Ecopsychology: Finding Our Home in the Earth

The human species has only one home in the cosmos, one place that has intimately nourished us into existence, has made us the powerful, independent beings we are. Our home is day by day falling further into illness, a body and soul sickness descending toward death that can be felt by each person with the sensitivity or openness to perceive it. The planet Earth is suffering and, often without awareness of the connection, her inhabitants suffer with her. Humanity needs to awaken to the intimate interconnection and dependence of the collective psyche of the Earth, or the anima mundi, of which each of our psyches are an integral part. Together the Earth and humanity need to heal, and simultaneously move towards a wholeness in which we each have the sense of security of truly being home in our world.

The healing that must take place begins on the individual level, but can only be true healing when placed within the context of the whole. An approach to this healing that has been emerging over the last few decades is the field of ecopsychology, a psychology of the human soul taken within the context of the anima mundi, the larger ensouled world. The term “ecopsychology” was coined by the cultural historian Theodore Roszak to broaden the context of psychology and marry it to the study of ecology. The root eco is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning “home,” and psyche comes from the Greek for “soul” or “animating spirit”; thus ecopsychology could be seen as a study of the ensouled home, or the study of the soul at home.

The modern West, inheriting the Cartesian dualism of a split between spirit and matter, has come to see the human being as an isolated island of subjectivity experiencing a soulless, inanimate world. As humanity has become increasingly individualistic during the modern era, our sense of alienation from the Earth, and ultimately the cosmos, has increased as well.[1] “An existential uncertainty haunts the modern psyche,”[2] as the ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak writes, as a result of this alienation and sense of homelessness. For the modern human, the environment is considered to be “out there,”[3] the “background for economic purposes”[4] from which we are almost completely dissociated.[5] At most, the world may cause profound suffering for the human, but it does not suffer itself, for it has no inherent subjectivity.[6]

For the millions of humans who spend the majority of their lives within the concrete confines of cities, this dissociation from the natural world deprives the soul of an essential contact that makes the human being whole and healthy.[7] Yet merely leaving the urban setting to visit a protected wilderness is not enough to heal the afflicted soul, for the Earth itself carries the sickness of the disconnection and, as the “geologian” Thomas Berry writes, “… the health of the planet is primary while human health is derivative. We cannot have well people on a sick planet.”[8] The disease, as the archetypal psychologist James Hillman observes, is in both the person and the world.[9] The suffering Earth is speaking her pain through us, and as Sarah Conn has perceived, she “speaks the loudest through the most sensitive of us.”[10]

In most contemporary psychology, an individual experiencing “pain for the world” is considered to be projecting their inner turmoil onto the inanimate environment outside.[11] Any desire to connect in a more meaningful way with the Earth, such as speaking in conversation with the voices of nature, could indicate a certain instability of sanity in the individual. Roszak points out that little has furthered the agenda of industrial civilization more than the repression of the ensouled animation of the cosmos .[12]

The human relationship to the Earth in the West has become deeply riddled with pathologies as we almost blindly continue the unchecked destruction of our only home. The psychotherapist Ralph Metzner identifies some of humanity’s collective psychological disorders in his book Green Psychology, ranging from autism, to addiction, narcissism, amnesia, developmental fixation, repression, dissociation, and anthropocentrism. We have lost our ability for empathy and humility, our perception, and our sense of mystery.[13] Hillman extends the vision of collective pathologies beyond the human sphere entirely, recognizing our psychological diseases manifesting in the world itself, in our food, our politics, our medicine, and even our language.[14] He writes of “addictive” agriculture, “paranoid” businesses, “anorexic” or “catatonic” buildings, and “manic” consumption.[15] Because, in some form or other, all people in industrial society participate in this pathological system, we become prone to these same diseases for the very reason these pathologies try to repress: we are intimately interconnected with every part of the world we inhabit. Conn, a practicing ecopsychologist, sees the symptoms of her patients “as ‘signals’ of distress in our connection with the larger context or as a defect in the larger context itself.”[16] Whether we can identify the source or not, as the environmental activist Joanna Macy expresses, no one is exempt from this pain.[17] For those who can understand the source of their pain, of their pathology, the ability to fully act on behalf of the Earth has often been so long denied it must be aroused by deep healing work, a profound therapy of the psyche.[18]

In a personal correspondence to Roszak, the Australian rainforest activist John Seed speaks of the role therapy can play in the environmental movement: “Psychologists in service to the Earth helping ecologists to gain deeper understanding of how to facilitate profound change in the human heart and mind seems to be the key at this point.”[19] Until quite recently, the scope of psychotherapy “stopped at the city limits,”[20] but with the advent of ecopsychology, and other forms of reconnection between humanity and the Earth, as put forward by Roszak, Hillman, Berry, Macy, Conn, Metzner, and many others, that scope is at last broadening.[21] Ecopsychology addresses the alienation felt by the modern human, and seeks to repair the sense of homelessness in the cosmos.[22]

In assessing the pathological relationship modern humanity has with nature, Metzner questions whether some collective trauma, sustained from the terrors faced by early humans in the natural world, may have led to a form of shared amnesia and repression that severed our perception of the interconnection and harmony of the cosmos.[23] If so, our healing process will have to address this trauma and begin to rebuild a new trust in the Earth. Like early humans we are still fully dependent on the Earth, but we hold far more power than primal peoples once did; with this power comes equal responsibility, for now not only is our survival dependent on the Earth, but the Earth’s survival has also become dependent upon us. One will not continue without the other, and as Berry describes, this “…is a community project. Only the community survives; nothing survives as an individual.”[24]

A prevalent belief in Western civilization is that to address the needs beyond our individual selves we must first have our own lives together.[25] Yet, because of the deep, though often veiled, interconnection of the human to the Earth, healing of the human and the planet must take place simultaneously.[26] There cannot be a divorce between the two, for they are really one. Healing, as Conn writes, is “an exploration of ways to remember our wholeness, to reconnect with other humans and with the natural world.”[27] We are not separate entities living on the Earth, but as the ecophilosopher David Abram observes, we are actually living in the Earth, walking hundreds of miles below the outer layers of the atmosphere.[28] Our bodies our composed of the same elements as the Earth, the same as the entire cosmos. “We were mothered out of the substance of this planet,” Roszak writes, “Her elements, her periodicities, her gravitational embrace, her subtle vibrations still mingle in our nature, worked a billion years down into the textures of life and mind.”[29]

If we are composed of the substance of the Earth, then not only our bodies but our psyches as well must be one with the Earth’s; we are differentiated souls forming and participating in one larger soul, the anima mundi.[30] Our minds, rather than being solely our own, are rather facets of the consciousness of the planet, “…a power,” as Abram writes, “in which we are carnally immersed.”[31] Conn discusses Arthur Koestler’s term “holon,” which indicates a self which is simultaneously a real individual but also an integral part of a larger whole.[32] Each human psyche is a holon within the greater context of the anima mundi.

Hillman, the champion of soul and the anima mundi, sees the world soul as pervading all things, not only the natural world but each human-made object as well, animating trees, rivers, mountains, lions, and butterflies, but also the concrete roads, street lamps, bridges, buildings, and books and pencils too.[33] We are forever caught in a dance of animating each other, human projecting upon the world, the world projecting upon the human, and also the world projecting upon all other facets of itself.[34] Because of this living interplay we are able to perceive the Earth’s suffering within ourselves, feeling it as our own, because it is our own. Hillman recognizes that “the soul of the individual can never advance beyond the soul of the world, because they are inseparable, the one always implicating the other.”[35]

As humanity broadens its sense of self to encompass the Earth, our care for self will extend to the planet as well.[36] If we approach Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, as a part of the larger anima mundi, we can begin to uncover what Roszak calls the “ecological unconscious.”[37] The ecological unconscious can “be drawn upon as a resource for restoring us to environmental harmony.”[38] This can lead to the development of what Arne Naess has named the “ecological self,” a conception of the individual self always identified with and embedded in the larger context of the Earth environment.[39]

One way to develop the ecological self and tap into the ecological unconscious is through the ecopsychological practice of bioregionalism.[40] A bioregion is an area of land defined not by human boundaries but by the contours and features of the land itself, often a watershed, land enclosed by bodies of water, or changes in climate or elevation. By coming to intimately know the features of the bioregion in which we each make our home, we can develop a sense of place and belonging, a connection to the spirit of the land which is the spirit in us as well.[41] If we acquaint ourselves with the soul of the land, we can come to know the anima mundi and thus come to know ourselves.[42] Hillman writes, “We pay respect to it simply by looking again, re-specting, that second look with the eye of the heart.”[43]

Part of the process of ecopsychology is actively engaging with the land, engaging with respect, or looking again to see what we could not previously. Conn describes some of the ways in which we can engage, from gardening and restoration work, to participating with environmental groups, to conducting rituals in nature.[44] Each of these practices connects us to our bioregion, rebuilding a sense of home and harmony. Conn concludes her essay “When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?” by saying:

The goals of therapy then include not only the ability to find joy in the world, but also to hear the Earth speaking in one’s own suffering, to participate in and contribute to the healing of the planet by finding one’s niche in the Earth’s living system and occupying it actively.[45]

The entire universe is connected as one in the beginning of time, to the moment the cosmos flared forth. Those ties still remain, often hidden, waiting to be uncovered through patient healing work. As they are uncovered, humanity can see that to heal ourselves is to heal the Earth and to heal the Earth is to heal ourselves.[46] Thus, together the planet and the human species will both be able to move toward wholeness, to see ourselves as integral holons in a larger sphere. We can once again come to realize we were always at home, in ourselves, in the Earth, in the cosmos.

Works Cited

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.

–––––. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

–––––. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Hillman, James. The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc., 2007.

Metzner. Ralph. Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999.

Roszak, Theodore, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, ed. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995.

Roszak, Theodore. Person/Planet. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1979.

Spretnak, Charlene. The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999.


[1] Charlene Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 222.

[2] Ibid, 221.

[3] Sarah A. Conn, “When the Earth Hurts, Who Responds?” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 157.

