A Zen priest–scientist takes on climate anxiety
A Zen priest–scientist takes on climate anxiety
A Zen priest–scientist takes on climate anxiety

A Zen priest–scientist takes on climate anxiety

The research scientist Kritee started using Buddhist rituals to cope with her climate grief. Now she’s helping others do the same.

Winter 2022 | As told to Melissa Bailey | Illustrations by Franziska Barczyk

Extreme weather and alarming scientific reports are prompting more people to experience climate grief—feelings of loss, depression, or anxiety about climate change. These feelings are familiar to Kritee (she goes by one name), a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who holds a PhD in biochemistry and microbiology and spends her days helping farmers in India adapt to the warming planet.

When she experiences climate grief, Kritee, 42, draws on her spirituality for strength. A Zen priest since 2009 and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, she teaches meditation and holds community grief rituals in Boulder, Colorado. She has also led grief workshops for faith-based members of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and a regional office of 350.org. She suggests such workshops can help fill gaps in our overtaxed mental health infrastructure.

Here is her story, as told to writer Melissa Bailey. Kritee’s words have been edited for concision and clarity.

Illustration of Kritee

“I was born and brought up in India. When I came to the U.S. in 2001 [to start a PhD at Rutgers University], I was very depressed. I felt isolated and I couldn’t believe there was so much abundance for the middle class in America when so many were suffering worldwide.

A friend introduced me to a local meditation group. As soon as I started meditating, somehow I found a lot of grounding. Nothing outside of me had changed—I hadn’t found a direction in life or started feeling less sad or angry about environmental issues—but I felt a deep laughter rising from within me, and basically, I was hooked.

For the longest time, I did not bring what I felt about environmental issues into my meditation. I felt that whatever I was learning as an environmental scientist was an intellectual exercise. What I was dealing with on my meditation cushion was primarily the maladjustments from childhood, from having grown up without a father around me and things like that.

But when I went to a workshop with Joanna Macy, a Buddhist eco-philosopher and systems thinker, her way of being and her framework gave me permission to bring my emotions around climate crisis and ecological devastation into my contemplative world.

She describes ecological grief on multiple levels. She says if we are one with everything, which is what Buddhism claims, you are the river. You are the land that has gotten polluted and has seen dumping of radioactive waste. She goes down on the floor and she writhes and sighs and flows and cries the cries of a river.

I just was sobbing uncontrollably in that moment. I could feel the river flowing through me and sobbing. She transmitted that climate grief to us.

I’ve had people say they’ve done years of therapy and nothing happened, and this one grief circle changed their life.

I started leading grief rituals in 2015. I’ve held grief circles for all groups of people, sometimes only for people of color or women. I do not just talk about climate grief. I see climate grief as just another layer to other kinds of trauma that we human beings experience.

I’ve had people say they’ve done years of therapy and nothing happened, and this one grief circle changed their life. There is something about community witnessing you in your grief that cannot happen if just one person witnesses you. There’s a powerful sense of solidarity. Once you’ve shared your deepest grief, and others have spoken similar truths, there’s the sense that I’ll do anything for you. That kind of friendship is breathtaking.

What I have seen in the last four to five years is an increasing awareness of how much climate grief there is in our communities. People are willing to talk about it. There has also been increasing interest in how we are going to democratize mental health care. But is the mainstream mental health care system going to say this needs to get handed down only through people who are already therapists? Or is there a place for community-based rituals?

Marginalized communities already don’t have resources to access the best of what traditional psychotherapy can offer. [With] the scale of climate trauma we’re going to face in the coming years, one-on-one therapy is not going to be enough. And the burden of climate crisis is going to fall on these marginalized communities—people of color, low-income, younger people.

We need to learn to hold trauma, to sit with trauma ourselves. Yes, we need people who’ve done this work before to guide us. But we cannot rely just on mainstream mental health care facilities and psychotherapists.

I have a grief altar in my bedroom. As a climate scientist, in my daily work, there is always distressing news. As I’m going through my day, I just put that news aside and keep going. But when I look at my altar, it’s my reminder that my tears are welcome, that my tears are necessary to water my motivation. I personally would be a very depressed climate scientist if I didn’t have my meditation and grief practices.

You know, if you’re taking care of one houseplant and that houseplant shrivels in your care, you feel sad. And now, entire ecosystems are collapsing. The question is, are we willing to feel that pain fully, and realize the love, the interconnection that lies behind that pain and grief, and then use it for skillful wise action? Will we be able to do it? If yes, a few generations down the line, our future descendants will be grateful for our courage, for our clarity.”

Melissa Bailey is a freelance journalist and a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at The University of Colorado Boulder.