Mindfulness in the climate crisis
What is mindfulness?
Most of us, most of the time, are not truly present. Instead, we are lost in thoughts about the past, fears and worries about the future, or wishing that this moment was in some way different. This is not our fault; this is our brain’s default mode. In contrast, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, as it is, without judgment.
Most of us have experienced the satisfaction of enjoying the present moment. Think of a time in your life when you were fully engaged in a meaningful activity such as dancing, writing, running, hiking, watching a sunset, or praying, and losing all sense of effort and time. These activities foster a very different feeling from when we are on autopilot or lost in thoughts. Perhaps you remember a time when you drove home, but have no idea how you got there, or you walk into a room and forget why you did so. That is mindlessness.
With intention and practice, there are many ways we can train our minds to spend more time in the present moment, and to tune in to the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations within us and the world around us. Common mindfulness-based practices include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, qi qong, and slow mindful walking, but any activity that is done with awareness can be an act of mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches us to observe and be with things as they are, rather than how we think or wish they should be. This can calm our nervous systems and reduce anxiety, allowing us to think and make choices more clearly.
In the face of climate crises, mindfulness allows us to avoid shutting down in hopelessness or overreacting in terror, and instead keep centered and engage in meaningful action. It also allows us to acknowledge and cherish the people and places that brings us meaning. What and whom we care for can be motivations to take climate action.
Mindfulness in the climate crisis
The climate crisis is changing our physical world (sea levels rising, glaciers melting, increasing extreme weather events), and demands solutions to our external systems (how we obtain energy sources and basic materials, how we grow our food, how we get around, how we heat and power our homes). Yet the climate crisis has a neglected inner dimension: the dimension of our connection to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world. Many have argued that the climate crisis is rooted in a severed connection to and awareness of the natural world on both the collective and individual scale. In other words, a lack of mindfulness.
Mindfulness practices allow us to connect with ourselves, others, and the world in which we live. Mindfulness has dual roles in the climate crisis. First, it can help us bring conscious attention and awareness to our daily lives. This can lead us to remember our values and align them with our actions, choices, and consumption patterns. For example, practicing mindfulness can bring us reminders that we feel fulfilled by connecting with friends, family or hobbies, rather than impulsively buying things we don’t need; that we already have bags to carry shopping and bottles to drink from; that we can use purchasing power to support environmentally responsible businesses; or that we can make our voice heard by our local government.
Second, mindfulness can play an important role in managing the anxiety, stress, fear, sadness, hopelessness, or despair that may arise when we confront the realities of the climate crisis. Becoming overwhelmed by a climate-related topic can make us freeze or shut it out. It can also drive us to read more and more about it (sometimes referred to as doomscrolling), leading us into climate mindlessness. The overwhelm can make us feel powerless and believe that any action we take could not make any difference. Or we may become so fearful and reactive that we take unwise, unhelpful, or even harmful actions. Mindfulness offers an invitation to assess how the urgency of the climate crisis feels in our body and affects our feelings and thoughts. In addition to managing negative feelings, mindfulness can nourish positive emotions like hope, courage, care, social and nature connection, which are critical in our response to the climate crisis.
The history: Much of the research on mindfulness is based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) created by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s. In this eight-week group training, participants learn mindfulness skills designed to reduce stress and reactivity, including sitting and walking meditation, yoga, and breathing practices. Since then, hundreds of studies have shown that MBSR not only reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, but also improves the quality of life of those struggling with all kinds of illnesses like cancer, diabetes, fibromyalgia, hypertension, chronic pain, and HIV. Because of the program’s success, many other similar programs have since been developed targeting different populations and issues, including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for depression and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for addiction.
New programs are being developed to bring the benefits of mindfulness to the challenges of the climate crisis. One such program is Mindful Climate Action, which combines mindfulness training along with education about climate change and sustainability with the intent of deepening a sense of connection with nature and increasing pro-environmental behavior. Greater recognition of the need to tend to inner awareness has even led to teaching mindfulness and compassion training to European Union officials charged with creating green deal climate policy.
Mindfulness in mental health practice
Mindfulness can have many benefits that help us personally and collectively cope with the climate crisis. Not everyone who practices mindfulness will experience all of them, but possible benefits include:
- Better able to cope with stress
- Decrease anxiety and depression
- Increase focus and concentration
- Increase physical and emotional wellbeing
- Better able to deeply listen and reflect
- Increase ability to tolerate uncertainty and discomfort
- Increase compassion and empathy for self, others, and environment
- Deeper sense of connection with others and planet
- Increased likelihood of sustainable lifestyle
Mindfulness can not only promote greater personal resiliency in stressful, uncertain times, but also increase compassion, empathy, and feed a deeper connection to our environment. Compassion and connection often motivate us to take action to protect the people we care about, those most in need, and the world around us.
