Sarah Sarita Bhandari studied Environmental Sciences, Philosophy and Global Change Management, focusing on the importance of inner transformation for sustainable change in the world. As scientist, she worked at the German Federal Environmental Agency, but realized soon that her passion is working with people in transformation. Today she serves as coach as well as business trainer and public speaker at the The School of Life. Based out of Berlin, she is an avid meditation practitioner and has studied at India’s oldest yoga institute.
What did you learn in 2020?
I have learned to let my own sadness come up and endure it. Over the past few years, I’ve been dealing with myself a lot, but didn’t allow sadness to come up much. When it came up, I distracted myself from it and went back to positive thinking. In the last year, health issues have led me to deal more with my shadows and uncomfortable feelings. This has been very valuable and full of healing. Everything has to come to light in order for healing to take place.
You grew up half-Indian, studied “Global Change Management” in Berlin, apprenticed at India’s oldest yoga institute and are a lecturer at the “School of Life.” What is it that drives you?
The many moments of crisis and inner despair in which I searched for a deeper meaning of life. Behind this lies an inner quest for wisdom, paired with the deep desire to experience more of this wisdom — through dealing with others and cultivating a loving relationship with the world.
What ignited this quest for wisdom in your life?
After graduating from high school, I traveled through South America and spent a few days at a power place in Chile. Among other things, people there believe that humans can communicate with animals. I didn’t know if that was true, but I intuitively felt that much more was possible than we commonly imagine. In that period I had the chance to look at my life. I also meditated for the first time. Both my German and my Indian family are religious in an undogmatic way, so already in my youth there were some first signs of this path: At 14, I worked in the church where the sermons would move me deeply. At 17, I was lucky enough to be blessed by a Buddhist karmapa, an experience that touched me very much.
What made you study environmental science?
As a young adult after the 2008 financial crisis I felt a deep distrust of our neoliberal, capitalist, and postcolonial systems. Doubts grew in me about whether I could really believe what we were taught in school and in many undergraduate courses. Nature, on the other hand, seemed “honest” to me. I wanted to understand the principles by which nature operates and what we can learn from it. It was an important insight for me to see how much everything in nature cooperates with each other. It’s really not so much a matter of struggling for survival as we usually assume. Rather, we know today that there are a multitude of symbiotic and resonant principles at work in nature, and everything is kept in a dynamic balance. This happens with an intelligence, grace and beauty that could not be conceived with the mind. This realization has always taken me into a great sense of awe. However, I noticed that this dimension was not touched upon in my course of study at all. Neither was it addressed that our Western model of society is not at all in harmony with this intelligence — quite the contrary — and that this is one of the primary causes behind our present disaster.
Was that frustrating?
Yes, but at that time I couldn’t express in concrete terms what was missing for me. There was some talk about the influence of business, lobbying and political systems on nature, but it remained superficial. Over time, I had to look for the things I was really interested in myself. In my bachelor thesis, I researched the effect of nature on the human psyche. Our well-being is dependent on nature in so many ways. Apart from our need for healthy nutrition, it is good for us to live in connection with nature. We heal faster when we look at greenery rather than walls. Our depressions decrease when we pick up soil and engage in gardening. There are many studies on this. Nature and humans have a deeply symbiotic relationship. As humans, we are all part of nature. This also means that within each of us there are seeds that want to flourish, create beauty, and live in dynamic harmony with our environment. But the sustainability debate leaves these aspects out. It is often very technical or focused on net value added. That all has its place, but in my eyes something essential is missing.
Doesn’t this technical view of environmental and climate issues lead us back to the old structures that caused the exploitation of nature in the first place?
I wouldn’t say that the technical view causes the exploitation of nature. But many nature and climate protectionists argue in a utilitarian fashion, which means they emphasize the technical benefits of protecting nature. Such thinking, which excludes the dimensions of being and feeling, will again lead us into new traps. It would be a step forward for our Western society to understand that every living being has inherent value and is important to the greater whole. If we truly embrace this view with our hearts, we will see aliveness everywhere in the world and perceive a cosmic intelligence that flows through everything. From this comes gratitude and compassion. Then, it also hurts me when the forest is logged, because I feel that thousands of living beings are losing their homes. We come to realize that we live in a huge web of close-knit relationships. Even the lettuce we eat becomes a part of us, and what we excrete will one day go back into nature. On a cognitive level, we have known this for a long time. But to actually feel it is something else. With how much respect and love am I able to shape my relationships? This is a question that’s worth asking more often.
