A Druid’s Guide to Dealing with Climate Change: Addressing Deep Emotions and Grief

Fear. Anxiety. Grief.  Helplessness. Despair. Feeling overwhelmed. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. Anger. Numbness. Displacement. Disconnection. Sadness.  These feelings are some of the common ones that people experience today with the pressing and growing concerns about climate change, the age of the Anthropocene, mass extinctions, and the loss of life on our planet. And it seems like every day, with every report or first-hand experience or another failed climate summit, these feelings are reinforced.  These kinds of feelings are now termed “climate grief” and are being experienced by people all over the world including young people around the globe, adults in the US, and those who are choosing to be childless due to climate change, among many others.

This really came to a head for me a few weeks ago. I was on a call with a number of AODA members about a month ago, and before the call started, we had been talking about the unseasonable and extreme weather that people were experiencing all over North America. The conversation then shifted into talking about our fears about climate change, how it is pretty scary to think about our future from a climate perspective. It helped to talk about it, to bring it into the open, and people were relieved just so share in that small space. It struck me that we don’t create enough space for these kinds of discussions within our tradition–and they are critical for us to have. I also realized how many of us are feeling this way, but maybe not have appropriate times and places to share.

Listen to the music of the world: a climate change response

Listen to the music of the world: a climate change response

I think it’s important to talk about this issue of mental health openly and as one part of the spiritual and physical responses, I share on this blog for a few reasons. As the head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, I really see this coming up for more and more people each year and it is becoming a serious concern for many who walk paths of nature spirituality. First, on the most basic level, we are all on the front lines of climate change right now, whether or not we want to be.  It doesn’t matter where we live, we are impacted and there is no escaping it.  And things are getting more serious with each passing year, and for most of us, they will not improve in our lifetimes. Second, for those practicing nature-based spiritual paths, we are seeing nature–the thing we hold most sacred–under serious threat from human-driven activity.  It adds an additional layer, an additional burden, to the pain–knowing that there is a spiritual side, that the spirits of the land suffer along with their physical counterparts.  And third, certain kinds of typical druid activities–like deep observation, druid’s anchor spot practices, and others, can cause difficulty when we continue to observe natural patterns well out of the norm.  I’ve had new druids tell me they resist too much careful observation because they are afraid to see what is happening. Thus, what was meant to be a comforting spiritual practice can cause anxiety. And of course, it is further exasperated by the fact that global leaders appear incapable and unwilling to engage in serious action on climate change. In fact, humanity’s leaders and those in power seem intent on pursuing the relentless profit-and greed-driven paradigms that are literally endangering all life on this planet.

The question in all of this is–what do we do? How might nature-based spirituality help us through this?  How can we find a way of balance through this chaos? What kinds of tools can we develop so that we can process our own emotions, come to a place of emotional resiliency, and–most importantly–be ready to take action? The first thing, and what some climate specialists argue is the most important, is attending to the emotional aspects of climate change.  As I’ll describe in this post, the emotional issues are often what prevent people from action, what create what appears to be apathy, and what ultimately can help us move forward into action.

Emotions and Climate Change

Our emotions about climate change are real, valid, and are a deep part of our own humanity.  To talk about this, I’m going to be drawing from the work of Renée Lertzman, who is a leading climate psychologist and whose work has influenced how I approach climate change from an emotional perspective.   She outlines three psychological points that can help us understand climate change and how to address our emotions:

Window of Tolerance: Originally developed by Dan Siegel, the window of tolerance refers to a our mental and emotional state being such that we can stay connected, integrated, and in touch with our feelings enough to be fully functional and able to accomplish what we want to accomplish in the world.

