Three Questions with NaRon Tillman

NaRon Tillman, Pastor of One Ministries and Mindfulness Coach

How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature? 

We can reconnect with our deeper selves through focused Spiritual practice. This can include things such as prayer, meditation, contemplation, and a variation of connecting with mentors that are purposed to guide you in these practices. 

How do you feel and live your connection to the earth? 

I feel my connection to earth by being mindful of our connectivity. I live this out by teaching these truths to my children, congregation, and others that I come into connection with. 

How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures? 

The Scripture teaches the followers of Christ teaching ”Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” I believe that if we did this then we would remove the impulse to be greedy and possessive. By caring about others, not just our families or people that think like us, we position ourselves to transform our local communities and then our world. This happens in one community at a time. 

NaRon Tillman, Pastor of One Ministries and Mindfulness Coach. 

Reflections on Village Life in Uganda or The Inner Dimensions of Climate Change

by Robert Kugonza

“When I try to reflect on the meaning of the Inner Dimensions of Climate Change what comes to mind are the things that are not seen, that are not the most talked about or thought of by our leaders and people. There is something more quiet and under the surface that needs to be brought into the light. Mother Earth is definitely grieving and in her grieving she reacts or retaliates to show us this grief. The floods we see today in places where they never used to occur. Droughts are lasting longer than in the past. Our forefathers — my parents, would tell us exactly the day, in a year, in a month when the rains would come and believe me they would come. Everyone prepared their seeds for planting and the next day everyone would be ready and out in their gardens sowing. I have seen the change in my lifetime. I remember the forests where we once walked to gather dry branches for the fire or the clear running river where we would go to fetch water. I will never forget the sense of community in the sharing of harvests with everyone in the village, where no one would go without squash or pumpkins. There was a harmony that existed in the community that is no longer present.” ~ Robert Kugonza, Uganda

Delegate to COP22 Marrakech, Inner Dimensions of Climate Change gathering

Green hills of Uganda

We were in touch with Robert recently and he wrote us more about life in the village. 

YES, the village indeed,  where harmony still has a place, where care, concern and love for one another still exist. Where respect for elders and good regard for the young ones are values in practice. Where you witness real passion and love in those greeting you. Where even with challenges of poverty, reduced forest cover and climate change and lesser food productivity, people still share the little they have. Where no view is obstructed by walls or enclosures, where sounds and vision travel freely, interaction is easy, even from a reasonable distance without mobile phones people will still call each other – the organic way. The birds sing, the roosters crow and the gentle rustle of the cow, her moos blending with the bleating of the goats and sheep. What harmonized music of nature you can hear.

Visiting with wise elders

Our village is a place where Mother Earth has the liberty to show all the mothered, her ability to love, to care, to provide and to sustain. But increasingly, the new generations do not know how to care for her in return. Unfortunately each passing day, especially for the young ones, they become more intoxicated and fall for the illusion of so called ‘development and modernity’, ways that are not in tandem with living harmoniously with Nature.  It saddens me and my heart bleeds seeing these trends of development and the people who are heartless in their treatment of nature and each other. All of these conditions led me to choose the name for my organization; Friends with Environment in Development (FED). Our focus and passion through FED is to making the local, regional, national and the world realize that the elders in local communities who are still with us are an incredible and incomparable rich resource.  They hold the richness of unlimited knowledge that this young generation needs to tap into before these elders depart. The elders hold a knowledge not between walls and exclusive of others, but a knowledge unlimited. They hold the wisdom of how to live in harmony with Nature – our Mother the Earth, and the knowledge of how to live with one another accommodatingly.  

To learn more of the work of Robert Kuganza or Friends with Environment in Development, you can write to him here: kugonzarobert@gmail.com

Three Questions with Dena Merriam

Dena Merriam, founder, Global Peace Initiative of Women

How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature?

All day long, and all night, our mind is busy with thoughts, plans, desires and memories. We are so engrossed in these thoughts that we begin to identify with them.  To connect to our deeper Self, our true nature, we must still the mind and free ourselves from its busyness. Only when the mind calms down and becomes like a clear still lake, can we tap our essential nature and realize who we truly are. For me, the surest way to still the mind is through meditation; not casual or brief meditation, but long, deep meditation. One must give the mind time to release itself. But there are other ways to access this stillness. Nature is also a doorway to the Self.  Sitting by a river, gazing up at a sacred mountain, walking with the beings of the trees, these are also ways to put aside the mind and be in our essential nature. We then realize they are no different from us, and we are no different from them. We are all expressions of the one consciousness, the one life energy.

How do you feel and live your connection to the earth?

I am a river girl and so the surest way for me to feel oneness with nature is to sit by a river and listen to her quiet wisdom. Rivers speak to us, often guiding us and helping us find solutions to our problems. But they speak from inside and so one must be very quiet and receptive to hear. I also love to stand or walk barefoot on the earth and to feel her healing currents pass through my body. I love to feel the strength of mountains and breathe in deeply the fresh forest air. Trees and all plant life give us the air we need, and we give them the air they need. This life-giving exchange bonds us to them and so we must make time to honor the tree and plant beings. We deprive ourselves when we fail to connect deeply with earth and all her wonderful expressions.  So for me, it is taking time to love and honor all that earth is.

How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures?

