Eco-anxiety is fear, grief, and distress regarding the environmental and climate crises we face today. Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that focuses on giving and receiving, and can be particularly helpful when dealing with eco-anxiety and climate despair. This practice was given to me by Ogyen Trinley Dorje, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, as a way to transform eco-anxiety into the motivation to heal others—and is particularly useful for environmentalists and climate activists who might be suffering from burnout. For those of us who aren’t on the front lines but still feel overwhelmed by these issues, this practice provides an easy way to meet our fears of climate change with an attitude of curiosity and gentleness.
Please start by grounding yourself with the earth beneath you.
Sit comfortably with your spine straight yet relaxed. Extend your awareness to how your body touches your seat or the floor and how through these layers, you are rooted to the earth. Be aware of how the earth holds you up.
There are many possible reasons why you have clicked on this particular practice today. You may be overwhelmed by the news, you may be mourning the loss of lives, you may be afraid of what the future brings, or it may be something else entirely. Eco-anxiety can manifest in many ways including grief, anger, vulnerability, sadness, fear. However it manifests, whether in emotion, or sensation, I want you to observe it from a short distance and without letting it wash you away.
When you have a good hold of your eco-anxiety, acknowledge it with respect. It is a completely valid response to an existential threat. It means your inner warning system is working and your emotions come from a place of love and compassion for people, for wildlife, and for nature. Take however long you need to honor your eco-anxiety with compassion.
Whatever responses arise, whatever emotions come up, whatever fears show up, let it all flow out of you, and into the earth.
Notice your incoming breath—the air entering your nostrils, your mouth, filling up your belly. All that oxygen that keeps you alive comes from the plants, the trees, the oceans, and the plankton that surround us. All the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses that shelter us come from nature. The very basis of our lives is interdependence with the earth. Rest in this awareness and relax here, trusting that you are indivisible from nature.
Breathe in the earth’s compassion and breathe out gratitude.
Now comes the hard part. Visualize ONE place or being that is suffering from environmental and climate harm. It could be a person, a river, animals, or your community. Bring to mind how environmental degradation and climate change affects them. When the distress arises, focus on your desire to heal and to care for this entity and nurture that into compassion.
Begin to move into tonglen, or giving and receiving. From a place of caring and compassion, imagine yourself with the ability to draw out their suffering when you inhale, and to heal them when you exhale. If it helps, you can imagine their suffering in the form of a fog or vapor, and as you inhale, you receive their suffering; as you exhale, you give them compassion.
This may bring up fear or anxiety. If that happens, simply go back to grounding yourself with the earth and rest in her compassion for you. When you are ready, come back to this practice of giving and receiving. Give them compassion and receive their suffering.
You can do tonglen practice for as long as you feel comfortable.
At the end of this practice, please reverse the direction of giving and receiving. It is time again for you to receive the earth’s compassion and to offer your gratitude in return. Take a moment to hold in the earth’s compassion for you.
As you emerge from this practice, note what it feels like to transform your eco-anxiety into the motivation to heal others.
Set the intention to return to this practice whenever you feel depleted. You can also practice short moments of giving gratitude and receiving compassion from the earth throughout your day. For those of you who feel energized by this practice, a next step might be taking practical action to help protect what you love.
May this practice help you and, through you, may it heal the earth.
This practice was originally posted on the Healthy Minds Program App, which contains an audio version of this meditation and a whole program for well-being. The app is freely available, thanks to the generosity of donors.
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