Deep Ecology

May 18, 2020 by Maria Bliklen,

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher, mountain climber and scholar of Gandhi who was the first to use the term “Deep Ecology”, felt there was a need to ask deeper questions within the environmentalist movement of his time. “What if,” he wondered, “we could expand our individual self as to embrace all living beings? What if environmental protection would spring from genuine self-love, widened and deepened through identification and empathy with all beings, and motivated by joy and compassion rather than by moralistic arguments or a sense of duty?” When I first learned about this idea, I felt a profound “yes!” in my gut. I was fascinated by the joyful, liberating energy of the thought. If we widen our circles of identification from our individual ego to what Naess calls the social and the ecological self, we will see our personal well-being reflected in the well-being of any tree, any river or bird or eco-system. Caring for the health of our planet and behaving in a way that doesn’t cause unnecessary suffering to our brother and sister beings then becomes natural again. And really, how far have we gone that we need to re-learn this!

That we need to remember that this is our home! And what a relief, when we finally do remember! What happens is that we start living our lives as an authentic expression of our belonging to this world. We are not perfect, not even trying to be. We aren´t sacrificing, we aren´t trying hard to be good citizens and do what we have grudgingly accepted to be our duty. No. We live, we celebrate being alive, and every act of love and care towards all other life on this Earth turns into a source of joy, heart-felt purpose and meaning.

The call to dissolve the boundaries of what we perceive as our self’ and to realize our profound interconnectedness with all that exists carries immense power with it. We need this power, as it not only helps us to change the way we act in and towards this world, but to change the way we perceive, think and feel.

How would this world look like if we allowed every breath we take to kiss us awake not only with gratitude for the trees and plants providing us with life-maintaining oxygen, but also with insight into the fundamental one-ness of inside and outside, self and environment, human and nature? How would we live our lives if we were capable of really seeing all the rich diversity and beauty around us, acknowledging and appreciating the intrinsic value of every being, human or non-human, small or big, sentient or not? If we understood ourselves as participants in the living system of the Earth, what role would we choose to play in this web of life? Whatever answers we can imagine to these questions, one thing is sure: a reality built on such a kind of relationship between humans and the rest of nature would look very different from the madness and horrors that we see unfolding everywhere today. Systems thinker, physicist and deep ecologist Fridjof Capra has analyzed the multi-faceted crises we are facing – ranging from climate change, mass extinction of species, worsening social division, injustice, poverty and war to many other, interrelated problems – as being “all different facets of one single crisis, which is essentially a crisis of perception.”i

It becomes pretty clear then that nothing but a profound shift in human perception can possibly turn things around. Cleaning up our polluted rivers and recycling plastic will not be enough to make a real, sustainable change.

What we need is a deep and daring questioning of the very ideas, perceptions and values that shape both our social and economic systems and the individual behaviour of each of us. Deep experience of our profound connection with all beings throughout space and time can help us to widen our sense of self, and thereby shift what we perceive as our self-interest as well. And finally, the insights of our minds and hearts need to grow into a deep commitment to put the full weight of our lives and our choices behind our vision of a healing world. The good news is that we don’t have to develop some super-human qualities or crazy transcendent spiritual realization in order to do this. Arne Naess made a point of introducing the ecological self as the natural identification of any mature human being with the whole of nature, and modern psychologists as well as evolution biologists again and again remind us that all of us are born with an inherent capacity for compassion. The need for collaboration and mutual belonging has been programmed into our genes for eaons. If we confuse our self with the narrow and limited ego, we tragically underestimate ourselves.

Once we realize the devastating consequences our distorted perception of reality has both for ourselves as humans and for the whole Earth, Arne Naess urged, “we must find and develop therapies which heal our relations with the widest community, that of all living beings.” ii One such therapy that has been used around the world in workshops and group processes for some fifty years already is The Work that Reconnects, also known as “Despair and empowerment work” or simply “Deep Ecology work”. In the words of root teacher Joanny Macy, its central purpose is exactly this: “To help people uncover and experience their innate connections with each other and with the systemic, self-healing powers in the web of life, so that they may be enlivened and motivated to play their part in creating a sustainable civilization.” iii

Every time I move through the spiral of this work – grounding my spirit in gratitude and beauty, allowing, honouring and befriending my pain for the suffering of the world, opening my heart-mind for fresh insight and realization to shake me awake and arouse my powers, and walking into new commitments, new projects and actually into each day of my life as an activist, a warrior of peaceful change – I feel deeply moved by and grateful for the deep meaning, belonging and strength the Work that Reconnects has brought into my life. When struggling with inner and outer challenges in this work, feeling weighed down with despair or hopelessness, or even when trying to navigate through the ups and downs of my personal life I find the Deep Ecology story of belonging to be an nvaluable treasure that helps me keep going, and I use the practical and spiritual exercises of the ork that Reconnects on myself almost daily. Sharing it with others in workshops or in my work as psychological counsellor and coach is even more fulfilling. One as simple as powerful exercise which I´ve seen bring about surprising insights both for myself as for my clients is this one:

Go out into nature, relax, and allow yourself to be drawn to any spot, plant or being. Sit down there, bringing your full presence and awareness to this encounter. Once you feel you have fully arrived and are open to receive guidance, ask for support on any question you have on your mind. (I recommend asking at least once a month: What am I called to do in order to serve myself and my community best? What is the gift I am here to offer?) Pay attention to everything that arises within you – thoughts, words, images, memories – as well as everything you see, hear, smell or otherwise perceive. Don´t forget to give thanks when you leave the place…

i. Fridjof Capra, “The Web of Life” (HarperCollings, NY: 1996) p. 4

ii. Arne Naess, “Self Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World”, in J. Seed, J. Macy, P. Fleming and A. Naess Thinking as a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings (New Society Publishers, 1988) p. 29

iii. https://workthatreconnects.org/foundations-of-the-work/ (access on 24th June, 2018)a

Maria Bliklen, has a deep passion for nature connection, community building and practices that can bring about inner and outer transformation. She has been living and co-facilitating communal life, activities and workshops in the eco-village Gaia Ashram for the past one and a half years. In her facilitation of Deep Ecology work, she loves to weave together guided meditations, singing, deep connection as well as experiential learning activities. Get in touch with Maria!

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