During difficult times, we have a choice to either be daring or retreat into a hole. So, the invitation is open to all of us to move beyond busyness, overwhelm and burnout and come back to our centre — so that we can touch our grief, recognize who we are and find a pathway to renewal.
I recently co-facilitated a four-day convening in Denmark of some of the most respected experts on the polycrisis and civilisational collapse when a breakout group I was part of was asked to write down the question that was most prescient in our minds. I wrote on a scrap of paper, without thinking, the headline “Homecoming,” and then added “collapsing the gap between my masks/personas and my true self.”
I have been wrestling with this for many years, because I believe it represents one of the most important challenges we need to face if we are going to be able to deal individually and collectively with the many crises we are facing — from climate change and biodiversity collapse, to war and social injustice. This is because many of us have travelled a long distance away from who we truly are in order to psychologically survive; and we have projected our pain and suffering onto the world around us, rather than facing into it and recognizing that our salvation lies in going through it.
As we hear time and time again about the climate and biodiversity emergency, the idea that more science, more data and more analysis will convince people of the need to change behaviour has been shown to be hollow. There are many reasons given for this — such as people’s brains being attuned to dealing with what is happening right in front of them, rather than worrying about the future; even if at some level they know their nearest and dearest will be negatively impacted. On a deeper level, I see one of the key reasons being that our individualistic and mechanistic systems create patterns of behaviour that are counter to our common good and to our own individual, long-term wellbeing.
I spoke recently with renowned eco-philosopher and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, who believes we have created a system that is effectively run by machines and that does not value either our human feelings and mental wellbeing or the needs of the planet. Profit maximisation at any price still tends to be pre-eminent, even when people can see the damage it is creating. It reminds me of a meeting I had in the 1980s with the then-head of futures at British Telecom, who was convinced that technology would enslave us and take over the world — at the time, I imagined a sci-fi movie with huge robots roving across the landscape, firing lasers at people. But the takeover has taken place with far less drama — a combination of computers, algorithms, apps, social media and the opportunity to always do more and do it faster. Cleverness has taken over from wisdom, speed from reflection, and knowledge from insight.
To survive in this intensely complex and over-busy Western economic and political system, we are forced to engage in behaviours that are far from what we truly want or feel. Despite soft skills such as empathy and vulnerability gaining some recognition in the workplace, they are constantly trumped by competition, aggression, manipulation, accumulation and extraction. This has trapped us in a classic case of Catch 22: If we are not willing to operate within the system, we can often feel excluded and unable to pay the bills or build a successful career. And if we do join the crowd, we can often end up trapped by feelings of powerlessness and meaninglessness. Either way, we can end up overwhelmed and depressed, and then seek solace in the constant distractions dangled before us — whether it be fame, sex, drugs or money.
Given all this, it is no wonder that those seeking to change our current, extractive system to a more sustainable and regenerative model are often feeling that whatever achievements they make, it is just not enough to significantly change direction. We see this particularly in the sustainability field, with many practitioners feeling guilty if they take their foot off the accelerator, facing burn-out from stretching themselves too thinly. We are already nearing the end of the second year of what has been coined ‘the decisive decade,’ and time can feel as though it is slipping between our fingers.
So, how can we respond in a way that aligns our thinking and actions with the new system we recognize is so desperately needed? Firstly, it is helpful to understand why it is so difficult to change.
The simple truth is that we tend to be creatures of habit, and the patterns we have created within this capitalist system can seem impregnable and therefore almost impossible to counter. Also, we believe on some level that supporting the comfortable status quo is most likely to help us feel seen, appreciated and loved; but this is just a chimera — because our pernicious systems are undercutting and destroying the very foundations on which our happiness is built.
When I ask people where they feel most calm and at peace, they mostly say it is when they are in nature. But can we take solace in the natural world when we know that much of the comfort we experience in Western societies is at the expense of the billions of people who are living in abject poverty? When we stop and take a deep look, we can see that — because we have moved so far away from our centre — we have become, as Pink Floyd once described, “comfortably numb.”
