Environmentalism and the Mind

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In January of this year, an academic named Paul Wapner delivered an interesting lecture at Iowa State University on what he calls “climate suffering.” A professor of environmental politics at American University in Washington and author of Living Through the End of Nature, the talk was different than others Wapner had delivered on the subject. It was not about environmental policy, nor was it about the actual physical privations that climate change is bringing to the world’s vulnerable populations (including non-human populations). It was, rather, about a more general kind of suffering, the suffering that comes from trying to fight climate change in the first place.

“I’m interested in responses to climate change that go beyond resistance,” Wapner told me. “To me, the pain associated with climate change is unavoidable. No matter how much we mitigate and adapt to climate change – which we absolutely should do – there will still be widespread hardship. So the question is, are there better ways of experiencing this hardship?”

Wapner began asking these questions, in part, because of the responses he noticed among his students when he would itemize the laundry list of horrors and challenges brought on by human-created environmental disruption and degradation.

“A few students would get fired into action. But by far, the majority would just be overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of the problem. There’s an assumption among many environmentalists that the best form of education is to scare people into interest and concern. But often the opposite happens – it leads to being overwhelmed and then, ultimately, to cynicism.”

Being overwhelmed, of course, is also a difficulty for educators themselves. There is a growing scientific literature on “exhaustion syndrome,” or burnout, a problem that affects all of us, activists and caregivers in particular. New research by psychologist Agneta Sandström of Umeå University in Sweden has found that burnout negatively affects sleep and memory and mood. No surprises there. The surprises, rather, were found in the brain. Although the symptoms of burnout look similar to depression, the burned out brain itself has a unique profile: high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lowered frontal lobe activity, among other changes.

These are driven and ambitious type-A subjects that Sandström profiled. The very people whom we might imagine as the most effective at getting things done were, according to one report, “more prone to exhaustion syndrome.”

To overwhelm and to suffer mitigate our effectiveness. Given that our environmental problems are not going away anytime soon, one question that comes up is how can we best support ourselves in this work? Are there particular mental qualities we might cultivate when it comes to addressing environmental issues in particular?

This exact question is one that Wapner, with help from a three-year grant from the Fetzer Institute, has been exploring both in theory – in sustained discussions with a group of like-minded colleagues – and in practice at a week-long “Summer Institute” in the mountains of New Mexico.

I’ve played a role in both of these enterprises, but it’s the latter I want to focus on, because what Wapner has done is effectively create a kind of eco-laboratory in the mountains, designed to ground and sensitize, and ultimately create more resilience in the minds of its participants.

So far his experimental subjects have been a group of twenty-five academics who, last July, each paid 850 dollars to spend seven days living off-grid on a 100-acre piece of land known as the Lama Foundation (Wapner is currently recruiting subjects to repeat the experiment this July). Surrounded by the Carson National Forest, Lama has been a center for “inner work” since Ram Dass wrote Be Here Now under its looming ponderosa pines back in 1971. Today it is run by an energetic cooperative of young stewards who grow their own produce and have remade the compound into a sprawling showcase of funky do-it-yourself ecological design.

Over the week, participants move through four kinds of immersive experiences, each of which is designed to cultivate a different capacity of mind.

The first two capacities are the most familiar: the social mind and the creative mind. Participants joined in candid discussion and sharing, exploring both personal and professional issues around the environment and their own roles as educators. For many this was the first time they had been able to articulate their thoughts, concerns and emotions on the subject. The effect was cathartic for some, and indeed there is much new research coming out these days about how the simple act of illuminating one’s murky emotional interior can reduce distress and create other health benefits.

The insights continued with a series of creative exercises facilitated by the artist Nicole Salimbene. Using paint, sculpture and various mixed media, participants were encouraged to find new ways to think about old problems, to refresh both their approaches and the kinds of questions they asked. These activities were fun and often genuinely revelatory.

At this point the workshop moved into slightly less orthodox territory. Is there a kind of mind that opens and sensitizes us to nature in particular? Perhaps. This is the contention of David Abram, author of the eco-classic The Spell of the Sensuous and the more recent Becoming Animal (both excellent books; must reads!). Abram spent years living and studying with indigenous shamans around the world. What he found was a very different way of relating to nature, versus our own often heedless and forward-tumbling Western manner. These shamans, Abram contends, see themselves as immersed in a reciprocal relationship with nature. They don’t see nature as dumb or insentient. Rather, all of nature is intelligent and in constant communication with everything else. With practice, he argued, it was possible to tune into that conversation, something he worked to demonstrate on nature hikes, as participants tiptoed beneath the huge pines and among the slender swaying aspens.

Although Abram’s argument will sound New Agey to some, there is some tantalizing neurobiology to support at least the receptivity piece. Some neuroscientists distinguish between two forms of perception: egocentric and allocentric. The former is active, focal and directed – we are over here, deliberately directing our attention to a world out there. This awareness is instrumental – how does what I see relate to me as an acquisitive controlling ego? The latter is a very different system that uses a different set of brain circuits. “Allo” means “other;” this attention is passive, broad, impersonal and receptive. It doesn’t impose on the world, rather it lets the world impose – impress – on us.

It is this form of attention that Abram had the group practice. Can we walk through nature in this more receptive mode? Can we begin to trust our own participation in this much larger conversation? Soften your gaze, Abram encouraged us. Shift to the periphery. Trust your intuitions.

The experience of course was vague at first and sometimes unintentionally comic. It was hard not to giggle at the sight of these very serious professors staring softly and lovingly at various local shrubs. But, like any practice over time, our experience deepens. We learn to trust the vague blooms and feelings that pass through our bodies. In this way, Abram argued, we develop new sensitivities and, ultimately, new sources of support. One thing we can say with certainty is that when it comes to the health of the environment, all of nature is in this together.

It is here that I made my own modest contribution as the instructor of meditation. Every morning I taught the professors a different sitting practice, one they could also take with them into the day. Primarily a teacher of mindfulness meditation, I’ve been influenced by the Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young’s conception of mindfulness as the training of a three-fold attentional skill set. The first two attentional capacities are fairly straightforward: concentration and clarity. The first refers to our ability to attend to what we deem relevant; the second is our ability to make finer and finer discriminations about what is actually happening in our immediate experience.

But it is Young’s understanding of a third quality, equanimity, that ultimately had the most transformative effect on my own life and practice. In Young’s view, equanimity means something very specific: a lack of pushing or pulling on experience, which he likens to a reduction of sensory impedance or friction. It is here that human suffering is addressed. In Young’s famous equation (that is, famous to his many students), “suffering = pain x resistance.” Pain is an inevitable part of the human condition. Suffering is not. Suffering is a product of fighting with our pain – gripping, resisting, fixating. Doing so exponentially expands the original insult, which reverberates up and down the mind-body tract, stressing the whole system in all kinds of subtle and underappreciated ways.

So then, for our meditation classes, although we worked with different objects of awareness – inner talk, imagery, emotions, body sensations, sounds and sights, among others – the emphasis was always on finding the flavor of equanimity in our experience, which over time the meditator begins to recognize as a simultaneous smoothness and fullness, an easygoingness that lubricates all our interactions and sensations, even our discomfort.

And here we come back full circle to the question of climate suffering. A burned out Type-A striver is no good to anyone. We need to cultivate as many resources as possible if we are going to address our planet’s challenges. These resources aren’t just external. They are also internal. They are capacities we can build; in the same way we have built our collective intelligence and our capacity for reason. In Wapner’s mountain laboratory, the social mind, the creative mind, the receptive mind, and the equanimous mind come together in a way that is thrilling and important.

Let the experiment continue.

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