There are days when I feel that climate change is the only thing that matters and that the tragedy of it is unbearable. I feel simultaneously like screaming on the street and hiding under the covers.
At least I know that I’m not alone. According to a 2020 study by the American Psychiatric Association, over half of Americans said they were somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change.
And they – we – are right. There aren’t enough words in this newsletter to describe the scope of this tragedy, which has just begun to unfold. Massive species and habitat loss. At least 250,000 deaths each year from 2030-2050, according to WHO projections. Up to a billion climate and food refugees, with attendant conflicts and disasters. Increased wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and pandemics. Covid-19 is a picnic compared to what’s in store for our children.
So what can we do?
I used to think that meditation could be part of the solution by helping us to consume less and live more sustainable lives. But to be honest, I don’t feel that way anymore. As is now very well documented, individual behavior change will not stop or slow climate change, and even if it could, it’s unrealistic to imagine a billion people meditating their way to sustainability.
Where meditation and mindfulness do have a role, however, is enabling us to be part of the actions that do make a difference. Here are two ways that can happen.
1. Reducing Eco-Anxiety
First, it can help with what is now called “eco-anxiety.” To repeat, eco-anxiety is entirely justified. This isn’t like that old Buddhist story about being afraid of a snake that turns out to just be some rope. No, climate change is a real snake.
But our reactions are still up to us. With mindfulness, we can see when anxiety, fear, rage, or a sense of helplessness are paralyzing us – when they’re preventing us from taking action, rather than inspiring us to do so.
Try this the next time you read (or don’t read) a news story about climate change: check out the mind, heart, and body. Just note whatever’s going on, without judgment: fear, dread, anger, whatever. Then, try coexisting with that feeling, rather than trying to push it away. Okay, you might say, right now, it’s like this.
And if the feeling is too strong to simply “be with,” you can consider an antidote, which can be as simple as taking a deep breath or remembering people who bring you joy. Or try one of the many anxiety meditations in the app.
The point of doing this isn’t just to feel better, although that certainly helps. Often, as pioneering meditation teacher and climate activist Joanna Macy has written, the pain of climate change is so great that we feel we have no choice but to retreat into denial or apathy. It hurts too much to care.
Sometimes, the sense of helplessness which many of us feel can also cause us to take individual actions which may give us an illusion of power but which don’t actually make a difference. Which leads to the second point…
Climate change is a collective problem. There aren’t enough virtuous people in the world to make a difference through reducing their carbon footprints, and studies have shown it’s exceedingly hard to get the “non-virtuous” to change their behavior. Your individual choices may reflect your ethical values, and communicate those values to others. Those are good things. But in terms of actually mitigating climate change, they simply don’t make a difference.
To address those factors requires politics, and politics is often nasty. Believe me, having worked as a political columnist for eight years now, I can speak firsthand to its corrosive effects on one’s mental health and love of humanity.
But it’s the only way forward. Want to feel less helpless about climate change? Register people to vote. This year, persuade centrist senators (if one represents you) to get on board with meaningful climate action. Donate to political causes. Get involved in local politics, where meaningful collective actions are possible. Find the Venn diagram overlap of what needs doing, what you’re good at, and what brings you joy.
And that is where meditation can help.
First, it can help us rest, relax, and restore. We get mentally messy, and then we wash off. That is of enormous value.
But more importantly, meditation trains the mind to be with difficult emotions so that you don’t have to freak out when you experience them. By learning to coexist with anger, frustration, fear, and despair in meditation, you don’t get triggered by them for the rest of your life.
So, yes, I’m suggesting you bring climate change, and politics, into your meditation time, to allow whatever emotions they bring up to unfold. Because learning not to be controlled by them is how you actually grow happier.
Building mindfulness in this way can also help you practice “pendulation,” engaging with the challenging material, and then backing away from it to restore. It’s like a cycle: do your activist work, notice when you get stuck, restore, and return. Remember, fighting climate change is a marathon, not a sprint. And being frozen by anxiety, anger, or burnout is not helping anyone.
These, at least, are some of the tools that have helped me. None of them will, themselves, reduce the impact of climate change – but I do find they make me more able to do so. Truthfully, I don’t know if that will be enough. But a wise Jewish adage says, you are not required to complete the work, but you are also not free to desist from it.
Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".