So, how can we show up differently in the world in order to recenter ourselves — so that we can touch our suffering and be touched by it? I love the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who pointed out that “it is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so, every one of us shares the supreme ordeal — carries the cross of the redeemer — not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”
There are many practices that can help us cross to the other shore; here I have chosen to focus on seven that have helped reshape my life:
1. Slow down, rest and heal.
There is a paradox that when we slow down, we can actually speed up. There is good reason for this. When we are going at breakneck speed, we tend to run out of breath and lose the capacity for reflection and insight. When we slow down and rest, we can not only experience ourselves in the activities we are engaged with but also have the capacity to rise above any situation and observe ourselves in the context of our environment. There’s the metaphor of not knowing in which direction to go when you are lost deep in a forest; but when you rise above the tree line, you can view the forest in context to the rest of the land and discover pathways that would otherwise have been hidden from view. The ability to rise above the daily busyness takes time and space.
The other reason to slow down is that we often use speed and our busy schedules to avoid feeling what we are experiencing. Being in the field of sustainability, we cannot escape the knowing that we are facing an existential crisis and that the future of our civilisation no longer secure.
The title of the podcast series I publish with the abbot of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village monastery in France is “The Way Out Is In” — referencing the understanding that it is only when we go into and through the suffering and pain of the damage we are doing to our world that we can experience joy and happiness. Otherwise, we are merely in denial.
2. Touching joy in the present moment.
Often, it is only when we know that something we care about is in danger that we can see just how precious it is. That can be true of a person we love who is nearing the end of his or her life or a spring blossom that we know will soon fade and become compost. My teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that if a tree in your garden dies, allow yourself to feel the sadness at the loss; but also ensure you deeply appreciate their presence of the other, living trees. I was touched the first time I heard a poem by WS Merwin which starts, “On the last day of the world, I would want to plant a tree.” So, the invitation is that even as we seek to limit the devastating impacts of the many crises we face, we also see the beauty in all that remains and take refuge in nature’s majestic embrace.
3. Embrace impermanence.
Everything in life is in constant flux. Many of us live in such a way that we hope will bring us security and safety; behind this can be a fear of change and, at a deeper level, a fear of our own mortality. There is a wonderful meditation in Buddhism called the five remembrances that are recited every day: We are of the nature to grow old, we are of the nature to get sick, we are of the nature to die, we will be separated from everyone and everything we have ever loved, and all we can count on is the impacts of our thoughts and actions.
There are three clear teachings from this meditation: One is that we will be much more effective if we stay supple and flexible to change rather than fight an unwinnable battle to maintain the status quo. The second is that an understanding of impermanence is super helpful in recognizing that whatever the situation we face and however difficult it appears, it will change — just as a great storm eventually passes. And thirdly, it is a reminder that every thought and every action has an impact on the world; so, if each of us pays more attention to what we think and how we act, the world will become a better place. As the Buddha once said, “With our thoughts we create the world.”
4. The historical and ultimate dimensions.
The understanding in Buddhist philosophy that there are two interconnected dimensions to life has been fundamental in helping me to continue to give my full attention to creating a more equitable and regenerative world whilst letting go of my attachment to the way I want it to be. The relative or historical dimension is the world we are living day to day; and ultimate dimension is the infinite realm beyond birth and death — the realm of complete freedom, joy and peace.
Relating this to our everyday lives, the historical dimension teaches me that it is worth doing everything I can do to support this precious planet and its extraordinary diversity of life; tthe ultimate teaches me that everything arises and falls — whether it be civilisations, species or galaxies — and that I am seeing life through only a tiny prism. If I see beyond my very real and personal attachments to family, friends and my own life, I can see that whatever happens on the great arc of history, everything is OK.
