Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Spiritual Ecology

Spiritual Ecology, The Cry of the Earth
Edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
The Golden Sufi Center, 2013

If you arrive suddenly in a foreign city, a city where you do not know the landmarks and do not speak the language, you may find yourself urgently in need a city guide.  In the same way, this book is vitally necessary, now that we find ourselves in a changed and unfamiliar world.  If we wish to survive as a civilization, we need to find new paths – and we need to find them quickly.  You would do well to call in sick to work – and stay home to read this.

A few of the texts here I’d found previously, including one that blew open my mind when I read it aged 19: Joanna Macy’s “Greening of the Self”.  It is even more amazing than I remember.  Thich Nhat Hanh is here as well and just because he’s a beloved Zen master who knows the right way to eat an orange doesn’t mean he pulls his punches: “In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed.”  He knows we may not make it.  Even acknowledging we may not survive, there is a way forward, a way to take action and not be paralyzed by helplessness.

Of the thinkers I discovered for the first time while reading this book, the most helpful and inspiring was Sister Miriam MacGillis.  The interview here with Sister Miriam, a contemplative inspired by Thomas Berry, was stunning – perhaps the most profound example of skillful means united with a vast perspective that I have ever come across.  Her understanding is so vast – and she brings it to bear on the farm that is in her stewardship.  I read it three times in a row.  It is magnificent.

I loved, too, Susan Murphy’s essay, “The Koan of the Earth”.  Susan Murphy is a Zen teacher in Australia and her gaze is stark and clear.  When the situation is as serious as this one, it is best to have a physician who does not mince words.  In order to survive, we will need vast compassion, and it is compassion like this, tough as nails.  (After reading this essay, I wanted very much to read ‘Minding the Earth, Mending the World’, Murphy’s book on this subject, but it appears to be unavailable.  Somebody please bring this book back to print!)

 I was particularly grateful to Geneen Marie Haugen and the essay “Imagining Earth”.  Haugen writes about how the imagination can be used to reacquaint ourselves with the sacred in the land and how this practice, which involves some “make-believe”, might turn out to be essential for our survival. 

Haugen helped me a lot to understand my own experience.  As a boy in New Hampshire, I experienced my family’s farm as a place vastly alive and full of spirits.  Certain places had certain powers; there was even an area I believed to be “the heart of the farm”.  I grew up, thought myself foolish, and it was years before I was able recognize how correct I’d been as a child!  This essay is a beautiful guide to this practice.  She helped me understand, too, why I find the unfortunate fate of my family’s farm (and life in Tokyo) so wrenching.  Haugen writes, “A practice of attending an animate world may have a cumulative effect of rearranging our own consciousness in a way that we cannot later withdraw from without pain”(166).  Yes, indeed.

Anthologies like this one aim to reach many people by providing many styles and approaches.  I admit there were a few essays here that seemed to me “keynote addresses” – general statements aimed at an audience already convinced.  I hope that this book will serve as a sort of general introduction for a series of books on this subject.

Hopefully these essays will serve to fuel discussion.  Admittedly, I did not agree with all the approaches found here.  A few, like the essay by Sandra Ingerman, seemed to be examples of cheesy, old-style New Age thinking that is too busy being airy and optimistic to actually be useful.  This sort of thing was good enough for 1987 (when “The Aquarian Conspiracy” was going to save us all) but – we’re going to need to think a lot harder now.

In a book of excellent essays, there was one essay that dismayed and even offended me:  Satish Kumar’s “3 Dimensions of Ecology: Soil, Soul, Society.”  As a keen student of Hinduism and Buddhism, I think the ecological perspectives of these traditions are both fascinating and urgently necessary.  This essay, however, is an embarrassing concoction of platitudes, generalities and sentimentality.  This is not 1893, Mr. Kumar is not Swami Vivekananda, and we do not need dumbed-down, platitude-ridden, soft-serve presentations of Hinduism anymore.  Pardon me for being rude, but I think this is an argument worth having! 

Kumar translates yagna, tapas and dana as soil, soul and society.  I’m sorry, but that’s not what those words mean.  If he wishes to give a creative translation or reinterpretation, that’s great, but he should give the traditional meanings and the reasons for his reinterpretation – not just assume that we are ignorant and cannot handle the actual definitions of words.  It is no longer necessary to gloss over what is complicated in these faiths -- we can handle the complexity of the real tradition.  For a brilliant discussion of how Hindus see the divine as manifest in the land around them, please read Diana Eck’s marvelous book India: A Sacred Geography, a book that is as necessary for ecologists as it is for students of religion.

I am grateful to this wonderful collection of essays for giving me so much to investigate and ponder – as well as a few things to argue about!  May there be more books like this one – and fast!  May the conversation continue deep into the night.            

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