Another Remembering: Listening to a Universally Shared Religious Spirit

25 April 2009 – John Seed

(While John did not give his presentation from a script, his following essay  covers much the same ground as his presentation.)

The Ecological Self by John Seed

In the 1970s, when Jerry Brown was Governor of California, the eco-poet Gary Snyder was working in his administration. One day Gov. Brown felt exasperated. He said to Snyder: “Gary, why is it that, whatever the issue, you are always going against the flow?”

Gary replied: “Jerry, what you call ‘the flow’ is just a 16,000 year eddy; I\’m going with the actual flow!”

The deep, long-range ecology movement is based on a feeling for nature that sees the environmental crisis as a symptom of a psychological or spiritual ailment that afflicts modern humanity in technological societies.

We moderns are enveloped by an illusion of separation from nature, made more extreme by anthropocentrism or human first centredness.

Supporters of the deep ecology movement critique the idea that we are the crown of creation, and the measure of all beings. We tend to think that the world is a pyramid with humanity rightly on top: that nature is merely a resource and that it has only instrumental value. To maintain such a position, we have to ignore our own deeper feelings that our poets remind us of.

The great California poet Robinson Jeffers was one of the ancestors of the deep ecology movement who reminds us of our connections with the natural world.

As a young man, in the 1920s, he wrote this prophetic poem for his two infant sons.

Shine, Perishing Republic

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to Empire.

And protest, just a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.

Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly

A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from

the thickening center: corruption

Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster\’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever

servant, insufferable master.

There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught –

they say – God, when he walked on earth.1

 

A popular formulation of the sensibilities of the deep ecology movement is found in Ishmael and other books by Daniel Quinn.

In a recent essay, “The New Renaissance,”2 Quinn calls on us to heed this “concise expression of the basic message of all my books.” He says that anthropocentrism is “the most dangerous idea in existence” because it necessitates mass extinction, including our own. He writes:

And even more than being the most dangerous idea in existence, it’s the most dangerous thing in existence—more dangerous than all our nuclear armaments, more dangerous than biological warfare, more dangerous than all the pollutants we pump into the air, the water, and the land. All the same, it sounds pretty harmless. You can hear it and say, “Uh huh, yeah, so?” It’s pretty simple too. Here it is: Humans belong to an order of being that is separate from the rest of the living community. There\’s us and then there’s nature. There’s humans and then there’s the human environment.

The term deep ecology movement was coined in the 1972 by Arne Naess, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University. He and other theorists have traced the historical roots of anthropocentrism.3 Naess and others offer a more wide ranging critique. Naess also coined the term ecosophy for any lifestyle and practice which focuses on ecological values and harmony with the natural world. The author Lynn White Jr. focuses particularly on the role of Judeo-Christianity.4 In this religion, according to White, we live in a world where only humans were created in the image of God, only humans have a soul and, prophetically:

the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all that moveth on the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hands they are delivered.5

Given that there are such deep anthropocentric roots in our culture and psyche, it is little wonder that a change of concepts is not by itself sufficient to reorient ourselves, to align ourselves back with the flow of the natural world.

As Arne Naess has pointed out, ecological ideas are not enough, we need an ecological identity an ecosophic self.

Ideas only engage one part of our mind in cognition. We also need ecological feelings and actions as well as ideas to nurture a maturing ecological identity in a place.

Poets have always known that in wild places too, we may expand into larger identities. Here is Jeffers again:

I entered the life of the brown forest,

And the great life of the ancient peaks, the patience of stone,

I felt the changes in the veins

In the throat of the mountain, and, I was the stream,

Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking:

and I was the stars,

Boiling with light, wandering alone, each one the lord of his own summit;

and I was the darkness

Outside the stars, I included them. They were part of me. I was mankind also, a moving lichen

On the cheek of the round stone . . . they have not made words for it . . .

Arne Naess writes:

If reality is experienced by the ecological Self, our behaviour naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics. We certainly need to hear about our ethical shortcomings from time to time, but we change more easily through encouragement and a deepened perception of reality and our own self, that is, through a deepened realism. How that is to be brought about is too large a question for me to deal with here. But it will clearly be more a question of community therapy than community science: we must find and develop therapies which heal our relations with the widest community, that of all living beings.

