In the previous podcasts, in response to our present ecological crisis, I have focused on a primary need to make a shift in consciousness, to change the story. The central note of this is that unless we return our consciousness to the living Earth—what I have called a deep ecology of consciousness—there will be no living future, no way to survive these present times both physically and spiritually, both body and soul. Also, because the present time and the foreseeable future are so uncertain, with the climate crisis accelerating and a soulless inner wasteland becoming more desolate, there seems little to gain from making plans. Yes, certain work is essential, like limiting carbon emissions and halting the loss of biodiversity, but there are deeper shifts and questions that our present models cannot answer.
However, when a decade ago I published my first small book about this time of transition, Darkening of the Light: Witnessing the End of an Era, I was asked “What steps can we do in our complex lives?” 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 response struck a chord and I came up with a “Four-Point Plan” which outlines a four-point response to our present global predicament, based upon the tradition of witnessing and the Sufi principles of love and service. The first point was to bear witness to what is happening in both the outer and inner worlds. Second, to be open and feel the grief for what is happening, for the environmental destruction and the pain we are causing the Earth. And knowing the power of prayer, of a heart that cries to God, I suggested that prayer for the Earth could be a response to this grief, holding the Earth in our heart and offering it to the Divine, the Source of all healing and love. Finally, as a fourth point, I suggested that rather than making plans, we should engage in small things with love, bringing the practice of loving kindness into our lives and communities, into our daily interactions with each other and with the Earth.
A decade later, as the environmental destruction has increased with accelerating consequences, and as our future looks increasingly bleak, I feel it might be helpful to update this plan. My primary response is always to return our consciousness to an awareness of the sacred nature of creation, its essential unity and interdependence, and in another little book, Spiritual Ecology: Ten Practices to Reawaken the Sacred in Everyday Life, I give ten simple practices to help in this work. But I am drawn here to outline some stepping stones through the rising darkness of this present time, a decade which will determine so much of our shared future.
The first of these steps is that rather than just bearing witness there is a need to recognize the basic truth that our present way of life, our present civilization, is over—for the simple reason that it is unsustainable. This is becoming more and more visible both in the increasing fires and floods, and also the ecological devastation, the ecocide, caused by our continued patterns of economic growth—and as increasing millions around the world demand an energy-intensive, middle-class way of life. Despite the accelerating effects of the climate crisis this materialistic, consumer-driven civilization and its support systems show no signs of real, fundamental change. Possibly this increasingly self-destructive spiral may continue for decades. At the end of the Roman empire when, after the last legions left England, only gradually were villas abandoned and urban life vanished as most reverted to subsistence farming.
Collectively, although we may continue in denial, anyone who looks through the cracks in our present civilization knows that it is fundamentally over—there is no viable “return to normal,” yet there is also no visible model for a new era. The eco-Buddhist Joanna Macy talks about a Great Unravelling that leads to a Great Turning, a return to a life-sustaining civilization, but she also remarks how we are in a space of time without a map, which she likens to the bardo in Tibetan Buddhism—a space or gap between known worlds.
How do we respond to this accelerating crisis, this primary awareness that our present way of life is over? For a Somali pastoralist, forced to leave the land that has sustained them for millennia after years of drought have killed their livestock, their story is one of refugee camps and physical survival. Similarly for the Solomon Islanders where rising seas has made them leave their ancestral homes and relocate. In the affluent West, where our supermarkets are still stocked with food, unless one is directly impacted by fires, droughts, or floods, the physical effect is less drastic. Yet there is a vital need to give voice to this existential disaster, to break through the patterns of denial that put profit before our shared humanity. I greatly admire the young people speaking truth to power, crying out for the living Earth, for wildflower meadows they may never see, bird choruses they may never hear. Our very future hangs in the balance while governments make promises they do not deliver, and carbon emissions increase. Meanwhile social and racial inequality grows, and as Greta Thunberg poignantly stated: “Our civilization is being sacrificed so a very small number of people can continue making enormous amounts of money.”
