The Earth is not just the environment. The Earth is us. Everything depends on whether we have this insight or not.’–Thich Nhat Hanh

‘So what do we mean when we talk about grief?’ I ask the nearly 20 people gathered together in a Northern California yoga studio one gray and blustery Saturday in April. Seated in a tight circle, a group of mostly women in our 20s and 30s, we’ve come together for a Yoga for Eco-Grief workshop I’m facilitating.

‘A mourning for something that’s been lost,’ one woman says. ‘A severance of connection, something that’s broken,’ suggests another. ‘I think of it as a sound,’ a third woman explains, ‘almost guttural, deeply of the body.’ A final woman points to its cyclical nature, non-linear and spiraling.

To these I add my own preferred understanding of grief, articulated by photographer Chris Jordan in his deeply moving documentary Albatross: ‘Grief is a felt experience of love for something we are losing or have lost.’ Together we delve into this notion of grief as love, of pain as joy, and the radical understanding that they spring from the same source.

We discuss, too, the root word ‘eco,’ meaning home; that ecology refers to relations and interconnectedness. Eco-grief, then, I suggest, can be thought of as pain for the loss of our shared home stemming from a place of connectedness and love. It refers to sensations of fear, anxiety, anger, and sorrow linked to our intertwined ecological and social crises, emotions related to climate chaos and its devastating impacts on people and places and all living beings, on our planet as home.

While the common tendency with ecological grief, as with most forms of pain, is to turn away in an effort to protect ourselves, if we understand grief and love as interwoven, then to turn away from grief is to turn away from love, to close and harden our hearts. This propensity to avoid pain, at least in part, is deeply constructed – Western culture conditions us to view pain as dysfunctional, as problem, as something wrong. Yet, as Joanna Macy and Molly Brown write in Coming Back to Life, ‘Pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world. It is not only natural; it is an absolutely necessary component of our collective healing.’

The dominant culture, too, considers humans to be separate from each other and the more-than-human world; from this individualistic standpoint, experiences of pain for the world tend to be interpreted as personal pathology – it is nearly impossible to understand and accept our grief for the world, much less express it to others, if we understand ourselves as separate from it. Yet because this grief challenges our view of the self as separate, this is perhaps the most important reason to allow these emotions to surface: Our experience of pain for the world is evidence that we are not separate at all, that we are in fact deeply interdependent, and that it is this very illusion of separateness that has led us to a place of planetary peril.

The cost of repressing our pain for the world is not only the blocking of our instinct for self-preservation, but our predisposition for empathy, love, and radical imagination. As we open to our grief we open to our innate compassion, we remember our mutual belonging, and from this place bodhichitta, the intention to act for the sake of all beings, can arise. As Macy and Brown explain, ‘…our planetary crisis could serve to engender a new birth of consciousness, which begins with a sense of a common fate and a shared intention to meet it together.’

As a group we discuss these revelatory ideas, the importance of opening to grief in this moment of mounting crisis, of acknowledging and collectively experiencing our pain as a starting point for transformation. And yet the fact remains, we all agree, that it is extraordinarily difficult to keep the heart open amidst the gravity of our daily realities; it’s understandable that we might turn away, that we may find ways in which to numb ourselves. As meditation teacher Larry Yang recently wrote in Buddhadharma

‘So how do we turn toward that despair, even immerse ourselves in it, as part of our spiritual practice? We must dig deep into our practice in order to navigate the extremes of despair and disillusionment. We must listen to what is underneath it all, to where freedom is calling from, by asking: Can I open to this? Can I turn toward this? Or in the inadequate language with which we must communicate, can I love this too?’

In other words, what tools and practices can we engage to help us allow our authentic emotions to surface, to feel them fully, to offer them space and movement, and ultimately to let them be our teacher, to provide the foundation of collective healing? It is from this place that the workshop attendees and I begin our afternoon practice.

The Breath

We begin with perhaps the simplest and most accessible tool available to us – the breath. Just by breathing fully we can shift from our sympathetic nervous system, a place of fight or flight, to our parasympathetic nervous system, a place of rest and digest. We can move from a destructive metabolic state to a constructive one, to a place of balance and clear-seeing from which we can act.

In times of stress, personal and collective, we tend to hold our breath – notice if this occurs the next time you read or watch the news, I suggest to the group. As yoga teacher Donna Farhi explains in The Breathing Book, ‘When the challenges of life seem too great to handle, or things aren’t going as smoothly as we planned, we may try to stop the natural flow of events by unconsciously restricting these movements. We stop our breath as a way of attempting to bring life under our command.’

The breath, Farhi writes, has long been considered inseparable from holistic health, spirit, and consciousness; only recently and in the dominant culture has breath been reduced to ‘a mere respiratory exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen.’ A breath-centered mindfulness practice, then, rather than ‘escaping reality,’ can be a radical act of healing and acceptance.

Compassionate Abiding and Tonglen

Pema Chodron offers us a particularly helpful breath-centered practice, that of compassionate abiding. The practice of compassionate abiding offers a way to bring warmth and acceptance to seemingly unwanted feelings, to embrace the fullness of our experience. As she writes in Taking the Leap, ‘Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world…So the question is, what do we do with our distress? Does it open our heart or close it?’

