[Originally written in 1995 as a chapter for a book never published; recently updated.]

We live in a wondrous world of relationship, entwined and sustained by interconnecting webs of dynamic interactions. And today we are awakening to that world, discovering the enormity of our past human folly along with the vast creative potentials within and around us.

For hundreds of years, we who have lived within "Western Civilization" have struggled to master the natural world around us, to overcome the limits to our desired way of life. We have carefully studied the earth and the cosmos, attempting to discover the essential building blocks of the universe that we might manipulate them into more efficient mechanisms to provide for our wants and needs. Our motives have ranged between the laudable and the questionable. We have striven to mitigate what we have seen as the causes of human suffering, attempting to make ourselves less vulnerable to disease, famine, early death, heavy labor, heat, cold, wind, rain and snow, wild animals, and natural disasters. We have sought to know our world out of curiosity, our seemingly innate drive to explore and discover. We have developed technologies of transportation to enlarge our horizons, so we could know and learn from distant people and places.

But we have also pursued knowledge and mastery to enable us to wield power over one another, to enhance our individual and group situation at the expense of others and the environment. We have often sought short-term gratification of superficial desires without a thought to wider and long-term consequences.

Whatever our motives, we acted as if we could know and master the world from the "outside," as if we lived independently from it. We thought ourselves to be made of better stuff than the animals and plants and rocks and water and air around us. And our prowess at technology has amplified the disastrous ecological effects of this assumption.

Perhaps we made our biggest error in thinking of the world as made of "stuff" to begin with. Fortunately– and paradoxically– our very search for mastery and knowledge through science and technology has itself brought us to the dawning realization that the world, indeed the universe, seems not to be composed of "stuff' at all. Each time we have grasped what appeared to be a "basic building block," it has dissolved into a dance of energy and relationship, with no real substance at all! And so we awaken today to a new kind of knowledge, a developing comprehension of our deep interrelatedness with everything in the universe.

Early Wisdom

Is this knowledge really so new? Many peoples who share this planet have carried this knowledge through generations, since ancient times. We in the industrial "developed" world have tended to view these people as primitive, superstitious and ignorant, just as we have rejected our own ancestral understanding of interrelatedness, deeming it an illusion we have outgrown.

I find an interesting parallel here between our attitude towards children and our attitude towards less technologically developed cultures. As adults, we tend to regard children's comments as cute or foolish, rather than respecting their points of view, and we often look back on our own childhood beliefs and perspectives with amusement and even contempt. We seem hold the same attitude towards our own distant ancestors, and towards any cultures that live as our ancestors once lived. But are children and so-called primitive cultures really ignorant and foolish? Perhaps we are the ones who have limited ourselves to one set of assumptions about reality, while discarding other assumptions and other realities, equally or potentially more valuable and "true."

As we now awaken to the profound interrelatedness of our world, we are rediscovering this understanding in many ancient traditions, some of which have managed to survive until today in less "developed" areas. Eastern traditions, especially Taoism and Buddhism, hold interconnectedness at the heart of their worldview. Most indigenous peoples across the planet still know, teach, and live this truth. And when we explore the more mystical aspects of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, we find the same vision expressed. Perhaps only we of the industrialized world have forgotten who we are, enchanted as we have been by our prowess at manipulating our environment and producing material goods.

We have forgotten who we are.
We have forgotten who we are
We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos
We have become estranged from the movements of the earth
We have turned our backs on the cycles of life.
We have forgotten who we are.
We have sought only our own security
We have exploited simply for our own ends
We have distorted our knowledge
We have abused our power
We have forgotten who we are.
Now the land is barren
And the waters are poisoned
And the air is polluted.
We have forgotten who we are.
Now the forests are dying
And the creatures are disappearing
And humans are despairing.
We have forgotten who we are.
We ask forgiveness
We ask for the gift of remembering
We ask for the strength to change
We have forgotten who we are.

(U.N Environmental Sabbath Program, in Roberts & Amidon, 1991, p. 70.)

…And now we begin to remember.

A New/Old Creation Story

Some fifteen billion years ago (or was it eight, ten, or twelve?), our universe exploded out of nothingness and began a rapid expansion, differentiating and reintegrating into ever more complex webs of relationship. Pure energy formed into hydrogen and helium, and then gradually into more complex elements that clustered into galaxies, stars, and planets through multi-million year cycles of implosion and explosion, gathering and dispersal. On at least one planet, circling a middle-sized star in a galaxy far from the center of the universe, conditions were just right for the miraculous phenomenon of life to arise, welling up some four billion years ago in a planetary communion of single-celled bacteria.

The phenomenal features of evolution expressed themselves even more dramatically in living systems, as some prokaryotic bacteria first created the capacity to feed themselves through photosynthesis, and others combined with one another to form nuclei and become "eukaryotes" two billion years ago. Some forms of eukaryotes began to consume others, giving rise to innovative combinations, and finally to the rapid acceleration of differentiation and novelty through sexual reproduction. Living systems learned the value of community so well that wholly new creatures– multicelled animals– came into being some 700 million years ago, with cells and tissues taking on various specialized tasks and giving up their autonomy to depend upon the whole.

Through these amazing processes of differentiation, self-organization, and interrelationship, it was perhaps only a matter of time before self-consciousness awoke in some form or another; it happened that it began to awaken some two and a half million years ago in the form of humans, nearly hairless relatives of the apes with bipedal upright locomotion, large brains, and grasping hands. It would take another two million, four hundred sixty thousand years for modern humans to emerge within the biosphere–and another thirty-four thousand five hundred years for humans to invent the wheel and begin writing, a mere 5500 years ago.

