This is a reflection on a one-day forum that I recently attended, on the theme of Spirituality and Ecology. It was hosted by the good people at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, April 22nd 2016. I have been a meandering sort of friend in the three years since I discovered Amida Buddhism here, and not very consistent. Nonetheless, it remains a real watershed in my life, that I'm very grateful for. This may not feel wholly relevant on these pages, but I'm posting in appreciation of the space Dharmavidya's been opening up here. Name Amida Bu, Mat


St Ethelburga’s is a small 12th Century church, nestled among the glass towers in what’s now London’s teeming financial centre. The original church was partly destroyed by the IRA’s Bishopsgate bombing in 1993. Afterwards, out of an urge to respond both to the violence of that event, and to what it witnessed to, the surviving fabric of the building was repurposed as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.


In April I attended a one-day forum at St Ethelburga’s, on the theme of Spiritual Ecology. The day related to a new programme of youth mentoring for under 25’s that they’re initiating there, around the same theme. On this occasion most of us were older than that.


For those already familiar with this conversation, the forum was introducing the work of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Joanna Macey, and Macey’s associated the idea of ‘the great turning’: a root and branch transformation of life values, in the face of ecological crisis. I was very pleased to be there, and am inspired by what they’re doing. Parts of the day also left me aware that I’m still uncertain as to the meaning and usefulness of the term ‘spiritual ecology’.  So writing this is both about saying thankyou, and about beginning to name the questions that arise for me around this idea, towards a further involvement in it.


The day introduced Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s pragmatic understanding of spiritual ecology in terms of its four framing principles: interconnectedness, reverence for Life, service, and stewardship. It also presented Vaughan-Lee’s four-fold approach to working out a personal embodiment of these principles in our day-to-day lives: witnessing, grief, prayer, action.


Beyond those two easy to grasp frameworks, it wasn’t an information-heavy day. Less about studious note-taking than about communication, and encounter. And it was the latter, for me, that turned out to be its most valuable aspect. To invite a conversation about ‘what we are doing to the planet’ seems to trigger a fairly predictable set of reactions in many of us. Grief, yes. Fear, yes. Messianic zeal, possibly. But also irritation, impatience, and an aversion to earnest hand-wringing. Even with one’s own hands silently wringing, under the table.


All of which was skilfully grounded by a series of instructions which invited those present to become more fully embodied, and from there, to meet the others in the room, one at a time, and at close quarters. Through cycles of silent face-to-face meeting, followed by a rotation of speaking and listening, those irritable, worried reactions were pulled down from the space of airy argumentation, into an encounter with what’s written on the face of this one unique human being – the one looking back at you now, and now. I was taken aback, stunned even, by how effectively this cut through any drift towards opinionated position-taking.


This was followed by a simple improvised ritual, in which each person present was invited to step out into the circle of others, and to address them by continuing this sentence: ‘Being in service to something greater means…’. Again, what this drew into the room was less a stock set of more-or-less pessimistic, ardent or muscular ‘positions’ on ecological crisis, than the far more unpredictable and fascinating presence of a series of individual human beings.


So I was grateful to be part of all of this, and it’s left an impression on me that I’m still making sense of. One part of that impression was the realisation that the most viscerally present fear around ecological crisis, for me, concerns our mysterious ability to remain in a state of distracted preoccupation, even in the face of an overwhelming need for change.

I don’t mean that in sweeping ‘big picture’ terms - the curious momentum that keeps the over-developed world entranced as it sails over the edge of a cliff - although there is that.

I mean it first and foremost about myself. I mean, perhaps most of all, the curiously tenacious grip of performance anxiety, the endlessly busying struggle to be good enough, within contexts that you know in your bones to be distractions from what actually matters.


I also noticed that being around people, as I found myself to be at St Ethelburga’s, who speak of these things using old-fashioned words like faith, prayer, or ‘service to something greater’, feels like a dangerous place to be, for me. Because, I suppose, that’s how I think of it myself, even if never quite following through on where that line of thought might lead.


This more encounter-based part of the day was followed by the presentation of a number of localized initiatives, as well as an invitation to share our own related projects. The projects presented were inspiring, valuable, urgent. But at this point I also noticed a growing sense of misgiving - in both myself, and one or two others next to me - around the proposition that what all of this comes down to, then, is the need to initiate new eco-spiritual ‘projects’.


