Spirituality in the Planetary Era
How’s our deepest spiritual impulse best expressed in our current times?
What we call “the divine” is none other than the energy of awakening, of peace, of understanding, and of love, which is to be found not only in every human being, but in every species on Earth.
Thich Nhat Hanh
I have asked myself countless times the reason why I’m attracted to an ecologically sensitive spirituality. Beyond its usefulness as a much needed response to the challenges we face as a human family or what I am able to discern and intellectualize, I wonder what’s the essential nature of my deep passion and love for our planet home. Below, I attempt to make sense of this most urgent longing.
According to buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, the planet is the mother of all buddhas. I take this to mean that the air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we walk on, and the fire that warms us, are the origin of both life itself and the most wakeful and crystalline expression of being. Every human and all creatures find their origin on the Earth; the planet is the dimension that exists at the heart of all beings.
More specifically, the beloved buddhist teacher proposes three virtues that the mother of all buddhas reveals at all times while flying through space amongst Her solar planetary community.
The three virtues are stability, creativity, and nondiscrimination. Even in the most difficult times, the Earth continues to flourish. The stability shown by the different ecosystems of the planet whilst being subject to the often-disastrous consequences of the activities of our species is admirable, displaying a remarkable amount of perseverance, equanimity, and patience.
Planetary creativity seems to have no limits. The enormous diversity of life is in perennial innovation and adaptation, represented, for example, in a redwood forest, in the bioluminescence of fireflies or in Van Gogh’s starry night painting. But the Earth holds the most profound creativity.
Nature’s absence of discrimination allows it to serve as the generous source that provides each and every being the apt conditions to subsist and bring to fulfillment the highest gifts of consciousness.
The virtues of stability, creativity, and nondiscrimination are equally found in the depths of our being, where the Earth resides undisturbed.
Emergencies and ecological disasters resound as wake-up calls when paying close attention to what takes place in our inner landscapes.
Contrary to what might seem the case, introspection can lead us to a fuller life in virtuous contact with the Earth — this is perhaps one of the main reasons for my attraction to eco-spirituality.
If the Earth is indeed a great teacher, now more than ever, it imparts valuable lessons for all of us interested in refining our inner landscapes and craft a more intimate relation between such mindscapes and their radiant nucleus.
It’s now that the ecological challenges produced by the industrialized mind bring us to a crossroads where there’s no option to turn around or hide from ourselves. Directing our attention inward invites the recognition that the unconscious habits that feed the ecological destruction and our own suffering, making visible a path of awakening. The current planetary moment is an unparalleled opportunity to fan the flames of consciousness.
This kind of spirituality and consciousness development is not only based on our appreciation and gratitude for the Earth, but on something much deeper and more mysterious. A spirituality directed towards the planet reveals the assumption that the planet itself is similar to an object, a beautiful but inert statue at the center of an altar. Rather, my experience of eco-spirituality is inspired by the internal transparency that allows us to recognize that the sacred is something that flows from the Earth itself.
The influence of the self-proclaimed Homo sapiens or “the wisest human” reverberates through the entire Earth. So much so that in 2016, geologists finally took seriously into consideration that the human species is profoundly and irreversibly altering the functioning and structure of the whole planet. The idea is not new.
More than half a century ago, Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky proposed that the human mind was a powerful geological agent. The time would come when the transfer and exchange of matter and energy in the global ecosystem would be dictated by human actions. The evolutionary potential of the new geological age, inaugurated by the hand of our species, exists in association with an expansion of creativity and a tremendous destruction: bright light, deep shadow.
The planetary era is the fruit of a long evolutionary trajectory. If we consider the human species as a great organism, it’s possible to pinpoint six developmental stages, linked to different levels of consciousness. The first stage, hominization, gave rise to the archaic human and stretched from around 4 millions of years ago to 200,000 years before the common era. The symbolization stage where our ancestors deepened their self-reflective awareness creating art, religion, and various symbols extends for 190,000 years, up until 12,000 years ago. With a 6,500-year duration, agriculturalization marked the transition of nomadic hunter-gatherer groups to a sedentary lifestyle and its many repercussions. Civilization, the next phase, gave rise to a new social order and structure, distinguished by a division of labor and a constant cultural diversity and stratification. This stage lasted 4,500 years. The phase of industrialization, extending from the year 1500 to 1945, was categorized by the exploitation and mechanization of the natural processes that sustain civilization. The sixth stage, planetization, is an age of cultural, political, and economic globalization, where an intimate socio-ecological interconnectivity primarily driven by the activities of our species is made manifest.1
What are the repercussions of the planetary reach of the human mind forged over time in the daily life of the industrialized citizen?
