I recently returned from Montreal where I was invited as a keynote speaker for the annual Canadian Mental Health Association Conference. When I received the first invitation, no one was particularly clear with me about what they wanted me to say, but rather loosely requested that I speak about “the environment.” Some members of the Canadian Ecopsychology Network had recommended me based on a presentation I made to that group earlier this year. Since that presentation, I had become even more acutely aware of the psychological effects of global warming as a result of my collaboration with Dr. Lise Van Susteren who wrote a groundbreaking paper on the topic in 2012 and my collaboration with Zhiwa Woodbury who recently published his paper on Climate Trauma: Toward A New Taxonomy Of Trauma.
As a progressive living in the United States, I have idealized Canada for decades for its healthcare system and its predominantly non-violent culture. Part of me wanted to believe that even as we were doing it all wrong, Canada was doing it mostly right. My rose-colored glasses remained in place as I went to Montreal. Somehow, I didn’t expect this mental health conference to be conducted in the typical format of gathering facts and information, sharing what worked and what didn’t in the mental health system, while participants and workshop leaders remained firmly ensconsed in their heads. I was wrong. Very little was different from mental health conferences in the US, and very little emotion was experienced or shared.
But the one topic I was certain would be different was climate change. Canada is not in denial about climate change, and surely Canadian mental health professionals would be much more up to speed about climate trauma than their counterparts in the US. Again, I was wrong.
A few weeks before the conference I was contacted by Jonathan, a representative from Percolab, an international design and co-design firm which was organizing the conference’s keynote presentations. When I summarized my presentation, Jonathan expressed concern that it might be a turn-off since people were looking for “inspiration” in the face of climate change. I assured him that I would offer inspiration, but that my intention was not to make sure that everyone would leave the presentation feeling wonderful. Neither did I want to make sure everyone would leave feeling terrible.
Returning again to a prized core value of mine, I chose to speak the truth, rather than obsess about how it might land with the audience. I did not blast the audience of more than 300 people with mind-blowing sober data about climate change, but rather chose to define and elaborate on resilience as the sanest option with which to meet the demise of our planet.
I discovered that few people in the audience had given much thought to the psychological effects of climate change and had never really contemplated the notion of climate trauma. I was adamant that climate change cannot be stopped because we have crossed the Rubicon in terms of being able to solve it. Another option, of course, is to deny it and engage in the kind of destruction fest that Trump Administration is engaged in. Yet the sanest response, from my perspective is to train oneself in living resiliently, and in the short time I had, I attempted to explain what that means. Essentially, it means reconnecting deeply with our deep inner wisdom, reconnecting with other living beings, and reconnecting with Earth.
I offered a group exercise from Joanna Macy called “Learning To See Each Other,” which on every occasion that I have used it, is powerfully heart-opening and transformative and shifts people from the head to the body and soul. After two days of living entirely in their heads, participants were more than ready for that shift.
I concluded my remarks by emphasizing that it is impossible to talk about mental health without talking about climate trauma and conscious cultivation of resilience in every aspect of life. What is more, climate trauma is an existential crisis—the most severe crisis humanity has ever faced.
Contrary to my concern that people might be “turned off” or leave feeling engulfed in despair, the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. One person remarked that they expected to leave in despair but actually left feeling hopeful. I did not ask them to define “hopeful,” but I assume that for that person and others in the audience, the challenge to commit to a life of reconnecting with one’s deep inner wisdom, reconnecting with others, and reconnecting with Earth quite naturally redefined the word “hope” and automatically offered the inspiration we all seek to pursue in the age of extinction.
The elephant in the room that is not seen in the United States or in Canada or in most parts of the world is the trauma we experience each day as even a small part of us feels consciously or unconsciously the gargantuan loss of our ecosystems, the loss of species, the loss of each other, and the loss of our own souls.
As I emphasized in my presentation in Montreal, to know the truth is to create a battlefield within oneself between the light and dark—between goodness and evil, which of course, is why so few are willing to see the elephant. My work, and hopefully yours as well, is to hold space for the battlefield and support as much joy, beauty, love, compassion, and creativity as possible so that we may find and make meaning in all that seems so tragically and agonizingly meaningless.
In closing, I share the poem I shared with the folks in Montreal–Jennifer Welwood’s powerful poem, “The Dakini Speaks”:
My friends, let’s grow up.
Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.
Or if we truly haven’t noticed, let’s wake up and notice.
Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple — how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings,
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.
To a child she seems cruel, but she is only wild,
And her compassion exquisitely precise:
Brilliantly penetrating, luminous with truth,
She strips away the unreal to show us the real.
This is the true ride — let’s give ourselves to it!
Let’s stop making deals for a safe passage:
There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.
We are not children anymore.
The true human adult gives everything for what cannot be lost.
Let’s dance the wild dance of no hope!