This podcast explores the intersection of spiritual practice and our ecological crisis, and how these two central threads have been woven into my own journey.

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The other day I awoke from a dream in which I was composing a short poem and writing it on a card:

I would like to say I live at the still center of the turning world
That from dawn to dusk I spend the day in meditation
And pray through the night,
That I walk with light feet over the high mountain passes.
But here where I live at the edge of the world it is not like this.

This poem makes me want to tell a little of the threads that have been woven into my life, and the landscape in which we now live.

The first thread began almost half a century ago with what is traditionally one’s birth or second birth, when I first met my teacher, an elderly Russian-born woman with her white hair tied up in a bun. With one glance of her piercing blue eyes, I had the visceral experience of becoming a speck of dust on the floor. It was many years before I understood that this was a foretaste of the path, the process of annihilation of the ego or false self. To quote the Ramayana, the disciple has to become “less than the dust on the lotus feet of your guru.”

Irina Tweedie had just come back from India where she had been trained by a Sufi master. She sat in his garden in Northern India seeking the rootless root, the causeless cause, but as she said, “I hoped for instructions in yoga, I expected wonderful teachings, but what he did was to force me to face the darkness within myself and it almost killed me.” He also turned her heart, awakening her to divine love and the journey of the soul. Because as he said, “We are simple people. But we can turn the heart of a human being so that the human being will go on and on, where nobody can even imagine it.”

For many years I sat in her small room in North London, beside the train tracks. Looking into her eyes, I knew that she knew, and I wanted this direct experience, unnamed and unnamable. I don’t remember much of what was said, except that she spoke about her teacher, the light in his eyes and the miracles that happened around him. And in that small room was the invisible presence of her guru and all the masters of the path, those great beings who have walked before us and look over us.

Sitting in the presence of the teacher, what is called satsang was stamped into my soul. This is the teaching that is passed from heart to heart, from soul to soul. I was given many experiences of divine love and longing, the passion that ignites the soul, the fire that burns away what covers us. Three years after meeting her, one Summer afternoon I had the most intense experience of my life when I was awakened into the timeless light and infinite space of the Self. It left me bewildered, for months knowing neither who I was nor where I existed. But here were bliss and expanses of prayer. For days and nights I would sit in the same place, because where I was there was neither time nor space. My mind, my individual consciousness was at times completely lost. It took many years to fully learn to live from this spiritual center of consciousness, but something new had been born into my being.

Other experiences followed, part of the traditional Sufi journey through the chambers of the heart. Just as we have a physical body, we also have a spiritual body, mapped out for example in the Indian chakra system. Over a thousand years ago Sufi masters discovered that within our spiritual heart, or heart chakra, there are different chambers, or lataif, and they guided their disciples through these chambers. For the Sufi wayfarer, also known as fools of God, the spiritual journey is a love affair that happens within the heart.

sultan, saint, pickpocket
love has everyone by the ear
dragging us to God by secret ways
I never knew
that God, too, desires us

From the outer world of the senses, the mind and the ego, we are drawn inward by love and longing, into the mystery of what it really means to be a human being. It is a journey Home, back to God, whom Sufis call the Beloved. The third chamber of the heart, sometimes called the heart of hearts, is known as Mystery or Sirr. Sirr also means secret, and for the Sufis the greatest secret of creation is that we are one with God. Our Beloved whom we have longed for is in our heart in such intimacy that there are no longer two, but one. We are with our Beloved in complete oneness. This is when the love affair becomes fulfilled, a fulfillment that is tangible, that lives inside of us with every breath—it is intimate, it is oneness, and it is love. It is so tender; our Beloved is our friend, our companion, our lover, who is always with us. Even when we feel left alone our Beloved is with us. It is a meeting, a merging of lovers such as we long for in sexual union, in which we forget our self completely: we die and are dissolved in love. And yet the intensity and sweetness of this inner meeting make sexual intimacy seem shallow. It is not a meeting of bodies, but a merging within the heart, within the substance of our own soul, the sweet bliss running through the body, every cell alive with this intimate love affair.

This inner mystery of oneness is then reflected in the outer world, which also becomes a place of divine oneness. We come to experience how everything is a part of this living tapestry of oneness. This is similar to the Zen experience of satori, when for an instant we see life as it really is, without judgement or expectation, as expressed in Zen haikus, for example the famous poem by Basho:

The old pond,
a frog jumps in,

Everything is present in its true essence, what the Buddhists call suchness. What is different in the Sufi experience is the element of love, everything is felt as an expression of love, life is a divine love affair—“step out of the circle of time and into the circle of love.” We live from this place of divine oneness within the heart and within the consciousness of the world, in which we experience nearness with God and discover our true Self, our divine nature, and through which we are able to see things as they truly are. We reconnect with life’s oneness, the unity of being that underlies all of existence.