When I first read these words in 1986, I couldn’t help but think of the work that Joanna Macy and I had initiated the year before. “The Council of All Beings” is a set of experiential deep ecology processes, ceremonies and rituals that help us to expand our identification in the way that Naess describes. “Community therapy to develop deep awareness of our ecological self” is a good way of thinking about this work.

A couple of years later I was privileged to witness a ceremony held in a Hopi village high on a mesa in the southwest of the United States. It was so like the Council of All Beings. The masks were more splendid, of course, the drums more confident. And people assured me that they had continually celebrated thus for thousands of years.

Since then I have searched in vain for a single example of an indigenous culture, still connected to their traditions, which didn’t have such ceremonies: regular rituals to testify that the human family is one strand in the larger web of life, to acknowledge all our relations.

This suggests that the tendency to disconnect from the natural world might not be just a modern phenomenon as I had assumed. The fact that indigenous people invariably practice such ceremonies, speaks of the human tendency to forget who we really are and wander off into socially constructed identities. Why else would we need to regularly and powerfully remind ourselves that we are part of the web of life?

Most peoples have always had cultural processes to counteract this tendency. So many solutions have been found that allow the human community to continue to cleave to the whole Earth community. This had been lost from our culture, suppressed by inquisitions and ignorance and now it re-emerges in a thousand ways.

Even more than “community therapy,” I think that “cultural reclamation” encapsulates this work that reconnects.

Deep ecological experiential processes for connecting with our ecological selves, that have been developed and extensively tested over the last 20 years, are described in detail elsewhere.

We work with three major processes:
  • Despair and Empowerment or work with feelings. We circle together with our people as of old and mourn the loss of species and landscapes,
  • Deep Time, Evolutionary Remembering, The Cosmic Walk. remember our billion-year journey
  • The Council of All Beings, and empathize with the myriad creatures.

We circle together with our people as of old and mourn the loss of species and landscapes, remember our billion-year journey, and empathize with the myriad creatures. Whenever we do so, we have found that a palpable and expanded ecological identity inevitably emerges in participants along with a profound experience of community.

These things are explored in community. We need to find or create a “sangha” of kindred spirits (as all spiritual traditions have recognized). We need to find opportunities to meet—on solstices, equinoxes, under the full moon, in deep ecology workshops or online—to build these vital support systems into our lives. In such ways, while swirling in the midst of the vast eddy, we may remain aligned to the flow.

Naess advocates a pluralism of ecosophies. The platform of the deep, long-range ecology movement contains statements10 that most people who consider themselves part of this movement can support, even though each person may have a unique and personal ecosophy.

This paper is a sketch of my own ecosophy.

I came to this understanding, this consciousness, initially through a profound epiphany that took place when I found myself taking part in the first direct action in defense of rainforests at Terania Creek, New South Wales, in August of 1979. As I wrote some years later in an essay titled “Beyond Anthropocentrism,” 11 for me this transformation of perspective came from my actions on behalf of Mother Earth.

“I am protecting the rainforest” develops into “I am part of the rainforest protecting myself. I am that part of the rainforest recently emerged into thinking.” What a relief then! The thousands of years of imagined separation are over and we begin to recall our true nature.

In the early 1980s, reading Devall, Sessions, and Naess, I finally found a philosophical approach through which I could make sense of this experience.

For myself, the spiritual awakening that took place while participating in the defence of the rainforests has until now obviated the need for any other form to experience the divine – the Earth itself has become my sacred text.

However, it is clear that many people\’s love of Earth is mediated thru one of the great faith traditions and that each of those traditions has within its texts and liturgies, many expressions of ecological sensibility and love of Earth.

The Earth suffers under the thrall of the religion of the market place, the dominant spiritual mode of these dark times. Both nature and the faith traditions falter under the onslaught of the most pious religion the world has ever known, worshipping mammon in skyscraping temples and shopping malls not just one day a week but seven; with worshippers all the more fervent by virtue of being completely unconsciousness that their supposed secularism is, in fact, a profound spiritual faith.

The most visible spokesperson for the forces seeking complete global conversion to the Religion of the Marketplace, President Bush, has on numerous occasions made clear (whether wittingly or not) the faith dimension of this worldwide evangelical enterprise. Perhaps the most striking instance was in the course of his first televised address to the US public following the tragedy of September 11, 2001. With millions of Americans waiting to hear from their leader how they should best respond to the crisis, Bush issued a clear directive in the strongest terms possible: Go out and shop!

