Many people are concerned about climate change and species extinction, but for some this worry is debilitating. People report feeling miserable, isolated and unable to take action on an issue that matters so much to us and the natural world. Spending time in the beauty of nature can feel like solace – but there is also the risk that it just feeds our worries about the plants and animals we are losing.
In this research we explore how contemplative practices from diverse traditions can be combined with nature experiences to address eco-anxiety. We consider what kinds of nature experiences and contemplative practices – individually and in combination - strengthen us to manage our feelings and to work collectively to take action on environmental issues. These findings can be used to develop effective eco-anxiety interventions for use in everyday and therapeutic settings.
University of Melbourne contributors:
- Professor Kathryn Williams, Professor (Environmental Psychology), School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, Faculty of Science
- Dr Katie Greenaway, Senior Lecturer In Psychology, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences
- Professor Iain Walker, Director, Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences
- Associate Professor Katherine Johnson, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences
- Dr Cullan Joyce, Insight Fellow, Contemplative Studies Centre
- Professor Dianne Vella-Brodrick, The Gerry Higgins Chair In Positive Psychology, Melbourne Graduate School of Education
The goal of the research is to understand how nature-engagement and contemplative practices can support people feeling challenged by ecological crises like climate change and species extinction. We are asking: how can contemplative and nature-engagement practices can be combined to support adaptive responses to ecological crises?
We want this work to be practical, and so are working with teachers and leaders of contemplative and nature-engagement practices to co-develop guidance for interventions. This aspect of the work is informed by our external partners, seven teachers and leaders of contemplative practices from Buddhist, First Nation, Christian and eco-feminist traditions.
Our practical ambition brings a distinctive challenge to the project. The research team are mainly psychological scientists accustomed to working with empirical data about individual human thought and behaviour, and testing how interventions influence targeted outcomes like anxiety or mood. The teachers and leaders we are working with come from diverse fields of training, but typically approach their work through worldviews and practices that are holistic, experiential and spiritual.
An exciting challenge for us all is to bridge these scientific and spiritual ways of understanding the world. To do this well, we are moving slowly through cycles of reading, thinking and talking with our external partner group.
Along the way we have unsettled many of the concepts that underpin this project. For example, we realised that while the concept of ‘eco-anxiety’ resonates with many people, it is problematic for others – particularly if it’s understood as a negative feeling that can simply be reduced. As one member of external partner group said: ‘Mother nature is talking, you need to listen’. This has strengthened and enriched our attention to multiple outcomes of interest. We want to understand how practices influence capacity to understand and work with our emotions, and work with and for other people and the rest of nature.
During our research we’ve been struck by how much academic research on contemplative practices has a narrow focus on individualistic mindfulness-based interventions. We are convinced there is a great deal to learn from long-established and religious contemplative traditions, particularly when it comes to understanding relationships between people and nature.
In early 2023 we will be conducting interviews with teacher and leaders of contemplative and nature engagement practices. We will be exploring the purposes and features of their practices, their underpinning worldviews, and understanding of how the practices influence responses to ecological crises. In mid-2023 we will be conducting workshops with practitioners to share knowledge and co-design guidance for contemplative nature engagement practices.