Student Series: Fighting consumption with compassion

Student Series: Fighting consumption with compassion

How Buddhist teachings about mindfulness can help us care for ourselves and the environment

“We can continue pushing our earth out of balance, with greenhouse gases accelerating each year, or we can regain balance by acknowledging that if we harm one species, one forest, one lake, this ripples through the entire complex web. Mistreatment of one species is mistreatment of all.

The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure that out.

Making this transformation requires that humans reconnect with nature—the forests, the prairie, the oceans—instead of treating everything and everyone as objects for exploitation.”

-Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Suzanne Simard

The current American lifestyle is often at odds with the Earth. Capitalist economies rely on a foundation of consumption, leading to trends such as fast fashion and food waste, where garments and food are discarded because consumers have more than they need or use. The lifecycle of discarded items—from manufacturing to transportation to a landfill—releases tons of carbon emissions, warming the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

The effects of human-driven climate change have wreaked havoc on the Earth. Warming seafloors germinate harmful algae blooms, poisoning coastal residents. Droughts bring water crises and raging forest fires. One study cited habitat transformation and destruction as a factor in the pandemic, which resulted in the deaths of millions. 

In the process of creating a climate crisis, some argue that our lives have grown out of touch from nature. For example, studies point to the positive impact of the outdoors on mental health, yet Americans are estimated to spend 93% of their life inside vehicles or buildings. In capitalist economies, consumers must drive market trends.  Perhaps we’ve allowed market trends to be exploitive of the environment because our lifestyles have become disconnected from the Earth.

In this vein of thinking, MIT sponsors the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series, which presents critical conversations on ethics and humanity through a Buddhist lens. As part of an installment in the lecture series, Buddhist teacher Lama Willa Baker gave a talk where she argued that ‘disembodiment’ is a key cause in the environmental crisis. To be disembodied is to be disconnected—from our environment, ourselves, and each other. This can leave many of us restless for more, or in a perpetual state of worry about the past or future. Baker contends that the climate crisis is partly a result of divergence from past embodied agrarian societies where humans and nature had a more intimate relationship.  By understanding the crisis as internal rather than external, we can pursue embodiment. In Baker’s words, the journey to embodiment will bring us “back to the body and senses; back to our animal wisdom; back to the earthly organic identity of being bound by gravity. These wisdoms remind us of who we are — that we are of the Earth.”

At the heart of the climate crisis may be a battle of values. With current values giving rise to waste and overconsumption and the average American lifestyle insulated from the outdoors, we need to shift values and retrain our behaviors to help both ourselves and the planet. But how does one go about doing so?

According to Professor Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at MIT, one approach to shifting our mindset is through developing compassion. Compassion is a shared pillar among many schools of thought within Buddhism. Developing compassion for yourself and for others not only eases the inherent suffering within life, but also overcomes material attachments.

One key to developing compassion for ourselves and the Earth, says Teng, is through practicing mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is the act of becoming consciously aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and bodily sensations in the present moment. Meditation is a practice in which a technique of mental discipline is used to train attention and awareness to reach higher states of consciousness.

As part of another installment in the Buddhist Lecture series, Sister Dang Nghiem hosted an eating meditation at MIT where each of the participating students started with a small plate of food. Silently, they ate each bite slowly and mindfully, focusing their thoughts on the journey the food had taken to reach their plates and those who helped along the way. If the food is welcomed and thanked, it’s less likely to be wasted.

Mindfulness for the MIT community

Teng suggested another way students can cultivate mindfulness is by gaining multicultural exposure through classes. This past spring, Professor Teng piloted 21G.015 (Introduction to Buddhism, Mindfulness, and Meditation), a half-term subject that met with PE.0534 (Fitness and Meditation), a class taught by Sarah Johnson. Together, the course fused basic Buddhist teachings with hands-on practice of mindfulness and meditation techniques. Students would engage in yoga and meditation both directly after Teng’s lecture and at a separate time earlier in the week.

Johnson described the response from students as incredibly positive. When asked what she’s observed about the average student’s attitude towards wellness during her time as a lead wellness instructor for MIT, Johnson noted that wellness is very individual and that students fall on a wide spectrum.

Getting an MIT education has been described as “drinking from a firehose” for decades, a description that doesn’t advertise strong wellbeing among students. However, while cultural change takes time, Johnson discussed recent internal pushes to make MIT known for its positive wellbeing practices.  The Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) recently piloted the use of Headspace, a subscription-based guided meditation app, among PE students, varsity athletes, and DAPER staff. The majority of students and staff that participated in a post-program survey agreed the app was helpful by showing the importance of coping with stress effectively, specifically through meditation, and that meditation is a reasonable coping strategy to employ in everyday life. Similar to the Pirate certificate, Physical Education and Wellness also recently created a Wellness Wizard certificate to recognize students who have completed three different wellness courses. The new Office of Student Wellbeing is currently working to develop  a wellbeing lab in the Student Center.  The Health Promotion Working Group was formed in 2019 to coordinate campus wellness initiatives, and the DoingWell campaign was launched to encourage students to prioritize their wellbeing.

Starting with self-compassion

During our conversation, Teng noted that developing self-compassion is a key stepping stone to developing compassion for the world around us. MIT students are often overwhelmed, and self-care falls to the wayside in favor of problem sets and job applications. For students, performing an eating or walking mediation, doing yoga, or journaling can be an achievable way to incorporate small acts of everyday mindfulness.  When we open our minds to learning and our hearts to awareness, we can take better care of both ourselves and the environment.


For information on wellbeing resources at MIT, please visit

MIT offices and programs that focus on wellbeing include but are not limited to: DAPER, MindHandHeart, Office of Student Wellbeing, Health Promotion Working Group, Community Wellness @ MIT Medical, Alcohol and Other Drug Services (AODS)

If interested in physical education classes, please check out an overview of wellness courses offered by DAPER

For information about staff wellness resources, check out the MIT Work Life Center

Want to keep the conversation going on mindfulness and the climate crisis? Join Exploring Climate Change & Emotions: From Distress to Wellbeing on April 24th from 4:30-6:30 in the Hayden Nexus

As we embark on this important work of climate change and environmental justice, many of us feel a range of emotions, such as anxiety, grief, and distress. There are also opportunities to feel joy and optimism and to take steps toward finding community in this space. Join us in conversation (and practice) as we explore the intersection between climate change, wellbeing, and the actions needed to build a more sustainable and just world. Sponsored by: MITOS, ESI, the Office of Student Wellbeing, and the Climate Nucleus. Open to the MIT community. Register.

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