Ecological Spirituality

My preoccupation for the last 30 years has been to articulate an authentic, ecological spirituality that erases the division between the spiritual life, the life of the body, and the life of the Earth. That body-spirit division lies at the heart of most of what we call “spirituality.” It might even be fair to say that this is what most of us mean by “spirituality:” a belief that something exists beyond this physical world, and that our true nature, our essence, the thing that makes us most human, belongs to that disembodied realm. I grew up with this belief. I cannot say with absolute certainty that it is incorrect. But I do think that placing our essential nature outside the body, and beyond the Earth, plays a significant part in the disconnection that prevents us from living in balance with the natural world. We can at least begin to consider what having an ecological spiritual orientation looks like and how it might restore that balance.

The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus. Spiritus is the root of words like “inspiration” and “respiration” and “transpiration.” Spiritus means “breath.” The Indo-European root is likely (s)pies, which means “to blow.” In its original meaning, spirituality is a physical thing, the movement of lungs, the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the absorption of oxygen into the blood, the movement of blood-borne oxygen throughout the body. Only in the 14th century did “spirit” start to mean a supernatural, disembodied entity, a ghost.

I think of spirit-as-breath this way: what is the most obvious difference between a living body and a corpse, aside from movement? A body at rest may be sleeping, but a body that is not breathing is a dead body. So breathing, spiritus, is the most obvious sign of animal life. Spiritus is the most visible sign of what animates us, what makes us tick, the difference between life and death. It is not the only sign, but it is the most visible, so it is easy to imagine how breathing became equated with life itself. Spirituality is our essential understanding of what animates us, what makes life happen, where life comes from and what keeps it going.

When I speak of spirituality, I am referring to this most fundamental orientation toward reality, our essential understanding of who we are and how the world works, and what the sources of life, creativity and agency are. Who am I? What is real? What makes life? Why do things happen the way they happen? What do I place at the center of concern, and what do I place at the periphery? These are spiritual questions. How we live in response to these questions, consciously and unconsciously, defines our spirituality even more than our conscious beliefs.

Ecological spirituality answers these questions from the perspective of the ways that life systems function and interact.

Ecological spirituality ends the centuries of belief in a spirit that inhabits the body but remains essentially separate from it and the natural world. It ends the destructive separation in which the spirit is believed to be superior to the body and the human superior to the animal. It restores us in the most fundamental way to our existence as human animals, one of many expressions of life on Earth. It deepens our appreciation of the other creatures and elevates their standing as thinking, feeling beings with their own ways of knowing and existing in the world. It speaks to both our outer life as creatures and members of human communities, and to our inner longings and questions about who we are and what ultimate reality is. It might not answer all of those questions, but it addresses them in a way that is meaningful and rich and satisfying and life-affirming.

Ecological spirituality is not peripherally ecological; it is fundamentally ecological. It is a spirituality that is not merely concerned about the natural world; it is grounded in the natural world. Ecologically speaking, our essential nature resides in interactive interdependence with the whole movement of life. There is no such thing as a separate thing. There is no such thing as a separate self. Our sense of separation and independence are illusions. The defense of the self is the destruction of life. Caught in the net of selfhood, we seek endless distraction and satisfaction through acquisition. Realizing our radical kinship with all forms of life, we find deep satisfaction simply in being alive and being in relationship with everything. The sooner we stop living in defense of ourselves, the sooner we start living in support of the whole living world.

Encountering our essential emptiness and listening to Earth speak, we are addressing the ecological crisis at its root, because at its root the ecological crisis is not about the natural world, it is about us; it is about our alienation from Earth; it is about our devotion to our selves; it is about our obsession with a mind-made illusion that is destroying the living world.

The first time I met a whale, time slowed to a trickle. Fifteen seconds became an eternity. A gaping hole opened and I fell into a heart of stillness in which it was irrevocably clear that the whale and I were members of a single movement of life that includes everything. My memories, my plans and schemes, my beliefs and needs, all fell away. Even the sensory experience of it fell away. For those fifteen seconds of eternity, that whale and I swam together in the depths of the living universe, and for the first time in my life, I knew who I was; I knew what life is; I knew that the spirit is the creative intertwining of everything.

Our minds have confused themselves with illusions of separation. When we let go of everything our minds invent, we fall into the immeasurable, unfathomable abundance of this living Earth and find our home here where it has always been.

We Must All Be Changed

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Dr. King on April 22nd, 1967, slightly less than one year before he was killed. I had just turned six. He was coming to Brown University to speak, and my father, who was a chaplain at the university, was given the job of meeting Dr. King at the airport. I went along for the ride and shook the great man’s hand. I remember the total attention that he gave to me as he met me. Two weeks earlier, he had come out publicly and forcefully in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and an ocean of criticism had fallen on him for doing so. Here was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and yet, he had the time and attention for an unknown six-year-old white kid from Rhode Island.