The structures must begin to change because they were born of an earlier, less conscious era, and we have moved on from that time. But change can come gradually and so we slowly have to insert more caring into the way our society is organized. To bring about change, we have to look into the causes of the current disfunction. We must look into why we as a society are so unhealthy, why people don’t have satisfying jobs, decent places to live, why there is so much unhappiness. We will find that one answer that comes up again and again is that we have divorced ourselves from the earth, from nature. We are unhealthy because of the processed and tainted food we eat, the toxins in the water, the chemicals we have put into the environment, the stress we submit ourselves to. We live in concrete jungles with little fresh air, no access to the healing currents of the earth. Even people in suburban or rural areas are for the most part cut off from the healing elements of the natural world because it is also a mindset. We must change the way we interact with nature. Compassion arises when we bring these healing elements back into our lives – urban farming, urban forests, undammed rivers, time to be with nature and oneself. Connecting to nature opens the heart and then one is able to connect more deeply with fellow human beings. When we ourselves are healed, we can extend our hearts to others. So we must begin, collectively as a human community, by cleansing the soil, the water and the air of the toxins we have poured into them. In doing so we will also cleanse our hearts. It is the hearts and minds of people that must change before we see change in our institutional structures.

Dena Merriam is the founder and convener of the Global Peace Initiative of Women. She is the author of, “My Journey Through Time: A Spiritual Memoir of Life, Death, and Rebirth”, and most recently, “The Untold Story of Sita: An Empowering Tale For Our Time”.

Ready for the Rains

Riddhi Shah, educator, organizer and Earth steward

GPIW meets with many young ecologists and activists out in the field restoring the damage we have collectively done to nature. It can be emotionally difficult at times for the individual and one must often draw on inner reserves of spiritual strength to continue.

Riddhi Shah wrote to us recently, exhausted and feeling defeated at the disparity she saw in one drought stricken area of India where temperatures of 45C left three villages facing severe water shortages. ‘It was stressful and exhausting trying to bring attention to local authorities’ and urging corporate leaders to put their spare money in these places. She pressed on seeking to find the local business leaders who understand the gravity and urgency of the situation, knowing that children drinking water from contaminated wells are in grave danger.

“People just don’t understand the gravity of the situation.”

Upon returning to the villages, Riddhi met with the village heads in the district. She also assembled the younger members of those communities. Since she wrote to us a month ago disheartened by what she saw, she has worked hard to understand the situation, the cultural sensitivities and now has organized a ‘super-active’ group of villagers who are working on a model project. The project aims to increase the ground water retention and raise the water table.

Men, women and children are spending every free minute digging swales, trenches, ditches and channels to collect and store rain water. It has brought together the whole community who are now planting new trees and caring for the ones that are there. A local prosperous land owner who manages a vineyard took notice of these efforts and has offered to lend support in some way. Riddhi has invited corporations to help and now has a pledge of $25,000 to support the project.

We thought you would like this story of how one young woman helped to mobilize a rural community to bring back their life giving water and forest cover again. Across the world young people are engaging in Earth repair and restoration and there are many opportunities for each us to seek them out and assist them. Commitment and devotion can bring about real change.

As part of the Inner Dimensions of Climate Change Program GPIW will be sharing more stories about young people restoring the natural world.

3 Questions with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

How can we reconnect with our deeper selves, our essential nature?

There are many ways to reconnect with our essential nature. Any spiritual practice, prayer or meditation, that takes us beneath the surface of our daily life, beneath the clutter of the mind and the demands of the outer world, can be a place of reconnection, a place where we can rest inwardly and be nourished by the deeper roots of our being. And if we need an added ingredient to help us in this work, silence is most valuable, especially in today’s world where noise surrounds us more and more. To learn to be present in an inner and outer silence is a doorway to what is real within ourselves and in the world around us.

And as our world appears to spin more and more out of balance—temperatures and sea levels rising, species depleted—there is a pressing need to return to a this deep place, a place of belonging where real healing and transformation can take place. Returning to our essential self we may find a balance resurfacing from deep within, a balance that reconnects and restores us, and also allows us to contribute in unseen ways.

One of Carl Jung’s favorite stories was “The Rainmaker,” in which a world out of balance, in a time of drought and suffering, was healed not through activity, but through a rainmaker retiring to a hut in silence. Three days later the rain came and the drought was over. When he was asked how he brought the rain, he replied, “Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordnance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I am also not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao, and then naturally the rain came.”
If we are to participate creatively in these toxic times, to bring rain to a land where the inner and outer wells have run dry, first we need to be present “in another country where things are in order.” And this “other country” is not so far away, but can be found in the Earth beneath our feet, and in the space between the in-breath and the out-breath where the soul is present. But first we need to reconnect, to return to this place of balance. And the simplest way is through stillness and silence.
Silence draws us inward, away from the clutter and distractions of our outer life, to the deeper roots of our being. Here our soul nourishes us, here we can be replenished, and here we can help replenish our world. The Earth is dying from the ravages of our culture, of our materialistic nightmare which pollutes the air we breathe, the water we drink, and starves our soul from its natural connection to the sacred. In the silence we can drink deeply of the waters of life that are still pure, we can commune with the primal forces of nature, we can return to what is sacred and essential to our life and to the life of the Earth.
Here in this “other country” the air is not toxic, and the miasma of today’s world in this post-truth era is not blurring our vision. The laugher of children rings true. Stillness is here, and the seasons are in balance. Every in-breath and out-breath is sacred. The breath, the soul, the Earth and its seasons, are linked together, nourished by each other. It is a time to heal.
Sitting here beside my window I look out onto the wetlands. I watch the tides rise and fall, the sun red in the morning, sometimes breaking through the mist. Traffic may pass on the road just beneath me, the early morning milk truck, but the silence remains. As I get older I am less and less drawn to activity, more of me remains in stillness, sensing the Earth, watching the birds at my birdfeeder—I love the woodpecker with his bright red crest. Now it is springtime, apple and cherry blossoms already carpeting the ground.

