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.

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

 

‘Unprecedented’ Loss of Right Whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

This is tragic news for this extremely vulnerable and magnificent species. Right whales have abandoned the Bay of Fundy due to lack of food there and are apparently moving north. What is going on in the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

‘Unprecedented event’: 6 North Atlantic right whales found dead in June
‘The loss of even one animal is huge with animals with a population this small,’ says marine biologist.

Read the CBC Article…

Researchers from the Marine Animal Response Society examine one of the dead right whales. (Marine Animal Response Society)