A Practice that Doesn’t Make Perfect

By Denis MacDermot

(from GreenSpirit magazine, summer 2009)

As a collapsed Catholic in an age that worships Progress and Growth, I have found it difficult to shake off the underlying assumption that the purpose of our individual lives is self-improvement and self-perfection over time and that we can use ‘spiritual practice’ to make us better.

But in concentrating on the spiritual, whatever we consider not to be spiritual—the moving body, sometimes the heart, our unconscious responses, the urges and patterns that arise spontaneously and take indistinct shape in our awareness—all these get left out. For example the effect of sitting meditation has been compared to allowing a cloudy liquid to settle out so that the liquid becomes clear. Metaphorically the sediment is subordinated while clarity and purity are prized. I do not want to deny that these qualities are desirable, only to assert that they do not represent or engage the whole person. Buddhists will tell you that the aim of practice is to be able to become mindful all the time. Walking meditation is a kind of transition—carrying the state of awareness of sitting meditation into motion. But if you have tried walking meditation you will know that you’re not supposed to let the body go; it is as if you are carrying that settled-out glass carefully along. Most of our lives are actually lived in motion, in dynamic relation to other people and the environment and spiritual practice does not always prepare us for this; there are many stories of people coming back from lengthy retreats and finding they are no better at dealing with the ‘stuff’ of ordinary life. I am reminded of the quip “I thought I was enlightened till my mother came to stay.”

The thrust from the platform of the meditation cushion, the cast of the eyes in prayer is typically upwards—higher, lighter, clearer, brighter, purer. Retreatants in search of enlightenment head for uplands, for caves in the snow, not down into the valleys—the vale of soul-making (to quote Keats).(1) We need at times to climb Apollonian mountains in search of clarity and perspective but the real action takes place lower down, in the mud, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Spiritual practice can be a retreat from the confusions of embodiment.

What kind of practice might help us deal with our physicality, the complex currents and unexpected urges of physical existence? Mary Oliver’s often-quoted poem ‘Wild Geese’ begins with the declaration:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” (2)

What a relief! Yet the recipe is not to be so easy to apply. Simply understanding what the soft animal of my body loves is really difficult. (It is not chocolate, or not always). What it loves today, if I really listen, might be different from what it loved yesterday, yet often the mind, liking formulas, wants to repeat yesterday’s pleasures and satisfactions. Listening to the body needs practice.

I experience my body as having its own autonomous life, not just in the way it carries out a million housekeeping tasks (regulating temperature, prompting me to eat, drink, excrete, sleep, wake etc.) but also in the way it reacts to the outside world. Working as it does autonomously outside the control or purview of the conscious ego, the body is like the psychological unconscious. The problem is finding the meanings in this autonomous muddiness while allowing it to remain opaque. If we are not careful, applying the conceptual mind is a bit like trying to pick out the pattern of shadows by shining a bright light on them. The challenge is similar to that of remembering dreams, and once we have remembered them, of sensing their meaning without stripping them of all resonance by dissection, as if they were coded messages to the intellect. Perhaps a better way to deal with mud is to soften the focus of our knowing eyes and feel it in our hands—being open to the shapes that want to emerge.

There are many practices and techniques whose aim is to help us to arrive at a kind of whole-body knowing, a felt sense, using intuition as well as the head. I have my own which uses movement and art. A sidelong cunning is key. The great painter, Francis Bacon described what he did as “setting a snare for reality using artificial images.” In the same way I use the artifice of a score to put a finger on that vague ‘something’ under the radar. A score establishes intention, a defined time-space and activities, a kind of framework within which the unexpected can happen. Here’s an example.

In February, I went with a friend to Spain, to the Alpujarra. When we arrived, the almond blossom was out, the sun was shining. It seemed we had stepped from winter into spring. I felt a call to expand, to go outside. I felt a contradictory desire to stay in: “too early, the air is cold”. On another level I was curious to explore the nearby town, the shops, the people. But with my rudimentary Spanish I felt afraid of engagement. So—curiosity and fear: an outward-going impulse and a closing-in impulse. I set aside an hour and 20 minutes to explore this in movement and art. Here is my score, with explanatory notes in italics:

Intention: Explore curiosity/fear, opening/closing. I struck out “curiosity/fear” because these terms seemed too loaded and narrow, too knowing.
20 minutes: warm-up (using various stretches and routines to sink awareness into the body)
20 minutes: explore “opening and closing” in movement, (using both body sense and physical location—in the warm sitting room, through the kitchen and outside onto the veranda)
15 minutes: drawing (whatever comes out of the movement experience)
15 minutes: explore drawing in movement
10 minutes: (creative) journal writing (this phase is integrative allowing a return from artistic to conceptual mind)

This is what I experienced, mostly reproduced raw from my journal:

Moving indoors, slow, warm, muted… imagining opening, arms raised and lowered, chest expands, contracts… gradually, circular movements repeating.. petals, an image of a flower coming out bravely in the sun. Then … MY FRIEND OPENED THE FRENCH DOORS!!! OUTRAGEOUS!! The warm cocoon destroyed. Triggered into a tantrum, I beat cushions then stomp downstairs to saw wood… repetitive angry movement warms body and calms outrage.

Here is my drawing:


I explored my drawing in movement (this simply involves focusing on different elements of the drawing and allowing your body to respond) then wrote in my journal:

“Splattering blows aimlessly out in all directions, a tantrum without power.. and opens up the delicate round flower petals to daggers and lightnings in. Oh cold blast of wind from outside, this hothouse plant cannot sustain but galvanized to harden before its ready time, pushed out, pushed out.”

then a dialogue:

Petals: “I swell roundness out, yellow, sunny, childish pleasure. Jittering, a flimsy enthusiasm, naïve, trusting”

Sky: “This is no place for babies! Go back inside. Or toughen up. Don’t be silly!”

Petals: “Pushed out, not allowed back in to the warm cocoon. But I am not very brave though I put a brave face out.”

Sky: “What do you want? Open air or closed safe space, the hollow warmth?”

Petals: “Open air seems vast and empty and cold. I want to light it up but my bright delight needs protection. My sunny rays do not go far.”

Stalk: “I am the link, a sinuous corridor for sap, my feet in the stolid lumpy ground, I hold you up, I feed you, I make earth nourishing. I am the secret alchemist, slow and patient.”

Re-reading this, I am struck by the muddled syntax (I have to resist the desire to correct it) and by the way the metaphors overlap with each other in a most untidy way—the flower is both flower and sun, it wants to blossom in childish pleasure but also feels victimized, pushed out. There are echoes of childhood ‘stuff’. I could go into an analysis saying it is all to do with being forced to wear shorts in winter at the age of seven but I don’t want to because this kind of language is reductive, narrowing, and closes down the imagination.

I am also struck by some metaphorical resonances between the drawing (spirit/sky earth/mud, the secret alchemical stalk) and the themes of this article.

The drawing is art-expression but does not claim the status of Art. Like my raw and naïve writing, I find it a little embarrassing to show it here. But my intention in this session was to explore not to communicate. Expression was at the service of exploration. Part of me goes – “ah, what is this, this pattern, this feeling, what is it like, where does it lead?” – shape is found, created in the moment of expression and becomes content. The process feels very organic; I blossom out my own unique inner world in the patterns of my movement and in the colours and words that spill out on to the page. What I express in this way becomes a resource and a mirror. I know myself through my expression. To communicate meaning to others (through artwork, poem or dance performance) needs a different kind of attention and skill.

John O’Donohue talks about our position on a threshold between our unique inner and outer worlds and the importance of keeping these in balance. The score described above had an inward focus but in the same week I explored the outer world using very similar techniques…that mountain on the skyline, a crook like my elbow, the gnarled shape of the almond boughs, the finger-tip blossoms, those budded branches reaching up towards the sun, a cold wind, contracting “brrr!”—echoes in my body everywhere. My drawing that day was much more representational.

So what was the effect of this practice session? I can’t say I became a better or more spiritual person or that I grew in some way as a result but I definitely found the quality of my experience, its resonance, was enhanced – I felt I had found a bridge (or was it a stalk?), at least for a while, between my muddy dream body and my waking conscious world. I felt more in touch with my emotions and with my environment. In short I felt more alive and more me.

1. See James Hillman: “Peaks and Vales” and “Soul and Spirit” from A Blue Fire (Harper & Row, 1989)
2. Mary Oliver. Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994)
I am as always indebted to Carl Jung, especially Four Archetypes – The Phenomenology of the Spirit (Bollingen Series, 1969)

My practice leans heavily on the work of the Tamalpa Institute (www.tamalpa.org) but I have also been influenced by a number of other movement based practices.
Denis MacDermot is a thinker and writer with an enthusiasm for movement, drama and art . Since ending a long business career in 2002, he has been seeking a creative approach to life that allows space for all aspects of our humanity: spirit, soul, body, the sacred and the profane. He lived for a year in the Findhorn Community, and trained in California at the Tamalpa Institute. He is a father and grandfather, lives in Ashburton, Devon, teaches art and drama for Magic Carpet in Exeter and works with refugees in Plymouth.

Deep Form in Art and Nature

By Betty and Theodore Roszak

(reprinted with permission from  Resurgence, 176, May/June 1996, pp. 20-22)

The spiritual crisis of the modern world has been described in many ways. From the viewpoint of the arts, Herbert Read’s diagnosis is among the most incisive. Read believed a serious loss of aesthetic sensitivity has paralleled our progressive estrangement from nature. we suffer, he said, from an ‘atrophy of sensibility’. Art as well as science and technology harbours the illusion that we live outside or above the natural world, and so may treat it as we please, turning it into an object of exploitation for the exclusive benefit of our species.

Over the past century whole philosophical and aesthetic movements have been predicated upon and even dedicated to our alienation from nature as if it were the inevitable human condition.

The essence of modernism has been a deepening immersion in extremes of despair, anxiety, or outright cynicism. Few would dispute that it is the role of art to reflect its times. But ‘reflection’, should include what art itself has to offer to the soul in need. It must look beyond the contemporary wasteland to find life-enhancing possibilities.

Settling for the fashionably anguished or fashionably cynical, mainstream art stops at the city limits of a culture that has lost or forgotten its ecological roots. In a time when so many artists have learned to confabulate with extremes of horror and alienation, the most daring thing an artist can do is to fill a book, a gallery or a theatre with joy, hope and beauty. This is more than a matter of calling for a new ‘movement’ or ‘style’. As the degradation of the planetary environment worsens, we are being forced to recognize that a culture divorced from the biological foundations of lie is simply not sustainable. both environmental ignorance and aesthetic atrophy are rapidly approaching terminal status. To refuse despair has become an ecological imperative.

In her provocative survey of the outer limits of modernism, the art critic Suzi Gablik asks ‘After the avant garde, what’. Her answer can be found in the title of her book The Re-Enchantment of Art. There she writes hopefully of a new art ‘ushered in by twentieth-century physics, ecology and general systems theory, with its call for integrative and holistic modes of thinking.’ The terminology Gablik uses is drawn from modern science, but the re-enchanted sensibility she calls for takes us back to the shamanic roots of art.
On the far side of modernism artists may find they have a great deal to ‘learn from Lascaux’. This is not a matter of scavenging the ‘primitive’. There has been enough of that in the twentieth century. Too often the effort to salvage ancestral images has been animated by a domineering consciousness, one that insensitively ransacks or even plunders the tribal cultures. Lately, spokespeople for traditional societies have taken issue with such invasive practices. Jerome Rothenberg’s ‘ethno-poetics’ is a better approach. It seeks to redress this essentially colonialist attitude by preserving and enhancing the human values that connect us with primitive people. Our goal should not be to borrow from elsewhere, but to search among our own cultural resources, perhaps even in modern science and industrialism, for ways to restore art to the status it has always held among primary people as a form of knowledge..

In the modern western world, the Romantics were the last major cultural movement to assert the ‘truth of the imagination’, defending art as a way of knowing the world that equalled or surpassed scientific reason. In their resistance to what Blake called ‘Satan’s Mathemitik Holiness’, their goal was not to reject science hut to enlarge it. Newtonian science sought to understand the world by a process of reductionism. The method may be legitimate enough, but it can carry over into reducing in value. Phenomena deprived of their dignity and vitality become ‘nothing but … nothing but’. They are cheapened by the very act of knowing. In contrast, the Romantics sought to understand by augmentation. In Blake’s terms, they sought ‘fourfold vision’ rather than ‘single vision’. From the Romantic perspective, a landscape by Constable makes our knowledge of nature bigger: art adds to what we learn from any combination of physics, biology, geology and chemistry. It tells us the world is (to offer a poor verbal translation) magnificent, perhaps sacred, therefore deserving of reverence. At its highest level, it transforms our consciousness by uniting us with Deep Form in the natural world.

By ‘Deep Form’ we mean the correspondence between formative processes of mind and formative processes in nature. As Coleridge put it, ‘the rules of the imagination are themselves the very powers of growth and production.’ For the Romantics, recognizing this congruency between creativity in art and in nature was not a mere subjective reflex, it was as much a fact as anything a botanist tells us about photosynthesis or a geologist about continental Drift. Deep Form offers us the knowledge that an authentically deep ecology requires in order to place us in a respectful, sustainable relationship with nature.
‘Great works of art,’ Goethe believed, ‘are works of nature just as truly as mountains, streams and plains.’ The oneness of art and nature has not been wholly beyond the reach of scientists themselves. Even as tough-minded a Darwinian as Thomas Huxley once admitted to the fact that ‘in travelling from one end to the other of the scale of life, we are taught one lesson, that living nature is not a mechanism, but a poem.’

Georg Groddeck, Freud’s most eccentric follower, was among the few psychotherapists who granted art an epistemological status of its own. An admirer of Goethe, Groddeck regarded art as the key criterion of sanity. Healthy art creates a healthy soul, sick art creates neurosis. Groddeck believed that, since the renaissance, the art of Western society has been corrupted by an excessive humanism. He warned that when we turn away from nature we lose ‘the chance of cultural development, cease to recognise our dependence upon the universal whole, and direct our love, fear and reverence only upon the strivings and sufferings of our fellow men. ‘ This degenerates into a narrow psychologism especially as our lives come to be bounded by what the neo-Romantic poet Robinson Jeffers called ‘the incestuous lie of the cities’.

