Deep Ecology Rituals For the New Century
By Ruth Rosenhek,
February 15, 2005
This paper was presented at the Two Fires Conference, Braidwood on March 19, 2005.

When the well known deep ecologist, Joanna Macy speaks of “Coming Back to Life1”, she is speaking of overcoming “the privatisation of everything including our relationship to the earth, each other and perhaps even our souls”, shifting from a path of ‘having’ to one of ‘being’ and reconnecting with each other and the Earth.

Many of us know well the challenge of breaking out of a far reaching culture of greed, status, and extreme individualism. With sophisticated modern day technology being used to aggressively promote a consumer and political ideology based at its core on exploitation of the Earth and of people, it is difficult to shake ourselves free of its constraints. Western consumer lifestyle flaunts itself as the answer to all our ills. The addiction to power, money and status is society’s prescribed treatment for the pain that arises from our deeper yearnings for intimate connection, meaning, and loving relationships.

Spiritual philosopher P. R. Sarkar (Shrii Shrii Ánandamúrti) states the acuteness of our sad predicament in this passage:

“If a flying bird is caged for long, it loses its ability to fly. If the door of its cage is unfastened accidentally, it thinks, "What benefit will I derive flying in the distant blue sky? Let me pick up seeds, sitting on the perch of my little cage.

Now, if people have been educated in a distorted manner and their minds crippled, they are unable to stand independently. If their minds have been moulded by propaganda for a long period, they cannot utilize the opportunity for freedom even if it is presented to them. ("Quadri-Statumic Progress In Human Life," Calcutta, 1981)"

The more we partake in the pleasures this insidious lifestyle has to offer, the more we remove ourselves from the natural world and from each other. We take refuge in the safety of a well crafted emotional defense system – one that is so effective we are oftentimes not aware of its presence -- one that blocks out the cold reality of the disastrous and far reaching impacts our behaviours are having across the planet. Truth be told, no amount of material possessions can ultimately gloss over the barrenness of such a lifestyle.

For some few a walk in the forest may be enough to shake us loose; even fewer might attain what is known in spritual traditions as ‘spontaneous realisation’. For the rest of us, fortunately, after spending millions of years in the forest and only recently moving to highrises, suburbia etc, it is still possible to break free from the habitual and conditioned competitive ego-oriented modern lifestyle too.

Deep ecology rituals and gatherings can lead to a lasting inner transformation that prompts individuals to make radical lifestyle changes. I’d like to focus the remainder of this paper on this vital global movement that is actively working towards an ecologically and socially harmonious culture, a culture that is the hope of the new century.

First a bit about deep ecology.

Deep ecology is a contemporary philosophy of nature that emphasizes our complete interdependence with the living Earth. To deep ecology, we humans are one strand in a complex interwoven web of natural relationships. No matter how much we modernize, technologize, consume, extract, manipulate and control, the fact still remains that we are of the Earth, made out of the very same stuff as the plants, the trees and the animals all around us, and the cosmos itself.

Arne Naess, the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Oslo University who coined the term ‘deep ecology’ in the late 1960s, called for “community therapies” to heal the rift that we feel between ourselves and nature. These community therapies can be seen as the rituals and ceremonies that have long been lost in much of western culture.

In fact, every intact indigenous culture that we look at has, at its root, a series of ceremonies and rituals whereby the human community acknowledges and nourishes its interconnectedness with the land and the rest of the Earth community through celebrations of the cycles of the Earth, the four seasons, the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain etc.

In my work along with Joanna Macy, John Seed and many others, we have developed deep ecology rituals and ceremonies, creative processes, to ‘re-Earth’ ourselves; that is, to experience and remember our mutual reciprocity with the natural world. Through activities that evoke the imagination and sense of play as well as the strength of the gatherings themselves, many participants find themselves ready to shed the constraints of a busy material lifestyle and dare to re-discover the natural self or what Arne Naess calls the “Ecological Identity’.

Thomas Berry, the well known theologian turned geologian, says that such rituals "give promise of a future with the understanding, the power, the aesthetic grandeur, and the emotional fulfillment needed to heal the damage that has already been wrought on the planet and to shape for Earth a viable future, a future with the entrancing qualities needed to endure the difficulties to be encountered and evoke the creativity needed."

One such ritual and perhaps the most well know of the deep ecology rituals is the Council of All Beings created by John Seed and Joanna Macy. During this ritual, participants journey into nature on a quest to meet an ally -- rock, gum tree, echidna, sun, wind -- who they later represent at the Council itself. Donning a mask to represent the Ally, each Being is invited to speak to the Council. While each Council is different, all eventually turn their attention to the plight faced by the natural world and all weave both creativity and wisdom into the oftimes humorous sometimes serious discussions that occur.

