Some time ago, my seven-year-old son came home from school in tears to ask me if it was true the world was going to end in eleven years. His brother, three years older, loftily informed him that no – the correct figure was nine years. Initially appalled, when I probed more deeply, I discovered that they had been learning at school about the climate crisis. As children tend to do, they had taken their few facts about the concept of tipping points and run with them to a nightmarishly extreme conclusion.
How can we – as global citizens, as parents, as psychotherapists – respond when faced with the questions of children about this crisis of our times? How can we respond when faced with clients who announce quite matter-of-factly that they won’t be having babies because they couldn’t bring them into a collapsing world? How can we lean into our own climate fear, grief and anxiety so that we might actually be of help in whatever situation the world might find itself in ten, twenty or fifty years?
What’s the background?
It is now generally accepted that significant action will have to be taken across the world in order to cut carbon emissions by 2030 to a level which will prevent massive climate catastrophe. Last year’s COP26 in Glasgow saw some progress by industrialised nations but many saw the commitments as watered down and insufficient (O’Sullivan, 2021a; Vidal, 2021). The COP, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to the ‘Conference of Parties’, a global climate summit of the 197 nations that signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.
We all know that floods and fires are happening more frequently and with greater devastation each year. Extinctions of plant, animal and insect species are increasing. The harsh truths spoken by Greta Thunberg and others seem to be falling too often on deaf ears and it is our children and grandchildren who will have to live with the consequences of our action or inaction.
A recent Irish Times / EPA poll (O’Sullivan, 2021b) found that 91% of Irish people say climate change is important to them personally. However, there is still reluctance to accept added cost or change on an individual level: in October 2021, an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll reported that 82% of Irish people were against higher taxes on energy and fuel, 72% were against making diesel and petrol cars more expensive and 60% were against reducing the size of the national cattle herd (Lunn, 2021).
Leaning into the pain
As therapists, we are used to sitting with the pain of others. However, as many of us learned during the pandemic, it’s often quite different when we are in exactly the same situation as our clients and have no more answers than they have. The term ‘eco-anxiety’ has been described by Buzzell and Edwards (cited in Rust, 2020: 84) as “a range of feelings when someone wakes up to the ecological crisis”. Some of the feelings that come up for our clients and for us around climate change might include grief for what has already been lost as well as anticipatory grief, fear, anger, despair, frustration, overwhelm, powerlessness, paralysis, guilt, shame, denial and many others.
If we are to help our clients – and our children - work with their eco-anxiety, we must first face that whole range of feelings within ourselves. We’ll have to accept that we – unless we are living a completely off grid, car-free, vegan, waste-free life – are part of the problem as well as part of the solution, and that’s not easy to do. I’m uncomfortably aware as I write this that like most adults in this country, I drive a car – less often than many but more than I need to. I teach my kids to recycle but I still buy them Lego. I buy shampoo bars and bamboo toothbrushes to cut down waste and wonder whether it’s all just virtue-signalling – a band-aid when what’s really needed is urgent change by all of us. It’s hard to sit with the feelings of hopelessness, guilt, shame, despair and yes – fear, that arise when I think of these things but only by leaning into them can I begin to work through them. Rather than becoming stuck in guilt and shame over the things I am doing wrong, I know I need to look at those things honestly, without shame or excuses, and see where and how change might be possible.
One of the reasons we can be paralysed into inaction by the climate crisis is that it forces us to face our own mortality, which can feel like too much to handle. Henson (2017) has also suggested links between climate denial and death anxiety. The thought that we and those we love might die is terrifying. And yet, death is for all of us inevitable. I am a facilitator with the Art of Living and Dying series in Ireland. These workshops, originally designed for palliative care professionals, challenge participants to explore their own fears and beliefs around death and dying. The philosophy is that we as healers cannot help others to navigate territory we have not ourselves explored. Working with this material since 2014 has launched me into an ongoing exploration of my relationship to death that has helped me greatly in my living, and also in exploring my feelings about the climate crisis.