This story of creation, derived from the observations and calculations of modern science, has been seeping into our mental constructs within the last fifty years, although bits and pieces were known to us before. I base my account on the writings of Elisabet Sahtouris (1989) and Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1994). Although superficially quite different from most indigenous creation stories, it conveys a very similar theme: humans arose within nature, within the dynamics of Earth and universe. We are not some foreign seed planted here for supernatural purposes, nor are we the result of a grand cosmic accident. All our human capacities are of the universe, not separate from it.

This story of our evolution helps us remember who we are, reminds us of our place within nature. All our technological wonders pale in comparison to the on-going miracles of evolution. We find ourselves listening more closely to the biological wisdom of our bodies, and opening our attention to the patterns of the living systems around us, seeking a deeper, more enduring knowledge than what most of us learned in school. Perhaps we can learn to use our astonishing intellectual capacities to augment and cooperate with the natural processes of nature.

A New/Old Kind of Thinking

Sahtouris, Berry, and Swimme do more than just convey the facts of the matter to us; their writing informs our feelings as well as our concepts. They write in a poetic kind of prose, reflecting a broader use of the mind than science usually recognizes. As we begin to remember who we are, we rediscover poetry, dream, artistic expression, and other numinous ways of perceiving and understanding our world.
Anthropologist and systems thinker Gregory Bateson points to the danger of limiting our knowledge to pure "scientific thinking" in this dramatic pronouncement:

Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and … its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct. (Bateson, 1972, p. 146).

Before I explore out the implications of this passage, I want to tell you a story to illustrate the problem of "mere purposive rationality" in my own life and thinking.

I was raised in Los Alamos, the " Atomic City," where the scientific paradigm ruled the day. Fortunately, because Los Alamos is nestled in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, my childhood playground was nature, where from an early age, I camped, picnicked, and played, establishing a strong relationship with trees, mountains, creeks, and critters.

In Los Alamos, however, I learned to worship the God of Science along with the Christian God. I remember going to Family Days Open House at the Lab (as we called it), the rare opportunity to go behind the security fences and see a little of what they did there. The apparatus, the cloud chambers, the accelerators, the glove boxes, tissues studied under microscope–all of it enchanted me. I wanted to be a Scientist when I grew up. I wanted that access to the mysterious inner workings of the world.

I learned that there was a correct way of thinking: "logical," "rational," backed by scientific data and framed within measurable parameters. If it couldn't be measured and replicated in the lab, it probably didn't exist. Even then, one would have to defend one's understandings and hypotheses against the rigorous (and often hostile) critique of other scientists. I heard tales of meetings in which senior scientists would attack and ridicule any new theory, judging it primarily by its author's ability to withstand the attack.

I also learned that feelings and fantasy had little place in scientific thinking, and that I had best keep those kinds of things out of the discussion. Feelings and dreams were fine for girls' slumber party chatter, but had no place in the Real World.

Even today, I often run slam-bam into this old programming, finding myself caught in an over-focused, tight, pursed-lip kind of thinking and writing. When I give some attention to the underlying feelings, I discover an old fear of leaving myself open to intellectual attack by some brainy authority who would tell me my thinking is mushy or soft or something equally terrible.

Here I am– trying to address the fallacies in the scientific paradigm of the last few hundred years, while subjecting myself to the imagined scrutiny of those caught in it! I realize how hard it is for me to grasp that these respected Authorities of my childhood were very likely lost (along with the predominant culture) in the illusion of the separate self, in anthropocentrism, in the notion that the human mind is somehow discontinuous from– and superior to– the rest of nature.

I aspire to rigorous thinking, to a mindfulness that sees clearly what is, which examines its premises and assumptions. But I also value other kinds of knowing– the intuitive, the poetic, the "feminine"–arising from the wisdom of interconnectedness that lies at the heart of the holistic paradigm. Rigorous thinking need not be based on deductive reasoning alone, nor exclude the intuitive. Rigorous thinking, to be true to its own values, must of necessity open itself to other forms of knowing.  "Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life" (Bateson, 1972)

Bateson goes further than simply saying that purposive rationality by itself is unbalanced; he says it is "necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life"! Strong words!  And how is this so? Because "life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purpose may direct." Life depends on complex circuits of information and mutual causality, in which each interaction affects a multitude of other interactions, and is in turn affected by them.

Consider for a moment some of the "circuits of contingency" in our bodies, within the respiratory and circulation systems. Think of the vast array of signals sent from cell to cell, nerve to nerve, organ to organ, with each beat of the heart and each breath. Can you imagine managing all that with your conscious mind, your "purposive rationality"? Impossible! Our conscious, rational mind can only direct short arcs along the whole circuit of contingency, such as when we consciously breathe more deeply. Certainly this short arc of conscious choice affects all the circuits of the respiratory and circulatory system, but we can neither comprehend nor consciously control the complexity of our whole physiological and psychological response.

Some hints of these responses come to our awareness, however, through imagery, dreams, art, music, movement, and poetry. That is why these alternative modes of knowing are essential to our survival as a species. When we rely alone upon the short arcs of our conscious rational knowing, we leave out so much essential information that we are virtually flying blind. Sooner or later, we will crash against an unseen mountaintop, or into another carefully constructed and narrowly held human theory.

