Sacred Activism: Engaging Communities of Faith in Environmental Advocacy
The Bioneers Conference brings together exciting and cutting-edge innovators tackling the world’s most challenging social, cultural and environmental issues. Here, we bring together two thought-leaders and Bioneers presenters to share their deep wisdom in an intimate, in-depth conversation between peers. In our first conversation between Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee and theologian Matthew Fox, the faith leaders discuss sacred ecology, unity consciousness, spiritual narcissism and bringing reverence for the earth into today’s ecological debate.
Matthew: Today [Bioneers has asked] us to talk about ecology and spirituality. Who can deny that it doesn’t matter what your particular tradition is, or if you’re an atheist, if your backyard is burning up and you can’t plant food anymore, and the waters are rising? We’re all in trouble. And it can finally bring religions together and get over their narcissism.
Llewellyn: I hope so. Mysticism, as you know, has always held this common thread underneath religion- the union of inner experience. Part of the reason I wrote this book, Spiritual Ecology, was to try to bring that into the ecological debate because I felt that, although it was present, it wasn’t voiced enough.
Matthew: Absolutely. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with the archetype of the cosmic Christ- to awaken at least Christians that crucifixion is not something that happened 2,000 years ago, it’s happening with the killing of the rainforests and the whales and the polar bears and everything else today.
Llewellyn: It’s happening to the earth.
Matthew: To me, that not only can energize spiritual warriors to get work done today, but it also can reinvent our faith traditions themselves, which I think fall into narcissism as distinct from mysticism.
Llewellyn: I have a concern that somehow people who have a spiritual awakening or awareness are somehow too focused on their own individual inner spiritual journey, and to me this is a travesty of real spiritual awakening or spiritual awareness, which has to do with the whole, and this whole includes the earth.
Matthew: I couldn’t agree more. If you’re breakthrough does not lead to transpersonal service, to compassion, to justice, including ecojustice, then I doubt its authenticity. And Jesus said it very simply, that by their fruits you’ll know them. And we can be so taken by our spiritual experiences that we don’t realize this about energizing you to serve.
Llewellyn: In Sufism they actually say after the station of oneness comes the state of servant hood, that one is then in service. Sufis are known as servants.
Matthew: Or as someone else put it, after ecstasy comes the laundry.
Llewellyn: Somehow we have become so focused on our own human journey that we’ve forgotten that this human journey is part of the earth’s journey. There used to be, I’m sure you’re aware of this, a deeper understanding that our soul is part of the world’s soul, the anima mundi, and we’ve lost that connection. We’ve lost that understanding that our spiritual light is part of the light of the world. And we have to regain that.
Matthew: Right. And how the earth story itself is part of the cosmic story.
Llewellyn: It’s all one. It’s all one living, breathing, inter-related, interdependent spiritual organism as much as a physical organism, and I think we have, for some extraordinary reason, forgotten that.
Matthew: I think there are a lot of reasons, and one of them is the anthropocentrism and the narcissism of the modern consciousness. But I also think part of it too is the beating up of matter over the centuries by theologically influential thinkers. That kind of separation, that kind of dualism is so destructive because then you think the body is secondary, and then Mother Earth is secondary, and everything else. To put things in context, we wouldn’t have our imaginations and our breath and our food and our existence without matter. Matter is not an obstacle to spirit.
Llewellyn: I think the early rejection of all of the earth-based spirituality by the Christian church has left a very sad vacuum that we’re now, in a way, seeing the result of.
Matthew: Paying the price for. And I think it goes back, actually, to the 4th century. If you’re going to run an empire- as the church more or less inherited the empire in the 4th century, it behooves you to split matter from spirit, and also to talk about original sin, and get people confused about their own inner nobility and empowerment, and divinity, really. I think that it has served political interests and cultural power trips to split people that way.
Llewellyn: Well, the male domination of nature kind of took the high ground, and now we have to, in a very few years, try to redress this balance and reclaim the sacred nature of creation. And what is central to me is to try to bring that into the ecological debate because I don’t see how we can address this physical devastation of creation, this ecocide, unless we look at its spiritual roots and reconnect ourselves to the sacred nature that is the world around us.
Matthew: And within us. And that’s what makes deep ecology different from ecology.
Llewellyn: Right. My teaching is to say mystics teach simple things, but those simple things change people’s worlds. And how can we re-energize that mystical perspective so we can bring it into this global arena that is calling out to us? I mean, the earth is calling. That’s why I called this book Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth because the earth is crying, the soul of the earth is crying. We need to respond from our own soul as well as with our hands.
Matthew: And, of course, Einstein said it’s from intuition and feeling that we get values, not from the intellect. He says the intellect gives us methods; it does not give us values. And I think when you look back at it, this is how various traditions of monastic learning also included the heart in some way or other.
Llewellyn: When you say including the heart, I would suggest something even more radical. How can we bring our love for the earth into the center of this concern with the well-being of the earth? In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh recently said real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet.
As a mystic, I believe in the primacy of love, and we have this love for the earth. It is so generous. It has given us life. It has given us breath. It has given us water. And we have treated it so badly in response. I feel that this mystical center of divine love is really the power behind the planet, because it is really what gives life to us all. I mean, it’s a really radical thought to bring that essential quality into the ecological debate.
And although we have this physical responsibility, how can we bring this love that belongs also to our sense of the sacred? How can we learn once again to live in love with the earth in the way we live, in our daily activities so that everything becomes imbued with this sense of the sacred?
One can educate the mind, but also we somehow have been stripped of the power of love, which is, as a mystic, the greatest power in creation.
