On Spiritual Ecology

Interview with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Ecobuddhism: 'Spiritual Ecology' is a concept you have put forward that we also find very relevant. Could you please expand on what you have written about ‘loss of soul’ in the context of the global ecological crisis: The inner wasteland is as barren as the Tar Sands in Alberta and Like climate change and the extinction of species, the inner wasteland is growing faster than we realize.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee: I think the real difficulty is that we have developed a culture that only sees the outer world. It has become so intrinsic to our consciousness that the general culture has no understanding of the inner worlds, nor any framework to explore them. There has been a resurgence of Shamanism in the past few decades, but for the collective culture the inner worlds don’t exist. People see only the outer physical world. When they are confronted by ecological problems, they see only the outer physical manifestation.

We are an unusual culture from this point of view. In most indigenous cultures their consciousness is much more open to the inner worlds, while in the Middle Ages our Western culture was closer to the symbolic world, as can seen in the sacred geometry and iconography of their cathedrals. That we have forgotten our understanding of the inner worlds is analogous with the burning of the books which has happened at different times in history. For example the burning of the library in Alexandria which carried the wisdom of hundreds of years, or the library of the Mayans, whose systematic destruction by the Spanish meant out of 3000 books just 3 fragments survived.  That Mayan library was a record of all their wisdom about time—their understanding of the cycles and cosmic dimension of time. Burning these books was an attempt to wipe out all their knowledge, so it is now no longer present. Similarly our knowledge about the inner worlds has been wiped from our collective memory. We have forgotten about the inner worlds so completely that we have even forgotten we have forgotten.

There are still peoples who carry such consciousness—for example the Kogi in Columbia. Their whole culture is about the relationship between the inner realm they call Aluna and the outer world. During a time of outer crisis, the people automatically look to their shamans, to their dreams and visions, to find out where the imbalance is in the inner world so they can bring everything back into harmony. 

Since the last century there has been a resurgence of our understanding of the inner world of symbols with the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others. Henry Corbin, a follower of Jung, went back to Sufi metaphysics and the teachings of Ibn ‘Arabi about the imagination and the symbolic world that exists between the physical world of the senses and the realm of mystery, the world of the soul.  This world of symbols and images is as real in its place as the visible world we see around us. In my early 30s, I discovered I could journey into this interior world, the mundus imaginalis.  I took people on Archetypal Journeys for seven years, to work with the symbols and energies in a similar way to shamanic journeys. Then about ten years ago, I really woke up to the effect Western culture was having on this interior world. There used to be beautiful temples in the inner world, places of great symbolic value. People could be drawn there to meditate, pray, to be nourished and healed by this interior world and its numinous images. In this inner world we could reconnect with our own soul. However, our collective dismissal of the inner worlds and the desecration caused by our culture of materialism have instead created an inner wasteland.

The symbolic world allows us to go deeper within our self and within life. It is a bridge to the mystery of what it means to be a human being—our divine nature.  Tibetan Buddhism has an enormously rich culture in its ritual practices—some of them deeply shamanic—that see the outer world as a reflection of the inner world. Their culture knows how to connect the two, and the importance of maintaining a bridge so the outer and inner worlds nourish each other.

In our present culture we have a deep disconnect from our ancient heritage of the inner world and its wisdom. It is more and more difficult to be nourished by the inner reality of the symbolic world and the realm of the soul. For most people it’s difficult to go into deep meditation and have a direct connection with Atman, Buddha nature, Soul—however you prefer to call it. It requires a lot of spiritual discipline and training.  For most people the symbolic world was the mediator.  For example in the Catholic Church, the mass and sacraments are a way for the ordinary person to be nourished by the divine, through symbols.  But the more we lay waste to the inner world, the more we are stranded in a physical world of materialism. The desecration happening to the inner world is similar to the physical wasteland we have created in the Tar Sands of Alberta, and yet it is an unspoken tragedy, almost unnoticed.  For many years now this inner desecration has been continuing, unreported, though I think people feel it as a certain deep anxiety and loss of meaning. 