Later, when the Council is over, participants frequently continue to refer to each other in their Ally names to maintain the deep connection they have experienced with nature and with each other. In fact, the Council of All Beings ritual is so effective in empowering people that many activists hold this ritual with the specific intention to ‘recruit’ people to engage in local issues.

Not only is it the identification with the natural world that creates the opening for personal transformation to occur, it is also the act of gathering together with kindred spirits that gives individuals the strength to later make the kinds of changes in their lives that they have so long yearned for. For one individual to defy societal norms is a lonely if noble task; for many it can be a merry dance.

In the Future Beings ritual, a futuristic role play , ‘Contemporary Beings’ meet with ‘Future Beings’ in wisdom circles to discuss how it is to live on a planet that is deep in crisis. Participants gain a unique perspective on the challenges we collectively face and how we are each responding to this challenge. Inevitably, the ‘Future Beings’ will be heard to remark on how grateful they are for the efforts of the present-day people living in such difficult times. This sharing can offer the generous soothing that our soul so longs for; anyone who has been involved with social or environmental justice work knows that in many ways it is a thankless job, with little offered in the way of extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately, though the sense of inner satisfaction can be great, we sometimes find ourselves wanting the recognition, repect and goodwill of the same corrupt, exploitative and neurotic society to which we protest. This exercise offers gratitude that is deep reaching and insight beyond our normal everyday thinking capacity.

Journeying back in time, in the Cosmic Walk, created by Sister Miriam Therese McGillis, we recapitulate the 13 billion year history of the Universe, from the Big Bang to present times, through a candle lighting celebration that honours major events along the way: the primordial flaring forth, the birth of galaxies including the Milky Way, the formation of our planetary system and Earth, and the evolution of life on Earth from simple cellular life to complex life. As we walk in a spiral of time, we don't observe passing events as objective observers looking from the outside but we walk into and join the unfolding of our very being and that of the entire Earth and the ecosystems of which we are a part. In so doing, we realise what a speck in time our own species’ existence is within the long evolutionary journey.

In rituals such as these, we use our imaginations to stretch our identity this way and that, backwards in time, forwards in time and horizontally into the present. In this way, we learn to identify not just with the little ‘I’, my social status, my job, my family, my relationship, but with the larger ‘I’, the Universe, the Earth, the nature around us. This too is me.

Today, I’d like to offer an experience of a short ritual called The Hand Journey. (see Appendix 1.)

Music, art and poetry go hand in hand with deep ecology rituals. Earthly chants, political songs, deep ecology poetry, sufi dancing, nature writing...all bring alive our connection not only to nature but to each other in a broadening Earth Community. And it is from this sort of community that we will find the radical solutions that these times call for.

As Thomas Berry says in "The Great Work" (p.55)

The natural world demands a response beyond that of rational calculation, beyond philosophical reasoning, beyond scientific insight. The natural world demands a response that rises from the wild unconscious depths of the human soul. A response that artists seek to provide in color and music and movement."

American poet and social justice activist Drew Dellinger has created some marvelous cosmological and earth liturgies. Here’s one of my favorites:

(O.Z., SHS, AKD)

“The flame has lit up the... world from within
all things individually and collectively
are [inter] penetrated and flooded by it...
you who mold the manifold so as to
breathe your life into it...I pray to you.”

Teilhard de Chardin

The first verse of the universe
pours forth like a sea of mystery
Out of the void, unmanifest silence
space/time comes into existence
Unseen shaping, swirling, unfurling
Hydrogen, helium. Divine is revealed within
galactic whirlpools as energy flows in
a star collapses, supernova explosion
A cloud of cosmic debris
drawn together -- by gravity?
By the mystery of attraction
primordial bonding, universe action
Stardust swirling, swarming gases
organizing and forming masses
See the Sun’s the one that spun the nine others
gave birth to Mother Earth
and her sisters and brothers
Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter
Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto
Everyone is the Sun
the Sun is the one
Everybody better Wake up!
But the Earth gave birth
to continents and oceans
shaping and shaking with waves of emotion
charges of lightning, bombarding and striking
exposin’ the globe as it glows like a strobe
and setting the stage for the first cell of life
so simple and basic, so primal that I place it
at the top of the chain from which all life sprang
more forms adorn the Earth as they bring
diversity, dispersing the song of creation
ring in the dawn, sing along in celebration

I just wanna celebrate...
Celebrate life
I just wanna celebrate
Celebrate the Earth
I just wanna celebrate
Celebrate the Cosmos!

The sea comes alive, starts to thrive
with new life forms, storms swept the planet
plants crept on granite
Enchanted by the Sun’s solar power
The Earth gave birth to green leaves and flowers
lava flows, Mountains rose
Tropical islands, Forests and meadows
fed by the fresh water streams - the veins
heavenly rains drain back to the sea
the fish are set free as they swim onto sand
fins turn to limbs and the limp onto land
amphibians, reptiles new styles of creatures,
seeing through new being the range of her features
The Earth - Your Mother!
gave birth to eyesight
looking within as she spins in the sunlight
On to the dawn to the day of the dinosaurs
Pterodactyl soars, Tyrannosaurus Rex
Towering, devouring, so who’s up next?
Mammals and primates.
All life interrelated! - Divinely created!
So don’t you think it’s time we celebrated?