But how to explain all this to the scientists and politicians who shape our environmental debates?
It’s difficult, because the tenor is often that we need more efficient processes and new technologies and then the world will automatically become sustainable. But as I said, what’s the point if the mindset behind all this is still a selfish, profit-driven and dominating one? The prevailing perspective lacks systemic thinking, a mindset that also recognizes non-linearity, spontaneous emergence, creativity, and perhaps even a higher intelligence — an intelligence that can be experienced as the inner voice of intuition and as a sense of responsibility inside. I would like to see more warmth, compassion and visionary power in our environmental debates. We need these qualities so we can learn how to approach other sentient beings in a more respectful, more human way — in the highest sense of the word. How to explain this? Good question, but for sure it takes more than the intellect.
I would like to see more warmth, compassion and visionary power in our environmental debates.
How do we get to that kind of all-embracing perspective?
We can get there with the help of many individuals who go new ways – as well as through individual and collective reflection, a reflection on ourselves. The sustainability debate, however, is driven by the need to change and rebuild as quickly as possible. I can understand the urgency. But there is a lack of pause. By pause I mean stepping back from the productivity and action craze, really asking yourself: What does all this actually mean for me and for us? Of course, one can ask whether we have time to pause in view of all the serious problems. Something in me wants to answer: The rhythm of the world runs according to a different understanding of time. After all, a seed also slumbers under the earth for a long time. Then, when it is ready to break through, everything happens very quickly. So occupying myself with outer nature led me more and more to the exploration of my inner nature. That’s why I ended up at “The Yoga Institute” in India four years ago and have been a student of a Vietnamese meditation master for two years.
What did you learn in India?
At that time, I was enrolled in a master’s degree in “Global Change Management.”. Again, I was desperate because I was missing the inner dimension. In the midst of crisis, I took some time off. The three months I spent in Mumbai were one of the greatest teaching periods of my life. Every day from six in the morning to nine in the evening, I learned more about the different dimensions of yoga. I understood that yoga is not so much about physical exercises as it is about mental ones, a discipline of surrender and letting go. In the Indian worldview it is quite natural to think that we are not the body, but only temporarily inhabit it. There, for the first time, I developed an inner sense of duty to dedicate my life, above anything else, to developing my consciousness. I understood that the path I had taken in my life so far was not in vain. Everything had its meaning and its place. Feeling strengthened, I went back to everyday university life so I could carry my new-found knowledge about the inner nature back into my studies with more Self-awareness. From this, a master’s thesis emerged in co-creation with a fellow student. We explored how we can collectively cultivate a mindset that results in a sustainable way of living. At our university, this was a new approach at the time. We were also faced with criticism. It was just something different from the usual sustainability talk.
What do you mean by “sustainability talk”?
In the sustainability discourse, you often find a dualistic world view of the good guys and the bad guys. People quickly end up in factions. On the one hand, I can understand this, because for decades environmentalists had to fight bitter battles, for which I have great respect. But I have realized that I don’t want to belong to any faction — which doesn’t mean I don’t have clear positions. I often think the way political discourse is conducted is a waste of energy, lacking co-creative elements, as well as mutual recognition and understanding of the other position. This is as true for many of the grassroots organizations as it is for the traditional stakeholders. Furthermore, I chafe at the assumption of many activists that we need to save the world. This view stems from the illusion of being separate from nature. Not only do we forget that we ourselves are nature, but that nature is a very intelligent, living force that will outlast the consequences of our destructive behavior. We forget that by our way of life we are degrading, if not exterminating, ourselves. Collectively, we act in a very psychopathic way.
Not only do we forget that we ourselves are nature, but that nature is a very intelligent, living force that will outlast the consequences of our destructive behavior.
