Excerpt from the anthology Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth,
At this moment in time we are more and more consciously confronted by the reality of climate change, global pollution, acidification of the oceans, massive destruction of forests and wetlands and other natural habitats. All of it is contributing to the first man-made mass extinction of species that the planet has suffered, caused by industrialization and our addiction to a materialistic lifestyle. And we are all responsible—just by traveling in a car or a plane, we are actively participating in an ecologically destructive culture.
We all need to take responsibility for this pressing predicament. And although many individuals and groups have responded, little has really changed in substance on a collective, governmental level since the 2009 Copenhagen summit showed us putting short-term economic growth before the real and lasting concerns of carbon emissions and climate change.
Moreover, our materialistic culture has co-opted the concept of sustainability to its own ends. Our collective objective now appears to be to sustain our materialistic, energy-intensive way of life, rather than to sustain the ecosystem and its diversity of inhabitants. There are few signs that the world is prepared to give up its materialist pleasures.
And while many people are working to try to counter this imbalance, most are approaching it with the very same mindset that has created this predicament. Before we can begin to redeem this crisis, we need to go to the root of our present paradigm—our sense of separation from our environment, the lack of awareness that we are all a part of one interdependent living organism that is our planet. This can be traced to the birth of the scientific era in the Age of Enlightenment and the emergence of Newtonian physics, in which humans were seen as separate from the physical world, which in turn was considered as unfeeling matter, a clockwork mechanism whose workings it was our right and duty to understand and control. While this attitude has given us the developments of science and technology, it has severed us from any relationship to the environment as a living whole of whose cycles we are a part. We have lost and entirely forgotten any spiritual relationship to life and the planet, a central reality to other cultures for millennia.(1) Where for indigenous peoples the world was a sacred, interconnected living whole that cares for us and for which we in turn need to care—our Mother the Earth—for our Western culture it became something to exploit.
And as we move into a global age, it is these Western materialistic values that are dominating more and more of our planet. Our increasingly global consumer-driven civilization is amplifying our exploitation and the resulting pollution to an unsustainable level. As the world grows more and more out of balance, we urgently need to regain a relationship with the planet based upon the understanding of the world as a sacred living whole, and to reclaim a consciousness that is centered in that understanding. Only if we redeem the problem at its root can we hope to heal and come back into balance with our environment. Would we rape and pillage the physical world if we understood and respected its sacred nature?
But there is an even deeper, and somewhat darker, side to our forgetfulness of the sacred within creation. When our monotheistic religions placed God in heaven they banished the many gods and goddesses of the Earth, of its rivers and mountains. We forgot the ancient wisdom contained in our understanding of the sacred in creation—its rhythms, its meaningful magic. For example, when early Christianity banished paganism and cut down its sacred groves, they forgot about nature devas, the powerful spirits and entities within nature, who understand the deeper patterns and properties of the natural world. Now how can we even begin the work of healing the natural world, of clearing out its toxins and pollutants, of bringing it back into balance, if we do not consciously work with these forces within nature? Nature is not unfeeling matter; it is full of invisible forces with their own intelligence and deep knowing. We need to reacknowledge the existence of the spiritual world within creation if we are even to begin the real work of bringing the world back into balance. Only then can we regain the wisdom of the shamans who understood how to communicate and work together with the spirit world.(2)
There has been a recent resurgence in spirituality in the West, what some would call an "awakening." In the last few decades we have been made aware of previously hidden or esoteric techniques and practices to access the spiritual dimension of our self—to reconnect with our soul. Many individuals have followed an inner calling to use these practices and teachings to make a relationship with their soul or spiritual nature. Yet we still have little understanding of the spiritual dimension within the natural world, or of how our individual soul relates to the larger dimension of the world soul (what the ancients called the anima mundi). We have mostly lost the knowledge of the spiritual practices and rituals that keep the balance in the inner and outer worlds; we have even forgotten that such practices are needed. Instead we are caught within a contemporary consciousness that focuses on the individual self, no longer even aware of our deep bond to the sacred within creation.
