just breathe

This essential mental hack fights Covid-19 lockdown blues — and climate change

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“Although it takes a lot of work and energy of a certain kind, ultimately meditation is a non-doing.”

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic devastated our lives, yet the planet thrived.

Last year, the peak of Mt. Everest was visible from Kathmandu for the first time in decades. Jellyfish swam in the shockingly clear canals of Venice. And thanks to the dip in air pollution, the constellations have not appeared as bright in the night sky in years.

The pandemic provided a much-needed respite for our ailing planet, but as many have pointed out, one year of diminished human activity is a mere band-aid when a tourniquet is needed to stem the terrible flow of climate change. Stuck in quarantine, many of us have found solace in nature. Yet the inertia we feel when it comes to tackling the big problem of the climate crisis is at a fever pitch. There isn’t much one can do aside from the basic aspirations of reducing, reuse, and recycle. Or is there?

Running in tandem with our climate crisis is another crisis, one made all the more urgent by Covid-19 — our mental health. Mindfulness and meditation could present a powerful tool to address both problems.

Meditation: The health benefits

Meditation is good for you. Research suggests it can boost your performance, reduce your anxiety, improve your sleep, and even lead to better sex. Of course, when the polar ice caps melt and we’re all six feet underwater, our high-performing, chilled out, well-rested, sexually satisfied selves won’t exactly get to reap these benefits.

These are five of the key benefits of meditation and mindfulness for your body and your brain:

  • Focus: One 2017 study found taking 10 minutes to engage in mindfulness practice can improve mental focus.
  • Attention: A separate study published in 2018 found that participants who focused on their breath saw a boost in their attention, which the researchers hypothesized may be linked to the release of specific neurotransmitters during the breath meditation.
  • Resilience: Meditation and mindfulness are generally credited with lowering stress levels. One 2009 study found engaging in regular mindfulness practice could significantly bolster one’s ability to cope in stressful situations, like sitting an exam.
  • Physical strength: There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest mindfulness and breath exercises may boost performance in the gym or the sports field — LeBron James, for example, has been known to meditate.
  • Heart health: Some studies connect mindfulness and heart health. One 2017 study found mindfulness interventions significantly improved symptoms in people with chronic heart failure.

Alex Risberg had dabbled in meditation in college, but when the pandemic struck and regular life ground to a halt, the 29-year-old web developer tells Inverse he suddenly found himself with ample time on his hands.

“I was at home all day, and you can only watch Netflix for so long,” Risberg says.

He decided to return to the practice of sitting still.

One year into the pandemic, Inverse is investigating how quarantine changed every facet of our lives, from video games to food to life-changing decisions.

“I had the time and I wanted to dedicate myself to something important. Meditation practice seemed like the best bet for making me feel better at a weird moment in history.”

Alex Risberg has returned to meditation during the Covid-19 pandemic.Alex Risberg

The mindfulness boom has been great for self-help, but what about world help? And not in an abstract, love thy neighbor kind of way, but a more imperative save thy planet kind of way. Can meditation help the Earth as much as it can help its most destructive denizens?

Meditation for the planet

Surprisingly, the simple act of putting down our devices for even a minute, a la the popular WNYC feature, and taking up some form of daily meditation can have a direct effect on the planet.

Meditation is also a remarkably low-key endeavor. It might not be much of a stretch to suggest that after sleep, meditation is the next best way to accomplish absolutely nothing. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a mindfulness pioneer. He explains in his book Full Catastrophe Living that, on a fundamental level, “meditation is different from all other human activities.”

“Although it takes a lot of work and energy of a certain kind, ultimately meditation is a non-doing,” Kabat-Zinn writes.

“Mindfulness makes you appreciate everything in your experience.”

In 2014, research led by Joseph Kantenbacher on individual energy consumption found that sleep was the least consumptive activity, with the implication being that sleeping more would be better for the environment. Kantenbacher is an assistant professor of Sustainability and Environment at the University of South Dakota.

Kantenbacher agrees that mindfulness could have both direct and indirect benefits for stemming personally and environmentally destructive patterns. He offered a back-of-the-envelope calculation, estimating that if every American adult practiced mindfulness for 30 minutes a day instead of being on a laptop, the total reduction of CO2 emissions would be 1 million metric tonnes per year.

“Something in the range of a 0.01 percent to 0.1 percent reduction in national CO2 emissions seems quite plausible,” Kantenbacher says.

One might counter that they have been doing nothing for months. In her book Inconspicuous Consumption, climate journalist Tatiana Schlossberg points out that the Netflix-and-chill equation is more environmentally consumptive than one might believe. The U.S. still gets one-third of its electricity from coal, so streaming results in more coal ash, a solid-waste byproduct that can pollute water sources.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Scholssberg writes, “it means that watching your favorite episode of The Office might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.”

