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The inner journey towards a sustainable future

Christine Wamsler, Martin Garwicz and Max Liljefors.
Christine Wamsler, Martin Garwicz and Max Liljefors. Photo: Kennet Ruona

What inner capacities do we need to support a more sustainable society? During the past decades, focus has been on addressing societal crises through external – technical, economic or medical – solutions. But in order to create real change, we must also tackle the underlying root causes: our broken relationship to nature, other people and not least ourselves.

Our current sustainability crises are existential in nature because they raise questions about the meaning of life, and our individual and collective identities. In a time when a pandemic of poor mental health is sweeping across the world, we must make space for deeper reflections about our relationships, and our role in this world. Existential resilience and sustainability could be the way forward, concepts that allow us to explore and challenge our values and paradigms, thus enabling radical transformation towards sustainability.

The new Existential Resilience Collaboration Initiative, ERiCi, at Lund University aims to explore methods that support meaning-making and strengthen our inner resilience in education and practice, through contemplation, aesthetics and compassion.

 “Today’s crises result from modern societies’ story of separation, which assumes that our thinking mind is separate from our feelings and bodily emotions, that we are all separate from each other, that some humans are superior to others, and that we humans are separate and superior to the rest of the natural world,” argues Christine Wamsler, Professor of Sustainability Science at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). She is one of three coordinators of the initiative.

 Christine Wamsler, Max Liljefors and Martin Garwicz in the forest
Contemplation, aesthetics and compassion are three potential pathways for restoring our relationship to ourselves, others and nature, says Christine Wamsler, Max Liljefors and Martin Garwicz. Photo: Kennet Ruona

 “We are increasingly understanding that sustainability crises are a reflection of an inner, human crisis, and of the complex interaction between inner and outer dimensions of sustainability. This is manifested in our daily lives, where we are increasingly exhausting and exploiting ourselves, others and the planet,” she explains.

Efforts to support a better, more sustainable world,  have historically focused on external factors and solutions: technology, economics or medicine. It is only recently that interest in inner factors has begun to grow. Important policy organizations, such as The UN’s climate panel IPCC and the UN’s development program UNDP, are increasingly arguing that transformation towards sustainability also requires an inner change, an inner journey. Both make reference to Christine Wamsler’s research that shows what kinds of inner capacities we need to act and support outer change, such as self-reflection, perspective-taking, compassion, and hope.

 “Such inner capacities and skills are often in-built and natural for us when we are young, but we tend to lose them as we progress through our current educational and professional systems. The results are a lack of meaning, and increasing exploitation and stress.”

Healthier working life

Stress is one of Sweden’s most grave societal crises. People have never been so worried. The number of people on sick leave due to stress-related mental health problems have been increasing continuously, especially within healthcare and education, from primary school to university levels.

“Stress and anxiety-related diseases have a direct link to how we think, feel and see ourselves and others. But how can we achieve a healthier way of working?” asks Max Liljefors, Professor of Art History and Visual Studies, who is also one of the coordinators of the new thematic collaboration initiative ERiCi.

Contemplation, aesthetics and compassion are three potential pathways for restoring our relationship to ourselves, others and nature, to ultimately create a more sustainable future. ERiCi provides a platform for researchers and professionals working within healthcare and education to explore these pathways and to find better ways to relate to, and care for, ourselves, others and the world at large.

“We work with professionals from diverse backgrounds to create synergies and innovative solutions. We explore and connect contemplation, the arts and nature-based approaches to support individual, collective and planetary wellbeing,” explains Christine Wamsler.

Existential resilience

The idea is to explore and advance new perspectives and approaches in education, professional development and practice, particularly in sectors in which stress-related sick leave is high. When feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness combine with work-related stress, they can lead to burnout and people leaving their professions. Increasing societal costs is one of many impacts.

“We focus on relationship-intensive professions primarily, such as healthcare, as these are often badly affected by stress-related sick leave. Also in the education sector, these aspects are important to address. On the one hand, educators can teach the connections between contemplation, art, nature and humans, and at the same time empower themselves and strengthen their own resilience as professionals,” says Max Liljefors.

Max Liljefors has previously been involved in creating a commissioned course that allows participants to develop a better and deeper understanding of art, culture and aesthetics as an important resource in healthcare and social care work. Healthcare professionals and art educators have learned together how creative and aesthetic experiences can be integrated in healthcare practices. In the context of the thematic collaboration initiative ERiCi, these approaches will be further developed by creating a new course with the University of Tromsø in Norway, as part of EUGLOH (the European University Alliance for Global Health).

“It is important to balance the overall negative image that the media presents regarding our human potential. We want to highlight the considerable resources we humans have within us, and that we can nourish, to address and support the changes that are needed for a more sustainable life.”

Methods and tools that have positive impact

Martin Garwicz, Professor of Integrative Neurophysiology and the third coordinator of the new collaboration initiative, agrees and believes that the only long-term solution lies in preventative measures. He is the director of the Birgit Rausing Centre for Medical Humanities, which focuses on the importance of human relationships between caregivers and patients.

 “I am fundamentally optimistic – there is a lot to build upon. But I think we must be brave enough to ask existential questions. Up until now, we have tended to treat only the symptoms of what is wrong in our society, our workplaces, our relationships to other individuals and groups. Rarely have we tried to tackle the underlying inner crises that underlies the pathology. What do we value, really, and why?”

 It is important not to underestimate the value and influence of contemplation, aesthetics and compassion as important pathways for nourishing our human potential, argues Martin Garwicz.

 “When applied correctly, these methods have clear, positive impacts on our relationships, individually and collectively. And for those who like to measure things, the results are definitely measurable. It is not merely soft measures. Our thematic collaboration initiative has considerable potential to make a real difference in the world, in the academic and professional world.”

Christine Wamsler emphasizes that we need a greater understanding of our interconnected existence on this planet so that we can tackle exploitation, of both humans and nature.

“If we create safe spaces and relationships that allow us to explore and experience our inner life, our common humanity and our mutual interdependence, we can find meaning and hope, and start to act. I believe that many of us are waiting for such a paradigm shift,” says Christine Wamsler.


Existential resilience: Contemplation, aesthetics, compassion (ERiCi)

The initiative is rooted in international research and work being done at the Faculties of Social Sciences, Medicine, Fine and Performing Arts, and the Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology at Lund University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden. It explores the role of contemplation, aesthetics and compassion to counter stress, fragmentation and loss of meaning that underlie today’s societal crises. It involves supporting existential resilience through integrated approaches that link art and health, nature and health, inner change, relationship-building and sustainability across individual, collective and global levels. Academic expertise is complemented by experience knowledge and collaboration with relevant professionals within healthcare, sustainability, schools and higher education institutions.