It is heartening to see how the sense of Deep Form has managed to survive in the arts despite all that urban industrial society has done to shatter the natural continuum. We can find celebrations of Deep Form among some of the masters of modernism, a small, gallant contingent who never lost their nourishing connection with the Earth beneath the pavement. While their style is distinctly of our time and place, their sensibility allies them to the dawn of human culture. Paul Klee is a leading example. He once gave this advice to a fellow art teacher:
Lead your students to Nature, into Nature! Let them learn by experience how a bud is formed, how a tree grows, how a butterfly opens its wings, so that they will become as rich, as variable, as capricious as Nature herself. Perception is revelation, follow the ways of natural creation, the becoming, the functioning of forms. That is the best school.’

According to Werner Haftmann, Klee collected skeletons of small animals, mosses, bark and lichen, shells and stones, beetles and butterflies. ‘They were most carefully selected, hr if one can see through them and master the laws governing their existence and their form, nature itself becomes transparent, the spirit moves and the artist eels compelled to attempt similar acts of formal creation.’

Similarly, Emil Nolde subscribed to a deeply organic aesthetic. He too sensed the forces of nature that work within the artist, bringing us the knowledge of an animated universe. ‘My aim,’ he said, ‘was that colours should be transmitted to the canvas, through myself as the painter, with the same inevitability as when Nature herself is creating forms, just as minerals and crystals are formed, just as moss and seaweed grow.

One can name many others whose work is an expression of Deep Form. They are not the dominant movement in twentieth-century art, but they appear here and there like upstart springs that flow from the distant shamanic sources of their vocation. The voice of the Earth sounds throughout Walt Whitman and his major disciple Pablo Neruda. Georgia O’Keeffe must be numbered among the company and so too Emily Carr, who so vividly recalls in her diaries the unitive experience that comes with the discovery of Deep Form. ‘I woke up this morning with ‘unity of movement’ in a picture strong in my mind. . . . For long I have been trying to get the movement of the parts. Now I see there is only one movement. It sways and ripples. It may be slow or fast but it is only one movement sweeping out into space but always keeping going – rocks, sky, one continuous movement.’

The Artist, like a tree, drinks up nourishment from the depths and from the heights, from the roots and from the air, to bring about a crown of leaves. The organic metaphor is essential here to the concept of Deep Form. Nature is reborn through artistic vision. ‘Think what it would be like, [Italo Calvino once wrote] to create a work outside the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring.’
Yes, and to the stones, clouds, and stars.

Deep Form reveals the web of vital relationships embedded in all things its vision of the universe is what Read called ‘a prodigious animism’. It reminds us that the great drama of our time is the discovery that all things and creatures on Earth share a common destiny. We are linked to one another in what the poet Robert Duncan once called a ‘symposium of the whole’.

Duncan’s poetry is among the most eloquent appeals for the creation of what the Deep Ecologists have called an ‘ecocentric community’. She writes, ‘to compose such a symposium of the whole, such a totality, all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign, the animal and vegetative, the unconscious and the unknown, the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.’ The words echo Klee’s profession: ‘I sink myself beforehand in the universe and then stand in a brotherly relationship to my neighbours, to everything on this Earth.’

As examples of work that embodies the full ecological significance of Deep Form in the visual arts, we have chosen two artists; both are English now living in California. Gordon Onslow Ford began his artistic lie as a surrealist. From that school he took his powerful introspective orientation. Now in his eighties, Onslow Ford has gone well beyond the purely personal subconscious that delimited surrealism. In his major work we enter territory where inside and outside, microcosmos and macrocosmos, merge and mirror each other. He inhabits ‘an inner world beyond dreams’, where ‘the world is the subject and the painter eventually becomes one with what is happening in the world.’

Onslow Ford’s is an activated space where, in an instant, matter becomes energy and energy matter. He speaks of his paintings as experiments in ‘ecomorphology’ that offer us the inner, vision experience of such otherwise speculative scientific concepts as the black hole and the Big Bang. His canvases become visual hymns to the material foundations of life and mind in the cosmos.

Christopher Castle’s art is also a vision of the inner energetic spaces, the worlds of inner earth. Both he and Onslow Ford are concerned with an organic concept of space and matter. Castle, who identifies his work as ‘geomantic’, creates layered archaic images that reverberate with those hidden, telluric forces that our ancestors experienced as animate and divine. This requires the closest attention of the viewer: lines of force, growth patterns, seeds, stones, the folds and fissures of land, and the dark pulsating symbols of ancient sites. In Castle’s work we view the landscape, usually a sacred site, simultaneously from above, from below, from the air, from beneath the earth.

Both artists present us with a world of unbroken inter-relationship, with a space vibrating with energy, with a depth not of perspective but of multiplicities. Oscillations of figure and ground occur in which images appear, disappear, then appear again. In Onslow Ford’s work, as in the tracings of subatomic particles in a cloud chamber, form appears and disappears mysteriously in that boundary zone at the moment of creation. Castle draws upon Neolithic patterns spirals and zigzags imprinted on sky or earth. He reclaims the runic script of nature, the sinuous serpentine movement of dark, telluric powers, rising from great depths to mirror the heavens.

As stylistically different as the two painters may seem at first glance, both assert the vital link between the artistic celebration of from and the real existence of form in the world. In their work, aesthetic pleasure becomes knowledge, the mind is thrown open to that primordial form-making power from which the cosmos has arisen.

Deep Form offers the artist a new repertory of gestures instead of grasping, seeing, mastering, struggling, it attempts a tender touching, a non-interfering gaze, a receptive bonding with Earth and the other. The dark, submerged feminine reappears as image and informing spirit, a new anima mundi with her rich welter of sensuous experience in colour, scent and sound. Wherever Deep Form wells up among the poets, the painters, the architects, the performers, life is made whole again and the universe is re-animated. The creative imagination returns us to an aesthetic both old and new, to a mode of knowing the natural world which can be the ally of science. The human again becomes an integral part of nature, life and mind become part of a vital matrix as vast and as old as the universe. This primal ecological insight views human art not as anomaly or arbitrarily fashionable decoration, but as integral to the natural order, the common root being inherent formative processes at work at every level of reality from the structure of atoms to the formation of galactic clusters.

Betty Roszak is a poet who has written and lectures on eco-feminism.
Theodore Roszak is a Professor of History at California State University.
He is the author of The Voice of the Earth

Follow these links to find out more about the artists mentioned in the article
Christopher Castle    Onslow Ford    Suzi Gablik    Robinson Jeffers
Paul Klee                      Emil Nolde        Georgia O’Keeffe

The New Universe Story

by Michael Colebrook


We are the first generation of people who know that the universe has a history and that we, along with everything else, are participating in a very long and utterly marvellous story.

At the end of the last century human beings did not know that the stars are organized into galaxies, and they had not imagined that gravity could be merely an aspect of how space and time are arranged. They did not know how atoms or stars work, and they had heard of neither the quantum nor the atomic nucleus. Neither did they know that the continents move, or that genetic information is stored in DNA, and they had only the faintest notions of the history of life on Earth. Beyond this the idea that the universe has a history would, had they heard it, have seemed almost inconceivable. (1)

Indeed, at the turn of the nineteenth century, such ideas as there were about a cosmological history were related more to the future than to the past and were dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and the belief that the historical process was one of an inevitable increase of disorder leading to the final ‘heat death’ of the universe. There were visionaries such as Henri Bergson who were not satisfied with such a pessimistic view of reality and who postulated a creative force at work throughout the universe. But it is easy for us to forget just how recently it has been possible to put flesh on the bones of Bergson’s vision. Lee Smolin talks about the end of the last century. In fact, much of the synthesis of our increased knowledge into a coherent story has occurred during my lifetime. Our uncovery of the New Universe Story is far from complete and, of course, the story continues…

It is not the intention of this essay to tell the new story, this has already been done with great eloquence by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (2), but rather to focus on what it means for the human condition. In view of just how new the story is, it is not surprising that we are still struggling with its implications.


In the beginning … whatever it was, it was not a Big Bang. Perhaps it was a small sigh, in which space/time emerged and all the matter/energy in the universe started creating itself.

‘In the twinkling of an eye’ the story of the Universe began to unfold, it is a story of ever increasing richness and diversity, the universe is ‘constantly bawling with newness’,(3) and as the story unfolds it creates possibilities for new kinds of unfolding.

It is a story unlike any other because it is self-contained. The story writes itself and makes up its own ‘language’ as it goes along. What we know about the real story is both incomplete and corrigible and a distinction has to be maintained between the real story as it unfolds and the story that we, as intelligent self-reflective beings, have tried to uncover and to tell in some comprehensible form. In the last analysis, however, all ways of knowing and feeling are part of the story. All those who have tried to find out about the story and to tell it – scientists, philosophers, artists – are themselves part of the story. As Max Plank put it, ‘science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of Nature. And it is because we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve’.(4)

The process of biological evolution is such that features can emerge and be selected that surpass the immediate advantages they confer. Such seems to be the case with the human mind. It is far more powerful than it needs to be to simply improve the chances of human survival. The emergence of the human brain, the quality of the human mind and with it the power of imagination is probably the biggest risk that the story has taken with itself throughout the fifteen billion years of its telling because the human imagination recognises no constraints, no limits to its activities.

There are two features of the human imagination that are relevant to our view of the universe story. Firstly, as Rabindranath Tagore (5) has suggested, in the face of our mortality humans try to create images of truth which are believed to be universal and eternal. There does seem to be an inherent drive to go beyond the known in a search, for the divine, for the realm of ideal forms, for a theory of everything. This drive provides the spur to find out about the story of the universe but there is always a temptation to see more in what we find than can be justified. Secondly, the human imagination has discovered the phenomenon of doubt. It is a sublime irony that the universe story has produced something that questions the reality of the story that created it. What can we know? What is real? Is anything real?

Noam Chomsky (6) suggests that without a system of formal constraints there is no creativity, there is merely change. The human venture of uncovering the universe story has to recognise such constraints and stay within the confines of a creative exploration: forever probing the constraints, but never seriously doubting the existence of a fundamental reality.

In a contribution to one of the more interesting sites on the Internet the American cosmologist Lee Smolin (7) envisages the rebirth of the tradition of natural philosophy based on a new picture of the world. He identifies three overarching themes to the new philosophy. Firstly, the idea that the world is not static, it evolves over time; and not only in the biological realm but the universe as a whole is in creative change. Smolin suggests that we are only beginning to realize the implications of this. The second theme is the growing realization that the universe in effect creates itself, it is essentially self-organising through the action of relatively simple principles, such as natural selection in biology. The third theme is that in a self-organising world all properties are relational. Everything happens within a context. It follows that in a universe interesting enough to contain stars and living things, complexity is essential, not accidental.

What Lee Smolin is proposing is a new natural philosophy, implying that it is derived from what we know about the universe story as opposed to being based on pure thought and abstract concepts. As such it has much to say about the relationships between humanity, the cosmos in general and planet Earth in particular.

It seems reasonable to begin the process of considering the implications of the Universe Story by looking briefly at each of the three themes.


The first of Thomas Berry’s twelve principles ‘for understanding the Universe and the role of the human in the Universe process’ states that, ‘The universe, the solar system, and the planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being’(8) The Universe Story isthe story of the evolution and emergence of the cosmos.

The best current estimate of the age of the universe is about fourteen billion (14,000,000,000) years. The earth was formed around four and a half billion years ago. Modern humans emerged only a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. The Universe produced countless galaxies and stars, the earth produced continents and oceans and millions of species of living things existing in complex communities long before we humans appeared on the scene. The Universe got along very well without us for all but the few most recent moments of its history. More, on the earth it took at least two thousand million years for living creatures to create an environment in which humans could survive and flourish.

The evolutionary nature of the New Universe Story should tell us two things. Firstly, that all of how we became and all of what we are is completely contingent and an integral part of the Universe Story. Secondly, that we belong here: we are at home on the earth. We are not alien forms set here to do our best to survive in a hostile environment, but, neither are we totally autonomous beings. We emerged from the web of life on earth and we were and are nurtured by it.

Humanity represents a very significant step in the evolutionary story. The emergence of self-reflective awareness, the ability of conceptual thinking, coupled with the development of language and other means of symbolic representation, is a major event in the Universe Story: the emergence of beings whose quality of experience is such that they ask questions about it. But it led René Descartes to conclude, ‘I think therefore I am … I was a substance, of which the whole essence or nature consists in thinking; so that this ‘I’, that is to say, the mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body’.(9) Descartes did not invent mind/body dualism but he is usually credited with the definitive statement of it.

From mind/body dualism it is but a small step to establishing a dualism between the human and the rest of nature and this has led to the development of an almost exclusively human centred sensibility, especially in European and Western cultures.


The realization that the universe effectively creates itself has profound implications. Creativity implies the emergence of genuine novelty. The fact that this creativity is part of an on-going story implies that that which is created is contingent, dependent on what has gone before, but it is not predictable, ‘every step is a precarious step into the unknown’.(10)

The mechanistic world view which emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries taught that reality resides in what is fundamental – space, time, matter and energy. While our understanding of the nature of these entities has substantially changed in the age of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, the earlier concept of what is fundamental has carried over into the twentieth century. There is still a tendency to hold on to the idea that physics is the home of fundamental reality. However, if the universe is genuinely creative then the products of the creativity are genuinely novel. They possess their own inherent properties and emergent laws which are fundamental to their being. Created wholes are more than the sums of their parts. Chemistry is not reducible to physics. Biology is not reducible to chemistry. The oak desk on which sits the computer I am using to write this isreally solid, because solidity is an emergent property. The tree that provided the wood was really alive because life is an emergent property. Solids and living things are products of the inherent creativity of the universe. It can be argued that all such phenomena and the emergent laws that govern them are as fundamental in relation to reality as are the so-called fundamental particles, forces and basic laws of physics (see, for example, Wes Jackson (11)).

This implies a dramatic change in the way we see the world. It is a world manifest as layer upon layer of emergent phenomena, all equally real, all equally fundamental, because none of them are reducible to or can be explained in terms of properties in any of the ‘lower’ layers. It is certainly true that ‘lower’ levels contain the potential for the emergence of the ‘higher’ levels, and the ‘stuff of the universe’, whatever it may be, has to contain the potential for manifestation as everything else. This is one of the mysteries of creation.

The means and methods of self-creation are currently the subject of much study. This is the part of the new picture of the universe that we know least about. One of the images that is useful is to see creativity in terms of the emergence of order out of chaos. We are learning that chaos is a much more complex phenomenon than we thought it was. And we are learning that given the right conditions, order can appear out of chaos quite spontaneously. It just happens.

