Talk given at Environmental Politics series: Dialogue and Dissent
presented at Griffith University, Brisbane on May 4th, 2005

When we open our eyes and ears to the world around us we are unfortunately besieged by violence on all different fronts: whether it’s the fossil fuel economy booming overhead in jets that implicate the exploitation of indigenous peoples and the destruction of rainforests worldwide, daily news reports of war and strife, or closer to home the expansion of roads into previously pristine areas, the developments that never seem to stop, the water supply that dwindles and so on.

Protecting forests and nature as we do at the RIC, we’ve found it necessary to have some sort of spiritual basis for our work to deal with the cold hard fact that for every forest we might protect, so many more are being felled. As the old adage states, “one step forward two steps back.” or so it is in nature protection.

Deep Ecology is a philosophy of nature that offers us some perspective on this issue. Deep ecology states that all life forms have intrinsic value. The philosophy strongly critiques human centeredness or anthropocentrism saying we’ve forgotten who we are, we think we can just extract, exploit, manipulate, control the natural world without any consequence to ourselves. This egocentric way is destroying nature and indigenous culture worldwide.

We’ve forgotten that when we stretch the strands of the web of life to the point of breaking we are threatening the very life force that we depend on: air, water, earth. For we are nothing without these as anybody holding his breath for a few minutes will realize.

So deep ecology is all about remembering that we are from the Earth, of the Earth and nothing separate. It’s a contemporary way for westerners to have some understanding about a deep connection, a relationship, that all intact indigenous groups have always had, with the natural world.

To deep ecology, none of our good efforts in the world will be binding in the long term without a radical shift in consciousness, a transformation inside ourselves in which we see know understand who we truly are, plain and simple members of the biota as naturalist Aldo Leopold so aptly said, although I prefer to say beautiful Earthlings!

Now for me, I’ve never found deep ecology to be enough on a spiritual and psycho-emotional level to fully support me in working for change in the world.

Here’s where I turn to the second bit of work that’s often linked to deep ecology: Despair and Empowerment. This work clearly addresses the emotional challenges that are intertwined with social and environmental justice work. Basically, this theory explains that our feelings of anger, grief, fear, despair, any of these so called ‘bad feelings’ are the healthy normal reaction to what’s going down in the world today. If someone threatens the forest and you have a deep connection to it, it is natural and healthy to feel grief when it is hastily felled. If we are waging wars on each other, it is the normal reaction of a human to feel great distress at the cold-blooded murders. And so on. Instead though we are shamed for having such feelings (eg. “Oh, you’re so sensitive!”, “What a little cry baby.”) from a very young age; by the time we’re adults we live a life where a large part of our intelligence has been suppressed and our energy is all bound up in keeping these feelings down, holding it all together. So this feelings work is all about affirming the feelings and remembering that actually feelings have been around a lot longer than cognitive, strategic planning, type of thinking and it was these feelings that helped our mammalian ancestors survive for generation after generation for millions of years and if we had our intuition and feelings flowing freely through us now we’d be able to think a lot clearer and find solutions, act in positive ways and so on.

Finally, the last framework I’d like to put forwards is about spiritual engagement. This is about shifting out of the usual dominant paradigm way of looking at our work in the world.
This is in part about compassionate action that means firstly that we treat ourselves with love and care in much the same way we would like to be treated by others. This means that in our work we choose to engage not from a place of shame and guilt, a place of ‘shoulds’ but rather because we feel strongly moved to, because it brings us joy, deep satisfaction.

We can develop a practical understanding that what Thomas Berry (US theologian) calls The Great Work is available to us every moment of every day. The Great Work of these times includes healing the relationships we have with ourselves and with each other. The relationship we each have with ourself is often tinged with self deprecation and flagellation (I should have this, if only that, I’m not worthy of …). And to our dear loved ones, we often speak most harshly. To bring loving kindness into our daily lives, this is the inner revolution that must take place if any of our good efforts are to be binding.