Each of us has a threshold for stress–the amount of stress that we can tolerate at a given time.  Each of our thresholds is different, and we may be more or less resilient to stress based on previous recent stressors.  For example, for many people, the global pandemic introduced a host of new stressors, and many are reporting that they are less able to cope with new stress now compared to two years ago.  When we experience more stress than we are able to tolerate, thus pushes us to the edges or even out of our window of tolerance and leads to one of two responses: a rigid response like anger or denial or a shutting down kind of response like depression or apathy.  Either of these two states makes us less able to be whole, resilient, adaptable and functioning within our window of tolerance. Now, if you think about most people’s response to climate change: apathy and anger/denial are two extremely common responses.  This is in part because the problem is so enormous and appears so insurmountable that psychologically, we shut down.  In addition, this is not a single stressor, but rather one that continues to build over time. Thus, we are experiencing nearly a constant stream of information that works to push us out of our window of tolerance and either makes us rigid or apathetic.  Thus, it takes work for us to integrate and attune to these emotions.

The Double Bind.  The second issue that comes into play with our emotions surrounding climate change is the “double bind.”  The basic idea of a double bind is that we feel trapped regardless of what we do–if we do something, we are trapped and if we do nothing, we are trapped. The “rock and a hard place” metaphor for describing this goes back at least to the Odyssey, where Odysseus has to choose between the monster Charybdis, who creates a whirlpool that would consume the entire ship and crew, and Scylla, whose many heads grab sailors off the deck and eat them.  This “rock and a hard place” metaphor is extremely apt for what is happening with climate change. It doesn’t matter what we do, we believe the message that we are trapped and that no amount of action or inaction will make a difference.  Or, in the case of others, they work hard to make changes, but recognize that laws, culture, and things like taxes and money require us down a path we’d rather not take.

Our human psychological response to this situation is to push these feelings away, to avoid looking at the problem too long.  So we bury our care and concern and avoid the whole thing.  This looks like apathy.

How do we get out of the double bind, so that we can fully function within our window of tolerance?  The key is what Lertzman calls Attunement, which is extremely close conceptually to what Jung would call Individuation.

Attunement is when we are in a relationship with the world that makes sense, where we are accepted, understood, and in connection with our own emotions and emotional states.  We do not face shame or judgment about our actions (or refuse to tolerate judgment/shame from others). You might think about this like tuning an instrument–it may be very out of tune or only a little, but as we play our great instrument of life, we need to be regularly tuning ourselves. Part of the work of attunement is personal and part is communal and collective.  The goal with attunement is to understand our window of tolerance and work to be within it–because if we are within it, we are much more able to solve problems, face challenges, and be resilient.

Emotional and Ritual Work for Healing

Attunement works on an “as within, so without” principle: we start with ourselves, then our loved ones and friends, and then, if we feel ready, being out in the broader world. The first thing is to do a lot of deep meditation on the issues of our own emotions and create space to feel whatever we feel without judgment (mindfulness practice is really useful here).  So you might start by saying;

1. What are my feelings about climate change?  (Sit with this question a while, let it roll over you for a period of days or weeks, and really dig deep into your feelings).

2. How can I offer compassion to myself about these feelings?  I think it’s important to recognize that these things are incredibly hard.  It is a very hard time to be both a human and a druid!

3.  Ask questions and try to cultivate curiosity surrounding the experience.

These three steps can help you work through your feelings. You may also choose to work through some of these through bardic arts (e.g. journaling your feelings about climate change, creating climate change-related art, and so forth).

Ritual work can also be appropriate here. f you have feelings that are debilitating you and preventing you from moving forward, a releasing ritual of some kind may be appropriate.  For example, this kind of ritual could be very appropriate for extreme anxiety, fear, or releasing numbness or apathy.  Really sit with this for a while before you choose to do a ritual though. A lot of these emotions we are feeling about climate change do need to be directly addressed and integrated, and they will continue to reoccur, and sometimes ritual work is another way of burying them or saying they are released and therefore don’t bother us any longer.   Another kind of ritual work that can help this process is spiritual journeying to understand the depths of your emotions and working with helpful spirits to heal.

