“There is now a single issue before us: survival. Not merely physical survival, but survival in a world of fulfillment, survival in a living world, where the violets bloom in the springtime, where the stars shine down in all their mystery, survival in a world of meaning.”
Earth is in distress and is calling to us, sending us signs of the extremity of its imbalance through floods and storms, drought and unprecedented heat. There are now indications that its ecosystem as a whole may be approaching a “tipping point” or “state shift” of irreversible change with unforeseeable consequences.
Some of us are responding to these signs, hearing this calling, individually and as groups, with ideas and actions – trying to bring our collective attention to our unsustainable materialistic lifestyle and the ways it is contributing to ecological devastation, increasing pollution, species depletion. But the momentum of our consumer, fossil-fuel driven civilization seems unstoppable, accelerating the destruction of the very ecosystem that supports us.
Even the concept of “sustainability” has been co-opted by our culture. Sustainability no longer refers to the sustainability of our ecosystem, its biodiversity and beauty, its wilderness and wonder, but to the very materialistic culture that is destroying it. We want to sustain our energy-intensive, resource-depleting lifestyle, whose very demands are unsustainable by our planet. As British writer Paul Kingsnorth puts it: “Environmentalism is no longer about how to save the environment. It has instead become about how we in the developed world can save our life style.”
This environmental crisis is the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the well-being of the planet. And yet it is part of a much deeper crisis whose danger is unnoticed: a crisis of soul caused by a deep forgetfulness of the sacred nature of creation.
This primal imbalance began centuries ago. Early Christianity persecuted any earth-based spirituality. The sacred groves of Europe were cut down; the physical world became a place of darkness and sin. We created a primal split between spirit and matter. Then, with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, Newtonian physics saw the world as an inanimate mechanism whose laws needed to be discovered so that we could master it. We used our developing scientific awareness to dominate and control the natural world. The Earth as a spiritual being with a soul, what the ancients called the anima mundi, the soul of the world, was forgotten, banished even from our collective memories.
In its place we developed a materialistic culture that uses Earth for its own selfish purpose. Rather than our traditional role as guardians of the planet, Earth is just here to serve our ever-increasing material desires. It is a “resource” to be used rather than something sacred to be revered. Our greed now walks with heavy boots across the world, with complete disregard for the sacred nature of creation. For centuries we have been taught that we are separate from the world, that it is just an object which we should try to control, and so we have forgotten that the planet itself has a soul. Our Western culture no longer knows how to relate to the Earth’s sacred nature.
Now that we are faced with the disastrous consequences of our actions, there is a movement to remember that Earth is a living being, and that our existence is part of an interconnected web of life. This is the Gaia philosophy that reminds us of the delicate balance of all living beings that are a part of this planet. Real environmental consciousness respects the rights of all of creation. This is expressed in the Earth Jurisprudence movement, which “calls on humans to fulfill their responsibilities to the wider Earth Community – to maintain the health of the Earth as a whole and all the different species living on Earth.”
And yet the awareness that the world not only has body but also a soul – that it is ensouled – is rarely recognized. If we do not return to this fundamental consciousness, much of our ecological awareness is unbalanced. It continues to repeat the split between spirit and matter that began centuries ago when the divine was banished to heaven.
There is now a movement within the environmental community that is expressing the need for a spiritual response to our present predicament. Kenny Ausubel, founder of Bioneers, ends his recent book, Dreaming the Future, with a recognition of the sacred nature of Earth’s wildness, and the need for a spirituality of consciousness. It is this quality of consciousness that is most important. Just our actions that have created the greatest man-made depletion of species this planet has ever experienced, so our consciousness imprisons us within this destructive dynamic.
Just because we have forgotten the sacred dimension of life does not mean that we do not experience its consequences. Our addiction to materialism can be seen as a direct consequence of a life without sacred meaning, where joy has been lost and instead we are left with a constant pursuit of consumer driven desires. If the needs of our soul were met by the simple exchanges of daily life – the sacred rituals of cooking or caring for others – would we be so endlessly hungry for surface distractions? Would the toys of materialism have such a grip if life was more fulfilling?
At its deepest level this planet has the potential to give meaning and purpose to our souls as well as nourish our bodies. This has always been understood by traditional cultures that were rooted in the sacred. Many of their rituals of daily life as well as their spiritual practices were enacted for the purpose of looking after the sacred nature of creation, keeping the balance between the worlds. When the Pomo Indians made baskets, the women would go out and pray over the grasses before they cut them. As they wove the baskets, they prayed over them. The basket wove together the physical and the spiritual parts of life.
