How do we as individuals approach a problem as seemingly hopeless and overwhelming as the ongoing planetary crisis caused by the air pollution and climate change?
One way is to stop thinking of ourselves as individuals.
“The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong,” writes Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the author and Sufi mystic. “The world is part of our own self and we are part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing.”
Vaughan-Lee offers that insight in his introduction to a new collection of essays titled Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. I was most impressed by a piece by Joanna Macy titled “The Greening of the Self.” Those dozen pages alone are worth the price of admission.
Macy combines her talents as a Buddhist, ecologist, philosopher, and spiritual activist in an masterful essay that summarizes the ontological misunderstanding behind our ecological crisis and offers a hopeful vision on how we can move forward.
First, we must stop thinking of ourselves as what the late Buddhist writer Alan Watts liked to call “the skin-encapsulated ego.”
“The crisis that threatens our planet, whether seen in its military, ecological, or social aspects, derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self,” Macy writes. “It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things. It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, nation-states, or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings.”
Our rugged American individualism is our culture’s blessing and its curse. It built our nation and now threatens to destroy our world.
This does not mean we must discard our distinctiveness or lose our identity like a drop in the ocean. As the poet Roger Keyes observes, “As you let life live through you,” you become “more of who you really are.”
This expanded sense of ourselves can be found in monotheism—in the Jewish Renewal Movement, Creation Spirituality in Christianity, or Sufism in Islam.
Buddhist meditation and philosophy helps us see what the Buddha woke up to under the bodhi tree, which Macy describes as “the dependent co-arising of all phenomena, in which you cannot insulate a separate, continuous self.”
“The Buddhist path leads us to realize that all we need to do with the self is see through it,” Macy writes. “When you take it too seriously, when you suppose that it is something enduring which you have to defend and promote, it becomes the foundation of delusion, the motive behind our attachments and aversions.”
The greening of the self not only allows us to “expand our self-interest to include other beings in the body of Earth.” It allows us a new kind of immortality. It “widens our window on time.”
“The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception,” Macy observes. “Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first splitting and spinning of the stars.”
That realization, she concludes, can give us “strengths that we never imagined.”
“When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us to survive.”
That speaks to me and gives me hope. What does it do for you?
Don Lattin is the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America. To learn more about his work, visit www.donlattin.com.
For informaiton of the book reviewed, click here.