What We Love, We Should Protect

How a mindful approach to consumption can help us bridge the gap between individual efforts toward the environment and the bigger picture.

crdjan/Dollar Photo Club

The subject of mindfulness, as it relates to climate change, may be the most important and timely practice of our times. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, “The situation the Earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilizing ourselves with over-consumption is not the way.”

Every fall and spring, I teach on the topic of mindful nourishment at Stanford University. I developed this curriculum nine years ago and have researched it, taught it at worksites, online, and in academia. Within this class, I teach the foundations of mindfulness—to live a fully nourished life at work and at home. The class encourages practices that enable students to focus on how they are nurturing their minds, bodies, relationships, and hearts.

On Memorial Day weekend 2015, there was a horrible oil spill from underwater drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara. I asked my students at Stanford to write a reaction paper on the oil spill and to bring attention to their feelings and body sensations as they reflected on the oil spill. With permission from my students, I share some of their comments below:

“Reading about this event makes me feel anxious and I can feel a tightness in my belly. I feel afraid for all the marine life near the spill. I feel worried about the oil that won’t be cleaned up because it has been swept away or overlooked, affecting the animals living farther away from the coast. I personally cannot stand even the smell of gasoline. I feel afraid to even think about what it must be like for the fish and other animals that now swim in it and inadvertently drink it. I picture dolphins and fish swimming with thick, black oil entering their eyes and mouths, being completely helpless and unable to escape. It makes me feel helpless and sad for them. I feel both grateful and slightly guilty that I am safe. However, I believe humans shouldn’t be the only living things entitled to feeling safe.” —AL

“I feel shock and sadness. I am appalled at the amount of oil spilled. How can a spill of this magnitude happen? How can we continue to make the same mistakes and not learn from previous spills? The oil spill in Santa Barbara had been preceded by many major oil spills all over the United States including the 1969 oil spill, the Exxon Valdez accident (which put 11 million gallons off the shore of Alaska in 1989), and the Deepwater Horizon spill (which put 210 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010). The firm had taken measures that “exceeded the federal regulatory requirement” for the Santa Barbara pipeline. It was inspected two times in the past three years, including an examination on May 5th , less than a month before the spill. This means that somewhere along the line the process and regulations are failing. With spills of this magnitude that caused national attention and put scrutiny on oil companies, how can this continue to happen? “ —ML

“I believe that we should not only have our own futures in mind, but also the futures of those who will live here after we die, including the plants and animals. We can’t continue using fossil fuels until we are literally choking. If we continue to ignore the situation until we are desperate, it will be too late to do anything about it. Reading about this has reinforced my belief in everyone having a personal responsibility to take care of the environment. “ —DK

What we feed our minds has powerful implications on our behaviors and, thus, the earth.

In a previous class on Earth Day, I taught on the topic of mindful consumption. I invited my students to bring more attention to their consumption habits. As a result of this class, my students expressed a greater consciousness to what and how they were consuming. They reported that by paying more attention, they opted to take shorter showers, used mass transportation, rode their bikes and walked more, purchased rainforest safe products, brought re-usable silverware and coffee mugs, and used less plastic bottles.

What we feed our minds has powerful implications on our behaviors and, thus, the earth. I have worked with thousands of students and clients in the last decade and common thoughts shared by many of them were: “ I am not enough” or “I don’t have enough.”

The belief that more is better concerns me and I believe we are consuming too much. Why do we need more material things, when research shows having more things and more money doesn’t increase happiness? If we are obese, why is more food better? If we are in a climate crisis why is it good to keep producing fossil fuels? If 85% of the worlds fish stocks are reported to be depleted or recovering from depletion, is eating more fish better?”

Thich Nhat Hanh, the 86-year-old Vietnamese monk, believes the reason most people are not responding to the threat of climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence, is that they are unable to save themselves from their personal suffering and therefore can’t see the effects of their behaviors on the earth.

We as the human species have a responsibility to all beings, to the earth, and to future generations to be mindful of our cravings and our negative overconsumption habits. My hope is that as we learn to feed our minds with thoughts of “enough-ness,” we turn toward difficulty instead of away from it, we spend less time on electronic devices and more time with one another and with nature, and, lastly, we learn to savor our life and feed all our hungers in a sustainable way.

There are many ways we can all get involved to save the earth, but the first step is to bring mindfulness to what we are consuming and the long-term effect of that choice on our planet. When I spend time in nature on a regular basis, I feel that much more motivated to protect it. I encourage you to get out of your house, out of your office, put your feet in the grass, take time to soak up the beauty of your natural surroundings, and then simply ask yourself, “How do I feel right now?” Notice if this feeling impacts any actions you might take that affect the earth.

We belong to the earth and therefore we have a responsibility to care for and save it.