Impressions and Reflections from ‘Spiritual Ecology: Reviving a sacred and interconnected world’

Guest blog from Emilie C. Parry, participant on the ‘Spiritual Ecology’ retreat (collaboration with Amrita Bhohi of St Ethelburga’s), and pHD candidate at Oxford University

Over a weekend in mid-May, time expanded just enough to give space for uncovering and realising the interBeing of a few humans with our wider ecologies and Earth System. On a Friday afternoon, we gathered from far corners of the UK, open and curious as to what the weekend held.  Many arrived with burdened minds, worries, management and planning that drives much of modern life derived from the anthropocentric Industrial Growth Society. (1,2). Shaped by the Scientific Revolution of the 1500s and the rise of scientism in the 20th century (3), a majority across ‘western cultures’–and more broadly–have been trained to engage with the world through the intellect, elevating the mind above all other sensory experiences.

The facilitators opened the residential workshop within this familiar territory of the intellect. They helped establish the theoretical and conceptual foundations for an understanding of Spiritual Ecology as a restorative response to our current global ecological crisis and the planet’s entry into the Anthropocene. The overview drew from the writings and work of Llewellyn Vaughn-Leigh, Rudolph Steiner, Pierre Teilhard de Chadrin, Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, Les Sponsel, Thich Nhat Hanh, His Holiness the Dali Lama, Vandana Shiva, and many others who’ve planted the roots of today’s Spiritual Ecology understanding and practices (4,5,6).

St. Ethelburga’s definition of a Spiritual Ecology worldview centres on the premise that everything is sacred and interconnected. “In the vision and experience of oneness, the term ‘spiritual ecology’ becomes, itself, redundant. What is earth-sustaining is spiritual; that which is spiritual honours a sacred earth.”

Nature Connection

Perhaps more critically, the facilitators framed pathways to facilitate a process for participants to ‘step out’ from mind-centred perception.  This ‘stepping out’ ushered in a sensory awareness of our interconnection with each other across species. The workshop gradually uncovered (or drew attention to) the way in which we are all dynamically enmeshed in the web of life we call ecology, ecosystems, and our encompassing Earth System. The exercises and taught-techniques drew attention to not only how we humans perceive other living beings, but to how other living beings perceive and sense us. For each participant, these processes may have included aspects of healing, experiential learning, self-reflection, growing consciousness, shifting perspectives, and deepening or recovering whole sensory awareness and sacred wisdom of the planet.

Fikret Berkes, in his work on Sacred Ecology, calls these life-systems webs our ‘social-ecosystems’.  (7)  His work complements that of many others across disciplines, cultures, and time. It calls for humans to shift their placement in the natural world order away from the ‘top of the pyramid,’ where humans dominate and exploit each other and the Earth, towards a relationship in which humans are embedded within a mutually dynamic flux equilibrium of life cycles (panarchical loops) and ecosystems. In this line of inquiry, we come to understand that we are nature, not separate but part of a whole, living breathing Gaian organism.

“Through deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment emerges deep ecology” –Arne Næss 

The father of Deep Ecology, Arne Næss asserted that ecological wisdom was necessary to bring ecological science to the consideration of ethics and relationships for life on the planet. (Næss’ work converges and contributes to the larger body of understanding among Sacred and Spiritual Ecologists.)  As the program of the residential workshop opened up, the exercises facilitated in group and individual spaces enabled a deep sensory exploration and ‘uncovering’ of the wisdom, the knowing, we share as part of nature and in relationship to all other beings on this planet.

The workshop exercises and techniques were very rooted in the physical spaces of the beautiful Hermitage in Somerset. One must let the ego fall away to make room for touch, sound, taste, scent—to be fully present in those spaces.  Through a process of facilitated play and connection, a bodily awakening unfolded, moving from mind to body, towards a deeper sensory awareness. We came to feel and consider, not with our minds singularly, but with our full range of senses, how other living beings are aware of us before we think we’ve entered the scene; how they feel the thud of our footsteps reverberate through rock and soil; their ears pricking at the slightest brush against grasses or crackling of twigs; the bird calls communicating to all number of species across miles what we are doing and where we are doing it.

This attention to our disruptive presence helps us to draw inward our field of disruption, to quiet our presence so we may begin to hear, see, smell, and otherwise sense the many others who breathe the air with us, who drink in our shared water, who are nourished from our shared soil.  The more the exercises led us into the experiential perspectives of non-human species, the more we intuited and understood their behaviours, their feelings, their choices, and yes, their fears and joy.

During a time of sharing, someone spoke of the mythos across some southern African indigenous views of the body and the ecosystem. There is a view that the tendons, the blood vessels, the nervous systems throughout the human body do not end at the skin. These threads continue to invisibly reach out from our fingers and toes.  The borders of our bodies are connectors and the ‘threads’ link humans to the air, the water, the soil and rock, and to all others, animals, plants–everyone. In this picture, we are all deeply interconnected.

Experiencing the world of others and how they experience us—the wood deer, the starling hawk, the wild hare of the meadow, the insects burrowed in rotting wood, the snakes and beavers, the grasses and trees, dragonflies and crows—is a vital first step toward  experiencing and understanding Spiritual Ecology.

From this shift of understanding our relational placement within the Earth System, many questions may arise to challenge the dominant assumptions of our industrial-rooted society. What is our responsibility for the wellbeing of other living beings and how is this linked to our own wellbeing? When we are interconnected, does ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ exist? How much has our industrial past created the chasm we now experience between ourselves and other life forms? And how has this contributed to the rupture of planetary boundaries?