Among the conditions for the spontaneous emergence of order are that the system be far from equilibrium and that it should be close to a critical state. Being far from equilibrium implies that something has to be happening to maintain the system in this state. Being critical implies that a very small perturbation can dramatically alter the state of the system. An example is a minute speck of dust in a saturated atmosphere acting as the locus for the formation of a raindrop that is orders of magnitude larger than the original seed. Systems in this state can be described as being ‘at the edge of chaos’.


Quantum theory indicates that at the level of the potential for the emergence of everything, it is not possible to derive a description of anything except in terms of its relationships with other things. At subsequent levels of emergence, a total web of relationship is an inevitable consequence of the origin of the universe as undifferentiated space/time and matter/energy and its subsequent self-emergence through an evolutionary unfolding.

Everything is relational because everything is contingent. At the same time, creativity involves the emergence of novelty. The universe of our every-day experience consists of separate and apparently independently existing things. It is possible to view the Universe Story as one of ever greater differentiation into ever more autonomous forms and structures. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes this apparent paradox, ‘The salvation of reality is its obstinate, irreducible, matter-of-fact entities, which are limited to be no other than themselves… That which endures is limited, obstructive, intolerant, infecting its environment with its own aspects. But it is not self-sufficient. The aspects of all things enter into its very nature… Conversely it is only itself by lending its aspects to this same environment in which it finds itself. The problem of evolution is the development of enduring harmonies of enduring shapes of value, which merge into higher attainments of things beyond themselves.'(12)

According to Erich Jantsch (13), emergent entities depend on patterns of internal relationships. Indeed, it is such relationships that are responsible for the emergent features and they play a key role in maintaining their integrity. The existence of enduring ‘matter-of-fact entities’, therefore, implies the existence of new and different forms of relationality rather than any break in the universal web of relationships. While such internal relationships may be necessary for stability, completely closed systems effectively shut themselves off from their surroundings and can play no further part in the creative process.

There is a large class of systems, which includes all living creatures, whose internal relationships are dynamic and require inputs of energy, and in many cases matter as well, in order to maintain their activities. These systems have to search for a balance between being closed in order to maintain stability and being open to input the energy and materials needed to maintain their internal relationships. By being open they are vulnerable to disruption, but at the same time their openness means that they influence their surroundings through their activities.

Entities do not evolve in a vacuum. They interact with their surroundings and this environment includes the evolutionary trajectories of other entities. Transpose this into what happens on the earth, with its myriads of living things existing within the systems of rock and water and air and continents and climates and we have a veritable feast of creativity, as all the processes involved in the dynamics of this vast web of being interact. It is easy to see why Whitehead considers the existence of ‘matter-of-fact entities’ as ‘the salvation of reality’. How else could such a complex system have any shape or form?

In the mechanistic view of the world, form and order were fundamental. In the New Universe Story they are emergent: they are the result of the interactions of an incredibly complex mass of processes happening on a enormous range of space and time scales. This is one of the areas where the telling of the new story is, as yet, incomplete. In place of a universe consisting of matter in motion determined by external laws, we have to think rather about a system constrained by and within its own context. In place of balance and equilibrium, we are faced with a universe of systems engaged in complex patterns of dynamics. The outcomes may be unpredictable, but they are not entirely free: in a relational universe, the future is always constrained by the now.


In a delightful short story called ‘God’s First Draft’ Stephen Dunstone (15) tells his version of the creation story. After three attempts to create a perfect world, all of which manifestly failed, God tried the idea of the level playing field…

“Time for the fourth attempt! Let there be light and – no hills or streams or woods or up or down, and let there be five hundred identical men and five hundred identical women; no birds or animals or insects in case they upset the balance, and no fish and no marrows or parsnips or any kind of vegetable, because there must be no hunger or cold or fear or any kind of desire… There… And God looked at his creation; his blameless creatures who stood without blemish, motionless, on this flat featureless world, untouched by any breath of wind. Changeless – eternal. He looked at this world and saw that it was perfect. He sat in his heaven in contemplation of perfection; and no seed of discontent stirred in the timeless silence. No cries of anger or pain or joy pierced the harmony of stillness. He looked and looked, and watched and waited. But nothing came to disturb the world. It was indeed perfect, and would last for ever. And God contemplated eternity. And he said to himself, ‘God, this is boring’. And it’s just as well that he did, because if he hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here today. With a contemptuous click of his fingers he consigned the perfect world to eternal non-existence. Gone. And not a trace of remorse or regret did he feel.

“God said ‘let there be light and dark and sun and moon and stars and dry land and hills and valleys and woods and streams and all manner of plants and insects and birds and animals and people; and let them fear and fight and feel pain but let them also feel desire and joy and love. Let the wind carry the sound of their suffering but let it also carry the sound of their laughter too, let them grow old but let them give birth, let them toil but let them dance, let there be sorrow but let there be ecstasy; let them work on the world but let the world work on them; let what may happen, happen. But above all let them learn from their mistakes.”

In God’s fourth attempt the ‘perfect’ men and women were created to be autonomous, they were complete and perfect within themselves and had no need to interact with each other (it was this that had been the problem with the three previous attempts). But, closed systems shut themselves off from the creative process, and this is boring. For a creative world there has to be variety and active relationships and interactions, but this implies vulnerability. There is an inevitable price to be paid for creativity. Relationships involve both the sweet and the bitter, fear and pain and suffering and death as well as birth and laughter and ecstasy.

We humans, with our powers of self-reflective awareness of suffering and death and joy and birth and having the gift of imagination, inevitably ask questions about what it all means. Why is there something rather than nothing? Does it mean anything? What does it mean to live in a world that learns from its mistakes? Does the story so far represent any kind of progressive process? Is it going anywhere? Clearly we are not standing motionless in a perfect world, but maybe we are stuck in some endlessly repetitive cycle. Most traditional creation stories imply at least some form of progress and many also point towards some sort of objective for the future. Does the New Universe Story as we now understand it throw any light on any of these questions? Specifically does the new story imply progress in the past and purpose for the future?


An evolutionary and self-creating universe necessarily implies that change takes place in a particular direction. The concept of progress assigns value to this process, it implies that what is new is, or may be, an improvement on what has gone before. According to Jacob Bronowski, ‘it is pointless to ask why evolution has a fixed direction in time… It is evolution, physical and biological, that gives time its direction… The progression from simple to complex, the building up of stratified stability, is the necessary character of evolution from which time takes its direction. And it is not a forward direction in the sense of a thrust toward the future, a headed arrow. What evolution does is to give the arrow of time a barb which stops it from running backward.'(16) If this is true then it implies that the Universe Story creates its own direction: the story is a narrative. But for Bronowski the question of progress has no meaning.

In the field of biological evolution the problem of progress has been hotly debated. Julian Huxley was a fervent advocate: ‘The scientific doctrine of progress is destined to replace not only the myth of progress, but all other myths of human earthly destiny. It will inevitably become one of the cornerstones of man’s theology, or whatever may be the future substitute for theology, and the most important external support for human ethics.'(17) On the other hand Stephen Jay Gould writes, ‘Progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.'(18)

Both of these extreme views reflect powerful cultural influences; the enlightenment for Huxley and the post-modernist distrust of meta-narratives for Gould. The problem lies in the definition of progress. We tend to visualise progress in terms of some sort of ascent, in which the new, assumed to be better, replaces the old. We humans see ourselves at the top and we have then devised the ladder that we are at the top of.

Charles Darwin left a note to himself in one of his books: ‘Never use the terms higher and lower’. Darwin was, of course, thinking about biological evolution but the warning applies to the whole evolutionary process of the cosmos. What we see when we look at the Universe Story through new eyes is an unfolding. We see, as the story develops, an ever increasing diversity of things coupled with ever more elaborate patterns of relationship between them. To the extent that these qualities are regarded as values, then the Universe Story can be said to exhibit progress. The concept of progress can be applied to the biosphere as a whole, but it involves inter-dependence. The newer manifestations of biological evolution always emerge from, build themselves out of and intimately incorporate the earlier. The existence of humans is absolutely dependent on the activities of bacteria and all the other emergent layers of living things together with their interactions with each other and with the non-living environment. There is no doubt that we humans shine in the reflected glory of the progress of the biosphere as a whole, but it is questionable whether a council of all beings would share the view that humanity, as it is currently behaving, represents a progressive step in the Universe Story.


This is related to progress in that if there is no progress there can be no purpose, but simply to demonstrate progress does not necessarily imply purpose. Again the problem of purpose is hotly debated. Jacques Monod probably speaks for many when he claims that ‘man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor his duty.'(19) Most religious traditions, on the other hand, believe that there is divine plan and a purpose in the form of an ultimate state towards which the universe is being directed.

The new Universe Story seems to be incompatible with both of these positions. If the universe is self-creating involving the emergence of genuine novelty, there cannot be a plan. At the same time there does seem to be a direction and one which implies more than Bronowski’s barbed arrow of time. The arrow of time does give the impression of pointing somewhere even though the where may be unknown and is probably unpredictable. This feeling about the arrow of time is expressed beautifully by Rainer Maria Rilke in one of his letters to a young poet, ‘we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing … the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is not even there any more, – is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered. We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens.'(20)

Immanuel Kant speaks of, ‘Purposiveness without purpose… A purposive creation has its centre of gravity in itself; one that is goal-orientated has its centre external to itself; the worth of the one resides in its being, that of the other in its results.'(21) What we understand of the Universe Story suggests that we live in a purposive creation in this sense. W H Vanstone speaks of creation as being,’the realisation of vision, but of vision which is discovered only through its own realization.'(10)

Both Kant and Vanstone point to the tautology that lies at the heart of the universe. If the universe is essentially self-contained and self-referent, it is its own justification. Its worth ‘resides in its being’ and throughout its evolutionary history the universe discovers itself through its own unfolding.


If there is no purpose to the world, it is possible to argue that there can be no ethics. What are the implications for ethics of a purposive universe whose worth resides in its being?

It is one of the cornerstones of traditional ethics that what actually happens in the universe has no connection with what should happen. This idea is generally stated in the form that one cannot derive values from facts. According to Freya Mathews, ‘contemporary philosophical thought … sees questions of metaphysics and cosmology as generally belonging to the realm of fact, and thereby quite divorced from questions of value.’ But, she continues, ‘I was never persuaded of this divorce. It has always seemed plain to me, intuitively, that the way we conceived of reality and of our place in the scheme of things was central to questions about the meaning and ends of life. Cosmology was the basis of our worldview, but our worldview was informed by value.'(22) She is implying that the Universe Story provides a view of the world that has a normative as well as a scientific dimension. Warwick Fox suggests that ‘making sense of the world is the key. This is what gets us going on the moral road.'(23) But making sense of the world in a moral context implies the existence of values.

So, where do values come from? In the context of the New Universe Story, values can be viewed from at least two perspectives. Firstly, they may be seen as emergent phenomena, as the product of the activities of human minds acting in concert, within the constraints of a particular culture. Secondly, values may seen as intrinsic to the Story itself and related to the nature of creation as a spiritual entity (see below). From both perspectives, values are derived from the realm of fact but they are not reducible to it.

The most significant implication for ethics of the Universe Story and the realization of human embeddedness in the story is that all the actors in the story and all the processes in the story have to be included within the scope of ethical concern. Simply by virtue of being, everything has intrinsic value. Such a view is all very well as a basis for the development of an ethical system but, as ethicists frequently point out, it is far too all inclusive to be useful in reaching decisions in situational ethics where, all too often, the need is to agree on priorities or to find a path through a maze of conflicting interests and freedoms.

It is clearly way beyond the scope of this essay even to begin to try to solve the problem of ethics. Wendell Berry has, I suggest, provided a valuable pointer, when he says, ”We might make a long list of things that we would have to describe as primary values, but the one I want to talk about, because it is the one with which we have the most intimate working relationship, is the topsoil.’(24) Not life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness; not truth, beauty or compassion; but the topsoil! Clearly, the topsoil on its own does not provide the basis for a system of ethics, but is also clear that any system that does not recognise the existence and value of the topsoil, and does not reflect how we make sense of the world in practical as well as conceptual terms is going to be inadequate. Wendell Berry obviously intended his statement to be provocative. It runs counter to just about everything anybody has said or thought about ethics in the Western world for at least the last five hundred years and it indicates the extent of the challenge posed by the task of developing a system of ethics pertinent to the New Universe Story.


Lee Smolin’s plea for the rebirth of a natural philosophy leads inevitably towards thoughts about the rebirth or reassessment of a complementarynatural spirituality. Thomas Berry seems to suggest that given the New Universe Story such a spirituality is inescapable, ‘The natural world is subject as well as object. The natural world is the maternal source whence we emerge into being as earthlings. The natural world is the life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic, moral, and religious existence. The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human.'(25)

All that can be attempted in this brief essay is to outline some of the parameters within which an appropriate sense of this sacred community may be developed. A natural spirituality has to honour and acknowledge the Universe Story and be relevant to an evolving, self-creating and relational universe.

First and foremost this means that spiritual concerns can no longer be considered to relate and apply only to humanity. In his much quoted essayThe Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White voices the criticism that’Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.'(26) Where the rest of creation is acknowledged, it tends to be in the form of an extension of human spirituality to embrace that of the natural world which is of concern to us. A natural spirituality relates to the universe, and within it the human is embraced.

The traditional way in which a natural spirituality has been expressed is in the form of the Argument from Design. This states that as the universe is so magnificent, awesome, intricate, coherent, apparently meaningful and possessed of purpose, it must be work of an external divine being who creates, sustains and guides it (see, for example, Keith Ward (27)). The recent realisation of the evolving, self-creative and self-organising nature of the universe, coupled with a new understanding of the implications of deep space and deep time, require a substantial recasting of the argument from design and a reassessment of the bond between the created order and the divine.

Throughout most of its history, the Christian tradition has recognised the divine as both transcendent and immanent. In particular the creation of the universe is seen in terms of an activity of God, shaping it from the ‘outside’ with a purpose and according to a plan. But God is also visualised as immanent and within the universe, particularly through the incarnation of Jesus.

The evolutionary and self-creative character of the universe implies a relationship between the divine and the created order that is essentially immanent; that is of the inside rather than from the outside.

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford claim that the earliest European societies believed that ‘Nature is spiritual and spirit is natural’.(28) This implies that in a very real sense this whole essay has been about the question of spirituality. And, throughout the ages there have been prophets and mystics who have recognised, and tried to communicate, the identity of the natural and the spiritual dimensions of reality. Many of them have recognised that the spiritual is most visible in the inter-connectedness of the whole of existence. In the words of Hildegard von Bingen:

‘O Holy Spirit,
You are the mighty way in which every
thing that is in the heavens,
on the earth, and under the earth,
is penetrated with connectedness,
is penetrated with relatedness.'(29)

Others, down to the present day, have expressed the same sentiment in the language of their own time.

