The Psychology of Ecology

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Among people who care about conscious living, it’s hard to find a
bigger or more fashionable issue than the green movement. That’s a very
good thing, because it’s also hard to find an issue that merits more
immediate action than the environmental crisis. It’s inspiring to watch
how quickly the popularity of ecological consumption has spread. You’d
be hard pressed to find any issue that has gone absolutely viral
through our cultural consciousness with such roadrunner speed. In New
York City, even one year ago, store clerks would roll their eyes at me
when I told them I didn’t need them to put the roll of Chapstick I just
bought into a huge plastic bag (have you ever had your Chapstick
double-bagged?). Now, more and more often, they politely ask me if I
need a bag, and when I pull my own reusable nylon one from my pocket,
they are less likely to seem like I ruined their day. Government
legislation aimed at better environmental policies is also popping up
around the globe, from Mumbai to Ireland to California, where a plan recently adopted by the state seeks to cut CO2 emissions by a whopping (but seemingly necessary) 80 percent by 2050.

It is now haute couture to do something noticeable to let the world
know that we are on board with the cause of environmental salvation,
whether it’s waiting on a long line to pick up a new handbag that tells
everybody “I am not a plastic bag,” sipping from a metal water bottle,
or driving a hybrid car. Yet for all of the work going into this
fantastic movement, it seems that something is more or less missing
from our collective efforts to “go green.”

To date, the Green movement seems to be very much focused on the
external world of objects and resources. Going green is all about
external stuff: how to get more eco (and more fashionable) stuff,
or else how to use the stuff we already have more effectively and less
carelessly. For some folks, going green means arranging your lifestyle
so you simply have way less stuff. All of these
investigations are crucial. Collecting information about how to make
compassionate choices in the context of a huge planet and an interwoven
economy is an absolutely eye-opening practice, no matter which specific
issue is closest to your heart.

But what about the internal landscape of consumption—the
subtleties of our state of mind as we attempt to change our patterns?
After all, we are the very individuals who have to get, use, or stop
ourselves from using all this stuff! How do our mental habits
and identities fuel our choices? How do our minds embrace or reject a
change of habit? In the Green movement to date, there is precious
little investigation regarding the psychology of ecology.

Let’s accept, more or less, the collective and individual lifestyles
we’ve all developed. We have to place ourselves in a cultural place and
time to see ourselves clearly. For most (but not all) of us,
contemplating our actions in an interwoven ecological context is a
fairly new practice, an unfamiliar terrain. Most of us in the United
States today grew up with the following general rules: If we wanted to
get something, we usually got it. If things went well, we got it
IMMEDIATELY. Whether children or adults, we played with our toy until
inevitable boredom set in. Then we tied it up in a trash bag and sent
it along to the landfill. We had no idea how or where the resources
necessary to create it were extracted from the earth. Nor did we
realize what processes of labor went into producing the item. And what
happened once that gently used object was wrapped up with a twist tie
and set out for the garbage man to collect? It sure went somewhere, but
no place we were ever called upon to worry about. Until now.

Our culture of convenience has habitually alienated us from the
truth of interdependence—that nothing ever happens in a vacuum.
Interdependence is the most crucial concept that Buddhist philosophy
has to offer the twenty-first century world, although Buddhism has no
monopoly on the idea. Interdependence invites us to expand our
awareness and to bear witness to the complex network of conditioning
that produces each of our habitual actions, as well as the larger
context of outcomes produced by our lifestyle choices. As ignorant
participants in complicated processes of global production and
consumption, we have had precisely this contextual awareness stripped
from us. This ignorance isn’t anyone’s fault, but it means most of us
have developed some deeply grooved mental habits regarding how we
impulsively interact with the world of objects, i.e., how we use stuff. As actress Carrie Fisher put it simply, until recently our societal slogan of consumption has been this: instant gratification takes too long.

