If climate change, as many now assert, is a crisis of epic disconnection, then how do we go about rekindling our relationship with one another and the natural world? And what role can contemplative practice play in relieving climate grief, inspiring climate action, and reminding us of the interdependence of all life?

A group of concerned citizens in Santa Barbara, California—a place of uncommon natural beauty and mounting climate emergencies—sought to find out. With funding through a Mind & Life Think Tank Grant, the team, including a neuroscientist, psychologist, physician, attorney,  and sociologist, wanted to see what was possible at the community level in bridging contemplative practice and climate action, particularly for the benefit of young people facing an uncertain future.  

Together, the group planned a two-and-a-half-day retreat, “Wise Climate Actions & Sacred Activism,” that would convene scholars, scientists, artists, activists, and contemplatives to find common ground and explore ways of building climate resilience.

And then, the unthinkable happened: a global pandemic. Initially designed as an in-person exchange, the event was eventually delivered online in January 2021, in a World Cafe format, to 40+ racially, vocationally, and culturally diverse participants. Among them were 9 youth, ages 13-22.

“We are alive at a time when we are summoned to love our earth,” said environmental activist and scholar of Buddhism Joanna Macy in her opening address. “Part of my presence today is to share my conviction that it’s possible to find solidarity because if we don’t it’s over. We must become a planet people.”

“We must become a planet people.”
Joanna Macy

Subsequent sessions explored climate justice, cultural humility, healing moral distress, storytelling, and other topics, with ample time for small- and full-group discussions. Woven throughout were 10 different types of contemplative practices—from mindful movement with nature to contemplating photographs of natural beauty to using art and poetry to imagine a flourishing future.

The theme of interdependence echoed throughout. “We are not who our culture is telling us to be—separate, placed against each other for success, in competition for the few places in the sun,” said co-organizer Michael Kearney, a palliative care and hospice physician, who was inspired to pursue the Think Tank based on years of supporting individuals facing uncertainty and change. “We are what the forest, the Earth, tells us that we are… parts of the universe and the Earth. If we wake up to that, it changes everything.”

While the group initially prioritized nurturing the inner resilience of young people, “we had to go back to the drawing board and redefine what climate activism really needs,” said fellow organizer Vivian Valentin, who, trained as a computational neuroscientist, now brings mindfulness to schools. “One outcome was the merging of worlds that are often separate—justice work, trauma healing, and climate action,” said Vivian, indicating a need to “orient contemplative practices toward anti-oppression, justice, and liberation for all, in service of climate justice.”

“One outcome was the merging of worlds that are often separate—
justice work, trauma healing, and climate action.”

– Vivian Valentin

The robust brainstorming gave rise to new ideas, connections, and partnerships. Participants deepened their knowledge, with some moved to give public talks, publish articles, and even write a book. Others offered yoga, meditation, and arts workshops in public spaces. Still others focused on community building and sharing knowledge through developing curricula and trainings.

Examples of collaborative projects inspired by the event include the Climate Wisdom Lab for Educators. Created by Kevin Gallagher and Sarah J. Ray, the professional development program helps faculty and staff of higher education institutions prepare students for sustainable engagement with climate change, structural oppression and inequality, and other systemic challenges.

Another outcome is a soon-to-be published novel by Michael Kearney, Becoming Forest: A Story of Deep Connection (All Night Books, October 2023) about a young woman who finds an antidote to climate despair in the wisdom of trees. The book seeks to mitigate climate anxiety and build resilience among young readers. Its publication will coincide with the launch of the Becoming Forest Project, a community-based initiative that will offer deep resilience training to those worried about our world and uncertain future.

Poet, peace activist, and environmental educator Sojourner Kincaid Rolle also shared her work at local events, elaborating on the role of poetry in illuminating the intersection of nature and self.

And following the workshop, Vivian Valentin refined a syllabus for Mindfulness, Kindness, & Nature Immersion for Climate Justice for use with students in grades 3 through 8. The syllabus and lesson plans explore climate change science, encourage students to pay attention to eco-emotions, and nurture appreciation of our shared humanity.

At a time when the challenge of climate change can feel too big to surmount, the Wise Climate Actions & Sacred Activism Think Tank demonstrated what’s possible when committed community members come together, each with their own gifts and contributions, to realize Joanna Macy’s vision of a “planet people.”

To learn more, view session recordings, access resources, and consider ideas for hosting a similar event in your community, visit the Wise Climate Actions & Sacred Activism web page.