‘Not money, or success, or position or travel or love makes happiness –, — service is the secret.’
- Kathleen Norris
I once heard Richard Branson say that something activists and entrepreneurs have in common is that they are dissatisfied with the way the world is, and proactively try to do something about it. That was good to hear because I thought these might be two conflicting aspects of myself.
In my first year at secondary school, I sold chocolate bars to my classmates, making a cool 50p profit per day. I was pleased with that at the time! I also put together a petition for school bags to be lighter because they were giving us back pain. It didn’t change anything but I wanted to try!
Waking up to suffering
At university, I started to educate myself about the environmental destruction, inequality and human exploitation that exists in the world around us. The issue that animated me most was climate change, after I read a book called ‘How we can save the planet’. It argued that if global emissions didn’t peak and start to fall by 2015, we would see more and more natural disasters that would totally destabilise living conditions on the planet: droughts, floods, and the disappearance of ice caps that provide 2 billion people with drinking water. I felt panicked. And I couldn’t understand why everyone was acting as though everything was fine.
Experiencing the recent heatwave in the UK has rekindled some of that panic about what we’re doing to the planet. But I’m reacting to it in a very different way, which I feel is a lot more constructive than what I was doing as an angry activist.
At the time, I was very judgmental. I thought that no one was doing enough or cared enough. That made me feel very separate from most other people. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to work out how to make a meaningful difference on the issue.
Feeling my efforts were futile
I tried a lot of things: I changed my diet; stopped flying; campaigned for my university to be greener; went to three UN conferences on climate change and sustainability; got a job in sustainability; read about it; talked about it; did workshops in schools; made campaign videos; marched in the streets; lobbied my MP; andhosted film screenings. There was almost nothing I wasn’t prepared to do, although I did draw the line at hunger strikes, which some people I knew did as a form of protest. My friends at uni called me Captain Planet!
But despite all that activity, I had a consistent, nagging doubt that nothing I or anyone else was doing was effective. The graph of CO2 emissions climbed relentlessly upwards.
It’s so hard to know how do the ‘right thing’. I put all this effort into saving energy, and then read about the Jevons Paradox that efficiency actually leads to an increase in consumption. I’d diligently recycle, and then read that it just ends up in a dump in China. I’d choose British tomatoes and then find out they have a higher carbon footprint than UK ones grown in a heated greenhouse.
Burning out and giving up
There was a particular tipping point for the climate movement in 2009. It was billed as a ‘now or never’ moment for getting a global, legally binding climate agreement at the UN. A coalition of NGOs formed, called ‘Tck Tck Tck’, and the narrative was basically that if we didn’t get an agreement that year, we were doomed. We didn’t, and activists burned out left right and centre.
I also became very disillusioned with efficacy of the ‘climate movement’. I yearned to pour my energy into something effective, but I couldn’t see what that would be, so I put my efforts on ice.
I let go of my obsession with reducing my carbon footprint, started flying again, stopped reading about the issue and became less judgmental. Instead, I focused my efforts on setting up a video production business. That allowed to work for different kinds of organisations, without fully committing myself to any of them.
Finding my purpose
Fast forward nine years and I’m in a room on a course with 40 teachers from all over the world, who are eager to learn how to teach mindfulness in their school.
The curriculum has been created and tested by both school teachers and highly experienced mindfulness teachers, and it really works.
There is some discussion at the start of the course about how much anxiety, stress and suicide are skyrocketing amongst young people. This saddens me, but I don’t despair, because I know we are doing something about it that really works. I know, because I’ve had students and teachers tell me how much it helps them.
As an activist, ‘they’ were the problem and needed to change, but with mindfulness, there is no ‘us and them’. I need to keep learning and practising just as much as the people I’m teaching. And I learn from them just as much as they learn from me. There’s no enemy: we’re in this together.
The team that I’m working with are full of passion, integrity and experience. They really know what they’re doing. As an activist, even when I went to a conference of seasoned, professional campaigners, I never felt that anyone really knew what they were doing. No one had the answer. With mindfulness, it’s not a ‘solution’, but it is a path that leads in a positive direction.
How mindfulness helps with climate change
It might not be obvious, but I think there is a really strong link between mindfulness and climate change. Mindfulness is about improving the way we relate to ourselves, each other and the natural world. When people practise it they become less self-centred and more likely to care about environmental issues.
And I’m getting paid to do it. That was the bit I couldn’t imagine would be possible when I first started. Meaningful work, that I enjoy and make a living from? That’s got to be a fantasy! I’ve talked in a previous vlog about how challenging the money side of things has been, but as of this week, I’ve cleared all my credit card debt and I’m in the black for the first time in about four years.
What about you?
I believe we all yearn to contribute; to feel that we are having a positive impact on the people around us and the world at large. But many people have become cynical that it’s actually possible, because they see few positive examples around them.
My experience has shown me that it is possible, even though it can be a long, challenging process. But a life that feels meaningless was never something I was willing to contemplate.
If you’re longing for more meaningful work, book a free coaching session and we’ll explore together how that’s possible for you.