Each year at this time, as spring approaches in the global North, we celebrate Earth Day. It’s always struck me as slightly odd to single out just one day to honor the source of everything we depend on for our very lives! Yet I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect on how mindfulness relates to our relationship with the planet and how it might help us to meet the unique challenges of our times with strength, courage, and resilience.
The natural progression of mindfulness practice is towards an increasing intimacy with ourselves and with life. Through this intimacy, we develop a deep caring and respect for the incredible sensitivity and preciousness of all life, our own and others, human and non-human. Within this process, it is our willingness to feel that helps us make the shift from inner awareness to engaged, compassionate action.
Knowing the Mind and Body
Through contemplative practice, we become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, moods and memories. We see how this stream of mental and emotional experiences follows certain predictable patterns, leading to our own and others’ welfare or harm depending on how we relate to them. We learn first-hand how habitual impulses towards self-centeredness, fear, anger, or greed, when unchecked, can wreak havoc on our own bodies (as neglect or addiction), on our relationships (as carelessness or abuse), and on our planet (climate change, resource depletion, pollution). We learn which states of mind to encourage, and which to set aside; which ones we need to develop, and which ones we picked up along the way that are no longer useful.
As mindfulness grows, we also awaken to the richness of our sensory experience. The clarity we develop in formal, silent practice cleanses the doors of perception so that we are more available to experience life directly – the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and touches that constitute embodiment.
Contemplating sensory experience, we recognize that the earth, the environment is not something “out there.” Nature is not something we visit on the weekends or observe from a distance. This body itself is part and parcel of the planet. Nature is right here inside of us, and we’re inside of it. We are moving about inside of the earth, touching, feeling, and breathing her all day long.
Have you ever stopped to think that every single morsel of food, every drop of water and breath of air, every cup, garment, vehicle or tech device, comes from the earth? The very cells and matter that make up our own body all come from the earth. (We are more than 50 percent water!) How would this begin to change our relationship to the planet, if we lived in more constant awareness of this intimate relationship?
To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe — to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it — is a wonder beyond words. — Joanna Macy
Opening the Heart
Contemplating this deep interconnection with our planet can bring awe and wonder at the beauty of our shared life, as well as sadness and grief at the precariousness of our current moment. Rather than sinking in despair, instead of growing numb or shutting off inside, mindfulness practice encourages us to face the immense heartache of ecological destruction and species extinction, to mourn and grieve, and ultimately to find compassion for all life on this shared planet.
To meet these challenges, we must draw on our inner resources and upon each other. Looking further into our own hearts and minds and reaching out to one another, can we find the willingness to feel the full range of our emotions, including pain or fear? We must see how the tide of despair, how the flood of overwhelm saps our energy, inhibits us from being fully alive, and prevents us from responding to the task at hand. Here, again, is visionary author, teacher and deep ecologist Joanna Macy:
The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life, flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstatic but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more creative uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.
Contrary to what one reads in yoga magazines at the checkout line, being mindful doesn’t mean feeling good all of the time. It means awakening to the whole range of human experience: the joy and the sorrow, happiness and grief. True well-being is holistic. It comes from including everything, integrating all of who we are.
Being mindful also means recognizing the limits of our capacities, and calling on the support of friends, elders, and community when needed. While small, personal acts do make a difference (reducing impact through various lifestyle choices), there are no individual solutions to structural problems. We must use the clarity of awareness and the strength of compassion to work together to address the sweeping changes on our planet.
So as we celebrate Earth Day, I invite you to turn inwards and to turn outwards. Allow mindfulness practice to reveal your intimate connection with this planet that sustains our lives. Be willing to feel. Open yourself to both the awe and the heartache of being alive. What will it take to meet the challenges of our times, to work together as stewards for future generations?