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Inner work and climate change
How we can start to heal the earth by healing ourselves.
How we can start to heal the earth by healing ourselves.
It could be easy to dismiss inner work as self-indulgent, individualistic and expendable, given the urgency of our changing climate. We have a tendency to separate what is happening to the natural world as something divided from us—something “out there” and unrelated to our personal psychology. But what if our global challenges were symptoms of our lack of awareness, a reflection of the aspects of ourselves that we struggle with, marginalise or try to silence?
Splitting ourselves from nature and seeking healing in isolation recreates the very conditions that gave rise to the challenges in our ecosystem. Our emotional and ecological health are intertwined and environmental sustainability depends on finding regenerative ways of living—with ourselves, others and the planet. In this way, personal change becomes social change; self-nurture, self-awareness and self-renewal become revolutionary acts.
To really look at what is going on in the world and to be with the shocking reality of climate change is to sit with the loss of our planet as we know it, and the potential for our own extinction. That’s the challenge—not to keep looking away, but to work on our grief and pain and hurt and fear. Inner work is a crucial part of that: the ability to be with these emotions and process what emerges once we face them.
The other aspect is that the inner experience reflects the outer. To work with our own dreams and emotions, including all the parts or roles within us, helps us to relate to the roles of other people out there in the world. Through inner work, the temptation to vilify “the other” lessens. If we can see, for example, the coal companies or Donald Trump within ourselves, we’re less likely to get stuck in our positions and blame “the other” for the problems. We have more freedom when we come to intimately know the nuances of the roles internally first.
The problems that arise when we are disconnected from the environment are all around us. Sometimes we ignore what is going on in the world because it feels too big for us to do anything about, or because life is really quite comfortable. Yet pushing it away has contributed to our epidemic of anxiety and depression, spiritual starvation and yearning for deeper connection.
Other times we disengage through our constant busyness. We’re always doing, working, rushing, rolling over our inner nature—rather than shifting with the times and slowing down, connecting with the earth and being an ally to the environment. This is problematic because if we are not slowing down enough, we continually step into the role of the perpetrator in overriding nature.
My own journey with this work has emerged through contemplating the impact of the sheer brutality with which we treat our environment and feeling the depth of my despair and the shame that comes with knowing I also hold responsibility for the destruction. I realised my work in psychotherapy and group facilitation was innately connected to my desire to support the emergence of a new way of being in the world.
When I lived overseas I was surprised to find I missed Australia—obviously I missed my family and friends, but the surprise was that I missed the landscape and the sky. It made me notice something about myself that I hadn’t noticed before; I had a profound sense that the environment and I were innately linked aspects of a larger living, breathing organism. Something of the land was calling me. A friend of mine put it beautifully: “I’ve always been fascinated by Australia—the wildness of the landscape. It just seems so wild there!”
I became curious about how we quash and control wildness in nature—both in our natural environment and in our own human nature (take “anger management” for example.) It made me wonder, where was this wildness in me? I found it in the rhythms of my body, in that instinct that told me things before I knew them. It was in my dreams, my emotions, my creativity, in the parts of me that were further from my awareness. I found that the more I listened to these things the more connected I felt and the easier it was to move with the flow of my own life.
Yet these things are marginalised in our society. We focus on intellect, logic and knowing rather than on creativity, emotions and the unknown. Reconnecting with our emotions and our bodies is part of the journey of reconnecting with our own nature and with our environment.
Genuine connection comes with a challenge. Acknowledging our own nature means facing the discomfort, the almost unbearable truths, the honesty of who and what we are in our wholeness. We turn our faces from the knowledge that we are both the perpetrator and the victim, that we are both mindlessly plundering the environment and losing our home, and—for good reason—the shame and guilt that can come with recognising this aspect of ourselves can be crippling.
So the task then, as I see it, is to find a way to be with both the pain and the beauty of our times. To feel our anger and own the power of it without losing our awareness of the complexities of rank, privilege and oppression. To allow ourselves to be opened by the depth of what we feel when we contemplate the loss of our planet and our potential extinction and integrate what unfolds from this experience.
This means listening to ourselves more deeply, to connecting with our inner nature, our own inner stillness, our own dreaming, our sensory grounded experience, and our moment-by-moment experiences. This is counter to our cultural identity, and as I write I wonder where I have internalised this and how I still need to work with that aspect of myself. It is tempting for me to assume that those who are abusing our environment are outside myself. However, another possibility for me is to think that these roles might be present in my internal environment.
Our grief and shame for the abuse of the environment in fact come from a place of love and passion for our home. We can take this love—the deep connection with our earth, our ecosystems, fellow creatures and plants with which our lives are interdependent—and we can choose to use it well. Love does not disappear because things change or end. Love is something that lives in us and through us. We can flip the coin of grief and despair and allow our depth of feeling to move us through the world.
However, to be stuck only in individual development isolates us—the inner work we do must come into conversation with nature. How is our inner experience echoed in nature? Where do we find our energy—the aspects we embrace or disown in our environment? How do these coexist? What can we learn by spending time in nature and truly knowing a mountain, listening to a river, feeling the rain on our skin?
These are things we are being called to remember, relearn and reintegrate because they are part of this astonishing and complex system in which we live. They reflect parts of ourselves and at the same time connect us with something greater.
Inner work supports us in rising to the challenges of climate change with awareness and wisdom. It teaches us to flow with nature, to understand the season of things rather than push forward with agendas and methods that perpetuate the problems. Ultimately, being genuinely connected compels us to contribute with mindful action to the great challenges of our times.