by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, February 2014
One of the first responses I received to my recently published book, Darkening of the Light: Witnessing the End of an Era, was that it was “a tough read,” and “I wish he would have been clearer as to what steps we can do in our complex lives to try the best we can to return the soul of the world to its former strength and beauty.” Normally I am reluctant to tell people what to do, as we each have our own inner wisdom, our own guidance and way to reconnect with the soul of the world. But this request struck a chord and in a moment of inspiration I came up with a “Four-Point Plan” to respond to this darkening.
The subtitle of the book, Witnessing the End of an Era, is really the first of the four points: Witnessing—an awareness of what is happening in the inner and outer worlds. It means a state of awareness that sees without judgment, without expectation, without wanting anything, and in particular without wanting anything to change.
This is a very, very important esoteric spiritual practice—to witness, to watch. In Sufism the witness is called shahid. Part of our spiritual practice is just to watch—to witness. Initially you watch your self, you become aware of your self just through witnessing. You watch your reactions; you watch the patterns you live by. You don’t try to change them, because only too often when you try to change patterns you use the same attitude of consciousness that created them—then you just create a variation rather than any real change. It is actually a very important step “on the spiritual path not to want anything, not to try to change, but just to be aware. This gradually creates a quality of consciousness, or awareness, separate from the ego and its patterns, desires and fears—and is the beginning of bringing the consciousness of the Self into your life.
The work of witnessing that we practice on an individual level can also happen on a global level. Sufis have been called “a brotherhood of migrants who keep watch on the world and for the world.” We watch what is happening in the inner and outer worlds. The outer world is of course more visible, more directly perceived. But as mystics and spiritual practitioners we also have access to the inner worlds, the world of our individual soul and the world soul, the anima mundi. For example, through meditation you can begin to be aware of how the light within you changes, when you have access to more light, greater inner clarity. You may also become aware of how certain outer actions or inner attitudes effect your inner light, or how your generosity or loving kindness changes, grows or lessens depending on your behavior—what Sufis call your adab. Just as you can be aware of these changes within your self, so you can become aware of changes within the Greater Self—your soul and the world soul.
We watch our self and we watch the world. Nothing is separate, everything is interconnected. And in today’s world it is much easier to keep an awareness of what is happening in the world. For many years I have begun each day with a practice of inner and outer awareness. I like to get up early, and I begin with a cup of tea, followed by meditation, followed by prayer. In my morning meditation I create a receptive space and inwardly ask if there is anything I need to see or be aware of during the day—I am inwardly attentive. Then, after praying for others, I listen to the news on the radio or read the news on the Internet to see what is happening in the world. So I begin my day attuned to the world. This was something my teacher Irina Tweedie taught us—she was often awake in the night and would listen to the BBC World Service on the radio, and she said it was like seeing a game of chess, an invisible hand moving pieces around the board of the world. In this way we can see things happening in the world not from any judgmental point of view but just from an awareness—a witnessing.
Then, as the first light comes, I go for a walk. I am fortunate to live in nature, and my walk beside the wetlands with the changing tides is a way to consciously connect to the natural world—to begin the day aware of its beauty, its rhythms and quality of presence. Through these simple practices I start the day with an attitude of witnessing, a communion with the world which is also an inner prayer. I am aware of the interconnected world of which I am a part, and I bring my consciousness into this inner and outer web of life.
We are part of this living world. Thich Nhat Hanh says very clearly: “We will survive and thrive together with our Mother Earth or we will not survive at all.” Part of our next step in evolution is an awareness of this living unity, this oneness which is life itself.
We are now a global community, and I think as responsible global citizens we need to be aware of what is happening in the world, whether it is the oil spills in Nigeria or the nuclear disaster that is still unfolding in Japan. Nothing is somewhere else, everything is in our backyard, and we need to hold an awareness of what is happening—like a light shining in the darkness.
Although as a culture we only value action—doing—there is a power in witnessing that can stop something getting worse in a particular way, the light of consciousness can hold back the darkness. While there is an outer awareness of our ecological devastation there is little awareness of what is happening in the inner worlds, which is part of the reason I wrote Darkening of the Light. And during the last five or six years I was made to witness this tragedy unfolding in the inner worlds, what I have called the loss of the light of the sacred. I saw what was being lost and it was so painful for me that I would block it out, sometimes for months at a time. I did not want to see, but something made me witness the inner effect of our outer actions—how the outer ecological crisis is reflected by an inner crisis that is even more tragic because it is unreported, unacknowledged, hardly witnessed. The darkness of our culture of greed and global exploitation, of forgetfulness of the sacred, is covering the light of the inner world, of the world soul.