It is only through awakening to an awareness of the sacred within creation – and of its relationship to our own sacred nature – that we can begin to redeem the primal imbalance that lies at the root of our present predicament. Any awareness of the world as a living whole needs to include its spiritual dimension. To quote the Buddhist leader, the 17th Karmapa: “At every moment, our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing are nurtured by the earth and yet, we are indifferent to this fact as we go about our way pursuing material success.”
Without this deeper awareness we are just treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Our civilization swamps us with information, but the central knowledge of the sacred nature of creation, or wisdom about how to relate to it, is missing. As a result we are in danger of forgetting that we live in this world of wonder and mystery, a world that should nourish our souls as well as our bodies.
To quote the eco-theologian Thomas Berry: “We no longer have a world of inherent value, no world of wonder, no untouched, unspoiled, unused world. We have used everything. By ‘developing’ the planet, we have been reducing Earth to a new type of barrenness….There is now a single issue before us: survival. Not merely physical survival, but survival in a world of fulfillment, survival in a living world, where the violets bloom in the springtime, where the stars shine down in all their mystery, survival in a world of meaning.”
Daily we see the visible signs of our ecological crisis: the glaciers melting, floods and droughts. We may also sense the deep anxiety of a civilization that has lost its way, forgotten its primal connection to the sacred that alone can give real meaning. If we are to take real responsibility for our present predicament, we need to respond both outwardly and inwardly. We need to work with the body as well as heal the soul of the world. Then once again we will sense the wonder of the world that is all around us. We will be guided by reverence, and not just rational thought.
The first step is always to recognize what is happening. We can no longer afford to be blinkered by our materialistic culture and its surface values. We need to relearn the wisdom of how to listen to life, feel its heartbeat, sense its soul. We must once again learn how to listen to the rivers and the rain, feel how they connect us to the primal story of life. All of life is sacred, every breath and every stone. This is one of the great secrets of oneness – everything is included. It is a simple knowledge that was known to all aboriginal peoples, but which tragically we have forgotten.
No, we cannot return to the simplicity of an Indigenous lifestyle. But we can become aware that what we do and how we are at an individual level affects the global environment, both outer and inner. We can learn how not be drawn into unnecessary materialism. We can also work to heal the spiritual imbalance in the world. Our individual awareness of the sacred within creation reconnects the split between spirit and matter within our own soul and within the soul of the world.
We will each have our own way of making this offering. There is, for example, a simple practice of walking in a sacred manner: when with every step we feel the connection with the earth under our feet, and sense its sacred nature. Then we recognize how we are walking on a planet that supports our body and our soul. Even on the concrete sidewalks of our cities we can feel this deeper connection, this deeper belonging. The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh expresses this with direct simplicity: “The miracle is not to walk on water, but to walk with love on earth—as if your feet are kissing the ground. We must remember that our presence alone is a miracle. We must learn to say ‘Yes’ to the miracles of life.”
The sacred oneness of life is within and all around us. Sometimes walking alone in nature we can feel its heartbeat and its wonder, and our steps become steps of remembrance. Sometimes we feel this connection when we feel the earth in our hands, as when we work in the garden tending our flowers or vegetables. Or when we cook, preparing the vegetables that the earth has given us, mixing in the herbs and spices that provide flavor. Or making love, as we share our body and bliss with our lover, we may feel the tenderness and power of creation, how a single spark can give birth.
There are so many ways to reconnect with the sacred within creation, to listen within and include Earth in our spiritual practice and daily life. Watching the simple wonder of a dawn can be an offering in itself. Or when we hear the chorus of birds in the morning we may sense that deep joy of life and awake to its divine nature. While at night the stars can remind us of what is infinite and eternal within us and within the world.
Whatever way we are drawn to wonder, to recognize the sacred, what matters is always the attitude we bring to this intimate exchange. It is through the heart that a real connection is made, even if we first make it in our feet or hands. Do we really feel how we are a part of this beautiful and suffering planet, sense its need?
Our present ecological crisis is calling to us and it is for each of us to respond. There is action to be done in the outer world, but action should come from a reconnection with the sacred – otherwise we will just be repeating the patterns that have created this imbalance. There is work to be done within our hearts and souls, the foundational work of healing the soul of the world. As Wendell Berry has said: “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”
This essay is adapted from the new anthology, Spiritual Ecology, which includes essays by Thich Nhat Hahn, Joanna Macy, Wendell Berry, and Satish Kumar, among many others. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D., edited the book. He is a Sufi teacher and author who focuses on spiritual responsibility in our time of global crisis.