RITA Summit Recap & Review

Tara C. Trapani

As we've reported here in the blog and on our social media channels, last week was the RITA (Resilience in the Anthropocene) Summit hosted by the Loka Inititative at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This gathering brought together activists, scholars, environmentalists, mental health practitioners, and more to discuss the growing crisis of climate/eco-anxiety and grief and globally mounting solastalgia and how we can transform and transmute this personally, in our communities, and as a planetary whole. This review is greater in length than our usual blog posts, but there is much to say about this important event and topic. 

The summit lasted 3 days, and the content was rich and complex with many varying perspectives. Each day had its own theme. Day 1 was dedicated to “Building Connections For and Between Inner, Community, and Planetary Resilience”; Day 2 focused on “Exploring the Emotional and Psychological Impacts of the Environmental and Climate Crisis”; and the conference wrapped up with “Embodying Resilience in Uncertain Times.” The talks and panels were so engaging and felt so timely and immediate that I sat enrapt for all 3 days, even in this era of webinar and screen overload.

But even more than the valuable content, I was encouraged by what I've been hoping to see for a very long time: sessions that begin with everyone assembled taking grounding breaths together and panelists who had us close our eyes and feel into ideas or statements about ancestors, community, place, before launching into heady discussion about these topics. I feel strongly that these kinds of mindfulness, nervous system grounding, and inner reflection practices and consciousness is sorely overdue in academic circles and greatly needed, especially for those in fields such as ours that can be very taxing on our Hope and require us to stay fully present if we're to help activate much needed change. Though there were certainly many intellectually engaging discussions, RITA also took us out of our heads and located us firmly in our bodies here on Planet Earth through the embracing of the somatic and contemplative. 

These were some of my biggest takeaways from each day:
Day 1

  • I was very excited to hear the topic of neuroplasticity brought up multiple times on the first day, in the keynote–a dialogue between Richard Davidson and Britt Wray– and in the first panel on Inner Resilience. As many around me know, I feel firmly that everyone on this planet should engage in neuroplastic brain retraining practices to calm our inflamed amygdalas after the global trauma of recent years, and that healing that trauma is the key to healing our world, environmentally and otherwise. Britt Wray and others spoke about how using the neuroplasticity of our brains can lead to transformational adaptation, where we can individually and collectively imagine the future and bring it into being. As part of this, I was intrigued by her ideas about using play and digital/virtual spaces to assist in this effort. I think it will take these kinds of creative approaches if we want to reach people and populations who aren't on board yet regarding planetary protection and healing. 
  • The importance of language came up several times. I was intrigued by the discussion in the final panel of the day (“The Planet Teaches Us: Principles of Ecological Resilience”) about the negative impact of the term ecological or environmental “restoration.”  Musonda Mumba and the other panelists spoke about the dynamism of our planet, how things are ever changing, and how we can't ever “go back” or restore the Earth to a previous point in time. Therefore, we should retire the term in this context and instead shift our language to that of healing and/or reconciliation. I'm a big believer in the importance of the language we use, so this really made an impact on me, and I've committed to shift my terminology to reflect these truths. 

Day 2:

  • This statement from Susan Clayton, the moderator of the first panel of the day, really stood out for me: In order to feel hope, we don't need to suppress or get rid of the anxiety. It can be a both/and proposition. We can fully grieve and worry and stress–and have Hope and move forward. 
  • Panel 1 also introduced the term Climate Trauma to the gathering, and how that's what we are moving towards, if not already there. We've moved beyond anxiety and grief to collective trauma. 
  • It was a powerful moment for me when Jyoti Mishra stated that we are the traumatized and the traumatizers–the oppressed and the oppressors– the problem and the solution. This is logical and obvious, of course, but we don't often think of it in such stark and truth-filled terms, and it hit home. 
  • In the final panel of the day,  Juan Santoyo made me sit up and take notice when he said: when we are in privileged spaces, we always need to ask ourselves who isn't here? Who isn't being served? Who is being left out of this experience and equation? This not only raises our awareness of our own privilege and the inequity around us, but I think this consciousness can greatly increase our compassion, and therefore motivation for action. 
  • Though not part of this event, Panu Pihkala from Finland mentioned his upcoming paper on themes of grief and bereavement in eco-grief and how a deeper look at bereavement studies can help us navigate these issues. I'm keeping an eye out for that one, as I think this could be a very fertile area of exploration. 