In August of 1967, in what was to be his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said,

…we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society… When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. (Where Do We Go From Here?16 August 1967.)

On April 4, 1967, in the speech at Riverside Church in New York City, where Dr. King declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he also began to articulate the nature of the transformation he envisioned:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

1967 was also the year that the precursor organization to Greenpeace was founded and Lynn White’s essay in Science, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” laid blame for the crisis at the feet of Christianity. It was the year after the National Organization of Women was founded. I imagine that over time Dr. King would have seen that environmental destruction and sexual exploitation are also inextricably intertwined in our society and our psyches with racism, economic exploitation, and the hideous violence of war. The sickness is very deep.

Dr. King, in his final year, was calling us to a complete change of heart and mind and society. It is not unreasonable to ask whether the revolution that Dr. King envisioned is possible, or whether human nature is such that we will always have war and racism and exploitation. Social and economic inequity, the creation of underclasses and enemies, sexual abuse, and environmental destruction have been part of the human experience for millennia.

If we are going to face our situation honestly, we have to admit that our attempts at change often remain superficial. We talk about change, but we fail to change. We fail to acknowledge our deeply entrenched mental habits, fail to accept the physical limits of the planet, and engage in a false optimism that thinks our cleverness is so complete that it can overcome any obstacle with new technology, even when our technology is the source of the problem. We like to believe that we are free to do whatever we want, that there are no limits—no planetary limits and no psychological limits—constraining what we can do. It is our nature to modify our environment rather than to adapt to it and we carry on as if that ability to modify the world to suit ourselves extends infinitely. We like to believe that, with us, all things are possible. Earth, meanwhile, is groaning under the weight of those assumptions. This is the hard question: can we change at the depth required or are violence and exploitation the final word on human nature and civilization? Is this just the way we are?

The civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s is one of our best examples of positive, nonviolent resistance to entrenched social and psychological structures, but Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/political/economic/military system is so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what the English Bible calls repentance.

I found a note in the MLK Archives in which Dr. King commented on the meaning of the word repentance. He wrote,

The true meaning of repentance (in the Old Testament) is expressed in the verb shub, which means to turn or return. Repentance is not the mere passive act of feeling sorry about sin. It is the active turning away from it to a new goal and direction.

What Jesus likely called tub in his native Aramaic (Hebrew shub) was translated into Greek as metanoia (“beyond mind”) and then into Englishas repent. Shub means a change in direction, turning back or turning away. It also means “to vomit.”

Shub is not just an idea or an intention. The Greek translation metanoia makes it sound like something that happens only in the mind, and repent makes it sound like we have done something wrong for which we must pay a penalty. I experience shub as a complete emptying, followed by a change of direction that encompasses mind, body and way of life, turning away from all of those interrelated evils of exploitation and division and turning toward the wholeness of life.

The civil rights movement was a powerful force for achieving political and social gains within the exploitation system, but apparently not for unraveling or transforming the system itself. We can see today that racism went underground; it did not go away. Social and economic inequity did not go away; it got worse. Militarism did not go away. Sexual abuse did not go away. Environmental destruction did not go away. Dr. King got into trouble when he started talking about the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us. We need shub, a complete change of direction at the deepest levels, a complete rejection of the status quo, a change of mind, yes, but a deeper change that goes to the root.

In his final Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King pointed in the direction that this change represents. He said,

Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation… It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the way our universe is structured… We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality. (A Christmas Sermon On Peace. 24 December 1967.)

There is no such thing as a separate self. We all are tied together in “a single garment of destiny,” and that “we all” includes the whole Earth. Because we all are in this together, the solution requires that we all come together, even while we continue to address the greatest violations of the integrity of life. I am not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to injustice. I am suggesting that we face it. We need to admit it. We need to address the roots of exploitation and abuse in society and in ourselves.

We need to get real here. The environmental destruction being wrought by humanity has no simple solution, no technological quick-fix, no natural evolution from where we are now to where we need to be, no solution within an economic system that is founded on infinite growth, no “new story” that can penetrate to the deep layers of the mind where our behaviors originate. We need to be stopped in our tracks. We need to be emptied. We all must be changed, deeply.

Real change will disrupt our lives at every level. It will be difficult. It will be painful. We will lose status. We will be profoundly inconvenienced. Willingly accepting those losses requires changes in deeply entrenched psychological structures: the desire for power, the desire for absolute safety, our deep attachment to the familiar, our almost infinite ability to deceive ourselves about our true motives. Changing those structures requires an unrelenting honesty that is foreign to our current way of functioning in this world.

