One of the conundrums I often ponder is how, as humans, we can do what we are doing to the planet. Floating continents of trash in the oceans, flammable tap water, mountains laid low, ancient forests stripped bare. Why?
Why can’t we accept the world as it is and live in it, rather than breaking it and living among the shattered pieces, as fantasy writer Robin Hobb asks? What compels us to bite the very hand that feeds us? Why do we think it’s OK to shit where we eat?
Entitlement, greed, envy, jealousy, power, ignorance, and money are clearly motivating factors, but how, exactly, do these states or emotions overpower common sense?
Disengaging From the Universe
Galactic Paradise by Tunc Tezel
It seems this can only happen when we think we’re separate from everything and everyone else. When the world is limited to a focus on I/me/my/mine, then doing what it takes to ensure my own comfort and security is the only thing that “makes sense”—regardless of whether it’s at someone else’s expense.
Self-described “Earth Scholar” Thomas Berry wrote about this separation in The Great Work. He described how at one time we used nature and the universe as a way to put ourselves in context, to create an understanding of our identity in “the wonderful yet fearsome world about us.” But now,
“We no longer read the book of the universe. We have extensive contact with the natural world through photographs and television presentations. But as Saint Augustine remarked long ago, a picture of food does not nourish us. Our world of human meaning is no longer coordinated with the meaning of our surroundings. We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment that is inherent in our nature.”
This fundamental misunderstanding, this disengaging from the universe and acting as if we aren’t a part of it, leaves us without access to the “perks of membership,” so to speak. We perceive we have lost the benefits of connection, belonging, survival, healing, and a frame of reference for life.
We forget completely that we are dependent on something intangible, incredible, and inexplicable. Not dependent in a way that makes us weak, but in a way that makes us powerful beyond our imagining. We forget, as Carl Sagan said, “We are made of star-stuff.”
And in that forgetting we are cast adrift. We feel out of place, lost, ungrounded, and unsafe. We begin to act in ways we think will take care of us but lack a larger perspective. We expend huge amounts of effort and energy to arrange things for our benefit, destroying the infrastructure of life in the process.
Thomas Berry says,
“The difficulty is that with the rise of modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects […] We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning, we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.”
Begin With Yourself
Remarkably, the same process takes place on a micro level within each of us. As Zen teacher Cheri Huber (and others) have said, how you do anything is how you do everything.
Why do we do things that are harmful to us individually, like overeat, smoke, sabotage relationships, or physically harm others or ourselves? Why can’t we manage to do the things that take care of us, like keep the commitments to exercise and eat well?
When we are a house divided, we don’t connect our actions to their consequences, even when they’e in plain sight.
To act in ways that are life-sucking rather than life-giving, we have to leave ourselves. We have to forget who we are. Only then can we act compulsively, addictively, and harmfully, often in an attempt to ameliorate the feeling of unease we have from thinking of ourselves as separate. Only then do we override our own intuition with such ruthless ignorance.
How, then, do we end this illusion of separation? We begin with ourselves and work our way out from there. Albert Einstein suggests,
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Relearning Compassion From Nature
Poster outside the planetarium at SUNY New Paltz.
Embracing ourselves—and indeed everything—in compassion takes practice. We are not raised to think this way; we are not trained to do it. But we have an endless resource at our fingertips to help us learn: nature.
Our relationship status with nature right now would read: “It’s complicated.” We have not held up our end of the deal. We’ve made a bit of a mess of things. But the relationship can be salvaged if we commit to shifting our perspective from “me” as the center of the universe to “me” as a part of something much more grand.
To do this we must go outside. “One has to be alone, under the sky, before everything falls into place and one finds his or her own place in the midst of it all. We have to have the humility to realize ourselves as part of nature,” says Thomas Merton
Start rebuilding your relationship with nature today. Spend time in stillness or silence outdoors. Gaze at the clouds or the stars. Watch a particular tree in your yard or on your commute and note its changes throughout the year. Visit the reservoir where your water originates. Create small nature-centered celebrations. Pick up a pebble or a leaf every time you’re outside and hold it for a minute. Listen for the next birdcall you hear.
You will be surprised at how quickly you reconnect to nature. After all, you’re only recognizing something that already exists. And that something is waiting to welcome you home, as poet Mary Oliver says, to “your place in the family of things.”