Teaching our kids to practice mindfulness, the very act of slowing down and connecting with the world around us, might be the secret to helping them live on an unstable planet.
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One can enter parenthood with the best intentions to reduce, reuse, and recycle, to instill climate awareness from an early age, and to raise a child that will understand their fragile place in the interdependent web of beings and the planet they depend on. Yet even the best intentions will inevitably get buried under a mountain of diapers (or the carbon footprint of cloth diapers). No matter how noble our aspirations, kids are consumption machines with very loud alarms that ensure consumption will continue at all costs. As Wes Siler detailed in an essay for Outside on why he chose to get a vasectomy, giving up his 15-mpg truck would save the planet 2.4 tons of carbon emissions a year, while electing not to have a child would save 58 tons a year, per kid.
Yet most people will not make the decision Siler made, due to biological imperative, selfishness, extreme pressure from grandparents-to-be, or all of the above. Not to mention this global crisis was created by a handful of corporations that have been responsible for two-thirds of all industrial emissions since we became aware of human-driven climate change. Individual changes, choosing to have a family or not, can feel like the smallest drip in the bucket by comparison. We are wired to propagate our genes, and outside of snipping those wires, we may need to find other ways to mitigate our climate impact as a family unit. Otherwise, our kids may grow up in a world in which the best intentions are not nearly impactful enough to stave off rapid warming, mass extinction, and dwindling resources.
However, as climate researcher Kimberly Nicholas, PhD, made clear in her book, Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World, we can’t assume that countries and corporations will save us. Intentionality may, in fact, be the best place to start. “Our task as humans in this warming decade and beyond is taking the science and using it as a lens to change not just our systems but also ourselves, from the inside out,” wrote Nicholas. “By clarifying our values and shifting our mindsets and actions, we can start to change the world.” And, it turns out there is a tool that can act as a powerful lens for changing ourselves from the inside out. Mindfulness has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years for its ability to calm our jangled nerves, help us sleep, and even improve our sex lives, but these may be mere Band-Aids compared to the way mindfulness can help us clarify values and shift actions in regards to the climate. For families looking to raise climate awareness, raising overall awareness through mindfulness may be a helpful starting point. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, as they say, and the tide is definitely rising.
In her book, Nicholas described the “regeneration mindset” necessary for working with rather than against nature. The three principles of this mindset are: “Centering and respecting both people and nature, reducing harm at its source, and increasing resilience and the ability to thrive through change.” Three principles that are remarkably similar to the nonviolent, holistic, and change-friendly roots of Buddhism, the religion out of which secular mindfulness practice arose. The care and connection engendered by a practice centered around awareness can actually extend from individual intentionality to the world at large.
I connected with Nicholas via Zoom to ask her about the connection between mindfulness, parenting, and climate change. She fondly recalled an activity she engaged in as a fourth grader that helped her connect with nature: “We went outside in front of the school, and we each had a notebook. For 10 minutes, we were just supposed to use our senses to observe what we saw and write it down.” This activity had a profound impact on Nicholas. “Even 35 years later, I vividly remember the ants in the grass and the sun shining; just attuning and paying attention to my surroundings. That was a really powerful lesson as an eventual scientist and mindfulness practitioner in noticing and appreciating and being present with what is actually there,” she said.
Prioritizing such experiences is a meaningful step families can take together. It can feel daunting to close our screens and open our front doors, but it is usually worthwhile. When my wife and I took our two-year-old daughter on her first camping trip last summer, we were shocked at the level of effort that went into a mere 24 hours in the woods. In the moment, it didn’t feel that memorable, yet months later, she routinely recalls that tiny slice of her experience with relish (s’mores may have had something to do with it).
Christopher Willard, PsyD, a psychologist and teacher at Harvard Medical School who has written a number of books on mindfulness for children and parents, related to me that when he asks people to recount their earliest experience of mindfulness, nature frequently comes up. “People mention digging in the garden and smelling the soil and the flowers, or hearing the waves, or hearing rain during a lightning storm,” said Willard. “No one’s like, ‘I was playing a video game by myself.’” Being in nature is a surefire way to foster a connection with the earth, soothe our beleaguered souls, and reveal to us the truth of impermanence. As Nicholas wrote, “People are not just the sum of our brilliant minds and empathetic hearts, but also our wonderful, fragile, organic bodies, made up of material borrowed from stars and soil and soon to be returned to them.” Seeing impermanence with our own eyes is an experience that can awaken us to the plight of our planet.
Cultivating mindfulness at home can also allow us to discern the most impactful steps to take. In The Engaged Spiritual Life, the activist and Buddhist Donald Rothberg discussed the overlap between contemplation and action. “There are practices, such as meditation, art, and immersion in the wilderness, to name a few, that shift the way we experience and understand ourselves, others, and the world,” wrote Rothberg. “To come to know one’s calling requires at times a deep listening, an ability to let go of distractions and busyness and focus on what might come in silence and stillness.”
Creating this kind of intentional space as a family can open doors (figuratively and literally). As Nicholas mentioned, “Having the capacity to regenerate our own attention is quite important.” We can do this by being conscious of how we spend our finite time and energy. Screens can be useful (Sesame Street cocktail hour was a saving grace during my daughter’s screamy transition to toddlerhood), but so is carving out time that is unplugged from devices and plugged into community or contemplation. Such time could take place on a meditation cushion, in nature, or even by engaging in what Nicholas calls “high-impact climate action.”
Nicholas begins her book with the story of her friend, Colty, who became personally invested in climate change only after the birth of his daughter. “I really like hearing him talk about it,” Nicholas told me. “He’s the most fun person, and it’s a costume-filled, ridiculous adventure whatever they’re doing. He talks about how this is who we are as a family, these are our values. There are injustices in the world, and we don’t turn away from those things.”
In short, families can be a miniature collective engaging in the most necessary work of our time, and leaning into the heroic spirit of this undertaking. In her newsletter, Nicholas offers plenty of resources for what such high-impact actions look like. Colty’s family has brought greater awareness to their consumption, travel, and diet. Ultimately, Nicholas points out, taking action can “remove a little bit of analysis paralysis and become something of its own reward.” Establishing meaningful values and facing the injustices in the world can resonate with the very kids who are coming of age at a pivotal time in our planet’s history. Through mindfulness practice we learn to cultivate resilience and empathy, and through bringing awareness to our rapidly changing world we can develop the resourcefulness necessary for action. After all, the only thing mightier than a mountain of diapers is the being who produced it.
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