Matthew: In our traditions, certainly the Jewish tradition but also the Aquinas, it is said too that the mind resides in the heart. We don’t have to, how should I say, pit one against the other. That real heart knowledge- when you’re really in love with something, you want to learn more about it.
Llewellyn: Also the heart and the mind in the heart see the oneness in things. Sufis say when the eye of the heart is open—the Sufis talk about the eye of the heart—then in each atom there are a million secrets. And we see the unity in life, in everything that we are part of. We need to reclaim that unity, that oneness, because life is dying and it’s dying because we split spirit and matter, we separated ourselves from creation. The analytic mind tries to split everything up into smaller and smaller pieces. We need to return to this oneness, this awareness of the interdependence of all of life, this web of life, which our ancestors knew and revered so deeply.
Somehow we have lost connection with this spiritual dimension of creation, and to me that is the root of our present ecological imbalance because we don’t respect or revere creation as our ancestors and indigenous peoples have always done.
And somehow, as you say, the mystics have held this thread in the West, but a thread is no longer enough. It needs to be a revolution, a revolution of the heart, a revolution of consciousness that sees the oneness that is within and all around us. I suppose the challenge is, how do we give this back to humanity, this forgotten treasure, this secret, this deep awareness of the real nature of creation, that it is not dead matter?
I always say the world is not a problem to be solved, it’s a living being to be related to, and it is calling to us. It needs our attention, not just of our minds, but also of our hearts. It is our own awakened consciousness that can heal the earth.
Matthew: Another dimension, I think, including when it comes to the love, is grief. We don’t deal well with grief in our culture, and that’s one reason I think anger gets battered all over the walls. We don’t deal with anger in a constructive way very often.
I do a lot of grief ceremonies- we need practices and rituals. When grief builds up, when you can’t deal with grief, not only does anger build up, but also that joy, that love gets clouded over, and people feel disempowered then. So I think grief work is a part.
What can I say? Who cannot be grieving today about what’s happening to the earth? You’d have to be extremely busy covering up your grief and putting a lot of energy there.
Llewellyn: But I think we do. We’re a culture of mass distractions. We try to avoid at all costs seeing the real fruits of our actions.
You talk about practices; I would say the most important practice is to listen. Thich Nhat Hanh said to heal the earth, he says to listen to its cry because the earth is crying, but we don’t know how to listen. We’ve forgotten this feminine wisdom of deep listening. If there is deep ecology, there is deep listening. We have to relearn this feminine wisdom of listening to the earth. It is so old, it is so wise, it has been through many crises before, and we need to cooperate.
In fact, Thomas Berry says we are only talking to ourselves; we are not talking to the rivers; we are not listening to the winds and stars; we have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. And we have to learn again how to listen to the earth, and how to open that ear of the heart. We have been told this great lie that we are separate from the earth, that it is something out there. It is not out there, we are part of the earth. We are made of stardust.
We need to feel the grief within our own self for the earth and learn to listen to the earth, learn to hear it, learn to re-attune ourselves, just like the shamans did of old, just like the wise people who listened to the wind, who listened to the rivers, who felt the heartbeat of creation. And it might not sound very practical but it has a deep, deep wisdom within it, and I think we need all the help we can get at the moment.
Matthew: Absolutely. And that’s where the world’s spiritual traditions, if they get out of their anthropocentric, reptilian brain dimension of wanting to conquer each other and be number one or something gets shaken down, and as you say, bring this feminine dimension back, the receptivity and contemplation and silence.
Llewellyn: And not to rush for a quick fix, because I don’t think we can quickly fix this environmental crisis. It has been building up for centuries.
Matthew: I do think that the patriarchal mindset feeds the reptilian brain excessively, whereas, I think the real way to treat the reptilian brain is to learn to meditate and be still, because reptiles like to lie low and in the sun… We have to make room for that mammal brain, which is half as old as the reptilian brain in us, which is the brain of compassion and the brain of kinship and family, and also of getting along with the rest of nature.
Llewellyn: This is what Oren Lyons said, when he spoke about our original instructions in the Native American tradition. He said one of the original instructions is we have to get along together. And it’s very simple, but once you realize we are one living community and we can only survive as one living community, it’s very fundamental. It’s not sophisticated, but we seem to have forgotten it, that we are part of this living, interdependent, interwoven organism that is all around us and that we are part of.
I think we have a duty, any of us who have an awareness of this, to bring this into the forefront, to claim it; not to allow this dark side of our civilization to devour all the light. That’s why when you spoke about religious narcissism, and I spoke about my concern that spiritually awakened people are just using their own light for their own inner spiritual journey or their own image of spiritual progress, we have to make a relationship between our light and the world which is hungry for this light. And there used to be always this relationship between the light of the individual soul and the light of the world’s soul, and somehow we need to reconnect with this earth on a very deep, foundational, spiritual basis. We are part of one spiritual journey, one life journey, one evolution, and our soul and the soul of the world are not separate, and we have to reclaim this connection.
And somehow, as you say, human spirituality and religion became narcissistic, and that was never the intention because Christ’s love was for the world; the Buddhist’s peace was for the world. The message is always for the whole.
Matthew: I think today a lot of young people are being caught up in the vocation of, as you say, re-sacralizing the earth, but doing it through everything from the way we eat and farm to the way we do business and politics.
Llewellyn: It’s the attitude that we bring to it. It’s always the attitude. If we come in the deepest sense, with an attitude of prayer or even just respect and reverence for each other, for the earth, for what is around us, then the healing can begin, and the forces of darkness will recede. But we will wait and see.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Matthew: It’s been fun. Thank you.