This reading is from Beyond Environment: falling back in love with Mother Earth, Jo Confino interviews Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh
"You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment.
"In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.
"Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we need the right view that transcends all notions including [those] of being and non-being, creator and creature, mind and spirit. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing.
"Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the center and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing.
"So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realize you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree, not to pollute the water, that is not enough."
Earth Day is coming up—April 22nd. What will you be doing to honor our Mother Earth on this day? What do you do routinely to honor the Earth? This year the theme is Climate Action. It says on the Earth Day . org website: “The enormous challenge — but also the vast opportunities — of action on climate change have distinguished the issue as the most pressing topic for the 50th anniversary [of Earth Day]. Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.” Pretty powerful language being used, isn’t it. What will it take for us humans to consistently and with communal intention effectively mitigate climate change?
I didn’t attend or pay attention to the first Earth Day. I would have been 11 and attending 6th grade, I think. What I do remember is that after that first Earth Day, people started taking care of the planet, I mean regular people, in social situations. I remember recycling programs starting up that people at my school actually used. However, in Texas, where I lived much of my life, there was no curb-side programs for recycling at the time. I was finally able to participate in curb-side recycling about 11 years ago in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Certainly, more cities are offering curb-side recycling, but so much of our trash is still dumped in the oceans and I’m probably not the only person who has a sneaking suspicion about what really happens to my recycling once the truck picks it up.
In the 70’s I noticed the ebbs and flows of various groups marketing our need to care for our planet with cartoons like Captain Planet and commercials with crying Indigenous people. I do remember talking about the EPA—Environmental Protection Agency-- when I was a young adult, because there were so many toxic sites and polluted waterways. An entire neighborhood was torn down near my childhood home because the soil under all the houses was so polluted that people were getting sick. Heck the first church I served was in Beaumont, Texas, Spindletop Unitarian Church, was down the street from the toxic site that was created by the first oil well in Texas in 1901—Spindletop. Little had been done to mitigate the toxicity of that site nearly 120 year later.
In Cedar Rapids, I attended an Earth Day celebration, with booths about composting, what to do with batteries and Styrofoam, cleaning water ways, and lots of giant blow-up plastic earths. The celebration motivated me to get involved or do something to care for this planet that supports our lives. And yet I have wondered time and time again over these 50 years, why are we not doing more to care for our planet?
The thing Earth Day did was to focus people’s attention on planet Earth and what we humans are doing to it. Rational logical scientific arguments were made to change our habits and our consumption. However, as you know, over time, economic greed, oil and gas companies for example, twisted the narrative, convincing people that humans are not damaging the planet through burning fossil fuels, that there is no climate crisis. And some governmental officials as of late have tried to reduce the powers of the EPA to manage the damage we are doing to the planet. And, as we all know, as scientists have tried to tell us, the planet is heating up and this heating up will cause life to change, and not for the better, on planet Earth. In addition, the plastics we created are not decomposing, but becoming microscopic particles and getting into our food supply. And well, there is overfishing, deforestation, and hunting animals to extinction.
Most of us have heard about these things for much of our lives. Some of us have made efforts to make a difference, by recycling before it was curbside, by being mindful about how we recycle materials like batteries and dispose of Styrofoam. By lobbying state and federal official for green jobs, putting solar panels on our roofs and the roofs of our churches, joining CSA’s (Community Sponsored Agriculture) so that we support local farmers and get our produce from them. But I wonder, do many of us still think of our planet as separate from us, a thing to be used, an economic entity for our benefit. Are we ready to think of ourselves as part of planet Earth? Not just on it, but of it?
And as I wonder about all this, I started reading some Faith-based statements on climate change that were written about 9 or ten years ago. An article on the numerous Bahai writings on Climate Chang focused on the need for humans to get over the antagonism between science and religion. They encouraged people to “question the dominant materialistic society and consumer culture, [while] emphasizing the necessary balance of the material and spiritual dimensions of human life…[and] explor[ing] the spiritual principles upon which any solution to the climate change problem. [must rest].” They go on to advocate that society must face, reflect on, and take community action on climate change. The Bahai belief is that science is not motivating people to change, and that religion must step in to help motivate people to do better in caring for the planet. They also ask how science and religion can work together to motivate action toward sustainability, earth justice, and human equity.
20 Buddhist teachers contributed to the book A Buddhist Response to Climate Change. The focus of the book is on motivating humans to move toward “an economy that provides a satisfactory standard of living for everyone while allowing us to develop our full potential [mentally, emotionally, spiritually] in harmony with the biosphere that sustains and nurtures all beings, including future generations .. [and advocating] the need to put the long-term goal of humankind above the short-term benefit of fossil-fuel corporations.” They, too, support “campaigns of citizen action.”