Witnessing is more important than we realize. There is a mystical tradition that we are the eyes and ears of God in this world. Ibn Arabi says “the mystic is the pupil in the eye of humanity” because the mystic sees with the single eye of truth. In Shakespeare’s King Lear there is a very moving passage towards the end of the play, when the ageing king and his favorite daughter Cordelia are imprisoned, and he talks about how they will hear what happens at the court:
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.
Like Lear and Cordelia, we are God’s spies, aware not only of the outer play of events, “who loses and who wins,” but also the inner truth, “the mystery of things.” And part of the inner truth that is overlooked at this time is the effect of our outer actions and attitude on the world soul, the anima mundi. This also needs to be witnessed.
The second of the four-point plan is Grief. Over the last few years, as I have witnessed what is happening to the inner worlds, I have felt deep and at times almost overwhelming sorrow—the sorrow at how the sacred is being neglected and the light being lost. Recently, when I was on a recent panel at Bioneers with Joanna Macy and Dekila Chungyalpa, they each spoke about how environmental work at this time evokes an extreme feeling of grief, as those involved witness what is happening to the natural world, what is being needlessly destroyed and in some instances lost forever. They said that for people in the environmental community the grief is sometimes too much to bear. But Joanna specifically said it’s really important to acknowledge the grief, to feel what is happening.
While witnessing is an objective act, feeling sorrow or grief engages us in a different way. There is the enormous grief over what we are doing to this beautiful planet, and there are places in the world where it is like an open wound. For example, on Midway island in the Pacific, one of the most remote places on earth, tens of thousands of baby albatrosses are lying dead, their bodies filled with plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch. Chris Jordan has filmed this, and he writes about his profound grief for the life that is lost. But he also says how he:
came to discover that grief is not sadness. Grief is love. Grief is a felt experience of love for something lost or that we are losing. That is an incredibly powerful doorway. I think we all carry that abiding ocean of love for the miracle of our world.[i]
Grief draws us towards love, opening us to our love for the world. And nothing is more potent or vital at this time than our love for the Earth. Love for the Earth, the most fundamental connection of our heart and soul with our planet, has to be the foundation for ecological work, in both the inner and outer worlds.
To quote Thich Nhat Hanh:
Real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.[ii]
I think it requires a certain maturity to be able to feel and hold the tremendous grief at what we are destroying. But it means our hearts are engaged, our love for the Earth is present. This is our Earth, which has given us so much, and this is where our children and our grandchildren will grow up—and what we are doing is almost unspeakable. It is a betrayal of life itself. And we need to feel this, to grieve and to love.
But once you understand that the outer world is just a reflection of the inner world—which is an ancient esoteric teaching—well, sometimes I am glad that no one can see what I have been shown in the inner worlds and what this means. My own journey, my witnessing, has made me see what I find most tragic: the pollution and desecration of the inner worlds. Twenty years ago where there were still inner places of beauty and sacred meaning, now there is just a wasteland; where there were flowers, where there was still a spring, now something has been lost that cannot be replaced in our generation—and I don’t know what it will take to redeem it.
What for me is most tragic is the loss of the light of the world soul in the inner worlds. This light of the soul is what is most precious within our individual self and within the world soul. Without this light we cannot see, cannot find our way—the sacred meaning of life becomes covered over, obscured, almost lost. And seeing the inner worlds polluted, desecrated by our greed and endless desires to such a degree that this substance, this light, has been diminished—in some instances almost extinguished—has evoked an almost unbearable sorrow, the sorrow of my own soul for what is being lost. And this sorrow, this cry from the depths within me, brings to the surface the most primal cry of the soul, a prayer to God: “Remember the Earth, remember the Earth.”
The first stage is Witnessing, the second is Grief, and from this grief comes the third stage, Prayer. Prayer is the soul’s most basic response. It is our cry to God, to our Beloved, in times of distress. And my sense is that this primal cry from the soul is also the Earth’s prayer—the Earth is crying to God through us—our prayer is the voice, the calling of the Earth.
Each in our own way we pray, we cry within our heart. It can be the simple prayer of placing the Earth in our hearts and offering it to God—with our love, our grief, our sorrow at what is happening we lift our hearts to our Beloved. Or it can just be the few words of “Beloved, help!” or “Remember the Earth.” Prayer is born from need, and the Earth is in need of our prayers. Grief has opened our heart, our sorrow has cried out and this cry is our prayer.
I feel very strongly that grace and the power of God are needed to heal and transform our suffering planet. Too much has been destroyed, too much darkness is present for humanity alone to redeem the wasteland we have created, the light we have lost. Only through love and the presence of the Beloved can our world be healed.
I found it poignant that at the end of the interview I had with Oprah, she asked me, “Do you have one thing—main thing you want to say?” And something within me responded and said, “Yes! That the world belongs to God.” We have forgotten that the world belongs to God—in our hubris we think that we are the masters of creation, the lords of the world. But I don’t think that with all our effort we can heal the world—the destruction has been too great. We don’t have the understanding, nor do we have the power. Only through grace can the necessary healing be given.
