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.
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.
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?
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?