Nurturing an Ecological Consciousness

Only the grandeur of the natural world can save our souls.
A disturbed outer world of nature will inevitably produce
a disturbed inner world of the human.
– Thomas Berry
Old ideas about human beings above nature or somehow separate, or unaffected,
may now be tossed in the wastebasket with all the other flat earth theories;
what happens to the natural world happens to us.
–  Jerry Mander

For me, the moment of “awakening” and a commitment to an ecological worldview came in the early 1990’s when I first began  reading authors who critiqued our current worldview and who called for a paradigm shift in human consciousness.

I realized then that I had lived much of my life struggling with the perception and values of what Joanna Macy (1998) calls the “Industrial Growth Society” (p.116) All my life I had resisted in very personal and private ways Western society’s message of power over, win/lose, isolationism. I often paid the price.  Now, however, I see that my convictions and actions were in fact grounded in a vision of the “Life-sustaining Society” which Macy and others now promote.

I also realized I did not need to make the paradigm shift that  authors like Macy depicted, for I had never lived the old paradigm.  The “new paradigm” was not “new” to me; it was as familiar as my own instincts.

I believe now that those instincts stemmed from my own early spiritual experiences – moments when I actually felt myself connected to the larger Presence touching me in the quiet stillness of my own being. Those experiences led to a  deep sense of profound connectedness and mutuality counter to the messages of the dominant culture within which I lived.

The meditation teacher, Stephen Levine, says it this way, “Grace is a sense of interconnectedness…it is the experience of our underlying nature” (cited in Macy. p. 114).

The Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast (1992), suggests a connection between the religious notion of “salvation” and our experience of interconnectedness:

Salvation [is] the sense of realizing your connection to the whole, of real belonging; that is salvation. And salvation really means realizing your connection to the whole of the universe, your experience of being at home, feeling secure, truly belonging in some ultimate sense (p. 26)

Somehow, in the evolution of our industrialized society, we have lost the ability to find our salvation in a sense of connectedness to Earth and to our Universe. Instead, many of us seek it in an “afterlife” away from the nightmare of industrialized society, or we find it in distractions and addictions that help us cope with daily life as we now know it.

Over the years, I have tried to work at strengthening my own ecological awareness.  As part of this journey, I have been drawn to writings in the field known as “ecopsychology.”  The quotes which introduce this post are drawn from the comments of other authors on the 1995 book, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club) edited by Theodore Rozak, Mary E. Gomes and Allen D. Kanner.  The editors describe the work of the contributing authors as “finding persuasive new ways to change the lives of people in industrial society.”

Ecopsychologists suggest that our destruction of Earth’s ability to sustain life is deeply rooted in our perception of ourselves as isolated from Earth’s natural processes. This perception of our reality has us cut off from our own bodies and the body of Earth. It is rooted in a long history of male-dominated ways of perceiving reality. Descartes famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” has defined the human for centuries, and brought us now to the brink of ecological disaster.

Betty Rozak, an ecofeminist poet and author, describes the new ecofeminist and ecopsychology agenda as promoting a wholeness that brings so-called masculine and feminine principles, energy and ways of being together:

What we seek is wholeness and the creation of a new kind of knowing that cultivates rationality, self-confidence, intellect, and power alongside the nurturing, healing, compassionate, intuitive components of personality….Both the psychological and ecological implications of such a change are profound (pp. 298-299).

Gradually, especially as a city dweller for the past 30 years, I have come to agree with the  many ecopsychologists who argue that it is the evolution of an urbanized, industrialized society that is at the heart of the social and environmental issues facing Earth’s entire Community of Life today. In the mid-1980’s, I moved to Chicago from Colorado, where I had been living with easy access near my home to the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, and the soothing sight and sound of pine-forested canyons populated by babbling creeks.

I remember vividly the first time I took a bus from my new home on Chicago’s Near West Side to the heart of the concrete and asphalt canyons of Chicago’s business district, commonly known as “The Loop.” It’s name comes from it location inside the oblong grid of the elevated train that daily thunders and whistles its way to and fro round the inner city. I recall standing that first day next to the tunnel of steel girders that holds up the wooden platform for the “L” train, hearing the oppressive roar of the train, the buses, taxis and cars, shadowed from the sun by tall office buildings lining a concrete sidewalk blending seamlessly with an asphalt street and more concrete sidewalk on the other side, and thinking to myself, “People actually live like this?”

Ecological Consciousness Practices

More than twenty-five years later, of course, I have become accustomed, or perhaps deadened, to much of what first seemed so offensive to me about city living on that first day. However, I also have made conscious choices about how and where I will live that help me stay connected to my ecological self.

First of all, I live outside the city, in what I sometimes call “a magic place.” Our house sits on a street bounded by areas of forest preserve through which pass Salt Creek and the Des Plaines River. Apparently decades ago, the local deer population discovered the fruit trees that our landlord planted in the backyard behind the garage, and often, at any time of day, we are treated to views of deer sleeping or munching in the grove there.  Mostly they are does, but occasionally a lone buck will appear with his magnificent rack of antlers. Every year, young mothers bring their spotted newborns to introduce another generation to the offerings available in our yard, and we get to watch the little ones run about and play on their long, delicate legs. Lately, a couple of red foxes have joined our backyard menagerie.

I work, though, in the city. Again, however, I have made choices around how I will do that with less stress and still maintaining my connection to nature. Each morning, I walk three blocks through our neighborhood  to the commuter train, consciously paying attention to the sky, the air, the flowers in the yards I pass, the sound of bird song, the changing life of the trees. I also intentionally leave about 10 minutes early for the train, so that when I reach the crossing, there is time to sit and reorient my body to the morning sun, and in spring to watch robins eat from the Mulberry tree, or in winter to marvel at the intricacy of the bare branches of the trees.

Once I reach the city, I walk about seven blocks to my office building, stopping along the way to notice the small gardens and planters overflowing with seasonal plants as I pass by them. In my office, I have a “garden” of my own, with several living plants occupying one corner.

In summer, I make it a point at least once a week to walk through Grant Park to the shore of Lake Michigan, to sit and eat my lunch in the sun by the water, or, if there is less time, to eat in a secluded garden area on Michigan Avenue next to Chicago’s Art Institute.

What do I do in the bitter cold of Chicago winters, you might ask? Well, one of my favorite activities in winter, ever since I was young, is to go outside during a snow storm when it is dark, either early in the morning or late in the evening, and shovel the snow from the driveway. The exercise is great, of course, but so is the profound experience of standing amidst falling snow. First, there is the incredible sight of millions of white flakes floating down from out of an indistinguishable sky, or swirling about on the wind. And then, there is the profound hush that falling snow brings, as it whispers its way to the ground, and muffles the sound of cars on the street, or, if deep enough, keeps them completely at bay for a time.

I have come to realize that while the feminist conclusion, “The personal is political,” helped us to see that our personal issues are entangled in public policy and perception, considered in the reverse, it also shows us that changing public policy and perception begins with each one of us, and our consciousness and action.  It begins with changing our own perception of reality, from the mechanistic, isolated worldview of the industrialized era, to a view of humans embedded in Earth’s Community of Life.

Such an ecological consciousness will help us to transform even our cities into dwelling places that are psychologically healthy for ourselves and promote the life-sustaining capacities of our marvelous Earth.

Macy, J. (1998) Coming back to life. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.

Steindl-Rast. D. (1992). Belonging to the Universe. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

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