Empathy, narcissism, existential threat + nature connection: Glasgow Imagination Festival talk

As part of the 1st Imagination Festival in Glasgow last weekend, co-producer and all round superwoman Roanne Dods invited me to talk at Glad Café. I spoke on nature connection, empathy, narcissism and existential threat. A couple people from the Violence Reduction Unit spoke from their perspective about empathy and then it was opened up for audience discussion. Here’s what I said (more or less):

After 10 years working in the music industry followed by 10 years in arts & heritage sector, now my work is all about how to live in more harmonious relationship with the natural world. I do this through research, teaching and coaching in 2 main areas: mindfulness and connection with nature / ecotherapy. Its the intersection between these two that I specialise in, that gets me really excited because the synergy created can be very powerful.

To be in harmonious relationship with nature we need to feel connected with nature, and this requires being able to feel empathy for nature.

I take a psychosocial approach to my work, and psychology studies show that humans tend to show bias towards those we see as being part of our in-group and prejudice and discirimination to those we see as part of our out-group. Seeing nature as part of our in-group is critical for motivating pro-environmental behaviour. It requires a sense of self that is beyond the narrow Me self, the ego-self. It is an expanded more interconnected sense of self. For those familiar with deep ecology, this has been called the Ecological Self.

So what acts against perception of nature as in-group? Of having a more expanded interconected self ?

There are 2 factors in particular I want to talk about: narcissism and materialism. Here’s how my thinking goes:

Firstly, narcissism. We live in an industrial growth society that promotes certain beliefs – that humans are separate from nature, that humans are superior to nature and can trandscend its limits through our ingenuity – through science and technology. It denies nature of its intrinsic value: indeed humans are morally entitled to exploit nature for our own ends. Superiority, entitlement and exploitativeness are all dimensions of narcissism. I think its hard not to be narcissistic in our culture because these beliefs are so pervasive and insidious in the public discourse; we are constantly being primed to be narcissistic.

Secondly, materialism. The environmental challenge we face is on such a scale unprecedented in human history that it presents huge psychological threat: to the integrity of our identity, to self-esteem, and existential threat – it brings up our fear of death, it reminds us of our mortal limits. To deal with the extreme anxiety and stress this causes, we adopt coping strategies. One of these is denial, which I wont be talking about today. Another is the pursuit of materialistic goals – financial wealth, material possessions – to enhance our sense of self through the social status, power and popularity that we may then accrue. In psychology this is called a maladaptive strategy because although it might well ease personal stress and anxiety it doesn’t do anything to address the environmental situation.

In fact, and here’s the thing, it actually makes it worse. We get trapped in a hideous vicious circle:

Industrial growth society + narcissistic consumer culture (through overstressing planetary cycles and overexploiting nature’s resources) –> is causing damage and destruction to the natral world as well as climate change –> this poses psychological threat –> to which we respond (in part) with more materialism and consumerism –> which makes the damage and destruction worse

maxresdefaultSo how can we get out of this trap? This for me is where mindfulness practice comes in.

For those unfamiliar with mindfulness, it refers to heightened awareness of what is going on within and around you, in the present moment. By within you, we mean physical sensations in the body, feelings and emotions and thoughts. Around you, is what we perceive through the senses. And we bring certain qualities to this awareness: curiosity, openness, compassion, acceptance and non-judgement.

So how can mindfulness help?

  1. Brings to our conscious awareness when we are stuck in the trap
  2. Offers a way to cope with the psychological threat in a different way – in a way that is adaptive rather than maladaptive
  3. And nature-based mindfulness practice in particular reinforces a sense of interconnection with the natural world

Studies show that trait mindfulness is associated with lower materialism and consumerism, with ‘greater than self’ values, pro-environmental behaviour and higher subjective wellbeing. Neuro-imaging research shows that mindfulness practice enhances brain regions such as the insula that are associated with emotional processing and empathy.

So in conclusion then, I think nature-based mindfulness practice can help counter narcissism and materialism: it can help us live in more harmonious relationship with the natural world.


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