At the Interdependence Project, we practice monthlong periods of
low-impact consumption. During these months, community members combine
a practice of mindfulness meditation with a commitment to implement
lifestyle strategies that reduce our footprint on Earth’s delicate
landscape. The practice is meant to be personal and exploratory rather
than dogmatic and prescribed. In addition to a daily session of
mindfulness meditation, community members adopt certain intentions for
the month. For some, it might mean refraining from using plastic bags
and disposable cups and napkins; for others, it means experimenting
with eating less meat, maybe practicing veganism, or even learning to
compost and logging less miles on the car’s odometer. Why do we do all
this? Of course part of our mission is to educate ourselves, to gather
information, through personal experience, regarding the most effective
ways to be responsible stewards of Planet Earth. But more internally,
the point of these months is to practice an active mindfulness, to
witness what happens in our minds when we try to shift our habits.

If we carefully examine our habits of consumption with mindfulness
techniques, the examination reveals so many assumptions about who we
are as individuals, and who we think we need to be. Complex
issues of identity and self-worth pop up all over the place, like some
minefield of jack-in-the-boxes. Watching our own minds as we navigate
consumption choices may reveal all kinds of inadequacies: grinding
pangs of lack, mirror-shattering moments of self-loathing, righteous
claims to entitlement, deeply submerged guilt regarding our first-world
privileges, or a swarm of other internal responses. Buddhist meditation
practices are perfectly suited to the difficult task of revealing the
subtleties of our mental processes.

Until we each have some direct familiarity with these mental
processes, we aren’t going to discover a full solution to the
ecological crisis. If we really want to “go green,” we need a
methodology for compassionately understanding the mechanisms of our own
minds, because we’ve become way too habituated to the fake, styrofoam
convenience of ignoring how our minds really work. The mind is at the
root of all of our actions in the external world. If we don’t each
learn how to watch it moment by moment, then our efforts to avert
societal disaster will be akin to trying to guide the Titanic clear of
the iceberg without learning how to steer the ship.

Buddhist meditation launches an individual headlong into a curious
yet rigorous examination of desire. Overly simplistic formulations of
Buddhist philosophy make many folks believe that desire is a bad thing,
plain and simple. But the true Buddhist perspective on the
all-too-human experience called desire—whether it’s hunger for a slice
of pepperoni pizza, longing for world peace, or just some good
old-fashioned lust—is much more nuanced. Ultimately speaking, Buddhism
takes the perspective that desire is 100 percent natural and incredibly
positive. The problem, however, is that unchecked fear and unexamined
habit can pervert desire into addictive tendencies—habits which are
destructive for an individual, harmful for a community, and disastrous
for our planet. What Buddhist meditation necessarily reveals to us,
moment by moment, is the problematic nature of our impulse for instant
gratification.

We all know what it feels like to need something NOW. There’s this
incredible itch that can’t really be described, only experienced with
awareness. And we all know the temporary and disposable relief of
scratching that itch by getting some stuff, acquiring a
familiar mode of experience to soothe the intensity of sensation.
Without mindfulness, we pick convenience over patience every time,
sedating the itch for a short and fleeting moment. But what consistent
practice teaches us is that the convenient solution—that instant fix
arising from fearful habit—usually leads everyone down the wrong path.

Both yoga and Buddhism offer practices that aid both personal and
societal ecology. In asana practice, we are learning to balance and
recycle our bodies’ energies so they become more sustainable, less
grasping. In mindfulness meditation, we are learning how our thoughts
actually function, how those thoughts lead us into action, and how
those actions positively or negatively affect us and our planet. In
meditation, we are nurturing the very root of the tree of
sustainability, which is a healthy and contented relationship to our
own mind.

I’ve always felt that the need to practice both yoga and mindfulness
meditation constituted another “Inconvenient Truth.” It’s inconvenient
because neither practice is easy to start or maintain (at least not for
me). Both practices require a type of courage and willingness to look
in the mirror that’s often hard to summon. But then again, as
practitioners of these mindful disciplines, we ought to be the first
ones to recognize the crucial connections between our internal thought
patterns and our actions in the interdependent world. Let’s also be the
ones standing up to proclaim that the constant quest for convenience,
wrapped in the cellophane of ignorant habit, is what got us into this
giant mess to begin with.

Image by AZ Rainman, used under Creative Commons license.

 

© 2008 Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Reprinted with permission. Find out more about Kripalu at www.kripalu.org.

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