How do you feel and live your connection to the Earth?

In my daily life there are two practices that help me to reconnect with the Earth and Her sacred nature, walking and prayer.
I have always loved to walk early in the morning, to sense the Earth at the beginning of a day, to feel Her pulse, Her beauty and magic, before thoughts and demands clutter my day. Waking early, I have a hot cup of tea, meditate in silence, and then, as soon as the first light comes, I walk down the hill to the road beside the wetlands where I live. Sometimes the frost is sparkling around me, sometimes the water is clouded with fog, an egret appearing white against the reeds. This is another time of silent meditation, walking, breathing, feeling the Earth. I try to be as empty as possible, just to be present in the half-light, aware of what is around me. Prayer, meditation, presence, awareness – these are just words for a practice that immerses me in a mystery we call nature. Here the sacred speaks to me in its own language, and I try to listen.
Now I live beside the wetlands, and the tidal water is part of this meeting, this communion. Other times, in other landscapes, it has been rivers and streams, the sounds of waterfowls’ wings, the dawn rising across meadows. Or in forests, a different bird chorus, animals skittering across the path, a deer and her young. Always it is a listening awareness, a deep receptivity to what is around me, an honoring of a world other than people. It is a remembrance of what is essential, elemental, and its nourishment carries me through the day. It is a return to the sacred, sensed and felt, without words or thoughts – a primal consciousness as if of the first day.
This is a practice that has been with me since my teens – when I first started to meditate I also needed to walk. It was not taught or learned, but came as a need, a way to be, an antidote to much of the world around me – a world of people and problems, demands and desires. When one foot follows the other and the day has hardly begun, it seems these demands cannot touch me, as if I am immersed in something simpler, more essential. Placing each foot on the earth is a practice, but a practice that comes from my own roots, not a book or a teacher. Later I came to hear it called “walking in a sacred manner,” and it is sacred, a return to what is sacred. But it also is deeper or more primal than any purpose. Nature speaks to me and I listen. Nature calls and something deep within me responds, and I just need to give it space. I am part of a life far greater than any ‘me’.
The Earth gives us sustenance: the air we breathe, the food we eat. She is generous in so many ways, even as we forget Her and abuse Her. But there is also this deeper nourishment, this invisible, intangible giving. My early morning walk is a communion – if I am receptive, it is a wine drunk deeply. It comes through Her landscape, moss dripping from the trees, white and pink blossoms welcoming spring, the cry of a sea bird. Those first rays of sunrise are always a blessing. I do not understand this with my mind, but my soul feels it, needs it. Once again we are back at the beginning, in that elemental world we never truly leave. Our present culture may have forgotten it, disowned it, covered it over, may pretend we no longer need this communion, but my soul and my feet know otherwise. This is the landscape of the soul as much as it is the wetlands stretching towards the ocean. But it is also any landscape we walk. A walk on city streets is made of the same elements: feet touching ground, the rhythm of walking, breathing, the same sky overhead, the wind touching the face.
I would like to say it is easy, but so often I have to remember to reconnect, to empty the clutter of the coming day from my mind, my everyday thoughts. I have to stay in a place of awareness, sense my feet, feel the air, listen. I have to remember that I am not separate but part of everything around me. I have to push aside this great myth of separation, the great untruth. We are the air we breathe, the earth we touch, the same one life, alive in so many ways. We are the Earth awakening in the early morning, just as we are the buds breaking into color in the spring. To be fully alive is to feel how we are part of this embracing mystery. My morning walk is a remembrance, a reconnection, experienced in the body and felt in the soul.
My own morning walk is in many ways a prayer. In prayer there is a meeting: I meet and bow before the One in Its many colors, sounds, and smells. Of course, many mornings I forget and take my own thoughts with me on my walk. But then I am reminded—hearing the waterfowl call across the water, glimpsing the sun through the fog—and I awake from myself and see more clearly—the colors, the sounds, the beauty, the Divine. Once more I am attuned to how “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
I feel that there is a specially pressing need at this time to bring our heart’s witness to this natural world we live in. Our world is starving, dying from a lack of the sacred, and human beings have always been mediators between the worlds, linking matter and spirit, the visible and invisible. Our witness, our prayers, can help awaken the sacred that is within creation.
And there is another form of prayer that touches me deeply at this time of the Earth’s distress. With our own heart we can pray for the Earth, just as we pray for another person, for a sick relative or friend. It helps first to acknowledge that She is not “unfeeling matter” but a living being that has given us life, and to open our heart to Her suffering: the physical suffering we see in the dying species and polluted waters, the deeper suffering of our collective disregard for Her soul and sacred nature. And then from this depth of feeling, and a deep love for the Earth, I place the whole Earth in my heart and offer Her to God, to the Creator, to my own Beloved. It is a simple and powerful way of remembering the Earth in my prayers, an offering of love.
We each have our own way to pray, the way we cry out in our need and longing, the way we listen to the quiet voice or to the deepening silence of the Divine, the way we open our hearts to the Earth. There are so many ways to pray for and with creation, to listen within and include the Earth in our spiritual practice. Watching the simple wonder of a dawn can be a prayer in itself. Or when we hear the chorus of birds in the morning we may sense that deeper joy of life and awake to its divine nature, while at night the stars can remind us of what is infinite and eternal within us and within the world. In whatever way we are drawn to wonder or pray, what matters is always the attitude we bring to this intimate exchange: whether our prayers are heartfelt rather than just a mental repetition. It is always through the heart that our prayers are heard. Do we really feel the suffering of the Earth, sense Her need, hear the cry of the Earth? Do we feel this connection with creation, how we are a part of this beautiful and suffering being? Then our prayers are alive, a living stream that flows from our heart. Then every step, every touch, will be a prayer for the Earth, a remembrance of what is sacred. We are a part of the Earth calling to Her Creator, crying in Her time of need.