All of us experience anxiety and stress at times, and all of us will likely experience even more stress as we’re faced with the consequences of climate change. Vulnerable populations, including those living in poverty and struggling to meet basic needs, however, are exposed to far greater stressors, and are the most at-risk to the environmental and mental health impacts of the climate crisis.
Although mindfulness in and of itself cannot change inequities, it can help reduce some of the physical and emotional effects of stress. Unfortunately, the most at-risk populations are also the least likely to have the time, energy, or resources to learn mindfulness. For those with greater resources, mindfulness can increase our awareness of the inequalities of the climate crisis and motivate us to take actions on the behalf of those with less.
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
If we don’t reduce carbon emissions, billions of people will face the consequences of extreme weather and natural disaster. Without ways to calm our nervous systems, this can lead to increased fear, anger, and overwhelm. Mindfulness offers a way to manage these stressors so that we can make wise and caring decisions for ourselves and others. On a mass scale, mindfulness could potentially lead to increased empathy and compassion, leading to greater attention to inequities and greater collaboration in finding solutions.
Research on mindfulness has exploded over the past 15 years. More than 16,000 publications exist looking at mindfulness in many different contexts, including:
- Mindfulness-based therapy has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression in many conditions, including cancer, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, chronic fatigue, and pain disorders.
- Mindfulness-based interventions can reduce stress and improve quality of life for many physical health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic pain, HIV/AIDS, chronic fatigue, and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Mindfulness practices have been linked to a number of changes in the structure and function of brain regions and networks. These changes to the brain might explain the emotional, mental, and physical benefits of mindfulness, such as better attention, improved emotion regulation, and reduced stress.
- Mindfulness might play a role in adapting to climate change by increasing psychological resilience, reducing trauma after natural disasters, and influencing climate change communication.
- Mindfulness is correlated (linked) with greater motivation to engage in or support climate change adaption and pro-environmental behaviour. The link between mindfulness and climate action is influenced by connectedness with nature and awareness of climate change.
- A review on mindfulness and behaviours that help fight the climate crisis have shown correlations between mindfulness and pro-environmental and sustainable behaviours, but none of them show that mindfulness causes behaviour changes.
What more might we need to know?
Next directions for research: An article reviewing 20 years of research (from 1999-2020) on mindfulness and sustainability identified areas for future research:
- Whether mindfulness causes changes in behaviour to help fight the climate crisis
- Which types of behaviour mindfulness might impact (such as changes in what we eat, how much we buy, or whether we join social movements)
- The processes of how mindfulness might contribute to behaviour changes (for example, might mindfulness affect climate action by increasing awareness of our actions, by improving well-being, by increasing levels of connectedness to nature, or by increasing compassion to others and the world?)
We need to be cautious about the misuses of mindfulness. As mindfulness has become more popular in Western culture, it has also been adopted by corporate culture for stress reduction, even if the corporation is not mindful of the social and environmental causes of stress, or its role in perpetuating a stressful work environment.
How can I practice mindfulness?
If you are interested, you can begin a mindfulness practice right here, right now.
Start by noticing your body in this moment. Notice how your body is positioned. Are you standing or sitting? Notice points of contact with the ground or furniture beneath you. Notice the temperature and feel of the air on your skin. Notice any areas of tightness in the body with curiosity. Now tune in with your breath. Become aware of the sensation of breath beneath your nostrils as you breath in and out. Follow the breath as it moves down your throat. Notice the rise and fall of the breath in the chest and belly. As you do this, you may become aware of thoughts pulling you away from your focus on the breath. There is no need for judgment; that is a normal habit of the mind.
Instead, notice your thoughts, and then bring your focus back to the sensations and movement of the breath. You may want to count each breath to help keep your mind more focused on the movement and sensation of each breath in, and each breath out. This may seem incredibly simple, but you will likely discover that your brain has a difficult time staying focused and is constantly getting pulled in various directions by thoughts and stories. This basic practice of paying attention to breath is intended to train the brain to stay focused and attentive to the present moment.
The practice of following the breath is just one of many different mindfulness practices. You could just as easily focus on other body sensations, the feel of your body as you slowly walk or do yoga poses, the sounds within you and in the space around you, the smell and taste of your food as you slow down and really notice what goes into your mouth and body. Anything can be done with mindfulness if we bring our full, non-judgmental presence to whatever it is we are doing in any given moment.
