Eco-anxiety: read Thich Nhat Hanh’s surprising advice

What is eco-anxiety?

It seems harder and harder to ignore the fact we are in the midst of a climate crisis. We are seeing the wildfires and floods 1. Individuals like Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, as well as movements like Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion, are ensuring our awareness of this crisis. One impact of this is eco-anxiety; “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.2

Experiencing such a fear is not irrational. Science shows the urgency of the situation, but when we do not see commensurate widespread collective action, it is natural to feel afraid. But, as natural as it is, eco-anxiety has the potential to hold us back from taking action. If we are paralysed by fear and overwhelmed by a sense of doom, doing something concrete to tackle the climate crisis becomes a lot harder.

Even if we are not experiencing eco-anxiety, we might find ourselves pushing a full awareness of what is happening out of our minds, to avoid the discomfort. If we are collectively suffering from some form of eco-anxiety, the changes needed become a lot less likely to happen.

Aside from that, living with fear and anxiety is not pleasant. We might not want to hide from the situation our species is facing; instead, we might want to find a healthy way to confront the truth without feeling excessive amounts of eco-anxiety.

What advice does Thich Nhat Hanh give about eco-anxiety?

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) has been acutely aware of the need to protect our planet for many years. He helped convene the first conference about the environment in Europe in the 1970s. As with his peace activism and social work, Thich Nhat Hanh has relied on mindfulness practice and Buddhist insights to sustain the difficult task of working for positive change. 

What advice might he have about eco-anxiety? In 2011, environmentalist David Suzuki asked Thay about the sense we might have that time is running out over the climate crisis. Thich Nhat Hanh warned about the danger of despair, but at first, his solution might seem counterintuitive:

“We have to accept that this civilisation can be destroyed.” He added, “Not by something outside, but by ourselves”.

Thich Nhat Hanh in conversation with David Suzuki, Canada, 2011

He continued, “In fact, in the past, many civilisations have been destroyed; if this civilisation is destroyed, that would not be something new. To accept that can already be helpful. There are people who have a cancer and are told they can only survive a few months. In the beginning, they struggle against that; they cannot accept it. But finally, they have to accept they will die, and once they have accepted they will have to die, they have peace. They know that they only have 90 days or a few months to live, but they know how to cherish the days they have to live. They live so relaxingly and very deeply and enjoy the days they have left. That way of living helps them to recover and the cancer can go away and that has happened several times in history.”

He went on to recount a story of a man who only had a few months to live, who came on a retreat in Canada. He asked the man, “Do you have the capacity to enjoy a cup of tea with me right now?” After drinking the tea, the man joined the retreat and Thich Nhat Hanh revealed, “Eleven years later, he is still alive.”

Thay emphasized that “our mind is very important”; “if we allow despair to take over we don’t have any strength left to do anything at all. That is why we should do anything we can to prevent despair from happening, including meditation.” The despair he spoke about is comparable to the chronic fear of eco-anxiety.

The kind of meditation Thay is advising for eco-anxiety is not just to become mindful of our breath and body. That is one aspect of Buddhist meditation – stopping – which is important and extremely heplful but there is another: looking deeply. In this case, looking deeply into civilisations and their impermanence:

[W]hen we meditate on civilisations that have been destroyed in the past, if we can accept [the destruction of our civilisation], we can have peace and be a better worker for the environment.

He points out that there are many people who know what is happening with the environment, but who do not feel capable of taking action due to the amount of despair that they are experiencing.

“If we can help them to have hope, if we can help them to have peace inside themselves”, he said, “that person will be an instrument for the protection of the environment”.

Fellow contributor David Suzuki clarified with Thay what he was saying: that accepting the worst outcome does not necessarily have to lead to a passive state of inaction.

Thich Nhat Hanh responded, “One hundred years, two hundred years is nothing if you talk about geological time; this civilisation might be destroyed and it may take one billion more years to have another civilisation, and that already happened in the past.” 

This is an interesting switch of emphasis; we often talk about saving the planet, but Thay reminds us that the Earth has the capacity to regenerate itself in the long term. He went on to say: “We have to accept reality as it is […]. [A]cceptance can bring us peace and with that […] peace we have force and we can act to change the situation.” A gesture of action and a smile on his face as he spoke suggested that he was not talking theoretically, but from lived experience.

[M]editation plays a role: to meditate means to look deeply; looking deeply, you get the insight. With that insight you are free from despair and anger, and you are a better worker for the environment.

So for Thich Nhat Hanh, the solution to eco-anxiety is to use meditation to directly confront and accept the state of things, including the possibility of our civilisation’s own extinction. Once we achieve that acceptance, we can bring a sense of peace and clarity to our actions – that, paradoxically, give them greater chance of success. It is also an important reminder to live the time we do have on this planet deeply and fully, knowing how fragile and precious that opportunity is.

That is no small task; we might need the support of a community of fellow meditators to help us in our meditation practice, or we might want to practice with the Earth Holder sangha, which brings mindfulness to the issue of the climate crisis.

Where can I read and listen to more?

There is more guidance from Thich Nhat Hanh on facing the climate crisis in The World We Have, which includes teaching on the impermanence of civilisation, and a chapter on ‘Taking Care of the Environmentalist’. His later book, Love Letter to the Earth, shows how we can deepen our connection to the planet. (On the Plum Village App, you can listen to the beautiful letters to Mother Earth that are included in Love Letter to the Earth.)


Footnotes

1. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/24082020/extreme-weather-costs-wildfire-climate-change
2. From the glossary of the American Psychological Association’s 2017 report on the impacts of climate change on mental health, quoted here


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