10 November 2009

Conservation Spirituality

I don't think conservation spirituality yet exists as a movement, an academic discipline or a tradition. Even the name is not in wide use. I will attempt here to explain what I mean by it, even though I have a few misgivings about the term.

Like Conservation Biology, and the much newer Conservation Psychology, conservation spirituality is concerned with the restoration, preservation and protection of biodiversity in all its manifestations - human, plant, animal, ecosystem, and Earth-system. It recognizes that we are in a time of human-induced crisis in all of those interacting systems and subsystems.

Anyone interested in addressing these interrelated crises must understand the root causes of the problems. If we only address symptoms, the underlying disease will remain untreated, and there is every chance that our "solutions" will merely be new forms of the problem. The breakdown of planetary life systems is due to exponential increases in the human population, and in natural resource extraction and destruction made possible by the discovery of fossil fuels and the development of industrial methods of manufacturing and agriculture. But even more, as I see it, the planetary crisis is at root a spiritual crisis.

For a long time I have been reluctant to use the word "spiritual" because it means very different things to different people, so to use it without defining it is to invite confusion. If you had 100 people in a room you would probably get 100 different definitions and descriptions of what spirituality means. But I also suspect that nearly every person would relate something very personal, a felt sense of connection or belonging or surrender to something larger or deeper or older or wiser than themselves alone. It is this felt sense of connection and interconnection that makes conservation and spirituality so relevant to each other, for our crisis involves a deep alienation of the human from the natural, indeed from everything other than our own imagined self interest.

Understood in this way, conservation spirituality draws upon any and all religious and non-religious spiritual traditions, practices, experiences and insights that foster a deeply personal, felt sense of connection or belonging to a greater wholeness, in order to face with clarity the truth of the imbalance humans have introduced into Earth's life-support systems; to let go of destructive habits of thought and action; to provide a foundation for creative actions, changes in lifestyle, ways of communicating, and types of community engagement that support the flourishing of life in all its diversity; and to embody a deep respect, reverence and compassion for every living being as well as the living Earth as a whole.

Conservation spirituality is not an academic discipline, and I don't know that it ever could be. Academia is built upon the products of the human mind, and organized around increases in knowledge and the sharing of information. Spirituality is intensely personal, at its heart incommunicable, and deeply grounded not in knowing but in being.

For me, the worst thing one can do, spiritually speaking, is to pretend to know anything. Bear cubs have a delightful habit of delicately placing unfamiliar leaves in their mouths and drinking in all sorts of olfactory and taste sensations, by which they are able to determine whether the leaf is safe to eat or not. In terms of spirituality, we are like those cubs in the woods. Always. The moment we think we know, we stop tasting. The moment we think we know, we stop listening. The moment we think we know, we stop learning. The moment we think we know, we stop paying attention to the whole movement of life as it is unfolding in this moment. The moment we think we know, and become fixated on the idea over and against the living reality, we create the kind of disconnection from being a living member of a living world that lies at the heart of the crisis we are precipitating.

My misgiving about using the term "conservation spirituality" is that, to me at least, what I am trying to point to is in no way different from the heart of all spirituality. It is not a separate discipline or a focus area. It flows naturally out of spirituality, out of that felt sense of connection and belonging to everything. But, I know not everyone's spirituality includes a deep reverence for and interconnection with the whole movement of life, so by calling it conservation spirituality I am hoping to distinguish it from other spiritual expressions that are unconcerned with the human-planetary crisis through which we are now living. Or perhaps I am trying to illuminate how all spirituality must be concerned with that crisis in order to be real.

Conservation spirituality is distinct from the dialogue that is taking place around religion and nature because it is not primarily concerned with received tradition. That is, it is not about learning from sacred texts or theological writings. It is not primarily concerned with learning *about* the connection (or lack thereof) between religion and nature or spirituality and nature. It is concerned with directly knowing and living that connection. It is concerned with that very personal, felt understanding of connection to or identification with something larger, deeper, older, wiser, whether that "something" is experienced as God or Earth or silence, or is experienced in a very specific person, a parent or grandparent or other elder, or in a direct encounter with a wolf, a whale, a squirrel, a tree, a mountain, a sea.

Conservation spirituality is not the same thing as eco-spirituality. Ecospirituality is similar to what I am calling conservation spirituality in that it attempts to foster a feeling of connection to and care for Earth. But what I am calling conservation spirituality, while it includes ecospirituality, is not confined by it. Ecospirituality encourages developing a sense of connection to Earth. Conservation spirituality might be that, but it also might take other forms, such as my own, which is significantly Earth-oriented but even more deeply rooted in contemplative silence. In my experience, contemplative silence, followed to its root, leads out into the whole of everything, including Earth. But Earth is not its starting point, so it is not ecospirituality as such. It is contemplative spirituality, which is also part of this broader thing I am calling conservation spirituality.