[4] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 22.

[5] Ralph Metzner, Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), 95.

[6] James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2007), 94.

[7] Berry, The Great Work, 82.

[8] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 35.

[9] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 93.

[10] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 171.

[11] Ibid, 161.

[12] Theodore Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 7.

[13] Metzner, Green Psychology, 91.

[14] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 96.

[15] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 104.

[16] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 162.

[17] Joanna Macy, “Working Through Environmental Despair” in Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind ed. Theodore Roszak et al. (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995), 241.

[18] Ibid, 243.

[19] John Seed, qtd. in Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 3.

[20] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 2.

[21] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 3-4.

[22] Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real, 76.

[23] Metzner, Green Psychology, 92.

[24] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 47.

[25] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 161.

[26] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 118.

[27] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 160-161.

[28] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 99.

[29] Theodore Roszak, Person/Planet (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1979), 54.

[30] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 5, 16.

Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real, 76.

[31] Abram, Becoming Animal, 123.

[32] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 164.

[33] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 101.

[34] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 103.

[35] Ibid, 105.

[36] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 164.

[37] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 11-12.

[38] Ibid, 14.

[39] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 163.

[40] Metzner, Green Psychology, 185.

[41] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 166.

[42] Metzner, Green Psychology, 189.

[43] Hillman, The Thought of the Heart, 129.

[44] Conn, “When the Earth Hurts,” 170.

[45] Ibid, 171.

[46] Roszak, “Where Psyche Meets Gaia,” 8.

Morality and the Muse

What is the relationship between artistic creativity and morality? Plato sought to ban the poets from his ideal civilization because he felt poetry was a mere imitation of good and evil, and could negatively influence the morality of the masses. Two thousand years later, Percy Shelley argued that poets create the moral condition of the world by igniting empathy through their imaginative works. Yet the moral condition of the artists themselves remains relatively unaddressed by Shelley. History has shown that artists have not always been exemplars of the good in their personal lives, and that service to the creative muse often undermines their moral standing. If the ethical influence of art is so powerful, what does this mean for the moral condition for the world? Do the immoral digressions of some artists outweigh or negate the good influence of their works? Or is the world ultimately a better place because of the moral sacrifices of our great artists?

In Book X of the Republic Plato argues, through the voice of Socrates, that poets ought to be excluded from his ideal state because of the immoral effect poetry has upon its audience.[1] Plato writes that the poet does not create, but simply imitates, “though in every case he does not know in what way the thing is bad or good,”[2] he merely represents life in all its distortions. Those who hear this imitative poetry are at risk of being swayed by it, potentially leading to their ethical demise. As the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch writes in a discussion of Plato’s Republic, “…when artists imitate what is bad they are adding to the sum of badness in the world; and it is easier to copy a bad man than a good man.”[3] Yet, whether the poet is representing good or ill, because their work is merely imitation, for Plato it is not truth, and only truth can convey ethics to others.

Plato refers to the greatest poet of the Hellenic world, the man whose epic works still influence the minds of the young and impressionable to this day, to fuel his argument against poetry: Homer. In the voice of Socrates he asks, “…is Homer reported while he lived to have been a guide in education to men who…transmitted to posterity a certain Homeric way of life…?”[4] In response, Socrates’ companion replies no, Homer was neglected in his lifetime, which leads Plato to conclude that this was because Homer merely possessed “the art of imitation” and not “real knowledge.”[5] For Plato it is only real knowledge, or truth, that can inspire one to be morally good.

Yet, today the name of Homer still prospers, and his works, but not his way of life, have indeed entered into posterity. In rapt admiration, Percy Shelley writes in A Defense of Poetry, “Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses were awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses.”[6] For Shelley, the moral character of those who read Homer and the other great poets are shaped by these verses. However, what is key here is that it was not Homer’s way of life, as Plato pointed out, that descended to those who still experience his poetry, but the characters in his art that gained immortality.

What happens within the poet, or any other kind of artist, while in the process of artistic creation? I myself am an artist, and when fully engaged in an artistic project certain aspects of my ethical character begin to fall by the wayside. When caught in an inspired frenzy the external world falls away: I do not nourish my body in the way it deserves, I cut myself off from intimate contact with friends and family. If distracted I can become harsh and irritable. For the time being, every part of myself becomes devoted to completing the work at hand. However, I know the potential depravity of my own patterns are minor in comparison with the twisted roads some artists may descend in pursuit of creative inspiration.

Over the centuries, many artists have become ensnared in the Faustian bargain of creativity. Whether it is an adulterous affair with the woman or man who seems to be one’s muse, or the enticing song of opium, the curling tongue of absinthe, the inspirational voice of heroin, cocaine, liquor, or even the sweet melody of tobacco as one cigarette follows the next and words flow with every inhale. In comparison with its begetter, the piece of art that is born so often is an angel in the dark forest, which draws admirers the world over, and like those of whom Shelley writes, are “awakened to an ambition of becoming like”[7] the art they behold.

The artist is beholden to the muse of inspiration, or as Murdoch writes, “a kind of divine or holy madness from which we may receive great blessings.”[8] One cannot will creativity to arise, but must coax it forth. Shelley writes exquisitely that

the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.[9]

The muse is fickle, and indeed both divine and mad. She needs to be nourished, which may easily lead to the moral demise of the artist.

Who is this vital inspiration? Poets have given her many names over the millennia, but the Greeks once worshipped her as Mnemosyne, or Mneia, whose names mean recollection, the first Muse of artistic inspiration. Her three daughters are Melete, Mneme, and Aoide, known also as contemplation, memory, and song. Later in Greek mythology the number of Muses increased to nine, one for each of the arts practiced in the ancient Hellenic world.[10] These “mothers of the singers”[11] were hailed by Homer, Virgil, and Dante, each in the opening lines of their epic masterpieces.

Jean Gebser, in his The Ever-Present Origin, writes of the Muse and the Siren as two poles of the poet’s soul, one giving inspiration, the other beckoning to death.[12] The word Muse, which means “ponderess” and gives us the word “to muse” in English, enters the German language as the two words Musse and Müssen. While Musse means “to contemplate,” Müssen means “must” or “compulsion.”[13] It is this tightrope between the two, the contemplative Muse and the compulsive Siren, that the artist walks on the path of creation, needing both to impel herself forward, each step as uncertain as the next word or brushstroke.

It is the nobility of the art potentially inspired by such a muse that makes the world’s great artists worthy of the high praise which Shelley and others bestow upon them. Shelley writes of the forgotten flaws of these artists: “Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins ‘were as scarlet, they are now white as snow;’ they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time.”[14] For although, as Murdoch writes, these artists are motivated by a “divine or holy madness,” [15] it is the divine source of their mad inspiration that redeems them. Something beyond the human is working through the artist, a sacred source, a holy muse, and it is this spark of divinity that generates the shining moral character of the final work of art.

For Shelley the imagination is the “great instrument of moral good”[16] because it allows one to feel empathy for another. The most powerful art and poetry can allow the person experiencing it to wholly place herself in the experience of another, and through her imagination to empathize fully with that other. The emotional experience of empathy, as the philosopher Jacob Needleman writes, is “that which moves us to physical action or to the act of human speech or to the real wish to love and serve or to partake in the great struggle for what is objectively good and right and just.”[17] It is the empathic connection between the observer and the art which leads to moral action, not the inclusion of morality itself within the work of art. Shelley felt that a poet should not include his own conception or ethics in his art because these would be bound to the time and place in which he lived, and would therefore not have the desired moral effect upon later generations.[18] For example, although Tolstoy accused Shakespeare of a “lack of moral clarity,”[19] it is the fullness of his characters in their goodness or their evil that allows his audience to completely empathize with the struggles of the protagonists and antagonists alike. Shakespeare allows his audience to work out for themselves, in their own internal moral struggles, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good from what they see genuinely represented before them.

Socrates said that we can only become virtuous when we know what virtue is.[20] Such virtue we learn from the example of others before us, by empathically experiencing the stories of those who once lived. We become porous to such stories through engaging the voices of art, which can bind to our emotions and allow us to fully feel what others have felt. Plato understood the powerful effect of art and poetry, for although he banned it, he banned it in his own poetic voice that has endured through the ages.

Needleman defines a human being as “the being who yearns to love,”[21] and love, as Shelley writes, is the “great secret of morals.”[22] Love is the ingredient which allows us to open ourselves enough to empathically engage with others, to wholly understand what another feels and experiences. Yet love is not a physical object which can be passed from generation to generation; instead it must be portrayed ever and again by those who can trace its ideal form: beauty. As Murdoch writes, the enjoyment of beauty is the mark of a moral soul,[23] and in the words of Needleman, “…evil simply cannot be contained in the same mind that contemplates… beauty.”[24] Therefore, the artists who are able to depict beauty, in all its dimensions, are able to bestow an understanding of morality beyond what even they may be able to entirely comprehend.

Shelley, in language beyond eloquence, captures the gift the world’s great artists have given us:

…it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.[25]

It is the world’s great artists who have shaped the moral codes by which we live, even if their own lives as individuals were as morally ambiguous as any of our own. For working through them was something greater than the mere human: their art is a mingling of human and divine, which sends ripples of truth out through cultures and epochs, shaping the lives of all who encounter their works.

Works Cited

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Translated by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Edited by Peter Conradi. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999.

Needleman, Jacob. Why Can’t We Be Good? New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Plato, Republic. In The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, 575-844. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Harvard Classics 27. (2001): Accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html.


[1] Plato, Republic, in The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 820.

[2] Ibid, 827.

[3] Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, ed. Peter Conradi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999), 390-391.

[4] Plato, Republic, 825.

[5] Ibid, 825.

[6] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, in Harvard Classics 27. (2001): accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html, paragraph 12.

[7] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 12.

[8] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[9] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 39.

[10] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 318.

[11] Ibid, 317.

[12] Ibid, 208.

[13] Ibid, 317.

[14] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 43.

[15] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[16] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[17] Jacob Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good? (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008), 89.