This is the nature of shub: turning away from the course we are on, because we see it is a disaster, even if the way forward is unclear, even if our friends tell us we are crazy, even if society says it is impossible. If we do not know how to proceed, we can simply stop. Stop blaming others. Stop believing in fantastic scenarios of technological deliverance. Refuse to accept the bribes society hands us to buy our allegiance. Abandon the empty promises of civilized society and rediscover the beauty and profundity of the living world, the world not created by humans. Stop everything, and start paying attention. Be emptied of the poisonous beliefs we have absorbed, and become oriented toward life. Be still. Listen. Pay attention to the whole living world. Be changed by what we hear and see and feel.

Shub is not a fantasy. Deep change is possible. It holds the promise of a more satisfying life than industrial civilization offers, but we don’t get there by bypassing the loss of our illusions, bypassing our loss of power, bypassing our mortality, bypassing our deep devotion to our selves. We have to face our demons, internal and external, and not be seduced by them, in order to enter into a healing relationship with the living world. Shub is not a choice we make, not in the way we normally think of making choices. Choice remains within the realm of what we know, our familiar worldview. In shub, reality grabs us and shakes us and removes our choices so we can move along the path of necessity, that necessity informed by the incontrovertible awareness that everything is interrelated, and Earth has its limits.

Aligning with reality requires us to face hard truths about ourselves and our society; it requires truly daunting changes in how we live, individually and collectively; it requires us to be emptied of much that we think we need and think we are. The only chance life has of surviving and thriving is if we reject our own self-serving lies and align ourselves with the whole living world. Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for trying to convert an entire nation away from systemic violence toward justice and peace. His call to repent, to shub, to a total change of heart, mind and society, is more relevant now than it ever was.

Right Whales Slide Toward Extinction

The most recent issues of Right Whale News (Volume 25; Number 4) and the 2017 right whale status Report Card are sobering to say the least. The litany of bad news for North Atlantic right whales is relentless.

Right Whale News 25:4, November 2017

2017 NARWC Report Card

16 whales are known to have died, primarily from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. That represents 3% of the population in one year.

The birth of new whales was extremely low this year: only 5 births, compared to the average of 20.

There were no new mothers observed this year, and there are only 100 breeding females.

With the addition of this year’s data, the average calving interval has also increased, from 4 years to 10 years.

The official estimate of the North Atlantic population dropped this year from 529 to 451, because the method of estimating had to be changed due to the fact that it is becoming harder to find and observe the population. Until a few years ago, a large portion of the population appeared every year in the Bay of Fundy, so the total population could be reliably estimated based on those observations. That is no longer true, and the newer method shows the total population has been declining since 2010.

This all adds up to very bad news for right whales. At current rates of mortality, right whales could be functionally extinct (no more breeding females) in twenty years. The biggest threat to right whales now is entanglement in fishing gear. Human demand for fish and lobster and crabs is running head-on into the survival of North Atlantic right whales. Over the years, many attempts have been made to introduce new gear that is less dangerous to whales, but that costs money. Fish abundance is declining, which means greater fishing effort is needed to catch the same number of fish.

But right whales are also threatened by ship strikes, by ocean pollution, by noise pollution and by global warming. There is no easy way to save the right whales. Doing so requires fundamental changes in human behavior. We have to care as much about them as we do about ourselves, and be willing to change how we live, in order that they may continue to live.

More Dead Right Whales

As of October, the number of dead right whales found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has risen to twelve, including four females. An additional three have been found in U.S. waters. At least six were hit by ships and at least one entangled in crab-fishing gear.

For those interested, the full Incident Report is available here:

Incident Report: North Atlantic Right Whale Mortality Event in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 2017

See my previous posts on this:

At Least Three of Seven Dead Right Whales Due to Humans

‘Unprecedented’ Loss of Right Whales

At Least 3 of 7 Dead Right Whales Due to Humans

Seven North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the last month. Two probably from being hit by ships and one from entanglement in fishing gear. The cause of death in the other four is not known at this time.

North Atlantic right whales are already highly endangered, and the loss of even one, especially a female, increases the risk of extinction. It’s very hard to do piecemeal protection for these animals. When ship strikes were rising in the Bay of Fundy, a lengthy regulatory process led to moving the shipping lanes through the Bay to avoid right whale areas. That was a success, but soon thereafter, the whales abandoned the Bay of Fundy due to lack of food there and seem to have moved north. Now we are seeing the same problem in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

We are not dealing with one isolated problem. Global shipping, increased fishing effort to secure a dwindling supply of fish, and global warming all contribute. Here’s what I see as the bottom line: are we willing to radically alter our way of life (e.g. dramatically reduce global shipping, with all of the economic consequences of that) to allow creatures like right whales to survive? Or are we too committed to our own ways to allow these creatures to live?

Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to that question. We need a spiritual revolution, a radical change in our most fundamental beliefs and behaviors. But I don’t know what it will take to bring that about.

Experts investigate recent deaths of six endangered North Atlantic right whales