What is ‘loss of soul’? From a spiritual perspective, each human being has a soul, a divine nature—the spark that comes into our physical body to have certain experiences in this world. We can call it our unique destiny or purpose. When Jung said “Find the meaning and make the meaning your goal”, that means to follow something that does not belong to our conditioning or sensory perception. It addresses why we have come into this beautiful but suffering world.

In the West in the past few decades we have had increasing access to spiritual teachings and practices, for example meditation and sacred chanting. These nourish the sacred part of ourselves with light, energy or presence. But our soul also needs to be nourished by the outer world:  it has incarnated into this world in order to have certain meaningful experiences in life.  In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  Since the beginning of time this sacred relationship to life has been understood by all indigenous cultures. Their rituals of daily life were always sacred and established and maintained a sacred relationship to creation which nourished them.

When the Pomo Indian people wove baskets, the women would go out and pray over the grasses before they cut them. As they wove their baskets they would put the reeds or grasses through their mouths to moisten them, praying over them. The basket wove together the physical and the spiritual parts of life. Native American cultures saw their life as a communion with earth and spirit that nourished them but also nourished creation.

If your soul is nourished by life itself, then you don’t need a lot of stuff. Instead you feel the joy, beauty and mystery inherent in life. Of course, life still has struggles and physical hardship. Sometimes there wasn’t enough food in these cultures, but there was a deep spiritual connection, they were held together by the whole tapestry of life. There is something in creation that we can call a ‘sacred substance’. The Sufis call it the secret of the word Kun! (Be!). Indigenous cultures understood how to look after this spiritual substance in creation, with prayers, thanksgiving and rituals. We are not just the physical guardians of creation, we are also its spiritual guardians. 

But instead of looking after life’s sacred nature, we have abused and desecrated our environment to such a degree, that now this sacred substance has begun to diminish. If this substance is lost then a certain meaning to life also becomes lost. The soul can then no longer be nourished by the sacred in creation. The joy goes out of life, its deep mystery becomes inaccessible. Sometimes one can see in an individual when they have lost their way, lost contact with their soul—for example in a drug addict—a certain light in their eyes has gone out. Their life has lost its purpose.

EB: Cultures too can lose their soul?

LV-L:  It has happened in the past. Certain cultures withdrew, died, faded away, lost their purpose. Our Western culture that used to belong only to North America and Europe, has in the last 20 years gone global. Globally we are now just interested in consumerism. The few indigenous tribes, like those in the Amazon, are getting pushed further and further into extinction. The values of materialism and greed, where the only thing that matters is satisfying your egotistical desires at any cost to the environment, have become global with devastating effect. The little pockets of sacred inner nourishment are getting pushed more and more to the periphery. Whatever we do, it is more and more difficult to find a direction as a culture, because the spark isn’t there anymore.

Traditionally, then, there comes what is called a spiritual dark age, where a culture can no longer find its way.  We can no longer find meaning in the outer world because we have treated it so badly that the light is driven back into its very core. We will be left in a materialistic wasteland where there is no real purpose or joy. The shadow-side is we become more and more addicted to surface phenomena, because there is nothing to meet or nourish the soul.

In spiritual traditions the outer world always reflects changes that take place in the inner dimension. Just as we speak of reaching an outer environmental tipping point where we are in unchartered territory from which we cannot return, we are approaching an inner tipping point of losing access to the sacred substance in creation.

EB: The climate tipping point is becoming a mainstream proposition in science now.

LV-L:  Yes, I was just reading in the science journal Nature the other day that they are beginning to think this is happening.

EB: Given the extent of social engineering behind the very narrow self-concept generated by the industrial consumerism, one might say that in place of the Collective Unconscious, humanity now has television.

LV-L: Yes, the inner world became a wasteland and the way to compensate for it was we became more and more addicted to materialism and its distractions, because nothing else was nourishing us.

