While our Earth is amazingly resilient, its human inhabitants often struggle to adapt to uncertain circumstances. I find that we are often stuck in our own self-interest, which can lead to greater anxiety and even hopelessness. As I develop workshops to combat these emotional challenges and reconnect us back to ourselves, to others, and nature, I also must take stock of the wellness practices that help keep me energized. Here are seven habits that I am cultivating to stay grounded and hopeful.
Joanna Macy, a renowned expert in the work of eco-anxiety, starts her “Spiral of the Work” (the work that reconnects us to Earth) with gratitude. She says, “The Spiral begins with gratitude because it quiets the mind and brings us back to source, stimulating our empathy and confidence.”
Each day, I try to write three things for which I am grateful on my calendar. My gratitude often includes nature: sunshine, the local prairie, land where I live, birds singing, and just time outside. Taking a good breath and paying deep attention to it first thing in the morning is gratifying. This morning, a blue jay caught my attention outside the window. I am grateful for the shades of blue it provides.
Find your own way to express gratitude for the air, water, and food that give us life each day. Consider the question: what life-giving force do I appreciate most today?
Trebbe Johnson, author of Radical Joy for Hard Times, says that we should not think of Earth’s harmed places as destroyed. We should think of them as orphaned. So even places damaged by floods or fires have beauty in what is available at the present. Johnson suggests we honor those places by leaving a gift, sometimes nature artwork, from what is available at the site.
When I see local farmers applying chemicals and fertilizers to the land around me, I can feel helpless about affecting change at that moment. I combat this feeling of hopelessness by visiting the small patch of woods near me. It is in the small woodlot, with a tiny pond that has not been drained yet; it is one of my favorite spots to create some art as a way of appreciating what is still here.
Celebrate the places around you, in whatever shape they are in. Visit places that are “orphaned” and appreciate what they can still offer.
To slow down and be present during my time outdoors (and indoors), I begin with the intention to wander and wonder. Sometimes when I hike, I simply look around to see what is “calling me.” I recall a time last fall, as the leaves began to fall, I wandered about, looking for some interesting leaves. I moved to whatever gained my attention. That is when I found a beautiful red heart in the middle of a gold maple leaf. I preserved it and have it on my bedroom dresser as a reminder of that relaxing day and the love I have in my life.
In some of my outdoor-related workshops, I ask attendees to do an activity in nature where they must pay attention to their senses. I ask them about their presence level, what was easiest, hardest, and most surprising about the activity. I also ask them for deeper reflections. I enjoy the discussions afterward because nature always gives us new ideas and insight.
Tune in to your five senses while walking or sitting outside. Notice how you belong to nature and are a part of its vast beauty. Be mindful of the gifts nature provides.
Caring for Others
One of the best ways to get unstuck from anxiety is to think about what you can do for others. Some of my most fulfilling work is the self-care workshops I offer to people in the conservation community. They are my network, and they are suffering. The suffering includes the effects of the pandemic on life and work. For some, efforts to mitigate wildlife disease, endangered species, and climate change also directly affect the psyche. I provide spaces where people can explore and express negative feelings with compassion and without judgment.
Think about what you can do for someone in your community when you are feeling down. Reach out to those who are suffering and invite them to spend time outside in nature with you.
Listening to Diverse Voices
I recently attended a session on Climate Emotions: Newly Emerging where young people spoke with generosity, knowledge, and passion about their perspectives on the future. I was impressed and inspired by the wisdom they brought to the conversation and grateful that I could learn from voices different from my own.
I am also intentional about reading books from diverse perspectives. One book that I recommend to everyone in the conservation community is Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney. Her work reminded me that there is no single voice for a group of people. Some have experienced significantly more harm than I when trying to connect with nature and outdoor places, and when I hear their stories, my own perspective is broadened.
The stories that I have been most affected by are those told by aboriginals or native-born people to some amazing places I have visited. The guides at Uluru in central Australia and the Galapagos are two that come to mind quickly. Now, I am learning from the Dakota people about their lands that I live on and understanding ways to acknowledge their history in my ecological work.
How can you expand the diversity of voices that you read and listen to? I encourage you to be curious about their unique perspectives and reflect on how their experiences connect to and differ from your own.
Theodore Roszak, my favorite ecopsychology author, says that two of the most important things we can do for the good of the planet are scale down and slow down. With this in mind, I have been simplifying my life over the past few years. I try to reduce my consumption of “things” and focus on experiences instead. When I am about to make a purchase, I reflect on my real need and consider if something I already have is good enough. I often buy used instead of new.
I am working on being present with the people and places with whom I spend my time. Who and where give me the most joy? How can I focus on them? At the end of each day, I score myself in response to the question “Did I do my best to be content?” Regularly checking in on that goal keeps it top of mind. Some days I do well and others I do not.
Start with one area of your home you can declutter and simplify. Practice being present in the beautiful moments of each day.
Over the past two years, I have adjusted my diet to more whole foods. I often have overnight oatmeal with fruit or eggs in the morning. I eat salads often. Because I do not like to cook, I sometimes make my salads in jars so during the week I can just grab a ready-made jar and flip it out in a bowl. I spend Sundays planning my meals for the week, so I have whole foods readily available. That helps me avoid eating junk.
I have also shifted my mindset around food to think of it as fuel. That is not to say that I do not occasionally eat junk food! I am simply more mindful of what I use to energize my body. Switching to more whole foods makes me feel so much better, physically, and mentally. Plus, in general, whole foods are better for the planet, especially plant-based ones.
Pause to think about the fuel you are using for the only body you will get. If you are ready to start your whole foods journey, look for four to five whole foods recipes you might like.
Curiosity for Ecological Identity
This one isn’t a habit but is important. I recently began exploring my own ecological identity. This has allowed me to reflect on my influences and experiences with nature that brought me to where I am today. For example, my influences include my family of origin and ancestry, my rural upbringing, international travel, and even my children’s eyes. My education and experience include degrees in biology and wildlife management, the study of ecopsychology, outdoor recreation experiences, leadership coaching, and serving on the faculty for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. When I put these together, I realize how complex my identity is and the unique insight I might offer as a result. At the same time, it makes me appreciate that others’ ecological identities are just as unique and piques my curiosity to hear other people’s stories.
Take a moment to think about two major influences on your environmental outlook. Be curious about how your ecological lens might be different from others.
Struggle is normal. As I say in my workshops – if you are not struggling right now through this immense time of uncertainty, I might be worried about you! Check-in with yourself each day and take time for much-needed rest, self-care, and yes, play. If you have an overflow, check-in with others. We can overcome anything if we do it together and remain mindful of our impact on the planet.
Contact me if you are interested in self-care, team care, or any of my human-nature connection workshops at firstname.lastname@example.org.