For many, matters of the spirit and the soul are something separate from action. But certainly this separation is illusory much like the separation we feel between ourselves and the Earth, or ourselves and each other. Rather than sitting in a meditation room to find enlightenment, why not go like the Buddha and sit under a tree and touch the earth as we reach towards self-realization. We have the opportunity to make every act a beautiful prayer; this is always within our means. So if we are working on a campaign or a project and things are not going that well as far as the final goal is concerned, we always still have the choice to act from the heart, to continue to care for ourselves and each other and to set the intention that these beautiful efforts of ours will ripple outwards across the globe.

I recently gave a talk like this in Hobart at The Wilderness Society and immediately after I was done, an older woman said gruffly, “I like to win!” “Good on ya.” I said. “I’m serious, I want to WIN.” She growled. “Win what and at what cost?” I asked.

Of course she is talking about the forests of Tasmania. Now anybody who has stepped into the Styx or the Tarkine would also boldly state that they want to win these forests. The stunning beauty, the extensiveness, this unique ancient remnant. To step into these forests is to love them, to yearn for them to continue to be.

But how do we balance our desire to protect a place with the deeper understanding that we have that a greater shift in consciousness is needed in the long run?

How do we work from a genuinely peaceful place when we are filled with grief or with anger, frustration at the injustices, the callous disregard for billions of years of evolution?

After raving for a number of years about the need for compassionate action on all fronts, I found myself very concerned that there might not actually be a truly peaceful action that we can take.

Near where I live we had done a Gandhi style fast for forest, meditations for the forest in the State Forest office, and a number of other cuddly types of action.

But I was always bothered that even these actions were causing vexation to others. When we went into the State Forest office in Coffs Harbour and sat in a circle praying and meditating for Pine Creek State Forest and the koalas who live there, the office workers were clearly distressed with our presence.

Even the most peaceful peace walk is a distress to George Bush or John Howard because we are standing up and disagreeing. I observed something that we all experience in our lives: that by merely saying NO when they say Yes or vice versa creates waves, creates disharmony.

Yet, if each of us waited until we were fully peaceful inside, would we have a peace movement, let alone an environmental movement or a human rights movement?

I realized that we can do our best to resolve feelings of anger and frustration and then knowing that are intentions come for a clear place, we can design actions that are as peaceful as possible.

As Sulak Sivaraksa (Thai Buddhist activist) said a number of years ago, “If you’ve worked on loving the World Bank and extended this compassion to the Bank and yet still they continue to do their destruction unabatedly, then you agitate.”

So I call this compassionate agitation. It’s a fine line we walk. But it is certainly worthwhile to put our prayers into action. And yes when we take action, we may see unrest in others who don’t agree with us.

It’s not always obvious what this looks like. In 1979, a peaceful ‘hippy’ protest occurred at Terania Creek in northern New South Wales to protect the precious rainforests. An amazing protest it was with protesters singing their way through very tense situations while ancient trees were being felled.

In the fourth week of the protest, a few people besought with frustration took matters into their own hands and sawed some of the felled logs due to be trucked out the next day into pieces.

Many of the protesters were very disappointed with this action and claimed that it was violent. The police said that this action was unacceptable. (show video – Give Trees a Chance - here).

And yet this action was very successful. The logging stopped at Terania Creek until this date and these forests are now in the Nightcap National Park.

I have pondered this action and other ones similar to it and would argue that this action could have been an action of skillful means.

I do not think that it is always violent and dispassionate to do economic harm to another. Sometimes when our words are not listened to, we might have to take stronger action. Much like we would not let a child burn his hand on the stove top, we might remove his hand, we might find a way to peacefully move the State aside from destroying the environment, local community etc.

What was violent about the action was that it was done from frustration, anger directed at the loggers and the government through the destruction of what they had claimed as their property.

And of course these sorts of actions are always disputed on the grounds that they will certainly be perceived as violent and will escalate into further acts of violence. Yes, point well taken.

But let’s also remember and give consideration to the fact that the forests were here long before the economic and political system that have now sold these forests to pulp and paper mills. Likewise, the Aboriginal people of Australia were here long LONG before the white men arrived or set down their laws.

I wonder whether an action like this -- the sawing of the logs in a different direction than the one that the mill would have cut them in – could have been done with great peace in the peoples’ hearts -- rather than a furtive frustrated action -- a group ritual with a prayer for the forests. Would it still have seemed violent? Could it have been made into an action of beauty?