The New Universe Story suggests that we should seek to recover and develop these insights. Clearly a key feature of this process is to learn about the story itself. As Sallie McFague points out, ‘you cannot love what you do not know.'(30)


In her near-perfect poem ‘On the pulse of the morning’ Maya Angelou (31)speaks of ‘A Rock, A River, A Tree’, the Rock cries out to us, the River sings a beautiful song and we hear the speaking of the Tree. Maya Angelou wants us to be aware of what is going on out there, all around us, because it matters to us – and to the rock, the river and the tree.

This is the heart of the message of the New Universe Story. We have to learn how to look and how to listen. We are within the story and we are not the only characters, the rock, the river, the tree are also there, together with countless others. Together we form the sacred community of the Earth and the Universe. And the story continues. . .

The Horizon leans forward,
Offering you space
To place new steps of change
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me
The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes
And into your brother’s face
Your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope –
Good morning.

References and Notes

1. Lee Smolin. The Life of the Cosmos (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997), p. 157.
2. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. The New Universe Story (HarperCollins, 1992).
3. Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Picador, 1976).
4. Max Plank. Quoted in John Barrow & Frank Tipler. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (OUP, 1986), p.123.
5. Rabindranath Tagore. The Religion of Man (Unwin, 1988), p. 34.
6. Noam Chomsky. in James Peck (Ed.) The Chomsky Reader (Serpent’s Tail, 1988).
7. Lee Smolin (http://www.edge.org), February 1998.
8. Thomas Berry. in Anne Lonergan & Caroline Richards (Eds.) Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology. (Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), pp. 107-108.
9. René Descartes. Discourse on Method and the Meditations (Penguin Books, 1968).
10. W H Vanstone. Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (Darton, Longman & Todd. 1977).
11. Wes Jackson. ‘Hierarchical Levels, Emergent Qualities, Ecosystems, and the Ground for a New Agriculture’ in William Thompson (Ed.). GAIA 2. Emergence (Lindisfarn Press, 1991), pp. 132-153.
12. Alfred North Whitehead. Science in the Modern World (Free Association Books. 1985), p. 117.
13. Erich Jantsch. The Self-Organizing Universe (Pergamon Press. 1980).
15. Stephen Dunstone. God’s First Draft (Transcript of BBC Radio 3 Broadcast).
16. Jacob Bronowski. ‘New Concepts in the Evolution of ComplexityStratified Stability and Unbounded Plans’ (Zygon, 5,1970). Quoted in Connie Barlow. Evolution Extended (MIT Press, 1994), p. 125.
17. Julian Huxley. New Bottles for New Wine (Harper & Rowe, 1957).
18. Stephen Jay Gould. Quoted in Connie Barlow. Evolution Extended (MIT Press, 1994), p. 50.
19. Jaques Monod. Chance and Necessity (Penguin Books, 1997), p. 180.
20. Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet (W.W.Norton & Co., 1993), pp. 64-65.
21. Emanuel Kant. Quoted in Cassirer, E. Kant’s Life and Thought (Yale University Press, 1981).
22. Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge, 1991), p. 1.
23. Warwick Fox. From notes taken at a conference on Environmental Ethics, Dartington, 1996.
24. Wendell Berry. Standing on Earth. (Golgonooza Press, 1991), pp. 169-170.
25. Thomas Berry.’ Economics: Its Effects on the Life Systems of the World’, in Anne Lonergan and Caroline Richards (Eds.) Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology (Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), p. 18.
26. Keith Ward. God, Chance and Necessity. (Oneworld, 1996).
27. Lynn White. ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ (Science. 155, March 1967), pp. 1203-1207.
28. Anne Baring & Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess (Arkana, Penguin. 1993).
29. Hildegard von Bingen. in Gabriele Uhlein. Meditations with Hilgegard of Bingen (Bear & Co., 1983).
30. Sallie McFague. Super, Natural Christians (Fortress Press, 1997).
31. Maya Angelou. On the pulse of the morning (Virago, 1993).

Select Bibliography

In this paper it has not been possible to do more than touch on some of the more significant features of the New Universe Story and to hint at some of its implications for the human condition. The literature in this field is vast. The following book list makes no pretence to be complete but it will serve as an introduction to a fascinating and endless journey.

Thomas Berry. The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1990).
Fritjof Capra. The Web of Life (HarperCollins, 1996).
Robert Elliot (Ed.) Environmental Ethics (OUP, 1995).
Brian Goodwin. How the Leopard Changed Its Spots (Phoenix, 1995).
Erich Jantsch. The Self-Organizing Universe. (Pergamon Press, 1980).
Stuart Kauffman. At Home in the Universe (Viking, 1995).
Peter Marshall. Nature’s Web (Simon & Schuster, 1992).
Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge, 1991).
Sallie McFague. The Body of God (SCM Press, 1993).
Sallie McFague. Super, Natural Christians (Fortress Press, 1997).
Diamuid O’Murchú. Reclaiming Spirituality. Gill & Macmillan, 1997.
Rosemary Radford Ruether. Gaia and God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
Henryk Skolimowski. The Participatory Mind (Arkana, 1994).
Lee Smolin. The Life of the Cosmos (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997).
Charlene Spretnak. The Resurgence of the Real (Addison-Wesley, 1997).
Brian Swimme. & Thomas Berry. The Universe Story (HarperCollins, 1992).
Richard Tarnas. The Passion of the Western Mind (Ballantine Books, 1991).
Edward Wilson. The Diversity of Life (Penguin Books, 1994).




Authentic Pagans in the Modern World

By William Bloom

(from GreenSpirit magazine, summer 2009)


Some pagans and eco-spiritual campaigners despair of modern life, which they see as having abandoned all connection with earth, elements and seasons. But from another perspective, this is not so. The core pagan instincts are actually fully alive in our general culture but in new cultural forms.

The spiritual experience of the natural world still throb in modern, urban culture. The rhythms of nature and cosmos still dynamically express through us. The basic and tribal instinct to pulse our bodies to nature’s rhythms never ended. Millions, billions, for example, still dance! In fact, there is more non-stop dancing and music than ever before on our planet: rock and roll, pop, disco, raves, MTV, thousands of bands and gigs. In these situations people absolutely feel the connection and common pulse of life. You may despair of ipods but view them more hopefully. Human creatures are enjoying music and rhythm.

We also still follow the seasons, going to the beach in the Summer or to the snow in the Winter. And our connection with the natural world also manifests itself in many mass consumer and media habits, as we buy plants, keep pets, take vacations in beautiful places, watch nature programmes, sail, trek and do all the other activities that connect us with the natural environment. You can either perceive all this through the half-empty glass of yearning for a time lost, or hopefully, noticing nature’s rhythm in new forms.
Even though we are urbanized, even though we have been so tragically destructive to the landscape and our natural resources, we are still glorious apes – full creatures of this planet. Watch the natural flow, rhythms and good humour of children; remember what it feels like to be one of them – the bubbling vitality. We still curl up in our beds like hamsters in nests. We slurp and enjoy our food and drink. We know how to rest and we know how to play. We know when to be with others and when to be on our own. We have all the pulses of creatures who are fully alive.

Whatever certain green pessimists may think of our species, we are still emergent beings from the earth and universe – and instinctively, we know it and feel it.
We also find great enjoyment with each other. We truly enjoy our culture together, engaging in our mutual concerns and delights. The beauty of a flock of birds moving in unison, the glory of a forest – this kind of complex connection also erupts through mass humanity.

Urbanized humanity throbs in its own way to the vibrancy of being alive. People love being industrious and creative. The cities are filled with marvels. The arts, social care, education, sports, science and technology are brilliant. It is a sad person who can see the beauty in the colour of a butterfly’s wing but is blind to the beauties of human society.
At one huge rave in the UK in the 1980s, 10,000 people gathered in a remote aircraft hangar to dance through the night. High on natural endorphins and ecstasy, the deejays led the rave into a peak of blissful rhythm which exploded at dawn. The whole eastern side of the warehouse, a huge door, slowly began to rise, revealing the rising sun. The dancers, pulsing with the music, merged with the landscape and the light of the new day.
The megalopolises and great cities of our world are no more separate from nature than bee-hives, anthills and bat colonies.

The arts in general are also an expression in many different forms of how we experience, interpret and express the world around us. Detached from the land, humanity has not lost its sensibility to the rural and wild environment, but has stretched its artistic response to include all aspects of civilization, sublime and grotesque. This is obvious in dance, painting, sculpture and writing. It is also there in popular music. Hip-hop is precisely an interpretation and expression of urban social and technological reality, its use of rhythm, voice and movement absolutely in parallel with tribal and pagan dances that, too, reflect their environment.
Who were the great pagans and animists of the last century? It is not useful to look to the pagan ceremonial teachers, because – to a degree – they missed the point, detaching from the mass collective, the human tribe, and yearned for something lyrically romantic. Surely it is more appropriate to look to Picasso, James Brown or Marilyn Monroe. These are the true medicine people, shamans and gods/goddesses of the last century.
What then were the great pagan events of the last century? Again, we need to look to popular culture: the great rock and roll concerts, the sensational movies, the explosion of MTV and the global Live Aid events.

I write all this celebrating life as it is.

If I were melancholic, then of course I would be looking to a romantic lost time when things were better. The challenge, for me, is not to be over-stimulated or harassed by the noise of the modern world. The challenge is not to be a grumpy Green. The challenge too is to understand the changing flows of history and culture and see through the plastic bling to the soul that is always there.

Biophylia – the embedded, cellular love of nature – is inside us simply by virtue of our existence. As the pagan chant goes: Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit. Not just out there, but inside too.

William Bloom is an educator, author and activist working in the field of spiritual and holistic development. He is a founding director of the Foundation for Holistic Spirituality and Spiritual Companions. www.williambloom.com

Lichens & Mycorrhizae

by Michael Colebrook

The soil is teeming with life (1). I want to focus on just two elements of this life, both of which involve that that rather odd group of organisms, the Fungi. By tradition fungi are included in the botanical curriculum, although it is now believed that the group are more closely related to the animals than to the plants. The Fungi now have the status of a kingdom all to themselves.

Like animals, fungi need complex organic nutrients, and all fungi are saprophytic, (living off dead organic matter) or parasitic (living off living organic matter). The fungi involved in the two systems I want to describe have found ways of associating themselves with green (photosynthetic) organisms and by co-evolving have established mutually beneficial, symbiotic, arrangements with their green partners.

Historically there has been a marked reluctance on the part of evolutionary biologists to accept the existence of intimate, mutually beneficial relationships between different species. In evolutionary theory, competition rules, at least until recently. In his Analysis of Biological Populations (1972) Williamson stated ‘[mutualism] is a fascinating biological topic, but its importance in populations is generally small’ (2). This echoes Beatrix Potter’s dismissive reception by the Linnnean Society to her suggestion that Lichens exist as permanent associations between Algae and Fungi (3).

It is not altogether surprising that Beatrix Potter had a problem persuading the Linnean Society (and Kew Gardens) that lichens were symbionts. They are emergent entities and exist in forms that are sufficiently consistent to be classified as if they were individual species. It is estimated that there are about 20,000 different forms. The photosynthetic components, green algae or cyanobacteria, are capable of independent existence, the fungi are not, they are obligate symbionts.

Lichens on Rocks Cumbria UK.
Photo Dave & Lynne Slater
Lichen crust on tundra, Iceland
Photo Erwan Balança

Lichens play a vital pioneering role in soil formation. Thin surface crusts of lichens are found in most seemingly barren sites from deserts to arctic tundra. They form the first layer of organic matter and, where the conditions are suitable they provide the basis for the subsequent formation of soil. Lynn Margulis describes the process:Algae growing under the protective cover of fungi cling to sheer rock, extend over its face, and ultimately break it down into soil that can be penetrated by roots of plants and fungal hyphal networks. The hard rock of this spinning planet has been crumbling for hundreds of millions of years into rich, nutritive soil as a result of the fungal-algal partnerships.(4)

Without the Lichens there would be no soil. Without the soil there would be no complex life on land. We are most aware of Fungi in the form of mushrooms (edible) and toadstools (some edible, some not). But the real body of an individual soil fungus consists of long and very fine (microscopic) tubular cells, called hyphae, forming a more of less extensive branching and sometimes networking system known as a mycelium. These are not insignificant or transient entities, the mycelium of a specimen of Armillaria ostoyae (the honey mushroom) in a national forest in Oregon is believed to cover an area of nearly 9 sqkm (2,200 acres) and is estimated to be 2,400 years old! This is exceptional, the familiar fairy rings, which indicate the presence of an active mycelium underground, are usually only a few metres in diameter.

Some Fungi have developed symbiotic relationships with land plants known as mycorrhizae, literally fungusroot, which is a good name, it describes exactly what they are. The fungal element in the partnership merges with and extends the root system of the host plant. The host benefits from the extended root system. The very fine fungal hyphae can penetrate into smaller interstices in the soil than even the fine root hairs of the plant and they are very good at extracting nutrients, especially phosphates, from the soil. The fungus benefits by receiving a share in the energy rich, photosynthetic, materials made by the host.

There are two distinct forms of mycorrhizae. In Endomycorrhizae the hyphae penetrate the cell walls of the host plant but the cell membranes remain intact. The hyphae spread out into the surrounding soil for relatively short distances. The fungal species cannot exist independently. Here are about 130 species of endomycorrhizal fungi and all belong to the phylum Glomeromycota. The number of host species is not known but comprises a significant proportion of the total number of plant species.

In Ectomycorrhizae the hyphae form layers around the roots of the host plant and do not penetrate the cell walls. The hyphae radiate out into the surrounding soil for up to several meters.

The fungi are nearly all from the phylum Basidiomycota (toadstool forming). There are about 5,000 ectomycorrhizal species and they form alliances with about 2000 species, mostly conifers and nearly all are trees.

One of the ectomycorrhizal fungi is the quintessential toadstool, the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria). This produces the well known, bright red capped toadstool flecked with white which clearly signals that it is not one of the edible kinds. It also forms fairy rings thatmight encircle several trees. The single mycelium may be associated with several host trees. Most of the host and fungal species can exist independently but do not flourish nearly as well as when part of a symbiotic association. It is interesting to speculate on the marked difference in the numbers of species of endomycorrhizal (c 130) and ectomycorrhizal (c 5000) fungi.