Traditional cultures use myth, ritual, and story telling to share the more numinous kinds of knowledge with one another. Aborigines in Australia explore "Dream Time" and follow "story lines" to travel across their land. Navajos seek healing through "sings" and ceremonial sand paintings. Tibetan Buddhists also use elaborate sand paintings to convey subtle spiritual teachings; both traditions destroy the paintings after the ritual is complete, placing emphasis on the process rather than an enduring product.

We Westerners often label such cultural teachings as "superstition" because, taken literally, they often seem to contradict our scientific perspectives, our "facts." Perhaps the problem lies with our assumption that myths and stories communicate literally, as our scientific theories try to do. People living in traditional cultures may hear their cultural teachings in a wholly different way; they may respond to them as we do to poetry or art. We don't demand that art represent reality logically, only that it communicates some emotional or spiritual message, often in "code." So much more subtlety and nuance can be conveyed through metaphor than through mathematical specifications. Indeed, metaphor seems to be the language of the unconscious, communicating information beyond the "short arc" of conscious rationality. And it is likely that people in traditional cultures receive and share their wisdom in this subtle, non-literal way.

Unfortunately these days, our cultural mythology is primarily conveyed via television, corrupted with commercial manipulations and profit-driven competition for viewers. Messages that might stimulate some discomfort (which real teachings often do) fall by the wayside and entertainment becomes the order of the day. Overall, the teaching we receive tells us to buy more stuff, avoid pain, and put on a happy face– not what anyone would call wisdom.

As we begin to remember who we are, let us open ourselves to the many ways of knowing, with rigor and humor and humility. Let us analyze, experiment, and theorize, and let us dream, dance, and play. And let us do it all with the intention of deepening our wisdom and our interrelatedness with Earth, so that we live in cooperation with nature once again.

Learning from Nature

To cooperate with nature, we need to understand her ways. Unfortunately, we tend to observe nature through our own biases and filters, interpreting what we see according to our preconceptions about the way things are.

For example, I was taught that "social Darwinism," which justified oppression and exploitation of the lower classes by claiming they were simply "less fit" to survive, followed Darwin's discoveries about evolution and his theories of biological competition and "survival of the fittest." Apparently, things really went the other way: Darwin observed nature through the lens of the social practices of his day, which were highly individualistic and competitive. Social Darwinism essentially preceded biological Darwinism. Most scientists since have observed the evidence of competition in nature and ignored the evidence of cooperation, because they looked for what they expected to see.

Only recently have ecologists like Edward Goldsmith begun to reveal another perspective, showing how we must observe species-in-environment to really understand evolution. Then we begin to see that "cooperation is the primary Gaian interrelationship" and that "competition is a secondary Gaian interrelationship" (Goldsmith, 1993, chapter titles). Both social Darwinism and the popular understanding of biological Darwinism are called into serious question.

Somehow when we observe nature, we need to examine our preconceptions and assumptions, and to look with "beginner's mind," to use a phrase from Zen Buddhism. We need to observe nature in process and holistically, trying to notice all of what is actually taking place. We must look with a different kind of eye than when we try to figure out what things are made of, or define what things "are," or observe one entity out of the context of its environment.  If we can watch all of what happens long enough, we may begin to see patterns in the processes we observe, patterns that rise into view out of the continual flow of events, like standing waves in the flow of a river. Because these patterns are inherent in the unfolding of life, they are inherent in us as well, and can teach us how to live. Early in his career, Gregory Bateson wrote:

I picked up a vague mystical feeling that we must look for the same sort of processes in all fields of natural phenomena–that we might expect to find the same sort of laws at work in the structure of a crystal as in the structure of society, or that the segmentation of an earthworm might really be comparable to the process by which basalt pillars are formed. (1940, quoted in Berman 1984, p. 196)

General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory (GST), arising out of the biological sciences, attempts to map general principles for how all systems work, especially "living" systems. (I use quotation marks around "living" because of the difficulty we face in clearly distinguishing between living and non living systems.) Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into component parts, GST explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of relationship. This shift in focus– from things frozen in time to dynamic relationships– underlies systems thinking.

What do we mean by a "system"? We could use the term "system" for any pattern of relationship, from an atom to a galaxy, from a cell to an ecosystem. As a system, I function through relationships within and around "me." These words flow onto this page through a myriad of complex interrelationships within this "body-mind." As you read them, the words create a relationship between you and me, as you processes them within the intricacies of relationships within your body/mind. My words are intelligible to you because of the complexity of relationships that form the language and culture we share.

Relationships happen through flows of information; I receive information through my senses as systems within and around me interact, and my response joins that flow. Riding a bicycle, I enjoy a relationship with the bicycle and the road and the landscape through the feedback I receive from seeing, hearing, the sensations of pressure against my body, and my kinesthetic sense of movement and position. When information flow is impeded or interrupted, relationship suffers and my response to my environment may be faulty. If I close my eyes, I may not receive information about my bike/body's relationship to a rock, and fail to make the necessary adjustments to avoid crashing.

Four invariants of systems

Systems theorists have noticed that four patterns of relationship and information flow seem to inhere in all living systems: nested hierarchies, holism, self-regulation, and self-organization. First, every system is made up of subsystems and in turn holds membership in one or more larger systems, forming a kind of nested hierarchy– systems within systems, circuits within circuits, wheels within wheels. Note this is not the kind of hierarchy of power so familiar to human societies. No one individual rules at the top; instead, in a sense, the collective membership of a system governs the whole by the magic of synergy.