As permaculture educator Bonita Ford reflects: “Facing our ecological crisis is like grieving and dying on a collective scale.” (2020: 75). Our challenge, as therapists and as individuals, is to travel thoughtfully through those dark spaces of grief and death so that we can help others to do the same. And if we can challenge ourselves to face into the possibility of death and loss with awareness, unexpected rewards may follow:
Facing the things which cause us most anxiety in life can often turn out to be less scary and a far richer experience than we imagined, even when those things are deeply distressing. In the darkest places, there is often a profound sense of connection at both the human and the universal level.
(Brazier, 2018: 77)
A new story
One of the ways we can frame a deliberate response to a given situation is in terms of what story we choose to tell about it. Climate activist Lorna Gold writes about the need to change our stories around climate change. She says:
The biggest obstacle we have today is that the stories we keep telling ourselves about progress, the future, wealth and economic growth no longer work…. Sharing a different story of our place in the world can become the springboard for inventing the kinds of communities, economies and societies that can help us to be resilient to climate change in the future.
(Gold, 2018: 139-140)
We are already telling different stories about the climate crisis. Some of these stories tell of hopelessness, fear, and loss. Others invoke hope and transformation. The first step is to become aware of the stories we are telling ourselves, and in that awareness, to create a space where we might begin to choose what story we tell next.
Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy that holds that all living things have inherent worth, regardless of whether or not they are ‘useful’ to humans. Renowned deep ecologist Joanna Macy also speaks of the importance of story (Macy & Johnstone, 2012: chapter 1). She outlines three stories we can tell ourselves about the state of the world. The first story is “business as usual” where we act as if everything is fine and the world will continue just as it always has. This story is one of denial. The second story is that of “the great unravelling” – an apocalyptic vision where everything is falling apart with no future in sight. It leads to hopeless, powerless pessimism. Macy’s third option (as in all good stories) is that which offers hope: “the great turning”, which shows us the current state of the world as a challenge and opportunity for transformation, the stimulus to create a new and better way of living both for human and other-than-human inhabitants of the planet. Macy’s concept of hope is not, she emphasises, a naïve trust in the future but is rather “active hope” (2012: chapter 2). It involves a cleareyed recognition of how the world is, a focused vision of how we would like it to be, and the conscious decision to do what we can to bring about that preferred outcome. We may or may not be successful, but we can find hope and discover meaning in the attempt.
Macy’s three stories in some ways echo the process of psychotherapy. Many of us have held space for clients who began in denial and moved from there into despair at the enormity of what they had to confront. When we as therapists sit with clients who are in despair, part of our role is to enter that bleak landscape with them. However, I believe that an equally crucial part of our job is to hold the conviction that healing and hope is possible, even (or especially) when the client can’t see it for themselves. If we can’t believe in that desired outcome and work towards it (regardless of whether we ever voice this explicitly to the client), it will be very hard for us to facilitate change.
Similarly, although we may feel despair and fear around the climate crisis, ultimately, we can’t stay in that state if we hope to create positive change. Active hope acknowledges the despair and fear but chooses to act so as to create the best chance for a positive outcome.
For each of us, the ways in which we can create positive change will be different. As individuals, we might choose to donate money each month to an environmental charity. We might leave the car at home when possible, cut down on meat consumption, sign petitions or attend protests. We might simply resolve to start conversations about the environment, or to shop more consciously. These are all small steps but taken in the sense of active hope, each small step is a step in the right direction.
As therapists, we might be reluctant to overtly preach environmentalism to our clients. However, I have found that when a client is feeling depressed, stuck or anxious about the state of the world, active hope is sometimes a very useful strategy to help them regain a small sense of control, and to create small changes that can have large consequences.
Transforming our relationship with the earth
Part of the problem when it comes to environmental denial and destruction is our collective disengagement from the earth, and more specifically from the places where we live. Many of us see ourselves as living on an inanimate planet that exists as a resource for our use. In contrast, indigenous people around the world view the earth as animate – a living conscious being with whom we must each form our own relationship. Psychologist and mythologist Sharon Blackie describes this process as “becoming native to our places” (2018: 206). She suggests that “in order to be fully alive and present in this world, each of us needs to build some feeling of relationship with the place we are living in right now” (2018: 206). This can be done in different ways, whether it’s sitting in nature, simply walking the land where we live, or tending a garden.