Connection and consumption

Of course, expecting people to give up comfort TV during a period of extreme discomfort is a big ask. Yet such compensatory behaviors may only end up exacerbating distress, according to mindfulness researcher Judson Brewer. He is the director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University.

“This consumptive behavior does not actually get at the root cause [of anxiety],” Brewer tells Inverse.

In his new book Unwinding Anxiety, Brewer notes that the incidence of psychological distress in the U.S. increased by 250 percent in April 2020. Compensatory behaviors, from the seemingly harmless, like Netflix binging, to the harmful, like alcohol abuse, have also shown a corresponding increase, according to his research.

Consumptive habit loops cause us to reach for a quick fix, be it scrolling on social media, eating a donut, or self-medicating with booze. Brewer’s research focuses on how mindfulness can help us break such habits. “Consumption is about wanting,” Brewer says. Meditation may be more than a temporary band-aid.

“By meditating and understanding how your mind works you can get at the root of consumptive behavior in a way that's more long term but harder to quantify,” Brewer says.

“When we pay attention to our experience we can differentiate what we want from what we need, and that helps us let go of some of these over-consumptive behaviors.”

“We can get curious about that craving, and the curiosity itself feels better than the craving.”

This can be especially powerful at a time when our means of connection are also our means of consumption. “With so many of our other coping strategies taken away this year of course screens have played a huge role in keeping us connected and informed and entertained,” Erin Oke, Executive Director of the Consciousness Explorers Club, tells Inverse.

Meditation can help us escape patterns of distraction and denial, Oke explains, by helping us learn to see what causes us — and our world — discomfort with more clarity. While tuning into reality might be the harder choice, it is ultimately more rewarding than tuning into reality TV.

Escaping the world wide web can also remind us of the threads that bind us in more significant ways. “Meditation can bolster a sense of connection between all things, helping us appreciate the natural world that needs our protection and recognize the suffering of others who need our support,” Oke says.

This is something that became all-too-real for Ciarri Formby-Lavertu, a 23-year-old student-athlete at Nichols College when the pandemic upended her daily life.

Ciarri Formby-Lavertu says the Covid-19 pandemic has put her life on hold.Courtesy of Ciarri Formby-Lavertu

“The loss of control over my daily routine and structure is what initially pushed me towards practicing mindfulness more consistently,” Formby-Lavertu tells Inverse. She was already a conscious consumer, but with more time on her hands, she began to pay more attention to the intersection of social justice and environmental issues.

“The pandemic allowed me to dedicate more time to mindfulness and gave me a window of opportunity to do so. I began to dedicate more of my attention to the issues of race, gender, and climate change, which all intersect.”

Mental health and nature

Formby-Lavertu’s mindfulness practice has expanded her horizons even as the pandemic shut them down.

Alex Risberg, too, has felt a similar shift.

“When you attend to the present moment you look at the plastic bag in your hand as something of value,” he says.

“I could use this, so why am I just pitching it out of my life? I think that speaks to the heart of the practice. Mindfulness makes you appreciate everything in your experience, so why would you get rid of anything in your experience?”

Overall, the pandemic has been an incubator for developing new habits both good and bad. Considering the amount of wine your correspondent has drunk in recent months, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone for indulging from time to time. But the more we are able to find alternative, health-giving activities to take away the stress and build resiliency while awake, the more we may be able to consider how our habits change our planet. Ultimately, swapping out the occasional guilty pleasure for the selfless pleasure of paying attention can rewire our brains for the better — and those benefits will last beyond Covid-19 lockdowns.

“Distracting ourselves is just a temporary measure,” Brewer says. Meditation offers a lasting fix.

“We can get curious about that craving, and the curiosity itself feels better than the craving. It helps us step out of the old habit loop because we’re not consuming. And because the curiosity feels better our brain starts to engage in that,” he says.

“Mindfulness can be the bigger, better offer, allowing us to tap into what it feels like to let go of selfish behavior,” he adds.

Inverse has reported on the best way to break bad habits, or change them for the better — and make them stick. Here are 3 expert-backed tips:

  1. Make it easy on yourself — WNYC’s minute-long meditation may be a good way to dip a toe in the water, without getting too bogged down. Another easy thing to do would be to set a daily reminder, and just turn off your screen for that time.
  2. Have fun — Setting up a reward at the close of your meditation could set you up for success in the long term.
  3. Be consistent — It takes about two months to form or alter a habit. But like the climate crisis or the pandemic, practitioners need to understand that skipping one day of mindfulness practice doesn’t mean the slate is wiped clean.

Meditation is no more the answer to climate change than any other individual endeavor, and ultimately a solution will have to occur on an industrial scale, implemented by corporations and governments. But while we’re all enduring this unprecedented pause, maybe we can engage in a practice that might help the planet just a little, and help our beleaguered selves a lot.

We spend an inordinate amount of our lives doing something, scratching the proverbial itch. There’s never been a better time to stop scratching and sit still.