2012-07-06

Environmentalism and Religion

"There is a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands."
-His All Holiness Bartholomew, Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, speaking at the conference on "Environment, Ethics, and Innovation" in Heybeliada, Turkey, 2012 Jun 18-20.

When it comes to the environment destruction the "anthropocene age" is wreaking on the planet, our collective head doesn't know everything, but it knows enough. The engagement of the heart is catching on among more and more people like me (who love to read and write about the need to protect the environment -- while sitting in my air-conditioned house which the last electric bill said was only the 8th-most efficient house in our neighborhood). The journey from heart to hands is, indeed, long.

And this is where the environmental movement needs to get religion -- and religion needs to get environmental. The great world religious traditions have understood for centuries that knowing what is right is not the same thing as living it, and they have worked out approaches for helping us close that gap. Truthfully, they aren't all that great. Hence, the apostle Paul:
"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7: 15-19)
Still, the contemplative practices, the rituals, and the faith communities developed in both the east and west are our best hope for getting from head to heart to hands.

New scientific attention to the consequences of, and the conditions that encourage, altruism, forgivness, gratitude, and empathy has been yielding results supporting religious teachings centuries, and even millennia, old. These qualities are -- and are not -- matters of choice: pretty much the same way that healthy muscle tone is, and is not, a matter of choice. You can't just hear a particularly inspirational sermon one day and decide that, henceforth, you are going to be kind, compassionate, forgiving, and peaceful -- anymore than you can watch a video of an inspirational Jack LaLanne (RIP) talk and decide that, henceforth, you will have developed muscles. What you CAN do, however, is be inspired to begin doing the exercises. It takes exercises to develop the muscles -- and the willpower involved is the willpower to keep doing the exercises.

Likewise, it takes exercise to develop the muscles of the spiritual virtues (altruism, compassion, equanimity, abiding joy and peace). You can't will yourself to be nice and kind. The willpower involved is the willpower to keep doing the exercises that, over time, slowly develop the virtues. The spiritual virtues are based in physiology just as much as muscle health is. There are new neural pathways that must be developed if we are going to consistently traverse the long journey from head to heart to hands.

The ancient religions, when they aren't ignoring key portions of their own wisdom traditions, have a lot to say about how to do those exercises. New scientific findings are telling us a bit more about how to train ourselves to be spiritually fit.

To survive as a species, we will need to make the journey from thoughts to actions -- either:
(1) to stop and reverse environmental damage and restore healthy planet-wide ecosystems; or
(2) to find a way to live together in the coming hard times without wiping each other out in resource wars.

It's probably too late for #1. Hard times, resulting from human impact on our planet, are coming -- and, in many ways, are already here. (See Bill McKibben, Eaarth.)

To manage ourselves -- to learn to live peacefully and cooperatively under conditions of diminished carrying capacity -- will require cultivation of the spiritual virtues.

We develop the muscles for action on behalf of peace and justice by exercising them: a little action today helps prepare us for larger, more sustained, more thoroughgoing actions later.

We also develop the muscles by learning to recognize, monitor, and regulate the reactions of our ego-defense mechanisms. Those mechanisms serve good purposes -- but they work overtime and get us into trouble. In fact, they get us into pretty much all the trouble that human history has recorded. The spiritual virtues I mentioned (kindness, equanimity, etc) amount to this ability for self-awareness to recognize, monitor, and regulate the ego-defense reactions. Joy and peace are our natural condition when the occlusions of our ego-defenses are cleared. "Know thyself," beseech the wise ones from Buddha to Socrates and on. For the cultivation of self-awareness, try a foundation of five practices:

1. Study. Read the wisdom literature, scripture, spiritual writings, poetry. At least 15 mins. a day.

2. Journaling. Learn to know yourself by seeing what your write about what is on your heart. Ask, "Where has my heart been during the last 24 hours?" and then start writing. Minimize self-editing. Just keep the pen moving. One day a week, simply list things from the preceding week for which you are grateful. 15 minutes a day.

3. Silence. And stillness. Find a posture for sitting that will allow you to remain comfortably motionless for 15 mins a day. Bring your attention to the sensations of breathing in and breathing out. Every time you notice that your mind has drifted away from that attention, make a note to yourself that you have drifted away, then return all your attention to the breathing. Over time, you learn a lot about yourself by this daily exercise of noticing where your mind tends to wander to.

4. Group. Get together with sympathetic others to share and reflect on your spiritual paths. The group should meet at least monthly. Weekly is better.

5. Resolve for mindfulness. Noticing where your mind wanders off to isn't just for the 15 mins/day silence exercise. Throughout the day, when you notice that your mind is dwelling in the future or in the past, bring it back to where you are right now.

Peace be with you. And, thus, with us all.