There is much practical work to be done trying to limit the effects of this crisis and create models for a sustainable future, for example: developing renewable energy; regenerative agriculture capable of producing high quality, nutrient-dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading the land; or working on de-growth economic models as an alternative to the self-destructive fantasy of continued economic growth. These are among many diverse ways to transition towards a more sustainable future. There are also diverse communities supporting this work, such as the transition town movement, that looks to create a low-carbon, socially-just future with resilient communities, a caring culture focused on supporting each other. And there is also the very quality of resilience that is needed to transition through these turbulent times—the ability to respond to the difficulties and demands we will encounter, and especially develop the qualities of care and community that can sustain us, physically and emotionally.
But as I have suggested, this is not just a physical but also a spiritual crisis, which needs our hearts as well as our hands. While some are drawn towards activism, or the practical work of transition, we need to be open to the deeper dimension of this time. For the past years I have often awakened in the morning with a deep sorrow in my heart, as if my soul is telling me its story of what is happening in the world around, not just the loss of species, but a beauty and wonder being lost, a quality of the sacred fading from consciousness. For so long we have walked in the shadow of this dark monster of greed and exploitation, and we cannot escape its consequences.
Many people now use the term “climate grief” to describe the many losses in our present world, changes that have happened or are yet to come. There is the personal grief experienced for example when a place of beauty or a wild habitat known in one’s childhood has vanished, but also the collective grief for how we are treating this beautiful, suffering world, how, for example, the vast landscapes of monoculture and use of pesticides have torn at the web of life and all its patterns of biodiversity. And often if the grief is not recognized or accepted, it can lead to anxiety, also known as “eco-anxiety.” But if this grief is recognized, this sorrow accepted, it can take us deeper within, back to our love for the Earth. And the Earth needs our love, as much as it needs our recognition of its suffering.
Grief opens our heart to love, and it is our love for the Earth that can heal what has been abused and desecrated, as expressed in the simple wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Real change will happen only when we fall in love with the 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.
Love is life’s greatest gift to us, and our greatest gift back to the Earth. With all the problems we are facing this simple truth is often overlooked. But I firmly believe that the Earth is not a problem to be solved, but a living being in distress, and it needs our love, our care and attention.
Love and care—care for each other, care for the Earth—are the simplest, most valuable human qualities. And love belongs to oneness. We know this in our human relationships, how love draws us closer, and in its most intimate moments we can experience physical union with another. It can also awaken us to the awareness that we are one human family, even as our rulers become more authoritarian, our politics more divisive. And on the deepest level love can reconnect us with our essential unity with all of life, with the Earth herself. Again to quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “Only when we’ve truly fallen back in love with the Earth will our actions spring from reverence and the insights of our interconnectedness.”
Love can open us to our deep participation in the life of the whole; it can teach us once again how to listen to the Earth, feel Her heartbeat, sense Her soul. It can open us to the sacred within all of creation and can reconnect us with our primal knowing that the Divine is present in everything—in every breath, every stone, every animate and inanimate thing. We are all connected, part of this conversation with the wind and the rain, the rivers and the trees.
When our hearts are open we can respond and pray for the Earth. The Earth needs our prayers more than we know. We have raped and pillaged and polluted the Earth, pushing it into the dangerous state of imbalance we call climate change. Creation itself is now calling to us, sending us signs of its imbalance. Our grief, our sorrow, is a response to the cry of the Earth, born from our deep sense of interbeing.
In my own practice I place the Earth as a living being within my heart and offer it to the Divine. For me, the heart’s connection is the simplest, most powerful connection we have, and prayer, which lies at the foundation of most religions and spiritual paths, is our most direct connection, our communion with the Divine. However there are so many ways to pray for creation, to listen within and include the Earth in our practice. Gardening or cooking can be a prayer as our hands touch the soil and its gifts. Watching the simple wonder of a dawn can be a prayer in itself. Or when we hear the chorus of birds in the morning we may sense that deeper joy of life and awaken to its divine nature. At night the stars can remind us of what is infinite and eternal within us and within the world. Whatever way we are drawn to wonder or pray, what matters is always the attitude we bring to this intimate exchange: whether our prayers are heartfelt rather than just a mental exercise. It is always through the heart that our prayers are heard. Do we really feel the suffering of the Earth, sense its need? Do we feel this connection with creation, do we feel ourselves a part of this beautiful and suffering being? Then our prayers are alive, a living stream that flows from our heart. Then every step, every touch, will be a prayer for the Earth, a remembrance of what is sacred. We are a part of the Earth crying in Her time of need.
