Belonging In Our Universe

We must remember that all forms of life, including human life,
have evolved from…[E]arth. The very process of human development
is an unfoldment of the consciousness that permeates through all life forms on
this [E]arth….This consciousness is the beginning of our lives and the end of it.
To be in touch with this consciousness is the purpose of our work and life.
– Debashis Chatterjee

One morning this past week, while I was sitting eating my breakfast and looking westward out the dining room window, I gradually became aware that the darkened trunks of the trees were now mottled with patches of soft, buttery light arriving from the sun rising behind me in the east.  It was a slow dawning in my consciousness at first, but then, as I focused my full attention on the trees, I sat for a few minutes enjoying how the light set to glowing small sections here and there on the trunks, branches and leaves of the trees. The image recalled something I had read the week before. It went something like: “Life is the relationship between Earth and our Sun.”

I also remembered something that the ecofeminist activist from India, Dr. Vandana Shiva, told those of us gathered in New York for the Sisters of Earth conference last July. It was that she had heard that some scientists are now suggesting that the Sun is really the culprit in the crisis of global warming, and they actually have proposed as a solution that we humans attempt to block out some of our Sun’s light.

Now, if there was ever an example of fragmentary rather than ecological thinking, a plan to fool around with blocking the Sun has to be one of the best – and most frightening. It reminds me of my visits in recent years to the failed Biosphere 2, a multimillion-dollar, enclosed-eco-system experiment conducted in the Arizona desert in the early 1990’s. Two different crews of humans attempted to live sealed within the structure for a number of months. Both times, they were unable to last the anticipated time period due to both scientific errors and reported management conflicts.

On my last visit, the guide suggested that one of the reasons the gardens in the glass-enclosed structure did not provide enough nutrients for the first crew was because of an unexpected occurrence of the El Niño weather pattern during that time, which made the sky over Arizona more cloudy than anticipated. Years of research and construction, as well as millions of dollars, all were wasted because the weather – only one among many things that could not be controlled – did not act as anticipated.

All of this came to mind as I sat watching our Sun play upon the trees outside my window, and I wondered when we as humans will let go of our arrogance and achieve the humility required to live in harmony with the patterns that created and sustain Life on our Earth.

I am grateful for those, like the physicist Fritjof Capra (1996), who are attempting to inform us about the interrelationships between and among the community of Life on Earth, and who are calling for a new paradigm – a new perspective or worldview – to guide us in our decisions and actions.

Capra reflects on the environmental crises now afflicting our planet from the perspective of “deep ecology,” a strand within the ecological movement that Capra describes as an “awareness [that] recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent upon) the cyclical processes of nature.”

It was deep ecologists and some feminists who first began to come together in conversation in the early 1980’s, and set in motion the ecofeminist movement. Where Capra’s thought links with my own study of ecofeminist spirituality, is in looking anew at what we mean by the concept of “the human spirit,” or in other words, what it means to describe human spiritual experience.

Capra suggests that deep ecological awareness “is spiritual or religious awareness.” He speaks of deep ecological awareness as “that mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole.” It is in and through this sense of connectedness, he writes, “that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.” He makes a  connection between deep ecological awareness and the spiritual traditions found in the world’s major religious traditions “whether we talk about the spirituality of the Christian mystics, that of Buddhists, or the philosophy and cosmology underlying the Native American traditions “(pp. 6-7).

Addressing how the path to right relationship requires more than logical, scientific answers, Capra writes:

[T]he connection between an ecological perception of the world and corresponding behavior is not a logical but a psychological connection. Logic does not lead us from the fact that we are an integral part of the web of life to certain norms of how we should live. However, if we have a deep ecological awareness, or experience, of being part of the web of life, then we will  (as opposed to should) be inclined to care for all of living nature. Indeed, we can scarcely refrain from responding in this way (p. 12).

Presently, I am reading a book by Debashis Chatterjee (1998), an international management trainer and Fulbright scholar, who teaches behavioral science at the Indian Institute of Management. It was my own work teaching leadership in India that drew me to his book as well as its title: Leading Consciously: A Pilgrimage Toward Self-Mastery. Chatterjee provides one of the best brief descriptions that I have read thus far of the evolution of human consciousness away from the ecological awareness of which Capra speaks. He draws a connection between the evolution of our human consciousness and the development early on in our human history of our “urban” way of living:

Human life and human mind have evolved in the stream of consciousness. In the course of human evolution, there was a time when the intellect of human beings had not fully developed. At that point in time, the consciousness of a human being functioned primarily at the level of instinct. Instinct served as a precise and scientific instrument for negotiating the problems of life. Even among tribal societies today, all over the world, we see the unerring power of the instinct. There are tribal people living in India today who can predict the onset of rains simply by sniffing the air! Aboriginal tribes in Australia can sense the right direction even in the middle of a storm. At the instinctual level, human consciousness functions primarily from biological memory, which is also the memory of Nature.

In the evolution of human consciousness, the human intellect arrived a little later than instinct. As civilizations grew out of jungles and forests into city states, the human mind began to function more out of psychological memory than biologic or natural memory. The mind of human beings was divorced from the mind of Nature. The intellect, which functions primarily from psychological memory, slowly overshadowed the instinct, the origin of which was natural and biologic memory. With the intellect becoming the more reliable guide for thought and action, the instinctual intelligence of our consciousness was less and less in use (p. 38).

One of my favorite observations by Chellis Glendinning in her book on eco-psychology, My Name is Chellis and I am in Recovery from Western Civilization (Shambhala, 1994), speaks to the difference between the way we Westerners desperately seek to heal live our lives today, and the lives of indigenous peoples:

[N]ature-based people manifest the very qualities that contemporary psychotherapy, the recovery movement, and spiritual practices continually aim for: a visible sense of inner peace, unselfconscious humility, an urge to communal cooperation, and heartfelt appreciation for the world around them (p. 19).

I think trying to ignore or cut ourselves off from our inherent relatedness to Earth’s community of life is the ultimate sin. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1998) says the word “devil” comes from a Greek phrase that means “to separate or break asunder.” (p.147).

Living in my own urban setting, the closest I can get to a practice that helps me get in touch with my own ecological awareness is to go for a walk in the nearby forest preserve. I spent some time there on Saturday. It was a beautiful, clear, warm autumn day, and I thought about what I had read in Capra and Chatterjee as I walked, my shoes crunching along paths covered with a blanket of dry fallen leaves, my eyes startled by the vibrant colors of red and gold maple leaves set ablaze by the bright, afternoon sun. I reflected on the dying going on all around me as the trees and undergrowth of the woodlands adjoining the path respond to our Sun’s movement southward, and I tried to be attentive to my own bodily, emotional, and psychic response to the knowledge of the coming of winter.

As Chatterjee suggests, those of us now living in Western culture, are indeed on a pilgrimage of recovery from the ills of industrialization.  But, I get clearer and clearer about where the pilgrimage is leading me as I go along the path, grateful, as Capra suggests, for a growing awareness that I do belong in this vast Cosmos of which we all are a part.

Capra, F. (1997). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. Harpswell, ME: Anchor

Chatterjee, D. (1998). Leading consciously: A pilgrimage toward self-mastery. Waltham, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1998). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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