Like many of my colleagues, I have seen a rise in the incidence of clients presenting with anxiety, isolation and loneliness over the past couple of years. One of the ways in which I have responded to this through my work is to encourage the development of relationship to place. More than one client, by developing a habit of contemplative walking in nature or finding a sit spot, has found a rootedness that lends inner strength and calm. (A sit spot, for those unfamiliar with the term, is simply a place outdoors where a person goes regularly to sit in a mindful way, to observe and to develop awareness of the senses and of nature.)
As therapists, we might ask ourselves about our own relationships with the places we live and work. Are we aware of the other-than-human beings with whom we share our space? Are there birds or animals, or perhaps trees, that make their presence felt? Do we like the places we inhabit? Are we rooted there?
A personal experiment I carried out to develop my family’s relationship to our place over the past few years involved the conscious rewilding of our small back garden during the growing months. Letting the grass grow long and wild, relinquishing the garden to the wildflowers, we became observers – noticing how grass gave way to dandelions, white and red clover, self-heal, buttercups and daisies, plantain and ragwort. We researched these native plants and were gratified to discover that many of them had medicinal properties or were edible for humans as well as birds and animals. Our little rewilding experiment brought all sorts of interesting bugs, beetles and butterflies to our garden as well as a greatly increased population of songbirds. The day when we found goldfinches feasting on the ragwort was an exciting one. Unfortunately, we also discovered that it was wiser not to let long grass grow too close to the house as our population of garden mice also thrived and began to look for warmer quarters as winter approached!
As we deepen our relationship with the places around us and begin to listen to what they might have to tell us, a world of symbolic encounter opens up. As therapists, we can invite clients to view symbolically their encounters with the other-than-human. This is a technique that has proven very helpful in my own outdoor sessions, as a difficulty traversing a fallen log becomes a metaphor for the obstacles faced by the client, a muddy puddle comes to represent those places where one becomes bogged down, and a spider building an unseen web between therapist and client becomes a symbol for the fragile yet precious connection formed in therapy (Rust, 2020: 11). As we become close observers of the world around us, its richness becomes ever more apparent.
The wounded healer
The natural consequence of developing a connection with the earth and with the other-than-human beings that share it with us is a reorientation of our self-concept. As John Moriarty said: “The hero now isn’t someone who wields a sword - it’s someone who puts down his sword and lets nature happen to him” (cited in Kearney, 2018: 98). Moriarty’s hero is no longer separate from that which happens around him, rather, he has opened himself to be impacted by the world.
In his memoir, The Nest in the Stream, palliative care physician Michael Kearney describes how seeing a bird’s nest floating in a stream, with the water flowing through it, showed him a new way of being with the pain and suffering of others which had previously brought him to the point of burnout. He writes:
It [the nest] suggests that I do not have to be so defended any more. It offers me a way of holding my pain that is not so self-protective. “Let suffering happen to you,” it whispers. “Allow it in. Feel it as it washes through. And then, let it go to the deeper flow of life. This will bring you out of isolation and into connection.
(Kearney, 2018: 104)
This is the path of the wounded healer, the path of openness rather than separation, and perhaps when faced with a crisis as vast as that which faces us today, there may be no other way of remaining authentically human. We should not see people losing their homes to flood and fire, or polar bears starving as their habitat shrinks, or dead seabirds with plastic-filled stomachs without feeling the horror and pain of it. As people and as therapists, we are all impacted – perhaps this path can offer us a way forward as we help our clients to sit with their own pain.