How has this sensory blindness ushered in the Anthropocene? The Anthropocene, as an epoch, is proposed to mark the period of time in which human activities began to effect significant global impact on planet Earth’s ecosystems and geology–to a degree in which human activity is leaving its signature on the fossil record (9). As Jamie Lorimer has written, “Now, we are being depicted as geological actors, entangled within and responsible for a powerful, unstable, and unpredictable planetary system” (10). Climate Change has emerged as a symptom of illness in the Earth Body, when we humans denied and forgot our senses beyond the intellect and scientism, when we forgot to sense our interconnection with all beings—spiritually, ecologically, dynamically. Our behaviours brought illness not only to ourselves but to the earth as a whole. We are not separate, thus all are affected.

Vitally, perhaps, the techniques and exercises of this workshop began to shed light upon spaces of hope and possibility. When we come to reconnect, to recover our interconnection with all other beings, how does this whole-sensory remembrance point us towards healing? How does it point us towards coming back into the wholeness of the Self and to understanding what Joanna Macy meant by the ‘world-as-self’ (2)?  These are questions for us to contemplate, to root in our bodies and witness as they grow.

As the weekend residential retreat continued, the layers of individual identity and separation fell away. A porousness was felt, within our surroundings and with each other, the liminality of energy fusing borders into connectors. Participants shed their names and titles: biologist, ecologist, permaculturist, journalist, organizer, activist, musician, student, farmer, peacemaker, counsellor, therapist. Light reflected off water, rippling through their bodies, showing in the mirror aspects of their manifestations:

A woman born into a new generation of trees, together emerging in a watery plain, their roots in flooded lands

A wounded tiger’s golden cry

A drummer whose heart beat syncs with the land

A shaman exploring her shadow

Two climbing vines interweaving, deepening

A nimble antelope, sensitive, vulnerable and sincere

A lynx who sighs the songs of pigeons and doves

Cool, still clear blue water

A forest goddess, a wounded healer, the keeper of secrets, granter of mercy

A shape-shifting silvery fish, shimmering water

In the expansive space of a weekend, we recovered ourselves as humans whose bodies carry stardust and the water once imbibed by dinosaurs and mammoths. We carry within us the stories, the flesh, and memory of the Western Black Rhinoceros, the Tasmanian Tiger, the Baiji White Dolphin, the Pyrenean Ibex, the Laughing Owl, the Weeping Willow, among our ancestral pantheon. Embarking on the path of Spiritual Ecology is to enter the web of life across time, space and being.

Hermitage lake.jpg

Before I left the sacred stillness of this moving residential retreat, I knew I needed to swim at least once in the cool lake below the Hermitage on the hill.  I had not swam in a lake like this since childhood.  First steps in startled me to full wakefulness, and each forward motion into the waters brought thousands of purple tadpoles surrounding my body. Vividly, I felt the trees and grasses at the water’s edge, the birds witnessing. In patches, the sun had warmed the top layer of the lake.  I glided through the waters, through pockets of warmth and icy cold.

The tadpoles swam with me. Together we are new to the world, rising to the water’s surface, drawing a collective new breath.


Post-script: Fever Dreams and Spiritual Sickness

Shortly after arriving home in Oxford from the residential workshop, I became feverishly ill. I tossed and turned in bed, unable to escape my discomfort. Then I remembered something I’d heard, an idea of spiritual sickness, of undiagnoseable ailments following deep spiritual experiences. I realized I was fighting this sickness, and in attempting to escape, I was creating greater suffering for myself. I decided to be still for a moment, still like the waters of the lake in which I’d recently swam. I listened. I opened my wider senses to the sickness itself.

My symptoms eased and a series of images flowed past my mind’s eye. The sickness showed me where it has been, what it knows of the ancient, the everlasting, the essence of existence, the deep interconnecting dynamic stream of life. The knowing of this sickness is primordial: the dust baked by a million suns; the cracks in the earth reaching down into its deepest core; the red-hot ridges of the ancient stones and plateaus of the Aztecs; the indigene who came and left, who rose and fell, who birthed and died in cycles unto themselves. All this it knows. All this we are.

In the sweep of fever, I felt that coming to meet my sickness in turn offered me the gift of creation, of time, of the heavy storms of our thickest, most porous waves of expressing our Being. The deepest aspects of the thread the reverberating web of life revealed themselves to me: the membrane and liminal energetic spaces, the pulsing life of the lake the thousands of tadpoles gasping the air, together, together, together, heave in out, in out, breathe, breathe, breathe.

Can you feel it? Can you feel the water flowing beneath the soil and roots, flowing over rock under the house, down the hill into the lake? I can feel it through my feet, but it is not my feet that are sensing. I feel it because I turn attention to it, and it knows me. I know it because we are the same.

Why have you come to visit me? I asked the sickness.

Why do the stones of the riverbed reflect the light of the moon? it answered.

  1. Sponsel, 2015
  2. Macy, 2014
  3. Durkheim, 1912
  4. Vaughan-Lee, 2017
  5. Macy, 2012
  6. Sponsel, 2012
  7. Berkes, 2012
  8. Vaughan-Lee, 2013
  9. Zalasiewicz et al., 2011
  10. Lorimer, 2015

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