I find it difficult to discuss this without immediately contradicting myself. Case by case, each of the projects discussed presented meaningful, helpful, grounded work. And yes, we badly need many more such. But I’ve heard this mode of response described by another name, too: eco-busyness. Yes\We\Can: our addiction to restless displacement activity, to an acting-out whose unspoken functions include warding off the unspeakable, and restoring – trying to restore - a sense of human agency, faced with these crushing statistics. Yes\We\Can.


Certainly, framing any of this in terms of ‘what can we do to convince others’ is where I find myself switching off. The mystery of our culture’s collective momentum, after all, is that we already know where this road goes. The information is there, has been there for years now. And what I’m looking for here, I see, may be less about finding a way to change the world, or even to change the culture, than just - or rather, most fundamentally - a way to change.


Again, I think there’s a good, old-fashioned word for that: metanoia. A turning around in the heart. Conversion - not as a hardening position, or the uncritical adoption of a set of received answers, but as the ongoing eruption of the question itself within one’s life. ‘Continuous conversion’, as its sometimes called. What does life want of me? That seems a good way of putting it. When you stop to consider the full implications of ecological crisis, what does life want of you?


In the round-up to the day, one man, an Anglican priest, spoke of his sense that although we’d made a good start, ‘We need to be much braver’. ‘What might the world look like’, he asked, ‘if we were?’ He threw it out to the room that in our niceness, in our eagerness to put each other at ease, we were all still ‘dancing around the elephant in the room’.


His provocation was picked up by a woman participant, who responded to it with the suggestion that ‘dancing round the elephant’ was a useful image to express the value of what we were already doing here, rather than lamenting the inevitably limited nature of our responses. Faced with an elephant of such unimaginable size, what we’re left with, she suggested, is just that - the ongoing dance of all that its looming, immoveable presence provokes in our lives. I like that image, and will keep it.


For myself, what I valued most from this day brings me back to where I began. Provocative questions or challenges like that last, are best put, perhaps, whilst looking into the face of one particular person - one fallible, resourceful human being. I’m still intrigued by how doing that shifted the conversation away from the guilt, from the morose prognoses, and most of all from the too-easy judgements passed on our peers, that such conversations so easily default to.


My thanks to the people who set this up, and who hosted it. I look forward to coming back.

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Comment by Mat Osmond on July 29, 2016 at 9:39

Many thanks for these thoughtful comments, all of which helped me take stock. I think becoming smaller is a perfect phrase for meeting the uncertainties surrounding ecological crisis, Charlene. And I don't hear navel-gazing at all. (Actually I wouldn't want to make navel-gazing an out-and-out negative, either. Funny that we take this phrase from a form of prayer, one developed by Orthodox Christian monks on Mount Athos.) And yes, Dharmavydia, Spiritual Ecology could mean so many things, couldn't it? A way of living rooted in gratitude for and celebration of all life, perhaps, not just the human? That's one of the many senses in which I find here a very good model for it. More simply perhaps, a way of living rooted deeply enough to face the challenges of - e.g. - a collapse in agricultural output, and still being of help to others by how you live, as well as what you do. I liked 'Egology' - plenty of that. The phrase I often have in mind is 'data craziness': the intoxication of thinking you know something that others don't - the heroic fantasies of the pessimistic whistle blower. At the same time, I've listened to some very impressive scientists - e.g. on the implications of Arctic methane release - who carry that very role involuntarily, and are both haunted by it, and totally dedicated to helping in whatever way they can through their work. Rob, I so often chime with your perspective on these things, but this really caught me by surprise and elicited a big 'Yes': 'Until we dis-identify with the structures of Mara we are not dancing around this elephant , we are the elephant.' Very well put, so much there. At the same time, the 'structures' in question here include things as basic to our modern lives keys turning in ignitions, kettles boiling, houses being heated. Even eating food, in the context of globalised agriculture. Perfectly reasonable moment-to-moment choices by good people, living valuable lives, filled with good heart. But billions and billions of them, so many in fact that their lives, their kettles and their car engines and their baskets of food-shopping are now - as they say - a 'geological force'. It seems to me the elephant is ultimately bigger than any language of blame, failing, or shortcoming. Whatever we do, we remain, in that sense, the elephant. How wonderful to have been taught this simple existential model to look at that through: Bombu: Nyorai. NamoAmidabu.

