Recycling is Mindfulness

by Kellie Kroening, TND Intake Specialist and avid baker

Recycling is a mindfulness practice. Maybe you know someone who recycles like it’s their full time job. Maybe you know someone who thinks the whole thing is a joke. Unfortunately, the movement for recycling sometimes get a bad reputation because of the way it’s been presented – for instance, “if you’re not recycling, then you hate animals and the eventual disappearance of the polar ice caps is on you and your empty Dr. Pepper bottles.” (Can we all just agree that harsh and judgmental extremes don’t really help anyone?) If the newest research is true, we have already passed something of a “point of no return” with the climate problems at hand, and it doesn’t just have to do with recycling. There are a myriad of contributing factors. Yet, while we will have to put our heads together in years to come for solutions to this issue, it doesn’t mean we should stop doing what we already know to be important.

The Next Door has recently started a recycling initiative called The Green Team, which I am honored to be involved in. We’re a small group of people who go around the building once weekly to collect recycling and take it to Nashville’s many drop-off centers, in addition to brainstorming ideas of how TND can be more sustainable and focus on how to reduce, reuse, and recycle. However for me, there’s a bigger picture to why I recycle. I’m hoping that as TND participates in the Green Team’s new efforts, the conversation can turn toward mindfulness and how recycling aligns with some of our core values. I believe that recycling actually impacts how we interact with other human beings in the world. Let me tell you why.

When I was in 4th Grade I went to a magically special school called School in the Woods. In the middle of the Black Forest on the Eastern slope of the Rockies in Colorado, there exists a haven for fourth graders where you spend 80% of the school year outside, with the goal of learning how to be a naturalist. A naturalist is a type of biologist who studies the impacts of living species on each other and the environments in which they live. So, a troupe of 10-year-olds including myself spent the year walking around this piece of forest observing, notating, drawing, studying, identifying, counting, quantifying, qualifying, and appreciating the ways that all parts of the earth interconnect and impact all other parts of the earth. This experience was extraordinarily formative for me, and I carry that naturalist heart with me into all facets of my life. As an adult, I came to realize that this is why I was drawn to be a counselor; because counseling is really just naturalism. It is observing, listening, identifying, and appreciating all the ways that each part of someone’s life impacts each part of their own “ecosystem.” How, perhaps, someone’s childhood trauma impacts the beliefs about the self, and how those beliefs impact behaviors, creating gaps in emotional regulation, and how maybe, like for our women and many others, it may result in substance abuse or other dysfunctional coping mechanisms. We can study how the family system can be incredibly resilient even through the harshest blizzards and how the most frozen hearts thaw with enough time spent in the glow of a new sun. Or how when the lightning strikes one too many times, it may set someone’s whole life ablaze. The counseling relationship is there to give witness to all the life and death, growth and change, and to mindfully love the system through the process.

One very important lesson that naturalism taught me was that for the whole ecosystem to be healthy, each part must work in healthful cooperation. This is one of the things that brought me to the Next Door – it attracted me originally because it felt like the sort of place that encourages all parts of the whole to be healthy and to give and take, when needed. For instance, the core values encourage that if we want our women to understand values such as love, respect and community, then we need to also demonstrate love, respect, and community. Health begets health. Love begets love. Respect begets respect. You (be)get the idea.

Which brings me back to recycling. I believe that recycling is a mindfulness practice because for me, when my body makes that habitual motion toward the trash can with something paper, plastic, metal, cardboard etc. in my hand, I pause, and bring my awareness to the moment, instead of mindlessly letting go my waste into some hypothetical landfill. I could throw it away. No one would know. Would it make a difference? Does this one piece of paper or this one straw really matter in the scheme of things? Maybe not. But did you know that every person produces about 4 pounds of waste a day? (Don’t ask me to do the math on that; as you can imagine, School in the Woods didn’t help much with my math issues.) In that momentary pause, I consider that waste begets waste.

So, I mindfully turn my body instead to the little box where I collect recyclables. Because even though I’ll have to make an extra trip, and even though I’m just one person, recycling begets recycling. It is an act of love, and respect, and community because it says “I know that YOU live here too, and for the ecosystem to be healthy, all parts must work in healthful cooperation.” Maybe we are past a point of no return in climate change or melting ice caps but the naturalist in me urges you to believe that we are not past a point of no return within ourselves. It’s what we ask our clients at The Next Door to do every day: to believe that they are not past the point of no return, but that there is still hope that change can happen and that it does matter. Think about the impacts of living species on each other and the environments in which they live, and how that does start with you, within you, sitting at your desk, or standing in your kitchen, practicing mindfulness, and knowing in the grand scheme of things that whether you recycle something to be repurposed or just throw it away, it does matter.

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