As we tend Earth’s seed within, we ready the conditions for Her blossoming. Earth is born anew in human form.
Connecting with the fertile dimensions of our planetary moment suggests that the Earth as a whole is evoking a more thorough engagement with the mind’s deep layers. In a way, the global arena has become a mirror that constantly reflects back what’s taking place within. This is a unique opportunity, an ever-present reminder to sharpen a more discerning view of who we truly are that breaks through layers of self-enclosure and reactivity into the living, breathing presence that sustains us all, the Earth. Seen from a contemplative perspective, the compounded crises we’re facing serve as resounding bells that announce that the time is now to heed the call of awakening. This may not be too farfetched, especially when considering the larger evolutionary cycles of the human family.
Some scholars of religion suggest that we are at the brink of a second axial age, a sort of watershed of religious and spiritual upsurge with the potential to clear a viable pathway forward. Akin to the first axial age of roughly 2,000 years ago that saw the emergence of many of the founding figures of the world’s religious traditions, this second tipping point is a similar fertile moment taking place in a rather different historical context. The rapid disruption of Earth’s systems by human activity is so thoroughgoing that it has rushed in a new geological era known as the Anthropocene. The “human era” — term that in itself exhibits the self-aggrandizing tendencies of the modern mind — and its avid exchange of goods and culture via a technologically interconnected system serve as the background that informs current spiritual insights and developments.
The never-seen-before challenges posed by the compounded crises of the early stage Anthropocene make addressing the fundamental disorder that keeps Earth from blooming in the heart of industrialized citizens all the more urgent. Psychotherapist and professor Joe Loizzo poignantly summarizes the pervasive quandary as follows,
the malignant view that we’re all isolated, alien beings at odds with others in a hostile world, a delusion based on identifying and reifying our worst-case memories and instinctive stress reactions as “me, myself, and I.”1
Even though it may seem as an immutable trait of our human makeup, this narcissistic, overly-protective, competitive, isolated sense of self can and should give way to a more permeable, relational understanding of our role within Earth’s matrix. Fortunately, there is an antidote for the entrenched malaise of a distorted “I,” as teachers and sages throughout history have taught us. This antidote gradually takes us on a path of greening the Self.
Greening the Self
Teacher, deep ecologist, and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy takes note of three recent developments that pierce through the illusion of our diminished sense of self.2 The first development has to do with the psycho-emotional effects impinged upon us by the looming collapse of Earth’s systems and coming face to face with mortality at rather unthinkable scales. The second development is rooted in the so-called new paradigm sciences that, based on a systemic view of life, reveal patterns of relational self-organization at virtually all scales of existence. The third development refers to a resurgence of non-dual spiritualities. The current axial age is bringing forth an omnipresent sense of the sacred in a wide variety of wisdom traditions that inform a more ethical relation with ourselves and the world.
These breakthroughs take us beyond an exclusive self-enclosed processing where our circle of interest is dictated by the “I, me, mine” storyline into the depths of what we’d otherwise consider “other.” Such expansive process of care and identification is akin to decomposing organic matter — the breakdown of rough and coarse materials is gradually followed by the emergence of finer, nutrient-rich particles of life-giving soil. Just as a single spoonful of healthy soil contains billions of microorganisms, this enlarged sense of self is made up of the entire community of Earth and beyond. As we compost stale layers of self-absorption, hyper-individualism, competitiveness, and reactivity, we deepen into the path of a greener Self. As we tend Earth’s seed within, we ready the conditions for Her blossoming. Earth is born anew in human form.
Awakening to our Earthly expression entails conceiving of the planet not as a pile of resources waiting to be exploited, but as a Great Mother worthy of praise and respect. The Earth is a bountiful source that ceaselessly provides to Her children without asking anything in return. This all-encompassing capacity for nurturance and sustenance is related to what in Mahayana Buddhism is referred to as prajnaparamita or The-Mother-of-all-the-Buddhas. Prajnaparamita, translated as the “perfection of transcendental wisdom,” is both a series of scriptures centered around the notion of discriminative insight and the personification of the Great Mother that reveals reality as it truly is by way of clarity of vision and wisdom. Shariputra, student of the Buddha, refers to prajnaparamita as “an ever-flowing fountain of incomparable light, and from every conscious being on every plane of being, she removes the faintest trace of illusory darkness.”3
The increasing amounts of suffering endured by the planetary web of life driven by the industrial mind represent the death of insight and the reign of shortsightedness. Yet the very matrix that withstands the effects of our confusion, Great Mother Earth, imparts the clear vision (prajna) that cuts through the veil of separative consciousness, as the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo referred to the deluded view of the ego-self. Consciously reweaving the body–mind into Earth’s matrix provides the necessary support for regaining clarity and health at multiple levels, while facilitating the emergence of ecologically sound behaviors. The Earth is a luminous source of somatic, psychological, and spiritual nourishment.
