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 living 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. Whatever we imagine the spiritual world to be, it usually stands in contrast to the material world.
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 an ecological, fully embodied spirituality 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 is essential, and what is peripheral? These are spiritual questions. Spirituality is not only a matter of what we believe. Our spirituality, our most fundamental orientation to reality, is shaped by all of the conscious and unconscious forces that determine how we move through the world.
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.
I think that many people confuse physicality with materialism and consumerism. They see spirituality as an antidote to rampant consumption and the endless pursuit of status through wealth. The way that I understand and experience ecological spirituality, it does indeed stand in contrast to that kind of materialism, but without throwing away our essential physical existence as members of ecological communities. The problem of materialism is not that we are physical bodies, not that we are animals with biological needs. The problem is that we think we are independent selves with limitless desires. Ecological spirituality provides an alternative to materialism and consumerism by grounding us in ecological reality rather than in a belief in a disembodied realm.
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 we think we need, everything we desire, everything we cling to, including our illusory selves, when we let go completely of every illusory thing our minds invent, we fall into the immeasurable, unfathomable abundance of this living Earth and find our home here where it has always been among the animals, among the plants, among the flowing waters and the solid ground. At the very heart of our being, we are intertwined with everything.
Embodying an ecological spirituality means knowing that sense of belonging viscerally, encountering that reality of interconnection unequivocally, and living every day in the understanding that the real world—the living world in its dynamic actuality—lies beyond the narrow confines of the mind’s grasp. Therefore we live with great care and humility and sensitivity and attentiveness. Our needs are modest and our demands on others are minimal. We live with generosity toward all living beings, not because we think we should, but because we know we must, because we have been touched by the great emptiness, moved by the whole movement of life, and we know that is who we are.