The forces of darkness are destroying this world, whether you call them multi-national corporations, the oil business, or pure greed and corruption. In the last few years these forces have become more globally dominant and are now rampaging over the face of the world. Personally I am convinced that they are forces of darkness. Not only are they enacting ecocide but they go against everything that is sacred in life. They are destroying our fragile web of life, and also attacking the inner world, the light of the sacred and the world soul. They are merciless in their exploitation. What we do not understand is that the outer world can regenerate itself much more quickly than the inner world. Nature can push back, “rewilding” can take place. But when the light in the inner world is diminished to such a degree, it is very, very difficult to regenerate. This is particularly true at this time, as we have lost much of the wisdom of how to work with the inner world. How many shamans are left who really understand how to heal the inner, particularly in our present culture that denies the very existence of inner worlds—that does not even know about the world soul?
In the face of this darkness and our own ignorance, our prayers are needed. We cannot fight the growing darkness, its tentacles are too pervasive, its grip on (or within?) our culture too strong. But we can pray—we can cry out to God. And we should never underestimate the power of prayer, the power of this primal connection and communion with the Creator, with the Power that is behind all that exists. In the moment of real despair our cry can be heard and real help and healing be given, the miracle of rebirth can happen.
And from this prayer we can also discover the action that needs to be done. Action is the fourth stage. We live in a world that needs us to act, to respond outwardly just as our prayers are an inner response: in the words of the Shakers, “Hands to work and hearts to God.” The problem with most action at this time is that it comes from the same mind-set that created the problem, the same conditioning and values that are destroying our world. This is why first we need to pray, so that we are aligned with a different set of values, a consciousness that is not conditioned. First prayer, then action.
Through prayer our hearts and minds can become aligned with the real need of the Earth and its wisdom which is deeper and older than our surface solutions.
Hopefully we can be open enough to be guided towards the real work that needs to be done, rather than continuing the distortions of our present culture; a culture which rarely sees sustainability referring to the whole of creation, but rather as sustaining our present materialistic, energy-intensive lifestyle. Through prayer we can respond from a place of real wholeness, and a deeper knowing of the patterns of interconnection that run through all of life. Then our hands can work together with the energy of life, an energy that can restore and heal, that is responsive to life’s needs rather than just our desires.
Personally I do not feel now is the time for big projects. I don’t think there is yet the power, the energy or knowledge to support them. I think they will too easily get caught in the ideologies of the past, the mechanisms and framework of how our present civilization is constructed. I like the work of the English “recovering environmentalist” Paul Kingsnorth who says we have to accept that it’s over, this civilization is over. There is no point in trying to patch it up. It won’t work, and too often then you just feed energy in to the same ideology—you think you are doing something when you are just spinning wheels going nowhere. Yet action is required, and we should begin with what is small but essential, as when Mother Theresa says “small things with great love.”
To counter the darkening caused by the global corporations we need to return to what is most essential, the simple acts of care and loving kindness towards the ecosystem and each other. This is where healing will be born, in the small communities that are already growing around the planet—a return to simple human values that are not based upon greed. To act in our communities with care and concern—caring for a sick friend, cooking a meal with real love and attention—living with right action, mindfulness and common sense, and not being caught in the monster of consumerism that devours so much of our energy and light.
How can we live simply and mindfully, with reverence for all of life? How can we once again learn to listen to life, the Earth, to our hearts, so we act in harmony with the real forces that underlie creation? How can we return to the values that sustain our souls as well as our bodies? What do we really need, rather than what we want? And how can we contribute, how can we help others and the Earth? How can we live the generosity that the Earth continues to teach us?
From this awareness, and the actions to which it gives birth, life can regenerate, organically, holistically. Life evolves and is a living organism that can recreate itself. But this will not be an easy transition, because our world is so out of balance. Our civilization has been running on empty for too long, our way of life too unsustainable. If we continue our future is too bleak, the inner emptiness too desolate. In pursuit of a few material pleasures we will have lost what is most precious and most meaningful in our existence. We will have to confront our fears and our weaknesses, find courage that we did not know we had. Nor do we know how long this transition may take. We may be just creating the seeds for a future that will blossom in a hundred years or more. But with grace, commitment and care, with a heart open to grief and to love, life can once again regenerate—together we can create a way of life that is truly sustainable. The light of the sacred will rekindle, and once again the soul of the world will sing the song of creation: the hidden mystery within all of life.
[i] “An Abiding Ocean of Love, A Conversation with Chris Jordan,” published online by the Center For Ecoliteracy, http://www.ecoliteracy.org/
©2013 The Golden Sufi Center, www.goldensufi.org
Related website: Spiritual Ecology