[18] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[19] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 400.

[20] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 36.

[21] Ibid, 264.

[22] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[23] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 402.

[24] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 83.

[25] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 36.

Heralding the Coming God: Schelling’s Philosophy of the Persephone Myth

From its root there grew
a hundred blooms which had a scent so sweet that all
the wide heaven above and all the earth and all
the salt swelling of the sea laughed aloud.
And then the girl too wondered at it, she reached out
her hands to take this thing of such delight,
but the earth with wide paths gaped in the plain of Nysia,
and He Who Accepts So Many, the lord, sprang upon her
with his immortal horses, that son of Chronos with many names.
– From “Hymn to Demeter”[1]

For Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, the truth of God could be found in the mythologies of antiquity. Schelling’s philosophy of mythology explores the presence of God in the world as revealed through cultural myths and religious revelation. He primarily focused on Greek mythology, with a particular concentration on the Cabiri gods of the island of Samothrace, which he felt empirically confirmed an early image of the nature of God which he had worked out in his own metaphysical ontology.[2] The Cabiri myth, and the mystery initiation rituals associated with it have widespread connections throughout the ancient world, both within the Mediterranean and beyond. The most prevalent correlation to the Cabiri, as Schelling discusses in his essay The Deities of Samothrace, is the myth of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld and subsequent return, which mirrors both the succession of the seasons throughout the year and the cyclical development of a plant. Persephone’s story is both a metaphor and a symbol for Schelling’s God, a God who is also in an eternal, dynamic process that leads to the creation of the world in his own image.[3]

The ontology of Schelling’s God was based initially on the writings of Jakob Böhme in combination with earlier works of his own.[4] God exists as two poles, one of absolute free will and the other of necessity, and each pole can be understood through Schelling’s positive and negative philosophies respectively.[5] Schelling paints “a portrait of a God who constitutes himself as a duality-in-unity” and it is the continuous tension and harmonization of this polarity that gives God a dynamic, living, and even evolving existence.[6] Of these two poles, the pole of necessity has within it its own polarized structure, which also is in a process of tension and harmonization. First, there is the initial force that is the dark ground of all being, a centripetal potency of “pure subjectivity” that draws all things eternally into itself. The second force is one of “pure objectivity,” a centrifugal potency eternally radiating forth. The opposing tensions of these two forces are in continual struggle with each other, and can only be reconciled by a third potency, one that would not be present without the other two. This third uniting potency is love, which harmonizes and brings an unstable balance between the first two, before the third potency is overcome and the cycle begins anew.[7]

While Schelling writes that this interaction of the three potencies is in God’s “past” he also calls it an “eternal process,” indicating that it is atemporal and not subject to linear time.[8] However, God’s pole of necessity is ultimately subordinate to the pole of freedom, or pure will, which brings true balance to the tension between the centripetal and centrifugal forces within the necessity pole. The third potency of the necessity pole, love, mediates between freedom and necessity, allowing for harmony in God’s being.[9] It is through this highest principle of freedom that God is able to freely create the world in the image of God’s own being. Thus the world has the same polar structure as God, and the repeating process of tension, imbalance, and harmony echoes throughout every layer of creation’s existence.[10] The forces of centration and expansion exist in the world as the polarities of the real and the ideal, the corporeal and the spiritual. They too are brought into balance through love, which acts as the mediator between the world and the transcendent aspect of God. The pole of freedom exists in creation as human creativity and free will, in a parallel image of God’s own freedom.[11] Upon coming into relationship with creation, God’s freely created mirror, God is able to become conscious of Godself.[12] “Since nothing is outside of God, the very knowledge of God is simply the nonfinite knowledge which God has of himself in the eternal self-affirmation, that is, it is itself the being of God and is in this being.”[13] Yet not only is the world a reflection of God’s image, but God also enters into creation and is revealed historically in the mythologies and religious revelations of human culture.[14]

By investigating the mythologies of antiquity Schelling was able to perceive an intimation of the structure of God that he had worked out in his philosophy. The island of Samothrace in the Aegean Sea was home to the initiation rites of the Cabiri, which reveal a sequence of gods nearly identical to those in the myth of Persephone, central to the comparable mystery rites of Eleusis.[15] While Schelling indicated there were seven, or even possibly eight, Cabiri gods, he names the first four in The Deities of Samothrace: Axieros, Axiokersa, Axiokersos, and Kasmilos. These four gods are understood to be the Hellenic gods Demeter, Persephone, Hades, and Hermes.[16]

In the most prevalent version of this myth, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the grain, and Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. While playing in the meadows, Persephone is drawn to an exquisite flower grown as a temptation by Gaia, at the bidding of Zeus. As Persephone plucks the flower, the earth gapes open and she is abducted against her will by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. In grief, Demeter flies about the earth searching for her daughter, and when she discovers that the abduction of her daughter was sanctioned by Zeus she desolates the landscape in her fury. In fear of her wrath, and to save the fertile earth from destruction, Zeus sends his messenger Hermes to the Underworld to retrieve Persephone. Yet, while she was in the realm of shades, Persephone ate six seeds of the pomegranate fruit, thus tying her forever to that domain; for whoever eats the food of the dead must remain in the Underworld. As a compromise, Zeus decrees that Persephone must spend six months in the Underworld, one for each seed, and six months with her mother in the light of the sun. So it is that mother and daughter are reunited, but only for a time, and each year the cycle continues, causing the wheel of the seasons to turn as Persephone the maiden of the upper world descends to become Queen of the Underworld each winter.[17]

While the structure of the story remains relatively similar, innumerable versions of this myth exist in which the cultural lineage of the gods is revealed through their many names and relationships to each other. The grain goddess Demeter was initially a goddess of Crete where her lover was the god Plautos, a name strikingly similar to Pluto, the Roman name of Hades.[18] Although in this myth Persephone, who was born on Crete, is the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, there is another myth in which Zeus seduces Persephone and she gives birth to Dionysos.[19] Schelling writes that according to Heraclitus, Hades and Dionysos were really the same god, and in other understandings of the Greek pantheon Zeus and Hades are interchangeable as well, as both are called the “son of Chronos with many names.”[20]

In the myth of the Cabiri, Hades and Dionysos are both associated with the name Axiokersos, the third god in the sequence of Samothrace.[21] Additionally, Persephone’s Cabiri name is Axiokersa, which contains the root “Kersa,” derived from the Hebrew hrs, or Ceres, the Roman name of Demeter.[22] Thus Schelling and other sources conclude that Demeter and Persephone are really one and the same, two parts of a continuous cyclical being.[23] Demeter’s Cabiri name, Axieros, Schelling has translated as “hunger,” “poverty,” “yearning,” “seeking,” and “longing.”[24] She is the first god of the Cabiri sequence, in a continuous state of seeking and drawing all things in toward her.[25] Culturally, Demeter is an older goddess figure than her Olympian brothers, and can in many ways be considered first, the fertile ground of being out of which the harvest grows.[26]

The fourth god of the Cabiri is Kasmilos, also called Kadmilos or Camillus, and is best known as Hermes, the messenger god.[27] The name Kasmilos has roots in the word “Kadmiel” which Schelling translates as “he who goes before the god.” Hermes is the messenger and servant of Zeus, highest of the gods, and acts as a mediator between Zeus and the first three gods of the Cabiri. It is from this ranking that Schelling infers that the Cabiri must be in a sequence, from lowest to highest, all heralding the coming of a higher god, which may be equated with Zeus, or ultimately Schelling’s Christian God.[28]

The Cabiri simultaneously herald the coming of the highest God, and also constitute a symbol of the structure of Schelling’s God. On Samothrace the first three Cabiri were collectively called Hephaestos, and Schelling writes that “The creation of Hephaestos is the world of necessity.”[29] Thus the first Cabiri comprise the pole of necessity in Schelling’s God: Axieros and Axiokersa symbolize the primary ground of being and the force of centration, and Axiokersos is the force of expansion.[30]

Schelling writes “Ceres is the moving power through whose ceaseless attraction everything, as if by magic, is brought from the primal indeterminateness to actuality or formation.”[31] With Demeter and Persephone as two sides of the same goddess Ceres, Demeter represents the formless “primal indeterminateness” and Persephone, who is born from Demeter, is that same power but actualized into form.

Whereas the first of the Cabiri can be equated with the first power… in its pure, unstructured aspect in the necessity pole in God, the second Cabiri goddess symbolizes that power as transformed into the first potency, which is the foundation of a dimension, or a region, of actual being.[32]

Axiokersos, who is both Hades and Dionysos, is the Lord of the Underworld, ruler of spirits and the realm of the dead, and thus symbolizes the second potency of Schelling’s God.[33] The second potency is the realm of spirit in the creation, but as Schelling’s translator Robert Brown writes, “…the spirit world is to be fully actualized only in an afterlife which souls enter upon death.”[34]

The third uniting potency, which Schelling emphasized does not have its own constitution, is symbolized by Kasmilos, or Hermes, who mediates not only between the first two potencies but between the pole of necessity and the pole of freedom, or between the triangle of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, and Zeus.[35] The pole of freedom in Schelling’s God is pure will and balances the pole of necessity, just as finally Zeus intervenes and creates a cyclical harmony between Demeter, Persephone, and Hades.[36]

This myth, in its many forms, served as the basis of the various Greek mystery rites, from the initiations of Samothrace, the rituals of Thesmophoria or the “Festival of Sorrow,” to the Eleusinian mystery rites.[37] While some scholars believed the secret of all the ancient mystery rites was “the doctrine of the unity of god,” Schelling disagreed with this notion in part, deeming that it would be impossible for a secret monotheism to exist in deceit of a public polytheism.[38] Rather, it seems that the unity experienced in the mysteries was both an understanding of the necessary unity of the gods within the sequence of the Cabiri myth, and also the union of the initiates with the divine.[39]

