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 Need an Ecological Spiritual Revolution

The following is a modified version of the final part of the post The Whole World Is Sacred. I am reposting that part because it is a good summary of what I am trying to communicate.

The human presence on Earth has become so dysfunctional; our ways of living and working, of growing and catching food, of making things, of gathering the resources to make things, and our ways of disposing of those things are so fundamentally out of harmony with natural, life-giving processes, and so destructive to the basis of life, that we must be utterly changed, inwardly and outwardly, in our sense of identity and in the structures of our societies. New technologies and a few policy changes are insufficient and often merely perpetuate the problem in a new form.

We need an ecological spiritual revolution: a complete change of heart and mind, a reorientation at the deepest levels of psyche and society. The nature of that revolution is what I have tried to articulate in this blog and my other writing and workshops: see that we are deeply out of touch with reality because our beliefs distort reality; see that I am no thing (empty), and therefore everything (whole); see that everything is sacred; listen to the animals; be devoted to the well being of the whole movement of life.

Contrast those with what I think characterize our dominant perspective: my beliefs form the core of my identity – I’ll kill to defend them if I have to; I am an individual, autonomous self, and that self reigns supreme; My life and the lives of those related to me or close to me are of great value, but everything else is of value only if it is useful to me and my kin and my nation or wherever I happen to draw the boundary of my “self” (and it is a very flexible boundary, although we fail to recognize that).

A complete reversal of orientation has become a matter of survival. I have tried to describe where I think that reorientation comes from, and to make clear that it is possible, but it remains elusive at best. It is a reorientation in which nothing needs to change for everything to change. It is not something that comes as a result of anything we do; it comes when we stop all of our doing and see things as they are. The truth is right at hand waiting for us to recognize it and be changed by it.

Contemplative Ecology in 100 Tweets

Last year I tried an experiment, editing a summary of contemplative ecology to fit into the format of a series of tweets. As far as I can tell, only 2 or 3 people read any of those tweets. Oh well. I don’t belong on Twitter and that’s not what Twitter was made for. So I have posted the entire series on my website, with the date on which each group was posted.

Here is the first group:

6/11/16

Contemplative ecology is not a plan, a program, a practice, a path, a story or a set of ideas or concepts or beliefs.

Contemplative ecology is not a prescription for something that has to be done or achieved.

Contemplative ecology is not an attempt to bring about psychological or social change, but it can effect change at the deepest levels.

Read the rest here.. 

Repent!

I have posted a new essay on my website called Repent!

This essay is particularly relevant to the Eco-Spiritual Revolution  retreat day  my father and I are planning for April 22. Other essays that are relevant to that day include Metanoia and In Wildness is Our Salvation.

I am convinced that most of the work we are doing to alter the destructive trajectory of human civilization is tinkering at the margins. We are extremely resistant to making change in the only place it really matters: our own lives. A fundamental change of direction is needed, which Jesus probably called shub, which was translated into Greek as metanoia and into English as repentance. Shub means “to vomit” as well as “to turn or return.” I take it to mean being so repulsed by the status quo in oneself, in one’s own life, that one needs to be viscerally emptied in order to move in a new direction.

Here is an excerpt from Repent!:

“In some fundamental way, human society is profoundly out of touch with reality. “Be not reconciled to this world,” said Jesus. Repent! Turn away from your society and everything it stands for, and turn toward God and everything God stands for. Or as John Dominic Crossan put it so clearly in his Birth of Christianity, turn away from “all that systematically destroys and dehumanizes and dominates.” Turn toward all that creates and includes and makes whole.

“The essential question of my life from that point until the present became, what is the kingdom of God? Where is it to be found? What does it mean to repent, to turn away from all that is unreal, and turn toward God, toward wholeness, toward reality? I knew then what my purpose was: to find the kingdom of God, not in some future time or distant place, but here and now. I felt that it was “right at hand.” I think I knew intuitively that that meant it was already present, but unnoticed, unappreciated, perhaps not fully realized, veiled by the destructive illusions spun by the human mind. I was determined to see through the illusions and break through to the kingdom, which lay, I was convinced, right at our fingertips.”

Read the whole essay…

In Wildness Is Our Salvation

The human exploitation system is swallowing up everything wild and innocent. Yet what can we do? We are products of that system and we live in that system and getting out of it requires profound changes in human thinking and behavior. The changes required in the human psyche and human society run so deep that even those few who want to change, who see the necessity for change, find real change very difficult. We tinker at the edges and hope we are doing something profound.