How can we create or reimagine a more compassionate world from within the current structures?

There is a world waiting to be born, a world founded upon cooperation rather than competition, a world that honors all of life in its diversity and wonder. A compassionate world in which we return to what is simple and essential and remember the “Original Instructions” given to our ancestors and held by Indigenous Wisdom Keepers—“how to get long with all of creation.” And this world that seems so different to the broken structures of today’s divisive and exploitative culture, is not so far away. It is a world seen through the eyes, the consciousness of oneness, rather than the consciousness of separation. It is a simple shift from “me” to “we.”

Oneness holds the essential vision that we are one living, interconnected ecosystem—a living Earth that supports and nourishes all of its inhabitants. If we acknowledge and honor this simple reality, we can begin to participate in the vital work of healing our fractured and ravaged world and embrace a living unity that is our human heritage. This is the opportunity that is being offered to us, even as its dark twin is constellating the dynamics of nationalism, tribalism, isolationism, and all the other regressive forces that try to divide us.
Oneness is not a metaphysical idea but something essential and ordinary. It is in every breath, in the wing-beat of every butterfly, in every piece of garbage left on city streets. This oneness is life—life no longer experienced solely through the fragmented vision of the ego, through the distortions of our culture, but known within the heart, felt in the soul. This oneness is the heartbeat of life. It is for each of us to live and celebrate this oneness, to participate in its beauty and wonder. And through our awareness, and actions born of this awareness, we can help to reconnect our world with its original nature.
There are many ways to experience and participate in this living oneness. But if I have learned anything after half a century of spiritual practice, it is the power of love. Love comes in so many forms and expressions. There are the simple acts of loving kindness towards friends and family, members of our community, or strangers. Love reaches across boundaries, expressing what is most essential and human: what unites rather than divides. “Small things with great love,” are more potent and powerful than we realize, because they reconnect us with the spiritual roots of life and its transformative and healing energies. Because life is an expression of love, each act of love is a participation and gift to the whole.
Cooking a meal with love and care, listening to another’s troubles with an open heart, touching your lover’s body with tenderness, or going deep in prayer until you merge in love’s infinite ocean—in all these acts, we live the love that unites us. And through our loving, we nourish life in unseen ways.
And at this time of ecological crisis, as we are tearing apart the fragile web of life, there is a vital need for us to love the Earth, to bring her into our hearts and prayers. We have a spiritual as well as a physical responsibility for ‘our common home,’ and she is calling out to us, crying for our help and healing. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
Real change will only happen when we fall in love with our planet. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.
We need to reawaken to the power of love in the world. It is our love for the Earth that will heal what we have desecrated, that will guide us through this wasteland and help us to bring light back into our darkening world. Love links us all together in the most mysterious ways, and love can guide our hearts and hands. The central note of love is oneness. Love speaks the language of oneness, of unity rather than separation.
Love can open us to our deep participation in the life of the whole; it can teach us once again how to listen to life, feel life’s heartbeat, sense its soul. It can open us to the sacred within all of creation and can reconnect us with our primal knowing that the Divine is present in everything—in every breath, every stone, every animate and inanimate thing. In the oneness of love, everything is included, and everything is sacred.
And from there, we can begin to respond. We cannot return to the simplicity of an indigenous lifestyle, but when we let love guide us we can become more aware of the oneness of life and recognize that how we are and what we do at an individual level affects the global environment, both outer and inner. We can learn how to live in a more sustainable way, according to a deeper understanding of sustainability that rests on an acknowledgment of the sacred within creation. We can live more simply, saying no to unnecessary material things in our outer lives. We can also work inwardly to heal the spiritual imbalance in the world. Our individual conscious awareness of the sacred within creation reconnects the split between spirit and matter within our own soul, and also—because we are so much more a part of the spiritual body of the Earth than we realize—within the soul of the world.
Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love draws us back to love, love uncovers love, love makes us whole, and love takes us Home. In the depths of the soul we are loved by God. This is the deepest secret of being human, the bond of love that is at the core of our being and belongs to all that exists. And the more we live this love, the more we give ourself to this mystery that is both human and divine, the more fully we participate in life as it really is, in its wonder and moment by moment revelation.
Love and care—care for each other, care for the Earth—are the simplest and most valuable human qualities. And love belongs to oneness. We know this in our human relationships, how love draws us closer, and in its most intimate moments we can experience physical union with another. It can also awaken us to the awareness that we are one human family, even as our rulers become more authoritarian, our politics more divisive. And on the deepest level, love can reconnect us with our essential unity with all of life, with the Earth herself.
The Earth is a living oneness born from love, being remade by love each instant. And we can be part of its spiritual transformation, its awakening. The Earth is waiting and needing our participation. It has been wounded by our greed and exploitation, and by our forgetfulness of its sacred nature. It needs us to remember and reconnect, to live the oneness that is our true nature. And love is the simplest key to this oneness, this remembrance. Love is the most ordinary, simplest, and most direct way to uncover what is real—the innermost secrets of life. It is at the root of all that exists, as well as in every bud breaking open at springtime, every fruit ripening in fall.
Love will remind us that we are a part of life—that we belong to each other and to this living, suffering planet. Love will reconnect us to the sacred ways known to our ancestors, as well as awaken us to new ways to be with each other and the Earth. We just need to say, “Yes,” to this mystery within our own hearts, to open to the link of love that unites us all, that is woven into the web of life. And then we will uncover the love affair that is life itself and hear the song of unity as it comes alive in our hearts and the heart of the world.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee Ph.D. is a Sufi teacher and author. In recent years the focus of his writing and teaching has been on spiritual responsibility in our present time of global crisis, and an awakening global consciousness of oneness More recently he has written about the feminine, and the emerging subject of Spiritual Ecology. (www.workingwithoneness.org). He has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on Super Soul Sunday, and featured on the Global Spirit Series shown on PBS. His most recent book is Including the Earth in Our Prayers.