Because it was forbidden to reveal what occurred during the rites, we do not have a full picture of the initiatory rite of passage. We do know that participants consumed a grain drink called kykeon, a mixture of barley, water, and mint, which was said the be the drink Demeter requested after her fast during which she desolated the earth in her rage against Zeus and Hades.[40] Also included in this drink was the psychedelic rye fungus ergot, also called Mutterkorn, or “mother grain,” in German.[41] It is likely that the mind-expanding quality of this drink, as well as the ceremonies enacted during the rites, allowed the initiates to understand the ultimate unity and contingency of the gods within the sequence of the Cabiri myth, as they herald the higher God into manifestation.[42] Even the name Cabiri seems to be descended from the Hebrew term Chabir, “which expresses simultaneously inseparable connection and magical union.”[43]

The holy, revered teaching of the Cabiri, in its profoundest significance, was the representation of the insoluble life itself as it progresses in a sequence of levels from the lowest to the highest, a representation of the universal magic and of the theurgy ever abiding in the whole universe, through which the invisible, indeed the super-actual, incessantly is brought to revelation and actuality.[44]

Like Elohim, the plural name of the Godhead in the Old Testament, the Cabiri are one, not differentiated but still distinct; so too are the potencies of Schelling’s God, each distinct with their own qualities, yet ultimately constituting a whole.[45]

The sequence of the mystery rites paralleled the sequence of the Cabiri myth, and it seems that initiates each underwent the journey of Persephone to the Underworld. Plutarch wrote that “to die is to be initiated” and even the word “to die” in Greek, teleutan, is related to the word for initiation, teleisthai.[46] Yet, like Persephone, the initiates returned to the light of day and were reunited with Demeter, an ultimate rebalancing and reconciliation.[47]

Just as the story of Persephone mirrors the cycle of the seasons, it also mirrors the growth of a plant from a seed embedded in the earth to a shoot flowering and finally fruiting. Another name for Persephone was Kore, from koros meaning “sprout;” Persephone also translates as “she who shines in the dark,” symbolizing the dormant life of the seed underground, as well as her shining presence as Queen of the Underworld.[48] Persephone’s descent is a necessary process, a cycle of death and regeneration vital for life to continue. It is as though the flower Gaia grew to tempt Persephone to the brink of Hades’ realm was grown in service of the greater need of earth’s fertility.[49] Even the symbol of this single beautiful flower carries the dynamic of the entire myth within it.

Demeter and Persephone both symbolize the first potency of Schelling’s God, but Demeter is the first potency before creation and Persephone the first potency after, just as the seed and the shoot are one plant, before and after the germination process. The world is created in the image of God, and as such has the same ontological structure as God.[50] Thus the poles of necessity and freedom, and within the pole of necessity the force of centration and physicality, and the force of expansion and spirituality, all unified by love, ripple out and can be found within every structure of the created universe. As Brown writes, “Because the potencies of being are not exhausted in whatever severally exemplifies or symbolizes them, they can recur at various levels within an extended hierarchy.”[51] The polarities can be found in the growth of plants, the cycles of the seasons, and the polytheistic pantheons of antiquity. They overlap and combine, the mythological gods intertwined with earth’s natural processes.[52]

Schelling believed that because God had entered creation, God was being revealed in a historical evolution from the ancient stories of mythology to the revelations of the religions, disclosing each potency in sequence, leading ultimately to knowledge of God as a whole.[53] The Cabiri are at the evolutionary stage of the full revelation of God’s pole of necessity, but intimations of the next stages are also present in that mythology. Kasmilos, or Hermes, is the herald of the coming God, who is both the Olympian Zeus and a God higher than Zeus. Schelling mentioned that there were either seven or eight Cabiri, and it seems that Zeus was both the seventh, as a link in the sequence, and also the eighth, as the final God who is manifested by the relationships of the first seven.[54] Each participant of the sequence is divine, as Schelling writes in one of his aphorisms: “Yet not only the whole as whole is divine. For so is also the part and the particular by itself.”[55]

As a Christian, Schelling believed that God was revealed fully in the revelation of Christ. The fallen state of the world is a manifestation of the first potency, but God acted through the spirituality of the second potency to bring new harmony and balance to creation. This manifestation of the second potency is the incarnation of Christ. The teaching of Christ is that of love, which is the third unifying principle, which leads ultimately to a full union with the divine.[56]

The polarized structure of God and the world has been in an eternal cyclical process that has also been evolving linearly through time. The Godhead is both revealed in the course of time and outside of it altogether. In the mythology of Samothrace, time is located above all of the gods, which can also be seen in the family tree of the Cabiri: Chronos, who represents time, is either the father or the grandfather of all the gods in that story.[57] Schelling also wrote, “Because the gods come forth in succession, they themselves are only the offspring of almighty time;” time is the true creator and permeates all things.[58] Yet Schelling’s God existed before time and is caught in an “eternal process,” therefore his God is also outside of time.[59] It seems that ultimately Schelling’s God is both subject to time yet also free of it, just as God has one pole of necessity and one pole of freedom.

The final question remains then, what will happen when the creation ultimately unites with God through the mediation of love? Through this process God has become fully conscious of Godself and the poles are completely balanced. As both subject to and free of time will the cycle end in harmonious balance or, like a seed planted in the earth, will a new creation germinate and sprout to a truly new florescence?

Appendix

Just as the structure of God’s being can be found throughout the creation of nature, it is also mirrored in the realm of archetypal astrology, especially as it pertains to Schelling’s own birth chart. Schelling was born January 27, 1775, at 3:00 am in Ragaz Switzerland, Germany. The most prevalent aspect in his chart is a stellium of four planets: Sun, Mercury, Venus, and Pluto. The configuration of these four planets correlates perfectly with the Cabiri myth, and thus corresponds to his ontology of God as well. Venus represents the first potency, and like the Cabiri myth relates simultaneously to both Demeter and Persephone. Venus is the archetype of beauty, as portrayed by the young maiden Persephone, and also of flowers and that which grows upon the earth. As the archetype of love, Venus also relates to the loving bond between mother and daughter in this myth. Pluto correlates directly to Hades and Dionysos, both of whom are represented by this archetype. Pluto rules the Underworld and the entire death-rebirth process, which is the primary theme of both this myth and the mystery rites associated with it. Mercury correlates to its namesake Hermes, and acts as mediating messenger, but also a bringer of love, represented by the Mercury-Venus combination. Finally, the Sun represents the Godhead, which the first four gods are heralding, the ultimate shining principle in its singularity and perfection, bringing all the other archetypes into a single conception of God.

An additional aspect of note is that Schelling’s birth chart has Saturn in a trine with the Sun-Pluto stellium, which can be seen as both the inherent structure of the Godhead, but also the prevalence of time as the true creator and that which drives the evolution of God’s creation.

Works Cited

Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991.

Metzner, Ralph. Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. “Schelling’s Aphorisms of 1805.” Translated by Fritz Marti. Idealistic Studies 14.3 (1984): 237-258.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. Schelling’s Treatise on “The Deities of Samothrace.” Translated by Robert F. Brown. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977.


[1] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991), 370.

[2] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Schelling’s Treatise on “The Deities of Samothrace,” trans. Robert F. Brown (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), 45.

[3] Schelling, Samothrace, 47.

[4] Ibid, 45.

[5] Ibid, 48, 46.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] Schelling, Samothrace, 48.

[9] Ibid, 49.

[10] Ibid, 47.

[11] Ibid, 50.

[12] Ibid, 49-50

[13] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, “Schelling’s Aphorisms of 1805,” trans. Fritz Marti, Idealistic Studies 14.3 (1984): 250.

[14] Schelling, Samothrace, 47.

[15] Schelling, Samothrace, 15.

Ralph Metzner, Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), 128.

[16] Schelling, Samothrace, 16-17, 56.

[17] Metzner, Green Psychology, 128-129.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 364-372.

[18] Ibid, 366.

[19] Ibid, 367.

[20] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 370, 383.

[21] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

[22] Ibid, 20, 52.

[23] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 364.

[24] Schelling, Samothrace, 18, 20.

[25] Ibid, 18.

[26] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 367.

[27] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

[28] Ibid, 22.

[29] Ibid, 24.

[30] Schelling, Samothrace, 49, 52.

[31] Ibid, 20.

[32] Ibid, 52.

[33] Ibid, 52.

[34] Ibid, 53.

[35] Schelling, Samothrace, 49, 53.

[36] Ibid, 49.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 128.

[37] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 374.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 128.

[38] Schelling, Samothrace, 24-25.

[39] Ibid, 28.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 382.

[40] Ibid, 377, 380.

[41] Metzner, Green Psychology, 144.

[42] Schelling, Samothrace, 28.

[43] Ibid, 39-40, note 113.

[44] Ibid, 29.

[45] Ibid, 40, note 118.

[46] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 381.

[47] Ibid, 377.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 144.

[48] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 368-369.

[49] Ibid, 383.

[50] Schelling, Samothrace, 50.

[51] Ibid, 56.

[52] Schelling, Samothrace, 58.

[53] Ibid, 55, 59.

[54] Ibid, 56.

[55] Schelling, “Aphorisms,” 246.

[56] Schelling, Samothrace, 58-59.

[57] Schelling, Samothrace, 19.

[58] Ibid, 33, note 44.

[59] Ibid, 61, note 8, 48.

At the Cosmic Midnight Hour: Karma and Rebirth in Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo

When one has an encounter in the world, be it a deep sense of familiarity or peace in an unknown landscape, an attraction to an area of study, or a strong desire to make a connection with a newly met individual, that experience of novelty can often be intermingled with a quality of memory. Yet, while this remembering may have no connection to one’s present life, it still has an inexplicable air of destiny; this may be no memory of the mind, but of the spirit. It is a reencountering of the result of one’s own actions, but the actions of a previous lifetime. It is a lesson learned by a former self, a fruit nourished and watered by one’s prior being, to be plucked and savored in this lifetime. It is a seed of the past, a representation of one’s karma.

