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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents page for full permissions.

4: Spiritual experience as transformative

And this is where the image of environmentalism-as-religion begins to have real meaning and relevance. For as the rainforest activist John Seed has written, facts alone do not change a life; it is the intuitive, spontaneous awareness -- "not obtained by any act of will or logic" -- of our connectedness with the subjects of those facts that make them more than just words on paper, or images on a television screen. It is that sudden, deep rush of wonder, of reverence for the beauty and mystery of the natural world, that brings about the connectedness that motivates action and change:

The figures and extrapolations of the scientists, combined with the evidences we experience daily, are both mind-boggling and numbing. They are so real as to test all our capacities of denial, almost impossible to integrate into the reality of the humdrum of our daily lives.

They first became real for me when I first participated in actions to protect some of the remaining rainforests near my home in New South Wales, Australia. Then I was able to embody, to bring to life, my intellectual knowings in interaction with other beings -- protesters, loggers, police, and the trees and other inhabitants of these forests. There and then I was gripped with an intense, profound realization of the depths of the bonds that connect us to the Earth, how deep are our feelings for these connections. I knew than I was no longer acting on behalf of myself or my human ideas, but on behalf of the Earth -- that I was literally part of the rainforest defending herself.[7]

I have often used this criterion myself, when attempting to evaluate spiritual experiences, both my own and those of others. Attempting to evaluate the spiritual experiences of others may seem presumptuous, but it is an unfortunate fact of modern life that for many people the major use of spirituality is as a means of self-aggrandizement, where the aim is showing off one's "enlightened" state to others. The most useful way I have found of separating the wheat from the chaff is to look at whether someone's professed spiritual path or experiences appear to have caused a qualitative change in their behaviour or perceptions.

And I have often enough found that it did that I remain convinced that spirituality can have an important role to play in transforming our relationship with nature -- in practice as well as in theory. I have seen previously apolitical people sufficiently moved by spiritual experiences with nature to place their bodies on the line defending wild places from destruction. And I know that, no matter how deeply I delve into scientific and ecological understandings of nature, it is not the facts and figures that are on my mind when I take action on behalf of the nonhuman world, but the long history of spiritual interactions and encounters I have had with nature and natural powers.

I think it is important here to draw a distinction between spirituality and religion, for the two are, to my mind, related, but not synonymous. Turning once again to the dictionary, we find spiritual defined first as "of, relating to, or consisting of the spirit" (which in turn is defined as "an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms"), and secondly as "of or relating to sacred matters," which we have already discussed. Religion we find as "the service and worship of God or the supernatural," or, more specifically, as "a personal or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices." One is a matter of spontaneous experience or awareness, the other of a specific system of beliefs or practices.

While spiritual awareness and experiences certainly can take place within the context of a set of codified religious beliefs and practices, and often do, they can also quite easily occur outside such settings. Spirituality is not necessarily theistic, nor inextricably tied to any specific framework of belief. Earth First! founder Dave Foreman writes in his essay "The Arrogance of Enlightenment":

If you want heaven -- it is here. Walk through an aspen grove on a bright autumn day. The gold in that light is more real than in the streets beyond the Pearly Gates. If you seek total union with the cosmos, then float a river, drift into river time, let the rich red of the San Juan or the crystal of the Salmon make you part of All. If it's Valhalla you desire, stand with your bold friends before a bulldozer, then eat, drink and make merry with them in victory celebration afterwards. And reincarnation -- yes, that too. Your atoms are of the everlasting rocks, and will become buzzard, weasel, dung beetle, worm, and so on for eternity after your simple brain sleeps. Heaven, Nirvana, Valhalla, everlasting life are here and now -- in the real world. We need nothing more than this paradise into which we were born.[8]



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