We need a spiritual revolution. For me “spirituality” means our most fundamental understanding of who we are and what the world is. And that is where the change needs to happen, at the root. Are we oriented toward reality, or do we live in thrall to our own delusions? The human species, perhaps no species, has ever faced anything like this. At the heart of this is a seemingly unsolvable puzzle: we are the problem and we cannot therefore solve the problem. If we try to solve it using the mind that is creating it, we only sow more trouble. If we try to solve it using the tools of a society founded on exploitation and inequity, we fail. Something from outside of the human psycho-social system needs to step in.

I see two ways this can happen, two forces that can take us out of ourselves in the way that is needed. The first is living in greater communion with the non-human world. The wild animals and plants are free of us. I think that is part of why being around them is so lovely. They are free of us, and therefore set us free from ourselves when we pay attention to them. The tragedy of this time is that very little of the wild world remains. It is being swallowed, extinguished or tamed at exponentially increasing rates. What chance do wild animals and plants have against the machinery of human industry? Meanwhile, most people are more attached to their iPhones than they are to the wild world. They can’t be alone. They can’t be quiet. They can’t be away from their text messages. They never step out of the human mindscape. They hardly know that the wild world exists.

To step out of the human mindscape is to be vulnerable in a way most people are unable or unwilling to experience. Life is beautiful and wonderful and delightful, but it is also fragile, harsh and deadly. Aging and sickness and death are part of the package, part of how life works, how it regenerates, how it creates more of itself within the limits of the planet. Knowing this has always been part of the contemplative life. We must accept our mortality to be fully alive, because life and death are intertwined aspects of the movement of life. Life includes death, and with it, new life. The denial of decay and death brings annihilation, which is a very different matter.

As Aldo Leopold said (misquoting Thoreau) “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” For Leopold, it was the dying light in the eyes of a wolf he had shot that showed him a world larger and deeper than the one he held in his head, a living world that was much richer than his worldview. But how do we give wildness a toe-hold in our lives anymore? Wildness – that which is free of the human mind – is being destroyed everywhere. And we need it more than ever.

Fundamental transformation of the human techno-psycho-social system has become a matter of survival, for us and for most of the species of life currently living on Earth. Most of us may not be active exploiters but we support or passively accept the system that does the exploiting for us. So what on Earth is going to bring about that transformation? What is going to stop us in our tracks? What can put a stick in the spokes of the industrial juggernaut? What reality can pierce the armor of our beliefs? What wolf will look us in the eye and tell us how very wrong we are, about everything? We must all be changed. But what can possibly bring about such a deep change? All of us are in the system. We are the system. It makes us what we are, and we in turn make it what it is, in an endless cycle. Like an addict who can’t face his addiction, or an abuser who cannot stop manipulating everything around him, we need an intervention. Something from outside of the system needs to interrupt the system, but who or what is going to intervene?

With wild nature rapidly disappearing, we are left with one other thing that can stop us in our tracks: silence; emptiness. We fear it. We avoid it. We are unlikely to embrace it and be embraced by it, because silence is also wild. We can’t control it. We can’t understand it. We can’t even identify with it. It eludes capture completely. Yet it is with us all the time. We only have to notice it, and allow it to be a presence in our lives. Silence, emptiness, undoes everything we have tried to do. It ruins all of our plans and hopes and schemes. It is everywhere, yet when it reveals itself, it comes like a thief saying, “Nothing is permanent. Nothing you believe is real. Nothing belongs to you, not even your self.” And civilization crumbles, founded as it is on the belief that treasures can be stored up and kept safe, for me, for the immortal “I.” Silence is a direct and immediate affront to the feeling that “I” exist. And so we push it away like we push away our mortality. We fill every second with noise and activity. Even meditation has become an app, to be dispensed with quickly, its aim to make us more efficient workers, better able to manage our busyness, better slaves.

Silence could save us, and wildness could save us, but that is like saying that saving us could save us. This is the conundrum. Salvation is right at hand. It is as close as breathing. And we run from it with all our strength. To stop the onslaught of destruction, we only have to stop running. Just stop. Only our fear of stopping and the emptiness that awaits prevents us from stopping. But that is enough to keep the machine going perpetually despite the fact that we are driving over the cliff. We are driving over the cliff and we are afraid to stop. And all we have to do to stop, is stop.

In emptiness is our salvation. The thing we search and long for. The ultimate sense of belonging. We belong to everything. Separation is not possible. The whole cosmic order is right at hand. But we can’t really know that unless we come to a full stop. So the thing we fear is the thing we most desire and need. By fearing emptiness, we fear life. And the consequence of that is the violence and destruction that perpetuates itself down through the ages.

More wind farms will not save us. More solar panels will not save us. More nuke plants and oil wells will not save us. More rules and laws will not save us. More studies and research will not save us. We don’t need to figure anything out. We don’t need anything, except the abundance of life and the mystery of silence. To find them, we need only stop and discover what we already have and what we already are: emptiness and everything; silence and the whole movement of life.