All of us do our best to cope with the “stuff of life.” We develop ways of responding – some skillful and some not so skillful. Over time, these can develop into unskillful patterns and habits that leave us feeling empty, and often have a negative impact on others. Consider:
- Exploding when you don’t get your own way.
- Speaking sarcastically to people who have a different opinion to you.
- Having that 3rd, 4th, 5th glass of wine/piece of chocolate…
- Online shopping for things we don’t need (and aren’t even sure if we want).
Like other organisms, humans don’t like discomfort. The behaviours above help us to numb, distract and avoid an uncomfortable feeling. That is where some of the less skillful reactions are born. At some point, many of us realise we’d like new ways of relating to the “stuff of life” – ways that allow us to ride out the storms with greater ease. Enter mindfulness. There is a key mindfulness practice of turning towards discomfort rather than away from it. This builds increased capacity to ride the waves of experience without being compelled to react. Mindfulness incorporates:
- acknowledging that a challenging experience is unpleasant (life is full of things that don’t accord with our preferences)
- accepting that all experience is impermanent (“this too shall pass”)
- realising that most of the “stuff of life” isn’t personal
- remaining grounded, balanced and open to responding with care
It sounds straight forward, and yet this approach requires practice and repetition and then more repetition. The patient development of skillful ways of responding to our own personal mini-crises requires us to use our significant mental capacity to interrupt survival-based systems such as the fight/flight reaction, the mind’s negativity bias and the brain’s reward system. (Did you know that the brain’s reward system is hard-wired to keep us wanting and searching rather than feeling satisfied? See this great article on the work of Prof Berridge.)
Harnessing our considerable mental resources we learn to pause and look at the bigger picture. Pausing enables us to consider what is in our long-term interests rather than be at the mercy of ancient survival mechanisms which prioritise immediate gratification or the escape from discomfort. Mindfulness is a well-established route to supporting this shift. The changes at the level of the brain that support this shift are being better understood through ongoing research. Through practice we can strengthen our capacity to make decisions, not from fear and greed, but from a broader perspective that considers the well-being of all. Mindfulness helps us to live the values that we espouse. (And understand when we muck up and start again.)
This has relevance to how we respond to the climate crisis we are currently facing. Denial, although understandable, is not in our long-term interests. The PM of Australia recently responded to Greta Thunberg’s address to the UN saying:
“I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future, and I think it is important we give them that confidence that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, that they will also have an economy to live in as well. I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.”
Denial and avoidance are not what is needed. We need to build capacity to sit with the pain and despair that are part of the mess we are in. Three Australian examples of the crisis:
- The Great Barrier Reef: “Trends in mean hard coral cover on reefs… now show a steep decline; this has not been observed in the historical record.” (Source)
- The Murry-Darling basin: “The mass fish death events in the summer of 2018–19 are a visible warning of the significant pressure experienced by native fish in the Basin, particularly during drought and hot, dry summers, like the one we are expecting this year.” (Source)
- Bushfires: “There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia.” (Source)
Opening to the despair of the climate crisis is hard. Many people are turning away – not because they are bad people, but because humans don’t like emotional discomfort any more than physical discomfort. Mindfulness strengthens our capacity to be with the uncomfortable reality of our situation and stay engaged. There is no guarantee that putting the planet first in our decision making will be sufficient to halt the trajectory we are on. Nonetheless, aligning behaviour and values is a key to our individual and collective well-being. And while we don’t know the outcome of trying to live more sustainably, it seems clear what will be achieved by doing nothing.
Finishing up with a poem from Michael Leunig, Australia’s Patron Saint of Despair (my title).
The Two Depressing Things
A most depressing thing occurs
But no one minds and no one stirs.
Which means you’ve ended up with two
Depressing things depressing you.
Let’s choose stirring.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.