The unexpected results of the 2016 election and recent key appointments have sent a ripple of uncertainty through the environmental community. We are all being barraged with emails, articles, and social media, ranging from catastrophizing to grieving to calls for political action. Yet spiritual teachers are advising us not to catastrophize, to stay present, to brush ourselves off, and move forward. Sage advice, but easier said then done.
Green Impact wants to encourage people of all faiths to act in ways that are environmentally responsible and live out their values as good stewards of the Earth. We turned to Rev. Peter Yuichi Clark, UCSF’s Director of Spiritual Care Services, for guidance on how to stay grounded, healthy, and effective in the midst of uncertainty. Rev. Clark is an ordained American Baptist minister and a board certified chaplain; he and his Spiritual Care colleagues provide emotional and spiritual support for patients, their families, and staff.
We identified four strategies for supporting the Earth in the midst of uncertainty:
- Let yourself grieve, but don’t get stuck;
- Be mindful;
- Stay in connection/Find community; and
- Move into action; Get engaged. Specific ideas range from getting out your checkbook to spending time in nature to getting politically active.
Let Yourself Grieve, but Don’t Get Stuck
We are living in historically uncertain times, and we each react to uncertainty differently—fear, collapse, anger, sadness, shock, action. “The sense that I’ve gotten from many people around here is that they feel a little uncertain about what to do next. They are not sure what’s going to happen and don’t know what to do. That’s what a lot of people seem to be doing—grieving,” explained Rev. Clark. “The danger is if I stay stuck in the shock and the numbness, I’m not able to move forward in terms of my grieving process.”
He articulated, “It’s not about how fast I go through the process or about whether I’m having one type of emotion more than others. What I really need to pay attention to is whether I am getting paralyzed in my grief.” There are actually six different types of loss, and one of those types is called a systemic loss, which is where we have lost our sense of how the world seems to be structured around us. “This election shook that sense for many people and challenged their vision of what their country is like—that’s a systemic kind of loss,” he said.
There’s also related loss known as an intrapsychic loss, which is where we lose a sense of our self image. This frequently happens for folks who are cancer survivors, or people who have lost a limb, and then they have to change their image of who they are. A related kind of loss that can happen for folks who are feeling they are not even sure what it means to be an American.
“So I see folks going through the grief process around this, because grief really is just a reaction to losing something or someone that I placed great value in. And my image of what this country could be or ought to be, if that’s not there anymore because of the election, that’s a loss.”
Rev. Clark’s tips for not getting stuck include:
- Spend time in nature;
- Listen to music;
- Connect to a sense of the sacred;
- Pray or meditate, if those practices are meaningful for you;
- Pull back to see things from a cosmic perspective; and
- Remember to notice what is working, practice gratitude, and take in the good.
Jack Kornfeld, an esteemed author and Buddhist practitioner who has helped introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West, recently shared his thoughts on how to respond in a time of uncertainty. Kornfeld experienced the election like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—when he tuned into his body, he experienced fear, sadness, and confusion. He explained that it is important to acknowledge and be present with our feelings so they can unwind and untangle.
According to Rev. Clark, it is important to give yourself time to feel your feelings and to trust that your feelings will change over time. Grief is a process. “Each of us walks that process in our own way and as long as I’m paying attention to my physical health and making sure that I’m staying connected with others and staying connected with the sources of sacredness and transcendence in my life, that will give me a sense of meaning and purpose,” shared Rev. Clark.
Kornfeld recommended shifting our awareness from our feelings to our thoughts and naming them—racing, trying to figure things out, planning, rehashing, catastrophizing. “Then we can tune into our heart. Compassion, wisdom, love. A sense of being here, present, stillness. Come into the present in a deeper way,” explained Kornfeld. What is important is to not let fear take over our hearts.
Stay in Connection/Find Community
Just like you would hear from your physician, Rev. Clark advises to get enough rest, eat nutritious food, and get exercise. You want to try to keep your body in as good a shape as you can. That’s the first step. And then the second step is to find people around you who can support you.
He explained, “Now, that’s a little bit more challenging with something like this because chances are good that, if you’re feeling this sort of reaction, most of the people you love and care for are feeling similarly, so it’s actually similar to having been in an earthquake. Where everybody you love has also experienced an earthquake and so you’re all trying to support each other, but you’ve all been equally traumatized.” He stressed that it is extremely important to make sure that you are not isolated, that you’re talking with other people, and that you are expressing what you’re feeling to people who can truly listen to you.
“I’m a person of religious faith, so I think that having a connection to one’s spirituality, one’s sense of the sacred is also very important,” exclaimed Rev. Clark. This can help you have a sense of “I’m not alone in this” on multiple levels.
Move into Action; Get Engaged
After our shock and numbness shift, we will want to reinvest. “Reinvesting is a term that is often used in grieving work to describe how I find a way of readjusting and getting myself reengaged in the world. I acknowledge that I’ve had this loss. And now I’m going to find a way of interacting with people around me so that I don’t get isolated and cut off.” Kornfeld also emphasized the importance of moving into action. “Tie your shoes and keep walking in the right direction,” he said.
There are many ways each of us can make a difference. Here are some ideas for moving into action:
Get out your Checkbook: Make a financial contribution to an organization, working at the global level or at the community level, whose mission you believe in. “This is my way of saying, ‘I’m in this game, I’m not going to give up, I want to participate,’” explained Rev. Clark. One organization I have contributed to is the Environmental Working Group. Other environmental organizations you might want to consider include the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Take a First Step: It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and stuck right now. Taking one small step can get you moving. Fill out the attached card and answer the question: ”I am inspired to take this step forward this week…”
Spend Time in Nature: According to the Greater Good Science Center, nature can make you kinder, happier, and more creative. Being in nature has a positive impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people.
Get Politically Active: Be diligent about contacting your governmental representatives and make sure that they know how you feel about things. Participate in a protest. If there’s a cause that you feel passionate about, speak up. Rev. Clark stressed, “I am going to make sure that I express what I believe is the truth as I see it. And I see that as part of the duty of being a citizen of my country and a citizen of the world, that if there’s something that I think is central for justice and peace making, then it’s my responsibility to do what I can to try to make a change.” A recent post titled The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story included this call to action, “Something hurts in there. Can you feel it? We are all in this together. One earth, one tribe, one people. We have entertained teachings like these long enough in our spiritual retreats, meditations, and prayers. Can we take them now into the political world and create an eye of compassion inside the political hate vortex? It is time to do it, time to up our game. It is time to stop feeding hate.”
Write an Encouragement Letter: If one of your legislative representatives is doing something wonderful, send them a letter thanking them and encouraging them.
Send Good Intentions: If you are part of a spiritual tradition that incorporates prayer or meditation, send good intentions to others. Rev. Clark explained, “I’m Baptist and Baptists believe very strongly in the power of intercessory prayer where we pray to God on behalf of others. And so one of the things that I do is I pray—for our country, for our elected leaders that they would be respectful of other people on the planet, and that they would help us to live up to our highest ideals.”
Consume Less: How Mindfulness can Save the Planet details several actions we can take for a renewable future, including the call to consume less. This piece stressed, “Virtually every product has a carbon price tag, whether it’s a new ‘energy efficient’ flat screen TV or a thick juicy steak. As citizens, addressing climate change isn’t about what we’re buying; it’s about what we’re not buying.”
Be a Good Steward: Be good to others and good to the Earth might be the simplest, yet most profound advice. “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature,” Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical [teaching document for Roman Catholics] on the environment, titled Laudato Si: Our Care for our Common Home. There are many small actions we can each take to live lighter on the Earth.