Moreover, every system manifests properties that are not evident in its subsystems. As the old saw tells us, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So at each new level of systemic organization, new properties and capacities emerge, defying human prediction. A human being is something more than just a conglomerate of carbon, oxygen, and water, mixed in with a few other minerals. A human is even more than a conglomerate of cells and tissues. How these elements, or cells and tissues, are organized makes for humanness, and for the distinctiveness of each individual human as well.

Subsystems can specialize, taking over a function (such as respiration or communication) for the whole system, freeing up other subsystems for other specialization. This provides greater flexibility for the whole in responding to changes and demands of the environment.

The other two invariants have to do with how systems respond to change  Living systems maintain their form over time in a kind of fluctuating balance, called "homeostasis" or "morphostasis." At the same time, they adapt themselves to changes in their environment through 'morphogenesis" . Living systems perform these miraculous tasks by receiving information from their environment, comparing it to their established "codes" (acquired through previous learning and/or genetics), and responding accordingly.

Systems tend to respond in a way that will reduce deviation from their established patterns of interaction, or "codes." We call this interchange between system and environment 'negative feedback" because it reduces deviation. Such responses regulate our relationship to our environment, in order to maintain our system. When we become overheated, for example, negative feedback loops within our body create perspiration, the evaporation of which cools our bodies back to within our optimal temperature range.

However, things change in large ways as well as small. These changes may be such that the established codes of response cannot accommodate them. Systems must adapt themselves, must find new responses. They must deviate from their established codes; through trial and error they must seek responses that will bring them back into harmony with their environment. These changes in response are often initiated by 'positive feedback" in which deviation is amplified, rather than reduced.

In positive feedback, each change or deviation leads to more change which leads to more change, until something breaks the cycle (usually negative feedback in some form). In a noisy room, people may adapt by talking more loudly, thus raising the decibel level in the room, and provoking everyone to speak even louder. In this case, the positive feedback loop is limited by the vocal chords and the hearing tolerance of the people in the room.

Sometimes positive feedback loops get set up without controls, as in the case of modern economic "growth" or expansion which exploits resources and produces pollution. For industry to grow, consumption of material goods must increase, so either the population must increase, or the "standard of living" must continue to increase (or both) to provide markets for industrial output. The more we get, the more we want, and we are encouraged in this by advertising. More and more resources must be exploited to produce the goods, with attendant waste and pollution. Then we have a "runaway positive feedback" loop which can destroy the system. If we continue to exploit resources and produce pollution faster than the ecosystem of the planet can recycle and renew (as many scientists believe we are now doing), we will destroy our own life support system. Our demise as a species might then be the way that negative feedback reestablishes the integrity of planetary health.

Healthy morphogenesis or self-organization requires negative feedback to reestablish the essential patterns of the system, adapted to the new demands of the environment.  In nature, negative feedback usually occurs quickly, before a positive feedback loop has reached lethal proportions. Only in human affairs do we find many examples of positive feedback running amok.

Positive and negative feedback loops always operate together in living systems. If a system only maintained itself according to established codes (as most mechanical systems do), it would be unable to adapt to changing conditions in the environment and eventually wear out, or blow up, or collapse. This is why we humans must constantly tinker with our machines to keep them functioning. If a system only engaged in positive feedback, it would have no "integrity," it would maintain no pattern and immediately cease to exist! So while adapting to changing conditions in short bursts of positive feedback, all living systems maintain themselves through negative feedback, and reduce deviation around new "codes" as soon as possible.

Let's keep in mind that we are here trying to study incredibly complex dynamic interactions of relationship, in order to identify large patterns that seem true throughout the universe, or at least what we know of the universe. As soon as we try to take a snapshot of one such interaction, we leave out the rest of reality.  When we focus on homeostasis and negative feedback, we leave out adaptation and positive feedback, and vice versa. Yet no pattern or dynamic or interaction or relationship exists in a vacuum. Everything is entangled with everything else.

How differently events and behaviors appear when we examine them with the understanding of these four invariants: holism, nested hierarchies, self-regulation, and self-organization! We begin to see life as a miraculous and creative endeavor to both maintain its forms in some kind of continuity over time, and to accommodate the rich web of relationships among its myriad forms. To meet these twin challenges, life must constantly organize itself in ever more complex ways. We begin to see our own personal struggles in a new light, as part of this grand creative endeavor, and arising from the nature of life itself.

Self-reflective consciousness

And with humans, life has apparently introduced a whole new alternative of self-organization to its repertoire: self-reflective consciousness. As far as we know, we are the only forms of life on this planet, at least, that have evolved a particular response to change: we are able to communicate complex concepts through thought and language, and therefore choose our responses from a vast range of alternatives. No longer bound by the predictable and reliable instincts evidenced by other life forms, we can make it up as we go along– for better and for worse.

If we understand our place in the web of life, if we see ourselves in relationship to everything else, sustained and guided by the self-organizing wisdom of the whole of life on the planet, we can use our self-reflective consciousness to celebrate life. We can create art, music, dance, crafts of great beauty and utility, drawing modestly on the renewable resources of Earth. We can find ways of enhancing the natural healing powers within us, and in the plants within various ecosystems we live in. We can work with the natural rhythms of soil, season, and plant life to grow food and useful fibers. All these human activities evolved in harmony with the web of life on Earth, have endured for thousands of years, and could probably continue into the foreseeable future.

