Question: How do you feel when you think about the climate crisis?
“This uncertainty is gripping.” —D, 51
“The collective inability to prevent further destruction has made me furious and disgusted and finally, resigned.” —T, 71
“I feel uneasy, it’s daunting, and I’m worried for all young people. I’m worried about how unconcerned we all seem, kind of shut down, with business as usual.” —B, 65
“I feel sad for all those who suffer and angry at all those working against. Great suffering will happen, but ultimately humanity will prevail.” —J, 31
“I can’t think of this. I want a life.”— A, 21
We are planet people in an existential crisis because of human-generated climate change. This is causing untold suffering. However, even though most climate scientists agree on this diagnosis, the general public may or may not. A great portion of the population seems to be either in denial or so-called “climate nonchalance,” where we may have knowledge about the dangers of climate change yet shrug our shoulders and are unwilling or unable to engage.
How can we best respond in the face of so much fear and confusion? Some go prematurely to hospice care for planet Earth. Hospice implies a terminal diagnosis. Those who argue that hospice care is the most appropriate response conclude that attempts to prevent climate collapse are too late. We propose that it is more accurate and helpful to think and talk about palliative care for our planet. Palliative care is about helping those living with serious illness to receive the care they need to experience the best possible quality of life, regardless of outcome. A friend recently said, “When I hear people talking about hospice care for our planet, I fall into a black hole of despair. When I hear the phrase, palliative care for our planet, my heart opens, and I feel more hopeful.” The way we frame this discussion and the language we use affects how we think, feel, and act.
Hospice care is about providing the best possible care at the end of life. Palliative care does not use prognosis to frame its priorities and approach. Palliative care for our planet means doing everything we can to save what can be saved, while simultaneously acting to improve the quality of life of all human and more-than-human beings. Palliative care for our planet involves a paradigm shift in attitude. As humans, we tend to be preoccupied with outcome. Success is achieving our goals; failure is when we do not. As palliative care providers, we shift our focus to process, to whole person care, to tending with loving care the bodies, minds, hearts, and souls of all sentient beings, to supporting family and building community, to including, in a widening circle of compassion, all those suffering confusion, denial, and fear.
We are so used to dualistic thinking, which here means either being in denial of climate change or convinced that “it’s already too late.” Palliative care offers a middle path towards healing between living and dying, where we can be with uncertainty, with each other, and with who and what matters most. We hold this space for others by being present, whether they agree with us or not.
We realize that there are many who will disagree with a palliative care approach. Some will see us as alarmist and catastrophizing, while others will dismiss us as climate deniers. The first group comprises those who deny that climate change is a problem, as well as those who accept that it is a problem but do not see it as an existential threat. The second group will say that we have already passed the tipping point of no return. A palliative care perspective, is, once again, somewhere in the middle. While recognizing that the damage is massive and, in many cases, irreversible, we hold that there remains much uncertainty about how things will work out in the future. What is certain is that our planet home is very ill.
“Palliative care offers a middle path towards healing between living and dying.”
In our work with seriously ill patients, including those at the end of their lives, we have noticed specific patterns of psychological dynamics that appear to significantly affect these individuals’ quality of life. Understanding these hidden undercurrents can help to care more effectively. These dynamics are well described in a body of work from the field of social psychology called terror management theory.
Terror management theory hypothesizes that in attempting to protect ourselves from the unbearable awareness of our own mortality, we repress our fear of death, burying it deep in the unconscious, while simultaneously identifying with the dominant culture—that is, the institutions, values, tribes, and processes that maintain the status quo. Because the dominant culture is something greater than us that will outlive us as individuals, it functions as a symbolic immortality, affording us some temporary protection from death awareness. At the same time, we pull back from what is different or unfamiliar, and we denigrate, and, if necessary, destroy what is perceived as a threat to the status quo. These reactionary behaviors can lead to societal fragmentation, polarization, and scapegoating.
We believe that terror management processes are also seen at a societal level. Could collective death anxiety triggering terror management processes be why we see autocratic leaders coming to power around the world who promise to preserve the status quo and punish any who they perceive as a threat to that status quo? Could this be why we see increasing cultural polarization with the loss of any middle ground? Could this be why immigrants and minority groups within a given culture are being persecuted by the cultural majority? Could this be why we treat the natural world as a supply house and a sewer? Could this be why we are seeing a rise in hate crimes and mass shootings? And at an individual level, could this be why we are witnessing a global pandemic of anxiety, depression, and suicide, especially among young people?
Fear causes us to contract, to curl up in a ball, to pull back into a shell of self-protection. This leads to disconnection from others and our world. We need to recognize that our collective task as a human community is to care for what is existentially threatened and terrified within us. Doing so may free us from the unconsciously driven destructive behaviors that are feeding denial and despair to engage in life-giving ways.
Even when we are not in control, we still have the capacity to choose. As Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, tells us: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” We can make choices now that will affect our grandchildren and their grandchildren and theirs.