For Patanjali, viveka khyateh or “discriminative discernment” is the crown jewel of yogic practice that enables the light of reality to shine through.4 With the ability of clear vision comes the discernment of what is real from what is cloaked by delusion and conditioned by suffering. Reality, for the Buddha, is a radically interdependent sea of relationality composed of things devoid of isolated essences but filled with the radiance and warmth of an omnipresent light. Before attaining such penetrating vision, the Buddha was sitting under a fig tree steeped in meditation when Mara, a personification of devious temptation, demanded to know under whose authority was he attempting the ultimate realization. The Earth roared in support, making Mara flee, as the soon to be awakened prince touched the ground that sustained him.
A Planet-wide Heart
The clear insight into the deep ecology of reality naturally activates a kind, sympathetic, and caring attitude toward oneself and others. This compassionate stance is not to be confused with morbidity or pity, but with an open heart that allows being with things as they are, whether seemingly sorrowful or joyful. Compassion, however, is particularly present when the tides turn toward suffering, as one of its definitions is the ability to “suffer with.” A genuine aspiration to ameliorate suffering and oversee the welfare of all springs forth from the heart of compassion, connected in turn to the throbbing heart at Earth’s bosom.
The capacity to remain connected to the heartbeat of unfettered compassion is represented by the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva. Within the tradition, the bodhisattva is an archetypal hero of awakening, a dormant seed spread throughout the world that sprouts into altruistic thought, word, and deed. Transcending the barrier of the atomized self, this innate disposition of our shared humanity shows that, in a deep sense, there’s no personal release from suffering, no individual salvation.
Given the radical interdependence of all phenomena, an individual would achieve its own liberation only insofar as everyone else does. Shantideva tells us, “For as long as space endures and for as long as the world lasts, may I live dispelling the miseries of the world.”5 As long as Earth suffers, humans are bound to share the same fate. Equally, as we act for the benefit of our planet-home, we gradually green the Self.
This planet-wide compassion is both an aspiration and a state of mind cultivated by way of engaged contemplation. The ability to remain open to the world, in all its light and shadow, while still actively nurture a caring, compassionate attitude toward ourselves and the Earth allows suffering to reach a mature expression, ultimately transforming into an elixir of wakeful connection and service. The bodhisattva way — a combination of compassionate ideals, contemplative skill, and altruistic service — is an effective and much needed antidote to better face our planetary moment.
Greening the Self, going from a reactive ego-self to a more transparent sense of identity in intimate communion with Earth’s living web and beyond, seems to be a planetary imperative. In other words, Self-realization is what the whole planet is conjuring from each of us now.
The recognition of the deep ecology of reality along with a compassionate intention that oversees the cessation of suffering suppose a radical shift, a sort of conversion in the mystical sense where world and self are born anew. No less than a profound transformation of how we see ourselves and the natural order is needed to skillfully navigate the many crises upon us.
The contemplative mind, attuned to things as they are, is primed to finetune the sword of discernment and grow in compassionate service as it deepens its ability to disarm its own destructive actions that systematically endanger the planet.
1. Loizzo, J. (2012). Sustainable happiness: The mind science of well-being, altruism, and inspiration. New York, NY: Routledge, p. 541.
2. Macy, J. (2007). World as lover, world as self: Courage for global justice and ecological renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
3. Cited in: Hixon, L. (1993). Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Wheaton: Quest Books, p. 17.
4. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.28 cited in: Aranya, S. (1983). Yoga philosophy of Patanjali. Albany: State University of New York Press, p. 203.
5. Shantideva, Wallace, V., & Wallace, B. (1997). A guide to the bodhisattva way of life. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, p. 144.