The spiritual understanding of karma and reincarnation has been central to numerous cultures worldwide, and still flourishes in many religious and spiritual communities. Interpretations of both rebirth and karma differ greatly from tradition to tradition, and even person to person, as the fundamental questions of human existence are repeatedly asked by each generation. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of the universe? Are there spiritual realms? Who, or what, is divine? While many answers have been given, those of two of the great spiritual and philosophical thinkers of the turn of the 20th century, Sri Aurobindo and Rudolf Steiner, speak not only to the unity of the divine in the universe, but also of the reality of the seeking and striving human individual.

For Steiner and Aurobindo the roles of karma and rebirth are central to their philosophies and spiritual practices. Although Steiner hailed from Europe, Aurobindo from India, their views of reincarnation were either contrary to or differentiated from the prevalent beliefs established in their regions, but also deeply resonant with each other’s perspectives. Aurobindo brought to India a more Western view of the reality of the individual, and Steiner was given the weighty task of reintroducing the ideas of karma and rebirth to the West, from which they had been absent following the widespread establishment of Christianity (NES, 6). They both saw the cycles of human reincarnation as an evolutionary process, an evolution of the individual and of the whole of humanity, the universe, and the divine.

Rebirth, for Steiner and Aurobindo, could be defined as the joining of spirit to life and matter (EA, 92). Steiner called the moment when one karmic life ends and the new karmic life begins the “cosmic midnight hour” (NES, 47). Rebirth is a joining of the old with the new, the eternal spirit with a newly formed body, mind, and personality (EA, 265). Sculpting each life is one’s karma, one’s self-created destiny, which is formed by the prior actions of one’s spirit inhabiting other bodies during previous lifetimes (NES, 197). Our karma shapes not only the bodies, families, and cultures we are born into, but the road we travel and the obstacles and turns we will meet. How we will journey down this road, and interact with what and whom we meet upon it, is within our own freedom to choose, yet will lay the foundations for our future life’s karma as well. Both Aurobindo and Steiner emphasized the importance of one’s personal experience, how we choose to travel our path; it was through their own personal experiences that they each came to their spiritual understandings of karma and rebirth.

Aurobindo writes that “if the soul enters this life with a certain development of personality, it must have prepared it in other precedent lives here [on Earth] or elsewhere” (EA, 95). Each human comes into the world with a fully unique personality, which cannot be reduced merely to physical heredity or one’s familial upbringing. Such a materialist perspective implies that the only part of us that persists beyond death would be our genes in our descendents, and possibly the fading memory of our actions in the minds of others (EA, 93). While we inherit the shape of our physical bodies from our parents, according to Steiner we inherit the shape of our spirits from ourselves. Although Homo sapiens is one biological species of which we are a part, each human individual is a spiritual species of which we are the whole (NES, 186). For Steiner this spirit is called the “I,” for Aurobindo the “psychic being” and it is this part of us alone which reincarnates (NES, 48, EA, 265).

Unlike the Advaita Vedantist and Buddhist beliefs prevalent in India, Aurobindo held the understanding that the human individual spirit was truly real, just as Brahman, also called Satchitananda, the divinity that is everything, is also real. In Advaita Vedanta, while all is Brahman, the human self is merely an illusion created by Maya (EA, 101). Similarly, the ultimate truth in Buddhism is that there is no self; therefore rebirth, and also the karma that drives rebirth, must also be an illusion. A soul which is merely an illusion cannot be eternal (EA, 96). Yet, if all is Brahman and Brahman is real, how is it that each human being also can have an eternal soul that is real? Aurobindo writes, “If the soul is real and immortal, not a constructed being or figure of being, it must also be eternal, beginningless in the past even as endless in the future…” (EA, 95). Brahman and the individual self can both be real because all of existence is in a process of evolution. According to Aurobindo, Brahman, or Satchitananda, involved itself in Matter, and has been in evolution through the levels of Life, Mind and Spirit, a process that is only possible because of the reality of each individual who is evolving (EA, 109, 258). While the involution of Satchitananda may be regarded as the beginning of existence, it seems to be a beginning outside of time, therefore all souls can be “beginningless in the past” of time and “endless in the future.”

The reality of the individual spirit is as central to Steiner’s philosophy as it is to Aurobindo’s. The levels of Aurobindo––Matter, Life, Mind, and Spirit––have many similarities to the four bodies of Steiner: the physical body; the etheric, or life, body; the astral, or soul, body; and the “I,” or spirit body (EA, 109, NES, 129). The bodies Steiner describes also relate to the levels of minerals, plants, animals, and humans. For both Steiner and Aurobindo each level carries with it the characteristics of the prior level, which are all ultimately divine. Each human being has a spirit body, or an “I,” which participates in a greater “I;” this greater “I” could be called the divine, God, Brahman, Satchitananda, or the universe, and it too is in a process of evolution, in part because of the evolution of the individual human “I”s.

Reincarnation of the human spirit is key to both Steiner’s and Aurobindo’s understanding of evolution. The spirit is shaped by not only its life between birth and death, but between death and new birth as well. Steiner described the period between death and new life as like the period of sleep we enter into each night. During sleep the astral and “I” bodies depart the physical and etheric bodies to spend time in the spiritual realm (NES, 44). After death a similar departure from the physical takes place and, according to both Steiner and Aurobindo, the human spirit enters the spiritual world (EA, 100).

In his writings Steiner goes into far greater detail than Aurobindo on the journey of the human spirit, or the three non-physical bodies, after death occurs in the physical realm. The etheric body remains with the astral body and the “I” for three days after death to present the life that has just been lived to the astral body (NES, 44). The astral and “I” subsequently undergo the two-fold experience of kamaloca, in which first the astral body is purified by moving through the frustration of no longer experiencing the pleasures of earthly existence. Upon full purification, which takes up to one third the length of the life just ended, the astral body is able to dissolve (NES, 45). The second stage of kamaloca is the period in which only the “I,” or psychic being, remains, and relives its entire life in reverse from the perspectives of the recipients of all its actions (NES, 45). It is during this stage that the karma for the following life is laid, the final moments before the “cosmic midnight hour.”

The “I” relives its life in the presence of the greater spiritual beings of the universe. It is with the help of these beings that our lives are guided, as they whisper wisdom to us during sleep, and help us shape the karma of our future lives after death (NES, 46). “We first become aware of what our last evil or good deeds signify for the world. Our experience of them while on Earth is now eliminated; what we now experience is their significance for the world” (NES, 45). Although in some passages Steiner writes of the effect of our deeds only upon other human beings, in the previously quoted sentence he broadens that view to encompass the world. This holds particular significance for the karmic structures being laid down by humanity today, as the destruction many human beings have been unleashing upon the earth becomes rapidly more apparent.

The spiritual beings in whose presence we re-experience our lives “rain down their sympathies and antipathies” upon our actions. We release our good deeds into the universe to further its evolution, but we retain our evil deeds as the new work for our future life (NES, 46). Thus it is that we take our progressive steps from one lifetime to the next, building upon the lessons we learned that will guide us toward new ones.

The new life begins with the formation of our astral and etheric bodies, which are created with the help of spiritual beings and planetary forces. These bodies are formed as the “I” passes the spheres of the Sun and the stars, and are determined by the limitations and attainments of the former life (NES, 47). These three bodies join the physical body, which, like the parents, has also been karmically chosen, in the womb a few weeks after conception. Similar to Steiner, Aurobindo writes, “The human birth in this world is on its spiritual side a complex of two elements, a spiritual Person and a soul of personality; the former is man’s eternal being, the latter is his cosmic and mutable being” (EA, 109). For Aurobindo, even the form of the physical body is dependent on the condition of the human soul, and Steiner writes that what is unique about our physical bodies––rather than what is inherited from our ancestors––is shaped by our soul body (EA, 92, NES, 189).

Upon emerging once again into earthly existence we find it is much like awakening from a long night’s sleep. The results of our previous life actions have the effect of memory upon us, unrolling our karmic destiny before us (NES, 187). We even reencounter the same human individuals from one life to the next, as our actions throughout our lives connect us to each other (NES, 196). We do not do our work upon the earth alone. During the life between birth and death the astral body, which is the carrier of memory, “receives impressions from the outer world and carries them to the spirit, which extracts and preserves their fruits” (NES, 193). It is the spirit that carries the attainments of these fruits from lifetime to lifetime, which furthers not only the evolution of the individual but the evolution of humanity and the universe (NES, 191).

This work is far beyond the span of a single lifetime, which is the reason that many human lives on earth are needed for this process (EA, 112). However, although the spirit of the individual is real and eternal, the complete human born each lifetime is unique, and work done in one life cannot be achieved in the same way in another. The imminence of death is as real as the eternal spirit, and can serve as a powerful impetus to do the work and learn the lessons this particular life has to offer.

Because the divine involved itself in matter and is in a process of evolution, every rebirth is a unique expression of the divine (EA, 259). In each human being the divine is born with the inner qualities of that person. Therefore, every action is an action of both the human and the divine, and it is those divine actions which forge our karma. For karma to be real, the individual, and the divine that is the individual, must both be real as well. Through the individual the divine is thus able to come to consciousness (EA, 105). Aurobindo writes that “A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge––this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity” (EA, 259). Existence has a true purpose if reincarnation is seen as an evolutionary process, in which the human spirit and the world evolve together toward consciousness, and ultimately, toward bliss (EA, 267, 268).

Aurobindo and Steiner both developed spiritual practices with which to accomplish our tasks during our lifetimes; for Aurobindo this was Integral Yoga, for Steiner it was Spiritual Science, also called Anthroposophy. Steiner said that our task was to connect to our life before birth through free thinking; for Aurobindo our task was to know our previous lives and to connect to the unity of which we are a part (NES, 48, EA, 265). Both of them are offering spiritual practices that can connect us as individuals to the spirit realm in which we exist between lifetimes, the realm in which we can understand our unity with the whole. The spiritual practices of both these great thinkers are ultimately actions of love through freedom, and love can only be real when it emerges between entities that are real beings. As such, the evolution of the divine through the evolution of the universe is a process of love, as the real individuals that are each unique expressions of the divine are reborn again and again, and learn to come into true loving relationship with the whole.