EB: In America after the last world war, they had this tremendous machinery of industrial production.  The record shows how ‘needs’ were created that the population didn’t yet have, by generations of psychology graduates hired to develop  mass advertising.

LV-L: They carefully and intelligently learned how to manipulate images to control human beings’ desires and create the mass market. Mass marketing is a way of using images and symbols to make people addicted to buying stuff. It’s pathological.

EB: Buddhist elder Sulak Sivaraksa says the Thai people retained their status as an independent Buddhist culture despite French and British colonization. But when the Vietnam War started next to them, their culture was overwhelmed. American consumerism seduced the young people into abandoning their cultural heritage for a pair of branded jeans, or whatever.

LV-L: I was in Northern Thailand in the early 70s. I remember talking to people there. They said theirs was a rich country agriculturally, and they could have two harvests a year and live quite contentedly on that with lots of time for their Buddhist festivals. Then the Americans came along because of Vietnam, saying the country could have three harvests a year, so they could sell the extra grain and buy things. They became seduced by that. But with three harvests a year, they didn’t have the same time for religious festivals and their deeply spiritual civilization instead became gradually addicted to consumerism.

EB: Thomas Berry made the point that established religions have failed us, because they haven’t been able to identify the toxicity of consumerism, which has itself become a kind of global religion.

LV-L:  In my understanding it goes back further. The early Christian Church in Rome banished Earth-based spirituality. That was compounded by their decision to pursue political rather than spiritual power. They persecuted the Gnostics and mystics, and became an institution of worldly power. The Eastern Orthodox Church did keep a mystical understanding and tradition, but Western Europe lost touch with the sacred. It took a long time for this to permeate all aspects of the culture. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is like a lament for the loss of the world of the faeries, of magic—a whole inner world on the point of disappearing.
 
This is why I stress the need to return to the sacred and to reclaim it:  something has to nourish the human being. Something other than consumerism has to offer us meaning. If there is no nourishment of the soul, the human being turns towards surface addictions. Globalization has empowered corporate machinery to further manipulate people and destroy more of the environment. This machinery tells us what we want, and insists it is the only way to find fulfilment. It is a travesty of the nature of a human being.

From the 1960s and 70s onwards, there was an influx of spiritual energy into the West that came from the East. It was very meaningful for many people that we suddenly had access to a whole spiritual world that didn’t exist for the previous generation—the idea that you could find a meditation practice and a spiritual path. The hippie movement of the 60s had real transformative potential, but sadly this spirituality was eventually subverted into ‘what I can get out of it in terms of my own individual self.’

The Grail Legend is one of the great myths of the West. When Parsifal finds the Grail Castle, he has to ask the question:  “Whom serves the Grail?” The answer to which is “The Grail serves the Grail King.” If you don’t ask this question, the ego will subvert the quest by proclaiming “It’s all about me.” It seems that in the West not enough people asked this question. The influx of spiritual awakening was trapped by the ego, subverted by the self-development and self-empowerment movement. Nobody recognized that the quest had to be in service to the whole, or in service to humanity. For most people in the West, spiritual awakening became self-centred. We lost the real impetus and the meaning behind it. It could have had a bigger potential. Like so many things, it was corrupted.

EB: Was it simply co-opted by corporate social engineers?

LV-L: When it first began it was an alternative lifestyle, a way to escape the corporate materialist worldview.  But then it became something to sell in the market place. Once you start selling spirituality, it loses the potential for real change. You can sell The Secret and do very well—though by the time you sell it, there is no secret. 

One of Jung’s favourite stories is about the waters of life that flow as a spring out of a hillside. A shepherd comes to drink from it and it heals him. More and more people go to drink from this water and it heals them. Then somebody decides they can sell it. They put a fence around the spring and they start bottling it and selling it. When this happens, the healing potential in the water withdraws. It’s not meant to be sold or marketed. But nobody notices because there is such a good marketing campaign going on and people believe it. But the water has lost its magic, its healing potential. Then years later, another little stream appears on another hillside in another land with magical properties. And so the story continues.

