Environmentalism as a Spiritual Practice

Recently I was at Fred Meyer (your usual grocery/department/everything else store, only unionized and with more sustainable choices). While picking up some socks for my husband, I happened to walk by a sale rack that was full of knee-high white socks with various environmental slogans on them (25% off, even!). “Oh, those are cute!” was my first thought. I almost thought about picking up a pair, but then read one of the slogans a little more closely: “Protect the Earth”, it said. That made me stop and think about the potential purchase. Just what was I about to buy? Socks made in China, out of cotton (which is one of the least sustainable fabrics due to the amount of resources used in processing it)–and since I mainly see socks as a necessary liner for shoes and boots in cold weather, I didn’t exactly need “cute” socks.

So I decided, “Okay, I’ll protect the Earth–by not buying a pair of probably-sweatshop-made, not-even-organic cotton socks that I don’t really need right now”. And walked away. I felt better about myself for having done that, not just because it’s better for the budget right now, as well as my attempt to lower my impulse spending, but because I did feel I made the more ethical choice in that case.

But it also made me feel more in line with my spiritual path. I claim to practice a nature-based path; multifaceted, but still focused primarily on the sanctity of nature. Environmentalism is one of the most physical manifestations of what it is I believe about reality. I do the things I do not only because of the physical realities (reducing waste means less in the landfill, etc.) but what I perceive as spiritual realities in my path (everything has a spirit, and one honors the Earth-as-a-being by reducing and even reversing the negative impact on it).

So I decided to assess my approach to environmentalism as a religion in and of itself, focusing on a few particular areas:

The Divine: I am unapologetically pantheistic. The Divine–whatever its nature may be–manifests itself in all things. “God” is not a presence up in heaven, with an antithesis in hell. “God” is right here, in every being, in every thing; just as each of our cells is a part of us, so are we all a part of the Divine. Now, is the Divine a personal deity who cares about every single one of us? Or is “the Divine” a catch-all metaphor for the sum total of Everything That Is, perhaps with collective awareness (or some other cohesive connection that we may or may not be able to comprehend)?

For me, I find my connection to the Divine/God/whatever label you wish to use in the intricate ecosystems that wrap around the Earth. This includes human beings; we may pretend we aren’t a part of Nature any more, but any time a person catches a disease, or eats, or breathes, they are participating in the local ecosystem. That ecosystem may be largely dominated and shaped by humanity, but humans cannot live separate from all other beings in total. Nor can we subsist without “non-living” natural resources.

Maybe the only hell is the physical and psychological illnesses that often result from attempting to isolate the self from everything else. My attraction to ecopsychology is largely due to the perception that I and others have had that A) disconnection from the natural environment (and other ecosystems) very often has a damaging effect on people, individually and culturally. and B) many people respond favorably to exposure to natural ecosystems to whatever degree they are comfortable (factoring in things like agoraphobia, associations between wilderness and trauma, etc.). I want to help facilitate people’s reconnection to ecosystems, natural and otherwise, because as a general culture most Americans are suffering from one degree of disconnection or another–I know I have my own issues to work through in that regard, and I’ve seen it countless times in others. Rugged individualism is not good for the soul (literal or metaphorical).

Everyday environmental actions help me with this reconnection to the Divine/Everything That Is. Whether I’m in the garden growing the most locally available food there is, or making decisions in purchases based on sustainability, or repurposing an item that may be too worn for its original role, these things remind me of my connection, that I’m not just acting for myself.

Dogma: Because our understanding of the environment is constantly changing, both due to the tools at our disposal, and the changes in the environment itself, there’s no room for unchanging dogma, beyond “Do what is best for the environment without destroying yourself” (though there are a few extremists who believe the best thing would be for the entire human species to commit self-extinction). And I like that lack of overall dogma. It can be easy to fall into dogmatic, repetitive patterns, however, particularly where other people are concerned. It’s tempting to point out another’s flaws, to say “Hey–you didn’t recycle that piece of paper! For shame!” And we do need to speak up to others about the issues at hand, and what people can realistically do to help (as well as holding corporations, some of the worst offenders, accountable for their part in all this mess).

