Leaves Aflame: Our School and the Fraying Web of Life
By Shams Kairys
The following talk was presented at a Convocation hosted by Pir Zia and Prajapati O'Neill at The Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, NY, in June, 2002. The purpose of the gathering was to hear from longstanding students in the Sufi Order International on living themes relevant to the teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan. Shams addressed the profound challenges of our global environmental predicament. Although this is addressed to a specific spiritual group it is included in Universal Awakening's Meeting Place as it is deemed relevant to anyone on any spiritual path who considers life precious and sacred.
I am here to hold a simple yet imposing question before our community: Does it matter that the natural life support systems of the planet are being decimated by human activity? Should this fact affect our efforts as a spiritual school, and if so, how? [ See Appendix 1. ]
Hazrat Inayat Khan [Murshid] left a small but potent legacy of poetic utterances praising the natural world, and its connection to the divine. [ See Appendix 2. ] He provides ample indication that matter matters, that the mystical path is walked here on Earth, that manifest life, human life in particular, has value and purpose. The tendency toward anthropocentrism is balanced by a sense of the kinship of all life in a sacred, interwoven reality.
Yet as we live out the spiritual direction derived from Murshid's teachings, it is easy to fall into a subtle dualism, wherein the world is regarded as merely the ephemeral backdrop for the human soul journey, and human life is exalted above all else.
We may not recognize these habits of thought because they are comfortably familiar and communally reinforced. In a normal world, these habits might be harmless enough. But our world is far from normal. We are in the midst of a global crisis that may be the most difficult challenge humanity has ever faced. But we have not yet collectively been able to sustain our gaze upon our actual situation.
What then is our spiritual responsibility in such a time? To begin, we might attempt to unearth and redress unrecognized imprints and beliefs embedded in our teaching that may avert our attention from the dilemma before us. Two beliefs that we might examine have already been suggested above: first, that human beings are primarily souls in transit, and privileged ones at that; and second, that the value of the created world is relatively negligible. These beliefs leave us with an interlocking conundrum: we extol the worth of the human as a bearer of divinity, while disregarding the fundamental matrix from which human life arises, and the ruinous impact humans are having upon it.
In response, I could simply make an appeal for the intrinsic sacredness of the natural world as an awesome expression of the divine. But if this were self-evident, the world wouldn't be in the state it is in. Rather, I feel we must look for the roots of such beliefs. Here is one clue from Murshid: "Humankind is far removed from nature both within and without, and has become an exile from the ideal state of life." Perhaps we humans, living in our increasingly domesticated world, are suffering a massive species denial - closely related to the denial of death - denial of our creatureness.
We, particularly those who are spiritually oriented, have exalted the reflective consciousness and beautiful expressions of spirit found in human beings and human culture, without comparable recognition of this other, fundamental dimension of being human. Yes, we are spiritual beings, and also we are creatures, with bodies composed of matter, and lives that begin and end. It is at this level that we are woven into the fabric of the Earth, and grounded in its mother nature.
Thus we cannot accurately speak of humans being cut off from intimate relation to the planet-it is as integrally significant to human life as the body is. Few would argue for a disembodied spirituality these days, yet we settle for a comparable disjunction when we do not adequately honor the planet that is the basis for our existence.
What would this honoring look like? Like all honoring, it would look like love. Meaning, we do all in our power to assure the well being of the beloved. But becoming aware of what ot takes to assure the well being of the web of life on the planet can be a demanding practice. Thich Nhat Hanh once spoke about taking a class of school children to the supermarket in France. Each item they reached for was examined in relation to the way the food was raised, and where, the way it was processed, packaged, advertised, transported, as well as to the workers who participated in its manufacture, how they are treated and paid. He said they left the market without making a purchase, yet it was one of the most satisfying shopping trips he ever had.