Works Cited

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The Essential Aurobindo. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987.

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The New Essential Steiner. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2009.

Open Letter to the President

Dear President Obama,

I am writing this letter to the man for whom I cast my vote three years ago, the man who sailed the ship of change with the power of the winds of hope. I am writing on behalf of those who voted for you, for the future generations whose right to well-being and even existence are in jeopardy, and most importantly, on behalf of the planet earth, which is our only home and the source of all our nourishment and capacity for survival. I hope the man who reads this now can receive these words, not just as a political official in the most powerful position on the planet, but as a human being gifted with the ability to courageously take the steps required to effect the deep, fundamental changes so desperately needed at this critical juncture.

Your time in office has been fraught with a disintegrating economy and fiscal crisis that cannot be mended by any unanimous solution between political parties. The corporate industrial economy which you are trying to revive is based primarily on the assumption of unlimited access to petroleum. As we passed peak oil in 2010, it has become rapidly clearer that an economy which relies on extracting a finite resource is ultimately terminal.[1] The earth processes under which petroleum formed will never exist again, at least within the timescale of human economies.[2] Currently every aspect of life in the United States is dependent on oil, from our electricity, to our transportation, communication, and food systems, to name just a few. Although it is known that the resource on which these systems depend is limited and non-renewable, there is currently little to no support for those few who attempt to create alternative modes of living. Any alternatives to the norm are usually labeled by mainstream media as utopian or unrealistic, yet these alternatives are addressing the far more unrealistic vision of an economy that will continue to thrive on a single resource whose end is in sight.[3] The collapse and lack of recovery of the economy is a clear sign that the industrial system is dissolving, and to attempt to revive it without rewriting the foundations of the system is to assure certain failure.[4]

To assume that only slight modifications to the current system will set it back on course will ultimately lead to such a severe collapse that no attempt at a recognizable recovery will be possible. A time will come when there will be no choice as to how the system will have to change, and any progress in that area will come at much higher cost both monetarily, and also in human life and well-being. Any worries now about the government deficit are incomparable to the deficit we are continually drawing from the earth.[5] The earth is treated as merely the backdrop to human affairs, a supply of free resources which can be extracted from endlessly.[6] Any part of the earth left untapped, from the last old-growth forests, to the freshwater aquifers, to the buried oil fields, is considered economically wasted.[7] Ironically, the utilized resources which are not wasted are quickly turned to irreversible waste within the disposable consumer economy, left to sit in mountainous trash heaps to decompose into toxins, if they can decompose at all. The earth is richly abundant, but only if humans create limits for themselves to allow for its self-renewing processes to take place.[8] If we do not form these limits we will ultimately encounter them by drowning in our own waste, if nothing else.[9]

Over the course of Western history a primary driving ideal has been human progress, a betterment of the human condition through acquisition of knowledge, and wealth and possessions for a more leisurely existence. At the foundation of progress is the idea of unlimited growth, which seemed like a real possibility through colonial expansion and the European discovery of abundant landscapes. Yet, as industrialization has allowed the human population to double three and a half times in the last century, that population has also met the unarguable reality that this planet is finite. As such, the definition of progress has actually come to mean a severe degradation of the earth in exchange for abundant consumer products, and excessive profit in the pockets of transnational corporations.[10] Monetary gain has become the top value in our society, allowing for limitless consumption of landscapes and the destruction of their intellectual, aesthetic, imaginative, and spiritual values.[11]

The corporations which reap excessive wealth from the environment share little of the cost that comes from the destructive patterns of their production. The vast amounts of waste, much of it highly toxic, produced by corporate industry is not accounted for in their production costs.[12] Indeed, the weight of that clean-up usually falls to public services, paid for by tax dollars. Meanwhile, corporations are not only exempt from taking the responsibility to clean up after themselves, they are not even required to contribute monetarily to that clean-up by paying taxes.[13] What money they do contribute to government is solely for the purposes of securing their own interests to continue unlimited extraction of resources from the earth, no matter the harm it causes to the environment or wider human community. If corporations, which are not human beings, are given personhood and legal rights, then the same rights should be given to the rivers, forests, soils, and all other species of this earth who have an equal right to exist as humans.[14] If humans can represent a corporation in court, humans should be able to represent the land in court as well.

One of the arguments on behalf of corporate business is that corporations provide jobs for millions of workers, allowing the population’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter to be met. Yet those basic needs cannot be met if the earth is mined and destroyed until it can no longer support human life, even at a level much lower than that enjoyed by many in first world countries today.[15] The economic recession and high unemployment have shown that the way our economy has been functioning cannot provide enough employment as it is. A new economic structure is desperately needed, one that is aligned with the economy of the earth and is based on renewal and responsibility.[16]

The dire need for jobs is evident, but providing immediate employment at the cost of the health and functioning of the environment will only cause far more severe unemployment in the future.[17] Destroying the ecosystems on which human life and economy depend will ultimately destroy the economy, as it is already beginning to do. The debates over the Keystone Pipeline project are one such example, for not only is this project extracting a finite resource, it will pose great risks to the workers toiling in a toxic environment. The pipeline will permanently destroy vast amounts of land and water for a temporary gain, and the effects of extracting and using this oil will likely be the tipping point for the irreversible, catastrophic effects of climate change.

Fortunately, there are other ways to employ the U.S. population that can flourish sustainably into the indefinite future, if they are supported and encouraged. We desperately need solutions for aligning the human economy with the earth’s systems, and investing in the creativity of environmental entrepreneurs will provide growing employment into the future.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

One key area which needs reformation, and which could provide far greater employment than it currently does, is in the field of agriculture. The industrial agriculture system, which relies heavily on petroleum, has shown itself to be far more expensive and less productive than once hoped.[18] The chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and the large machines suited only to monocultures, destroy the life-giving properties of soil and erode the topsoil until it can no longer support any crops.[19]

A major disconnect lies between U.S. citizens and where their food is grown, food that is harvested primarily by immigrant workers who are rapidly being deported while crops rot unpicked in the fields. If the argument for deportation is that illegal immigrants take American jobs, why is it that the high percentage of unemployed U.S. citizens are not taking up the work of growing their food? The industrial system has stripped the dignity of the art of food production, as it has taken the dignity of many other forms of employment as well. One way to fundamentally change the disintegrating economy would be to restore the dignity and artistry of the most essential jobs that sustain human life.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The growing, preserving, packaging, transporting, and marketing of the current agricultural system is expensive and wasteful, as food must travel long distances to reach consumers’ mouths.[20] By localizing the food economy most of these expenses would be cut, and dependence on oil for food production would decrease tremendously. Greater emphasis could be placed on the quality and variety of crops since they do not need to be engineered for transportation, which would ultimately lead to a far healthier population overall. Finally, with more U.S. citizens working with the land, the American people would have the opportunity to reconnect with the North American landscape in a way that would inspire a deeper care and respect for the earth.[21]

The most immediate and disastrous consequence of our civilization’s addiction to oil is the exponentially increasing saturation of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Humans have become a force of nature changing the very chemistry of the planet in a few centuries, on a scale that previously took millions of years.[22] It is this composition of our atmosphere that allowed for the emergence of life on this planet, and we are altering it faster than we can calculate its effects.[23] While the predicted consequences of climate change appear to be taking place far more rapidly than the most pessimistic models once indicated, the U.S. government has disregarded this knowledge and has consistently taken no action in any international climate agreements.[24] Although the U.S. has contributed most of any country to polluting and altering the planet’s climate, the government has chosen to put short-term economic gain, for the benefit of a few corporations, before the welfare of the human population, including its own citizens. Humanity has gained the power of a geologic force, but has not shouldered any of the responsibility that comes with such power.[25]

The amount of money poured into defense spending against potential, and often self-generated, international threats will be as nothing compared to the cost of defending against the real and imminent threat of the retaliation of an abused earth.[26] Ecosystems function in such a way that if any single species becomes too numerous and sets the system out of balance, the environment will no longer support the population until it dies back to a sustainable level. While humanity has managed to avoid such natural population suppression with our innovative technologies, it is those very technologies that are now triggering such a potential die-off on a global scale if immediate action is not taken.

The effects of climate change can already be observed worldwide, and the ultimate damage will be determined by whether the U.S. government can extricate itself from the pockets of greedy corporate lobbyists, and take a true leadership position against the greatest challenge to ever face the human species. Addressing climate change and the environmental crises will soon be beyond the disparities between political parties, and of far greater consequence than the outcome of the 2012 election, or any subsequent election. Whether you have one year or five in the most powerful position in the world, your actions in this moment will determine the course of the future for generations to come. If the U.S. takes the lead to responsibly address climate change, every country in the world will follow suit. If not, many other countries such as India and China, will choose not to either.

The darkest periods in history have proven to be the most creative, and you have been given the opportunity to bring about the fundamental change this planet so desperately needs if we are to survive.[27] The pain of making the necessary changes now will be far less than the pain all of humanity and the earth will suffer if we sit idly by and do nothing.[28] As a planetary community we will either all survive together, or the entire earth will die. The earth is an irreplaceable gift which will not exist in the same way ever again.[29]

The geologian Thomas Berry, who dedicated his life to speaking on behalf of the earth and who was the inspiration for this letter, wrote: “While Earth’s resources are finite, what is not limited is our desire to understand, to appreciate, and to celebrate the Earth.”[30] Your decisions while in office will determine the ability of the next generations, your daughters and all those who will come after, to live in the exquisitely beautiful, awe-inspiring, miraculously habitable earth community that you live in. This is the future that is at stake. Please handle it with wisdom.

With hope,

Becca Tarnas

Bibliography

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books. 1988.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006.

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty- First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.


[1] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 156.

[2] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 156.

[3] Berry, The Great Work, 109.

[4] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 29.

[5] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 72

[6] Berry, The Great Work, 22.

[7] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 155.

[8] Ibid, 154.

[9] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 66.

[10] Berry, The Great Work, 62-63.

[11] Ibid, 111.

[12] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 66.

[13] Berry, The Great Work, 130.