Sacred Soil

by Shephali Patel

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Photo: Aya Okawa

The Birth of Soil

Soil is born from the cycle of life and death. Soil is about 50% air and water, 45% minerals, and 5% organic matter. Soil mineral is formed from the wearing of bedrock that is birthed from core of the earth. This weathering takes thousands of years and much of our present day agricultural soils are more than 10,000 years old. But before there was an Earth, there was just universe.

The universe was originally composed primarily of the lighter atomic elements hydrogen and helium. The rest of the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen, were fused in the hearts of the giant floating nuclear reactors we call stars. When a massive star is dying, it becomes hotter and hotter; its pressure-fueled expansion culminating in a violent explosion, a supernova. These massive explosions blow the heavier elements in the star’s core out into space, where they are incorporated into the formation of other planets, moons, and stars. The minerals within and on the earth come from stars that died when the universe was young. All living matter on Earth is composed of this ancient debris. And stars are still dying and exploding. Every year, 40,000 tons of cosmic dust rains down upon us, erasing all validity of human-conceived borders. This cosmic dust settles everywhere, particularly in our soil. The chemical elements in the cosmic dust are taken up by plants, which are then eaten by us. Our bodies are constantly being rebuilt and nourished by dying stars.

The Life of Soil

Soil is a living entity. It is composed of a thin skin over the surface of the earth called the pedosphere. The pedosphere exists as the interface of:

  • lithosphere (Earth crust and upper mantle)
  • atmosphere (air in and above soil)
  • hydrosphere (water below, in, and above soil)
  • biosphere (living organisms)

The pedosphere can exist only when there is dynamic interconnection among all forms of life and its supporting mediums. Soil, the pedosphere, is a revolving sphere at the heart of interlaced cycles of life.

Soil is not just a living body, but also a place. Soil is a physical meeting place for the key processes that support life. It is a physical place where we can experience living interconnection. Within the 50% of air and water and 45% of mineral that comprises soil, lives the 5% of organic matter in various stages of death–living, dead, and very dead. All three are inextricably linked in a biogeochemical process of nutrient and element cycling across land, sea, and air; where everything is transformed, consumed, and shared all at once. The consumption and excretion of the dead frees up nutrients and molecules needed to fuel life. Communication and sharing among plant, microbes, and fungi manages and moves these elements. This is the foundation for all ecosystem health. The process requires such a diversity and density of life that there can be over a billion living organisms in just one teaspoon of soil–only a small fraction of which we have identified. These billion organisms and plant parts are part of the only 20% of organic matter that is alive.

To be able to understand the existence of soil is to understand that so much precision, symbiosis, and harmony goes into supporting just 1% of the solid living earth. That understanding is a call to remembrance– that we are loved like that.

The Death of Soil


With one spray of noxious pesticide, one extra pound of synthetic fertilizer, and another round of unrelenting tillage, we can unintentionally wipe out all future hopes for joy, health, and the tiny friends we have co-evolved with for millennia.