And Unitarian Universalists have put forward platforms for climate action. Here is one UUA statement: “Life on earth will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet.” Our stated commitment in support of earth ministries is embraced in our Seventh Principle, to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Many Unitarain Universalists envision “a world where all people are assured a secure and meaningful life that is ecologically responsible and sustainable, in which every form of life has intrinsic value.”
What were your thoughts as I presented some of these ideas from religious traditions? There are traditions that I didn’t mention, not because they don’t hold similar concerns, but because they all share similar positions—Hindus, Christians of all sects, Doaists, Jews all have written statements on the importance of dealing with climate change. And all are advocating action. (Faith-Based Statements on Climate-Change, a collection by Citizens’ Climate Lobby Volunteers).
Who does this year’s Earth Day theme of Climate Action call you to do? Call us to do as a faith community?
As some of you know part of my spiritual journey has been through panentheism, affirming and exploring the divine in all things. This has led me to hold in the front of my mind, my connection with all creation. And to treat all creation as if it were an aspect of the divine—with respect, reverence, compassion, concern. This has motivated me in my efforts to save our mother earth. Lobbying for green jobs and to stop oil pipelines and the practice of topping mountains for minerals, as well as recycling and being more conscious of the amount of and type of energy I use to support my habits—like driving, using air conditioning, computers, lights, and of course getting the foods I like to have. I try to be conscious of how I use the resources of this planet, but I wonder am I really thinking of myself as part of Mother Earth when I make decisions. There’s no question that I think of myself as on this planet, but I’m not so sure I’ve though of myself as part of the planet, as an extension of the planet.
When I breathe in, am I aware of my body enough to look deeply into it and realize I am the Earth and my consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Am I ready to see that mother earth is more than a resource? Can I? I have not been raised to think this way. Like so many others, I was raised in a faith that preached a message of dominionism, that humans were given dominion over the earth. Even if I overcome that cradle teaching, I am constantly inundated with consumerism, materialism, getting more, better, the next version of whatever.
Recently I have been reading “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her work really speaks to me about a relationship with Mother Earth that I aspire to. How she sees the world is both real, here and now, and mysterious and wonderful. This is something I have been looking for. She writes:
“In a way, I was raised by strawberries, fields of them. Not to exclude the maples, hemlocks, white pines, goldenrods, asters, violets, and mosses of upstate New York, but it was the wild strawberries, beneath dewy leaves on an almost-summer morning, who gave me my sense of the world, my place in it…You could smell the ripe strawberries before you saw them, the fragrance mingling with the smell of sun on the damp ground….Even now, after more than fifty Strawberry Moons, finding a patch of wild strawberries still touches me with a sensation of surprise, a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude for generosity and kindness that comes from an unexpected gift all wrapped up in red and green. “Really? For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have.” After fifty years they still raise the question of how to respond to their generosity…Strawberries first shaped my view of a world of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery—as with random acts of kindness we do not know their source.”
I want to see the world the way she does. Feeling the connection with creation, learning from my experiences with nature’s tasty fruit and having my first thought be “this is a gift given to me by the planet that birthed me, sustains me, that I am part of. Life is a gift and I am grateful for it” Could this be my daily prayer? Or my nightly meditation before bed as I reflect on all the experiences earth has given me that day? This thought, prayer or meditation embraces gratitude, not necessarily to a divine being, but to the amazing process that created all life on this planet. A process I ponder and can’t completely comprehend. I want to be more open-eyed and present with my mother earth. To approach this planet with humility and mystery. But that is not all. I, all of us, need to find the spark, the burning ember that will maintain our motivation to protect and help our planet earth.
At the end of her book, Robin suggests a burning ember to enflame and maintain our motivation. She calls it a moral covenant of reciprocity with the earth. She writes: “The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibility for all we have been given, for all that we have taken. It’s our turn now, long overdue. Let us hold a giveaway for Mother Earth, spread our blankets out for her and pile them high with gifts of our making. Imagine the books, the poems, the clever machines, the compassionate acts, the transcendent ideas, the perfect tools…Gifts of mind, hands, heart, voice, and vision all offered up on the behalf of the earth. Whatever our gift, we are called to give it and to dance for the renewal of the world. In return for the privilege of breath.”
Can you imagine, my friends, a ritual that you might perform in your own homes, a giveaway, for Mother Earth? Imagine putting down a blanket in your living room or better yet, outside on the grass, placing your gifts to planet earth, then dancing in joy for the many miracles that resulted in life on this planet, and ending with a prayer of gratitude for the privilege of breath. This makes so much sense in my soul and my heart. Perhaps if we each found our own way to honor Mother Earth’s many gifts to us, perhaps Earth Day would look a little different, mean a little more, motivate us to more action.