[14] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 133.

[15] Berry, The Great Work, xi.

[16] Ibid, 60.

[17] Ibid, 113.

[18] Ibid, 134.

[19] Ibid, 139.

[20] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 64.

[21] Berry, The Great Work, 160.

[22] Berry, Evening Thoughts, 63.

[23] Ibid, 47.

[24] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 201.

[25] Ibid, 42.

[26] Ibid, 76.

[27] Berry, The Great Work, 9.

[28] Berry, Dream of the Earth, 159.

[29] Berry, The Sacred Universe, 175.

[30] Ibid, 132.

Poetize the Planet: Mythopoetic Expression in an Earthly Cosmology

let’s meet

at the confluence

where you flow into me

and one breath

swirls between our lungs

– Drew Dellinger[2]

Humanity needs a new cosmology. The Earth needs a new poetry. As humanity’s discordant relationship with our home planet continues to wreak environmental devastation worldwide, no single solution can be put forward that can fully address the crises escalating on the Earth. The most creative answers will come to no avail if they are still trapped within the current mechanistic, reductionist worldview that initially set us so deeply out of balance. How are we, as a species, to address the issues of ecological destruction? The solutions require a creativity deeper and greater than the human alone. We must ask the Earth. As Thomas Berry puts it “…we need not a human answer to an Earth problem, but an Earth answer to an Earth problem.”[3]

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The chasm of communication between the modern human and the Earth is great, but not unbridgeable. David Abram posits that our human language is a gift originally from the Earth. “What if the very language we now speak arose first in response to an animate, expressive world––as a stuttering reply not to just others of our species but to an enigmatic cosmos that already spoke to us in a myriad of tongues?”[4] This understanding of language as initially born out of the cosmos cannot be relegated to mere projection; the Earth calls forth the human imagination in diverse ways dependent upon the characteristics of the landscape. Language transcends human creativity alone.[5]

The key imaginative language, the Rosetta stone of reconnection, must be poetic. The cosmos speaks directly to us, telling the story of its unfolding since time began, in the language of poetry. Earth poetry calls to us in the sighing death rattle of an autumn breeze among fiery-hued leaves; it radiates as the rich heat of black humus soil under the exposed skin of curious feet; it cries as the sonorous whale’s melody born through the crashing of a salty ocean wave. While many modern adults have long been closed off to this language, it is naturally available to children as they enter the world with fresh, enchanted senses: they can still read nature’s stories.[6] The Earth has an inherent poetic quality to it, as its nature is “…bound into the aesthetic experience, into poetry, art, and dance,”[7] as Berry notes. Our first task is to listen, an offering of the greatest act of love and respect to the Earth.

For humanity to once again hear the poetry of the Earth, the cosmos must be reenchanted.[8] An innovative mythic worldview is needed in which humans understand their roles within the larger Earth and cosmic community. We need a “…vision of a planet integral with itself throughout its spatial extent and its evolutionary sequence… if we are to have the psychic power to undergo the psychic and social transformations that are being demanded of us.”[9] Berry puts forth in his writings a call to the poets and artists of the world to help forge a new, mythically imbued cosmology that could culturally guide humanity’s survival into the future. “There must be a mystique of the rain if we are ever to restore the purity of the rainfall.”[10]

In his book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram explores in poetic language these themes of reconnection and identification between the human and our Earth community. Drawing on his own rich sensory experience of the Earth, he is able to perceive the stories the planet is sharing with all of us. In complementary juxtaposition, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s new cosmology, as presented in The Universe Story, also offers a meaningful, enchanted vision retold from the perspective of scientific inquiry. Both Abram’s, and Swimme and Berry’s, cosmologies present a new mythological story based on an understanding of the Earth, not as an object, but rather as an ensouled subject.

Scientific inquiry has been the driving force impelling contemporary Western culture forward. The objective stance of the scientist has unveiled vast expanses of knowledge previously unavailable to humanity. Yet this objectivity has also masked a myriad of other knowledges, deep wisdoms and mysteries that scientific impartiality cannot perceive.[11] Such a detached position has led to a belief that the evolution of the cosmos, from its first moments of flaring into being, is a sequence of random happenstance, somehow arriving at life and the epiphenomenon of consciousness upon our well-situated, but insignificant, planet. While the scientific method has revealed much that could not be disclosed by our physical or intuitive senses alone, the abstractions it produces have also taken the position of primary truth; “… as a result, more and more of us come to assume that those theoretical realms are more true, more fundamental, more real than this palpable world that we experience with our breathing bodies.”[12] Yet, it may actually be such that these scientific results are best understood when interpreted through our senses and emotions, illuminating the greater depths of scientific facts.

Swimme and Berry tell the scientifically grounded story of the evolution of the cosmos from a sensual, mythic perspective, unfolding the same science in a lyrical, poetic form that reveals those very qualities within cosmogenesis itself. From the “primordial flaring forth,”[13] to the birth of stars, the formation of the galaxies, and the supernovas that forged the elements which seeded new stars and the planets, to the emergence of life on Earth, the complexification of life, and the evolution and cultural development of the human, this story is expressed as a celebratory event. The unfolding of the universe is the celebratory event, for “…celebration is omnipresent, not simply in the individual modes of its expression but in the grandeur of the entire cosmic process.”[14] Each phase of the journey expresses the inherent subjectivity of each event, a thrilling sensuality contained within every fiber of the cosmos.

The Earthly cosmology of David Abram is first grounded in the intimacy of the senses, then moves out to encompass the tangible qualities of the land, the Earth, and finally the cosmos. Swimme and Berry begin at the macrocosmic level, while Abram begins at the microcosmic, yet their two cosmologies ultimately meet in the middle, revealing one story of cosmogenesis and the intimate experience of it in the present moment.

The Earth can be communed with in part by understanding our human similarity to the myriad of living and non-living beings surrounding us.

We can feel the trees and the rocks underfoot, because we are not so unlike them, because we have our own forking limbs and our own mineral composition… are tangible bodies of thickness and weight, and so have a great deal in common with the palpable things that we encounter.[15]

An intimacy inherently exists between all beings in the cosmos, as we each have our origin in the first ecstatic moments of the universe’s flaring forth. This relationship has continued through all time, forming the complex webs of interconnection and symbiosis that make life on Earth possible. Our bodies, like the other bodies in the environment, all partake in the gift economy of the Earth: one organism’s waste is transformed into the nourishment of another.[16] Currently, humanity has become an imbalance in this economy, taking much but returning sterile, or even toxic, waste that is of little use, and causes great harm, to the other organisms inhabiting the planet.

A common perception is that humans live on the Earth, but rather we are deeply embedded in ways our bodily senses are able to reveal to us. Take a breath of air. The air swirling around us, connecting the entire planet in its cycles, extends for miles from the surface of the land and the oceans.[17] We live deep within the Earth because we stand below the layer of air which allows Earth to be what it is.[18] Moreover, the composition of that air, so essential to life’s existence, also would not exist without the presence of life.[19] Life and air mutually create each other. “To put it starkly, the biosphere is not simply in a habitable zone but also makes a habitable zone.”[20] Furthermore, not only are we in the Earth, but the Earth is in us. From the air we breath, to the food we eat, and the water we drink, the Earth itself courses through our bodies, just as we make our course through the well-worn pathways of life on this planet.

Physical nourishment is not the only gift the Earth gives its inhabitants. As mentioned previously, language may be a property of the Earth itself, as well as emotion, imagination, and reflection. If the human has psychic capacities then such ability must lie first within the cosmos, and therefore the Earth. Consciousness, rather than an activity occurring solely within the human brain, may be an inherent quality of the Earth in which we each participate.[21]

What if there is, yes, a quality of inwardness to the mind, not because the mind is located inside us (inside our body or brain), but because we are situated, bodily, inside it––because our lives and our thoughts unfold in the depths of a mind that is not really ours, but is rather the Earth’s? What if like the hunkered owl, and the spruce bending above it, and the beetle staggering from needle to needle on that branch, we all partake of the wide intelligence of the world––because we’re materially participant, with our actions and our passions, in the broad psyche of this sphere?[22]

Just as we inhale the air, we intake conscious awareness. Most importantly, from this perspective, humans are not the only beings inhaling the psyche of the planet, but rather every living and non-living entity partakes in this consciousness, each in their own diversified manner.

Like the landscape, the consciousness of the Earth is diverse, and varies from region to region, affording various insights and ideas to the imagination that differ by location.

There are insights we come upon only at the edge of the sea, and others we glimpse only in the craggy heights. Some prickly notions are endemic to deserts, while other thoughts, too slippery to grasp, are met mostly in swamps. Many nomad thoughts migrate between different realms, shifting their habits to fit the terrain, orienting themselves by the wind and the stars.[23]

The human imagination, and its ability for creative insight and innovation, is sustained by this diversity of the landscape and the myriad of beings living within it.[24] Our ability to create and sustain our existence, to imagine the future, is wholly dependent on the creativity gifted by the Earth. If that gift is diminished, by species extinction and landscape destruction, our capacity to be fully human is also curtailed.

Enclosed in human-made cities and artificial environments, we will lose the capacity to think, dream, and create. The desire to forge a mutually-enhancing relationship with the Earth community is sustained by constant contact with the land, the ocean, forests, deserts, rivers, mountains, and the multitude of species living in these landscapes. If one is insulated from the array of life forces, then one’s desire to intimately know and respect them will dwindle and die. Such isolation leads to destruction for both the human and non-human, since something fundamental to the development of the cosmos is being constrained. As human creativity is stifled, the capacity to imagine solutions to environmental devastation is limited, unleashing a positive feedback loop that furthers ecological ruin and decreases awareness.