Taxonomists place the endo- species in four orders, and all the members of these orders are exclusively mycorrhizal. It would seem likely that the habit evolved once only and the existing species are all descended from a common ancestor through differentiation involved in forming relationships with a enormous variety of host species. There is fossil evidence for the existence of endomycorrhizal species in the early Devonian period (c 400million years ago), long before the emergence of flowering plants.

The ectomycorrhizal species are found in three orders but the species involved are not all mycorrhizal. It is suggested that ectomycorrhizal species emerged together with the appearance of Conifers in the late Mesozoic (c 150 million years ago). The taxonomy would also suggest that the habit emerged more than once, through parallel evolution.

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of mycorrhizal associations for the flourishing of plant life of all forms and in all locations, they are a key element in the life of the soil. Along with Charles Darwin’s beloved earthworms, mycorrhizae are a vital part of the nearly invisible and often discounted infrastructure of life on Earth.


1. James Nardi. Life in the Soil (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

2.MarkWilliamson. The Analysis of Biological Populations (Academic Press, 1972).

3. Michael Colebrook. ‘What have Lichens to do with Peter Rabbit’ (GreenSpirit, Summer 2002), p. 7

4. Lynn Margulis. The Symbiotic Planet (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1998) p. 109.

Michael Allen. The Ecology of Mycorrhizae (Cambridge University Press, 1991

A classification of the whole Kingdom can be found at:


The Dirt Beneath Our Feet

by Marian Van Eyk McCain


Adapted from her book Elderwoman: Reap the wisdom, feel the power, embrace the joy (Findhorn Press, 2002).

Like many older women, then and now, my grandmother was a keen gardener. When I was five, she donated a little patch of her garden to me, and gave me sunflower seeds to plant. For ages, nothing happened. Then, tiny shoots appeared. 1 watched in amazement as the plants grew and grew until they were more than twice as tall as me, their huge yellow heads nodding over, way above my head. It seemed like a miracle. Well, it was, really.

Back then, I assumed that soil was just inert stuff that held the roots and supported the plant stems. No one told me otherwise. It was many years before I really understood what an amazing and important substance soil is, and how unappreciated and badly treated it is by some sections of humanity. Yet a good relationship with it can enrich our lives, which is why I want to begin this essay by thinking about the soil very literally.

Dirt, soil, earth. The topsoil, the subsoil, the rock underneath.  All our lives, we rest upon it. Depend upon it, literally, in all senses of the word. Yet If you think about it, we modern folk spend very little time with our feet actually touching the earth itself. Some of us might go a whole day without glimpsing bare soil. We can even forget that it exists. Much of the time, especially if we live in the city, between that soil and our feet lies the dead weight of concrete, sitting dully and heavily over soil which may never see the sun again. That always makes me feel sad. Although I know it is a silly fantasy, since builders always remove the topsoil before they build, I still have this image of some poor mole or earthworm struggling to the surface only to discover he or she has come up right under the middle of Safeway or the Interstate or Gate Fifteen of the airport. It is a dilemma, for I need stores and roads and airports, too, just like everybody else does.

I also need the soil, for my life utterly depends upon it. Without soil, there would be no food, and without food we would all die. So it seems important to me to think about this dirt, this thing that one’s life depends on.

Firstly, I believe we need to think about it in order to ensure that it is being properly taken care of and that there is enough of it that is not covered over. Lots of areas where the trees can grow and the moles and earthworms can still poke through the surface.  And lots of it that never will be covered over – ever. Because land developers and builders – and governments – often don’t notice when they are overdoing things and putting profit ahead of health and sanity. Sometimes it needs older people like me to point this out; people who have been around a long time and who can see the long-term effects of things are the ones who need to speak out. Just as longitudinal studies in science are a particularly useful and valid way of gaining information, the voices and opinions of older people in a society have a value all their own. It is we who remember the green field which predated a certain parking lot, cattle grazing in what is now the shopping mall, the chopped-down trees. That’s when we find ourselves crying out “STOP!” for we truly understand what is being lost.

Secondly, I think we need to look at our relationship with the soil from the point of view of having been created out of it, and being headed towards intimate reunion with it after our death. Realizing the importance of that relationship, we might want to put more emphasis on celebrating that deep connection. We might want to find opportunities in our lives to walk barefoot, to dig in the garden, plant things in the soil, smell it, get it on our hands. There is literally an earthy satisfaction for many of us in those things, a satisfaction which we may have forgotten in our busy lives up among the concrete buildings, and which will come flooding back when we walk barefoot along the beach or spend an afternoon on our knees in the garden, weeding and planting and mulching.

Thirdly, it seems important to consider the symbolic aspect of it. In other words, the necessity to stay grounded. Physically, we do this by remaining aware of our bodies and not ignoring or overriding their messages of weariness or pain. Emotionally, we do it by keeping a firm hold on reality and commonsense and by tempering drama with humor. And spiritually, we do it by honoring where we come from, our emergence from the ‘stuff’ of the Earth.

So, if the bodies we live in are actually constructed out of the earth, and earth is the substance on which our life and existence depends, surely it must be a highly important substance? Something to give some thought to. What actually is it? Why does it do often get treated as dispensable, as insignificant–or even as horrible? (‘Dirt’ –  ‘dirty ’–  ‘disgusting’ )

I remember thinking about that one day, many years ago, after I had been standing in an airport departure lounge, watching a grandson – then not quite a year old – toddling around on the floor, trying out this new mode of locomotion so lately learned. I recall the way his curved, pink baby feet struggled to splay flat and hold his body vertical. He stepped, he wobbled, he collapsed. Tried again, collapsed, gave up, returned to crawling mode. This he could do, of course, with the speed of several months intensive practice. So off he went, skimming across the vast acres of polished airport vinyl, dodging the travelers and their suitcases. He reached a large trash can of cylindrical metal, twice his height. Up went the hands, fingers seeking, exploring. On to his feet again then, stretching up, those little fingers curling over the top of the trash can, gripping, pulling, until down it came, in a shower of cigarette ash, apple cores, Styrofoam cups and candy wrappers. He settled down contentedly, amid his booty, keen to examine every new object, perhaps to taste some.

By the time I retrieved him, his pink hands and feet and knees were a grimy gray and I tucked him on to my hip and raced for the washroom as though the seeds of a dozen weird and possibly fatal diseases were waiting only for him to put a finger in his mouth.

As I held him firmly with one arm around his waist and used my free hand to wash those baby fingers, my mind went back one week. We had been in the country, staying in our small cabin.

There he was, in my memory’s eye, crawling to the edge of the cabin doorway and easing himself gently over the step. There he was, crawling across the uneven brick paving, pausing to examine and to taste the weeds that grew between the cracks, to pick up a small stone, to dabble in the untidy place where paving and grass met, their boundary blurred by the sprawl of alyssum and nasturtiums.

Off he scuttled, emboldened by a quick look behind him to check that his mother and I were still waiting and caring; off to the mysteries of rainwater tank and bucket, of rock and log, of soft leaves and prickly leaves, darting skinks and slow-moving beetles, and above all, of earth. Dark brown earth.

I remember him coming back, his knees now green from grass, fragments of soil and sand in the soft crevices of his plump little hands, and I remember how I scooped him up and fed him some mashed carrots on a spoon and then, after a while, returned him to his mother’s breast for milk and sleep, and none of us even thought of washing him. So what was the difference? He was dirty, but this time it didn’t matter. Why not?

What, then, is dirt? Words like ‘dirty’ and ‘soiled’ seem to denote some unhealthy, unpleasant state of being, a contamination. But it was only after the airport incident that the truth came to me. The truth that there must once have been a time when the only way you got dirty was in the dirt. The only way you got soiled was in the soil. There was no other class of dirt except that which lay on the forest floor of our ancestors, or within the caves they used for shelter.

The soil, then as now, was made up of three basic types of ingredients: minerals (the fragmentary particles of all kinds of rocks), humus and living organisms. The humus was composed of a vast conglomeration of once-living matter, the waste products of creatures, the broken down remnants of plant parts, all combined into a rich, nurturing compound, essential to continuing life. It was from this compound that seedlings drew their nourishment and built themselves into grass, flowers, trees – green and growing things which, in their turn, nourished and built the animals. Organisms living within this soil mixture – molds, bacteria, worms and other creatures—made up the huge army of workers that converted the raw materials, like dead plant and animal matter, human and animal wastes, etc., into usable form. A huge army which, by the way, is still largely unstudied. It is an astounding fact that only a mere 5 percent of soil organisms have ever been described and classified even though there are thousands of different kinds in every teaspoonful of soil. I always used to assume that scientists knew everything there was to know about soil, but apparently their knowledge is extremely limited.

Once all these decaying and putrefying materials are fully decomposed and turned into humus, they are sweet smelling, clean, beautiful and wholesome again. They eventually become the crumbly chocolate-colored compost into which we love to plant our daffodil bulbs.

But between the decaying, rotting matter and the sweet smelling compost there is a time gap—and, for most of us, an awareness gap. The process of transformation is slow and mysterious and takes place mostly in the dark. So we see the two ends of the cycle but not the middle. Unless we recycle everything ourselves. Then we see the whole cycle. But most of us throw our garbage in the bin and we buy the compost at the garden store and we rarely if ever think about what lies between these two events.

When I rushed my grandson to the airport washroom, the dirt on his little pink hands seemed menacing somehow, ugly, out of place, obscene. It seemed to contain the dirt of a thousand feet that had walked who knows where, over who knows what. The noxious mixture from the trash can was the raw detritus of a culture that no longer recognizes the existence of its own waste products, let alone honors and recycles them. And many are not recyclable anyway. Therefore, this unknown mixture on his innocent hands repulsed and terrified me at some unconscious level where I intuitively felt –  rather than thought about – the difference.

Around that cabin, on the other hand, things lived and things died, and everything, even peoples’ own waste products, ended up eventually as sweet smelling compost in the garden or the orchard. (The residue from the composting toilets, by the way, only goes into the orchard, and not on the vegetable patch.) The process may be mysterious and wonderful, but the processed components are known. We always knew what went in, and always knew what came out. Daily, we remembered to bless the seen and unseen army of converters, the earthworms and their zillions of smaller companions that thrive beneath the surface of our soil. The child, crawling there, was crawling in the known world. Lightly guarded by those who know which berries and which spiders to watch out for, he was safe in his adventuresome exploration of the earth.

So I think that quality of familiarity with the earth, with the movement of things in and out of it, is something we have largely lost. Our loss of that familiarity and knowing, and the pollution of the soil by umpteen industrial and commercial processes that we know so little of, has separated us from that which is really the matrix of our existence. It has made us strangers to the soil and made of dirt a foreign and potentially lethal substance. In a way, we have become strangers to ourselves – to our own bodies and to their matrix.

The soil, and the rock below it, is the body of the Earth. The body with which we were born and in which we age is our borrowed piece of soil. We leave it behind us when we die, returning it to whence it came. So to me it makes sense that while it is in our care, we take good care of it. Like a library book, we should not trash it. Similarly, it behooves us to take good care of the Earth’s body too, since everything else which lives depends on that. To me, there is a deep connection between the way we take care of our bodies and the way we take care of the soil and of the world. Start thinking about one, follow it far enough and it inevitably leads you to thoughts of the other two. Want to be more healthy? Improve your diet. Which means eat better quality, cleaner food – organic food. Which means healthier soil. Which means a healthier planet. Our bodies are the soil, they are the Earth. As the Irish philosopher John O’Donohue so lyrically expressed it in his book Anam Cara, we are beings made of clay.

‘We so easily forget that our clay has a memory that preceded our minds, a life of its own before it took its present form. Regardless of how modern we seem, we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay… The human body is at home on the earth.’

So when my own grandchildren planted sunflowers in my garden, I had a lot more to tell them than my grandmother had told me. About the importance of soil, and the creatures who live in it. About the importance of nurturing and protecting it, for all our human sakes and for the sakes of all those non-human life forms with whom we share the planet. About its sacred nature. They needed to learn about humus. And about the huge, unthanked workforce of indefatigable beings who create the basis for new life out of the raw materials of death. A healthy patch of soil, I told them, is a huge, complex ecosystem in itself. An underground community. A vast co-operative project undertaken by billions and billions of tiny interdependent creatures, most of whom we neither see nor know the names of. All of them matter

I hope the children listened. So when that grandson who pulled over the trashcan now walks through the airport wheeling his suitcase, I hope he remembers the soil beneath the concrete and the creatures of the earth. I hope they will still be there for him, in even greater numbers, as people gradually begin to remember the importance of soil, of dirt, of earth. And I hope there are many days in his man’s life when that soil is sweet upon his hands and rich beneath his fingernails.

Ecopsychology in Practice; Heart and Soul of the ‘GreatTurning’?

by Hilary Prentice

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSPirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 20-21)

I was 13 years old in 1968.Through Sunday papers and eventually television, I learned of student demonstrations and the Vietnam war, countries being invaded, people starving, and amazing hopeful things like acupuncture, ‘flower power’ and civil rights marchers. The world was on fire, it seemed, both with trouble, and with the vision and optimism of upcoming revolution. It seemed inevitable to me that humanity would shortly sort these problems out. My question, as I left home to become a student myself, was how actually that was to be done, and how might I take part.

At University I changed from the school of European Studies, to African and Asian Studies, believing that wisdom would be found by stepping out of the ‘narrow’ world of the continent from which I came. Ironically, in doing so I missed a ‘foundation course’ on the influence of Marx and Freud on European thought.

Looking back, I see myself as having stepped innocently out into a world awash with the influence of these two massively powerful traditions. On the one hand, I learned that human suffering, wars and poverty, are massively shaped by a profit-orientated social and economic system, and that to really address these problems we need to radically change how our society is structured. Only then will human happiness really flower. Religion and psychotherapy were the opium of the masses, a diversion from the real issues, designed to confuse and missing the point.

On the other hand, as my African friends told me to sort out my own country please, and I encountered the women’s movement, I discovered the world of ‘personal politics’. Here, how we relate to each other inside our homes, our private thoughts and repressed pain, our socialisation as children to behave in certain ways, our capacity to take our power or to feel our vulnerability, these things are no longer secondary to the ‘real’ (and more male)world of social and economic structure, but can also be seen as having primacy, as being the ground from which those structures in fact spring. And as personal politics shaded into psychotherapy and counselling, and these in turn into a new spirituality, I found a matching but opposite militancy. Now I was told that all real change comes from within, we create the outer world from the inner, and that efforts to change things by beginning with the outer are doomed to failure, and are in fact a clear avoidance of facing the real issues, which lie inside ourselves.

