This past summer I got over my nature-deficit disorder.
As I have been sharing here on State of Formation, my time serving as an apprentice in communities at the forefront of the eco-theological and eco-justice revolutions, such as Bluestone Farm of the Community of the Holy Spirit, The Green Wheeling Initiative, and the Teaching Garden at The Small Farm Training Center, has helped me to really put my hands and heart into the soil of the yoga of ecology. It is not conjecture to say that our existential ecological crisis, a crisis which envelops and involves every living being on the planet, is the great spiritual injustice of our time. Our ecological crisis is an injustice intimately related to every other form of injustice. It is a break of harmony which resonates through all facets of our community and our civilization.
I have been telling friends, family, and fellow peoples of faith that my experience as a student at Union Theological Seminary, coming after five years of monastic practice and study in the Gaudiya Vaisnava, or bhakti-yoga, strand of the Hindu tradition, has helped me to discern a calling as an eco-theologian. To put it more succinctly, I’ve gone to seminary and decided the most radical spiritual thing I can do is to become a farmer. I want to follow the Wendell Berry model: a citizen of the soil, a tiller of wholesome and natural bounties, with the faculty to poetically, courageously, and clearly communicate the importance of proper dominion to average folk and academics alike.
In this discernment I have become more convinced than ever that we must have a spiritual foundation if we are to restore a proper connection with the planet. I do not believe that ecological activism can truly reach its potential unless it is related to the many-faceted reality of the Divine, a reality which draws us beyond ourselves and which helps us to clear the dust out of our heart. This dust is the internal pollution which is the root-cause of our external pollution, the envy, pride, greed, and selfishness which disconnects us from our Mother Earth. When I say that we need a yoga of ecology, it is with the essential understanding of the concept of yoga, as practices and philosophies which connect us to the transcendence of the Divine which both stands beyond yet are wholly within our reality.
All of the communities I spent time in this summer are creating a yoga of ecology in their life with the land. Their worship, their faith, their meditation, and their connection with the Divine is not just shuttered away in the chapel. The dirt in their fingernails, the rainbow-colored harvests of chard, squash, potatoes, and tomatoes, and the fresh raw milk from the happy protected cows are as divinely empowered and enlightening in these communities as any traditional religious symbol. One could easily argue that the harvest of the earth, and the hands of the tiller bringing that harvest into being in harmony with the transcendent laws of creation, is the original spirituality. It is a spirituality that the health and well-being of our communities and civilization depends on.
I understand that it is a controversial, provocative, and confrontational thing to say that our ecological movement must have a spiritual foundation. I don’t want to dishonor the incredible work and activism of many folks across the globe in relation to the restoration of our ecology who may not feel that they can be, or want to be, defined as people of faith. I can understand their reticence in combining ecology and theology, in preventing any kind of fundamentalism from putting a borderline around the radiant array of the processes and substances of life. I am not suggesting that any one religion or any one conception of God should have a monopoly on our ecological movement, but unless we have a spiritual rubric which compels us to confront our inner pollution, we will never be truly effective in cleaning up our external pollution.
The spiritual rubric of the Vaisnava tradition, in which the value of loving devotion to the personality of the Divine and to the personality of all living beings is primary, is one such foundation which inherently creates ecologically-sound community. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna explains that one who has spiritual vision, whose eyes have been anointed with the salve of loving devotion to God and to all beings, inherently sees every being on a deep level of equality:
The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and one who is outcast. (5.19)
Devotion is a value which puts a limit on our greed and our pride, and which opens us up to the unlimited potentials of a harmonious relation to our planet based in mutuality, selflessness, and love. A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who brought the Vaisnava tradition to the West, understood the promise of devotion in creating ecologically-sound community. From the very beginning of his mission, he encouraged his willing students to grow their own food, to use ox-power for tilling of the land, and to detach themselves as much as possible from the unnecessary necessities of modern urban life. He turned on a Gandhian phrase: “Simple Living, High Thinking”, knowing that simple life in harmony with the planet created the best opportunity for self-realization. Many decades later, such Vaisnava communities as Krishna Valley in Hungary, the International Society for Cow Protection, and the Gita Nagari Yoga Farm in Pennsylvania continue to answer Swami Prabhupada’s call in presenting vibrant living examples of the yoga of ecology.
These communities at the forefront of eco-theology and eco-justice are what noted eco-theologian Larry Rasmussen describes in his most recent book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key as the anticipatory community. The anticipatory community is a community with deep spiritual foundations who in their contemporary lifestyles and practices are anticipating the transition from our unsustainable fossil-fuel civilization to the more ecologically-sound model we all hope will follow. The anticipatory community can be a farm, a temple, a church, an ashram, a convent (and all the New Monastic models of these communities), and is sometimes all of these things wrapped into one. The anticipatory community is the radical space where we re-create how we want to live with each other, with our planet, and with the Divine. They are, as Rasmussen writes:
“…home spaces where it is possible to re-imagine worlds and re-order possibilities, places where new or renewed practices give focus to an ecological and post-industrial way of life. Such communities have the qualities of a haven, a set-apart and safe place yet a place open to creative risk. Here basic moral formation happens by conscious choice and not by default…Here eco-social virtues are consciously cultivated and embodied in community practices. Here the fault lines of modernity are exposed.”
No doubt the shape of our existential ecological crisis is a frightening, disheartening, and even nihilistic confrontation on our lives and on our conscience. Yet I find great hope, solace, and comfort in participating in the anticipatory community and in creating a yoga of ecology. It is a most tremendous opportunity to return to something we have lost, to remember what we have previously known, and to live and love in the way we are truly meant to.