Within the earth-based cultures, both ancient and those few surviving today, ritual and art constantly reminded people of their relationship to the larger wholes of community and nature. Rituals, art, and social customs served as negative feedback to self-maintain the relationships of individual to the whole. Shamans and elders were systems thinkers, applying systems principles quite effectively, although the language and metaphor they used to express them were quite different from ours today.  Birth and funeral rites reconnected people with the Earth from which they arose and to which they returned. Coming-of-age ceremonies helped the individual feel valued within the embrace of the community, honoring their individuality while reminding them of their responsibilities to the whole. A hunter praying to the soul of the animal he killed reminded himself of his kinship with the animal, even as he took care of his own "self-interest" in acquiring food. Seasonal festivals engendered feelings of gratitude and respect for the elements and life forms that fed, clothed, and housed the people.

Constantly reminded of their interconnectedness with all of life around them, people's choices tended to be in harmony with the good of the whole. Earth-based cultures tended to self-regulate and self-organize harmoniously with their environment. Occasionally a community would make fatal errors and destroy its habitat. Witness the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico who apparently cut down all the surrounding forests and eventually had to abandon their town site altogether. But their numbers were few and their impact on the wilderness limited.

We moderns, however, are vast in number, and our impact on the planetary environment is enormous. And we have forgotten who we are. We do not have rituals and social customs that reconnect us with Earth and our fellow living beings. We do not understand our interdependence and interrelatedness with life around us, and our self-reflective consciousness has become like a loose cannon, wreaking havoc wherever it rolls. We have mistaken the tiny arc of "purposive rationality" for the whole circuit of information and contingency. We have used our creative capacities to destroy rather than enhance, to compete rather than celebrate, to respond haphazardly rather than attentively to changes around and within us.

Because we have not understood that we are each a subsystem within the larger systems of humanity and nature, we have constantly made choices as if our self-interest was separate from the welfare of the whole. And these choices, made in ignorance of the interrelatedness of things, have invariably lead to greater perturbations in the whole, in what can be described as runaway positive feedback loops ("positive" because perturbation– deviation– is amplified instead of reduced). When I try to assert my own idea of my own self-interest, without regard to the effects of my action on the larger systems of which I am a part, my actions set up perturbations in the larger systems.

Much of the time, the larger systems are able to self-maintain around these perturbations, and I will receive feedback that causes me to change my actions accordingly. But I may also respond competitively, self-assertively, and intensify my behavior. This will perturb the larger systems even more, and the feedback I receive may become increasingly intense as well. Thus I have set up a runaway positive feedback loop by my careless and ignorant action, with damaging reverberations throughout the larger systems, and within my own immediate sphere of life. Elisabet Sahtouris writes:

Our greatest conflict is over whether individuals should sacrifice their individual interest to the welfare of the whole or whether individual interest should reign supreme in the hope that the interests of the whole will thus take care of themselves.

No being in nature, outside our own species, is ever confronted with such a choice, and if we consult nature, the reason is obvious. The choice makes no sense, for neither alternative can work. No being in nature can ever be completely independent, although independence calls to every living being, whether it is a cell, a creature, a society, a species, or a whole ecosystem. Every being is part of some larger being, and as such its self-interest must be tempered by the interests of the larger being to which it belongs. Thus mutual consistency works itself out everywhere in nature (1989, pp. 26-27).

How do we fall prey to this nonsensical choice of "self-interest" over the interest of the larger whole? Self-reflective consciousness offers us such choice, to begin with, and then filters the feedback we receive from the larger whole. We are able to ignore feedback which other creatures, who respond instinctively, cannot. To some extent, self-reflective consciousness demands that we do this, because we cannot accommodate in our conscious awareness all the information which presents itself to us, moment to moment. We have to filter and select.

Perhaps, then, our problem lies with the criteria we use to make these selections. And even these criteria are determined by our assumptions about who we are in relation to the world. We will screen out information that conflicts with our view, or that might prompt us to act in conflict with our view. So, once again, if I think I am separate and competitive, I will disallow information (feedback) on the harmful effects of my actions on other humans, other living beings, or the ecosystem. That information doesn't matter much if I believe I exist separate from those others. I can ignore feedback about environmental catastrophes, or even deny its veracity, because I believe I exist apart from all that. "What is destroying our world is the persistent notion that we are independent of it, aloof from other species, and immune to what we do to them" (Joanna Macy, 1991, p. 13).

So we come full circle back to our original quandary: how do we remember who we are? How can we create reminders within our cultures of our interconnectedness with all of life? How can we set up better criteria for selecting information for our attention, so that we stop ignoring the very information we need to self-maintain and self-organize ourselves in harmony with the larger whole?

Deep Ecology

A "deep ecology" movement has arisen in the last decade to directly address this quandary. Deep ecology "seeks to expand the notion of self beyond the confines of the ego and personal history, and to extend concepts of self-interest to include the welfare of all beings" (Macy, 1991, p. xvii). Deep ecologists believe that we cannot make the necessary changes in our behavior toward the environment in a piecemeal fashion, saving a species here, and a piece of forest there; unless we make a fundamental shift in our self-identity and world view, we will continue to create disasters much faster than we can ever hope to correct them.

