The Ecospiritual Hero Quest: A Neophyte’s Journey into Ecospirituality

 “It is hubris to declare that humans are the central figures of life on Earth and that we are in control.  In the long run, Nature is in control.” Charlene Spretnak[1]

Our relationships with the natural world are founded ideas about the very nature of existence itself—cosmology—which informs our spiritual orientation.  These relate to the ultimate questions of the human condition: what is the origin and nature of the universe, and the place of humans within it?  From deepest root, our spirituality has a ripple effect through our assumptions about the correct way to live, particularly in the face of existential threats such as climate change and environmental degradation. It is my contention that it is not possible to practice an effective holistic politics as an Earth citizen in the Anthropocene without meditating on the spiritual dimension of our place on this planet and by extension the cosmos.

I am no theologian, nor am I qualified to offer deep interpretation of the world’s great spiritual texts. Thinkers such as Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, EF Schumacher and others have written extensively about eco-spirituality and can offer a far better conceptual exposition than I can here.  Nonetheless, I would like to share a little of my own exploration of Ecospirituality, my personal experience of what my academic colleague and fellow blogger Geoff Berry has called the “ecospiritual hero journey.”

The majesty of a sunset in Bundoora.
The majesty of a sunset in Bundoora.

Between a Myth and a Hard Place

Despite my Catholic education, I emerged from primary school with a well-formed understanding that the dogmatic religious instruction I had received at school and in church did not resonate with me at all. Even as a kid, the idea of an anthropomorphic god—the “big man upstairs”—seemed rather infantile.

As I grew into adulthood and developed a political consciousness, I came to further disrespect the religion I inherited on the basis that praying to a saviour represented a gross abdication of responsibility for doing something about life’s most pressing problems. As my environmental awareness developed, so too did my disdain for the collective faith of many in scientific progress, technological fixes, and the idea that “they’ll come up with something” to fix the problem, with just who “they” are often remaining unarticulated.  I agree with Adam Bucko, co-author of the book Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Spirituality, that “we have to get to work today” to build a sustainable, regenerative society, not wait for a saviour of one kind or another.

On the other hand, I found the atheism and the absence of belief in the higher power to be equally unsatisfying. In the random universe of the blind watchmaker, laying waste to all things spiritual at the feet of pure Cartesian reason for me failed to nourish my deep awe at the world in which I inhibited.  Reason and rationality are wonderful intellectual tools that have contributed to much good.  However, when reified as ends in themselves they feel more like a human conceit obscuring an ontological bias toward prioritising human welfare above other life forms, and human separation from and domination over the natural world.

During my many travels across Asia I have come to discover an unexpected but overwhelming serenity in Buddhist shrines. That such places were often nestled in spectacular natural settings helped to highlight the link between the serenity I felt in their midst with the contentment and belonging I felt when immersed in nature.  My initiation into meditation helped me to both look within and connect with other people.  I then discovered ancient texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Dao de Qing, which helped to articulate the increasingly intense connection I was feeling between myself and everything around me.  What an ecologist or systems theorist might call complex inter-dependence, I was experiencing emotionally as the divine.  “God” was everything, and I did not need an intermediary to commune with it.

The beauty and complexity of the lotus flower, heavily ingrained with meaning in Buddhist symbology.
The beauty and complexity of the lotus flower, heavily ingrained with meaning in Buddhist symbology.

My Ecospirituality

“In our discussion of sacred community, we need to understand that in all our activities the Earth is primary, the human is derivative. The Earth is our primary community.  Indeed, all particular modes of Earthly being exist by virtue of their role within this community.” Thomas Berry[2]

My spirituality is based on that very simple observation that “God” is not a discrete entity, but rather encompasses “everything.” A number of corollary principles are derived from this core observation…

  • To damage the Earth is to damage God;
  • To hurt other people is to hurt God;
  • To harm other forms of non-human life is to harm God;
  • To injure yourself is to injure God.
  • It follows then that to hurt the Earth, other people or other species is also to hurt yourself.
  • It also follows that to nurture other humans, non-humans and the Earth is to nurture yourself.
  • Ultimately, Earth, human and non-human are arbitrary divisions because we are all one and the same thing.

The cosmological inter-dependence inherent to this interpretation of spirituality mirrors the complex inter-dependence of life itself.

I am not a spiritual guru, aficionado or preacher. I have much work to do to live up to the blueprint outlined above. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone should adopt this spiritual orientation, the imposition of which would just be a reflection of the dogmatic power-mongering that pushed me away from institutional religion in the first place. I do however recommend that everyone go through the process of discovering and articulating their spirituality, whatever it may be, as your own ecospiritual hero journey and important precursor to the practice of an effective holistic politics for the Anthropocene.

I have developed over many years a personal spirituality that has evolved though the journey I have just described. My spirituality works for me and provides a blueprint toward which I can aspire for living in balance with my fellow Earth citizens, both human and non-human, and the ecosystems that sustain us. Despite my personal rejection of Christianity, my spiritual ideals present no obstacle to me collaborating with people of faith, whatever their background. What unites us is (usually) more important than what divides.

[1] Spretnak, C. (1986). The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics. Santa Fe: Bear and Company, p. 27.

[2] Berry, T. (2006). Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, p. 43.

Thank you to my friends in the OASES Graduate School community for bringing me into contact with ecospirituality and influencing my ecospiritual hero’s journey.