An exploration of “engaged mindfulness”
Warmed by autumn light streaming over our allotment garden I sat in front of the rain shelter, shelling runner beans. It was a particularly delicious and bountiful variety, sweet and string-less and we’d left a few maturing on the stems to save for sowing next summer. Inside the tough long pod each pink-red bean was encased in a delicate white crepe sheath; it was like opening layers of gift-wrappings.
There is always so much to be concerned about and to think about, but right now I was choosing to simply be aware: letting myself be captivated by the moist shine of these precious ovals. I was also aware of listening to the wind rustling through the little wood bordering our plot. The leaves were that much drier from the frost last night, the first of the year, providing a rough texture to that “wood wind” in the middle of the city.
My mood of appreciation was laced with sadness, most likely linked to a ritual called “the truth mandala” we had performed in our mindfulness meditation group the night before. Over a couple of months we are taking Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” (WRT) as inspiration for meditations and exercises helping us to deal with the precarious state of the world. Only one decade left to get our act together, so the IPCC (the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) experts tell us, before run-away climate change becomes inevitable. The curves describing the melting of the Greenland ice sheet are already off the charts.
I wonder, dear reader, what kinds of thoughts arise in you, when reading this? Are you close to abandoning this article? Do you want mindfulness to give you respite from such worries (particularly just before Christmas)? Are there parts in you murmuring “it’s too late anyway,” or “individual efforts don’t matter,” or “it’s too difficult to contemplate?”
Such reactions are common and understandable and they are all fulfilling some purpose, perhaps to protect us from feelings of overwhelm, guilt, and impotence. But even long before the advent of the mindfulness boom Kafka said: “You can hold yourself back from the suffering of the world: this is something you are free to do, . . . but perhaps precisely this holding back is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.” Denying our feelings comes with a price—it leads to depression and passivity when it is so obvious that humanity needs to pull out all the stops to avert climate disaster.
In our meditation group, we are exploring what ‘engaged mindfulness’ could look like. Steve Kretzmann, the long-time director of the climate policy-and-action group Oil Change suggests two approaches to climate action: changing consumption and changing production. It is easy to see how mindfulness training can play a part in changing consumption. We are training ourselves to embrace the more difficult aspects of our inner experience with openness, curiosity, and kindness, allowing ourselves to feel the sensations and feelings in the body and to ride out our urges. Together with an encouragement to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, this approach engenders contentment: happily consuming less.
Is there also a place for mindfulness in “changing production?” What is the part, for example it may play in the worldwide rise of grassroots activist groups such as the “extinction rebellion,” who are taking an active, non-violent stance to fracking, among other government-supported, climate-wrecking schemes? A couple of weekends ago, I sang with a choir called “protest in harmony” at an extinction rebellion rally in Edinburgh where I was very pleased to see the speakers include pauses. They allowed silence for the mindful experiencing of feelings such as sorrow and fear in the face of the accelerating deterioration of habitats for millions of species including ourselves. Such emotional honesty provides the best chance to avoid counter-effective, reactive behaviour.
Giving space for our feelings is an integral part of the Work that Reconnects. The first stage of the WRT is “gratitude” (many positive developments are already taking place); then “honouring the pain for the world”; followed by “seeing with new eyes” (embracing interconnectedness) and lastly, “going forth” (commitment to action).
The “truth mandala” provides a ritual space to “honour our pain for the world.” We had four natural objects laid out in the middle of the group circle and one by one, we stepped into the centre, holding one of them while allowing ourselves to get in touch with and expressing our feelings: a stick for anger; a stone for fear; dry leaves for sadness, and an empty bowl for numbness and bewilderment. Held in the safety and acceptance of the group, people spoke with moving sincerity and frankness.
Social acceptance plays a pivotal part in how much choice we feel we have with regard to our environmental actions. My friend Barbara’s teenage daughter Iris was taken home one night by a couple of friends and when they arrived the house was dark. The friends thought that nobody was at home, but Iris explained that her mum only had lights on in the one room she was using at any time. “My mum is weird. She is vegan,” she added. Barbara often feels alone with regard to her environmental values and actions and it is obvious how much she values being able to talk about these matters when we meet. She minimises car use and will cycle the 30 minutes to our house, even if it rains, and is now vegan. Rather than buying Christmas presents, she plans to give books from her shelves.
I think of her when I turn down the radiator and put on another warm layer of clothing—her house is usually a few degrees colder than ours and her family have got used to it. It is all a matter of degrees . . . the atmosphere is one per-cent warmer than before the industrial revolution and even 1.5 per cent will bring unprecedented shockwaves of disaster. However, every little action counts—or does it? “Personal virtue only matters if it scales up,” writes the human rights activist and journalist Rebecca Solnit.
One up-scaling method is to speak up, not just politically, but with friends and family. I am frequently at a loss of what to do with the huge environmental elephant under the carpet in conversations with friends. I am getting dissatisfied with general, politely pessimistic discussions about the state of the world. Encouraged by the openhearted, non-blaming atmosphere of the mindfulness group I decided to take a risk and open up the subject of flying with another friend who spoke about the social fun he had on his recent holiday trips to Canada and Cologne.
I am also flying about once a year to Germany to see my family, and was sharing my quandary. We had a fairly non-reactive discussion around the complexities of the issue, including the power of consumers to affect change (no new runways without customer demand) and at the end he said: “But let’s face it, I am not going to change my flying habits any time soon.” I decided to push out the boat a little further and asked: “What do you think it would take?” After some silence he said it needed to become socially more unacceptable to fly. History has shown that dramatic circumstances can lead to significant change in what is seen as acceptable behaviour, he said. The Second World War, for example led to many more women entering paid employment.
Most people don’t relish the thought of sacrifice and one of the most powerful and quietly revolutionary contribution of mindfulness practice is also very enjoyable and grounding: deliberately and wholeheartedly homing in on pleasure, without hanging onto it. If we can make a habit of truly savoring simple pleasures, such as the sun on our faces or the smile of a child, we are less driven to fulfil our desires in ways that cost the Earth. This attitude of appreciation goes hand in hand with treasuring and expressing the more difficult feelings such as sadness or fear.
Avoidance of those darker shades of life blunts our capacity for joy. “Don’t turn away, keep your gaze on the bandaged place; that’s where the light enters,” Rumi famously said. Or what about Rilke: “Quiet friend who has come so far, feel how your breathing makes more space around you. Let this darkness be a bell tower and you the bell. As you ring, what batters you becomes your strength.”
At that time of sadness at the allotment when shelling those beans, I asked myself: “If this emotional state was a piece of music, what instrument would play it?” It would have been the heart-rending, reedy sound of an oboe, probably an oboe d’amore or a cor anglais, the lower range of the family. The timbre is intense and focused, yet mellow and subdued; the perfect voice to lament the passing of the good days on earth, the disappearance of species, the loss of plastic-free oceans, the loss of the right to save seeds, the thousands of daily needless deaths caused by economic injustice.
On another day my choice of instrument might be a violin: flowing along bright and easy. When allowing the full orchestral range of our emotions, we live through these difficult times with resilience, beauty and integrity. At the end of a concert the conductor will often ask the woodwind section of the orchestra to rise and take a bow. Oboists, flautists, and clarinettists are soloists who cannot hide in the masses; it takes a particular strength of personality to risk this kind of exposure. Relaxation and confidence arises when we realise that we are always part of the whole.
Let’s all make our voices heard courageously and creatively: speaking without blame, sharing our sorrow and hope for the world.
“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”—Rebecca Solnit