If humans treat the Earth and its multitude of abundant life as inert objects, then their inherent subjectivity becomes veiled, and even violated. The opportunity to commune with another ensouled being is lost. As Abram writes,

When I talk of the aspen or the granite outcrop as a determinate object, I push into unconsciousness my direct experience of trees and rock ledges, contradicting my carnal awareness of them as ambiguous beings with their own enigmatic ways of influencing the space around them, and of influencing me.[25]

When we objectify the world in a merely instrumental way we deny ourselves even the possibility to encounter it as a meaningful subject. Once we choose to no longer speak to the Earth, to sing to the sunrise or hum to the cradling arms of an oak, to whisper to a chipmunk or call to a robin, then they will no longer speak to us, either. Even if they do, we will have lost our ability to hear them.[26]

To open up such communication is to take a risk, stepping out of the stability of our everyday human interactions and into what is initially an utterly foreign language. Yet what is most key in all communication, whether between human, animal, plant, river, or soil, is honesty.[27] The words do not have to be directly translated because the intonation and body language, that which all universe beings share, will carry the message, if we can surrender to trust it. Abram writes that he learned to sing when confronting an animal which he had startled, and which might potentially be dangerous if it felt threatened. The song was both relaxing to his own tensed nerves, and communicated that sense of safety to the animal before him.[28] In another situation, when faced with hundreds of curious but angry sea lions, Abram began to dance, offering the sea lions a gift of his humanity portrayed through the animal expression of his body. Mesmerized by his movement, the sea lions were calmed from their initial fury at unexpected intrusion.[29]

Such communication can be opened between humans and plants as well, although on a subtler level due to the greater genetic difference between the two biological kingdoms. Yet the doorway can be opened once again by finding the similarities, rather than focusing on differences, between the plant and the human. If one stands in a forest and listens attentively to the sound of wind through the tree branches, different dialects can be discerned between tree species, and even individual trees. While some might argue that this is not the trees speaking, but merely the wind passing through their branches, then we must be humbled to realize that the same thing is occurring with our own voices when we speak or sing. It is the air vibrating our vocal cords, just as that same air is vibrating the trees’ leaves and branches.[30] Furthermore, it is that same air that is cycling around the planet, uniting the globe as a single being.

The cycling of carbon dioxide around the globe takes approximately a year to complete. In that time each molecule we breathe is circled to distant lands that we may never see with our own eyes. Yet our breath, which has shaped our speech and kept us alive, is distributed worldwide. It has been calculated that every growing leaf on the Earth, within a year, will contain a few dozen of the carbon atoms we exhale in every breath.[31] The words we say, the poetry we speak, are crystallized within every leaf on the planet. We are listened to in a way almost impossible to imagine, indicating the power of our communication. We need to “…take deeper care with our speaking, mindful that our sounds may carry more than merely human meaning and resonance.”[32] There is an “…uncanny power that lives in our spoken phrases to touch and sometimes transform the tenor of the world’s unfolding.”[33]

Children are born into the world with this ability to whole-heartedly commune with the natural world. Indeed, for the very young child there is no separation between her sense of self and her surroundings. It is only with a growing awareness of her body that the child is able to perceive a quality of otherness in her environment.[34] Yet, by emerging slowly from this embedded matrix, she is still able to communicate with the Earth, holding a fascination and sense of awe for all she encounters. Berry believed these encounters are essential for children, “… for it is from the stars, the planets, and the moon in the heavens as well as from the flowers, birds, forests, and woodland creatures of Earth that some of their most profound inner experiences originate.”[35] A child who is able to interact with, and explore fully, the Earth community of which she is a part will be able to grow into an adult with an understanding of her place in the universe, and a vision of the interconnected web that is the Earth, her home. “Only after such an unimpeded childhood does a grown woman know in her bones that she inhabits a breathing cosmos, that her life is embedded in a wild community of dynamically intertwined and yet weirdly different lives.”[36] It is just such an individual who will be open to the poetic communication of the universe, who will participate in its imagination and creativity to devise a mutually-enhancing relationship between the human and the Earth.

It is easy for the rational mind to dismiss the whispered stories of trees and the radiant breathing of the moon as projections of the human mind. No great truth is truth if it cannot be contradicted in some way. A sense of trust must be built between the isolated human and her environment. As that bridge is formed, what first seemed to be arrogant projection is really a deep perception. We are perceiving the similarities that draw connection between the human and the Earth, only to realize they are one and the same: “…our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various ‘interior’ moods was originally borrowed from the moody, capricious Earth itself.”[37] The human experience of emotions and consciousness are only qualities of the human because they are first qualities of the Earth, and prior to that the cosmos.

Two hundred million years ago, the first mammals flourished into existence as the next stage of the planet’s unfolding. Mammals developed an emotional sensitivity to the cosmos, impressing upon them the wonder and awe of the universe in a new way.[38] It was out of the mammalian line that humans evolved, perceiving the great mysteries of the deep world as the archetypal, enchanted patterning of myth. In the opening to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes: “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”[39] These inexhaustible cosmic energies may be the very same energies creating the consciousness of the Earth, in which we all participate.

Myths are the underlying stories that subtly guide the course of a culture’s manifestation. To discover a new myth to guide Western culture, and ultimately the planetary culture, toward a harmonious relationship with the Earth, the dialogue must be opened between humanity and the local landscape in which each human being finds herself. Each landscape inspires different emotions, ideas, and stories, causing the universal, archetypal energies coursing through Earth’s consciousness to take diverse, concrete form in different localities. “For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.”[40] Myth, like air or water, is a global, or universal, phenomenon saturated with the qualities of the local, as can be perceived when the local landscape is communed with.

The cultures living in the greatest harmony with the Earth are the indigenous oral cultures spread across the planet. Although each indigenous culture is as radically varied as the landscape in which they live, certain similarities connect their ways of life. Primarily, an oral culture is inherently local, grounded in the region in which they have culturally developed.[41] It seems to be no coincidence that at the same time that the Earth’s ecosystems are unraveling, the planet’s indigenous cultures and their array of languages are also rapidly facing extinction.[42] The diverse languages of the Earth are bound up into the land, and as the land is lost so are its poetic expressions.

The cultures that are causing the greatest environmental destruction carry a noble lineage of writings on religion, spirituality, philosophy, science, poetry, and story that are grounded in a deep reverence, care, and understanding of the Earth. These writings are easily available to nearly everyone in these cultures, yet the demolition of the natural world continues. Abram came to the realization that such a disconnect occurs because these ideas and stories are written down, “effectively divorcing these many teachings from the living land that once held and embodied these teachings.”[43] Without the rich qualities of the landscape engaging every physical sense, these stories lose their sensual depth and cannot impart the full wisdom of the land which inspired them. Only if experienced in the landscape which first spoke the stories can the tales fully convey their meaning.

“Can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local Earth? Not without restorying the local Earth.”[44] As the consequences of the ecological crises become dire, the importance of learning to hear the innumerable voices of the Earth becomes critical. Each voice in every region is telling a unique facet of the universe’s unfolding, which must be heard and retold, inspiring the creativity to find a mutually-enhancing, self-renewing, sustainable path into the future. The true myth of the universe’s journey, from the eternal unfolding of the primordial flaring forth, to the ever-fleeting present moment, must be spoken as story, as the great myth of our time. This story must carry the voices of all the local inhabitants so that new relationships can be formed between them and each new generation of the human being. Children should be able to carry their wonder of the natural world into their adulthood in a mature, reverent form.

“We know of no other place in the universe with such gorgeous self-expression as exists on Earth.”[45] Humans participate in that self-expression through our own creative self-expression: through our myths and stories, our music, writings and art, our innovation and traditions, and our conscious participatory way of being. It is through these expressive gifts that humanity will be able to step fully into its niche in the Earth community.

The new myths we will tell each other will express a tale of renewal, rejuvenation, and reconnection. The ancient cosmologies of the world were based in celebration of seasonal renewal, the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. The new story of the universe honors the irreversible changes unfurling in the course of the evolution of the cosmos. The sharing of that story brings about a reconnection between humanity and the cosmos, in itself a form of renewal. The mythology of the future is spiralic, a celebratory tale of transformation within the cycles of a living, breathing cosmos. The myth is like the Earth itself, continuously circling the sun while simultaneously hurtling forward on an unknown journey across cosmic time and space.

Bibliography

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988.

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Crist, Eileen and H. Bruce Rinker, ed. Gaia in Turmoil. Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010.

Dellinger, Drew. Love Letter to the Milky Way. Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010.

Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.


[1] Credit for this title must be given to Matthew David Segall, who created the phrase at Esalen Institute in conversation with poet Drew Dellinger, regarding Dellinger’s poem “Planetize the Movement.”

[2] Drew Dellinger, “Hymn to the Sacred Body of the Universe,” in Love Letter to the Milky Way (Mill Valley, CA: Planetize the Movement Press, 2010), 30.

[3] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 35.

[4] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2010), 4.

[5] Abram, Becoming Animal, 32.

[6] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1999), 15.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 21.

[9] Ibid, 42.

[10] Ibid, 33.

[11] Abram, Becoming Animal, 73.

[12] Ibid, 75.

[13] Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 17.

[14] Ibid, 264.

[15] Abram, Becoming Animal, 46.

[16] Ibid, 62.

[17] Tyler Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 30.

[18] Abram, Becoming Animal, 99.

[19] Ibid, 101.

[20] Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker, “One Grand Organic Whole,” in Gaia in Turmoil, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010), 4.

[21] Ibid, 16-17.

[22] Abram, Becoming Animal, 123.

[23] Ibid, 118.

[24] Ibid, 128-129.

[25] Ibid, 63-64.

[26] Ibid, 175.

[27] Ibid, 169.

[28] Ibid, 161-162.

[29] Ibid, 164-165.

[30] Ibid, 171.

[31] Volk, “How the Biosphere Works,” 30.

[32] Abram, Becoming Animal, 172-173.

[33] Ibid, 173.

[34] Ibid, 38.

[35] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2009), 133.

[36] Abram, Becoming Animal, 42.

[37] Ibid, 153.

[38] Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 10.

[39] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.

[40] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1-2.

[41] Abram, Becoming Animal, 268.

[42] Ibid, 265.

[43] Ibid, 281.

[44] Ibid, 289.

[45] Swimme and Berry, The Universe Story, 263.