The essence of any ecological spirituality is interconnection and interdependence. That is what ecology is about. Organisms are shaped by the community of which they are members, and they in turn shape the nature of those communities. It is all about relationship. The question I pose is how broadly and deeply that interdependence goes. Can anything be separated from its role in the whole system and still exist?
Humans claim to be separate. Most of us believe in something, some essential part of ourselves, that is independent of causality and contingency and essential dependence on the living world. Call it soul, or call it spirit, or call it consciousness or call it self. It claims to be free of the web of life’s interconnections, and often it claims to be able to leave this physical world and continue somehow in a non-material realm. It exists in the body, but it is not of the body. Can we agree that believing in such a thing is likely to disconnect us from our bodies, from the physical world that made our bodies, and from the Earth that so desperately needs us to change our direction and reintegrate our lives within the bounds of Earth’s ways and limits?
Having just read another spiritual teacher saying that we are not our bodies, which change and die; we are consciousness, which never changes and never dies, I feel I have to say something in defense of bodies and of Earth.
I have spent many hours in meditation over many decades, observing the mind, observing the world. I have rested in silence for a long time. I have looked for my own true nature, and come home empty handed. I have been thrust without warning into altered space-time by something utterly unprecedented: a war-wounded child; a whale; the voice of a seal in a dream. I have had perhaps more than my fair share of spiritual awakenings (which I have tried very hard to share in turn), each revealing another aspect of our self-created delusions. I understand the appeal of consciousness as some sort of super-mind. But it doesn’t work for me. Consciousness is a small thing, a part of our sensory apparatus crafted over millennia by survival pressures. It comes and goes. It sleeps at night. It gets confused, especially about itself. It wanders. It gets obsessed with trivial things. It even gets greedy, wanting more experiences. It is a product of the nervous system, part of the body, part of the world. That there are ways in which consciousness is semipermeable, I have no doubt. Creatures communicate across barriers we cannot breach. Trees use root systems. Whales and seals seem to have some sort of ESP. I can’t prove it, but sometimes I would swear whales and seals communicate directly, mind to mind, at least at a feeling level. But none of that suggests that consciousness or awareness is disconnected from the body or the Earth. It suggests that consciousness is one of the many ways in which the members of the body of Earth communicate, along with sounds and scents and visual displays and songs and languages and myriad traveling chemicals. Earth loves to communicate among its members. That is also an essential feature of any ecological spirituality: listening and replying in kind to the whole range of Earth’s communications.
How deep and broad does the interconnection go? Is there anything that can be separated from its membership in the whole system of life? Is spirit separate? Is soul separate? Is consciousness separate? No. Everything is and belongs to a system of interrelated systems. Nothing can be removed from its system of being and still exist. At the very least it will be changed. At worst it will die, from loneliness if not starvation. The only thing that makes the “self” seem separate is that it is born of the thought that it is separate. In other words, separation begins with a thought, and the “self” is the fictional child of all of those thoughts of separation, grown so constant and so loud that they appear to be real and eclipse the reality of interdependence.
Ecological spirituality places interconnection at the center, and recognizes that everything and everyone belongs to a natural system, that belongs to other systems, that belongs to other systems. The self belongs to the mind, belongs to the body, belongs to the local natural and social community, belongs to the bioregion, belongs to Earth, belongs to Sol, belongs to Solar system, belongs to galaxy, belongs to the whole shebang. Rather than longing to be reunited with a distant and disconnected God, we long to be reunited with our Earthly kin, whom we have treated despicably, as if they had no feelings, no intelligence, no awareness, no intentions, nothing to offer us, except their bodies slaughtered on the alter of commerce. Reconnecting with our living kin, as kin, as friends, as members of the same body, as creative partners, is a sweet homecoming. It isn’t perfect. We can barely understand each other. We are often afraid of each other (they of us for good reason). But trying is good, and worth the effort.
Ecology means interconnection. Spirit means “breath:” it means “that which gives life.” Eco-Spirituality means that our essential nature, that which gives life, which gives breath, is interrelationship, interconnection at the deepest and broadest scales. My essential nature, my spirit, is life itself, living in relationship, interacting in surprising ways, creating new forms.
The bottom line is that we need a healthy Earth to survive, because we are absolutely, 100% dependent on Earth for our existence. No escape. Earth gives us so much, and if we could give back even a small portion of what we receive, it would begin to redress the imbalance. But can we even begin to see this, can we even begin to try to see this, if we believe our essential nature is longing to leave, or already dwelling in some mysterious, disembodied realm? Spiritual awakening must mean being in touch with reality, or it doesn’t mean anything.
It seems that many of us who claim to have awakened spiritually have very different ways of communicating what we have discovered. Someone else says we are pure consciousness, untouched by the decay and change of the body. I say we are everything; mind, body, Earth, water, air, heat, soil, animal, vegetable, mineral, matter, energy, the shallow known and the deep unknowable. Everything in relationship, everything interacting and creating new forms through deep cooperation and occasional competition. Everything being made by its world and making its world in turn. Everything is deeply intertwined in ways we cannot begin to comprehend. Everything. Absolutely everything.