Fortunately, there are a wealth of apps, as well as online and in person courses that can help you get started. Here are some recommendations:
- Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/
- Smiling Mind: https://www.smilingmind.com.au/
- The Mindfulness App: https://themindfulnessapp.com/
- Meditation Studio: https://meditationstudioapp.com/
- UCLA Mindful App: https://www.uclahealth.org/ucla-mindful
There are plenty of free online trainings available:
- Mindfulness Made Easy: https://www.skillshare.com/
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: https://palousemindfulness.com/
- Oxford Mindfulness Foundation: https://www.oxfordmindfulness.org/free-online-mindfulness-course-sessions/
- This Way Up: https://thiswayup.org.au/programs/mindfulness-program/
A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Time by Joanna Macy, published in 2020 by Shamabhala Publications.
Mindfully Green by Stephanie Kaza, published in 2008 by Shambhala Publications.
Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, published in 2011 by Rodale.
The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems by Ronald Siegel, published in 2010 by The Guilford Press.
Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World by Sharon Salzburg, published in 2020 by Flatiron Books.
Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Thich Nhat Hanh, published in 2021 by HarperOne.
Articles and Online Sources
Beyond McMindfulness, published in HuffPost on July 1, 2013, by Ron Purser.
EU officials being trained to meditate to help fight climate crisis, published in The Guardian on May 4, 2022, by Robert Booth.
How mindfulness can help shift towards a more sustainable society, published in The Conversation on June 28, 2017, by Christine Wamsler.
How to Follow the News Without Spiraling into Despair, published in The New York Times on July 7, 2022, by Jenny Taitz.
Meditation and Climate Change, published in Ten Percent Happier on June 4, 2019, by Jay Michaelson.
What the Mind has to do with the Climate Crisis, published in Insights on August 26, 2022 by Christine Wasmler.
Mindfulness and climate change: How being present can help our future, published in Psychology International on October 24, 2018, by Menchi Liu and Emily Valente.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Apaolaza, V., Paredes, M. R., Hartmann, P., Barrutia, J. M., & Echebarria, C. (2022). How does mindfulness relate to proenvironmental behavior? the mediating influence of cognitive reappraisal and climate change awareness. Journal of Cleaner Production, 357, 131914. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.131914
Barrett, B., Grabow, M., Middlecamp, C., Mooney, M., Checovich, M. M., Converse, A. K., Gillespie, B., & Yates, J. (2016). Mindful Climate Action: Health and Environmental Co-Benefits from Mindfulness-Based Behavioral Training. Sustainability, 8(10), 1040. https://doi.org/10.3390/su8101040
Bristow, J., Bell, R., Wamsler, C. (2022). Reconnection: Meeting the Climate Crisis Inside Out. Research and policy report.’ The Mindfulness Initiative and LUCSUS. www.themindfulnessinitiative.org/reconnection
Grabow, M., Bryan, T., Checovich, M., Converse, A., Middlecamp, C., Mooney, M., Torres, E., Younkin, S., & Barrett, B. (2018). Mindfulness and Climate Change Action: A Feasibility Study. Sustainability, 10(5), 1508. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10051508
Greeson, J. M., & Chin, G. R. (2019). Mindfulness and physical disease: a concise review. Current opinion in psychology, 28, 204–210. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.12.014
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018555
Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., Chapleau, M. A., Paquin, K., & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: a comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 33(6), 763–771. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005
MacKenzie, M. B., Abbott, K. A., & Kocovski, N. L. (2018). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in patients with depression: current perspectives. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 14, 1599–1605. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S160761
Tang, Y.-Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213–225. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916
Thiermann, U.B., Sheate, W.R. The Way Forward in Mindfulness and Sustainability: a Critical Review and Research Agenda. J Cogn Enhanc 5, 118–139 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-020-00180-6
Wamsler, C., & Brink, E. (2018). Mindsets for sustainability: Exploring the link between Mindfulness and Sustainable Climate Adaptation. Ecological Economics, 151, 55–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2018.04.029
Wamsler, C., Brossmann, J., Hendersson, H., Kristjansdottir, R., McDonald, C., & Scarampi, P. (2018). Mindfulness in sustainability science, practice, and teaching. Sustainability science, 13(1), 143–162. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0428-2
Wamsler C. (2018). Mind the gap: The role of mindfulness in adapting to increasing risk and climate change. Sustainability science, 13(4), 1121–1135. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0524-3
Wang, J., Geng, L., Schultz, P. W., & Zhou, K. (2019). Mindfulness Increases the Belief in Climate Change: The Mediating Role of Connectedness With Nature. Environment and Behavior, 51(1), 3–23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916517738036
April 11, 2023
Author: Jodie Skillicorn, DO, ABIHM
Editor: Colleen Rollins