Many therapists, myself included, are now working outside and bringing nature into their psychotherapy and supervision practices (see for example Hanrahan, 2021; O’Driscoll, 2015). While some are fortunate enough to be working in places of exquisite natural beauty, my own experience of offering ‘walk and talk’ sessions in a suburban Dublin park has shown me the value of connecting to the ground under my feet rather than yearning for beautiful locations elsewhere. It’s tempting to think of ‘nature’ as somewhere else, but our individual environments are those places where we live and breathe every day. As David Abram writes: “the sensuous world – the world of our direct unmediated interactions – is always local. The sensuous world is the particular ground on which we walk, the air we breathe.” (1996/2017: 266).
Benefits of a closer nature connection
While it’s easy to see how developing a closer nature connection can be good for the planet in terms of transforming our relationships and attitudes – a lesser-known truth is that it has also been shown to be extremely beneficial for human health. A substantial body of academic research established since the 1980s has shown that time spent in nature can help reduce depression (Berman et al., 2012), stress (Tyrväinen et al., 2014), negative thinking (Bratman et al., 2015), blood pressure (Twohig-Bennett & Jones, 2018), time spent recovering from surgery (Ulrich, 1984), and even mortality levels (Villeneuve et al., 2012). It can help to promote cognitive function (Berman et al., 2008), creativity (Atchley at al., 2012), mental health (Bratman et al., 2012) and even qualities such as trust, generosity and caring (Zhang et al., 2014).
A recent meta-synthesis of research on talk therapy conducted in nature (Cooley et al., 2020) also found several benefits particular to outdoor psychotherapy, including connecting clients with the natural world, enriching the therapeutic encounter through increased mutuality, mind-body holism, and freedom of expression, and enhancing practitioner wellbeing.
It can be hard to maintain hope when you feel alone. Emma Philbin Bowman outlines beautifully the necessity of moving as a society from individualism to community. Writing on the experience of Covid-19, she reflects: “when I attend to what has struck me most vividly these past eighteen months, I would say that culturally, it is the collapse of the myth of autonomy and a tangibly amplified exposure to our collective fate” (Philbin Bowman, 2021: 17). It is certainly true that Covid-19 has shown us how intertwined our lives are, even as we have had to keep our distance from each other. As the climate crisis increasingly impacts our world, we will be forced more and more to confront how our individual actions influence our collective fate.
Psychotherapy can sometimes be a solitary profession, and it is important for us as professionals also to find support in community. This applies even more when facing circumstances like a pandemic, the climate crisis or war that affect us as much as our clients. If we are to hold space for those who come to us in threatening times, we need to be well-resourced. One such resource might be Ecotherapy Network Ireland (ENI), founded by myself and others in 2021. ENI is a group of likeminded psychotherapists and related professionals who are dedicated to finding a healing path with the Earth, both in our lives and work. The vision of the group is to establish an annual Gathering to ‘do the work’ of ecopsychology together, examining our own relationships to the earth, and exploring the ways in which we might respond to the climate crisis personally and professionally as it unfolds.
Each of us will respond differently to the threats and promises of the years ahead. When I began to write this piece, I envisioned this as a factual exploration of psychotherapy and the climate crisis. It became something far more personal as I began to engage with my own feelings, fears and hopes. Taking these as a starting point, I found myself moving into an examination of the stories I tell myself about climate change, and more than that, the stories I want to choose, and the actions I want to promote to create a hopeful future.
So, what do I tell my children when they ask me about the difficult futures that may lie ahead?
For myself, I hold that stance that Viktor Frankl called tragic optimism –acknowledging the possibility of the worst and yet continuing to trust in the human potential for: “(1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action” (1984: 162).
For them, I hold active hope. I tell them that we don’t know what the future will bring, but that we can work together to move in the direction of the future that we want to have. We serve no-one by sinking under the weight of the world’s pain. May we instead feel that pain with compassion, allow it to pass through us like the nest in the stream, and bring us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness so that we – as therapists, parents and global citizens - can move forward together to offer our world whatever help and healing we can.
Margaret Brady MIAHIP is a psychotherapist, spiritual companion and workshop facilitator based in Dublin 6. She is a founding member of Ecotherapy Network Ireland. For more information see www.margaretbrady.ie
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IAHIP 2022 - INSIDE OUT 97 - Summer 2022