The instructions to practice compassionate abiding are simple, yet not necessarily easy: As you breathe, as an uncomfortable or painful feeling arises – grief, pain, anger, anxiety, whatever is present – breathe into it fully, allowing the sensation completely and opening to it. As you breathe out, relax and give the feeling space; rather than pushing the sensation away, the idea is to loosen tension around it. Pema explains: ‘Breathing in and leaning in are very much the same. We touch the experience, feeling it in the body if that helps, and we breathe it in…In the process of doing this, we are transmuting hard, reactive, rejecting energy into basic warmth and goodness.’

Compassionate abiding, Pema instructs, is a powerful stand-alone practice, but it can also serve as a foundation for the practice of tonglen, meaning taking in and sending out, an ancient method to cultivate connection and compassion. Just as with compassionate abiding, we can start by breathing in and opening to feelings that we might typically push away or deny – in this case pain for our world, for collective suffering. As we open to these sensations, we connect to all others experiencing them as well. When we exhale we send out relief, we send out healing, we send love and joy out into the world for the benefit of all beings.

Pema teaches that the emphasis with tonglen is always on relieving the suffering of others. As we breathe in discomfort we may think: ‘May I feel this completely so that I and all other beings may be free of pain.’ As we breathe out relief, we may think: ‘May I send out this contentment completely so that all beings may feel relaxed and at home with themselves and with the world.’

Meditations for Compassion, Loving-Kindness, and Connection

Meditation phrases can also be of great value to us as we work to open our hearts, deconditioning patterns of fear and competition and shifting us toward innate states of compassion, loving-kindness, gratitude, and connection. As a group, we practice some of these together, aligning each phrase with an accompanying full and natural breath.

Karuna (Compassion) phrases can be practiced to cultivate our intrinsic capacity to care, to suffer-with:

‘May I see the pain, mine and that of all beings.

May I hold it with compassion.

May I care about the suffering, mine and that of all beings.

And hold that with compassion.

Just for today, may I be filled with patience and compassion.’

Metta (Loving-Kindness) phrases can be practiced for self, other(s), and all beings. While it is crucial to cultivate loving-kindness for self before we can extend it fully to others, this can sometimes be the most difficult requirement; in such times, we might practice for a loved one, a community, or all beings before returning to offer loving-kindness to ourselves:

‘May I (you/we/all beings) be happy and peaceful.

May I (you/we/all beings) be healthy and strong.

“May I (you/we/all beings) be safe and protected from inner and outer harm.

May I (you/we/all beings) be loved.

May I (you/we/all beings) live with ease and grace.’

Finally, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Love Letter to the Earth and elsewhere, offers powerful phrases to remember and return to our deep connection to the world and each other. Today we practice together:

‘Breathing in, I know Mother Earth is in me.

Breathing out, I know that I am in Mother Earth.

Breathing in, I arrive.

Breathing out, I am home.’

Restorative Yoga for Balance and Heart-Opening

Expanding from breathwork and meditation alone, together we bring these tools and techniques with us into particular yoga postures known to counter stress and support deep relaxation. Stress related to the state of our world is one of many stresses we encounter on a daily basis; stress of all kinds is linked to anger, frustration, impatience, tension, pain, and illness. The antidote to stress, many experts agree, is relaxation – deep rest can help restore us to a state of balance and equilibrium, one that allows us to respond appropriately to the myriad crises we face.

Restorative yoga, Donna Farhi instructs, can be understood as ‘active relaxation’ in which we support the body with props and relax, engaging mindful breath, while stimulating the body to move toward balance; restorative poses create physiological responses that are beneficial to the health of our minds, bodies, and spirits. Of particular interest to a workshop for eco-grief, I explain, are restorative poses that support and open the heart – these can be vulnerable poses that can be supported with blankets or weight on the body. But there is power in vulnerability; as Macy and Brown write, ‘Living systems (do not evolve) by erecting walls of defense and closing off from their environment, but by opening more widely to currents of matter, energy, and information…They can’t do this if they are invulnerable, but only if they are open and responsive.’

Together we practice Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddhakonasana) to release stress and anxiety, restore balance, stimulate the circulatory system, and open the heart; Supported Reclining Twist (Salamba Bharadvajasana) to support the heart, release stress, and enhance breathing; Mountain Brook to reduce fatigue, counter sorrow, and open the chest for fuller breath; Supported Child’s Pose (Salamba Balasana) to support the heart, quiet the mind, and relieve shoulder tension; and Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani), a gentle inversion that reduces systemic effects of stress, quiets the mind, and refreshes the heart and lungs.

Connection to Community

After a long, healing Savasana, a final practice of letting go, the workshop participants and I return to our circle to connect deeply with one another and close our session. Hands to heart center, we quietly thank our selves for this practice, understanding the deep interconnection between individual and collective healing. Placing our left hands on our hearts, our right hands on the backs of the hearts of our neighbors, we sound together as community, Sangha, acknowledging the vital importance of community support in these times, of connecting with others in ways that open our hearts and create a foundation for intentional collective action, of which this workshop is but one of many pathways. As Macy and Brown write, ‘…despair is the covering of our love for our world and we crack it open by speaking it, so the love can act.’

We part with final thoughts and reflections in this intimate and supportive space we’ve co-created, noting the profound impact of slow, conscious work, seemingly counterintuitive in the face of great crisis. But as adrienne maree brown explains in Emergent Strategy

‘There is such urgency in the multitude of crises we face, it can make it hard to remember that in fact it is the urgency thinking (urgent constant unsustainable growth) that got us to this point, and that our potential success lies in doing deep, slow, intentional work.