Grounding in the time of COVID

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April 20th, 2020
Photo of feet on the Earth

We're pleased to introduce our guest blogger this month, Dr. Sally Gillespie. Sally lectures and facilitates workshops on climate psychology and ecopsychology, and she's the author of a recent book on climate psychology. Here she gives us a glimpse into the similarities between climate anxiety and COVID-19 anxiety. Her words serve as a gentle invitation to reflect and re-center amidst the stormy situation we're collectively facing.

Thank you Sally!

Falling Down

There’s been a lot of grounding going on of late – of planes, of social outings, of reality. My grounding in early March was a literal one. On my way to the community garden, I tripped up with a compost bucket in one hand and my garden tools in the other. I hit the pavement hard, flat on my face. How fast reality can change, and what a hard reality it can be. But I was lucky, nothing was broken. I limped home, bloodied and shaken and took it quietly for the rest of the week.

COVID19 is grounding us humans in the biological basis of our being, and the global nature of contemporary life.

By the time I was firmly back on my feet, hard realities were being felt everywhere. COVID19 is grounding us humans in the biological basis of our being, and the global nature of contemporary life. The shocks are profound. A transaction in a wet market in Wuhan has set off a trail of consequences which are killing thousands and keeping millions at home.

Perhaps because I was still a bit traumatised, I found myself increasingly angered by some of the narratives that began to mushroom in social media about how the virus was an ally or a teacher. At the same time I was getting comments about how excited I must be about the ecological benefits of the lockdowns – the falling emissions, the clearer waters, the dolphins returning to the Venice canal (false, as it turned out). Normally I would be more tolerant of the ways in which people look for comforting stories and silver linings in times of disaster, but I was not feeling my normal patient self.

Feeling the Grief

I fell into an abyss of grief and fear, about the pandemic and about ongoing ecological destructions. My heart flooded with the immensity of the suffering of COVID19, and the way that it would decimate poor communities with few medical resources and little capacity to self-isolate. Reading beyond the frontline COVID19 stories, I was also learning that many Governments across the world, including my own in Australia, are taking advantage of this time to rip up environmental protections and approve logging, drilling and mining projects, while activists are grounded and the general population distracted. This means that the fall in emissions from COVI19 will likely be largely temporary, while global ecological destructions will grind on.

I could not let in, let alone feel, the possibilities of this time for personal awakenings, ecological learnings or social transformations, until I attended to my heartbreak.

Of course, along with the terrible accounts of COVID on my news feed, were also beautiful stories of connection, kindness, co-operation and creativity in response to the virus. I appreciated them but observed that they were not moving my heavy heart. I could not let in, let alone feel, the possibilities of this time for personal awakenings, ecological learnings or social transformations, until I attended to my heartbreak.

Here in Australia, over the last six months, we have choked on bushfire smoke, watched townships burn and mourned the loss of billions of our country’s living beings to fire and drought.  Since then every story of new logging, fracking or mining has been a stab in the heart, and a clutch in the guts. Coming hard on the heels of this, COVID19, with its roots in habitat loss and exploitation of animals, adds yet another dimension to my grief in response to the tragedies of human-driven ecological disruptions.

Connecting With Compassion

In order to sustain effective engagement with ecological crises, we need to acknowledge and attend to the healthy, yet challenging, emotions that arise in response. My recent recognition of being so out of kilter with eco-anxiety and its sister feelings of eco-grief and despair, led me to ramp up my tried and tested practices for exploring and containing these emotions, including journalling, meditating, practicing qi gong and, most importantly, engaging in reflective conversations with safe and receptive individuals and groups.

What my research, and others’ research, also shows is how much more resilient and conscious we become when we can share these emotions safely through reflective conversations

Working with the emotions of ecological distress in myself and others is familiar terrain. I began my research into psychological and emotional responses to the climate crisis over a decade ago. What my research reveals is how ecological distress can cycle through an array of emotions, including anxiety, fear, numbness, grief, despair, horror, anger and shame, to name just a few, and in no particular order. What my research, and others’ research, also shows is how much more resilient and conscious we become when we can share these emotions safely through reflective conversations, which recognise the collective and fluctuating nature of our emotional experiences.

Through listening deeply to myself and others, I have learnt not to fear or judge the times when we feel overwhelmed or stuck by one particular form of ecological distress, but to lean into it with curiosity and compassion. Last weekend I was fortunate enough to have a day of online reflective conversations, first in my writing group, and then in a Climate Psychology Alliance workshop on heartbreak and beauty. Together the conversations of these groups brought me to a place where my heart could open for the joy of connection, and the grief of loss. Since then I have been less angry and more able to shed tears, not only for what is sad, but also for what is loving and even encouraging. We know we are healing, when our views become less black and white. This week there is more colour in my world, and more acceptance of the complex weave of these tumultuous times with their losses and their openings.

Only together can we explore the surface and the depths of the collective upheavals and transformations we are destined to live.

Whether we are staying at home, or working on the frontline of essential services, there is a lot to emotionally hold and digest right now. There are also many rich and essential questions to ask ourselves, our families, and our communities about what really matters, how we become more resilient, and the ways in which we can bring ecological healing to our disturbed planet. One of the best ways to do this is to create a group, or invite a group you are already a part of, to share feelings, questions, imaginings and dreams about our times. To make this safe, the group needs to make an agreement to listen well to each other, without interruption, judgement or argument and to keep the conversations confidential. Only together can we explore the surface and the depths of the collective upheavals and transformations we are destined to live. And rather than fall flat on your face, incorporate grounding exercises into your reflective online conversations, and into your day, finding simple ways to bring your tender body into consciousness and alignment with precious earth.


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  • By Sally Gillespie

In Closing

Did you enjoy this blog? Well there's more where that came from. Sally recently wrote a book called Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining our World and Ourselves, all about how climate change disrupts our stories. In it, she provides easy-to-relate-to insights about how we might "face into" this storm emotionally and psychologically. You can check out this review of the book over at Climate Psychology Alliance, and order the book from the publisher here. Use promo code ADS19 for 30% discount!

Are you someone with expertise to share with our Eco-Anxious Stories community? Interested in writing a guest blog? Let us know!