Spiritual Ecology

Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee on reconnecting to the sacred as a means to heal ourselves and the environment.

The signs of a growing ecological crisis are becoming more and more clear: global warming, acidification of the oceans, the massive depletion of species. Weather patterns are increasingly unstable as our ecosystem becomes out of balance--a direct result of our materialistic, fossil fuel driven culture. We are destroying our own ecosystem, the same finely balanced system that sustains us. And we seem unable to take the measures that are needed to slow down this accelerating disaster--our politicians putting short-term economic growth before any long-term ecological considerations.

Sadly, even the concept of "sustainability" has been co-opted by our culture. Sustainability no longer refers to upholding the viability of our ecosystem, its biodiversity and beauty, its wilderness and wonder, but to the very materialistic culture that is destroying it. This attitude reveals that above all, we want to sustain our energy-intensive, resource-depleting life style, whose very demands are damaging our planet. "Environmentalism is no longer about how to save the environment. It has instead become about how we in the developed world can save our lifestyle."

This environmental crisis is becoming more visible and immediate--it is the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the well-being of the planet. And yet, it is just a symptom of a much deeper crisis whose danger goes unnoticed--even though it lies at the root of our outer, environmental tragedy: the spiritual crisis caused by a deep forgetfulness of the sacred within creation.

This primal imbalance began centuries ago. We are the children and inheritors of a culture that has banished God into heaven. Early Christianity persecuted any earth-based spirituality, and fostered the concept of a physical world steeped in darkness and sin. Then, after 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. 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.

Our forgetfulness of the sacred, our pursuit of solely material well-being, has created an inner wasteland as real as the Tar Sands of Northern Alberta.

As a result, we developed a materialistic culture that uses the earth for its own selfish purpose. Rather than fulfilling our traditional role as guardians of the planet, the earth became a means to serve our ever-increasing material desires. Our greed now walks with heavy boots across the world, with complete disregard for the sacred nature of creation, until we find ourselves living in a dying world. And yet because for centuries we have been taught that we are separate from the world, that it is just an object we should try to control, we have forgotten that it even has a soul. We are cut off from the world and its interconnectedness. Our Western culture no longer knows how to relate to it as a sacred being.

Now that we are faced with the disastrous outer consequences of our actions, there is a movement to remember that the 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. And yet the spiritual dimension of creation--that the world as a living being not only has a physical body but also a soul-- is hardly recognized. If we do not return to this fundamental spiritual awareness, any ecological awareness remains sadly imbalanced. True healing cannot occur if we continue to repeat the split that began centuries ago when the divine was banished to heaven and this physical world began its gradual descent into the spiritual, and now physical, wasteland we have inherited.

Just as it is our actions that have created the greatest man-made depletion of species this planet has ever experienced, so has our collective attitude disastrously affected the inner world. Spiritual teachings have long told us of the role of consciousness, how our attitude and awareness can affect our inner and outer reality. Indigenous cultures and their shamans understood the importance of working with the sacred energy of creation. But our Western materialistic culture has no respect for the spiritual within creation, no understanding of the inner worlds. And in recent decades its values and corporations have begun to dominate the whole planet.

We can recognize how global corporations have plundered and polluted our planet. But we do not understand how the collective soulless attitude they foster has a direct effect upon the inner spiritual reality of the planet. Our forgetfulness of the sacred, our pursuit of solely material well-being, has created an inner wasteland as real as the Tar Sands of Northern Alberta.

Just because we have forgotten the sacred dimension of life does not mean that we do not experience its consequences. Our addiction to consumption 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 goods and entertainment. 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 were more deeply fulfilling? And what are the ecological implications of our soulless search for stimulation, for desires and diversions?

At its deepest level this planet has the potential to give meaning and purpose to our souls as well as to nourish our bodies. This has always been understood by traditional cultures that were rooted in the sacred. But as our present civilization swamps us with information, the central knowledge of how our souls are nourished is missing. We do not remember how this spiritual substance of life, this spirit within matter, gives meaning to our everyday existence--how the sacred within life feeds us. We have forgotten the deeper and more fundamental purpose of our life, and are in danger of becoming "hungry ghosts"--souls seeking nourishment that they cannot find.

Just as real sustainability embraces the biodiversity of the whole planet, it also includes the sacred within creation. We need to relearn the wisdom of how to listen to life, feel its heartbeat, sense its soul.

Just as our disregard of the environment is destroying its fragile ecosystem, our neglect for the sacred in creation is desecrating and destroying this most precious substance. The soul of the world is dying and we are unaware of what we are doing or what the consequences may be. This is the real spiritual tragedy of our present time, one that goes unreported and unrecognized. Spiritual ecology means to return to this primal awareness, to help redeem the split between spirit and matter before life loses its sacred meaning. Only when the soul is healed can the body come back into balance--what is true for our own individual life is also true for the whole planet.

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 ancient connection to the sacred that alone can give real meaning. If we listen carefully we may hear the cry of the world soul, the anguish of the anima mundi as it feels its sacred substance being depleted, its light going out. 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.

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. Just as real sustainability embraces the biodiversity of the whole planet, it also includes the sacred within creation. We need to relearn the wisdom of how to listen to life, feel its heartbeat, sense its soul. But first, there is a pressing need to reconnect matter and spirit. All of life is sacred, every breath and every stone. This is one of the great secrets of oneness--everything is included. Within our heart and soul we can reconnect with our primal knowing that the divine is present in everything.

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 to live in a more sustainable way, not be drawn into unnecessary materialism. We can also work to heal the spiritual imbalance in the world. Our individual conscious 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 are part of the spiritual body of the earth more than we know.

We will each have our own way of making this offering. There is, for example, a simple prayer for the earth: the act of placing the world as a living being within our hearts when we inwardly remember the Divine. We become aware in our hearts of the sorrow and suffering of the world, and ask that divine love and healing flow where it is needed. We pray that even though we continue to treat the world so badly, the power of the Divine will help us and help the world--help to bring the earth back into balance. We need to remember that the power of the Divine is greater than the power of all the global corporations which continue to make the world a wasteland, greater even than the forces of consumerism that demand the life-blood of the planet.

Sometimes it is easier to feel this connection when we feel the earth in our hands, 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. Then our lovemaking can be an offering to life itself, a fully-felt remembrance of the ecstasy of creation.

The divine 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. The simple practice of 'walking in a sacred manner' in which with every step we take we feel the connection with the sacred earth, is one way to reconnect with the living spirit of the world.

There are so many ways to reconnect with the sacred within creation, to listen within and include the earth in our spiritual practice and daily life. Watching the simple wonder of a dawn can be a gift in itself. Or when we hear a chorus of birds in the morning we may sense that deeper joy of life and awake to its divine nature. 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? When this connection becomes alive, a living stream flows from our heart and embraces all of life. Then every step, every touch, will be a prayer for the earth, a remembrance of what is sacred.

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 this action should come from our renewed connection with the sacred--otherwise we will just be reconstituting the patterns that have created this imbalance. And there is work to be done within our hearts and souls, the foundational work of healing the soul of the world, of replenishing the spiritual substance of creation. This is an opportunity for humanity to reclaim its role as guardian of the planet, to take responsibility for the wonder and mystery of this world and participate in its sacred nature.

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