An example of healing art about climate change

An example of healing art about climate change

I use bardic arts quite a bit for this work, where I focus on channeling some of that energy into my artwork for a better vision of the future.  The bardic arts have a tremendous ability to heal and ground us.

Beyond ourselves, the second step is to find friends and a community surrounding these issues. Find people with whom you can share your feelings and who can share with you openly and without judgment. Give people in your life permission to simply feel what they feel and share what they feel like sharing.  Being heard and understood is an important part of our own healing and growth.

The third step is to practice attunement in the broader world and in your interactions with others. Recognize that there is deep strength in showing up as a human being, talking about your emotions, and recognizing that we all have them. This can be as simple as a statement saying, “Yeah, I’m really angry too and I don’t have all the answers.  But let’s see what we can accomplish together.”

Action in the World

Many people have found that part of the process of dealing with deep emotions, beyond the meditative and psychological effects above, is to “do something.”  That something will be specific to you, and you can really take it as far as you want to go.  In AODA, we ask people who are working through our curriculum to make three lifestyle changes–these changes can be anything they choose, as long as they are direct actions in their lives.  My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice began in just that way–I wanted to feel like I was aligning with my own principles as a druid, that I was living my life in a way that was honoring the living earth and healing the land.  As I worked to learn so many things, those actions spiraled into an entire wheel of the year practice, and I finally had enough to share. That book is full of ideas to help you live more sustainably and regeneratively–direct action in the world.

I use this as a core way of dealing with these issues.  When I feel the weight of the world coming down, I work to channel it into something positive–go dig a new garden bed, go write a new blog post, go scatter some seeds.  I have found that this approach is a particularly valuable way of channeling some of that stress and pain and transforming it into something I can feel good about.

The other part is some level of acceptance about the things that are out of our power to change. In permaculture design, we think about “the problem is the solution” Here, we can do nothing but experience climate change, observe it, and maybe even take advantage of it.  I look at it this way–with warmer weather and more rain, how do I take advantage of that in terms of my food forest?  What can be a benefit to these conditions?

Conclusion

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say that the above has really helped me learn how to be a druid in the age of climate change, in the age of the Anthropocene.  Do I still have these feelings and get overwhelmed?  Yes, absolutely.  But I also think that by cultivating a set of tools, I am more resilient and prepared for whatever may come.

I’m very interested in hearing what others have experienced with regards to addressing feelings, emotions, and pain surrounding climate change.  What approaches have you used? What has worked for you?

20 thoughts on “A Druid’s Guide to Dealing with Climate Change: Addressing Deep Emotions and Grief

  1. Nicola

    I have a question/observation around leadership. I’m in the UK, so my government structures are different and I’m rather ignorant about the equivalent in the USA but I’m fairly confident this will apply: The styles of rhetoric and decision making in government are abhorrent: petty sparring, party political point scoring, and creation of meaningless win/lose binaries… all things which distract from really seeing problems and drawing on diverse voices to find far-reaching solutions. Coupled with financial/career interest and corruption on the individual and party level… What could feel less Druidic? So how can Druids get themselves into positions of leadership to try and make real change, without having to make so many personal compromises, or expose themselves to so many mental health hazards in these unhealthy environments, that it becomes unsustainable far before they reach any positions of real influence?

    I remember reading how you, on taking on your organisational leadership role, had to consider and address in your practice the way the necessary actions of a leader sometimes clashed with your personal inclinations (e.g. being outward facing when you might rather face inwards). Of course I hope and assume the AODA is an inclusive environment full of people of integrity, nevertheless I imagine it has been hard, especially introducing change (I believe you have alluded to this also.) I would love to hear about what you’ve learnt from this process and hear your reflections on how other Druids might take transferable lessons from this, to support them in maintaining mental health whilst attempting to attain and survive in positions of influence or as change-makers(on any level or scale.)