Second Axial Age
The erosion of the sacred is a chief source of the discomforts of the human species, which manifests with special incidence in the global ecosystem. We have populated, exchanged, invaded, and colonized the wide range of landscapes on Earth, experimenting and proving ways in which the seemingly endless human creativity marvels at its own creations.
This ingenuity has spread as a flare in the dry forest, developing medicines for major epidemics and saving thousands of lives, travelling the skies at hundreds of miles per hour, greatly improving communication technologies and productive processes, and even sending rockets to outer space to walk on the moon. But what little interest there seems to be when it comes to looking inward to attend our creative experience in contemplation and stillness.
An antidote for such situation is linked to a fertile period of intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual awakening out of which emerged the great prophets known to this day. The axial age of around 2,000 years ago gave birth to figures such as Lao-Tse, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mahavira, Ezequiel, Socrates, Plato, Heraclitus, and Patanjali, while also inaugurating many of the religions and schools of wisdom that have informed the adventures of the human species over time.
Regardless of religious considerations, the axial age brought forth a burst of knowledge that served as a watershed for cultural evolution. The human species was never the same. A key feature of this influential episode is that the great majority of awakenings that took place are related to great prophets, to brilliant individual figures.
The current historical moment of global interconnection and planetary influence is, for many, a second axial age, given the profound influence that current activities have not only in the future of the human species but in all Earth’s inhabitants.
The impressive accumulation of knowledge of our days is a second tipping point in which socio-ecological cycles are closed and new episodes are inaugurated. Perhaps, the most crucial factor that shows a declining trajectory is the collapse of our planetary home, concretely exemplified by the sixth mass extinction of species, climate change, and the energy crisis. What can we aspire to when the very matrix that gifts us life is in danger?
The ecological crisis is the palpable, breathable expression of a crisis of civilization. The productive, cultural, religious, and economic dimensions of industrialized societies are in sharp contrast with the ecological realities of the planet. Many of the values and customs celebrated today are simply not viable. It becomes necessary to reverse this pervasive “common sense” and realize that our methods of production, our customs and uses, our beliefs and spiritual practices, and our economic trends and practices all depend on the goodness of the Earth.
In their remarkable variety, many of the advancements derived from the first axial age were based on the idea of transcendence, broadly understood as the abandonment of the world towards a luminous reality. Now, aware that the sacred is limitless, the world as a whole is seen as an expression of the Great Mystery.
Spirituality for our Time
The crisis for the caterpillar is the opportunity of life for the butterfly. The global predicament in which we find ourselves immersed in can also be understood as the labor pains of the planet itself.
A prosperous deployment of the second axial age depends on each of us rescuing a sense of the sacred in our lives from the depths of matter.
The spirituality of the planetary era refers to the restitution and celebration of the sacred in matter. After all, “matter” evokes the meaning of the word “origin” and “source,” and it’s etymologically related to the word “mother.” At the same time, such spirituality invites us to see the Earth, the immediate source of matter, as the great being that contains and makes possible for humans to experience the sacred currents of creation and the mystery that lies beyond.
Prophets and visionaries of the second axial age place an emphasis on the collective. The planetary community becomes the prophet. A spirituality that connects the sky and the earth, the visible and the invisible, contributes to the virtuous unfolding of the planetary era that welcomes, energizes, and liberates all beings.
If we human beings enjoy the freedom to explore and express ourselves spiritually, it’s because the Earth is the source of the sacred. This sacred dimension, which gave birth to the universe, to galaxies and their stars, to suns and their planets, reaches us through Earth’s matrix. The sacredness of the cosmos invites us to turn our attention within to awaken our spiritual faculties that in turn reveal the divine creativity of the Earth.
The spirituality of the planetary era becomes a celebration of the sacredness that inhabits the heart of matter and the Earth, extending in all directions and at all levels.
- William I. Thompson. Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture, 2009, pp. 23–24.
Adapted from: Adrián Villaseñor Galarza. Corazón del cielo, corazón de la Tierra: La espiritualidad en la era planetaria, 2017.[Heart of the Sky, Heart of the Earth: Spirituality in the Planetary Era. English edition forthcoming].