On Monday, I was getting ready for an early morning yoga class when I saw a news alert ping my phone. I idly clicked while waiting for my tea to steep. It was an article on the IPCC report, the one warning that things are far worse than we feared, that we’re essentially out of time to prevent the worst outcomes of the climate crisis.
As I grabbed my mat and closed myself into my car, I felt the familiar sink of climate grief in my gut, encasing my insides in cement. At first, I do what I usually do: try not to think about it. Try to push it out of my mind, convince myself it’s not that bad. Then I remembered that I know better.
I decided to let these feelings stay, to invite them in for tea, because maybe they have something to teach me. I turned the radio off and let the feelings of grief and anger and dread ebb out in waves on my drive to the studio. By the time I unfolded my mat, I was feeling pretty helpless and wondering if my approach had been a terrible idea.
We started moving, and I let all of the thoughts and feelings stay, whether I liked them or not. The teacher spoke about bowing, reframing several poses as bows to whatever we felt deserved our reverence. I bowed to the earth in gratitude and humility and sorrow.
I was in my child’s pose, arms outstretched and forehead pressed against the mat in subservience, thinking about the earth. And there in that metaphor of humility, I found my answer. It came to me, clear as a bell. I needed to do two things.
One, get involved with an environmental advocacy organization. There’s only so much I can do as an individual, and only so much corporations will do if given a choice. What we need is sweeping policy to hold corporations and government agencies accountable. I felt a call to volunteer with a group doing the important work of pushing conservation into the forefront of legal action.
And two, I need to keep going within. Keep doing the work of introspection and carving out contentment. Keep unfurling my conditioning and biases and insecurities so I can be of the most service to those around me.
Because when it comes down to it, the climate crisis is really an empathy crisis. It’s a crisis of not feeling.
At various points since colonization, we got comfortable exploiting the planet, destroying habitats, causing death. We became numb to it. We justified that it’s simply what we needed to do in order to survive.
Really what happened is this: we couldn’t handle the discomfort of knowing we were destroying something beautiful, so we justified it away. Rather than finding a different, more difficult solution that took all lives and consequences into account, we stuck with what was most convenient and most profitable. We compartmentalized. We conveniently tucked our empathy into a dusty corner of our minds where it couldn’t interfere with our growing wealth. Capitalism, baby.
50 years passed. 100 years passed. We kept exploiting, destroying, killing. The justifications got bigger. The compartmentalization got more complicated. The corner of our minds where our empathy was crying out kept getting pushed further and further back.
While we were ignoring the truth to make sure we could sleep at night, the planet couldn’t ignore hers. Consequences were coming, whether we wanted to see them or not.
Now, it’s time to deal with them.
If we want to make a change (and we have to make a change), we need to start by feeling that discomfort. Sitting with discomfort is a gateway to change, because it allows us to see the uncensored picture—both of the world and of ourselves. Ignoring what’s uncomfortable gives us an incomplete view of the world. While it might feel better in the moment, the pain always comes back around. We’re better off sitting with it now and understanding it so we can do something about it.
Discomfort has things to tell us. When we ignore those lessons, we ensure our future suffering.
What’s systemic is also individualized, which in this case is a good thing: It means we can start practicing within ourselves and gradually expand outward.
In our relationships, we can practice the discomfort of standing up for ourselves and asking for help.
In our introspection, we can practice seeing ourselves as we are, including the parts we’d rather ignore.
Something magical happens when we see ourselves as whole: we see that we are part of the whole. We are reminded, in our perfect imperfection, that we are just as we’re meant to be, an integral part of the planet. This suddenly makes it clear that we are all connected. Self-acceptance expands outward into empathy.
When we examine what’s within us, we connect to what’s outside of us.
And when we truly embody that knowledge of connection, it becomes all but impossible to continue destroying others, because it means destroying ourselves.
Gradually, this builds into a network of available and clear-headed humans. We can sit with difficult realities, which means we don’t have to ignore anything or rely on coping mechanisms that hurt us or others or our planet. Instead, we can approach a situation with the full picture of reality and discover solutions that are fully integrated and fully educated.
When we see the ways we’re destroying nature, we can come up with different, more sustainable solutions.
The uncomfortable truth is that earth can’t compartmentalize. What I do in Denver impacts my siblings in Denmark. The winds of the Sahara eventually reach San Francisco. For the planet, there is no such thing as borders. There is no such thing as “away.” Everything connects.
When we lead with empathy and allow ourselves to feel everything, even the heartbreaking realities, we can build systems on a foundation of collaboration and abundance. Instead of exploiting a forest because it’s what we’ve always done, we might be able to take the time to pause and find a different solution.
This is the challenge in front of us as humans: to accept the heartbreaking and heart-opening journey of empathy.
We no longer have time for compartmentalization, for not feeling. We need to open ourselves up, fill ourselves with the full knowledge and grief of what we’ve done—what we’re still doing—and take responsibility. We need to feel each creature’s pain as our own, because it is. If not today, then tomorrow. If not in these bodies, then in the bodies of our children.
If the climate crisis is an empathy crisis, then the solution starts by feeling.