Earlier in the month I was invited to join a conference on “Mindfulness for Earth.” Truthfully I wasn’t sure what that meant when I received the invitation, but how could I say no to that? The conference was actually organized by the University of Connecticut, Connecticut’s state university, along with the Centre for Advanced Learning of Mindfulness (CALM), Mindfulness for Earth Initiative Sri Lanka, and UNEP Faith for Earth. That made the conference even more exciting. This wasn’t led by a small eco-school in northern Maine, but a state school made up of more than 32,000 students.
On the first day of discussion, the tension within the purpose of teaching mindfulness quickly came up, and was discussed. Are we here for mindfulness for mental health? Or mindfulness for something bigger: for reconnecting people to the living planet so that we stop destroying it? We didn’t linger there, or survey perspectives in the room, though I think most would have said both—and they’re certainly not mutually exclusive. But it felt like the focus remained more on the former. Not surprisingly. UConn, like most other schools, are facing high levels of mental “dis-ease” among their student bodies, as one professor accentuated the word.
Arguably that’s because the world is a mess. And to be mentally well in a disrupted environment is, perhaps, a sign of sickness (as the old saying goes). But truthfully, I do not ascribe to the idea that young people today are feeling Earth’s distress, or suffering ecoanxiety to a greater degree than kids of my generation who were told the rainforests and whales were all dying or those of the generation before who were told that nuclear war could wipe out all creation at any moment.1
Perhaps part of it is that there is less stigma in acknowledging mental ill-health. I can’t imagine my student peers 25 years ago openly discussing their depression, bipolar disorders, or even ADHD (I specifically remember one instance of a guy a few years my junior at college acknowledging that in class and the uncomfortable silence that his admission generated).
Another part is absolutely the pharmaceutical industry, spending billions of dollars marketing in what should be illegal ways to doctors, direct-to-consumers, and so on, selling antidepressants and other drugs—those that make you dependent on them and affect fetal development. Some children today may be products of those altered uterine environments,2 or simply a target of an industry that is always looking to sell more drugs. (An article in a recent issue of The Economist found that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac are not so effective—with only 15% of patients experiencing any benefit beyond the placebo effect in a review of results from 1979 to 2016.)
But there is also the very real phenomenon that we do not spend enough time in natural settings. We don’t stick our hands in the dirt (which can help regulate our moods), we don’t immerse our feet in icy-cold streams, we don’t sit quietly listening to burbling streams, we don’t watch the wild flickering flames of a campfire, we don’t connect to the thousands of birds, animals, and wondrous plants (let alone “icky” bugs that are also fascinating), in the woods, parks, or yards near us.
Attempts to Correct That
At the conference, one participant discussed her effort to bring the Nature Rx program to UConn. Originally conceived by a doctor in Washington DC, who started providing prescriptions to children with chronic diseases to get them physically active and out into nature, this program has spread to several universities—designed to get students outside to improve both their physical and mental health (and hopefully to reconnect them to the larger living planet as well). In Februrary 2020, a steering committee formed at UConn to bring the program here. Of course, COVID came soon after so much of the work went virtual and focused on providing information to the UConn community on what resources are available. Looking at the website, it provides a really clear way to help UConn students (and professors) to take advantage of the nature within the campus and surrounding area—whether they want someplace to hike or simply someplace to sit quietly. It was clear, even in the conference setting that there was value to this tool, as several professors (and a dean) in the room didn’t know about UConn’s farm or forest. So there is a need to both provide people with the basic information that this nature exists as well as nudge them to go outside and explore.
But there’s a deeper challenge. We are addicted to our screens—and to the constant stimulation that goes with them (which most likely is the other large component of our growing mental health crisis).3 One participant who sat near me couldn’t stop texting much of the first day. Sure, maybe there was a good reason, but probably not.
In the room sat a 70-some-odd old Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. As he described, he became a monk at 26 and spent decades secluded in the woods at a monastery. Only later did he return to bring mindfulness to students in Sri Lanka—a predominantly Buddhist country where Buddhist practices weren’t actually being taught in schools. Fortunately, during the discussion he brought mindfulness back to its most basic:
- Be Present
- Act, yes. But don’t react.4
Mindfulness is simply about being present. Whoever you’re with, whatever you’re doing, that’s the most important thing. Even now, as I write this, I’m thinking about the other work I need to get done. When I meditate other thoughts creep in. In the conference—especially at the very UConn-focused moments, I thought, “Shouldn’t I be elsewhere? I’ve got work to do.” Our minds have become very jumpy. Perhaps no more than they’ve always been, but I think that’s probably not the case.
Mindfulness is a skill—one that can be trained and strengthened—at least within a range. Just like a thin guy is probably never going to lift a car over his head (no matter how much he trains), most of us will never be able to meditate for 24 hours straight under a bodhi tree (let alone 49 days). But we can regain a basic level of mindfulness. It might be impossible for us to have the mindfulness of a monk or even an Indigenous individual who while walking quietly can sense animals in the area simply by attending to and interpreting different bird calls (or lack of bird calls) and tracks on the ground, but we can at least slow our minds down, be more present, and perhaps even increase our consciousness of the nonhuman world as well.
Mindfulness for All
Of course, mindfulness is not a uniquely Buddhist teaching. I shared this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s The Three Questions with my son and his two friends this past week. Essentially in answering the three questions of: “When is the best time to do things?” “Who is the most important one?” and “What is the right thing to do?” the answers are: the only important time is now, the most important one is the one you are with, and the right thing to do is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. In other words, being present and focused on the task at hand is mindfulness. Now that’s not to say we shouldn’t question the task at hand—a mindful oil executive sensitive to his employees’ and shareholders’ needs is not the goal. A mindful oil exec who realizes that he is one with Gaia and thus shifts the company to become a reforestation and renewable energy company is.5
That is a key difference between mindfulness for mental health and mindfulness for Earth and begs the question: how do we cultivate not just mindfulness, but mindfulness for Earth? I admit that question wasn’t directly answered in the conference. The participants were too varied, the focus more on sharing information than organizing a strategic intervention, but the fact that professors in the room learned how other professors start their class with a mindfulness minute, how there’s a residential farm at UConn that offers a weekly opportunity to help out and get one’s hands into the dirt, that there’s now several miles of trails and quiet nature spots mapped out and easily explored online, and that there’s a department at the university that wants to bring mindfulness for Earth to UConn and to other colleges is a really good start. I look forward to seeing where the initiative goes.
1) That generation also experienced rivers catching on fire and dire warnings of silent springs. And before that people lived in cities that literally could suffocate you to death from the industrial smog. In other words, generation after generation has served as witness to ecological atrocities that made them psychologically stressed.
2) Or they could have been altered from PFAS or phthalates, flame retardants, or other endocrine disrupting chemicals—we’re swimming in chemicals now, and that’s absolutely affecting our physical and mental health.
3) There’s also the issue of overwork. If you’re working 8-10 hours a day, mostly in front of a computer, there’s little time or energy left to go for a walk, a hike, sit in the woods, etc. Though there’s always time to sit for five minutes on your back step, in your backyard, or outside your office. That’s not enough but it starts you on the path and over time, your body will crave those mindfulness moments and ask for more.
4) This is the simplest but hardest part of mindfulness. Since returning to the conference I have focused on simply not reacting to emotional triggers. I’m succeeding slightly more than before, so that’s good.
5) Ideally in a way that preserves employee and shareholder wellbeing so he isn’t fired or the business goes bankrupt—or the company or its competitors will just keep on razing Earth.