I just wanna celebrate...
Celebrate life
I just wanna celebrate
Celebrate the Earth
I just wanna celebrate
Celebrate the Cosmos!

Life, the Earth, the Cosmos!

A vital element to all these ceremonies is the gathering itself, the circle. It is here that we discover that we are not alone in our underlying values and beliefs and in the strong feelings we have about the Earth. This is particularly clear in the Despair and Empowerment rituals as one individual at a time enters the circle to express his or her personal feelings vis-a-vis the ecological and social times: feelings of rage, fear, sadness, hopelessness. The strength of the ritual is in the witnessing role provided by the participants who listen to these expressions without judgment, with care for this human being who loves her home. As the individual steps back to her place in the circle, everybody in the circle intones, “We hear you.” Together we hold the collective grief that we feel as the old growth forests of Tasmania are clearfelled. Together we rage at the corruption and hypocrisy of the political and corporate elite. Together we throw up our hands with the feelings of helplessness that overcome us. And then later in the workshop, we dance together in joy and give thanks for the time we have spent together.

Fortunately throughout the world, seeds of a new culture are sprouting, one based on cooperation, peace and respect. While in San Francisco several years ago I had the opportunity to attend the spiritual theologian Matthew Fox’s Cosmic Mass3, a multi-media earth extravaganza, self described as “a conscious effort to reinvigorate Western ritual by deconstructing the forms of worship we have inherited from the modern era.” Hundreds of people twirled around the room, drums beating in unison, slide shows and videos on every wall showing colourful footage of both beauty and destruction, an altar in the middle of the room representing several traditions - christian, jewish, muslim, hindi - and most memorable, smiles touching from one face to the other as we were asked to greet each other while we swirled around the room.

Deep ecology rituals such as these combined with art, poetry, music and dance can give us the impetus to live a life based on a strong ecological and social justice ethic. Sharing these practices with each others in formal gatherings or informally with family and friends further strengthens the emerging Earth Community. At gatherings such as the Two Fires Festival and Conference, we are here to nurture this culture into being, with the courage to move from a human centred perspective to an planetary worldview; a hopeful flame glows here now. (Light candle.)


The Hand Journey

Please turn to someone sitting beside you and take their hand. If necessary in order for each person to hold someone's hand you may find yourself holding two hands, this is fine.

Now close your eyes and begin exploring this hand - a human hand from planet Earth.

See if you can feel this hand with complete innocence and sensitivity, as if you'd never felt anything like this before….Feel the smoothness or roughness, dryness or moistness, the temperature of this hand….The skin, nails, sinews, knuckles….See what you can learn about this hand….Is this the hand of someone who works with garden tools or more a computer kind of hand? What can you learn from the way that it is exploring your hand? Does it explore your hand eagerly or with shyness…Now greet this hand and know that you are greeting all of humanity.

Now let this hand take you back into its past and see if you can feel the hand of the child which gave rise to this hand. Smaller, more tender but still the same hand. I've heard it said that every single cell in the human body is replaced every 7 years so perhaps there is not a single particle remaining here of that child's hand but still somehow the same hand. And let this hand take you back further into its story and see if you can feel the hand of the tiny newborn infant. Reaching out in innocence to explore the universe for the first time. A bit clumsy perhaps. Not armoured. A delicate instrument for knowing its world. Greet the children of the Earth.

Now let this hand take you back yet again and see if you can feel the hand of the primate that gave rise to this hand. Feel the strong opposable thumb, perfect for swinging from branches. The sensitive fingertips perfect for judging the ripeness of fruit but strong, able to break the fruit open. Dexterous, good for grooming its friends. Greet the primates.

And going back yet again, see if you can feel the reptile’s hand.
A bit slimy perhaps. Rough. Moving in reptilian fashion, greet this, the hand of the reptile.

Now let this hand take you back into the oceans from which it emerged and see if you can feel the fin of the fish which gave rise to this hand. According to the story of evolution, for the first 2 billion years of planet Earth, all life forms lived in the oceans. Greet the ocean beings.

Finally going back and back and back, see if you can feel here the very dust of stars from which this hand is woven, tiny bits of the Milky Way which have been circulating endlessly through countless forms and now present themselves to you as this hand. Greet this starbeing.

Now open your eyes and see whose hand this belongs to, thank this person and then turn and greet all the other star beings in the room.

Thank you.

1 Coming Back To Life : The Work that Reconnects, Joanna Macy, 2001

2 copyright Drew Dellinger, Stephan Snider, Omar Zinn

3 For information about Techno Cosmic Masses and Rituals, visit