Recently, I was asked by an environmental activist what spirituality could possibly contribute to global warming and related issues. I said that the environmental crisis is also a spiritual crisis, because if we do not tap deeply into the hearts and minds of human beings we will fall into the trap that Einstein warned us about: trying to solve problems with the same consciousness that created them in the first place. In which case, all the political, economic, and technological interventions we employ will fall short of the mark.
By a spiritual response, I mean a pragmatic, rational spirituality that can add three vital dimensions to environmental action:
- Personal transformation. To the extent that spiritual practices foster calmness, contentment, and compassion, they exert a counterforce to the greed, acquisitiveness, and selfishness that enlarge our environmental footprint. Spiritually aware people are not as likely to consume resources for the sake of superfluous wealth, because they know that owning baubles and status symbols does not bring happiness, much less real fulfillment. In that light, living more simply is not a form of deprivation or sacrifice, it's simply a sensible choice.
- Greater awareness. We need to reduce mental waste as well as toxic chemical waste. Spiritual technologies that quiet the mind and expand consciousness can help us discard outdated assumptions and stale ideologies, making us more receptive to creative solutions and new conceptual paradigms.
- Unity. Authentic spiritual experience shatters the permeable membrane that separates individual consciousness from the larger whole. It is one thing for the intellect to understand that we're all connected to each other and the rest of the planet. It is quite another to feel that unity, and to know deep in your bones that you are One with all that is. We need more individuals who think and act from that platform of unified awareness.
The point is, we need to change radically the way we experience our presence on the planet. And to arrive at wise decisions for the common good, we need to transcend our egos, our selfish interests, and our petty differences, and identify instead with our commonality as earth-based life forms. That requires a shift in consciousness from separation to connection, from division to unity – and that is the essence of spirituality.
So, if safeguarding the planet's future and conserving energy sources are not enough incentive for you to live more sustainably, let me add another: doing so can be a profound spiritual practice that enhances your personal development. Here are some tips for doing good for Earth and doing well by your soul.
A complete spiritual life usually includes some form of devotion. Many spiritual practitioners these days have difficulty finding a focal point for feelings of devotion, because the form of worship in mainstream religion doesn’t appeal to them. Why not make Earth itself an object of devotion? The Greek goddess Gaia, after all, was a personification of the impulse to revere the planet as if it were a being. You might worship Jesus, or Krishna, or any other form of deity, or God as Father or Mother, and also worship our magnificent planet as a unique manifestation. By holding the planet as sacred, you not only treat it better, you also open your heart and uplift your soul every time you appreciate its wonders.
As a matter of practical spirituality, you might want to think of every energy-saving, carbon-reducing, toxin-removing action you take as a sacred ritual. Changing light bulbs in your lamps? It's not only a way to reduce energy use and save money in the long run, it's a holy offering. Why not make a ritual out of it? Ditto for bringing canvas bags to the market and saying "no" to both plastic and paper. Same for buying a hybrid car or installing solar panels on your house: such acts are like placing an offering into a planetary collection basket. You can do the same for any gesture that reduces your carbon footprint, and while you’re at it bring your family into the act and make it a communal form of devotion, like saying a pre-dinner prayer. I can't think of any religion with which that would be incompatible.
Finally here's an idea I wish would catch on. Take an energy break as a sacred offering to our divine planet. Declare some evening a holy night, or call some Saturday or Sunday an Earth Sabbath, or turn an entire weekend into a retreat. Unplug everything nonessential. No TV, no stereo, no computer. Stay home: use no gas, create no exhaust fumes. Shut the lamps and burn. Read, talk, sing with your loved ones, or immerse yourself in blessed solitude. Think of the energy saved if large numbers of people would do this from time to time. And could anything be more nourishing for your spiritual life?
When you see the planet as your altar, every bush becomes a burning bush, and every step you take is on holy ground. And when all of creation is seen as an emanation of the Divine, you can only bow in awe before the Creator of it all, whatever or Whoever you understand that creative force to be. At which point, defiling the planet and wasting its gifts feels almost like blasphemy.
We are called upon by history to change our ways. The cool thing is, doing so can be a gift to ourselves as well as future generations, because it can connect us more fully to the divine Presence.