This division runs very deep in our culture, and there are many who hold to one or other of these opposed views. For me, and I imagine many GreenSpirit readers, new paradigm thinking is more a matter of ‘both/and’ – there is a never-ending yin/yang pattern here, a dialectic, where the outer arises from the inner, and in turn the inner is shaped by the outer. Welcoming both ‘sides’ to their place at the table of transformation seems to me to be hugely healing, echoing the journey of healing between male and female, but also that between science and religion in the west, and that between modern and indigenous, as all of our world can again become ‘animate’, full of inner life, full of spirit, and sacred in its every form.

Ecopsychology, the bringing back together of ecos and psyche, can been seen as also addressing that very wound, that disconnection between the inner worlds of humans and the world all around us, that contrasts so starkly with healthy indigenous societies which both experience the connectedness and know how to live sustainably. I have been passionate about ecopsychology for over a decade, and have found it easy to see its significance at a profound level, and to share that with others to some extent, but much harder to find forms or create practice that really seem able to release the revolutionary potential here, in anyway proportionate to the urgency of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Imagine my excitement then, when less than two years ago I found myself living ten miles from Totnes, as an extraordinary and inspirational process got underway, called ‘Transition Town Totnes’. This turned out to be inspired by Peak Oil, the insight that the entire world ‘civilisation’ is now based on the massive overuse of the energy in oil, laid down billions of years ago over millennia and used up by modern humans in a few decades, the production of which is now peaking and going into decline, whilst world demand for oil continues to increase. Global warming is of course a consequence of our burning of fossil fuels, the other side of the same coin, also warning us to change and change fast. The Transition idea, inspired by Rob Hopkins, is simply that instead of waiting for catastrophic collapse, we plan ahead of time to transform our communities, beginning locally because localisation is key, to a post-oil way of life, sustainable, resilient, and almost certainly happier for humans as well as the earth. This is surely a good idea, and is spontaneously appearing in different forms all over the world. In the form of the Transition Town movement, it has ‘gone viral’; at the time of writing (Jan 2008) over 400 other Transition initiatives in the UK or around the world have either been launched, or are contemplating this.

In Totnes the evolving structure has begun with a number of active working groups and initiatives – a food group, a local government liaison group, a business group and the Totnes pound project, building and housing, transport, arts, education and schools, – and what was originally the ‘Psychology of Change’ group, which we shortly named ‘Heart and Soul’, embracing psychology, spirituality and consciousness aspects of transition.

Here was an opportunity to bring the aspect of inner work, of personal process, to a big project of outer transformation of the very structures by which we live – and we were all welcome, very literally, to sit at the same table. Again that question; how actually do you do that, having arrived at a time and place where it would be possible and welcome? The initial questions we faced, and continue to face about this are several. How do you bring awareness of ‘process’ issues, of our inner worlds to people drawn to other working groups many of whom may not see this as particularly relevant or helpful, and indeed should we? How can we use other skills, such as the capacity to ask deep questions of the overall transition field in eco-constellations work, to help support that field to stay as clear as possible, and informed by as deeper wisdom as possible? How can other skills and insights, such as small group work, or counselling/supervision skills, be brought to support those already active, or to support people to become active, to make profound changes? How might we share the insights of the ‘cognitive and perceptual revolution’ (Macy) in our inner lives, in a way that inspires and supports those who wish to address the practical problems, but believe that it is simply ‘human nature’ to be selfish and greedy? Or the insight that the changes from competition to cooperation, from greed and revenge to compassion, from outer consumption to inner riches of creativity and intimacy – are not just necessary, but are profoundly desirable, a step forward in human evolution? And as Totnes is already awash with therapists and meditation teachers, is it all happening already, or is there a role for focussing on the links between all of that and the external transition process, such that the latter is also transformational in the lives of these very therapists and meditation teachers? In practice, we have taken an open, broad-church approach, hoping to bring people and ideas together towards the goals of synergy and cross-fertilisation in both directions. We began by offering a series ofworkshop type events to whomever might be interested – Joanna Macy based despair and empowerment work, an afternoon of using constellations work to ask questions about our work with healing the earth, a day workshop from someone trained by the Pacha Mama Alliance (Waking the Dreamer) and an outdoor midwinter ritual based on the Dagara tradition – after a formal launch, attended by over 50 people, consisting of a talk, songs, a ‘deep-time’ process, and a spontaneous sharing circle of what we wished to call into being. After this we began to have open meetings, which turned out to be facilitated mixtures of process and business. Next we organised an Open Space day for Heart and Soul – at which a whole mixture of workshops was offered, from exploring the role of anger or meditation, to brief offerings of native American council forms, and pagan rituals. Gradually, more people offered events, including a pagan based ritual around a G8 meeting, an equinox bonfire…

As well as workshop-type events, we were easily able to include Heart and Soul speakers in the big speaker main TTT programme, initially borrowing from the Schumacher teachers. These began with Peter Russell on the planetary evolution of consciousness, followed by a sell-out with Marianne Williamson Each of these attracted people whose first contact with TTT was via these events. As people were turned away from Marianne Williamson, a video of her speech was shown later, followed by a ‘fishbowl’ discussion of some of the themes she raised. This was followed by a poetry event with Drew Dellinger and local poet Matt Harvey. Our next big speaker will be ecopsychologist Mary Jayne Rust.

An idea that has been floating around my world for well over a decade has been the formation of ‘green consciousness raising’ groups, a little like the women’s groups that initially empowered the women’s movement, or the smallish peace groups/affinity groups that were able to take direct action for peace. Small groups in which people become close, share intimately, and also take action for change which arises from this, are a well established and potent form for political and social change. We had an official launch of ‘Home Groups’ last summer. Some seem to have been very successful, and some seem to have fallen at the first hurdle of matching diaries. We feel this project has much potential, but needs more input to be taken up more widely.

A small group of Heart and Soulers organised a celebratory summer picnic for all of TTT. Whilst our job is not, as was once wryly suggested, to make tea for the activists, one of the insights that repeatedly arises in our part of the process is of course that it matters that we get to know each other, that we have fun and that we celebrate, as well as that we make space for our feelings, or stop and enquire, or stop and listen to the silence.

Lastly, my co-focaliser has called for people able to offer supervision/ mentoring support to people very actively involved in TTT, and has begun to match these with requests for such support.

Looking back, we have done a great deal in a short space of time. We are part of a constantly evolving, open, fluid field, which is constantly attracting new people, and of which no-one can have a complete overview. We do tend to attract likeminded people, and do not know how many very different people have also been touched by what we do, or how many people coming from the consciousness end of the spectrum have been moved to also address their carbon footprints, for example. Doing what you may with an open heart and with integrity, and trusting the larger process are strong values in Heart and Soul as well as wider process. Hopefully what we have done ripples out in countless ways, as does the work and play of the many others working on different parts of this giant jigsaw.

To find out about, or initiate, transition initiatives where you live, contact the Transition Network www.transitiontowns.org, and of course I hope some of you may wish to start Heart and Soul type groups as part of your own local sustainability initiatives.

 Hilary Prentice is a psychotherapist living and working on Dartmoor. She has been passionately involved with ecopsychology for more than a decade, and has been co-focalising the Heart and Soul group of Transition Town Totnes.

The Ecological Self

by Chris Clarke

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 4-6)

I have twice in a GreenSpirity group sung Ronnie Kahn’s song[1] “Return Again” with the words:

Return again, Return again,
Return to the land of your soul.
Return to who you are;
return to what you are;
return to where you are:
born and reborn again.

On the second occasion we danced as we sung it, on a natural lawn encircled by trees in the New Forest. On “who you are” each brought their hands to their heart, the place of the yearning of love, our individuality. Then on “what you are” the hands moved to the belly, the place of our more visceral emotions that we share with our mammalian cousins. Then we raised our arms wide and expanded our consciousness, to join with the trees, and up into the sky and stars as we turned around on “where you are”. At the end we felt we were indeed reborn, because we had redefined what was our self.

Each enactment of a line of the song is a thought, a mini-story, about the self. I see most human activities of meaning-making, and especially sciences, as telling stories; and psychology as telling stories about the self. Psychotherapists help their client to tell a more meaningful story to themselves about themselves; academic psychologists try to tell a more general story. For both, a good story is one that integrates and makes sense of the many aspects of our experience and behaviour, without ignoring the uncomfortable bits. And for the client in psychotherapy, a good story (like a good novel) needs to be one that they can inhabit, live by, that engages their emotions as well as their intellect. The story we tell depends on the way in which we live and experience the world. Conversely, the way we live and experience can be shaped by the story we tell. Each such story carries with it a particular concept of the self.

Stories about the self in the West, from Plato onwards, portrayed it as essentially individual and self-contained. The real self might have been simply the soul, as with Plato; or a combination of different structures, such as Aristotle’s vegetative, animal and human souls, which are all present in us, or the later Christian division into body, spirit and soul. All these, however, are restricted to a single individual. As far as I know, C G Jung was the first in the West to go beyond a self-contained individuality by depicting a self with a dimension that was extended, continuing into the collective unconscious that joined up our conscious parts like the sea bed uniting an archipelago. This notion leads on to our ecological connections, taking us to the Ecological Self.

The name “Ecological Self” was first introduced by Arne Naess[2] in 1985. Later he defined it as “that with which [a person] identifies”, where by “identifies” he understands “a spontaneous, non-rational . . . process through which the interest or interests of another being are reacted to as our own.” The idea is rooted in his own experience. He describes how

“I looked through an old fashioned microscope at the dramatic meeting of two drops of different chemicals. A flea jumped from a lemming strolling along the table and landed in the middle of the acid chemicals. To save it was impossible. It took many minutes for the flea to die. Its movements were dreadfully expressive. What I felt was, naturally, a painful compassion and empathy. But the empathy was not basic. What was basic was the process of identification, that ‘I see myself in the flea’. If I was alienated from the flea, not seeing anything resembling myself, the death struggle would have left me indifferent.”[3]

A more heroic example is the moment, now famous, when Aldo Leopold witnessed the death of a wolf that he had shot[4] and was so transformed by his experience as to become one of the founders of the environmental movement in the USA. Both these men found their selves extended to a greater world, so that, from their new story of the self, their actions and values were changed.

The Ecological Self is well described by psychological theories that see the self as arising from a dynamic web of relationships. As Isabel Clarke argues in her article here, “our relationship with those other beings with whom we share the earth, the animals, and with the very ecosystem and the earth itself, is knitted into the fabric of our being, The character of that relationship lies at the heart of who we are, but paradoxically, we lose part of our individuality when we really embrace relationship. ” This is a story of the self that goes beyond the individual. Elizabeth Ann Bragg sums up the concept in the following points:

Ecological self is a wide, expansive or field-like sense of self, which ultimately includes all life-forms, ecosystems and the Earth itself.

Experiences of ecological self involve:

an emotional resonance with other life-forms;

a perception of being similar, related to, or identical with other life-forms;

spontaneously behaving towards the ecosphere as one would towards one’s small self (with nurture and defence).

It is possible to expand one’s sense of self from the personal to the ecological.

She roots this idea in psychological theories in which “the ‘self’ is constituted in and through connections and relationships with others” and in particular in the insights of systems theory: the modern scientific approach of analysing things not in terms of the parts that they are made of, but in terms of their “dynamics”, the way in which they respond and change within their context, “with energy and information flowing across fluid boundaries” [3].

The most comprehensive account of the Ecological Self has been set out in two books by Freya Mathews, in which she develops a systems-theoretic view of a living cosmos where the Ecological self finds its place. The first, simply called The Ecological Self[5], is rather theoretical in flavour. To begin with she inquires as to what the ultimate foundation of the universe is, the “substance” (in the specialist terminology of mediaeval metaphysics) which owes nothing to anything else for its existence. Using the physics popular at the time she wrote, she suggests that “substance” is none other than space, thought of as a curved, dynamically changing entity. The physics has changed, with the substance now being like a sort of universal field. But the implication remains: the foundation of the universe is a single undivided whole that contains and constitutes everything. She alludes to Spinoza’s vision that this foundational substance (“God, also known as Nature”) must have two aspects: a material aspect of extension which allows all things to find their own identity, and an aspect of consciousness in which all things connect with each other, with themselves and with the whole.

This is a crucial change of emphasis, turning upside down both the old concept of the individual self and the old physics of individual atoms. Now it is not a matter of trying to join together souls and atoms that are created separate. Instead “what we are” and “who we are” is a unity across all space and all beings. On this view, the uniting nature of the Ecological Self is what we start from, the source of our being in which we are created. Our call is not to struggle to create our Ecological Self, but to allow ourselves to “return again” to it. The message is similar to that of the New Universe Story familiar to GreenSpirit members: that “we are stardust”, united with each other and with the depths of time through the cosmic processes that created the atoms of which we are made. But the message is now stronger. We are not just created by combining separate atoms, but we are differentiated from a single undivided substance.

She too, like Bragg, uses systems theory, and for her the idea of a dynamics, with information flowing across boundaries, enters in two distinct ways. First, the dynamics within a region of space marks off this region as an organism, something whose patterns of change are focused within itself. Second, the dynamics connecting it with its outside context establish the ecological nature of the organism and so constitute what she calls a Self: a subsystem which is both part of the greater whole and also has an individuality through its relations with this greater whole. So, as stressed by Isabel Clarke, we are our relationships. This means that when we “return again” to a recognition that our Self is by its nature Ecological, we are not simply flowing back into the oneness from which we came. Rather, we reconnect with this oneness bringing with us also the particular individuality that we have learnt through life. This is the meaning of being human.

Mathew’s second book, For Love of Matter[6] gives these ideas impact by grounding them in her own experience. She recounts her experience of seeing, with an inner eye, the inner consciousness of all things, all linked in their selfhood whether we ordinarily think of them as alive or not. She then recounts through several personal stories how recognition of her Ecological Self has not only overcome difficulties in her life, but has enabled her own individuality to grow as well. Individual and Ecological are not contrary, but mutually reinforcing.

For me, the story of the Ecological Self, at the heart of Ecopsychology, seems a vital part of GreenSpirit’s contribution to spiritual change in society. Our rituals, such as the dance I have described, encourage awareness of the Ecological Self and makes it real for those who take part in them. At the same time, the concept as developed by Mathews, in conjunction with the New Universe Story which links it with our cosmic context, provides for the first time a story that links psychology, physics and theology; not just by analogies, but by a detailed account that is grounded in our individual experience of life and the collective experience of science. I believe that this story matters to society as never before, and that GreenSpirit is uniquely placed to tell it.