But few people like being forcibly converted to any belief system, whether it’s a recognized religion, a philosophy, or so forth. And the thing that I’ve learned as an environmentalist is that that whole adage about flies and honey is true. Just by blogging about my garden on my Livejournal, I’ve convinced several people to try their own hands at gardening. That’s a more concrete result than the times I’ve gotten up on my soapbox to preach the Good Green Word–I’ve mainly just gotten agreement from those who were already on board, and occasionally some disagreement from others. The constructive approach does indeed work better.

If someone doesn’t do things my way, I have to accept that that’s the reality. Trying harder to get through to that person isn’t going to help; if anything it’s going to alienate them. And my job is not to change people’s minds; my job is to offer information and set an example–and if someone chooses to emulate that example out of their own free will, to do what I can to help. People can convert themselves just fine without my help.

Mythos: A mythos isn’t necessary to environmentalism in general (and in fact some environmentalists distance themselves even from things like the Gaia Hypothesis, for fear of getting accused of idolatry by their own faith communities). For me, personally, though, the mythos grew alongside with my environmental action.

I have a whole other post brewing about subjectivity and belief, but for the moment here’s what I’ll say to this: The mythos of therioshamanism and my paganism in general provides me with additional meaning to the everyday actions I take, both with regards to environmentalism and with other aspects of my life. I don’t believe my actions are dictated by other beings, spirits and deities and such. But the purpose of the mythos, and the rituals and other practices surrounding it, is to find and define meaning apart from the actual physical activities and chains of events themselves.

Why? Why do we create art? Or music? Why do we indulge in this thing called “love”, instead of only thinking of it as a mess of hormones meant to bind people for survival reasons? Not that love doesn’t contain the hormones and messiness, but we don’t have to romanticize it in order to survive. Neither do I have to work with the mythos and spiritual beliefs that mesh with my physical everyday life. But I have the mythos, and I believe in love, because I want to, and I like to, and these things make me happy. And, as mentioned, they add meaning, and additional structure, which are also valuable.

The Afterlife: I’m really not sure, honestly, what I think about the afterlife. I know that my body, which is made of all sorts of molecules that have been all kinds of things, will decompose and go on to become other things. Beyond that? Who knows for sure? I’ve mostly decided that I’m just going to wait until I die, and then I’ll know for sure. Yes, I have my experiences with spirits, which some think should prove to me that there is a spirit world. But I have no way of knowing that those spirits are real for anyone besides me. That’s not enough of a basis to form an afterlife on.

People have a hard time with impermanence. Even I have moments where I’m utterly terrified that there’s nothing beyond this life. But I try hard to avoid compromising the lives of others out of my fear of impermanence. If I want to convince someone that a particular practice is better for the Earth, I’m not doing it for the purpose of racking up bonus points with the Divine. I’m doing it because it’s something I feel will benefit those of us right here, right now–and future generations to come. I’d rather focus on this world while I’m in it, rather than looking forward to another world that may not even exist. I’d rather plant a garden than buy an indulgence.

Sin: I dislike the concept of sin. It’s such a dualistic concept. In my view, we make mistakes, we (hopefully) learn from them, we move on. I would say that deliberate destruction and greed are definitely bad things–but I hate the concept of “sin”, like something is automatically and completely antithetical to “the RIGHT way to do things”. Some things are most certainly bad for the environment, but referring to any action that’s supposedly anti-environmental as “a sin” seems too simplistic. Sometimes people make honest mistakes. Others don’t have the resources to be as green as they’d like. And since our understanding of what is environmentally friendly is constantly changing, what may be “bad” at one point may actually turn out to be better, or vice versa.

This could be a lot more complete, to be sure. I’m no expert theologian. But I wanted to get these thoughts out in their raw form; there may very well be more polished versions in the future. Constructive feedback is always appreciated.

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One thought on “Environmentalism as a Spiritual Practice

  1. Good morning, Lupa!

    I tried to comment on this article and “A Note on My Work with Totems,” which I read on Sunday afternoon, last night but my comments went into a black hole in cyberspace because I filled the form out wrong. Fry, fry a hen…

    I like both articles very much, but then I like what you write about therioshamanism generally so there’s likely some bias involved. What I like about your articles are: (1) Your views on things magickal and/or metaphysical are very similar to my own. (2) You’re a good writer, both in terms of your knowledge of your subject and in terms of your writing skills. (3) You write on topics that I find interesting–not just because of the aforementioned similarity of views but inherently so. I hope to see lots more articles like these two. In fact, I hope to see another whole book (or more!) on therioshamanism.

    Keep up the exciting work!

    Vi

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