“As countless people have discovered over the past twenty-five years, mindfulness is the most reliable source of peace and joy. Anyone can do it. And it’s become increasingly clear that not only our health and well-being as individuals, but our continuation as a civilisation and a planet depend on it.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
At the moment, practising mindfulness in the Western world is a luxury. Only privileged people can spare time each day to “do nothing but breathe”. The rest can’t afford it — they need to spend this time earning money, taking care of their families and fighting to survive.
Yet, it may be that our survival as a species depends on cultivating mindfulness.
The single biggest problem of our times
“No sane culture should destroy the environment that it depends on for survival, but to an independent outside observer, that would appear to be what is happening.” — Brett Morris
Climate crisis is the biggest issue we are facing as a species at the moment. Full stop.
It is ever more serious also because the majority of the world’s population still denies the seriousness of it. As Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old climate activist, said in one of her talks: we cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.
It’s hardly surprising that so many Americans still question humans’ impact on climate change. I mean, their nation’s leader publicly says things like this, over and over again:
“I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made.” — Donald Trump
Of course, it is not just Donald Trump that utters these kinds of doubts. Political leaders all around the world share his beliefs — or rather, pretend to share them, which is even worse.
But regardless of what each of us wants to believe about climate change, we objectively have a problem. The fact that we choose to close our eyes and see no evil doesn’t make the problem go away.
Sea levels are rising. Global average temperatures are breaking historical records. Greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere is higher than ever before. There’s really nothing to debate about.
Yet, many people still debate whether climate change is real and look for excuses to keep living the lifestyle they got used to. And we cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. Which means that, even though climate change is the most serious problem we face today, we need to start tackling it by solving the second biggest problem of our species.
Without it, we will never be able to treat climate crisis as a crisis.
The second biggest problem that prevents us from solving the first
You can call it disconnection, ignorance, lack of present moment awareness or distraction. It doesn’t matter. The point is, this is not a systemic problem. This is something we need to tackle at the individual level.
Nevertheless, the causes of it are systemic — because it is largely the system, the culture, the consumerist values that create conditions for disabling our awareness. We live too fast, with too many commitments that often require us to plan every minute of our days. There’s no room for being in the present when all we are focused on is checking off consecutive points of our schedules.
We become increasingly lonely — and so we self-medicate ourselves out of present moment awareness. We use alcohol (not to mention other drugs) as a widely accepted means to relax, drown our sorrows, become “more sociable” and bury all kinds of conflicts we perceive within ourselves, but don’t want to look at.
All such practices cause our attention to rest outside the present moment for much longer stretches of time than it rests inside it. We think it is normal to inhabit the mental realm and be deep in thought, rather than present in the body. We don’t see a problem with being unconscious.
But it is a problem. A problem that prevents us from acknowledging, for example, the dangers of the climate crisis. How so?
“The only thing that can save you is to wake up. To recognize your present circumstance. Appreciate its significance. And see through the myths of your culture.” — Matthew Jones
This is so obvious that I am questioning the purpose of this article right now. Is it even necessary to explain this? But, immediately, I answer: yes, it is. Even if it will be obvious to the reader, I need to remind myself about one natural law that I tend to neglect in so many moments of my day.
The law of cause and effect, which becomes clearly apparent once you enter present moment awareness.
When you are not present, you can merely think of the consequences human actions have on the environment. You can count the net greenhouse gas emission and calculate to what extent it will impact the temperature rise. You can intellectualise the issue, without ever feeling concerned.
When you become present in the moment, your perception shifts to a whole new dimension. If you can maintain present moment awareness for long enough, you observe first-hand that anything you do has consequences.
For example, you feel the impact of the foods you eat on your mood and well-being. You feel how the anger you project on somebody causes this somebody to experience anger, too.
The ability to be mindful of the present moment builds up your capacity to feel the consequences of your actions — instead of thinking about them. It is this feeling realm that plays the key role here.
Without growing our capacity to feel, we will never allow ourselves to become concerned about the climate crisis of this planet. We will always find something seemingly “more important” to fix our attention on.
We need mindfulness to survive
“If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” — Dalai Lama XIV
Mindfulness is a quality of our minds that holds the key to solving the two most serious issues of our times. First, our lack of awareness as a species. Then, the climate crisis that can only be seen as a crisis by sufficiently mindful people.
We will never care about the consequences of our actions just because someone explains them to us. We may intellectually grasp that we are harming the environment, for example by eating excessive amounts of meat.
But unless we develop mindfulness, we can’t be bothered. We don’t have the capacity to feel that by harming our natural environment, we are harming ourselves. We don’t have enough empathy to be able to imagine how it is to be in the victim’s skin. We cling to our well-justified reasons for violent and ignorant behaviours.
As much as we proclaim that we care — we don’t.
It is impossible to care about something without feeling the emotions around it. I only started doing something about the climate crisis, once I allowed certain feelings into my awareness.
There was anger at society and the way it is structured. There was frustration about the governments’ non-action and denial of environmental issues. There was a disappointment with myself that I didn’t do anything all these years. There was sadness because of all those species becoming extinct.
On one hand, practising mindfulness taught me that these are just emotions that are going to pass. They are not who I am — and I stand by this realisation. But at the same time, feeling them empowers me to care.
If you want to make yourself care (yes, you can actively work on it) — practise mindfulness. If you don’t know how, here is an in-depth guide I wrote on how to design your mindfulness meditation practice as a beginner.