I know, we don't have time for al this. And really there is no harmless way to live on the planet now and still be relevant to what is happening. But I submit that these matters of the "outer world" I've been speaking of belong in the domain of our spiritual life. Let us begin to ask what spirituality "as if the world really matters" would look like. Let us begin to cultivate practices that encompass and explicitly incorporate the whole web of life. Let us begin to learn how to face and abide the distress of our planetary reality heartfully, without closing down, splitting off, or otherwise falling into denial and neglect. Otherwise, we can't possibly be fully conscious human beings.
I believe this approach will stretch us, spiritually activate us, and bring us to life in new ways. It will provide a needed complement to practices that feature an individual consciousness in pursuit of "higher" states. Perhaps if we can remember and embrace our natural kinship with all life, and learn to livre it, die into it, discover happiness in it, we may be able to contribute a more whole view of existence, a more integral spirituality, and some helping hands for the great task ahead.
Appendix 1 .
Condition Critical: The Case in Brief
The UN's Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems brought together 175 scientists from many disciplines and nations to analyze and integrate
data from roughly a hundred prior assessments, as well as new research. (This study was a prelude to the recently launched Millennium Ecosystem
Assessment, the most extensive analysis of the health of our planet ever undertaken.)
Preliminary findings were featured in "World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life." This report evaluates
five major types of ecosystems-forests, freshwater (rivers and lakes), oceans (coastal/ marine habitats), grasslands, and agricultural lands. All five show severe signs of deterioration:
Half the world's forests have been chopped down
Half the world's wetlands were lost in one century
70% of the world's major marine fisheries are depleted
80% of grasslands, 40% of the world's land surface, suffer from soil degeneration
More than 40% of agricultural lands have been badly degraded.
Meanwhile, since 1980, the global economy has tripled in size, and population has grown by 30% to 6 billion people; 2.3 billion people face water shortages, 60% more than in previous estimates; tropical deforestation may exceed 130,000 square kilometers per year (about the size of Wisconsin); 20% of drylands are in danger of becoming deserts; 58% of coral reefs are imperiled by human activity.
In many regions of the world, the capacity of ecosystems to meet human needs for food and clean water is diminishing dramatically, while threats to biodiversity and human health are growing, and vulnerability to environmental disasters such as floods and landslides is increasing.
World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
United Nations Environmental Programme
Appendix 2 .
Nature Meditations by Hazrat Inayat Khan
Unfold Thy secret through nature and reveal
Thy mystery through my heart.
I bend towards the Mother Earth
in delight of the Father in heaven.
The Bogeyman by Hazrat Inayat Khan ,
Act 1, scene 4. Wilderness.
The Sage dreams:
Wilderness, my dearest friend though I had left you, still you were always in my heart- the memory of having meditated in the woods, of having trees of long tradition whose every leaf is a tongue of flame... Venerated trees, have I not taken refuge in your shadow from the hot sun, when tired of roaming about in the wilderness, bare-footed? ... Little pools of water, I drank nectar from you... Joyful I felt under the vast canopy of the blue sky... Gentle streams of water, running from hills and rocks, I bathed in you and was purified of all infirmities... High mountains with a background of white clouds. No palace in the world could be compared with your beauty... Morning sun, you are most glorious in the wilderness. I have never seen your face so beaming anywhere else.
From Ten Sufi Thoughts by Hazrat Inayat Khan :
There is One Holy Book, the sacred manuscript of nature, the only scripture which can enlighten the reader.
The Sufi has in all ages respected all sacred scriptures, and has traced in them the same truth which he reads in the incorruptible manuscript of nature, the perfect and living model that teaches the inner law of life. To the eye of the seer every leaf of the tree is a page of the holy book that contains Divine Revelation.
Various sayings, like this from the Ragas (Vadan), where Hazrat Inayat Khan finds the Beloved "in the swinging of the branches, in the flying of the birds, in the running of the water, in the promise of the dawn, in the breaking of the morn, in the smiles of the rose..."