How can inner work help with climate action?

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By Jamie Bristow, guest contributor

We know that climate change affects mental health – but we’re just beginning to grasp the role of the mind in the crisis itself. A new report outlines the crucial relationship between climate breakdown and the human inner world, and explores capacities of mind and heart as a foundation for more effective action.

Feeling the Effects of Climate Change

Climate change is no longer an abstract, future problem – its effects are felt by all of us. Almost every country in the world is experiencing extreme or disrupted weather, and even those who haven’t witnessed floods, droughts and heatwaves first-hand are affected indirectly by rising prices, migration and geopolitical instability. But the impacts aren’t only structural. The unfolding threat in all its complex dimensions also creates an insidious psychological burden on individuals and society. For example, a recent global survey found that six in ten young people were very or extremely worried about the climate crisis, and nearly half found it negatively affected their daily lives. 

Thankfully, leaders are starting to take this relationship seriously. Our recent research into how politicians and other policymakers view the ‘inner dimension’ of the climate crisis shows that negative impact on mental health and wellbeing is the aspect most commonly recognized. Beyond this first link however, we identified three other important interactions between the mind and climate change, emergent in leaders’ thinking. Our findings show that the mind is understood not only as a victim of climate impacts, but increasingly as a key factor in the crisis itself.

The Mind as a Barrier to Climate Action

Secondly then, the mind was identified as a barrier to adequate action. It’s well known that we humans’ innate and predictable psychological defenses and biases make collective action on long-term threats like climate change particularly tricky. In myriad ways, we deny inconvenient facts, repress our feelings, and fall foul of ‘cognitive short-cuts’ poorly suited to solving complex challenges.

The Mind as a Driver of Climate Crisis

Thirdly, some policymakers are beginning to perceive the ways in which the mind drives the crisis in the first place - that certain features of our individual and collective psychology produce habits and systems that are fundamentally unsustainable. So while climate change is typically treated as an external, physical problem to be fixed with technical solutions, should equally be understood as a symptom or manifestation of a deeper, inner malaise. The problem originates fundamentally in our mindset – in the way we individually and collectively see and therefore treat the world, which is rooted in a culturally entrenched disconnection from self, others, and nature.

“There are many changes to make over the next 10 years, and each of us will take different steps along the way, but all of us start the transformation in one place: our mindset.” – Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The Breakdown Loop

The fourth narrative identified by our research concerns what several policymakers describe as a ‘breakdown loop’. That is: among those who already see that the mind is a victim of the crisis, a barrier to action, and a driver of the crisis, some spotted an overarching feedback interaction between these effects. For instance, the climate crisis corrodes mental health, while poor mental health can reduce people’s capacity for care and action, and also potentially worsen unsustainable behaviours and societal structures: looping back, of course, to deepen the crisis.

Integrated Action

The profound entanglement of mind and climate compels us urgently to prioritise consideration of the mind as we work to understand our predicament and design solutions. To support this effort, we developed our research as the basis of a new policy report, Reconnection: Meeting the Climate Crisis Inside Out. The report highlights the urgent need to integrate external action with inner work and outlines mindfulness and compassion as foundational, trainable capacities critical to this approach. Both the research and policy work represents a collaboration between The Mindfulness Initiative, clerk of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, and Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). It combines eight years’ experience of mindfulness in politics and public policy with world-leading research and expertise in inner-outer sustainability.

Informed by our in-depth interviews with policymakers and extensive consultation with experts, Reconnection builds on the understanding that the climate crisis is most fundamentally a relationship crisis characterized by a lack of conscious connection with ourselves, with others and with the world we share. While the consequences of our actions wreak havoc within an interconnected and increasingly fragile ecosystem, we continue to think and behave as if we are independent. The same shared mindset of separateness that drives social alienation and exploitative behaviours throughout society also inhibits sustainability responses at all levels. The report provides evidence and a framework for how mindfulness and compassion practices restore the kinds of connection fundamental to individual and collective wellbeing at all times - and those of utmost importance in policy approaches to our current global sustainability crises. 

Conscious Connection and Interdependence

We first address fundamental aspects of human connection that are always vital to survival and societal flourishing. These include our capacities of attention, receptivity, perspective-taking, body-awareness, nervous-system regulation and emotional intelligence - all of which, evidence shows, are supported by mindfulness and compassion practice. We then explore the ways in which inner disconnection underpins our most urgent global crisis. Calling upon an extensive and developing body of evidence, we show how restoring conscious connection through mindfulness and compassion practice may increase not only personal resilience amid adversity, but also our chances of addressing the root causes of the crisis, and mobilising change. For instance, the mindsets that inform mass behaviour represent a deep leverage point for positive change. Practices like mindfulness and compassion can help us both to examine our own belief systems, and to nurture a worldview and mode of perception that treats the world and the people in it as profoundly connected and interdependent. Relatedly, they can reciprocally enhance our sense of nature connection; a critical motivator of pro-environmental behaviour.

Understanding the 'Values-Action Gap'

A further strain of disconnection is identified at the root of procrastination on climate matters; explaining why widespread knowledge about the crisis has not translated into appropriate action. We show how mindfulness and compassion can help us address the gaps between what we know, what we want, and what we do. First, by bringing awareness to internalized cultural patterns governing consumption habits, and by cultivating qualities like appreciation and care, these practices can help reorient our desires toward sustainable choices at individual and societal levels. Second, mindfulness and compassion can help attune our inner compass; the innate, embodied discernment that supports ethical decision-making. Finally, mindfulness can help overcome the involuntary impulses, entrenched habits and sophisticated ‘autopilot’ that can derail our best intentions. By consciously reconnecting intention, action and consequence, practice may help to support intrinsic motivation and overcome the ‘values-action gap’ that limits climate responses at all scales.

Finally, the report includes recommendations to leaders and decision-makers for integrating these insights into their work - covering diverse areas of central government policy, education, leadership development, nature connection, digital technology use, health care, innovation and research. 

We hope that this work presents a coherent narrative, a compelling evidence framework and inspiring examples of inner work as a necessary and practical component of climate action. Climate change is a physical reality demanding political and practical solutions, and we do not propose that attending to inner capacities is enough to solve the crisis – only that if we do not, solutions will likely continue to elude us. Whether we seek to understand the source of the problem, to shift the behaviours that drive it or to nurture the courage and community that we will need as stewards of an uncertain future, mindfulness and compassion can form an essential foundation. In nurturing these inner capacities and creating systems and structures that support them, we may discover the ‘beautiful coincidence’ that the pathways to robust climate action and to individual and collective wellbeing are one and the same.

Reconnection: Meeting the Climate Crisis Inside Out is the result of a research partnership between The Mindfulness Initiative, a non-profit policy institute that clerks the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, and the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCUS).

Jamie Bristow is co-director of The Mindfulness Initiative and works with decision-makers around the world to integrate inner capacities and contemplative practice into politics and the public policy landscape. He has a background in psychology, climate change campaign communications and advertising.

Rosie Bell is a writer and communications advisor with an academic background in philosophy & literature and MA in International Public and Political Communication. Her work is currently focused upon public narratives surrounding the climate movement, and the role of inner capacities in societal change. 

Christine Wamsler is Professor of Sustainability Science at LUCSUS and director of the Contemplative Sustainable Futures Program. She is an internationally-renowned expert in sustainable development and associated (material and cognitive) transformation processes with 25 years of experience. 

The Mindfulness Initiative doesn’t receive any public funding and is entirely dependent on charitable gifts to sustain its work. Please consider making a contribution.


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