We are loved like that. And there we go, 93% stardust and magic, walking around both alien and native at once, in constant calculation of what belongs. Building walls and guns against what doesn’t. And many times what doesn’t belong are the living beings we don’t understand and can’t see. The grace that moves invisibly through our lives. When we breathe in the soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain increase. The bacteria makes us feel calm and happy. That pleasing sweet, metallic scent of the earth after it rains is released by soil actinobacteria. Seventy-eight percent of the top 150 prescription drugs in the U.S. and 70% of all new drugs are derived from plants and soil-dwelling microfauna. With one spray of noxious pesticide, one extra pound of synthetic fertilizer, and another round of unrelenting tillage, we can unintentionally wipe out all future hopes for joy, health, and the tiny friends we have co-evolved with for millennia.

Most of the times, what doesn’t belong are living beings we can see and don’t want to understand. Our soil is soaked through with the blood of the wolves that scared us but kept rivers and forests healthy. The soil is glutted with the murdered bodies of entire civilizations of people who knew it first and best. Only to have its insides then persistently gutted to resurrect the dead in their ghostly forms of coal and oil. Scientists say that more carbon resides in the soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. Soil is all skin, thin and naked, absorbing our sins. Yet, despite the abuse, she is still holding her breath for us while we are stuck in this deranged wetiko dream. But you can’t hold your breath for long, when the air is being stamped out of you. Under that dark skin I can hear a muffled “I can’t breathe” that pushes through the sidewalks and reverberates in the streets.

The Soul of Soil

The soil teaches that we are loved. And also where we fail in loving back. When I first learned to read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, I learned to read it in two weeks and by the third week the pages in the brand-new book began to inexplicably disintegrate without being touched, and the book immediately looked like it was over one-hundred years old. The tiny pieces of pages would fall into the ground whenever I picked it up or carried it in my bag. Even tightly wrapped in its cloth covering. Pieces so tiny and thin that they would disappear into the ground and become part of it so that I couldn’t find them again. This is how I first realized that the Word lives in the soil.

Every day I go to the farm and take my familiar position. Kneeling down on one knee, head bowed down to work, I run my fingers through the dirt, combing through its pages. The wisdom of the soil starts with what I can see and then speaks to me about the Mystery that I can’t see with my eyes. Transplanting young plants, I follow their roots as they are embraced and gently clothed in soil. I know that though I cannot see it there is an orbit of bacteria and fungi protecting and communing with the plant. There are thin strands of mycorrhizae with fingers gently wrapped around plant roots, radiating out into all directions to forage for nutrients and relay messages that these roots cannot quite stretch far enough to reach. The unfolding drama of the living attracts more life –nematodes and protozoa, which then attract other nematodes and arthropods, which call out larger invertebrates, etc. Orbits expanding out like ripples in the water. The echo of the infinite taking shape. Beyond the field, the trees sport roots wrapped in mycelium connecting and communicating with the entire forest through an organic internet far more effective, intricate, and complex than our own–making all things whole and together even as they stand separate. I am again reminded that our salvation and spirituality lies in our interconnection. And that I am both whole already and at the same time always in a state of becoming whole by learning how to revere what is holy. The soil is calling for me to reimagine how I pray and love back–together, connected, sharing.

Next to the row of new transplants, an uncovered row of planted seeds looks like a mala unhooked and laid down on the ground. The cultivation of my devotion and awareness has always belonged inside the soil. So does my redemption. When I pull my hands from the dirt, they are stained in life, death, sacrifice, happiness, and healing. The compost is where I begin to take real responsibility for my existence and actions on this planet. I mark my penance with the work of my hands, turning and spinning that garbage until I help make medicine. Help, because it’s not me making anything. I am just learning from the masters; from that 1% of living, moving soil. It is their living and dying and love-making that produces a heat that transforms garbage into black gold. These tiny, unseen, unloved beings possess the power of alchemy. To make it truly medicine for all, the decomposing organic matter has to rest at a continuous temperature of at least 131º F for a minimum of three days at the core of the pile. So, even in this pile of trash and cast-offs, it is deep in the heart that the transformation and healing takes place. I have to make sure every square centimeter gets to spend some time resting in the cocoon of its own heart. Only then can it be applied to the open wounds of the earth and taken in through the open wounds of mouth, eyes, nose, ears, and skin. Composting works hand-in-hand with time. The time it takes to hopefully learn that in order to heal my insides, I have to be able to heal what is outside of me too. And to heal what is outside of me, I need to learn how to heal myself.


Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

The Word follows me inside, embedded into the creases of my fingers. Writing organic matter on the board, scribbling it into my notes, seeing it in books–the words organic matter inevitably morph into OM. All of existence conspired to culminate and begin in OM. In a world where the OM is stripped away what do we have left?

The gift of our lives comes up through the core of the earth and, bursting forth from the core of stars, right into the blazing core of our souls, if we let it. Which means all ground is sacred ground no matter what or where. It is we humans who decide when it is not sacred when we choose to desecrate it. When something is sacred we don’t want to or need to trade it in for a Plan B on Mars or carbon credits. We will protect and sacrifice for this home that is living body, place, teacher, and sanctuary. A temple to pour our love, suffering, gratitude, and remorse into. A place where we learn to breathe together again and slowly open our eyes to all of our gifts and their fundamental nature. That they are grace and miracle and love in a more-than-human world. That they cannot be possessed and that their value increases with how much we cherish them and offer them to others. That our greatest contribution as a species is to humbly know everything as Gift and, with dignity, surrender, and awe to practice upholding “sacredness” so that we are not complicit in stripping away the OM of the world.