And then there are a further two chambers of the heart. The hidden and the most hidden. The mystical journey takes us into the primal emptiness that is before and after creation. This is an extinction so total that nothing remains, no sense of Self, no awareness of oneness, nothing. It is like being absorbed into a black hole that takes everything, even your light. In the words of Rumi:

You are a placeless fire
All places burn away in,
A whirlpool of Nowhere
Drowning me deeper, deeper.

This is the emptiness that surrounds and infuses everything, the primal darkness that is before and after creation. This is the true home of the mystic, the states of nonbeing, the “dark silence in which all lovers lose themselves,” where one can taste the complete freedom of nonexistence and the only knowing is that there is no one left to know. And then from this emptiness in which all is lost, something emerges; something is carried to a further shore, beyond even knowing or not-knowing. Who or what is drawn into this other landscape is difficult to describe, even with the words of love. This is the land of Truth, of what is Real, of what is most ordinary and most hidden.

This was the ancient journey that happened at the feet of my teacher, deep within in states of meditation. Outwardly I lived a simple life, went to college and became a high school English teacher, teaching Shakespeare and poetry, falling in love and getting married, raising a family. But my inner attention was always absorbed, and often in the evening, when my wife had fallen asleep after reading to our daughter, I would lie down and turn towards the wall in my room, and merge within the heart.

But this was a simpler, more innocent time than the world today. There was no internet or social media. It was long before the strange distorted world of Zoom. People found their way to the teacher through word of mouth or chance encounters as they had for centuries. Climate change was not much known, the meadows still had wildflowers, the seas were not filled with plastic. The outer dramas of the world hardly impacted the room where I sat with my teacher, just as it was when she sat with her teacher in his garden full of the smells and sounds of India, and before when he sat with his teacher, his Guru Maharaj. Her room was full of other unseen worlds, and the mysteries of the heart.

Spiritual practice takes us into our innermost nature, to the consciousness of the Self which is also a state of being. Here we find the peace and love of our divine nature, taste the bliss that belongs to the soul. Having passed beyond the veils of illusion that cover us, traditionally we then rest in this timeless reality, awake to the moment, aware of our interconnection with both the seen and unseen worlds. Most simple and ordinary, it is also a hidden secret, belonging to life’s primal mystery. Now, after a lifetime’s spiritual journey, it is these states that call to me, remembering earlier lives spent in a monastery or a small hut beside a mountain stream. Sitting in my garden, watching the chipmunks scurrying after seeds fallen from the birdfeeder, a patchwork quilt of flowers changing with the seasons, I can feel the essential stillness that surrounds and infuses everything. But even here, where the spirits of the garden are so happy, and the evening air is sweet with honeysuckle and jasmine, I cannot escape the toxicity of the present time.

This is what I expressed at the beginning in the few lines:

I would like to say I live at the still center of the turning world
That from dawn to dusk I spend the day in meditation
And pray through the night,
That I walk with light feet over the high mountain passes.
But here where I live at the edge of the world it is not like this.

Over the years our world has changed, it has become a harsher, broken world, full of conspiracy theories and the distortions of social media, climate crisis and the very real possibility of social breakdown. The pandemic has shown how fragile our global systems are, how easily blown over by the breath of a virus. Once again the poor suffer most, and racial and social injustice are evident in the lengthening food lines and climate refugees. Even here where I live “at the edge of the world” in a small town beside the Pacific Ocean, climate change is only too present in the wildfires that burned for weeks down the road.

With young people crying out for a future being stolen, what part does spiritual consciousness have to play in this time of transition? Can inner experiences of love and oneness help be a catalyst for real change? Experiences given through meditation and prayer that open us to the knowing of our deeper selves can help to weave new threads into life’s tapestry.

There is much work to be done in the outer world: cutting carbon emissions, planting trees, restoring wild places, changing our diet to less meat and dairy, and working on post-growth economic models that can heal our present social and racial inequality. But I also believe that our spiritual consciousness has a pivotal part to play in our journey together with the Earth. I greatly admire the Engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh, when he says, “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.”

In Love Letter to the Earth he writes,

Every morning when I wake up and get dressed, I leave my hut and take a walk. Usually the sky is still dark and I walk gently, aware of nature all around me and the fading stars. One time, after walking, I came back to my hut and wrote this sentence: “I am in love with Mother Earth.” I was as excited as a young man who has fallen in love. My heart was beating with excitement.

Is it too idealistic to feel that love is an essential quality, the one thing needed, for this work to come alive? As a mystic and a Sufi I have experienced love as the central underlying energy in all of creation:

One night I saw the whole of creation like a seed, like a small round object. Everything—all the oceans and stars, all the trees and people and promises and dreams—was contained in this small round object. Everything that existed was there.

In many ways my vision echoed the experience of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century anchorite:

And in this He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon and thought; “What may this be?” And I was answered thus: “It is all that is made.” And I marveled how it might last, because it was so small. And I was answered: “It lasteth and shall ever last for that God loveth it. And everything hath being by the love of God.”

