychologist, it has become clear to me there's one thing each of us can do to help in this regard: practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is such a buzz word these days that it's easy to dismiss it as we might the latest fad diet. But although it's received growing mainstream attention in recent years, it has been around as a practice for 5,000 years. Even back then, there was a recognition of the need to manage our human minds.
Mindfulness refers to paying attention on purpose to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. People often use the term "meditation" to refer to the practicing mindfulness. Meditating is hard. It usually involves sitting down and doing nothing for a defined period of time, which is antithetical to our culture of mindless activity and constant doing. It's the last thing we want to create space for in our busy lives. It takes us out of our typical comforts and coping patterns. Rather than letting us disengage from the daemons in our mind, and the suffering buried beneath, mindfulness draws our attention to all the craziness that lives within. So, this is really hard initially and it's not our fault that we may want to not bother with it. We must be compassionate with ourselves through this process.
Here are some ways that practicing mindfulness can help us and the planet:
1. Mindfulness acquaints us with our feelings and leaves us clearer on what to do. When we meditate, we begin to notice various sensations. Feelings we typically disconnect from reveal themselves, and we learn to approach these feelings with curiosity rather than panic. Since meditating, I have had noticeably more courage to tune into my more painful feelings. I have found that in pressing play on that Greta Thunberg video, in letting myself cry, in really sinking into the sadness, I'm giving space to something that's there, beneath the surface, whether I like it or not. Whether I turn toward it or not. As useless as each cry about climate change initially seemed to me, each cry has left me feeling more grounded and clearer about what I want to do and can do. Suddenly, I felt less desperation and more conviction, and this has felt good. Emotion researchers have found that every feeling, when actually felt, pulls an action-tendency. Fear motivates us to fight or flee. Anger motivates us to repair injustice. And sadness motivates us to slow down and regroup. To feel naturally motivated to address the problems of the world, we must commit to trying to connect more with our feelings and mindfulness helps us do that.
2. Mindfulness allows us to see, and interrupt, our habits of mind. When we meditate, can see all the things our minds habitually become consumed by: the planning, the controlling, the remembering, the acquiring. We can see how all our stories are about me, me, and me. What I want, what I don't want, what would make my life better, what would make me less unhappy. When we're practicing mindfulness, we're practicing the act of observing our minds in action without jumping into the chaos. It's like watching the fish swim by in the river but not jumping in to swim with them. In swimming with them, we'd be unable to really see them as we'd be swimming too, but in standing on the riverside, we can really see the fish. This is a very humbling experience. Yet it is also quite liberating. We start to experience some element of choice about what stories of our mind we would like to keep crafting versus the ones we'd like to set aside. This is hopeful.
3. Mindfulness slows us down and allows us to live in a more intentional way. When we practice mindfulness, we slow down our bodies and our minds. This creates more space, and less automaticity, around our actions and thoughts. It allows us to operate in this world in a more deliberate, intentional way. Given the constant stimulation and distractions that pull us into auto-pilot, this is significant. It's like pausing at the start of a yoga class and asking yourself why you're there, and what you want for your practice, rather than just going through the motions while thinking entirely of something else. We all have it in us to be compassionate and engaged human beings, so the more we can do to tap into that, by trying to operate in a clearer, intentional way, the better for us and the planet. Mindfulness helps with that.
4. Mindfulness connects us to other people and to our caring instincts. When we get in touch with our pain, we get in touch with our humanity, and how hard it is to be human. This helps us have compassion for others around us and for ourselves. It helps us stop blaming and shaming and instead realize the commonness of the human experience. It helps us work together to find solutions. Research shows that people are more mindful are also more compassionate and engage in more pro-environmental behavior.
5. Mindfulness connects us to nature. When we're outside, it's easy to lose track of the beauty of the world around us. The trees, the leaves quivering in the wind, the radiant fall colours. We're often so focused on getting to our destination, or checking our texts, that we lose our connection with nature. When we practice mindfulness, we are cultivating an intention to connect to the moment without trying to achieve anything. Mindfulness helps us appreciate the beauty in nature, and in my experience, feel sadness at the changes in nature caused by global warming. While the latter has felt unpleasant, it has helped me want to take better care of the planet.
In a time where it can feel overwhelmingly impossible to know how to help the world and the planet, mindfulness offers a starting point. It is hard work. It takes courage, dedication, and commitment. It means carving out a dedicated time each day to put away our phones, turn off the Netflix, stop doing, and look inward. It is much easier to carry on in auto-pilot. But if we keep carrying on that way, we won't carry on.
(Allison Kelly, Ph.D., C.Psych., is a psychologist and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on self-compassion, self-criticism, shame, body image and eating disorders).