We may have begun to reclaim an understanding of how to relate to our own soul and experienced the meaning and sense of purpose that can come into our life through this relationship. We may even be drawn to spiritual teachings and practices that can help us in this work, that take us beneath the surface of our life into the deeper dimensions of our own being and give us access to the spirit world. Those who have begun to make this journey feel and know the deep nourishment, the guidance that this can bring. We also may have become aware of a certain poverty in our daily life that results from our forgetting this inner reality, the absence of a certain joy or central note. But we have little awareness of the relationship between our individual soul and the world soul. We have forgotten the ancient teaching that says that the individual is the microcosm of the whole, the lesser Adam in relation to the greater Adam that is the whole of creation. We have lost the basic understanding of the ways our spiritual awareness, or our forgetfulness, affects the whole—of the subtle but powerful relationship between human consciousness and our inner and outer environment.
While there may be a growing awareness that the world forms a single living being—what has been called the Gaia principle—we don’t really understand that this being is also nourished by its soul, the anima mundi—or that we are a part of it, part of a much larger living, sacred being. Sadly, we remain cut off, isolated from this spiritual dimension of life itself. We have forgotten how to nourish or be nourished by the soul of the world.... (3)
How do we respond to such a hidden crisis? How can we awaken from our dream of forgetfulness? If we have a sense that something deep within our being, and within the being of the world, is out of balance, we can listen. We then may hear the cry of the world, its call to us. This is not just the call of creation as its physical ecosystem is being destroyed, but the cry of the world soul, the anguish of the anima mundi as it feels its sacred substance being depleted, its light going out.
And from hearing this cry we might begin to awaken, to sense a lack of the sacred, of this primal substance that gives meaning to all of life. We will each hear this cry in our own way, as it touches our own soul, but what matters is how we respond—whether we turn away, returning to our life of distractions, or whether we dare to follow the call and sense what it is telling us. Then, for an instant, we might catch a fragrance that is vanishing, a color that is fading. We might begin to notice what is happening.
In the outer world the signs are all around us. Daily we see the physical signs of our ecological crisis: the glaciers melting, the 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 to heal both the body and the soul of the world.
The first step is always to recognize what is happening. We can no longer afford to be blinkered by the surface values of our materialistic culture. 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 listening to life, feeling its heartbeat, sensing 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 to 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 also 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 needed. And through our prayers 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 more than that of all the global corporations that continue to make the world a wasteland, even more than the global forces of consumerism that demand the lifeblood of the planet. We need to reawaken to the power of love in the world.
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. 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 Earth.
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. When we hear the morning chorus of birds, 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. Watching the simple wonder of a dawn or a sunset can be an offering in itself. 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 our self as a part of this beautiful and suffering planet, do we sense its need? Then this connection comes alive, a living stream that flows from our heart as it 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. This crisis is not a problem to be solved, because the world is not a problem but a living being in a state of dangerous imbalance and deep distress. This distress belongs to its body and soul, and as the voices in this book show, there are different ways we can respond to this calling. What matters is how through our own response we reconnect to what is sacred, and return to a sense of deep belonging, here in this place of wonder we call the Earth.
There is action to be taken in the outer world, but it must be action that comes from a reconnection with the sacred—otherwise we will just be reconstellating 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—of bringing the healing power of divine love and remembrance where it is most needed. The crisis we face now is dire, but it is also an opportunity for humanity to reclaim its role as guardian of the planet, to take responsibility for the wonder and mystery of this living, sacred world.
(1) In earlier times the symbolic world permeated daily life and the physical world, as can be seen in the iconography of the Gothic cathedrals, while in the Middle Ages and earlier the image of the Great Chain of Being imaged all the “levels” of creation linked together, from God and the angels to the animals and minerals.
(3) Carl Jung describes this tragedy: “Man himself has ceased to be the microcosm and his anima is no longer the consubstantial scintilla or spark of the Anima Mundi, the World Soul.” From Carl Jung, Collected Works, vol. 11, ¶ 759 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970). For a fuller exploration of the anima mundi and its history see Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Return of the Feminine and the World Soul, ch. 8: Anima Mundi (Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2009).