Last winter I went through a difficult time where I couldn’t sleep. Being an insomniac meant getting familiar with the subtle night sounds and blinking lights around my house: the humming of the fridge; the glow of the oven clock, the occasional yell from a drunk kid walking home. As the sleeplessness progressed, the knot in my chest tightened. The fatigue turned my mind into a dim fog of itself and the knot was diagnosed as situational anxiety. I started to question whether I was capable of meeting any of the goals on my long “Life To-Do” list. My only goal was to sleep.
Every weekday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (and let’s be honest, more than that) I am a “professional environmentalist” fighting to curb climate change and promote cleaner energy; I sit on conference calls, respond to e-mail threads, speak up in meetings, and create PowerPoints. This is honest work. Hard work. Mostly thankless and bad-for-my-posture work, but work that I believe in nonetheless. The work itself wasn’t so much the source of my anxiety, but rather the thought that nothing I did was ever going to be enough. I felt utterly overwhelmed with how much I wanted to accomplish, and blocked with the fear that I wouldn’t–didn’t– have the time or energy to become the activist, writer, gardner, mother,partner, dog owner person I hoped to be one day.
Stamina is not something I’ve encountered as a lively discussion point amongst my peers and colleagues; more often we’re contemplating the next crisis to address in the midst of writing grant applications and reports. As much as the principles of sustainability anchors our work, the term “burn-out” is commonly referenced as the inevitable path for young professionals of my generation doing work within NGOs on behalf of social and environmental causes. How ironic to find myself in a field that requires so much passion, sacrifice and knowledge of ecological balances and limits yet hardly creates space to pause and consider our own human limits and methods of self-preservation. If I am not able to sustain myself for a lifetime of this work, who on Earth will? Certainly not a bunch of burned out environmentalists who wish they were sleeping instead of staring up at the ceiling with the light still off (to save energy of course).
In Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, journalist and mediation teacher Jeff Warren writes about climate suffering. This particular suffering doesn’t seek to describe how more frequent drastic weather and warming temperatures physically impact humans. Instead, he insists the repetitive facts and horror images of climate change often overwhelms people into exhaustion and cynicism. This is felt by everyone who lives and breathes the facts of climate change, but particularly affects driven and ambitious people–not surprisingly the type of people who would identify as climate activists. A burned out brain has high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower frontal lobe activity resulting in less executive functioning and decision making. Fortunately, the brain is a malleable, adoptable piece of machinery and just as the brain can become stressed when confronted with insurmountable stress, it can regain balance if given the opportunity.
Lately, in the mornings, before showering and breakfast, I hold sacred time for myself. I look out the Easterly facing window to gauge the sun and weather, light a candle, turn on the tea kettle, and sit cross-legged on the floor to mediate. Often the light is a simple grey blue and my breathe is all I hear in the slim hours of morning. I do this ritual as a check-in with myself in order to sense any physical or emotional tension brewing. Thoughts always come and some mornings I follow the trail for minutes, but on days when I can let the storytelling go, and simply follow the trail of air that lifts into my nose, dives into my lungs, and releases out my mouth I can find a few heartbeats of calm.
Buddhists talk about the art of letting go. True meditation isn’t about trying to become something better, or stopping all thoughts, but rather a practice of befriending who we already are, and the letting go is simply releasing the resistance of who we think we should be and the thoughts that affirm those beliefs. Pema Chodron describes “on the spot tonglen” a breathing method for dropping the storyline and cultivating compassion for ourselves and even others we dislike. Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and author of several books, including Comfortable with Uncertainty, encourages students and readers to relax with the notion that all things are fleeting and changing.
She insists there is time–even amidst my generation’s greatest ecological disasters–to simply pause inside a single breathe. Perhaps the most non-selfish thing an activist can do for the climate change movement (and arguably any social justice movement) is to live gracefully for our own self-preservation with the compassion that we deserve. Judging where our lives should be going, or feeling guilt or shame because we haven’t reached our ideal selves is the root of suffering. Through my own mediative practice I’ve started to untangle the knot, the clamp of self-talk, and refocus my energy on the person I am in this very moment. I don’t pretend that this is easy, but the alternative is starting to seem less and less like an option.
A body, with all it’s blood, heart, nerves, muscle and bone, is its own ecosystem, and as such goes through periods of ebb and flow in sickness and health. Sustainability as a concept understands this ebb and flow, these periods of disruption, in fact thrives on changes in environmental conditions if–and that is a big if–an ecosystem can find equilibrium again. Without regular ground fires, for example, many forests cannot keep brush and young trees in check and are more susceptible to destructive wildfires. I argue that climate activists (and all humans for that matter) are comparable to forests in that we need to spend time clearing out the underbrush of our minds, the worries and fears, the self judgement and the loathing. This practice is to build stamina for ourselves and the environmental movement.
Grace Lee Boggs, American revolutionist and one of Detroit’s most prominent change makers puts it like this: “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.” Grace Lee Boggs herself went through tremendous philosophical perspective shifts in her life. From a radical Marxist to a vegetable growing community organizer, Boggs never got stuck in believing she was just one type of person or activist; she allowed herself to transform. At 98 years old she continues to write, speak publicly, hold interviews and organize. If that’s not stamina, I don’t know what is.
When it comes down to it, saving the planet, so to speak, starts with our own emotional and bodily ecosystems. A simple breath, a pause. And a release.