Environmental Spirituality - Blog#9 - 8 March 2019
Our western world has succeeded in creating scientific reasoning and amazing technology. We organize and plan for the future, and pursue our goals with a determined work ethic, but often at the cost of diminished joy, wonder, satisfaction and playfulness in the moment. Without reason, planning and technology, we risk getting outgunned and taken over by other nations or cultures. We have done much of this taking over ourselves, and we tout our muscularity and superiority. But then we wonder about meaning and purpose, spirituality and values, and whether we have our eye on the proper ball. One could make a case that our technology quotient far outstrips our spiritual quotient, and that this discrepancy fuels much of our modern malaise.
Spirituality involves a celebration of our consciousness, gratitude for the gift of life, and immersion in our connectedness to the “All.” We all need to belong, to attach, to connect to something beyond and larger than ourselves, something “trans” personal. We can connect to a lover romantically, to friends socially, and to broader tangible entities such as humanity, the environment, or the universe. We can also connect to invisible spirits, such as God or the souls of deceased loved ones. But we must connect somehow, lest we feel alienated from our surroundings, lonely, isolated, and adrift. We can become so preoccupied with the self and our hedonistic pursuits, as well as our day-to-day mundane tasks, that we lose sight of our core spiritual needs. How can we re-center ourselves spiritually? From one angle, we can pursue various spiritual emotions, such as gratitude, humility, love, existential joy, and awe. Why is there something, rather than a void of pure nothingness? Yes, we can marvel at how things are, but we can also access existential joy and awe, celebrating that things are, that we are, and that we have the gift of consciousness to appreciate the All of existence. Searching for a label to describe his secular spirituality, Zuckerman (2014) ultimately designated himself an “aweist.” Spirituality requires transcendence of the boundaries of self, attachment to something beyond and larger than oneself, and humility regarding the small status of oneself amidst the All. Environmental spirituality, or eco-spirituality, requires these same virtues vis-à-vis nature, and an awestruck attachment to the universe, to the whole of nature.
Einstein (1930), maintained, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed” (p. 194). While awe can be inspired by various sources, including human creations, such as moving works of art and music, awe is more robust when inspired by nature, the focus of environmental spirituality. Eco-awe is connected to humility and gratitude, to our willingness to feel dwarfed by nature, and grateful for our short gift of life living within it: within, not over. We typically stand in awe of our superiors, not our subordinates or victims. Yes we are bright and clever, and we have figured out how to control some facets of nature, for better and for worse, but are we really all that superior and powerful? A stray asteroid, a fourth down toss of the nuclear football, or another few decades of ozone depletion could reduce mankind to an instructive footnote on the ash heap of history. A little (actually a lot) more humility would contribute to both our spirituality and our survival. It behooves us to temper our anthropocentrism (our tendency to see ourselves as the most important and superior component of nature, and perhaps indestructible given our supposed creation by a protective God), and to stand in awe of the power as well as the wonder of nature.
In contrast to many indigenous peoples, we “civilized” folks are far more divorced from nature, and thereby spiritually malnourished. How has this come to pass? With the growth of civilization and culture, we are more prone to live amidst concrete than nature. We have learned to farm and domesticate, and we now delegate our food production to conglomerates, safely distancing ourselves from the emotional impact of the kill, the harshest reality of nature. Thus, hunting can be a spiritual endeavor, reconnecting us to our primal and competitive interaction with nature. Sometimes it helps to return to our early primal powers, as children. A childlike state of mind is more awestruck, curious, and filled with wonder than the adult mind, more present, less trapped in the future, more connected with the world in the moment. Eco-heroine Rachel Carson (1965) lamented, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood” (p. 44). By necessity, we desensitize to familiar elements of our surroundings as we age, attending to the novel, the threatening, and the more demanding elements of our environments. We build habits to improve our coping, behavioral habits, but also habits in our perception, so we aren’t distracted by the commonplace, and don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Habits are helpful overall, but carry a hidden cost: decreased fascination with our surroundings. Thus, it helps to periodically stand back, and recapture our ability to be amazed with the myriad wonders around us. Thus, Carson suggested an antidote to desensitization: “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” (p. 59). We are more appreciative of the uniqueness of the world when it is novel to us.
Stargazing is another avenue to eco-awe. Lying on our backs at night, gazing into the immensity of the universe, we surrender to the puzzle of infinity in time and space. Our egos become lost in space. Earlier, just before nightfall, what do you experience? The sun sets. It descends from the sky and drops below the horizon, right? Now try a different, more accurate mode of perception that grounds you in the three-dimensional space of the universe. Feel the spin of the Earth as it, and you, rotate away from the sun. Feel the massive distance, the 93,000,000 miles between you and the atomic furnace that somehow, incredibly, warms us from this massive distance. Immerse yourself in this awesome reality, and feel yourself on this Earth, rotating, while circling this single star, moving in tandem with it through the Milky Way galaxy. Feel the immense space of the universe, and the presence of billions of stars comprising countless galaxies, as the billions of neurons in your brain allow you to perceive and appreciate the vastness of the universe. Take time to examine the veins of a leaf, to appreciate the complexity of the human body, and the other myriad wonders of our existence. Put time aside to celebrate your connection with nature, and the gifts of life and consciousness. The trials of daily life must be attended to, but are often dwarfed by higher wonders, if we take time for existential awe and joy. Carry out your plans and objectives, but stay present in the here, in the now, in the presence of your gift, and your connection with the All. Your state of consciousness is an ongoing, ever-present choice.
If you care to read more about environmental spirituality, check out Chapter 16, “Ecospirituality: A Question of Balance,” in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices (See Chapter Highlights on this website), now available in a print version and as an e-Book on Amazon. And if you wish, please leave a little of your own eco-awe in the comments section below. Thanks for listening.
Carson, Rachel. (1965). The sense of wonder. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Einstein, Albert. (1930, October). What I believe. Living philosophies XIII. The Forum, LXXXIV, 193-194.
Zuckerman, Phil. (2014). Living the secular life: New answers to old questions. New York, NY: Penguin.
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