Our world relies on the domestication of other species, yet we often don’t realize the degree to which we’ve also domesticated our own minds, bodies and emotions. It can be hard to feel beneath our conditioning and get in touch with our emotions, even when our survival depends on them. Now more than ever, we need tools and practices to access and feel our feelings so that we can reconnect with the power of our ecological intuition and find our courage to act for our survival. This article gives tools and a reflection process for “rewilding” your mind, reconnecting with your emotions and rediscovering your own inner ecological compass.
By Jennifer Harvey Sallin
In 2010, I read Johnathan Safran Foer’s groundbreaking book, Eating Animals. It is a beautifully written half-memoir, half-investigative journalistic moral examination of vegetarianism, farming and the food we eat. I was horrified to learn about the atrocious lives and cruel deaths of the many factory farmed animals I had eaten growing up in suburban Midwest America, where the majority of meat I saw and ate came prepackaged at the supermarket. At school, I had read the famous children’s book Charlotte’s Web, and had imagined that the animals I ate came from a lovely farm where a farmer had given them a nice, long life and a humane death. The rest of the meat I ate was wild game hunted by my father and the other men in our extended family. Nothing I saw in my childhood would have ever led me to imagine the horrors of factory farms. To me back then, eating meat felt more like participating in the survival food chain.
Learning about factory farming was a traumatic shock. The thought of all those animals being forced to live in oppressive, abusive conditions — genetic body modifications, cages too small to move, no ability to see sunlight, forced impregnation, a life on artificial hormones and antibiotics, no ability to be with their offspring, no ability to form social bonds, abuse from factory farm workers, and ultimately a painful and premature death — was agonizing.
Even before knowing about factory farming, I had limited my meat consumption as an adult; but I still had shame about the fact that as a child, I had eaten a quantity of meat typical of the average American diet. I had come to realize that the amount of meat I had eaten – which I thought was a question of survival – was excessive and wasteful. I had unknowingly supported the factory farming model, and I wondered how many animals had lived horrible lives and died cruel deaths due to my ignorant consumption? Not only this, but how much habitat destruction had I caused through the deforestation and toxic runoffs caused by factory farming, and how much impact had all of that had on global warming?
I also had shame about my extreme ignorance. Factory farming began in 1947 (!), thirty-three years before I was born. How was it possible I was only learning about it at the age of 30? Of course, the internet as we know it today wasn’t around for the first twenty years of my life, and this information certainly wasn’t in any of my education nor in any books I checked out from the library. And in any case, meat-production firms and lobbies have done their best to shield the consumer from seeing what happens to the animals before their meat arrives on the plate.
Additionally, I completely missed that the world population had nearly doubled since 1970. Given obesity was tripling globally, it meant that with twice the population and with many individuals now eating for the equivalent of two (or more) people’s basic nutritional needs, our population functionally tripled in the same period. How had I failed to realize all this?
COMING TO TERMS
I mention all of this to highlight that many of us have to come to terms with the fact that our own life conditions (where we were raised, how we were raised, information and resources we didn’t have, etc) have prevented us from being good partners with the environment. Most people I know didn’t get a house, buy a car, and eat lots of factory farmed meat because we are evil. We did it because we were following the collective dream, without understanding the impacts of that dream. The collective dream, its culture and its traditions were formed when the world had far fewer people, and when most of us had far less access to information; now we see that the unbridled consumption, economic growth, and globalization the dream relies on has turned out to cause an enormous amount of destruction to the world around us, and ultimately to ourselves.
It can be difficult for us to wake up to pain we’ve caused and to the cognitive dissonance we continue to live in. It’s tempting to go into denial and distract ourselves from thinking about it or feeling our feelings of shame and grief at all. But while denial and avoidance can sometimes be a psychologically healthy coping strategy in the short term (when our brains and nervous systems are unable to cognitively or emotionally handle overwhelming emotions or information), it is highly destructive as a long-term strategy.
To that end, I’ve written this article to provide some useful frameworks and tools for how we can consciously examine our ecological choices and pasts; skillfully enter into partnership with our complex emotions and realities; and engage in non-denial-based self-reflection, social connection and engagement with the world.