We need to build bridges and coalitions between those who love and care for Earth and those whose love of God acknowledges the sanctity of His creation. Certainly there are initiatives in this direction from both the ecology movement and from each of the major religions, and “Ecology and Spirituality” aims to highlight these and to explain why it is of the utmost importance to nourish the growing shoots of ecological concern in the faith traditions and of spiritual understanding in the conservation movement.

My recent presentations in North America were sponsored by various churches whilst last year I co-facilitated, along with Rabbi David Seidenberg, a weekend titled ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’ at a Jewish retreat Centre in New York.

These presentations included stories about the overlap of ecology and Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Earth is where all these mighty faiths meet, each has grown from the soil of this planet and it is in the Earth that they are reconciled. Here is one of the stories which was included in “Ecology & Spirituality” via our film “Reweaving Shiva’s Robes”.

Arunachala is one of the most sacred sites in India because, in the Hindu tradition, the story is told that their supreme deity, Shiva, manifested as a column of light stretching from infinity to infinity. He was so dazzling that the others gods in the Hindu trinity, Brahma and Vishnu, complained that they were being dazzled beyond endurance.

In his compassion, Shiva took on a new form as this mountain, Arunachala and a vast temple was built at its base. Many believe that walking the 11 km around Arunachala is the fastest way to enlightenment and pilgrims by the millions have thronged there since time immemorial.

In the long line of illustrious sages who have taken up abode in caves on Arunachala was Ramana Maharshi, one of the most celebrated Hindu mystics of the 20th century who died in the \’50\’s. In 1987, the Rainforest Information Centre received a letter from one of the nuns in Ramana\’s ashram telling us that when Ramana had arrived at the mountain as a young man, it had been clothed in a mighty jungle and tigers could be met walking along its flanks. But now, nothing remained but thorns and goats, couldn\’t we please do something?

We helped the nun set up an NGO and raised funding including two substantial grants from the Australian Government aid agency while volunteers from Australia spent more than seven years helping to reclothe the sacred mountain. After some years, the authorities from the main temple invited us to move our tree nursery inside the temple walls and allowed us the use of their precious waters. Consequently, we initiated the regeneration of the temple gardens, growing flowers for their ceremonies as well as hundreds of thousands of native tree seedlings each year.

When I returned to Arunachala after leaving Kolkata last December, I was heartened to find that more than 10 new NGO\’s have sprung up around the base of the mountain. These inspired groups have constructed native tree nurseries and are engaged in tree planting, environmental education, fire prevention and fire fighting. Not only was I able to walk in the cool shade of the trees our project had planted, but I was able to witness also the regeneration of the ancient association between plants and temples, nature and spirit, God and Earth.

Workshops

Workshop descriptions and John Seed & Ruth Rosenhek workshop schedules and essays can be found at www.rainforestinfo.org.au

Joanna Macy’s schedule and writings may be found at www.joannamacy.net.

 

Notes

  1. Tim Hunt, editor. l988. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Stanford: Stanford University Press, Vol. l.
  2. See http://ishmael.org/Education/Writings/The_New_Renaissance.shtml
  3. See the deep ecology section at www.rainforestinfo.org.au
  4. Lynn White Jr. 1967. The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis. Science 155: 1203–1207
  5. Genesis 9;2
  6. From Tim Hunt, editor. 1988. Signpost. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Stanford: Stanford University Press, Vol. l.
  7. Arne Naess 1988. Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World. Thinking Like a Mountain—Towards a Council of All Beings by John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess, New Society Publishers.
  8. See the deep ecology section at www.joannamacy.net or www.rainforestinfo.org.au.
  9. PhD thesis by Eshana (AKA Elizabeth Bragg). For a summary of her findings see “Towards an Ecological Self” at www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/Eshana.htm.
  10. See Arne Naess. 2005. The Basics of Deep Ecology. The Trumpeter Vol. 21, No. 1.
  11. Reprinted in Bill Devall’s book Simple in Means, Rich in Ends: Practicing Deep Ecology, Peregrine Smith Books, 1988.

 

John Seed is a long-time, deep ecology movement activist who also conducts council of all beings workshops. He has been working for the protection of rainforests for 25 years. johnseed1@ozemail.com.au