Some might say that this way of seeing the world amounts to spiritual bypassing as climate catastrophe will lead to untold suffering, but I don’t see it that way.
In my way of sensing, it is only by understanding the ultimate dimension that I can let go of my needs and attachments and be fully present to seeking to create change in the world, whilst remaining at peace and with joy in my heart even in the face of great grief.
5. Deep listening and loving speech.
One practice that really helps centre us is deeply listening to people and their perspectives. At a recent climate leaders’ retreat at Plum Village, many of the participants shared that one of the reasons they feel most misunderstood in their work is that whenever they start to speak out, they can sense how the people listening have already begun to judge them and to craft their response. Many of them also admitted they tend to do the same. The result is that we don’t take the time to deeply understand the other person; therefore, it is extremely difficult to build any trust, which is at the root of collaboration. By acting in this way, we are often trying to shore up our ego by justifying our own views and beliefs, rather than being open to seeing an alternative that may actually offer better solutions.
This problem is not just related to work, but also to our home life. Some participants recognized during the retreat that when they are at home with their children or partner, they are not truly listening to them; their minds are often focusing on work issues. With deep listening comes loving speech — because, when we truly listen to someone and understand why they are acting or speaking in a particular way, what arises in us is compassion. We all have our problems, our pain, our suffering; and what we most want is to be able to vulnerably share, without worrying that we will be criticised or humiliated. The other day I received an email from a friend with the sign-off, "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle."
Thich Nhat Hanh created the word “interbeing” to show how everything in life is interconnected and that we cannot look at anything in isolation to everything else. He gives the example that if we look at a piece of carrot, we can see that the whole universe needs to exist for the carrot to be present. That’s because it needs so many conditions to be alive — such as soil and rain, a farmer and the light from the sun; for the sun to exist, the whole cosmos needs to be present — all these elements are also in the carrot. From a human perspective, we exist only because of our ancestors; and our health and happiness depend on all other human beings. If one group of people is suffering deeply, we cannot separate that from our own wellbeing. We see this in many different forms — such as the millions of climate refugees who must seek refuge in wealthier countries, or how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is affecting people all over the world in terms of higher energy costs and food shortages. This understanding is critical if we are to develop a broader sense of compassion and to act on behalf of all living beings, rather than a focus on those closest to us. It is also at the root of systems thinking.
7. Peace in oneself, peace in the world.
There is a wonderful quote from the poet Rumi, which says “Yesterday I was clever; so, I wanted to change the world. Today, I am wise; so, I am changing myself.” We complain about the anger and divisiveness in the world around us; but how often do we look at the anger and divisiveness within ourselves? Recentering means looking deeply inside of ourselves to find the answers to the ills that we see in the world around us. If we can find answers within ourselves, we will naturally express that to others, sometimes without having to say a single word. This is the power of presence.
Life is a great adventure; and during difficult times, we have a choice to either be daring or retreat into a hole. So, the invitation is held open to all of us to move beyond busyness, overwhelm and burnout and come back to our centre so that we can touch our grief, recognize who we are and find a pathway to renewal. This journey is not to be taken only once but countless times over our lifetime — like travelling along a spiral or helix, during which we keep coming back to the same place but knowing it each time in a new and more profound way.
After I wrote my short note on ‘homecoming’ during the polycrisis convening in Denmark, I walked down to the sea with another participant. We stood barefoot in the water and opened up our scraps of paper. When I looked at mine, I had this sudden realization that it was no longer the deepest longing inside of me and there was another dimension I needed to explore more deeply. Yes, there is power in letting all the personas and masks drop away and coming back to my true self; but that limits me to the belief that I am a separate self. I felt this deep urge to tear up the note into tiny pieces and I cast them to the wind. Some of them stuck to my colleague's tunic, some fell in the sea, and some were carried onto the beach. And as this happened, I recognised that I did not just want to come back to my true self; I wanted to come back to life.