[1] http://www.scispirit.com/return.gif
[2] Arne Naess (1985) Identification as a source of deep ecological attitudes. In M. Tobias, Ed., Deep Ecology (Avant Books,1985), pp.256-270 (quoted in Bragg [3])
[3] Elizabeth Ann Bragg. Towards Ecological Self: deep ecology meets constructionist self-theory (Journal of Environmental Psychology 16, 93–108, 1987).
[4] Aldo Leopold, Aldo: (1948 [1987]) A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford University Press, 1948[1987]),p. 129
[5] Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge 1991)
[6] Freya Mathews. For Love of Matter: a contemporary panpsychism (State University of New York Press, 2003) reviewed in GreenSpirit, Summer 2005, pp 19-20

Relative to Earth

By Sandra White
In a land not so very far away from here, there lives  “… a Prince who … is interested only in himself and his clothes and how he looks. So his father has a round tower built for him, and the wall of the top room and the roof are made of alternate panels of mirror and window. The view from the windows shows all the world and the sky.

The Prince loves the room and won’t leave it. All he does is look at himself in the mirrors and at the reflections from every side. He never looks out of a window.

The next day he’s woken by a creaking sound. And the creaking wakes him every morning. He thinks nothing of it; then after several days he notices that the mirrors are becoming wider than the windows. …

Well, the Prince is chuffed with the bigger mirrors, and every morning he wakes at the creaking and goes to see how much more they have widened. This goes on until, one day, he thinks the mirrors are getting dirty, because he can’t see himself clearly, so he sets about polishing the glass. But it makes no difference. Then he sees what’s happening.

The mirrors aren’t dirty. It’s the windows that are getting narrower and letting less and less light in. He tries to force the windows apart, but he can’t. Outside, the sun is shining and he sees all the bright colours. And when he looks in the mirrors all he sees is a dimming reflection.

Each day he presses his face against the mirrors, but he can see no more than his own self fading. Then there is one last creak, and the wall and roof becomes all mirror, and the Prince is alone in the dark.” (1)

Meanwhile, outside and “In the winter time, when deep snow lay on the ground, a poor boy was forced to go out on a sledge to fetch wood. When he had gathered it together, and packed it, he wished, as he was so frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he was thus clearing the ground, he found a tiny, golden key. Hereupon he thought that where the key was, the lock must be also, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. “If the key but does fit it!” thought he; “no doubt there are precious things in that little box.” He searched, but no keyhole was there. At last he discovered one, but so small that it was hardly visible. He tried it, and the key fitted it exactly. Then he turned it once round, and now we must wait until he has quite unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn what wonderful things were lying in that box.” (2)

These two fairy stories, the first from Alan Garner’s novel “Thursbitch” and the second, “The Golden Key”, the last of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, come together in my mind as a metaphor for our time.

As we know, one usual way of the fairy story is to start with an old King who has no sons … or perhaps he has sons but they are lost … or the youngest son is apparently a simpleton … in any event, the end of an era is nigh and a miracle is needed, an act of transformation to enable the creation of a much needed new order. At the start of the story it is completely unclear where the transformation is to be found, which character(s), which plot turn(s), which juxtaposition of opposites will birth the magic …

As an image of Western culture’s fixation with itself, which it is energetically exporting to the rest of the world, Alan Garner’s story is compelling. It reminds me of eco-philosopher David Abram’s (3) talk to GreenSpirit in April 2004, my first meeting with that organisation. I will never forget how he described the impact of the moment in human history when we changed from pictorial writing to alphabets, using letters expressing only the sounds made by the human mouth: moving his right hand back and forth between an imagined page in his left hand and his own mouth, it was then, he suggested, we first turned away from the natural world that our pictograms evoked and chose a mirror over a window.

The trouble in Alan Garner’s fairy tale is that the King is not old and dying. Rather, he is alive and well, the designer, architect and builder of the Prince’s tower, facilitating without challenge his son’s bedazzlement with himself and his fine clothes. No graceful abdication here, no allegiance to the cycle of life, no making way for the new. Rather, a seeding of more of the same.

Herein lies the deepest danger to humanity and the rest of large life on this planet now. There may be sophisticated story lines in The Archers where ‘true greenies’ splutter and argue that being sustainable is not about technological fixes … but most people do believe that the whole problem will be solved by technology with little noticeable impact on our current lifestyles. Our culture holds technology in such bright light that few recognise that we are, indeed, living in the darkness of the Prince’s tower of mirrors. While we live in such relative material comfort, the proposition that we (4) are harming ourselves profoundly through our cultural norms and that the damage we are doing to the rest of life on Earth is an inevitable extension of our self-harm, seems preposterous.

Yet, in the ways we live, it is as if we no longer know what it means to be fully human.

Autumn 2007 saw me helping a friend sift her two large compost bins, which had been left to their own devices for over two years. Once a week, I walked up the hill and for one or two hours repeatedly thrust my spade into the compost and then spread it out with my hands, looking for unbroken-down matter. Of course, there was hardly any and I marvelled at the fineness of this soil. Each time, my next two days were transformed. Everything I engaged in, work or play, filled the ‘right’ amount of time and I was in an effortless, grounded, calm, light and joyful state! As the week wore on, these qualities gradually faded. I became hungry for those compost bins! Sometimes I went twice. I seemed to understand innately that, on my hands and knees in the compost, I was in the heart of the cycle of life itself. Some days I wanted to burrow deep into that soil, breathe in its smell, feel its fine granules and its clumps, cover myself with it; move myself into the very centre of life. I was home. At home, my body feels secure and my mind can settle in its safety, in its solidity, in its fluid responsiveness. At home, my unified mind and body relate anew to time, space and motion, accurately measuring them while flowing expansively within them. Reconnected with my ‘creatureness’, more is available to me: my whole, instinctual intelligence as well as that of my intellect, working in harmony. Why is this unified, flowing state so elusive in modern life?

In her lecture to the Guild of Psychotherapy in November 2007, Jungian analyst and ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust highlighted how Freud expressed Western humanity’s attitude to Nature: “The principle task of civilisation, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature. We all know that in many ways civilisation does this fairly well already, and clearly as time goes on it will do it much better. But no one is under the illusion that nature has already been vanquished; and few dare hope that she will ever be entirely subjected to man. There are the elements which seem to mock at all human control; the earth which quakes and is torn apart and buries all human life and its works; water, which deluges and drowns everything in turmoil; storms, which blow everything before them. … With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable; she brings to our mind once more our weakness and helplessness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilisation.” (5) With this, he named our fear, inherited through generations and generations since earliest humanity and still as live today; our fear of being overwhelmed and, ultimately, of death. How accurately he described our project of compensating for our smallness and vulnerability by erecting bigger and bigger towers … for the work of civilisation is twofold: not only does it serve our pragmatic needs and creative aspirations, it also compensates for our collective, cultural inability to be at peace with our individual, small and finite place within the cycle of life.

In September 2007, at the GreenSpirit annual gathering at Scargill House in Yorkshire, I facilitated a workshop ‘Re-Turning to Earth’, during which we found another living being and regarded it with loving attention and then imagined it regarding us in the same way. I was drawn to a beautiful flaming tree, gorgeous in its autumn coat. Up close, inside its branches, I found myself contemplating its trunk, surprised at its firmness and strength. I admired the level of protection its bark gave the tree – and when I imagined it looking at me, for the first time I realised how vulnerable I am under my soft outer layer. I understood in a new way why we humans build defensive walls in our minds.

Freud also addressed this, for his words describe not only our relationship with Nature, but also our relationship with our own minds and, particularly, the unconscious. The powers of the unconscious mind can feel like the tumult of Nature, and therapy rooms and great literature across many lands resonate with vivid accounts of quaking and feeling torn apart, buried, deluged, drowned, in turmoil, and blown before the storms of the deep layers of our minds. Here, in this inner landscape, we must civilise ourselves too or be swept away. When we look at how he described the project of building consciousness, we can see that the thread of conquest continues: “Where id was, there ego shall be.”(6) He explicitly equates the unconscious with Nature when describing the intention of psycho-analysis as “to strengthen the ego, … to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id … it is a work of culture not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee”. (7) With his verb “appropriate”, the founding father of psycho-analysis draws attention to our plunder, our taking to ourselves what is not ours to take. Out of its fear of the unconscious, the modern ego does that within the ecology of the mind, aspiring to make itself large and dominant and take the credit for creativity, order, value and intelligence. Within this mindset, denying those qualities to the Earth and, indeed, the Cosmos is a tiny, inevitable step.

From inside and out, then, a core aspect of humanity’s experience is one of being threatened and assaulted by powers vastly bigger than us. How welcome, how vital, the idea of a rational self – an island of certainty! And how greatly we feel we need to build up this experience of rationality, of logic, of control, against the forces opposing us. How safe and attractive those towers feel! Perhaps, if we can build them high enough, we will finally feel secure.

Carl Jung built a tower, between 1923 and 1955 and largely with his own hands, right on the edge of the upper lake of Zürich at Bollingen. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he wrote: “At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself. … At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.” (8) His whole description of how he built the Tower, in successive sections, each when he “once more had a feeling of incompleteness”, 9 shows how it traced the evolution of his personality, expanding and spiralling as he allowed in and explored different aspects of his own and universal human experiences as they surfaced from the unconscious. What a different project! And how beautiful the paradox that when he is most deeply himself inside his tower, he also is spread out, inside everything in the external landscape … These moments of interconnection allow us access to the truly infinite – here we can experience largesse without having to compensate for our smallness. Here we can find our loving empathy.

For Jung, individuation is achieved through dialogue, allowing in as many facets of our minds as is humanly possible so that each can take its place within the personality and be consciously mediated – not eradicated – by an ego that can also take its rightful place, both strong and humble. This endeavour is counter-intuitive to the modern mind, for it involves turning to meet exactly that which one fears, despises and hates, experiencing time and again our “weakness and helplessness” when grappling with something new, alien and previously rejected, learning to love and respect it and finally making room for it within oneself. Even with the ultimate gains of strengthening and growing, settling within one’s own skin rather than continually running scared, this rich but sometimes arduous, life-long journey seems an unattractive undertaking in our material age, where immediate success, power, and practical effectiveness are so highly prized.

Jung understood too the vital tragedy that the modern mind has cut itself off from earlier times when we valued our live connection with the mythic orders of life. In unexplainable ways, this connection enables us to be with both our smallness and our magnificence, just as tales of the gods the world over expose their foibles as well as acclaim their powers. In this connection, we can acclimatise ourselves to Nature within and without; we can meet the vastness of life and not feel that we have to conquer it. Upon this bedrock, the expansive experience Jung describes is available to us and, in its turn, feeds our inner security, from where we can be at peace inside with the small, finite nature of our individual lives and our relativity to Earth. This, perhaps, is the psychological/spiritual plane of the cycle of life.

Instead, so fixed are we on the dangers evoked by Freud, our modern minds seem hardly able to understand the dangers of the over-specialisation, one-sidedness, and mono-culture we are generating in our hunger for comfort and certainty. Never has “as within, so without” been so visible: As 21st century humanity cultivates our linear, rational, literal, either/or aspects of mind until they flourish and colonise the majority of our inner being, so we impose that inner state on the outer world. As we crush more and more of our imagination in our inner lives, siphoning it off into the realm of artists rather than welcoming it (unless for advertising) into the business of our everyday concerns, so we squeeze out the habitats of other, fantastic species. As we train our children to become commercially useful, so we commodify the natural world. Intoxicated by the apparently limitless capability of the technology we have engineered, as we denigrate and seek to escape the limits of our bodies, so we cannot bear to engage with the finite capacity of Earth. And, as we treat ourselves increasingly like machines, refusing to honour and heed the stress and breakdown of our sensitive bodies and psychologies, so we deny the feedback signals of the sentient, living Earth herself, equally stressed and breaking down under the strain of modern living, of being treated like both a machine and a huge warehouse of resources existing only to service our every unfeasible, material whim.

As we hate and conquer our inner multiplicity, so we hate and destroy the sheer biodiversity of life on the planet. In so doing, we forget that through our evolutionary journey we are her descendants; with our bodies made of the same elements as the Earth, we are expressions of her. In so doing, we dishonour what it means to be a full human being, which is to be a member of the Earth community. In our forgetting and dishonouring, roundly we attack our whole self!

This is where our fear has brought us. Small wonder that we shop and binge in myriad ways, alternately exciting, numbing and comforting ourselves in the face of our ongoing self-assault. And no wonder at all that we do equal violence to our larger body, the Earth, and the other species sharing her with us as home.

On 16th January 2008, Microsoft announced that they have developed sensory pads wired up to computers, to be placed on the skins of the people operating them. The pads’ purpose is to monitor the people’s efficiency, measuring their bodies for signs of stress and, equally, drops in concentration and breaks in work. So this also is where we have come to: human being as battery hen – both abominable! What an image for our age: humanity in service to the machine.

Why are we willing to subject ourselves to this?

Contemplating the conflicting realities of human life, our wrestling with the duality of aspiring to so much while inhabiting small, fragile bodies, I have reconnected with the image of the “iron chest” of “precious things” buried in the ground underneath the snow. The story speaks to one, central quest of human life; the desire in each of us to find the treasure, whatever form it takes. Our commercial culture may have frozen out ancient aspirations to inner wealth and no doubt this fuels our inability to feel sated and rich. Yet Jung’s explorations of the collective unconscious, “the dynamic psychic substratum, common to all humanity, on the basis of which each individual builds his or her private experience of life” (10) show that all of us have access to older, deeper and wider wisdom. However thoroughly modernity denies olden truths, there is a layer of knowing that is ever present, within us and beyond, always available to us if we turn towards it. So, I believe, it is within human nature itself to cherish our individual portions of the soul, even unconsciously. This, too, is why our minds build walls; to protect our inner riches. For their nature is itself paradoxical – resilient and delicate, perhaps like whatever is closed inside the buried iron chest. With its tiny key and almost invisible keyhole, to me that chest represents the very thing that our precious inner selves need in this age of reason, in the conditions we are creating for ourselves, our communities and the rest of life on Earth – a place of safety. Where can that be, now?