ECO-LIFE REVIEW TOOLS
The 9 Steps of Ecological Recovery
One of the best ways I know of to safely embark on this process is by starting an “ecological life review”. This is a sort of eco-secular version of the classic 12-Step addiction recovery programs, which take a person from unconscious and destructive participation in life to conscious awareness and committed participation in life. Steps 4-12 of the twelve steps are particularly helpful for the purposes of an ecological life review, and I’ve adapted them (and renumbered them 1-9) for use as a tool in this framework:
- We make a searching and fearless ecological inventory of ourselves
- We admit to ourselves, to other human and non-human beings, and to the earth, the exact nature of our wrongs
- We are ready to heal from and resolve the wounds and ignorance which have led to these actions
- We actively seek support for this healing and information for our conscious involvement in the Web of Life
- We make a list of all beings and ecosystems we have harmed, and become willing to make amends with them all
- We make amends whenever possible, using our voice and our resources to apologize, ask forgiveness, and promote healing
- We continue to take personal inventory of our awareness and actions, and when we find we are underinformed or have acted once again in harmful ways, we promptly inform ourselves, admit our mistakes, and make amends and reparations wherever possible
- We seek through regular reflection and meditation to improve our conscious contact with the Web of Life, making sure that our attitudes and actions are in line with a reality-based and interdependent relationship to our fellow living beings and ecosystems
- Having had an ecological awakening as the result of these Steps, we carry the message of ecological consciousness and connectedness to others and continue to practice these principles in all areas of our lives and relationships
Ecological Map of Emotions
A helpful way to start the “searching and fearless ecological inventory” of ourselves is by using a simplified version of the Map of Consciousness – a tool I’ve used in my personal development, teaching and coaching over the years. Here’s a simplified version of what’s on the map (note that to simplify, I replace what its creator Dr. David Hawkins calls “enlightenment” with the term “non-duality”, and its associated emotion of “ineffable” to “indescribable”)
|Consciousness Level||Associated Emotion|
You can use this map to go one by one through the consciousness/emotional levels, asking yourself a series of questions for each. For example:
- “Do I feel shame about how I have acted toward the earth, toward my fellow living humans and non-human beings and ecosystems? What specific actions do I feel shame for? How can I forgive myself and change my ways?”
- “Do I feel guilt about how I have acted? If so, how can I make amends?”
- “Do I feel courage for acting in ways that are beneficial toward the earth and my fellow beings? If so, what are my actions? If not, what could I do to cultivate ecological courage now?”
- “Do I feel love for the fellow beings that inhabit this planet? If so, how do I show it? If not, how could I cultivate it in my life?”
- “Do I feel joy when reconnecting to the earth? How do I express that? If not, how could I learn to feel it again?”
You can also generalize this exercise to explore your feelings about the actions of the human collective or specific members or groups of our collective. For example:
- “Do I feel shame about how humanity has felt or acted toward the earth?”
- “Do I feel anger about how politicians have acted toward the earth?”
- “Do I feel love toward the people who have devoted their lives to helping the planet?”
- “Do I feel joy with my fellow humans as we reconnect to the earth?”
Here’s how the process works, when combined with The 9 Steps of Ecological Recovery: as you give yourself space to become aware of healthy ecological shame, it allows you to grieve your ignorance and to feel healthy guilt for your actions. Healthy guilt allows you to get angry at your ignorance and develop pride for yourself, knowing you and the world around you deserve better. That allows courage, where you take action, speak out, apologize and make amends. In a sense, the whole process is cyclical: you have to gather enough courage to face your past actions, and when you do face them, you feel shame and guilt (or other painful emotions); by consciously feeling and transmuting them, you eventually are able to let them go or use them consciously as fuel to “climb back up” to courage. The more courage you have, the more naturally acceptance comes; the more acceptance, the more willingness; the more willingness, the more reason; the more reason, the more love; and so on up the scale. Eventually, with enough time and attention, you find yourself consistently engaging with the environment from a place of courage, driven by reason, love and other “higher” emotions. This is the essence of Steps 7-9.
REDISCOVERING OUR ECOLOGICAL INTUITION
This review process helps to restore what has been lost for many of us in our domestication-based world: our ecological intuition. This intuition is generated by our awareness of our authentic feelings, including our shame, guilt and other so-called negative emotions. But because we’ve also domesticated our own minds and bodies, many of us have learned to ignore, deny or otherwise are unable or unwilling to feel some or many of our feelings — putting us out of touch with our own intuitive sense of how to be in and with the ecological realities of our world.
Our process, then, is a sort of mental and emotional rewilding; getting ourselves out of the mental and emotional cages that have been built by culture, tradition, economic dominance, and “modernity”. Through attention and care, we offer our minds and bodies a “wild space” in which we can be more fully present and free to feel and explore our feelings. It’s not a simple intellectual or theoretical exercise; it’s an embodied and emotionally-dependent process.
In that wild space, you get to go as slow as you need to in order for you to be fully engaged in the process. How quickly each of us moves through it depends on our past, our current support system, and the resources we have access to. Many of us find ourselves unearthing unexpected past experiences, curiosities, pains and joys that ask for attention, care, presence and support along the way. Sometimes more research is needed for specific parts of the journey, sometimes attuned therapy or other professional support, and sometimes just extended time away for reflection, self-connection and clarity.
You can track your progress and process by keeping a journal, or taking the questions into your meditation practice, or into therapy or coaching, or into your personal discussions with friends and family (if they are willing to co-explore these topics with you). It’s helpful to do this in both a social and solitary way, weaving the insights that come from each direction into a more solid understanding of where you are now and where you want to go with the energy you have left in your life.
I hope the tools, reflections and experiences I’ve shared here will be helpful for you in your own process of rediscovering your ecological intuition, and finding courage and purpose in your connection with the earth.
For more on these themes, you can explore my work at:
- I Heart Earth
- my earth art instagram
- 12 Meditations for the Earth
- my article: Ecological Grief, Compassion & Action
- my article: Ecological Intelligence & Ecological Giftedness
- other articles on my blog about managing emotions, healing from trauma, and courageous self-development