Deep ecologist Joanna Macy (in her "Work that Reconnects") calls upon us to pay attention to our feelings of pain, fear, and despair about the state of the world. She believes these feelings arise from our interconnectedness; they are forms of negative feedback of the larger system attempting to correct itself, to correct the deviant behavior of us humans. Ignoring our painful feelings about the world, or labeling them as neurotic, interrupts an information flow that might help us remember who we really are, and guide us into corrective behavior.

Within us are deep responses to what is happening to our world, responses of fear and sorrow and anger. Given the flows of information circling our globe, they inhere in us already by virtue of our nature as open systems, interdependent with the rest of life… We suffer with our world–that is the literal meaning of compassion. It isn't some private craziness (Macy, 1991, p. 23 ).

It was once thought our fear of earthquakes, our end of the world dreams, our tears at seeing an animal killed by the roadside, were simply projections of our personal anxieties onto our surroundings. Now we are coming to understand that these are also true feelings for Earth itself. We are not feeling sorry for ourselves, nor are we suffering someone else's sorrow. The heart of the world beats within each of us and that heart is breaking. (The Book of Sorrow, in The Box, a study kit designed to help people "re-member" themselves within the web of life).

Earth-based cultures assumed that healthy people would respond emotionally to whatever affected their community and land. They considered dreams and visions to be messages for the whole community, not just for the individual dreamer. Native Americans encouraged the enactment of significant dreams by and for the whole community, so that the community might be instructed (self-organize). In Black Elk Speaks, an Native American medicine man tells of his visionary dream, and its enactment by his tribe, which seemed to forewarn his people of the danger of the white man's coming to their lands (Niehardt, 1979). Not only did the dream forewarn, but it suggested what was needed, the "mending of the hoop" (which sounds very much like the reintegration of a system).

Our pain for the world arises from our interdependence with the world; all pain is our pain. Our attempts to deny and suppress this experience is deadening– of our vital connections with all life– and perpetuates destructive behavior. The pain of the world is a message, just as pain in our body warns us of injury or disease. We must begin to pay attention to it.

I have been studying and teaching Joanna Macy's "Work that Reconnects" for several years, trying with others to face the realities of today's world without denial, and allowing myself to experience the pain I feel in response.  I feel all kinds of strong feelings:  fear, anger, anguish, horror, and despair. Yet overall, I am happier than I have ever been in my life. This work is inspiring, not depressing, filling my life with meaning and connection.

The Ecological Self

Perhaps my happiness comes from a broader sense of self, a more encompassing sense of identification. Deep ecologist Arne Naess suggests that we need to extend our sense of self beyond the personal ego, even beyond the social self, to the ecological self.

Now is the time to share with all life on our maltreated earth by deepening our identification with all life-forms, with the ecosystems, and with Gaia, this fabulous, old planet of ours…

We need the immense variety of sources of joy opened through increased sensitivity toward the richness and diversity of life, through the profound cherishing of free natural landscapes.We all can contribute to this individually, and it is also a question of politics, local and global. Part of the joy stems from the consciousness of our intimate relation to something bigger than our own ego, something which has endured for millions of years and is worth continued life for millions of years. The requisite care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free nature is felt and conceived of as protection of our very selves. (Seed et al,1988, p.28-29)

Such a suggestion might seem obvious to the point of absurdity to many indigenous people.  To identify oneself in any smaller way would seem insane. And most of the religions of the world agree. Buddha spoke of the Anatman, the "No-self," which many Buddhists interpret to mean "no separate self." Clinging to the notion of a separate self creates the attachments and aversions that create suffering, as I struggle to stake out what is 'me" and "mine" and what is "not-me" and "not-mine". Enlightenment in Buddhism can only be achieved when all beings become enlightened together, and even those who stand on the threshold of Nirvana turn back to work in the world as "Bodhisatvas" so that we and all sentient beings can awaken together.

The notion of a new and larger sense of selfhood is reaching into psychology today, through the work of ecopsychologists like Theodore Roszak (see The Voice of the Earth, 1992). How could we have imagined we had a complete psychology all these years, when we were studiously ignoring the relationship of the individual to the natural environment? We have begun to recognize that we must consider the family system within which an individual lives, and in doing so have awakened to the tragic dimensions of child abuse and neglect. Similarly, we are challenged now to consider the natural (or unnatural) environment within which a person lives and has lived, and how growing up deprived of nature may limit and distort a person's sense of self.

Chellis Glendinning posits an "original trauma" for Western civilization which has lead to a nearly universal splitting of mind from body, intellect from feeling, and to the horrors of the domination paradigm in human relations.

Because we are creatures who were born to live in vital participation with the natural world, the violation of this participation forms the basis of our original trauma. This is the systematic removal of our lives from our previously assumed elliptical participation in nature's world– from the tendrils of earthy textures, the seasons of sun and stars, carrying our babies across rivers, hunting the sacred game, the power of the life force. It is a severance that in the western world was initiated slowly and subtly at first with the domestication of plants and animals, grew in intensity with the emergence of large-scale civilizations, and has developed to pathological proportion with mass technological society– until today you and I can actually live for a week or a month without smelling a tree, witnessing the passage of the moon, or meeting an animal in the wild, much less knowing the spirits of these beings or fathoming the interconnections between their destinies and our own. Original trauma is the disorientation we experience, however consciously or unconsciously, because we do not live in the natural world. It is the psychic displacement, the exile, that is inherent in civilized life. It is our homelessness. (1994, p. 64 )

I believe we each re-experience this trauma in our own childhoods, when we are taught to fear wild things and to consider soil as dirty. Consider how a two year old explores the natural world, with intense concentration picking up each leaf and bug, looking up in wonder to show you a tiny flower or twig. What a tragedy that so many children are scolded for such behavior, told to "put down that dirty thing"! Of course we grow up thinking of ourselves as separate from the natural world, and believing that nature is to be feared and dominated, rather than trusted and revered. A few years ago, I saw a television news story in which the Governor of Alaska revealed this bias when challenged about a proposal to shoot wolves, the natural predators of caribou, so there would be more caribou available for sport hunters. He retorted indignantly, "Well, you can't just let nature run wild!"