In a leap of imagination I instantly feel myself resisting, I suddenly wonder whether today it is within technology. With our physical being under such onslaught, such denigration, it seems the modern mind cannot contemplate humanity itself as a safe harbour. In the unconscious process of projection, what if we have collectively, secretly, unknowingly and imaginatively placed all that is precious of the inner life of the human being inside the hard outer boxes of our exalted computers and our machines … for safe keeping? Of course, then, we would become fascinated with our souls’ new home … of course we would engage animatedly with whatever the machines can do, exhorting them to become greater and greater, achieve more and more, craving sight of our magnificence. I can hardly bear this idea. Yet it makes a macabre sense to me. In this frame, Microsoft’s dream of human beings wired up to computers becomes an image of our linking ourselves to life support machines … More than tolerating it, we would intuit that our lives depend upon it for, unlike Mrs Coulter and her experimenters at Bolvanger, (11) we unconsciously know that we must never sever ourselves from our daemons …

It may be that the machines provide a temporary safe house; I can feel I want to allow it in. But I also shake in the immense danger of tethering ourselves to equipment which operates only in linear, either/or ways and then identifying with the sense of control it fosters. There lies the road to destruction.

“The Golden Key” provides an image of hope for this moment in time. In his need for warmth, the boy allowed himself to be called to the Earth. Herself an expression of the Cosmos and a true home of the soul from which ‘our individual portions’ derive, (12) the Earth endures, waits and calls to us, out of her yearning for reunification and to receive, once more, our adoring gaze. Could we but know it, we too yearn for reunification. And here is an essential paradox: we need to know, experience and express our unity in the Earth, in the Cosmos, and simultaneously we need to know, experience and express our separate individuality. For us, at our current stage of evolution, it is two-ness not one-ness, it is relationship between opposites, not identification, which provides the conditions for creation. In the modern era, Western culture has lost this perspective. Rather than continually endeavouring to hold these two different realities in our consciousness and bear the unbearable tension between them, we have collapsed them together, living as if we believe ourselves to be the sole unity, the only unit of value. This is not an instance of ‘the macrocosm in the microcosm’; our relinquishing of this mighty, core effort and replacing it with the pursuit of happiness and comfort is both effect and cause of an impoverished, increasingly exhausted psychological state, developed over millennia as we have profoundly struggled to find our place in the world, to come to terms with our greatness and our smallness, our very humanity. Our exhaustion can only exacerbate if we continue to seek replenishment through the seductive substitutes, including adrenalin, which we are currently creating for ourselves; in which case we will continue to impose exhaustion on the Earth’s resources.

In my view, one major question for our age lies in the iron chest’s key and in the nature of its keyhole. Rather than being a matter of one more turn in the same direction, surely, just like the circular dial on a safe it requires turning to the opposite: To embodiment! To imagination! To relating to the living Earth herself! For, could we but know it too, whilst safety and certainty of life cannot be guaranteed, there is greater safety in fully occupying and relying on the resources of our whole, human being, embedded in and in relationship with Earth’s ecology. Inside our whole being, we may withdraw our projections from technology and discover how extraordinarily rich and powerful we ordinarily are. In such a place of security, we may become open again to desiring the extraordinary richness of the rest of life also to flourish into its full power. And in that place, we may remember that the health and wellbeing of the whole supports the health and wellbeing of the individual whereas, when an either/or world view dominates a finite system, the converse is not true.

Only relationship – engagement with the other – develops our sensitivity to that other and our capacity to meet their needs as well as our own. Like many, I believe that the redemption of our age lies in our reviving the field of mutual attraction between human creature and Earth, and rooting ourselves here. For me, the iron chest provides a tiny metaphor for the Earth’s own ability to protect her treasure, of course just like ours, keeping it safe and waiting until we are ready to find it … hoping that we will eventually feel the bite of where we are – isolated in the Prince’s dark tower. Inside each of us is the being, here in the Golden Key a boy, who has always known the value of the gold he glimpsed and who holds the hope that a different, fruitful, life-sustaining relationship with ourselves, with our human communities, with the whole Earth community and indeed with technology can be birthed. For, by first listening to his freezing body and then digging with his bare hands in the snow, down into the Earth to find the treasure chest, this boy answers Nature’s call, out of her echo within him, out of his own knowing that he is “spread out over the landscape and inside things, and … living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.” …

How will we turn the key?

1 Garner, A Thursbitch (The Harvill Press 2003) pp.120-121

2 ‘The Golden Key’, in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1975)

3 Abram, D The Spell of the Sensuous (Vintage Books 1997) pp. 256-257

4 Whilst respecting that many of us choose to live differently from the dominant cultural norms I describe, I use “we” throughout to avoid a false ‘them and us’ dichotomy

5 Freud, S The Future of an Illusion (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1961) as quoted in Dunann Winter, D Ecological Psychology: Healing the Split between Planet and Self (Addison Wesley Longman 1997)

6 Freud, S New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (N.Y. W.W. Norton 1933)

7 ibid.

8 Jung, C G Memories, Dreams and Reflections (Fontana Press 1993) p.252

9 ibid., p.251

10 Stevens, A A Very Short Introduction to Jung (Oxford University Press 1994) p.22

11 Pullman, P Northern Lights (Scholastic Ltd 1998) pp. 274-275

12 For some discussion of alchemical ideas about the ‘Lumen Naturae’ see Jung, C G Collected Works 8 The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche paras 388-389 (Routledge and Kegan Paul 1969)

Sandra White works as a Jungian counsellor and an ecopsychologist and she is in preparation to become a Jungian analyst. She also offers coaching and, together with others in a range of settings, is co-creating programmes which facilitate enrichment through embodiment, imagination and relating to our living Earth. She walks regularly on Hartham Common near her home, loves to honour and celebrate the sacred in all life and was a member of the GreenSpirit Council when this was first posted.

Cosmos and Psyche

by Jean Hardy

(Reproduced by permission of GreenSpirit and the author from GreenSpirit Journal, Vol 10.1, 2008, pp 6-8)

When writing on ecopsychology one has usually, not surprisingly, started off from the person, the psyche, to try to understand the vast and intricate interconnections of universe and individual. But a different light might be thrown if we started off from some tentative consideration of Cosmos, the Universe, the Earth, and then tried to deduce something of our own nature, our psyche, as creatures in this world?

I am encouraged and stimulated to do this now, because of the vivid presentation of the earth’s story in a television series by lain Stewart called Earth: The Power of the Planet. The story starts with Impact, the violence of the universe’s formation and continuing array of projectiles ‘careering’ constantly and uncontrolled round the cosmic system for billions of years: then, moving to Gaia herself, Fire, the volcanoes and the earth’s centre, as hot as the sun: then the story moves to Air, atmosphere within above and below the earth’s surface and boundaries, then Water – ice and ocean: then the energies and forces and powerful contradictions that act and react between all these elements: and then a story of extraordinary order which underlies it all, and the unique alignment of planets that enabled life to occur on earth – shielded from meteorites by the greater magnetism of Jupiter, held in place by the moon, warmed by the sun, held to a enabling temperature for life. Perhaps we live in the only place that has all these features in the universe: we are ‘a rare earth’, as Stewart puts it.

So what could we deduce about ourselves from this stunning and energetic story about earth’s creatures over the four and a half billion years of her existence? Such an amazing variety of forms- bacteria still predominant: flowers from 65 million years ago: dinosaurs, carnivores and herbivores, worms, mammals including people, fish and whales, trees and vegetables. All grow, change and die: all are forever changing throughout their lives – are ‘temporary arrangements’ from moment to moment – all live with other organisms, so each body is a world in itself. All are related and interconnected – feeding from each other, protecting each other in communities, genetically similar. The embryos of modern humans are almost indistinguishable from those of other mammals and there is evidence that we have the remnants of reptilian as well as mammalian brains, together with human frontal lobes and the neocortex. Physically there is a continuity of being, and communication at many levels in plants and animals.

So what is that the creatures of this earth basically do in their lives? Gerard Manley Hopkins gives the most succinct answer I know in his poem As Kingfishers catch fire.. “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same…. Crying ‘what I do is me: for that I came’.”

It seems reasonable that we, in the same way as every other living being, came in order to live out our potential and our particular form of intelligence and spirit. And maybe we came to do that not only as individuals but as a collective as we are such sociable beings. Here we could find Carl Jung’s concepts of ‘collective consciousness’ and ‘collective unconscious’ as relevant. So for humans, as well as for any other social interacting being, there are always three explicit yet connected levels of being: the individual, the social/group and the cosmic.

What are the characteristics we could see in the nature of the earth, and of the universe itself, that we could take from Stewart’s presentation, or from the Universe Story, and that could be seen in us? This is almost going back to the medieval theory of correspondence – “as above, so below”. Humans have long perceived that the universe is made of patterns and energies that are repeated at different levels. The characteristics which seem to me most obvious are:- i) change and order: creation and destruction: the fundamental opposites ii) the creative, innovative energy within all things, always changing iii) the relationship of all living creatures to each other, so we are all as one, and yet so separate iv) the basic elements of earth, air, fire and water, the humours, long recognised v) the inner consciousness, the outer creative spirit, all one in most of the indigenous religions vi) light and dark vii) so, if we are lucky, a sense of the deep order and transcendent intelligence, beauty and terror of things, truly not fully imaginable to our human brains but expressed in some early religions

Walt Whitman, the poet, wrote a remarkable passage in 1882, summing up a picture of something like this perception from the point of view of the individual:-

“There is, apart from pure intellect, in the makeup of every superior human identity, a wondrous something that realises without argument, frequently without what is called education (though I think it the goal and apex of all education deserving the name), an intuition of absolute balance, in time and space, of the whole of this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and incredible makebelieve and general unsettleness, we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all histories and all time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hand of the hunter. (Of) such soul-sight and root center for the mind mere optimism explains only the surface.”

When we find a particularly articulate, fulfilled and insightful person, he or she can express something of this realisation: I am thinking of Simon Rattle, the conductor, who said in a recent radio interview this year, 126 years later than Whitman, that for him, great music is the lava flow… coming from the centre of the earth’: that for him, music is the ‘Vine of life, and words, even poetry, only the bottle, the container’: and that, for him, great joy and great grief come together, as an equal force, in much magnificent music. He added, that in becoming a conductor, he had found early “the right thing to do”: this whole interview seems to fulfil the spirit of the Hopkins poem – “for this I came”.

Our Greenspirit articles all touch upon this primary element of search in the human experience, Don and I in the realisation that the psychology we learned earlier in our educational lives was decidedly lacking in the transcendent realisation that we are one with the spirit of the cosmos, a transliminal sense as Isabel expresses it. David Abram in his introduction to Radical Ecopsychology writes “Intelligence is no longer (to be seen as) ours alone but is a property of the earth: we are in it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its own unique version of soil and leaf and sky. Each place its own mind, its own psychology.”

But we then have to remember the three distinct layers of which we are a part, touched on earlier, because to cope with our own sense of meaning, and to learn to live in some human kind of order, we have to tell ourselves stories. Indeed, we could say, we have nothing else but stories – even Western science that, because of the ‘proof of the experimental method we often regard as more true’ than any others. We therefore have political, religious, scientific, spiritual social stories, and these too are deeply contained within our individual psyches, often as profound as those arising from our personal experiences. For instance, in some sense, we all have an experience of war, even if we have never directly experienced it, from the collective consciousness from seeing and reading the daily News – and also from collective unconscious material we may carry from our family and cultural history.

I am a sociologist, and remember from my very first class at University the anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s phrase that “no-one ever looks at the world with pristine eyes”.

This would apply to living beings of any species who all carry, as David Abram writes, their own particular version of biological and psychological reality. The ‘reality’ that we perceive is essentially tied to who and what we are – be we hare or eagle, twenty-first century city dweller or Indian villager, male or female.

And also it is clear that everything is constantly changing, the cells of our bodies, the coves around the coast, the social and cultural worlds humans create. We feel some stability in ourselves and in the earth that seems real because we live such brief lives: and we are all part of the overall creativity where order, beauty and destruction flow. All the new knowledge constantly made available to us brings an open-mouthed astonishment: could it really be true that our planet had a twin which we have named Theia’, which collided with the nascent Earth, and created the Moon 4.5 billion years ago? And how can we relate to the physical change in our bodies through aging, as I know that the child I once was is both a very different person from the adult I am today – and yet there is a consciousness, a memory, an observer, a spirit within that feels somehow deeply connected.

The ambitious scheme of ecopsychology is trying to relate the individual, social and cosmic levels of human experience. A tough job, particularly because for the last four hundred years we have increasingly lived in a contradictory framework. As Tarnas puts it, for the Western world, “our spiritual being, our psychology, is contradicted by our cosmology” (p.31). People alert to the issue of meaning in today’s modern world find themselves against the grain of the twenty-first century main thrust of capitalism, the earth being seen as property, species other than human largely regarded with indifference except as human recourses, and the universe being seen as exploitable and quantified.

The hope is that if we could truly face our twenty-first century situation as a species, as an individual is encouraged to do in personal therapy to name, work through and get rid of some of the rubbish and cherish the growing points. Those points may be synonymous with that ‘wondrous something’ mentioned by Whitman, aligned to the spirit within and without, the identical spirit within each, Atman and Brahman. Then maybe we could understand more of why we are here. Maybe we could understand the hunter’ who holds Whitman’s leash a little more from within ourselves.

D.H.Lawrence has as usual a pointed, if sexist comment on all of this. In Reflections on the Death of the Porcupine, he write: “Man, as yet, is less than half grown. Even his flower-stem has not appeared yet. He is all leaves and roots, without any clue put forth. No sign of a bud anywhere……

Blossoming means the establishment of a pure, new relationship with the cosmos. This is the state of heaven. And it is a state of a flower, a cobra, a jenny-wren in spring, a man who knows himself royal and crowned with the sun, with his feet gripping the core of the earth.”

Maybe nearly 80 years after Lawrence’s death, we might discern the beginnings of a bud and a trace of its colour.


•           Iain Stewart & John Lynch. Earth: the Power of the Planet. (BBC Books 2008). Accompaniment to DVD of the same name.

•           Walt Whitman. Specimen Days (1882): Carlyle from American points of view. (http://www.bartleby.com/229/1223.h tml).

•           Interview with Sir Simon Rattle on Desert Island Discs January 2008. BBC Radio 4.

•           Isabel Clarke: The New Human Story (Greenspirit. Spring 2004) Jean Hardy: Who are we? ( Greenspirit. Summer 2004)

•           Don Hills: Getting in to it: the lure of ecopsychology. (Greenspirit: Winter 2005)

•           Andy Fisher. Foreword by David Abram. Radical Ecopsychology (State University of New York 2002).

•           Richard Tarnas. Cosmos and Psyche (Viking, Penguin, 2006).

•           Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poems.

•           D.H.Lawrence. Reflections on the death of a porcupine and other essays (CUP, 1988).


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–

Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

~Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1889