I recently wrote about anxiety and how it can be your superpower. This is especially clear when it comes to eco-anxiety.
I have found it really easy to feel paralysed by a whole swathe of difficult feelings, from anxiety to grief, guilt to anger. At times I have felt despair. I have also experienced a sense of frantic urgency and just not knowing where to start. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed.
The “yes, and” approach
I use a strategy I call the “yes, and” approach. I have discovered through my mindfulness practice that it is possible not only to be with those difficult feelings, it is actually necessary to allow them and move towards them and not away. This is the “Yes” part.
Firstly, those feelings are an entirely appropriate response to the reality of the climate and ecological catastrophes. They need to be given space and expressed.
A few years ago, I was sitting with someone who had recently lost their husband. As I sat there, I felt lost for words – there was nothing I could do to undo their loss – so I just sat and listened. At the time, I felt a bit helpless and worried that I couldn’t do more. After a while of sitting and listening, the lady thanked me profusely. She said that her family had felt so desperate to make her feel better, every time she cried or started talking they would rush to fix things, closing her down. This was such a valuable lesson. She just needed to be heard and have someone hold space for her to grieve. This is true for all of us. How often do we feel something unwanted and rush to push it away, avoid it or fix it?
There’s an expression that you can only heal what you can feel. So I found that acknowledging my feelings and recognising that I wasn’t being weak or oversensitive or defective in any way was a helpful first step. Then allowing myself to let the feelings flow through me rather than trying to block them off (as much as I felt able to – sometimes bite-size pieces rather than all at once is the way to go) was a useful way to visualise it. I imagine it as being like a car with the engine running but without the gears engaged. I allow myself to cry, scream, furiously write in my journal, but the feelings aren’t driving the car (I am not acting on them – shouting at people, for example – although that may come later!) Having those feelings powering the engine can be really valuable. Activism needs energy! However, it also needs wisdom.
So the “Yes” part is “yes, these feelings are here and this is what they feel like.” I carry them with me for as long as they are needed, recognising that they have a role to play and they may be transformed into something helpful if I stop trying to control everything. Also, they flow through – I am not holding onto them or identifying with them – they are just an expression of what is.
The “And” part is “and what else?” I don’t have to stay stuck. This is where I get to connect the engine to the wheels. It is about applying wisdom to the feelings. The wisdom here comes in part from knowledge / logic, and partly from a spiritual insight / set of values. It can be about acknowledging that I cannot possibly do it all on my own. However, I have unique gifts that I can use. I need to work out where I can have the most impact and which direction is the right way to go. This helps to tackle that sense of being overwhelmed and any paralysis. I ask myself “what is something that I can do today that takes me in the right direction?” The answer to that question may come from an understanding of what my talents are, what is needed (what individual action I can take or where I can push for change) and what will have the biggest impact. (By the way, so many big impacts come from small steps done over and over – it does not have to be taking on more than a bite-size piece). How I achieve it and knowing whether it is taking things in the right direction comes from my spiritual practice and understanding what my values are. If you have read my other blogs, you will recognise my favourite question is “as a person going through this difficult experience, who do I want to be?” Courageous? Resilient? Fiercely compassionate? Someone who honours the truth? Someone who makes a difference?
Leading by example
It is easy to underestimate the power of leading by example. One of the despairing thoughts that I have had repeatedly is that “no one is listening/will listen to me” – that realisation that I cannot change other people or manipulate their actions. It is not entirely true that no one is listening. However, I believe that a huge part of effecting change comes from what we do individually – not least, the inner work. Showing people that it is possible to live a meaningful life, feeling as we do and not giving up, but actually using these difficult experiences to take empowered action, could well be the right path to saving the world. What you believe, you can achieve.
It is never hopeless
It is easy to question why we even bother to try when faced with the scale of the task in front of us and politicians apparently moving in exactly the wrong direction. Firstly, I can give you countless examples of times when I have felt utterly defeated only to discover that I was moments away from success. The lesson here is not to pre-judge – stay in the present moment and just keep taking the next small step.
Let’s suppose that it is indeed hopeless. How would you want to spend your time? Or to put it another way “who would you want to be in that situation?” Personally, I want to be the hopeful optimist who throws every last effort at helping. I want to take my kids and show them the wonders of the natural world while I still can. I want to inspire them and let them feel the same love, even if it comes with a serving of sadness.
Above all else, if you do the inner work, let those feelings fire the engine, live according to your values and have a higher purpose guide your direction, that is surely a life well lived, which to me is reason to feel hopeful.
Just to emphasise, this approach is not intended as a replacement for a good therapist. If you are experiencing anxiety or other feelings that are difficult to cope with and/or lead a normal life, please seek help from a medical practitioner or therapist. There are many resources depending on which country you are in – for example MIND in the UK.