We come to think of our own bodies in a similar way, somehow separate from the "self," at best convenient vehicles for carrying the self around in the world. Joseph Chilton Pearce chronicles how this traumatic alienation begins at birth in our hospitals, when medical "science" takes over, separating mother from child, blocking the hormonal progression and biological patterning which natural bonding provides (Pearce, 1993, pp. 110-129). Here we have acted on the basis of both very limited knowledge and profound prejudice against women and nature.  Fortunately, women are beginning to reclaim their authority in this realm, trusting their instinctive and intuitive promptings, and medical science has begun to recognize some of the errors of its ways.

I began to heal this trauma in myself one evening several months ago, when I experienced what might be called a spiritual awakening. All evening I had been feeling a kind of energy flow in my body– my legs, chest, and arms especially. Maybe it was the coursing of blood in my veins and arteries. It was not an unpleasant sensation, and when I paid attention to it, I felt joyful, energetic, alive. I began brushing my teeth after reading Gregory Bateson and watching TV, and suddenly I "got" it. Later I wrote down what I understood in that moment:

My "mind," my intelligence, my thinking capacities, arise out of, no, arise within this "body," this body right here! The same intelligent processes that create my body create my "mind." There can be no distinction! The only intelligence I have is all of me. Period. And all of me doesn't stop with my skin. All of me includes, encompasses, embraces, arises within everything I touch, see, hear, taste, smell, and everything that has helped create all that, and on and on. All "I" am is some sort of rather arbitrarily localized node of a larger process of "mind," of life.

So when I act, make a choice, respond, whatever, I do best to do so from All of Me– allowing this life force I feel coursing through my body to bring its certain wisdom into play. How utterly silly to "think" that we can decide anything by "thinking." God! Yes, God, indeed, for we have made a god of the conscious mind, and tried to cut it off from the totality of the intelligence that seems to underlie all of life. And that's idolatry.

I can consult the sensation of coursing in my body as a way of expanding my identification, and unchaining my consciousness. Let me know my creatureness, my physicality, my wondrous complex organism evolving even now into more intricate relationships with All That Is. What an awesome adventure life is! And how monstrously tragic our senseless limitations– literally senseless, for they come from cutting off our senses. (Brown, 1993)

The following morning, I found myself lying twisted in bed, my body tense, prepared to get up at any moment. This was after getting up briefly and returning to the warmth of the covers, thinking I should not stay very long. But why couldn't I relax and enjoy being there until I did get up? Why hold myself so tense and uncomfortable?

I reflected on what my thoughts had been while lying this way and discovered that, although I had been thinking about a happy occasion– the last meeting of my class at John F. Kennedy University– I had been regarding it with a kind of darkness, looking to see if I could detect any error on my part, anything I needed to correct. This struck me as self-defeating, to say the least. 

Then I remembered the experience of the night before, knowing that I arise within Earth, that I am not separate and provisional. And I realized that no matter what I do, I stay here, sitting either in shit or in beauty, or a mixture of both. Because I am of the earth; I co-arise with everything else here and now.

I thought about the phrase: "put on earth" as opposed to "arising within Earth" and the implications of each. "Put on earth" implies separation, not belonging, having an assignment to fulfill and the danger of being snatched away at any moment. My tension and fear seemed to come from a deeply held assumption that I must constantly "measure up" in order to earn the "right" to be here, as if I did not arise naturally from Earth-life. I think this may be a common assumption, that we are somehow on probation here, constantly trying to prove ourselves worthy. This assumption has created a lot of pain for me all my life and, I suspect, for many others.

What a tragic error– the error of Western civilization, in which we have carefully instructed ourselves that we are separate from nature. Who wants to be special if this is what it buys us: probation, alienation, tension, and fear?

Even this tragic error itself arises within the natural processes of life, which includes and celebrates differentiation, diversity, individuality. But we humans have confused differentiation with separation– and in us, nature has made the same mistake. We have the opportunity to correct that error as a self-correcting, self-maintaining living system. Whoops, we went a little too far with that one. Bring ourselves back into the whole, now, for healing and reunion and re-membering. If we do not correct the error, the experiment of the human species may fail and we will disappear– which is how the larger system will self-correct. Let's see if we can do it another way!

I have felt such relief and joy with this realization. There is no place else to go, no place to be snatched away to. Heaven and hell are right here, right now. Both arise along with us and everything else within the natural life flows of energy, love, and intelligence, moment to moment.