It is somehow easier to see that the Mystery lives in everything when you are nose to ground. So I go back outside. I kneel once more, putting hand to ground so that it is soil pressed against soil in prayer. We live in holy times.

This essay was originally printed in Parabola Magazine, Fall 2017

If You Want to Save a Culture, Save a Mother

In the remote region of Surmang, giving birth was a matter of life or death. Both mothers and children were at extreme risk. Located in the Yushu prefecture within the Qinghai province of China, this area has been among some of the places in the world with the highest maternal mortality and infant mortality rates. A mother was three times as likely to die as an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In 1987, Lee Weingrad, an American student of Trungpa Rinpoche, traveled to Tibet to visit his late teacher’s monastery.  Upon leaving Tibet, Lee said, “I thought I had reached the destination in my life. Years later I realized I had only arrived at the bus depot.”

He was distressed with the poverty he saw, with the harsh living conditions of the Tibetan Khampa nomads and farmers. When he heard the numbers of mothers and infants that were dying needlessly, he said yes to an adventure that has put the Buddhist teachings of compassion and reverence for life to the test of reality.

He returned to the US and not long after, packed his bags and moved permanently to China. There, he fell in love and married Wang Wenjing, a Tibetan scholar who had spent 4 years living in Lhasa.  He reflected on how he was going to undertake such a project with his background in teaching and sales rather than international development or aid. But he worked directly with his inspiration, and his passion was able to do its work. When asked how he could do such a project by a representative of UNICEF, he said, “did you ever see Field of Dreams? Kevin Costner’s character asked the same question. The ghost answered, ‘build the field and they will come.’”

Shortly after he arrived, he incorporated the Surmang Foundation. Since that time more than 150,000 people in the region have received lifesaving care.

In 1992, the Qinghai government agreed to let his group build a clinic, which would be completed over the next few years. They would eventually hire two resident physicians, who were local Tibetans themselves.  Lee and his team invited volunteer doctors to visit annually and often stay in nomadic tents after treating hundreds or thousands of patients over several months.  Visiting doctors from the West will often acknowledge that being there was a waters­hed moment in their life and career.

Among the beautiful and remote mountains, with forbidding snowy winters and fleeting summers, the villages are scattered and it can take hours to reach even with vehicles. Travel, even in emergencies, is impossible in the winter and in the rainy seasons. A corps of 40 midwives and traveling health care workers brought the health care to them, traveling to some of the more far reaching areas by foot.

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Lee’s deepest motivation was ensuring that no mothers die in childbirth. When a woman dies the effects are devastating and it touches everyone. The family is cratered. Grandparents especially bear so much grief for all. A mother’s death tears at the fabric of their small encampments and communities where women hold so much together.  

In Tibet, nomads have high status. Leading the traditional life of a nomad in a tent encampment, despite the harshness of the terrain, the sun, the winds or the icy temperatures of winter, few would trade it for city living.  Here they tend herds of sheep or yaks or horses. Some cultivate barley on small farms living in village dwellings. With a few exceptions all are devout Buddhists and children wake to incense and offerings being made each morning.  Afternoons are for prayer or making butter and cheese or sipping many small cups of tea.  The community is close and there is ample work for the young and old.

In the warmer summer months, they will set up high mountain camps, and as the seasons change, they will again move to areas better suited for animal grazing and nearer to safer, more accessible roads. They believe, in accordance with their Buddhist principles, that slaughtering one yak will feed them all winter, and is more compassionate than harvesting a whole field of crops. All the tiny beings also have a lifeforce: the plants, the worms, the insects, the fungi. Their animals are sacred, sentient, and life-giving. Life, in all forms, is precious.

Since the permanent clinic originally opened, patients have never been charged for services or medicine. In this area where the land and their way of life provides basic needs for food and clothing, but otherwise money is scarce and people may live on less than 50 cents a day.

In addition to assisting with births and well-baby visits, the clinic sees many other patients. The clinic can offer an ultrasound, set bones and pull teeth; they are often treating mild ailments; and even offer veterinary services when there is great need.

Expecting mothers will often receive a birth kit that includes basic items such as a clean sheet and a sterile razor for cutting the umbilical cord. This can make a world of a difference—often, the difference between life and death.

It has taken years of patient work by the clinic to get the women of the region onboard. But when they saw that their pregnant friends and family were no longer dying from pregnancy or childbirth, more and more trust was established for the clinic and the foundation.

After decades of the foundation providing aid, everyone at the clinic and the region agrees, “If you want to save a culture, save a mother.”

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Abbot of local monastery and Lee Weingrad.

Please visit www.surmang.org

 

Emma Szymanski

The Contemplative Alliance in Conversation

Spring, New York City

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In late April, a small gathering of Contemplative Alliance members met in New York City for an evening of conversation and sharing. It was a chance to catch up and hear what the local members have been doing in their communities. One topic that emerged was the question of how to hold the suffering that is happening in our world and at the same time support and nourish the spiritual evolution that is simultaneously taking place.

We discussed how many Americans are realizing that as a country we are not as advanced as we once thought. The social and political chaos that is erupting is also spawning a collective awakening that is propelling a heightened global consciousness.

As more assaults are taking place on nature and the environment, more and more people are stepping into action as we see with the young climate strikers and in the many steps people are taking to care for the Earth.