We probably agree that unless there is real change at this time, humanity is heading for an uncertain and possibly cataclysmic future. For real change to take place you need a certain power to get out of the fixed pattern you are in. Traditionally, for the individual, this is what happens when you meet a spiritual teacher or path. The energy that you encounter gives you what you need to step out of your ego-driven consciousness into a different dimension of reality. 

But collectively, we are still caught in the grip of an industrial growth society.  People do have an awareness of the need for a paradigm shift, for example the sense of awakening to an awareness of life’s interconnected wholeness, and its accompanying ideas such as Earth Jurisprudence. But they don’t have the power to counter the influence of global corporations, which are like forces of darkness trying to keep humanity fixed in a self-destructive cycle. How can we evolve away from our focus on our separate individual self towards a “communion of subjects”—to quote Thomas Berry—where we work with each other and with the environment?

EB: In The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson points out that human nature is unique because it has been generated through two distinct processes of (Darwinian) natural selection. The trait selected at the level of the individual was selfishness.  The traits selected at the level of the group were cooperation and altruism. It is the former, selfish individualism, upon which industrial economics and consumerism have built their narrow self-concept.

LV-L:  To me, evolution really has to do with evolution of consciousness. We in the West have been drawn along this path toward the consciousness of the individual, with wonderful expressions like the Bill of Rights, freedom for self-expression, freedom of religion and so forth. The shadow-side of that is our obsession with the ego and self-gratification.

This focus on the individual self belongs to our Western cultural evolution. In India, for example, the family is more central. In my late teens I visited New Guinea, a much more primitive culture. They didn’t really have an understanding of the individual self. It was not even the family, but a tribal awareness, the group self. They had no sense of personal possessions, and then, after encountering Western civilization, one of the first things they bought was a box with a lock! In the West we have taken the individual self just about as far as it can go. Obsession with ego fulfilment has even co-opted spirituality: it’s my inner journey, my fulfilment, my soul. This is an anathema. The individual self is actually the universal Self.

The whole evolution of the planet has gone through shifts— for example from single cells to multi-cellular forms.  When it gets to a certain point there is an evolutionary shift. The next step on the evolutionary journey of consciousness, as far as I can see, is how the individual relates to the whole, the oneness of which we are a part. Then we can realize the global unity that already exists all around us. When the astronauts first saw the world as one single entity from space, and brought that images back with them, a special symbol was given to us. We are one whole. We are oneness.

What is it going to take to force us to change? We have arrived at a fulcrum. As you say, we have become narrower and narrower until we have boxed ourselves into destroying our own life-supporting ecosystem at an alarming rate. We cannot go back to the indigenous consciousness of instinctual oneness with the environment. We can’t become hunter-gatherers again. Yet somehow we have to step into an inter-relationship with the whole.

For many years I thought we had sufficient understanding of our human potential, and that we could make this shift happen.  People talked about the “100th monkey” model of collective awakening.  Some continue to believe we are on the cusp of a global spiritual awakening. The flip-side is that we may have to reach a crisis of such unprecedented global proportions that humanity is forced into its next phase of cultural evolution. The nightmare of materialism, where we can only be fulfilled by more stuff, imprisons us. We have had a little inkling of crisis in the on-going financial meltdown, but that is just a taste of what a comprehensive global crisis would be.

EB: A biologist would ask whether Homo sapiens is contriving its own extinction.

LV-L: This was what Thich Nhat Hanh was mentioning, wasn’t it?

EB: He broke the taboo. It now seems likely we will exceed a 2°C increase in global average temperature. Some scientific experts have even discussed adapting to a planet that is +4°C hotter by mid-century—i.e. well beyond the tipping point for runaway warming. Like a majority of life-forms, humans would find it extraordinarily difficult to survive such a rapid evolutionary descent.  But our psychological tendency toward denial can be manipulated to block meaningful discussion.

LV-L: The Sufis call it forgetfulness.