In my own experience I was with God, experiencing the world as a small dot, containing all of creation, all the birds, butterflies, plants, and people. Then seeing all the stars, galaxies flowing out of God in an energy field of love. Endlessly outpouring without diminishing.

In the last years I have come to see that we are the children of a civilization that has lost its way, that has put financial profit before well-being, and is pathologically destroying its own ecosystem. And unless we find our way back to love, love and care for each other and for the Earth—knowing how we are all a part of one community—all of our efforts will not bring the world into balance. Those of us who have looked through the cracks in our present civilization know that it is dying, that stories of “green economic growth” are just fairy tales—our present way of life is simply unsustainable. We need a new story, a story that reconnects us to the Earth and her sacred nature, and knows how we are all interconnected. And this primary connection is love.

I also like to walk early and am often alone on the beach, the ocean and the birds my only companions, the tiny sanderlings running back and forth chasing the waves. Some days the sun rising over the headlands makes a pathway of golden light to the shore. I try to clear my mind and immerse myself in the landscape, what I call a deep ecology of consciousness, being one with the Earth, feeling my love for this beautiful, wounded being, as much as a deep sadness at how we are tearing apart its fragile web.

Today, the fog was dense and I could just see two figures walking in the distance, until they vanished into the mist, leaving a pair of footprints in the sand until the incoming tide washed them away. It made me wonder what will remain in a hundred years, when my grandchildren’s grandchildren are alive? Will the rising sea have covered the dunes? Climate crisis will by then be a constant partner, and so many of today’s dramas will be lost in a vaster landscape of primal change. What are the threads we can follow into this uncertain landscape? How can we live in the present and yet prepare for an unknown future seven generations and more, participate most creatively, help both a healing and a rebirth?

In this present time of the great unraveling there are many threads to follow, degrowth and reciprocity, social collapse and resilience, rewilding, agroecology, to name a few of the opportunities for the future. How these threads will be woven into a new tapestry for humanity is the great adventure for the coming decades, part of the Great Turning as we return to a life-sustaining civilization—one born not from colonization and exploitation, but a relationship to the living Earth.

But central to the present tragedy is that we have become disconnected from the Earth. Through our hearts and our feet we can feel again what our culture has forgotten: Her sacred nature. When I watch a flight of pelicans skimming the waves, their wingtips almost touching the water, this is what I feel, something present in the moment but also connected deep within to our ancestral memories, to previous generations who lived together with the Earth, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing.

There was a time when we spoke the same language, knew how to listen to the wind and the rain, were part of the movement of Her seasons. And now we need Her ancient knowing if we are to walk together into this uncertain future, both in sunlight and moonlight, in the world of reason and the world of dreaming. This way of knowing used to be shared around the firelight, told in stories, passed down from generation to generation. It was all as natural as breathing, not needing to be remembered because never forgotten. How could you forget the wind on your face or the songs of birds? How could you forget the rise and fall of the tide? These were not stories written in books, but lived from morning until dusk, until dreamtime wove another texture into the firelight.

Until we forgot we were always awake to a multidimensional world that carried a deep sense of belonging, a belonging we shared with the plants in the garden and the animals in the forest.

Our present story is broken, its myth of progress and endless economic growth fostering ecocide. Nature in both Her beauty and violence is calling us to return, to rejoin the “great conversation” where the wind and the stars still speak to us. As we travel this liminal landscape between stories, between civilizations, and experience the primal insecurity of a civilization unraveling, we need to feel that we belong, not to a political ideology, a race, nation, or some conspiracy theory, but to the living presence that has sustained us for thousands of years, back to when we journeyed as small groups of hunters and gatherers, back to when we spoke the same language as the animals and plants. Then we were awake with all of our senses, with ceremonies and dreams attuned to both the seen and unseen worlds, long before we “settled” the land, and then forgot it was sacred.

Here, at the edge of the world I watch the waves. And I remember sitting half a century ago in my teacher’s small room in North London, fully sensing for the first time the unseen worlds, a place of miracles and the presence of spiritual masters. I wonder how we can have forgotten our spiritual heritage, those masters and beings of light who are here to help us and help the Earth, to help us plant the seeds for a new civilization, a civilization born from oneness and love, that honors our connection to the living Earth. I know that we need to return to what is essential, even as we water these seeds with our tears for how we are betraying the Earth. I know that the spiritual quest is not something separate from life, but woven into the Original Instructions that were given to the earliest wisdom keepers. Meditation, prayer, the mysteries of the heart and the wonder of creation, its beauty and wisdom, are part of a great tapestry that stretches to the stars and beyond. And those of us who belong to love, who care for the Earth, can begin to weave into this tapestry a new thread that contains the colors of the next era, not a broken world full of greed and exploitation, but once again earth magic coming alive as it did on the first day.

And maybe, one day, far into the future, the heart of the world will open and start to sing, as it sang for our ancestors long ago. And in this song we will experience how all the plants and animals, mountains and rivers, birds and butterflies, have their own magic, their own message, and how it is part of one living tapestry of divine love.


© 2022 The Golden Sufi Center,