Rewilding Spirituality

Imagine if everything in the world around you was conscious – every tree, every rock, every falling leaf. How differently might we treat each other, the non-human world, and ourselves?

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Published in the Ecologist, February 2017

Imagine if everything in the world around you was conscious – every tree sacred, every rock, every falling leaf. Imagine if you felt they were closely related to you, like cousins, always available to offer wise guidance, gentle healing, fierce protection and a deep sense of belonging. How differently might we treat each other, the non-human world, and ourselves?

This is the intimate, sacred, relationship countless generations of humans had with nature. Natural cycles unfolded around our ancestors with profound meaning; they were not separate from them. They honoured their need for spiritual connection and understanding of life’s mysteries through earth-centric ceremony and ritual, with deep reverence for nature.

With the spread of patriarchal ‘sky God’ religions over pantheistic Earth-based spirituality, our ancient reverence for nature was eroded as ‘heathen’ traditions were exterminated. The subsequent rise of reductionist science, capitalism and the eventual ‘death of God’ has led us to worship the gods of material accumulation instead. We see ourselves as separate from nature, and nothing is sacred; the natural landscape provides little more than a backdrop for our dramas of self-interest.

We have built a false world upon a world-view of ecological disconnection. Ignoring ecological limits and cycles, we live high-speed lives that deny nature’s ebbs and flows, cultivating ‘useful’ species and eliminating those that threaten or inconvenience us. In our attempts to tame and control, to de-wild, we also de-wild ourselves. We deny parts of us that frighten and inconvenience us, ignore messages from our animal bodies as we stare at screens under artificial lights, inside concrete buildings. Research shows that disconnection from nature has negative impacts on the health of individuals, communities and society – and of course on the natural world.

The recent surge in interest in ‘rewilding’ reveals a yearning for a different way. Rewilding aims to regenerate, reconnect and restore, to create healthy, functional ecosystems. This is achieved through ‘cores, corridors and carnivores’ – protecting core wilderness areas, reconnecting habitats for free movement of wildlife and restoring lost keystone species.

But, as key parts of the ecosystems we dominate, humans must be part of the rewilding. A rewilding of the self is a re-enchantment with the natural world, a re-awakening of our senses and intuition, a dissolving of the false boundaries between our atomised selves and our Earthly home. It is a restoration of meaningful connections with nature, our selves and each other. Ultimately, it is a regeneration of our sacred relationship with the natural world; our spiritual selves must too be rewilded. Organised religion feels out-dated, irrelevant or questionable to many people, particularly younger generations. Yet growing numbers of people are exploring being ‘spiritual but not religious’, revealing an appetite for meaning, community and spirituality without the sanctimony.

Rekindling a sacred connection to the Earth and its inhabitants has the potential to feed this hunger, support the growth of a life-affirming society, heal the sickness of our times and transform social relationships. Increased time in nature brings greater happiness, better mental and physical health and emotional resilience. Research also shows that feeling more connected to nature also leads to positive action.

As individuals, communities and society, we must build resilience to withstand the challenges of transitioning to a life within ecological limits. To build a life-affirming society from the ashes of a dying system will require great skill, creativity and courage. We can tap into vast resources by connecting with nature. Nature’s ways are powerful and wise, and we can take part in that web of power and wisdom. The wise guidance, gentle healing and fierce protection are all there if we develop the humility to hear it.

Efforts to address the planetary crisis must include a contemporary spiritual ecology to cultivate the deep humility and fierce resolve required to live sustainably and create a new story about the place of humanity in a post-capitalist world.

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