    Reply
  2. Julia Marshall

    To begin may I send my love to the citizens of the Ukraine and Russia. Now to answer your question.

    As a school teacher, facing the anxiety of my students is a daily task. Their chronic stress about the sustainability of our natural world is my greatest concern. At 62 I’ve seen this slow train coming, to quote Bob Dylan, for long time. This worried world is all they’ve known in their 11 to 12 years. The only activity that restores my calm is restorative work in the woods. And so, I’ve begun taking them into the small remnant forest behind our school. A once ancient cedar and fir forest being consumed by Ivy. It’s about four hectares. Diversity is slowly vanishing over the last 100 years since a settler tossed Ivy onto its edges. A few kids went, happy to be out from behind a hard plastic and metal desk. A few were concerned about their new runners- tip toeing around puddles. “So gross Ms Marshall!” I taught them how to cut the ivy at chest height, gently pull down and keep going for one meter all around the base of each tree. Vigorous but exhausted understory ferns, salal and Oregon grape popped their heads up for the light, long since smothered. Working in twos and threes they each chose a tree in a small area of the woods. Now after a few short weeks, Soil is appearing, rain getting through. Best of all they’ve started playing, shouting and chasing each other. Put the clippers down first I yell, having a small heart attack. They’ve started wearing grubby clothes, asking to skip math especially. My deepest concern is for one boy, addicted to his computer games, a severe insomniac, always on the edge of rage.— his poor brain. You should see him in the forest hacking and dragging the ivy into a growing pile. Last time he joined with two other boys. And laughed. I promise you, he laughed. I’ve had to walk back to the forest to gently get him back to school. I saw that he couldn’t leave, but kept pulling and pulling. He was not in trouble if you’re wondering. I told him the forest was talking to him. He just nodded and said, “ya”. I asked my kiddos on Friday, “ who feels better after forest work?” They all shot up their hands— high. They’ve measured circumference, calculated diameter, used ivy trunks 3 inches thick to decorate a counter that once held old computers. They’ve decocted ivy to extract saponins and make laundry soap. Next they’re making a solar water distiller out of Gatorade bottles. Then propagating native plants. On and on it could go.
    I go out to work in other places on many weekends. Other forests, other groups. It calms me. Nurturing the little sacred spaces. These struggling niches are my “medicine bundles” to quote Robin Wall Kimmerer. I’ve never seen such a work force in our ivy filled woods. Our local Peninsula Stream organization had to turn people away because of Covid limits. I had to walk and walk to find a Douglas fir that didn’t have people around it clipping and gently clearing the ivy. Those turned away? They just went to another area of that forest, to the next free tree. Love to you all. Julia.

    Reply
    1. Dana Post author

      Hello Julia,
      Wow, the work you are doing with your students sounds amazing. I love what you are sharing and the good work you are doing. Think about the long-term impact of that work on the children–how you are teaching them the necessary skills for the next generation. Blessings to you and thank you again for your sharing.

      Reply
  3. thepaganpoppet

    I too live in the UK and your post has resonated so deeply with me as I have become so poorly holding back on my nature connection through fear of feeling natures pain as well as my own human pain. I do welcome this conversation and I agree re connection and letting go have to be done. When I say letting go I mean my own fear of inadequacy, what can I do as a single human. Letting go for me with ritual will be addressing the denial, accepting my fears are valid and then seeking the energy and positivity that there are others who have been feeling the same and sending that energy through the earth towards each other to connect and re energise. Leigh

    Reply
    1. Dana Post author

      I know exactly what you mean, Leigh. I think that there’s a balance to be struck, but in the end, holding back from nature seems to be the opposite of what we should be doing. Nature needs us as much as we need her. I guess I’ve come to understand this as being able to process my own feelings so I can show up for nature and let her heal me as we heal together!