How do we heal our original trauma, remember who we are, and midwife a renaissance of Earth-based, sustainable culture? First and foremost, we need to get out into nature, frequently, and for good lengths of time. Wherever we live, we need to come to know the land and waters, and the plants and creatures that share them with us. Getting out in nature means walking, sitting, perhaps swimming, boating in hand-propelled crafts, and "low-tech" camping in which we live as simply and vulnerably as possible. It means being in nature, not consuming it or using it as a backdrop for entertainment. (Strolling around on a golf course may have its own rewards, but it will not necessarily do much for our ecological consciousness.) Gardening can help our reconnection, if approached with a humble desire to learn the rhythms of nature. Guided or solitary wilderness experiences such as vision quests can help us experience even more fully the embrace of nature, while we explore our inner terrain as well, facing our demons and deeper currents of soul.

Deep ecologist John Seed recommends simple exercises in awareness, such as exploring a square foot of earth in one's own backyard for an hour or more. Just as meditating on a candle flame may help a spiritual seeker identify with the flame of spirit, so meditating on a rock, flower, leaf, or ant may help us identify with another form of life, expanding our sense of self in the process. Such exercises also challenge us to confront our often frantic relationship to time, and to open ourselves to the immediacy of the living moment.

We can reclaim our place in nature by listening to the wisdom of the body and supporting its marvelous regenerative capacities, instead of treating like a machine. Spontaneous movement and dance, or formal forms like T'ai Chi, can help us re-experience ourselves as the natural biological creatures we are.

Small children may guide us in awakening, too, those who have not yet disconnected from nature, who still greet the world with wonder. Spending time outdoors with a small child, following the child's lead (without undue concern for the cleanliness of clothes) can open our eyes and hearts to the beauty and marvels around us, as well as help focus our attention in the moment. Our enlightenment depends on personal awakening and on the transformation of the human systems within which we live. In a recent talk in San Francisco, Andrew Harvey observed:

We are supposedly being swept up in this great mystical transformation that the new age represents. But a spiritual revolution that isn't also a political revolution and an economic revolution and an establishment of justice and a feeding of the poor and an ending of the appalling industrial systems that menace the lives of billions of people on the planet is not a spiritual transformation at all. It is simply masturbation of the soul. It has nothing to do with the kind of transformation that has to happen. (1995, p. 15).

Certainly all the institutions that perpetuate our alienation from nature must be challenged and transformed, from medicine and childbirth practices, child-rearing and education, to economic and political systems. We must learn to question the unquestionable and speak the truth to power, as the Quakers say.

It's as if Nature has created a great experiment and it's up to each of us as participants to contribute to the outcome. We are each called to discover what our precise roles may be within this experiment, moment to moment– to know how to act, and what to do. Nature says with each of us: I think I'll try this!

I don't think Nature is purposive in the way we tend to think of it– a human kind of strategizing, planning, giving various people assignments. Nature's kind of purpose is more an organic kind of trial and error, responsive to process moment to moment. I think Nature operates more like an artist or a musician who responds to what is emerging–coaxing it out–interacting with the materials and the patterns that emerge out of the interaction.

Neurobiologist Francisco Varela believes adaptation and evolution occur through what he calls natural drift."Many paths of change are potentially possible, and which one is selected is an expression of the particular kind of structural coherence the unit has, in continuous tinkering" (Varella, in Thompson, 1987, p. 61).

We may resist this understanding of how things work– seemingly so uncontrolled. We usually try to manage our lives by manipulation and master planning. But what emerges in art and in nature arises from the interaction and mutual responses of all the players, animate and inanimate. Because the living players use feedback to change their responses, the outcome is unpredictable. One can never predict what will emerge, and therefore we cannot make precise plans, anymore than we can predict what a baby will look like, or how she or he will develop.

No one can predict how we will respond to the increasing crises around us, and none of us can predetermine what our role may be in the unfolding of things. (And, according to Varela, our role will be determined as much by our own "internal coherence" as by external conditions.) We can, however, circumscribe that role by closing down, living in denial and fear, running away from the pain (information), believing there is nothing we can do. We don't have to know what to do. We can't know what to do, in advance anyway. But that's different from believing there is nothing we can do. We can stay open. We can make ourselves available.  We can "show up". Most of us do in some aspects of our personal lives, in our relationships, our parenting, or at play. So we can do it with transformation on a larger scale. Show up. Be present to what is– feelings and all. Observe, participate, watch and see what each one of us does, what the situation summons in each of us, what previously unknown wisdom, strength, skills, eloquence, emerge from within.

But we won't know if we don't show up, if we avoid the issue, hide our heads, throw in the towel, or whatever.

And everyone's way of showing up is different. We can't judge one another.  But let's not use that as an excuse for evading our responsibility. We are each responsible to Nature for the unique experiment Nature plays out in us; we are each responsible for our part of the whole radical experiment of humanity.

When we act out of our responsibility and our interconnectedness, we cannot know the full effects of our actions. We must often act on faith, doing what seems right, and letting go of results. Joanna Macy reassures us that what we do matters, nonetheless: "With insight into our profound interrelatedness, you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have repercussions throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern" (1991, p. 180).

So let us join with Earth and with each other in remembering and renaissance.

We join with the earth and with each other
To bring new life to the land.
To restore the waters.
To refresh the air.
We join with the earth and with each other
To renew the forests
To care for the plants
To protect the creatures.
We join with the earth and with each other
To celebrate the seas
To rejoice in the sunlight
To sing the song of the stars.
We join with the earth and with each other
To recreate the human community
To promote justice and peace
To remember our children.
We join with the earth and with each other.
We join together as many and diverse expressions of one loving mystery:
for the healing of the earth and the renewal of all life.

(from the U.N Environmental Sabbath Program, in Roberts & Amidon, 1991, p. 94).


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