EB: James Hansen, the eminent climatologist, said that climate change is like a major asteroid collision with the Earth. Why don’t we act? Because oil companies and corrupted politicians dupe us. It is a triumph of propaganda.

LV-L:  Two things that come to mind when you say that. The first is the idea, which many people have been voicing, that we’ve got to change the story or change the dream. We are completely caught by the dream that corporations have created for us to live in. I call it the nightmare of materialism, the dream that grips humanity and people around the world. You have hundreds of millions of people in China and India now being drawn into this nightmare, consuming more stuff as fast as they can. And the planet doesn’t have enough resources for it to unfold. Somehow we have to change the collective dream that holds humanity.

When you talk about the possible extinction of human beings, that really resonates for me. If the human being comes into this world in order to have experiences that nourish his or her soul, and if there is no meaning to be had in this world, no connection with the sacred, then what is the purpose? Macbeth’s famous speech comes to mind:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time…
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If this world has no nourishment for the soul, then there is no meaning to being here. Whether this is reflected by an outer extinction of the species does not matter in a deep spiritual sense: life from the point of view of the soul then has no purpose. I call it the hungry ghost syndrome. 

We do seem to be walking, running—or being dragged—towards this precipice. My understanding is that there is an inner dimension of the outer crisis—our forgetfulness of the sacred nature of this world. Can it be redeemed at the last moment? What could redeem it? The mystic believes finally in the grace of God, that there is inherent in human beings and the world, something that is beyond all these self-destructive patterns. The question is whether we will wake up to this other dimension of ourselves in time to change. I feel it as a deep  sadness in my heart when I see what we are doing to ourselves and to the planet.

EB: An evolutionary biologist might say we seem to be a failed experiment.

LV-L: Well, human beings were given responsibility for this planet and we are not living up to it. That’s a very basic way of putting it. Yet maybe there is a chance. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the bells of mindfulness. Maybe there is a chance we can wake up. Otherwise why would you and I be having this conversation? Why would we feel driven to articulate what is happening and also to carry the consciousness of what is happening?

It’s much easier in some ways to just remain asleep. But we’ve been called to be awake. You’ve been called to make this website, to bring this into consciousness.  Maybe there is something within ourselves, within the world, that is struggling to come awake. We have to respond to that call, that prompting. This is why I am driven to try and articulate this more clearly. When in deep meditation I see such painful things happening in the inner worlds–part of me doesn’t want to bring them out of meditation. It is so painful to recognize what we are doing. But something drives me to bring that consciousness into everyday life, to share it, as if there is some light wanting to wake up. It is not my light or your light, but the light of the whole, of something within life that is struggling for its own survival.

EB: I suppose the hope is the power of a new sacred idea. If you look around in the world of the arts, there is a grand canyon between science and the arts. Meanwhile the visual arts are mostly a reflection of the wasteland. The mass culture is one of nihilism.

LV-L: Yes it is. It doesn’t nourish the soul, which is what art is traditionally meant to do, from those magical cave paintings in Southern France to the great Renaissance art—it touches the soul and reminds us what is sacred in ourselves and in life. We have lost that. All one can do is to try and strike a note, and maybe it can be heard.

EB: Do you see any hopeful signs or shifts?

LV-L: I have two grandchildren, age 7 and 9. I see hope in them because I can see they belong to the future and they are so full of life, joy, excitement, laughter and tears. I feel they don’t belong to a world that is dying. They give me hope. But looking around, reading the news—will another global conference accomplish anything? Unlikely, since humanity as a whole seems to have decided otherwise. 

At the end of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, when Prospero has completed his mission, he intends to break his magical staff and drown his magical book, saying, and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer.  My greatest hope is in prayer. I pray that the divine may help us to redeem this incredibly beautiful world. I don’t think human beings can do it alone. There is a tremendous sadness about what we have done and are continuing to do. But there is always hope, because I see it in the eyes of my grandchildren, and they belong to the future.


First published online in two parts on Ecobuddhism (2012). Image © Adam Romanowicz - 3scape.com