      Reply
  4. Peter Watson

    Thank you Dana — it’s all one thing from a heavenly perspective, and creative feelings — from an untroubled heart — are an essential element of creative expression. You may also enjoy my reply just now to Bruce Lipton’s great Newsletter:

    Dear Bruce, being “*down-to-earth*” need not exclude heavenly understanding, such as the way life works creatively through invisible morphic fields this generation is beginning to discover or remember. Newtonian physics well defines how the Universe works, but not why.

    Energy and matter are unified in the realm of form. Matter is a faster vibrational differentiation of purposeful energy. From an earthly perspective this vibrational activity gives the impression of light-in-motion, which, when you think about it, raises an impossible conundrum, such as from where-to-where could light-travel be timed, since there is no static position, nor is there a time-element outside the present moment, anywhere in the known Universe; except, of course, a manmade stopwatch.

    Therefore, it behoves us to learn to think from a heavenly perspective, besides an earthly perspective confined to the material-realm. The one thing that makes sense of both realms – earthly and heavenly – being two aspects of the same creative-expression, is the presence-of-life, which animates the Universe.

    Up to a point, from an earthly perspective, we can observe the orderly precision of movement within the material-sphere of the heavens, where the mind-of-mankind cannot alter or corrupted the design by expectant observation. Thought of course plays a vital role, but in participation, understanding, as well as observation. Otherwise, unwittingly, human thought can be as disruptive as destructive physical action, which would include Big Bang speculation.

    Every observable or perceivable thing is a life-support ecosystem, existing as a courtesy to every other ‘thing-part’ of the Universe = unified creative expression of life. Mankind’s mind, emotionally-empowered, is an essential element of ongoing creation. However, without specific direction, characteristic of heavenly orientation, the collective mind of mankind – in earthly orientation – is without essential vision of destiny and purpose. Witness the world.

    Cosmological argument notwithstanding, understanding the Universe begins with understanding our unique individual purpose, and thereby giving way to our latent-but-dormant potential to participate in Universal purpose.

    Since we only know what we express – despite the opposite view of general education, which states, in effect, our value is in what we can absorb and retain mentally – participation is an essential element of understanding and knowing anything about anything.

    University graduates are astonished to discover they know nothing about the way life works in the workplace, until they participate in workplace activity. To some it may be humiliating, even embarrassing, but participation is certainly the first lesson in the learning-curve of self-expression.

    Understanding never comes from observation, only from participation, and this is why the Universe still remains a mystery to cosmologists and metaphysicists alike, because all that can be seen through a telescope, or a microscope is physical evidence of past events.

    Creative momentum originates in a realm of pre-form, consciousness, in which design and control characterise creative expression, via energy-polarisation and differentiation – gestation and growth through spontaneous-evolution. Spontaneous evolution describes transmutation of matter, from one kingdom to the kingdom above, say, mineral-to-vegetable and so on, in life’s ascension process, according to design and control, dominion, in expression through the connecting medium life. Man, male and female, is designed and ordained to dwell, in creative-consciousness, at the pristine crossover point between pre-form and form, connecting the two realms. That is the purpose of man.

    The human mind is a capacity for conveying intentional creative expression. It has not always been used according to its purpose; witness the world. The vehicle and the driver is a good analogy of the body and the mind, but, as analogies go, it is incomplete unless the driver knows where to go and why. Intelligence essential to knowing where to go and why does not come from, and cannot be found at a form level. It comes from the pre-form level of design-and-control, and therefore must be allowed – by the mind in cooperation – to indicate destiny, instead of only destination.

    In other words, momentum of energy through matter, which accounts for gestating the essential vehicle for the furtherance of creative expression, must have direction – as in the way life works and is known through participation. Developing vision, through awakened exercising of our latent-but-dormant attribute of inherent perception, generates the substance of understanding essential in connecting the invisible and the visible realms. You could say understanding means “*spiritual perception*”, which must precede observation to be appreciated. There are no coming attractions for the mind to decide what life should or should no be doing. The mind finds out as and when it participates with life in the way life works, not before. Vision and direction come from the intelligence of universal dominion, the same which designed and made the mind, for the purpose of fulfilling destiny, which is ongoing creative-expression, rather than some imaginary destination, even heaven!