It is also possible that someone's spiritual experience could be more religious and more specifically oriented to a felt sense of connection to God. And from that might come a particular flavor of caring for the diversity of life as God's creation. That too would be part of conservation spirituality. Conservation spirituality is absolutely inclusive of all spiritual expressions that one way or another reveal our connection to and lead to a deeper concern for the living world.

Conservation spirituality not only fosters a felt sense of connection to the deepest sources of life and creativity, but also seeks to illuminate at a very deep level the roots of the current crisis. I do believe that there is an inextricable connection between external and internal reality. The crisis we see in the world is a reflection of an inner crisis, a deep severing of the self from everything else of which it is an inextricable part. Problems we refuse to address in the world become psychological problems, often deeply repressed. Both create each other. The external crisis is also a spiritual crisis, a crisis in our deepest sense of who and what we are, of our place in this world. An identity crisis.

Let me repeat the description of conservation spirituality I stated above:

"... conservation spirituality draws upon any and all religious and non-religious spiritual traditions, practices, experiences and insights that foster a deeply personal, felt sense of connection or belonging to a greater wholeness, in order to face with clarity the truth of the imbalance humans have introduced into Earth's life-support systems; to let go of destructive habits of thought and action; to provide a foundation for creative actions, changes in lifestyle, ways of communicating, and types of community engagement that support the flourishing of life in all its diversity; and to embody a deep respect, reverence and compassion for every living being as well as the living Earth as a whole."

The essence of conservation spirituality, of all spirituality, is love. Love of the truth, love of this life exactly as it is, love of Earth in all her manifestations. It is not manipulative. It is not escapist. It wants to see things as they are, to face the truth -- inwardly and outwardly -- and in that facing of the truth, without blame and without self-justification, realizing where wholeness lies, and living in that wholeness.

4 comments:

Green Monk said...

I think you are on to something very profound! I know my own journey changed radically once I grew aware of the environment. My practice of vegetarianism, and living a more green life is part of my spiritual practice. My research in learning more about nature and spending time in nature is akin to studying the holy books.

John said...

Thank you, Green Monk. I'm glad you found this useful.

We are living under the influence of several millennia of belief that "this world is not my home." That we are "in the world but not of the world." Every religion has a strain of world-denying, body-denying preference for the purely spiritual, whatever that might be. Fully realizing that we are the world, that spirit and matter are one and the same, that therefore everything is an expression of the sacred, every animate and inanimate thing, requires setting aside a whole host of assumptions and beliefs that most humans have carried around possibly since the beginnings of civilization.

There are implications we have not even begun to address, but at least we are making a beginning. Ten, even five years ago I would not have expected to find the following quotation in an academic book about ocean resource management (Ecosystem-based Management for the Oceans, Karen McLeod and Heather Leslie, eds.) Quoting John Steinbeck (1941), the authors of the article "Toward A New Ethic For The Oceans" state,

"Man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable... all things are one thing and that one thing is all things -- a plankton, a shimmering phosphoresence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together..."

Such realizations have found expression many times over thousands of years, but they are showing up with greater frequency and in the unlikeliest of places. I hope that means that conservation spirituality is finding a new voice, even if it has not yet come fully into its own.

Rebecca Hecking said...

Interesting post. I like the term conservation spirituality, but I think the word contemplative should be in there somewhere to get across that you are coming from a broader base than what one might consider earth-centered spirituality.

I have wrestled with language myself on a similar topic. I've written my blog for about a year now, and it started as "eco-spirituality" but I later changed that term to "natural spirituality". Natural to me implies inclusivity, groundedness, and lacks the trendy-faddish tone of eco.

It is not easy to put a name to the numinous experiences associated with spiritual life. But we must attempt it anyway. Humans mediate experience through language, and regardless of its shortcomings, it still helps us to reach out to one another.

Blessings.

John said...

Thank you, Rebecca.

My preferred term for my work is definitely Contemplative Ecology, but I wanted something more inclusive of a wider range of perspectives for this posting. "Natural" is a perhaps overused but still serviceable word, with different layers of meaning, as in "Natural Meditation," which has nothing to do with "nature" in the sense it is normally used, but is easily recruited for that purpose!

John