But doesn’t everyone think they are doing the right thing for themselves? Even the Shell boss wants to secure the lives of his children, just as the environmentalist tries to do. What’s going wrong here?
This is a wholesome attitude, because it implies an appreciation of all parties — the knowledge that everyone has reasons for what they are doing. The Shell boss operates within a collectively created system that in many places is at odds with our intrinsic values. We reproduce that system through our actions. In humanistic psychology there is an assumption that everyone needs a safe framework to reflect on the extent to which the self-construction — the person we think we are — is consistent with what we actually do. For example: I think I care about the environment. But yet, my plastic trash is still pretty full. Each of us has these inconsistencies in our lives. We would make progress if we could have an open debate about our inner inconsistencies instead of just sweeping them under the carpet. This requires a non-judgemental space where we can drop our self-protective mechanisms. But such spaces hardly exist in our society yet, except perhaps in a therapist’s office. From realizing that all these contradictions are a part of me, change can arise. Once you have mustered this compassion for yourself, it becomes easier to show compassion to others as well.
You meditate for two and a half hours every day. Should everyone who takes a stand for the environment be spiritual?
I think meditating is good for all of us. But I would find it strange to say that only someone who also meditates can take a stand for the environment. We don’t have to spiritualize the sustainability context for it to have a positive force. I have high regard for people who take to the streets, as in “Fridays for Future,” or those who storm animal testing labs – in other words, traditional activism. Everyone has opportunities to do something for environmental sustainability. This can look different depending on how we see nature. Seen through a cruder lens, nature is about resources, species conservation and less pollution. These are important factors. Viewed a little more finely, nature is also about our interactions with each other: Do I give other people space to be as they are, or do I dominate and instrumentalize them?
Viewed a little more finely, nature is also about our interactions with each other: Do I give other people space to be as they are, or do I dominate and instrumentalize them?
How then, in your view, are meditation and climate protection related to each other?
The collective paradigm that got us into this mess is one of unbridled, materialistic growth, in which greed, selfishness and arrogance play a major role. Meditation can go to the root of that system, freeing us from egoic structures and connecting us to our original “nature.” It leads us into a content and fulfilled state that is independent of the external world. At the same time, I believe that no one can be forced to meditate. That which leads us to meditation can only come from an inner desire. Behind it works an intelligence that has its own rhythm. But I would also say that whoever meditates longer, at some point starts to question his own way of life, feels more empathy and is committed to species conservation. I know many who turned vegetarian after experiencing Vipassana meditation, for example. In the West, we tend to see meditation in isolation, like a new hobby or activity such as walking. In the Eastern traditions, however, meditation is always embedded in a holistic system that aims to dissolve the small self.
Our current corona pandemic is leading more and more people into introspection. Where do you see the opportunities in this crisis?
Crises, both external and internal ones, are golden moments. Corona has the effect of making people look at themselves again. It’s great how we can educate ourselves and try new things through the internet despite physical isolation. For example, it’s now becoming mainstream to sit quietly with a meditation app for at least five minutes a day. This can be the first seed of change. Our nature — both the natural ecosystems and we humans — usually grow wiser through crises. In times of crisis, we realize that we need to change something in our behavior. For example, I think it’s great that there’s now an alcohol ban on public transportation and that we don’t shoot so many fireworks into the air anymore. In the home office, many are confronted more with their families, partnerships and lifestyles. The topic of self-care suddenly takes on a whole new relevance.
How do we best get through this crisis?
Unfortunately, we tend to suppress our crises through alcohol, pharmaceuticals and entertainment. We often numb ourselves to avoid facing the situation we are in. If we have the courage to look and reflect, every crisis can give us valuable messages. It can show us where we need to make course corrections, change something personally and learn. This is called evolution. The more we free ourselves from our illusions, the more we learn to feel and accept what is. This is a very personal process from which a great power can arise. The current crisis gives us a great opportunity to live more from the heart and to understand what is really good for us. Only in this way can we get out of a system that is making nature and also ourselves, including our inner life, sick. When we’ll look back in ten years from now, we will surely realize what a valuable role the corona crisis has played in the greater transformation we are now collectively experiencing.