Day 3:

  • Mingyur Rinpoche spoke about letting go v. giving up, a lesson I've worked hard to learn and a topic dear to my heart. But my real takeaway from his talk was the discussion of empathy v. compassion–how empathy creates stress and fear and activates our nervous system while inhibiting our ability to act, while compassion makes us less emotionally sensitive and more able to take action and assist. I admit I had some resistance to what they were saying–and I still don't agree with the assertions about empathy being all about the self and not about the other–but Rinpoche and Richard Davidson also spoke about brain imaging studies clearly showing these differences that were quite compelling. 
  • In the third panel, Lama Rod Owens talked about how we can't be in right relationship to Earth and the land, until we're truly embodied–in right relationship with our own physical landscape. This resonated deeply.
  • Yuria Celidwen spoke several times about taking our old stories, our trauma, and our grief and composting it all to create fertile new soil for bridge building–by seeing that we're in this suffering together and sharing our experience, new ways ahead can be forged.
  • I was also struck by her comments, in response to a viewer question about about white supremacy, that the dualities we cling to are a trap–we are a multiplicity.
  • And in the panel discussion about the religious response to these issues, the Forum's Mary Evelyn Tucker iterated that of course religious leaders and organizations are human and fallible, so we should not idealize them. But instead, we can identify and elevate what they can do, how they can help to effect the change we want to see in the world. Instead of focusing on their weaknesses, we can lift up their strengths and employ that in service of the planet. 

In addition to the meditative and reflective moments brought by some of the panels and keynotes, 30 minutes each afternoon were set aside for a contemplative practice. The first day, Prentiss Hemphill took us through reflection and some breathing around issues of grief. Day 2 had Dekila Chungyalpa, the conference organizer, leading a meditation around anger. And Bobbi Patterson took us through a contemplative exercise for despair on the final day. 

There were many valuable offerings from Indigenous voices, including Kyle X. Hill, Michelle Johnson-Jennings, Brian McInnes, and Yuria Celidwen. But for those looking for religious content and perspectives outside of the Indigenous contributions, the final panel of the conference was the most directly related (“Spiritual Reflection, Practices, and Resilience: Lessons from Contemplative and Nature-based Wisdom,” moderated by the Forum's own Mary Evelyn Tucker). In addition, the end of the first panel on day 2 touched on the issue of religion in response to a viewer question; and the keynote on the last day was given by  H.E. Mingyur Rinpoche, who brought in perspectives and elements from his Buddhist tradition.  

At the end, I still have continuing challenges and a few ongoing questions that weren't fully addressed. The term “resilience” itself is problematic for many people, myself included. This was brought up during the event, both by panelists and in questions from viewers, but was never fully unpacked or addressed. It is a term often used to bludgeon both individuals and communities who have been harmed and put the responsibility back on the victim. How many sensitive, bullied, and abused children have been told they just need to be more resilient and how many impacted communities and populations have been told the same by their oppressors? See Day 1, panel 1 for a brief discussion of this. The importance of the language we use came up multiple times during the event, and I firmly feel the use of this term needs to be looked at much more fully and directly to avoid potential trauma triggering, which is, of course, the opposite of our intention here. 
One of the questions in the last panel of the conference concerned the issue of Hope. I admit, I was a bit surprised at the responses of some of the panelists, but I'll touch on that in next week's post, so stay tuned for more. 

Another open question for me is how all of this relates to and intersects with the issue of neurodiversity. With as much as 20% of the population already being identified as neurodiverse by some measures (and many more who have not been diagnosed), and that number growing every day, I feel that to ignore this issue is to ignore our world as it truly is. RITA already had plenty to tackle in this gathering, but I hope that in a future event, some of these mental health practitioners will address this aspect, as well. 

And the conference closed on a question regarding existing/intersecting trauma, and I also feel a fuller discussion of these issues is crucial. Since our world is sadly infused with trauma today, we're all being traumatized on multiple levels, and that will only increase with time as traumatized parents very often pass that legacy on to their children, how can we build this work on that highly unstable foundation? How can we ask people who are already struggling to make it through the day, to do much more than they are doing already? I felt some embedded privilege in a few statements during the event regarding what people should be doing, ie buying electric cars, when a huge percentage of the population, at least in this country, couldn't possibly afford one. They spend their limited resources worrying about how to feed their children and simply stay alive. These stark realizations are where my Hope sometimes falters, and I have an earnest wish that there will be another RITA Summit or similar event where these topics can be bravely faced and tackled together. 

But none of these remaining questions detracted from the immense value and gifts that this meeting of hearts and minds brought to those who experienced it. These are the kinds of conversations and interactions we need to be having more and more as the world becomes an increasingly challenging place in which to live. There are dissenters, I know–those who feel that meditation, contemplation, et al is a waste of time when the world is on fire. I'll employ an old cliche here, and it's a well-worn metaphor because it is so applicable to so many aspects of our human life. This work is not a sprint–it's a marathon. And what would happen if a marathon runner didn't take the time to hydrate, take bio-breaks, stretch? They wouldn't be able to go the distance and sustain their stamina and energy. So, why do those in non-profit and cause work feel this nourishment and self-care is selfish and unimportant? It is indeed quite the contrary. By caring for the mental, emotional, and physical health of ourselves and our communities we are giving a gift to the Earth. We are responsibly meeting our own needs so we can be present for it and operating at our most innovative, creative, and vibrant. The Earth deserves us at our best. 

Below, you'll find links to the videos of all 3 days of the RITA Summit.  You can also find these videos and more related content on the Loka Initiative YouTube Channel. I strongly recommend at least sampling some of the talks and panels that speak most strongly to you from this very timely and important event.