    Mind you, considering heaven, and the fact that it has been claimed we can make heaven on earth, why, over many millennia of trying, is there no sign of it apart from a few individuals who find happiness being together, even “*until death do us part*”?

    And yet proof of perfection is at hand – as in ‘*hand*’, consider the perfection in expression behind the design of the human hand. Engineering science has not been able to improve the perfection of the hand, let alone a pair of hands, both evolving together during the gestation cycle before there would be any need for one or both of them. We know this, unless we have leanings towards Zen, and the idea of “*one hand clapping.*” It’s a nice gentle religion, maybe, and it may seem a bit pointless, but at least it’s not as outright blasphemous as the religion that has its God complicit in torture and crucifixion.

    That’s just two examples of the mind in deception. Besides the ‘ *speed-of-light*’ hoax, and the fun-loving Einstein, who said he’d not learned anything until he left school, there are plenty of other famous quotes, from flat-earth theorists to heavier-than-air machines never flying, to demonstrate that the human mind in a state of self-activity is unable to think creatively, at least nowhere near as intelligently as the biological genius we inhabit. As for our mental and emotional realms, how they are made and sustained – despite unhealthy feelings and thoughts (such as the news), people take in and memorise for redistribution – these capacities are above and beyond the scope of human imagination to replicate, yet they’re undeniably part of the vehicle-of-incarnation we blithely inhabit, and take somewhat for granted.

    This food-for-thought – as much for me as anyone – I trust somewhat demonstrates our spiritual ability to be creative through unified feeling and thought, as and when mind and emotions are in agreement with life.

    With love, Peter

    On Sun, 27 Feb 2022 at 13:33, The Druid’s Garden wrote:

    > Dana posted: “Fear. Anxiety. Grief. Helplessness. Despair. Feeling > overwhelmed. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. Anger. Numbness. Displacement. > Disconnection. Sadness. These feelings are some of the common ones that > people experience today with the pressing and growing c” >

    Reply
  5. lolalwilcox

    If I find myself grieving or angry about some aspect of climate change, I go outside and see where I am drawn to stand, sit, or even lie down. Then I describe what I’m feeling to the Earth, and I say “I know you must be feeling this also. I want you to know you are not alone.” This practice brings me into a companion relationship. When I go back inside, I am ready to be a voice to help express what the Earth feels, and pair of hands to do what she hopes will help.

    Reply
  6. annette

    Interestingly, I’ve just finished reading Mayumi Oda’s autobiography. She’s an artist & long fought for removing nuclear weapons. In the end, she realized the only really positive work she could do was heal the land herself. She runs an organic farm, which one can see positive results. I have found a spirit on the land & often go to sit with her/it. The spirit will be there long after I am gone, but provides an anchor that I often need when overwhelmed. Find a positive action & then do that.

    Reply
    1. Dana Post author

      I think a lot of us are feeling that way. Like there is the direct action on the land–which so many of us are turning to, particularly as social and governmental systems break down and it seems like change is more and more unlikely in those broader systems. So we focus on what we can do, and share that message with those who will listen. Blessings to you, Annette, and thank you for sharing about the autobiography!

      Reply
  7. Bonnie TurningCrow

    Thank you for your advice and beautiful article. I’m in big rapids mi. Part of my give back is creating sacred, wild spaces all over the property I get to tend. One of the ways I do this is planting native to my area plants. It helps bring back the proper balance the land is supposed to have. And seeing all the different bugs, wild life and humans come back together has been my hearts joy! We are hoping that the property becomes a true anchor place for those who don’t have the green spaces. Who need to be exposed to the out doors (my work with the autistic and ptsd communitys) and for anyone who needs the peace.

    Reply

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