Rev. Diane Burke of OneSpirit Learning Alliance spoke about this moment in time as one in which spiritual and faith leaders are being challenged to walk the talk and truly ask, “what does it mean to live our teachings and beliefs in this world?” How can we preserve what’s worth passing forward to future generations whilst also relinquishing old ideas and beliefs that are no longer serving the collective?”

Members spoke of how many younger people are steering away from religion and the more formal practices. This brought up the question of what our traditions have to offer the world at this time, to those in who may not take up a traditional meditation practice, or see themselves as being on a specific spiritual path. What can we offer the people who are depressed and fearful at what they are seeing?

The conversation concluded with asking ourselves, ‘what is the essential message from each of our traditions that is most helpful at this time for humanity?’ While the answers are diverse and continually unfolding, there was agreement that if we can offer a way to reconnect people with reverence for all life, love for the Earth, caring for one another, and embracing more culture, music, and storytelling, that this would be something of great value.

 

 

Growing Trees to Grow People

In a world becoming increasingly engrossed in technology and consumption, it is essential to bring people out of isolation and instead back to community. The living Earth sustains its inhabitants, including humans, who can still become grounded in place and regain inherent, vital connections despite certain obstacles of the modern age.

Situated among the bush growth of the Koreelah Forest, the community at Peace Valley center their work around such goals. They envision their site as an opportunity for place-making and regenerative, healing work between people, other beings of nature, and the land.IMG_1756Peace Valley was established to address a growing need for natural spaces of solace and reflection for urban dwellers. Joy Foley, the founder, began the Australian bush retreat at Bindarrabi Community, a developing ecovillage on a piece of their common land. After several phases of building, expanding, and fortifying their structures, Peace Valley now functions as a camp and event center. It continues to host volunteers and guests who engage in practices of simple living and shared activities such as meditation, gardening, walks, and swimming.

By putting the idea of “gift economy” into practice, no one is excluded on a financial basis from enjoying the Peace Valley bush retreat area. Among the restorative permaculture onsite, Peace Valley is also working to set up an edible grove of native Australian trees, as they believe in “growing trees to grow people.” The indigenous tree and plant propagation of flora such as hoop pine, silky oak, and acacia seed is one of several efforts to maintain indigenous biodiversity in the region, in addition to removing invasive plant species.IMG_1700Foley recalls the “deep calling to reforest, revegetate, reconnect, and simply be in love with nature, with life, and with the earth” that “strengthened in me.”

It is vital to promote access to the natural world, especially for those who are the furthest removed from it. In particular, as young people grow up more and more enclosed in artificial and technological surroundings, we must find ways to overcome the distance from our shared home and its abundance of gifts and wonder. The ability to receive the gifts that nature, as well as others, in our innermost selves, all have to offer, is what sustains life and gives so much purpose.australiapeace valley logo

Emma Szymanski

Re-Discovering Mata Sita and Her Relevance Today

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By Dena Merriam

Sita is a beloved figure for Hindus around the world, as well as for non-Hindus throughout Southeast Asia. But the message of her life extends beyond these audiences and bears universal import, particularly relevant for the modern age when a new understanding of feminine wisdom and leadership is needed, and when we are facing an unprecedented ecological crisis. Mata Sita and Sri Ram were instrumental in setting the foundation for a new civilization during a time of transition from one era, or yuga, to another. We stand at a similar time in history, where we are experiencing the passing of one era and intuitively feel the birthing of another, as yet unknown. One thing seems certain, however, that the new society we are striving for must be ecologically-based. There is great value in looking to lessons of the past in order to move forward.

During Sita’s time on earth, humanity was beginning to shift from a nature-based way of life toward greater material development. Many concepts were implanted in the collective mind at that time that guided the subsequent development of human civilization. We have now reached the pinnacle of this development and are reaping the results of our abuse of earth’s resources—its land, water, and air. To survive as a human community, we will need to incorporate into our lives a new-found appreciation, respect, and love for the natural world, a love that was exemplified in the life of Mata Sita.

Looking back to the time when humanity was beginning to divorce itself from nature and to cultivate more of a separate, individual identity will help us understand the pitfalls of this separateness in consciousness. Seeing ourselves as disconnected from nature has given mankind the false impression that we can control nature and recklessly deplete it, discounting the rights of other life forms and ignoring our interdependent relationship.

One cannot go backward in time, nor would one want to. The goal is to incorporate the wisdom and knowledge of the past into the developments and scientific advances of today. We can learn again how to care for and love the earth and all her communities of life.  There is much that Mata Sita can teach us if we invoke her. She and Sri Ram are living presences, not just historical figures, still very much engaged with the lives of those who turn to them. During the life journey of Mata Sita and Sri Ram, each assumed roles that were different but equal in importance. Neither could achieve their life’s mission without the other. Their lives exemplify a balance of the masculine and feminine qualities and energies, despite how patriarchal forces have tried to shape the Ramayana narrative to suit later social norms.  If we recapture something of life during the higher ages we can see the story with new eyes and perceive the inner dynamic that drove the outer narrative. Remembering the harmony that existed during the higher ages will help us re-calibrate our society so that it honors the sacred feminine and the sacred masculine, both of which are needed to help restore balance to our society and to the earth.