We, the Earth: Ecological crisis as spiritual practice

"The Earth seen from Apollo 17" by NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans - http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/115334main_image_feature_329_ys_full.jpgAlt: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001138.html (direct link). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg#/media/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg

“The Earth seen from Apollo 17” by NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans – http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/115334main_image_feature_329_ys_full.jpgAlt: http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001138.html (direct link). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg#/media/File:The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg

“There is no separate self,” say the Buddhists. Twenty-five years ago I couldn’t warm up to the idea. Of course selves are separate; that’s why I was putting so much individual work into building one. Separate self? It was repetitious, a tautology.

But twenty-five years of getting my awareness raised about ecological crises is drumming into me the truth of the Buddhist axiom. When it comes to an ecosystem—like this planet—there is indeed no separate self. Every action of every individual affects all others. No one an island, as Donne said. Acting in isolation is impossible.

These days it is not poets and religious folks who are preaching the message loudest. It is scientists and environmental journalists. From the IPCC 2007 Report on Climate Change, which shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the actions of industrialized societies are endangering the Earth for all, to data on water pollution downstream from power plants, to the study that just came out last week that pollution in alpine lakes far from direct human contact is measurably worse than previously thought, we have hard evidence of the connections that for most of the 2500 years of Buddhist history had to be taken on faith.

Each of us is intimately connected to every fish and bird and blade of grass and human being and every inch of soil on the rest of the planet. And not in some airy-fairy kind of way. We’re connected physically—breathing the same air, sharing the same water, tied by strands of biology and chemistry and physics, and tied most of all by our shared need to eat, to every other organism on this single planet Earth.

Or, better, we ARE a single organism called Earth.

A few days ago, when I posted on the pollution in Rocky Mountain lakes, a reader expressed his overwhelm, which I share. What can we do? he asked—a question thousands of us are asking.

I think one thing to do is use the ecological crisis as a blunt communiqué of connection—an in-your-face reminder that we depend on the trout and the algae and the warblers and the wheat grains for our very survival. That if we wreck the living conditions on the Earth for them, we are wrecking it for ourselves.

There is no simpler way to express the lack of separation: if they go, we go.

(Though the reverse is not true; the more-than-human world existed just fine for millennia before we appeared.)

And here’s where the spiritual practice comes in. Most of us forget just how unseparate everybody here is. We need to practice reminding ourselves, at the feeling level, of our connection to and dependence on every other being on Earth.

Spirituality is often defined as finding our connection to something greater than ourselves. The “something greater” we have most lost touch with is the web of connections linking all of us here on the only livable planet we will ever know.

I suggest that we contemplate our dependence on fungi; that we meditate on the miracle of photosynthesis, of green plants taking carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen; that we connect with a tree—or with any other neighbor, human or otherwise; and most of all that we strive to understand how our own actions and our everyday choices are contributing to balance or imbalance in a cycle of life that is much more delicate than we used to think.

Buddhists may contemplate the web of interdependence linking us all. Christians can ponder Jesus’s words that how we treat “the least of these”—the sick, the poor, the thirsty—is how we are treating him. And anybody can sit with a friend, whether flower or feline or human, and appreciate the intricacy of that friend’s face.

And once we have sat and observed and contemplated, we can take our insights to the farmers’ markets and the grocery stores, to our dinner table and our utility company. We can tell our elected leaders that we can no longer afford pesticides in breast milk and nitrogen in alpine lakes; that we will commit ourselves to decreasing fossil fuel use; and that lowering CO2 in the atmosphere, if it is a matter of life and death for farmers in India and Africa, is a matter of life and death for the rest of us as well.

Twenty-five years ago, the idea that there is no separate self could seem counterfactual, an illusion. Today we have the data that proves, to our amazement and often to our sorrow, just how urgently true it is.

Today the idea of separateness is the illusion—one that we, the Earth, can no longer afford.

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10 Responses to We, the Earth: Ecological crisis as spiritual practice

  1. Fishbowl says:November 11, 2009 at 2:31 am

    Thank you for this. I enjoy reading your posts, you have a gift with language. the line between self and the whole and between science and spirituality is really fictitious. I read an article a while back claiming why ecology is incompatible with spirituality, and found myself arguing with it on every point, because the writer was making a very broad western-modern dualistic and colonial assumption about spirituality and the self, and nature and the self.

  2. Cindy Morris says:November 11, 2009 at 6:04 am

    A beautiful piece, Priscilla. Poignant and timely. You have clearly connected the dots between spirituality and real life on Planet Earth. Ultimately the Earth will survive. The question becomes more about if the planet will choose to keep us as inhabitants of her magnificent realm or have we trashed her enough that she decides to be rid if us once and for all? Can we change our behavior, each and every one of us, enough, to turn the tides of our behavior which has caused us to contaminate our home or is our time up? Will the spiritual path of oneness lead us to changing in time to allow us to still be welcome in what we believe is our own home?
    In our ‘aware’ community I can see much being done to reverse the flow and I still see so much that shows me how little we have changed. And how do we affect the primary pollutants of industry when those industries provide all that we think we hold sacred? A huge leap, indeed. And perhaps the time has at last come for our awareness to reach beyond the personal to the global.
    With the up-coming transits of Saturn square Pluto I have no doubt the shake-up will be something to behold!
    Cindy Morris
    http;//PriestessAstrology.com

  3. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:November 11, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Thanks, Fishbowl, you say it well: “The line between self and the whole and between science and spirituality is really fictitious.” Those who claim ecology is incompatible with spirituality have to really twist their own religious heritage to make this claim. Is it fear that motivates such distortions? We all carry fears–fears of scarcity, fears of others who are different from us, a long list of fears. The Mundaka Upanishad, thousands of years old, suggests that two golden birds perch in the same inner tree. The one bird acts on such fears, the other sees that we are all made of the same stuff and acts accordingly. Which bird do we follow? It’s a daily question.

  4. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:November 11, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Thanks, Cindy, your own words are passionate and poignant. How do we effect change on the scale of industry and economics? I don’t have the answer, but I do know a good start is for more and more of us to recognize that such changes need to happen. And I do know that, since we humans are the ones who set up such systems, we are the ones who can change them–turn them toward more mutually beneficial ends.

  5. Andy Gibb says:November 11, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Funnily, Priscilla, I’ve spent the last few days working out my own response and in my own mad way came up with something completely different. But I like your thoughts.

  6. Andy Gibb says:November 12, 2009 at 5:35 am

    Hm, maybe not so different after all. It is possible to link the inspiration of Buddhism with that of generosity, since Siddharta renounced his very self and certainly his desires – the path of right mind-set or lifestyle?

  7. Gail Storey says:November 12, 2009 at 10:50 am

    We the Earth–that is revelatory! Thank you for your eloquent clarity, it helps me awaken to the truth of unseparateness beneath the conceptual level.

  8. You are so right about us all being connected, and I wish more people could see this. But I feel almost a sense of despair when I think about how far most human beings are from feeling kinship with nature and even other human beings. The rainforest is being destroyed so we can eat cheap meat, and how many people are willing to pay more for meat (or forego, altogether)to save forests they will never see and perhaps can’t imagine.
    But I’m glad you are writing about this issue and hope this essay gets wider exposure.

  9. very true, the cells of our bodies are to us as we are to the earth

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