Solving our environmental problems requires spirituality and activism

Imagine this: a 47-year-old woman is admitted to the hospital emergency room where you work as a doctor. She is too weak to walk, and has a sky-high fever that leaves her limp and lifeless. What’s your strategy to treat her: do you give her drugs to bring her fever down, and then send her on her way? Or do you ignore her fever, and concentrate on running a battery of tests to investigate a possible infection? If you are a competent doctor – and want to avoid a malpractice suit – you do both.

In treating the world’s great illness that is the environmental disaster unfolding before us, we similarly need to bring both spirituality and activism together to effect a cure. Neither alone is enough. Spirituality needs activism to ensure that it does not be subverted and simply become another form of narcissism, thereby exacerbating the self-centeredness that is endemic to our problems. Activism needs spirituality to restore the sense of connection with and reverence for nature whose erosion is at the core of our destructive relationship with the biosphere. Together, they can effect change impossible for either alone to.

Activism: keeping spiritual seekers on track

Spiritual growth alone is not enough to solve our world’s problems; in fact, without a focus on others, it has the potential to strengthen what is undoubtedly central to many of the world’s problems: an overblown sense of self-importance. Spiritual seekers run the real risk of getting caught in a dead end of “spiritual narcissism” or “spiritual materialism.” If spiritual growth does not evolve to include a focus on the wellbeing of others, it can easily become another avenue to further inflate our ego. We may get lost in congratulating ourselves about how “spiritual” or “enlightened” we have become; spirituality becomes something else to acquire and hang like trophies above our mantle.

While there are many historical and contemporary examples of people who recognized the supreme importance of combining spirituality and activism – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, for example – Chogyam Trungpa is an excellent example of a spiritual teacher who insightfully recognized the potential for spirituality to be co-opted in this way as well as the basic complementarity of spirituality and activism.

Trungpa was a Tibetan Buddhist, author, and founder of the Shambhala Meditation Centers. He taught that through the cultivation of our true innermost nature – a core of inherent wisdom – an “enlightened society” could be established. His vision, laid out in his book,  Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, espouses the necessity to look beyond our narrow personal concerns and recognize our responsibility to act selflessly in service of others. Fabrice Midal, Trungpa’s biographer, wrote that “For [Trungpa], there was a profound unity between the spiritual and political worlds, to such a degree that dividing them meant losing sight of their primary harmony.” Trungpa saw activism as being central and indispensable to spirituality.

He was also keenly aware that spirituality could become just another way to stroke our own egos. In his classic book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, he counsels about this danger. “It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual path is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego,” he wrote. Without this view, we can easily get sidetracked, as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says in the introduction: “There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distored, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”

The spiritually-inclined shouldn’t underestimate the potential to get sidetracked in this way. In their exhaustive research studying the nature of personal transformation, which is often intimately related to spirituality in various forms,  Cassandra Vieten and her research team at the Institute of Noetic Sciences developed a model of common patterns of personal growth. Their model shows that growth can get derailed in a number of ways, including a stagnant focus on ourselves. In Issue #23 of the Institute’s newsletter, Shift, Vieten writes, “the common challenge is that even when practice becomes integrated into everyday life, the process [of growth] can remain a personal quest – all about me or about achieving some outcome for personal benefit. In our goal-oriented culture, this is completely natural, but for growth and development to continue, true transformation appears to require that the process move from I to we.”

Spirituality: getting at the root

“To straighten the crooked, ” the Buddha said, “you must first do a harder thing – straighten yourself.” In their book, The Psychology of Environmental Problems,  psychologists Susan M. Koger and Deborah Du Nann Winter provide a more contemporary version of this same insight: “…environmental problems are really behavioral problems: They are caused by the thoughts, beliefs, values, and worldviews upon which human beings act.” Environmental problems are not just problems that exist outside of us; they are manifestations of our state of consciousness, and unless the underlying “thoughts, beliefs, values and worldviews” change, whatever progress we make through activist means will not be deep enough to fully solve them.

Spiritual growth can act directly on these inner causes of our problems in two important ways. The first is that it can alter people’s relationship with nature by fostering a change in the dysfunctional view that humans are somehow separate from it. David Suzuki, a long-time Canadian champion for environmental sustainability, blames much of our environmental problems on our sense of disconnection from nature in his essay, Hidden Lessons, that appeared in the Globe and Mail. “We have poisoned the life support systems that sustain all organisms,” he writes, “because we have lost a sense of ecological place.” Spiritual growth can restore this sense of connection and inspire us to act as environmental stewards rather than destroyers. In Living Deeply, Marilyn Mandala Schlitz and her co-authors outline their findings of a ten-year research project into the nature of transformative spiritual experiences. Their research confirms what spiritual explorers have known since time immemorial: “through the transformative [spiritual] process your personal identity and circle of concern expand to include other people, future generations, and ultimately all of nature.”

Spirituality can also give rise to the sense that the natural world is sacred and inherently valuable, which can motivate further stewardship. It’s not hard to understand why humans clearcut log pristine forests or dump toxic waste into vibrant ecosystems if nature is seen simply as a way to fulfill their whims. According to Schlitz, the perspective that nature is sacred naturally moves us to protect it. “When we see the sacredness of all life, we naturally want to care for it. It appears that you can’t…become aware of the inherent sacredness of all things without automatically having your attention drawn to the experiences of the broader world – not only the suffering of other human beings but that of all beings. “

Bringing spirit and action together

Let’s address both the inner and outer, cause and symptom, and work to change the world at the same time we work to change ourselves. Saving our patient requires nothing less. As the Indian philosopher and, I would argue, social activist J. Krishnamurti said, “you are the world, and what you are, the world is.” Perhaps there is really only one path, not two.

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