Education for cultivation of awareness as an important factor of raising environmental consciousness (Extracts)

Harisios P. Ganatsios (Sannyasi Nityabodh), Anastasia F. Filippou (Sannyasi Mukti Dhara), Sofia Mpekiri and Kate Evelyn Danahy

We cannot overcome our limitations and problems on the same level of thought which created them. Our minds have to be transformed.

Albert Einstein


The relationship between people and the environment has in recent years become the centre of interdisciplinary and multicultural discussion. While this relationship is in itself a complicated issue, the global state of crisis – economic, environmental, health – that we are facing, puts particular strain on state and educational institutions to develop better methods of environmental education.

Very few evaluations with a broad enough scope have been made on the success of integration of environmental education (E.E.) in higher education. A recent report on the first evaluation done on all higher education institutions in Sweden (the first country-wide evaluation) about environmental education integration concluded that “lack of content, didactic and pedagogic competence among teachers is a major challenge at the higher education institutions” (Finnveden et al., 2020). Another recent study amongst eight European universities in seven European Union countries also found that students’ interest in sustainable food development (an important facet of sustainability and environmental education) had very strong associations with the teaching of competencies for making judgements and justifying decisions and innovation and creativity (Migliorini et al., 2020).

Traditional approaches in E.E. have focused on providing a plethora of information regarding how the environment functions, the articulation of environmentally friendly practices and the multitude of challenges we face as a species if we fail to alter our lifestyle, individually and as a whole, by adopting these practices. In our research, we identified these key interrelated barriers to the effectiveness of E.E. as it is largely employed over the world:

  • flood of information and inadequate cultivation of discrimination and understanding
  • along with the fragmentation of science and poor communication between scientific fields
  • competitive educational system, stemming from the competitive nature of our social system
  • mental and physical isolation from nature
  • perpetuation of the crisis, leading people to become overwhelmed and develop apathy.

The aim of this research

The aim of this research is to illustrate the importance of cultivating awareness in raising environmental consciousness and promote a holistic environmental education as integral part of our lives. The main goal of this proposed educational paradigm is to facilitate amongst students, a cooperative spirit and respect for nature through understanding the unified field that permeates all.

Students of the School of Forestry and Natural Environment (F&NE) of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, serve as the target group of this study. Understanding sustainability is the major educational goal in the School of F&NE.

The aim of this paper is to contribute in the development of such an educational framework in a higher education setting that can serve as a paradigm for educators and institutions seeking to increase environmental awareness in their students and provide them with the skills they need to change their behaviour towards the natural and social environment. We began by identifying possible gaps in the E.E. programs we have observed so far, which are listed below:

  1. lack of environmental awareness
  2. lack of social skills necessary for cooperation and group action
  3. inadequate or absent education on matters of ethics.

In order to define an educational program that addresses these issues, we first had to clearly define the concept of environmental awareness. To this end we assembled a theoretical background on awareness.

Awareness in yogic literature

A research on awareness is incomplete without seeking guidance from the science of awareness cultivation. Awareness leads to understanding, one of the most precious human qualities, and therefore to the union of thoughts, feelings and actions (Niranjanananda, 2018). Evolution of awareness underpins all stages of understanding, which, according to the science of yoga are: detachment, discrimination, acceptance, control of negative expressions and finally understanding. Through this evolution, awareness expands and consciousness rises.

Unless we manage the mind at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels we cannot solve environmental problems, and for that there ought to be a science. Science is a sequential process of mental understanding, based on observation and analysis, today still in its infancy. Yoga on the other hand, the name for ‘unity’, is a sequential process of experiencing the positivity within oneself, at any rate an old science. Why not harness its experience? (Niranjanananda, 2016, 2015).

The yogic lifestyle is based upon the precepts of practice, awareness, attitude, and action. Awareness is the torchlight of consciousness, the ability to live in the present, to witness and understand ourselves (including detachment and discrimination) and the environment, conditions, and events that influence us. Attitude involves the ability to develop a positive and creative outlook by converting everything negative into its opposite and encourage others to do the same. Action entails an understanding of how we act, think and interact in the world, through discrimination between just and unjust, right and wrong, appropriate from inappropriate, universal and limited. When awareness grows, man’s thoughts, concepts and values also change (Satyananda, 2018). Through awareness, an understanding of this process and its outcome begins to develop and in the end gain control over our own inner expressions, experiences, reactions and our circumstances. Awareness is in fact a natural process of the mind, the faculty by which the mind sees everything and can focus on anything.

Satyananda (republished in 2017) describes four tools of awareness according to Vedanta:

  1. thinking and counter – thinking
  2. decisions and discrimination
  3. remembering
  4. ego or id

These tools employed, allow us to perceive the whole picture, instead of the few pieces of the puzzle that are represented by various scientific disciplines. Knowledge comes from outside, while awareness is an inner ability. It means ‘to know what I know’ but through it we can evolve much further. The mind is made of the thinking, the thinker and the thought, but yoga identifies a fourth component: the seer of it all, the part of ourselves who is constantly observing. The emotional state is an important event that is associated with the learning process. This implies that neural circuits that generate certain emotional states become associated with the neural circuits that generate thought processes like decision making, perception, communication, and movement production. To be aware, to ‘know what we know’, the ‘seer’ cannot ignore the emotional state.