So it’s not always easy to decide on what is called in Buddhism “right action”. It’s especially not easy when we’re standing somewhere beautiful and listening, watching it being systematically and recklessly pulled apart.

It can be helpful when we are evaluating the action that we’re going to take to remember that there are different lenses that we can look through. There is the lens of the current political and social systems: the law, the social rights and wrongs…

Then there is the wider lens of deep time, the 13 billion years that has passed by before now, the long spiraling flow of evolution from the Big Bang to current time. What are the laws from this timeframe?

And then there is the wider spiritual framework that says that all dualities are illusory. From this perspective we are all one, love is Unity, and so on. There is an unfortunate way that this last framework is being used to discourage people from taking action in the world. I have heard people at my workshops come up to me saying that they are confused because their friends are saying that action is useless, that it is inferior to the more superior worldview that “everything is as it’s meant to be” “it’s all good.” as we say.

There is truth to this. In a Unity framework, there isn’t a problem here on the Earth. Being in the midst of a mass extinction spasm, violent wars, global climate change, isn’t problematic, just the way it is.

However, this ‘truth’ does not negate the other frameworks. There are what we could call nested levels of reality. 

In the immediate physical and narrow time frame, things are certainly messed up. Just look around you and you will see threats to just about everything we value. Look further afield and you see even more suffering being inflicted by humans upon humans and nature.

In the larger time frame of planet Earth (4.5 billion years) things are changing but they have done so before and will do so again. There have been previous upheavals on the planet, most every life form that ever lived here has been wiped out (only .1 percent has survived) and always after 5-10 million years, all the biological niches are once again filled up with new and extravagant forms of life.

Then there is the Unity time frame/ all is consciousness or awareness or Self or God or whatever you want to call it. Or in a quantum physics way, all is sound and light waves and on this level reality, replete with duality is illusory. There is literally no difference between me and a tree and a logger and a star and on this level everything is one, everything is fine as such.

When we understand these different frameworks, we can enter in and out of them as we see fit. From the largest framework, we can have the detachment and understanding of the interconnectedness of all beings

At the same time compassion is an important facet of all these frameworks.

Sidebar: In the story of the enlightenment of the Green Tara, it was a process that occurred over a period of time beyond calculation. Once she had vowed to become fully and completely enlightened, nothing could stop her or diminish her desire to be of benefit to all beings. She would not eat breakfast until she had “saved” a million beings, that is, until she had taken the anger or the greed or the hatred in their hearts and transformed it to loving-kindness and compassion. Then she wouldn’t eat lunch until she had saved another million beings, and the same with dinner. So every day, lifetime after lifetime, for thousands and thousands of years, she saved millions and millions of beings. Then one day she was fully and completely enlightened. She had burst fully into bloom, imperceptibly, like a flower.

Through the development of compassion, we are moved to engage in acts that ease suffering on the planet, either towards ourselves and our loved ones or further a field by becoming involved in aidwork or social/environmental justice, human rights etc. Even if we ourselves find ourselves in the fortunate position of living in complete nirvana, blissed out, why not share it around a bit and help ease another being’s suffering?

Once we’ve incarnated for such a brief notch in eternity, why not engage in acts of beauty and joy? We can certainly make a difference to other peoples’ or beings’ lives. Like in the Loren Eisler’s story, The Star Thrower, where the young man keeps on throwing the starfish back to the sea even though another man points out that this is utterly pointless with so many starfish destined to die when the tide goes out. The young man says, with deep satisfaction in his voice, “It matters to this one.”

So throw a starfish back into the ocean whenever you can. It matters. At the end of the day, this is what feels good. Money won’t bring happiness in the last moments. It will be love deep satisfaction, friendships…

Finally, so many people ask what to do, where to begin. If you don’t know where to begin, just wait until you feel something strong. You might be reading something and you feel yourself getting upset at the injustice. Or you adore a certain kind of animal or person or something. Or you just find yourself really wanting to do something about that new road that’s planned to go right through the wetland.

If nothing in particular calls to you, there are so many things we can do to pass the time. Just commit to keeping your eyes and ears open, to witness what is happening on the Earth. We can make ourselves available and send it out to the Cosmos that we’re ready, we’re on call for when we’re needed.

The rest will fall in place easily.

for the Earth