When both our hearts and our hands are connected to our love for the Earth, and we recognize with our minds and our souls the extreme nature of this moment in time, we can participate in the work for future generations. In this present moment are not just the dangers of climate and environmental collapse, but also the seeds of a new way of being with the Earth—the possibility of a new story, a new civilization that respects the more-than-human world that surrounds us. How this future will unfold is unknown, this is one of the great mysteries of this liminal moment, the landscape we are entering. We are entering a time of radical uncertainty.
And it is this moment that needs our attention in ways our rational mind cannot grasp, but our hearts can sense. As I have shared in these stories there is a wisdom present within us and within the Earth that belongs to this space between stories, between what is dying and what is waiting to be born. Most people are too caught in the images of the past, or the dreams of a future, even a sustainable future, to be able to be present in the intense vulnerability of this space, this place of unknowing. It requires courage and a commitment to life’s mystery, and a quality of receptivity, to be able to hear what is as yet unspoken. It is here in this moment outside of time that as yet unlived possibilities are present, patterns yet to be formed. Here is where the formless and form meet, where a new dance can begin.
Here in this space between stories one is able to catch the threads of a possible future and begin to weave it into life. Not by doing, or planning, but with a quality of attention that belongs to the heart and the soul, an attention that can bring a deeper knowing to the surface. Our present culture has censored so much of our consciousness, particularly our older consciousness that knows the rhythms of the wind and the rain and the seasons, of how seeds can wait for years in the desert to become green shoots, the stories of the Earth, Her myths and magic. We have long forgotten how the Earth and all Her inhabitants is a single living being, ancient beyond our understanding, surrounded by stars. But just because we have isolated ourselves within our rational consciousness does not mean that other realities are not present all around us.
Those awake to this moment, whose hearts are open to grief and prayer, may glimpse how this moment can take us into a different dimension of being where the Earth Herself is transforming. What this means we do not know because even our ancestral memories have little knowing of such a transformation. But we can carry the awareness that this is the end of an era, not just for humanity but for the living being to which we belong—our beautiful, suffering planet. And as Her soul cries to us, and as our hearts open in grief and love, we can be a part of this mystery, Her possible transformation. This is a journey that takes us back to the early days when the sacred names of creation were given and the Earth came alive in a new way, a new note was woven into the song of creation. A spark of this awakening Earth is once again present at this time, like a half-heard song carried on a spring breeze.
Collectively we still inhabit the mind-set of separation in which our world is soulless unfeeling matter. And sadly spirituality remains mostly within the sphere of personal development, despite the voices of Thich Nhat Hanh and others, and the understanding of most Indigenous Peoples, who always knew that our spiritual nature is in service to life itself. But those whose hearts can hear the cry of the Earth—whose love and prayers are here to help this wounded world, and whose small acts of care and kindness can bring this love into our communities and environment—can be a part of this mystery. Love works in mysterious ways, flows from our hands and hearts to where it is needed, into the spiritual lifeblood of the planet, the hidden aquifers where it can nourish the seeds of life’s renewal.
How the future will evolve is still a mystery, unformed, even if we see the signs of the Great Unraveling, our present civilization becoming increasingly fractured as it enters its death spiral. It is more and more vital that those who hold this knowing work for a future seven generations or more, focus not on survival, or even sustainability, but on the space between stories which holds the seeds for this living future, a way of being that belongs both to the organic nature of life and the Divine that sustains us all. And which carries the possibility of a deeper transformation that belongs not just to humanity but to the Earth Herself. Without these seeds there will be no living future, but as some have seen in their dreams and visions, a wasteland stretching to the horizon.
The original article is available, Darkening, A Four-Point Plan; and the talk, A Four-Point Plan, recorded in 2013 can be heard here as part of the talk series In Service to Love.