Comment by Robert McCarthy on July 27, 2016 at 6:29

Thanks for this post Mat...."concerns our mysterious ability to remain in a state of distracted preoccupation, even in the face of an overwhelming need for change".  Yes both personally and socially I see this as our primary initial challenge. And yes the information has been out there for decades and the elite controls that elephant through psychological manipulation and brute force. I need to say this: I am deeply disappointed to see so much upwelling of passion about this change to European hegemony that is brexit. I have not seen such widespread passion around the series of imminent global catastrophes we are all actually engaged in. 

This is about unwillingness to give up our castles. I am reminded of David Brazier saying you can tell a lot about folk seeing their immediate response to losing their wallet.  Brexit is a bit like that. This is no time for pouring reformist and essentially nationalistic energy into the very organisations that led and continue to lead us into the apocalypse.  Yes there will be much suffering in changes such as brexit. Remember Syria for a start.. a complete destruction of a civilization brought about by Western hegemony. 

Massive suffering to all sentient beings is an absolute given and the fuse is well lit. How to reduce suffering the only priority. I have lived all my adult life with a strong identity of statelessness.  I was so pleased to find this accords with Buddhism.  I see through Brexit how little this identity is actually shared. Until we dis- identify with the structures of Mara we are not dancing around this elephant , we are the elephant.

Comment by David Brazier on July 26, 2016 at 10:25

Thanks, Matt, and I'm glad that you have had some good responses to this piece. As you say, the ecological question is vast. We know a lot about it and also, in a sense, hardly anything compared with the actual complexity of the matter. The need for a collective solution from such a diversity as we are makes it daunting. I hope that, in a certain sense, spiritual ecology is what we are practising here at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis). Is it a question of  endless self questioning and challenge or of just getting on with life in a simple way? When does ecology become egology? It is as difficult to see our own blindness as it seems to be to really act upon what we do know.

Comment by Charlene Diane Jones on July 25, 2016 at 22:13

What a lovely piece of writing about such a big topic. I will take the idea of asking people to respond to 'Being in service to something greater means..." to a day of teaching I've been asked to give to some Yoga Teachers in Training. A good way to begin discussion. 

And the elephant in the room. Perhaps though there is room in the elephant? Quantum physics says so. If so, maybe the response to our biggest present dilemma, the ecology, lies in being small, present within the ecology of one's self, without turning that into a preoccupation, a narcissism, both of which I am guilty of. Always. And yes, the paradox and contradiction in being human...we see something as though it is outside of us. But ecology lies within. Consciousness, based in love, threads our perceptions into a larger whole. 

Again, sorry for the navel gazing here. Thanks again. 

Comment by Mat Osmond on July 14, 2016 at 20:37

Hi Tam, I was keeping a promise to David that I would report back from the day, but I think on reflection its relevance here may be a bit oblique. Many thanks for reading, and for your comments. My remarks are probably self-contradictory, but what I mainly meant to say was that the scale and complexity of 'ecological crisis' so wildly outstrips our efforts to form a meaningful response, that what we need to cultivate - and to create a shared culture of - is a radically unconditional basis for such work. Love is that basis, I think. New problems with old answers. It may solve many important problems if we can learn to live from a place of love - love for life itself, not just our own, or own species' life. But that is not the primary reason for it being worthwhile. I would see any such solution as  a positive side-effect. None of which I live up to very well, but we have to start somewhere. The recent post here on Part 11 of Summary of Faith and Practice contains all of this and more in what it says, I think.

Comment by Tam on July 12, 2016 at 19:26
Thanks for this, Mat. I guess it has not been noticed much, published as it was just as the shock Brexit vote took centre stage.
It sounds like the Spiritual Ecology day was worthwhile but I do wonder how often those of us with an interest in ecology find ourselves largely engaging with others who are already concerned and or involved.
And as for dancing around the elephant - that sums up so much of what goes on. I agree it is some kind of progress to at least be aware of the elephant in the room but clearly there is a lot more to be done than dancing around it.

It doesn't help that Brexit now predominates and its effects will do for some time.


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