Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

2 Feb 2016

How do we create change? A personal challenge to be sustainable

Posted by Michael Keating

By Eric Hellman

This is the second in a series of articles on how we can create change more effectively by my associate, Eric Hellman, co-founder of the Recycling Council of Ontario and the Blue Box, and co-author of Leadership from Within.

I was deeply fortunate to start my own career doing work I truly loved. Working in garbage and recycling was a perfect opportunity for me to share both my love of nature, and the power we have to make a difference in the world. At the same time, however, my life was also in deep conflict. Married at 19, my young marriage was being torn apart by arguments, anger and fear. What’s more, I was also experiencing conflicts with other environmentalists, business, government and the public. When people didn’t seem to care, or do what I thought was good or right, I could get very judgmental and critical. I was suffering anxiety in many of my relationships.

To deal with this, I first sought counselling for my marriage. This led me into personal counselling, group therapy and personal growth work. All of these had benefits, but none could really quell the fires burning inside me. My conflicts and inner turmoil continued to grow until the early 1980s, when I came across a book called A Course in Miracles. Intuitively, I felt a need to read it. But when I opened it, I discovered spiritual and religious language that I found totally repugnant. So here was another split I had to deal with. As someone deeply opposed to God or religion at the time, this book went against everything I was raised to believe. However, being in so much pain and with no other alternatives in sight, I had to do something. Finally, after a full year of resistance, I gave in and began reading it, and within moments, I felt a peace that was beyond anything I’d ever experienced in counselling. Reading on, I found a description of the human mind and condition that made sense to me, as well as a wisdom and logic I couldn’t refute. Because of this, I went on to study it in depth and use it as a daily practice.

Problems aren’t just outside of us

The reason I share that story is the pain and conflict in my life forced me to open to another way of thinking, and to seeing my problems in some radically new ways. One of the insights this book gave me was that conflicts don’t just come from the people and situations around us. These are actually mirrors or triggers of a conflict that is already within. It also showed me how to shift from seeing people through the eyes of judgment, blame or guilt, to increasing acceptance and compassion.

Day by day, I began to see my wife and the people in my life differently. Each time I was triggered by upsets and frustrations, I became aware of how my own thoughts were fuelling my inner fires and in turn my behaviours. Then, as I shifted my mental lens or mindset, I not only saw and felt differently, but my ways of interacting changed. As someone who was somewhat preachy about the environment, I became less strident. I also became less defensive and aggressive, and started listening more. Rather than telling others what to believe or how to act, I began hearing what they thought, how they felt and what mattered to them, and my understanding of their experience grew.

These shifts in mindset and behaviour had a profound impact on my relationships. Professionally, my willingness to consider different approaches opened the way for me to work with companies like Laidlaw Waste Management, our partner in the Blue Box. It also helped me view other businesses, and government officials, who I’d previously opposed, with more acceptance. Instead of rejecting them, I began seeing their perspectives. This led me to work more cooperatively and look for mutually beneficial (win-win) options. On the personal side, it also enabled me to heal my troubled marriage, which then allowed both of us, as friends, to move on and find new relationships.


Changing how I approach change

The consciousness shift I’d experienced took my environmental work to another level. One of my interests was going to the root causes of our problems. For example, instead of burying or burning wastes, with all the associated problems, I wanted to find ways to reduce or avoid them in the first place, and that’s what recycling and waste reduction allows us to do. This creates multiple added benefits for society by reducing virgin materials usage, as well as pollution and energy use in manufacturing, while also creating more jobs, and giving people ways to feel empowered. The Blue Box contributed to this, and it did lead to significant progress in the field of waste. But keeping it in perspective, garbage is a relatively small issue in the scheme of things. What about all the other issues we face in life: climate change, poverty, terrorism, violence and extremism, dementia, addictions, and the fear and anger in our society?

What my shift led me to was the desire to explore the deeper roots of all these problems, and to ask questions such as: What makes us pollute and consume so much? What leads us to treat each other, and our environment, so poorly? Why are we becoming so unsustainable in our own lives, in areas such as debt, time pressures, overwork, relationship breakdown and depression?


Connecting the global and the personal

After many years of study, I’ve come to believe that our worldly problems are actually symptoms of a deeper problem. Something in human nature drives us to act in ways that don’t ultimately serve us. This aspect of our psyche makes us buy and consume more than is healthy, or even makes us happy. It pushes caring people to fight each other, rather than work together to find solutions. It leads intelligent people to avoid the problems they need to face. And it’s brought many of us – even those who believe change is possible – to the point of feeling frustrated, despondent, powerless and hopeless. It is literally sapping our will to change.

What’s also evolved in my thinking is that sustainability isn’t just about our environment, or our economy and society. It’s about the way we deal with the hard and real, daily challenges of being human. For me, sustainability comes out of how we respond to not having enough work or income, or the declining health of those close to us. Do we grow our despair, or our resourcefulness and trust? Sustainability requires a willingness to listen to others who are angry, rather than ignoring them or lashing back, then finding ways to act with understanding and compassion. It also depends on listening more to ourselves, our own needs and truths, and becoming aware of what’s driving us. We must face our fears about the state of the planet, our anxiety or guilt about not having done enough, and perhaps our outrage, towards those we believe have done this to our world. How we face and act such issues determines whether we will be personally sustainable or not. If we are not emotionally, mentally, and dare I say it, spiritually, sustainable, how do we hope to create a world that is? If we won’t even listen to each other, or ourselves, who will?

In the next article, Eric Hellman will explore human nature more deeply and see what we can learn about ways to create change more effectively.


Eric Hellman is a communications coach and change consultant, living in Vancouver, B.C. If you have comments or questions, please post them below, email him at erichellman@rogers.com or see his website at www.erichellman.com.

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One Response to “How do we create change? A personal challenge to be sustainable”

  1. Hi Eric,
    Thanks for this piece. Your message is so important. I appreciate your courage to write it. I look forward to hearing more.


    Madelyn Webb