Mindfulness Practice and Sustainability

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Tompkins Weekly–June 11, 2012

by Miranda Phillips

One goal of meditation or “mindfulness practice” is to promote wise action: that is, to help us act constructively despite certain common mind states (e.g. fear, anger, sadness). This in mind, mindfulness strikes me as a great potential support to sustainability activism, where fear in particular can hinder constructive action.

We live in an age of enormous and looming twin threats, climate change and peak oil: the first, with its accompanying rise in floods, droughts, fires, and warm weather diseases (malaria and smog-related asthma); the second, with its (at the least) social turmoil as we adjust to dramatically new habits, or worse, food shortages and economic collapse.  
I find both of these threats deeply frightening. For most of the last fifteen years, I’ve responded to my fears in various ways: sometimes feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed to do anything; sometimes taking action but compulsively, washing out and reusing every plastic bag rather than considering: what would make the biggest difference in reducing my environmental impact?

Even when presented with solutions that experts agree are the best place to start, I’ve found that fear can still get in the way of taking action. I recently had such an experience regarding bus travel. In this case, however, thanks to mindfulness techniques, I was able to meet my fears more wisely and productively.

Conventional wisdom has it that, for most people, the largest part of our carbon footprint comes from transportation and home heating. After insulating my house a few years ago, I knew that reducing my car travel was the next step. I believed strongly in the value, indeed the necessity, of alternatives to driving. And yet, I still had made no moves in this direction until about a month ago, when my daughter’s enthusiasm for bus travel (and frequent requests for this as way home from daycare) gave me opportunity to reflect: Why don’t I just ride the bus with her?

When considering bus travel, I had a number of reactions: 1. Fear: “It’s going to take so much longer, and cost more”. 2. Guilt: “You really should”, and “why aren’t you already??” All accompanied by a knot in my stomach that has led me to, well, not ride the bus.

But recently, it occurred to me that I could respond differently. One standard mindfulness technique is to observe feelings in one’s body – one’s breath, or other strong sensations – and simply note whether these are pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. On reconsidering the bus, I again noticed the knot in my stomach, but this time just noticed it: knot, unpleasant.  And, as often happens in my experience, the knot eased. In its place a space opened up for something else to arise: ideas for possible next steps.  (By the way, if you try this, make sure your goal is simply to notice and name the knot rather than make it go away. Such “wanting it away” is another sensation that itself needs to be noticed and eased to allow for wise thinking and action to happen).

It occurred to me that I had been associating bus with these unpleasant feelings of fear and guilt and therefore avoiding it. I didn’t actually know whether the bus was itself unpleasant. Certainly, it couldn’t hurt to try once and see. Long story short, my daughter and I are now very happy weekly bus riders. We get home only 15 minutes later that we used to. I get my exercise by walking up the hill to meet her before treating ourselves to the ride back. We’ve cut our local driving by 1/3. And the $3 we pay weekly I consider a voluntary tax on the luxury I have of being able to drive the rest of the time.

In yoga, it is a key principle that, in order to stretch safely, one must simultaneously stretch in opposite directions: “ground down in order to reach up”. Indeed, if I try to stretch up without also grounding down, it hurts, and sends me off balance.

I see this as a helpful way of understanding the value of mindfulness practice for activism in the world: to the extent that we can ground ourselves (with meditation or other practices) we are that much better equipped to stretch in the ways we want and need to in this age of climate change and peak oil. I see it as a form of preparedness as important as a stocked larder for helping us meet possible crises ahead. To the extent that we can bring our best selves to these situations, acting in wise, considered ways rather than out of fear and habit, we can help one another weather the change more gracefully.

Miranda Phillips is an Ithaca resident and a member of Sustainable Tompkins board of directors.

To discuss this article, and/or find local meditation resources, please visit
http://tinyurl.com/Mindfulness-Sustainability at the Sustainable Tompkins blogspot.

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