However, we cannot change collective attitudes and values alone. Palliative care is a team approach. Healing begins when we realize our inseparable interconnection and interdependence with all other beings on this planet. This is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes in all his teachings. It is what our indigenous teachers have been telling us all along. It is what the mystical strands of all the great spiritual traditions teach us. It is what science, as in ecology and quantum mechanics, shows us. So, how can we proceed?
The most powerful antidote to overwhelming unconscious fear are practices that give us a sense of deep inner security and allow us to let our guard down and meet others with an open heart. “Heart” is understood here as the energetic heart, the pulsating hub of connectedness with the rest of life. It is a radical act to consciously step onto a spiritual path that brings us into an experience of our interdependence. This frees us from preoccupation with the endless needs of what writer and philosopher Alan Watts calls “our skin-encapsulated egos,” and we naturally feel a sense of deep belonging and concern for the welfare of others.
We want to highlight three approaches that we and others have found helpful in reducing our fear and realizing our interbeing, enabling us to be present with what is. Firstly, there is Joanna Macy’s, The Work That Reconnects, an approach that makes Buddhist teachings more accessible. The spiral of the work that reconnects begins with gratitude, which grounds us in the heart. Macy points out that gratitude is a revolutionary act, which allows us to step off the treadmill of “not-enoughness” that a consumer culture depends on. The next step involves honoring our pain, which begins by turning towards rather than away from our distress for the world. Macy says, “We are called not to run from the discomfort, or run from the grief, or the feelings of outrage, or even fear. If we can be fearless with our pain it turns, it doesn’t stay static. It only doesn’t change if we refuse to look at it. But when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, it turns, it turns to reveal its other face; and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolute, inseparable connectedness to all life.” This insight radically changes our perspective, so that we now see with new eyes, and want nothing more than to go forth, in the final step of the spiral, to act for the greater good.
A second set of practices are what we call Earth Connection Practices. These are simple practices that help us to remember our kinship with our living planet and all her people, human and more the human, through sensory awareness with the natural world. An example is the simple act of breathing. This process, which is usually automatic and unconscious, is an opportunity to phenomenologically experience our interdependence. By bringing our awareness to the rise and fall of our body’s breathing, we are experiencing our reciprocal relationship with all oxygen-producing beings on this planet, on whom our life, literally, depends. As Native teacher Wolf Wahpepah tells us, “Something glorious happens when we bring our awareness to what already is.”
A third set of practices are three Mindful Awareness Practices. These practices, which derive from Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, are now widely available as secular teachings in the West. The first of these is mindfulness, what author and teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “moment-by-moment-non-judgmental-awareness.” Mindfulness helps us to focus our attention and allows us to find a place of internal calm. The second practice is awake awareness practice, which allows us to tap into the sense of the effortless, spacious ease that is already right here, even when unrecognized. This can be experienced when our awareness expands beyond our conceptual mind, and this spacious, knowing way of being becomes the perspective we are living from. Pointing-out instructions and other non-dual practices enable such a shift in outlook, allowing us to view our fear and contraction from a wider perspective, and naturally empowering us to be open-hearted and engaged. The third practice is about cultivating feelings of the heart, such as kindness, compassion, generosity, gratitude, and forgiveness, through specifically dedicated meditations. With a lessening of our reactivity and fear, and a greater capacity to love, we are free to contribute to the healing care of our world.
As we engage in heart practices such as these, our fear lessens and we find ourselves relaxing like a child held securely in her mother’s arms, allowing us to look outwards with openness and curiosity at our wounded world. These practices are also a powerful antidote to burnout, compassion fatigue, and moral distress.
So, let us take the middle road of palliative care! Let us leave apocalyptic thinking and planetary hospice behind, as well as our denial and nonchalance. Let us have the courage to see clearly what’s happening to our planet and walk towards it, rather than burying our heads in the sand or trying not to think about it. Let us cherish what is to be cherished, let us grieve what is to be grieved while doing what we can to ease what can be eased. Let us shift from focusing on what we do to focusing on how we do what we do. Let us be present and open-hearted to what is, rather than what we hope for or dread.
The path to reclaiming our identity as planet people means learning to be with pain and suffering, our own, others, and our world’s. The sea of grief is fathomless. We can only survive the relentless tsunami of suffering if we let it flow through us, our feet rooted in what is not afraid and what does not die. Then the energies of aliveness and creativity are set free. A spoon of salt in a glass of water tastes salty, while it is tasteless in a vast and open mountain lake. Our Mother Earth needs each of us to find our own way of becoming, for her sake and for the sake of all her children, that vast, wild, and generous mountain lake.
As part of Tricycle’s weeklong event series, The Buddhism and Ecology Summit, we’ll be featuring a series of conversations with Buddhist teachers, writers, environmental activists, and psychologists on transforming eco-anxiety into awakened action. Learn more and sign up here.