Mindfulness of the “Full Catastrophe”

Photo by Trevor Gerzen

We have been practicing for this. As wars rage on in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, causing 10,000 or more combat related deaths in the last two years alone – as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world, likely becoming endemic and on track to surpass 6 million lives lost – as Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reiterates the urgency of the climate catastrophe that is already causing great suffering for the world’s most vulnerable, with nearly 31 million people displaced from their home countries in 2020 – the need for inner resourcing and perspective shifting is ever more apparent. Strengthening our innate capacity for mindfulness and compassion is key to a wise and balanced collective response to what is emerging.

It would be easy to see these interlocking challenges as separate and incidental, but they are not. Our own wellbeing is increasingly dependent upon the health and happiness of beings all over the planet. Disruptions within delicate ecosystems as well as social and economic systems, like the story of Indra’s Net, vibrate and reflect in fractals across continents. The unexamined mind takes action that causes suffering and unexamined suffering leads to harmful reactive behavior.

Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world. ― Nadeem Aslam

As parts of the world become increasingly untenable because of greed, heat, draught, flooding, extreme weather events, poverty, war, and famine, the people who live there are displaced to temporarily less affected areas. Then the people in those areas, react with opportunism, exploitation, hoarding, othering, backlash, violence… and so it goes. The suffering in one part of the world ripples out to impact us all. Fortunately the reverse is also true – compassion and wellbeing are contagious. Collectively, we know much of what needs to be done and we have the means to do it, yet we just can’t seem to make it happen. Why is that so?

As Albert Einstein once said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” While it’s certainly important to intellectually understand what must be done within our current means, we must also collectively develop the inner capacities that contribute to wise action. The Mindfulness Initiative (MI), a talented team of consultants, ‘policy leads’, and associates from the fields of mindfulness research and wider academia, mindfulness teaching, policy development and advocacy, has been investigating the ways in which skillful capacities of heart and mind ​must ​​underly good public policy and effective action​ toward universal flourishing​ – and they’re communicating them in a clear and inspiring way. They launched a new report this month called “Reconnection: Meeting the Climate Crisis Inside Out

The ​launch ​event includes a wonderful introduction by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who said, “..​the nature of the human mind is such that, when it doesn’t know itself, it can create nightmare scenarios like the one we’re seeing unfold at the present moment in Ukraine, which itself is of course  unsustainable, unbelievably retrograde on every conceivable level, and really is calling the entirety of the world to recognize a certain profound interconnectedness that is, when one practices mindfulness meditation, really the first thing one recognizes.”

Concurrently, in its most recent report released this week, the IPCC for the first time explicitly mentions the necessity of an inner dimension of sustainability, including mindsets, nature connection, and social interconnection. The MI cites a “crisis of relationship“, a delusion of separation from our embodied selves, our values, one another, and the rest of the natural world – the importance of which has long been understood by indigenous cultures. The truth of interconnection is also an insight that emerges through a dedicated mindfulness and compassion practice – innate capacities that can be developed.

The MI’s Reconnection report outlines many ways in which mindfulness is necessary for laying the groundwork for effectively addressing the climate crisis. They describe how mindfulness can help us:

  • reclaim our innate power of attention, which is often underdeveloped and intentionally undermined for financial gain
  • cultivate curiosity, openness and sensitivity to internal and external signals, including what is challenging – moving past denial
  • increase flexibility of perspective taking, intellectual and cultural humility
  • develop greater awareness of the embodiedness of our experience
  • improve emotional intelligence and self-regulation, leading to reduced reactivity and polarization
  • increase compassion and realization of interconnection with our bodies, our values, each other, and the rest of the natural world
  • expand resilience and agency

The first step is developing your own personal mindfulness practice, which can look very different for each person depending upon your context and needs. Finding a teacher and connecting with a community who can help you explore and answer questions, increases the probability that you will persevere. Taking classes can contribute to a firm foundation for your practice. If you live in the Midwest, take a look at our Opening Minds and Hearts in the Midwest project exploring intellectual and cultural humility. Kansas Citians might check out our Mindful Kansas City Initiative and our community partner, The Resilient Activist for local opportunities. Additional resources for world changing through mindfulness and compassion include:


Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

– ​Thich Nhat Hanh, Please Call Me By My True Names

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