For this reason, emotions have the ability to shape the brain in a way that influences decisions, world perceptions, communication, etc. By focusing all our attention to this, education can train the brain to act (through activation of evolved brain areas) and not react (triggered by fear or anger of amygdala and other less evolved parts); and awareness is the link to this higher intellect. Awareness frees us from falling victim of the impulsive behaviour of the mind (Immink, 2007). Concentration and the ability to learn improves, the software of mind based upon the hardware of the brain transforms and evolves. Thoughts, words and actions become aligned. Awareness over time and through training and application illuminates and mollifies conflicts within ourselves and our relationship with nature.

The link made in yogic principles on awareness and emotion is also reflective in modern findings of neuroscience. Immink (2007) mentions that since the brain has no sensory system for itself, thoughts can only be detected by observing them with another thought. Furthermore, Newberg and Waldman (2009) conclude that this very act of self-observing, conducted in the frontal lobes, reroutes brain activity from the limbic system – the older, reactionary part of the brain, where anger and pain are generated – back to the more recently evolved frontal lobe, which is responsible for higher functions like care, compassion and deeper understanding (i.e., awareness). Activation is related to increased flow of bioelectrical energy through the nervous system. Energy flows where attention goes.

So, this lack of training the brain on cultivating awareness reduces the effectiveness of E.E. and has been largely ignored so far.

SWAN method

SWAN is a method created by Niranjanananda (1999). It is an acronym that stands for strengths (positive personality traits, skills, talents), weaknesses (qualities that prevent positivity from manifesting itself), ambitions (drive, motivation aspiration) and needs (basic life requirements like water, shelter, satisfaction, purpose, balance with nature) (Ratnashakti, 2018). During their field exercise, each student was, as a first step, asked to formulate their personal SWAN and then the SWAN of the natural environment. As foresters - environmentalists it is vitally important first to know the strengths of ecosystems relative to the fulfilment of our essential needs and the weaknesses, including threats and limitations to their successful management. The second step is identifying the ambitions and needs and differentiating between them as well as between ‘sustainable’ and non- sustainable ambitions. These ambitions and needs ideally, ‘naturally’, ‘normally’ are aligned.

To develop awareness of what one is doing, one needs to identify one’s weaknesses, what triggers negativity within and what upsets one’s balance, before they can be worked on. Discovering our basic needs, what is lacking in a situation to make life more harmonious, becomes a priority: first comes recognition and then self-transformation. This approach requires relaxation, self-reflection and the willpower to change. Awareness implies that one knows what has to change, how to proceed, and use past experiences to transform a particular condition or situation. Willpower means maintaining conviction, adhering to the right and proper context. These components help one evolve their values and qualities (Niranjanananda, 2018, 2013a).

So alongside the external goal of sustainable management of natural ecosystems, we need an internal goal of sustainable team management to promote cooperation, altruism and ethical behaviour in general, for which the Pratipaksha Bhavana method was introduced.

Pratipaksha Bhavana method

Pratipaksha Bhavana is a practice outlined in the ancient Yoga Sutras that means anything negative should be converted into something positive (pratipaksha means ‘opposite’ and bhavana means ‘cultivation’ in Sanskrit) (Sivananda, 1946). It suggests that students focus on developing strengths, such as empathy – the capacity to experience the feelings of others – instead of fighting problems, such as aggression and poor emotion regulation. This method can be applied in the way we approach the environment. Participation, cooperation, and building capacity of all the stakeholders are the factors needed for a successful environmental sustainable development (Glavic, 2020).

This educational tool strengthens the willpower to let go of negative and depressive states which hampers students’ happiness and creativity, and helps build the courage and strength to replace them with positive, happy memories, ideas and visions, neutralising the mind’s reaction. So this method is not about removing the negative, but calmly observing without fighting it, and cultivating and focusing on the positive (Niranjanananda, 2018, 2013b).

As the third step of SWAN method, Pratipaksha Bhavana was introduced to transform weaknesses into strengths and barriers into opportunities. Greed, a significant factor in environmental degradation, can be reduced through contentment and human connection, which will prove crucial in the students’ future as managers, scientists, cooperators in groups and ultimately for the ecosystems.

Repetition is essential to reprogramming. Cells which are stimulated together interconnect (law of Hebbs). By replacing negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones, the negative flow of thoughts and emotions halts and reprogramming begins, limiting the effect of negativity on the person. There is no limit to the therapeutic and creative power of the human mind. If we accept this, a mental state of unhindered imagination starts changing the mind in order to establish new ideas. In the Pratipaksha Bhavana method the steps towards developing understanding not through consumption of information but through transforming it into attitude and action, according to Sivamurti (2013), are:

  1. Gaining awareness of negative emotions and thoughts and creating an environment where students can observe them. Simply becoming aware is enough for them to start transforming a negative situation.
  2. Accepting that negative patterns of thinking – feeling – reacting need change.
  3. Realising such thoughts, emotions, behaviours and reactions disturb their peace of mind and taking responsibility for them.
  4. Understanding those mental experiences can be replaced with positive ones.
  5. Looking for ways and strategies to replace them with an opposite thought, emotion, behaviour, reaction.

An effort was made to apply (introduced to the students in brief) these steps to Forestry students, despite the limited available time, space and provisions.

The full article has been published in the International Journal of Higher Education and Sustainability, Vol. 3, No. 3, 2021