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Evolution of the relationships we have with…well, everything.
There’s a huge shift taking place. And it’s about our connectedness, our relationship to all other living things. To think about it is to feel it, at least to some degree, and it feels big. This is well worth our attention—for both emotional and spiritual growth—especially at the start of a new year. But let me begin with some background about the journey that continuously leads me to feel a part of this shift.
I have been fortunate and blessed to live in some very interesting places throughout my life, and the most memorable ones have been when I’ve lived close to nature. In Florida, I lived on a lake, on the ocean and on a canal. The ocean setting became particularly memorable during hurricane season, when, during one especially rough summer of storms I awoke to find that the water level had risen into the lower part of the house. With binoculars I saw my printer and some books floating across the bay. Some neighbor’s boots and lawn chairs were in my yard. And I never did find my kayak. Ah, the price of living in paradise.
That’s not, however, the kind of memory I’m talking about.
In California, I lived in big cities, in ’burbs and on a mountain river at Sequoia National Park. At night on the river I could hear emus howling (or baying, or squawking, or whatever it is emus do,) and sometimes I’d awaken to a family of small red foxes running across my back deck, just a few feet from the swimming hole that was home to lots of little nibbling fish. I’d spot bears in the forest and eagles flying high above.
Currently, I am fortunate to live with woods behind me, and beyond that, tall hills in one direction and mountains in the other. The woods are buggy in summertime, but peaceful and private—a source of both comfort for the soul and oxygen for the lungs.
Sitting out back with the pups is when I find the greatest sense of peace wash over me. Sometimes it’s a “lively peace,” with romping and wrestling and general doggy merriment surrounding me. Other times it’s the quiet and deeply introspective peace of meditation, where I feel totally connected, almost absorbed, with the trees and flowers, the squirrels, and sometimes a family of owls. At these times I can feel my heart rate slow, and I’m aware of the gentle, easy rhythm of breathing in oxygen from the trees, and breathing out stress. The energy within me mixes with the energy of nature, and a powerful, massive sense of oneness seems to float like a veil over all of it.
What I’ve come to understand is that for me, this is “home.” Home is less about location and more about connection; certainly, connection with my other humans, friends and family alike. But also connection with other living, breathing creations—four-legged or bark-covered, feathered or howling. When I’m “in the zone,” I don’t see or feel much difference between all of us. Yes, humans are (supposedly) at the highest level of reasoning ability along the food chain. But I also know that my dogs have souls and intellect, intuition and empathy. I know that, just as my thoughts, words and deeds carry energy, so does the weeping cherry tree in my garden. So, I wonder: Are we not all created by some force beyond us, uniting us, connecting us? Take a moment and ponder for yourself: Do you ever have experiences of feeling connected to the Divine; of being “in the zone” with the God of your understanding; of feeling nature’s rhythms in concert with your own heartbeat? If you do, then you know the amazing connectedness of which I speak.
But this story is not really about finding God, or finding home. It’s about finding ourselves within the interconnectedness of all things, and the possibility of how we traditionally think of “self” as it shifts into something much grander, much more universal.
In her book, “World as Lover, World as Self,” author Joanna Macey explores the vast global movement of interconnection as well as the personal shift that occurs deep within us. For instance, in the Chipko, or tree-hugging, movement in north India, villagers fight the deforestation of their remaining woodlands. At the same time, on the open seas, Greenpeace activists are intervening to protect marine mammals from slaughter. These are actions in which people risk their comfort and even their lives to protect other species. After one of Macey’s lectures, a student wrote: “I think of the tree-huggers hugging my trunk, blocking the chain saws with their bodies. I hear the bodhisattvas in their rubber boats as they put themselves between the harpoons and me, so I can escape to the depths of the sea. I give thanks for life itself.” The student is able to expand his sense of self to encompass the tree and the whale, which are no longer separate, disposable objects pertaining to a world “out there”; they are intrinsic to his own being.
John Seed, director of the Rainforest Information Center in Australia, has said of his struggles: “It’s not me, John, trying to protect the rainforest. Rather, I am part of the rainforest protecting itself.” And this is what Macey means by “the greening of the self.” She writes, “It combines the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life.”
On a spiritual level, it becomes clear that unless you have some roots or beliefs in a practice that holds life sacred and encourages joyful communion with all your fellow beings, feeling this profound sense of connection becomes nearly impossible. In Robert Bellah’s book, “Habits of the Heart,” he writes, “We have to treat others as part of who we are, rather than as a ‘them’ with whom we are in constant competition.” This type of compassionate perspective, says Macey, is a measure of our humanity. “Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart.”
OK, so let’s bring this home, right to our own city streets. When was the last time you strolled downtown and encountered a homeless person? And what was your reaction to him or her? How did it feel? What were your thoughts? Was your heart in conflict with your head, your kindness at a crossroads with your righteousness? You’re out for a pleasant evening of dinner and a movie, and then homelessness crashes your party. I like Macey’s take on this. She says, “When we turn our eyes away from that homeless figure, are we indifferent or is the pain of seeing him or her too great? Do not be easily duped by apparent indifference. What looks like apathy is really the fear of suffering.”
Spiritual teacher and author Ian Lawton explores forgiveness as a path toward connectedness. He believes that, “If someone makes a mistake, don’t rub it in, rub it out. Erase even the hint of guilt or blame. Wipe the slate clean. If they know they did all wrong, let them know it will be all right. Help them find a way to make amends. Give all the fresh starts that people need, because you know you’ve been given the same grace in your life. Say to yourself: Everyone deserves a second chance, just as I have been given many times.”
Lawton suggests that we can choose to forgive someone even before they’re sorry, even before they’ve apologized. And that this changes things. It changes you. It gives you peace of mind, and contributes to the healing of the world. It contributes to allowing us all to feel connected, forgiven and kindly toward each other. He challenges us: “If you can’t forgive them all the way, forgive them part of the way. If you can’t forgive everything they’ve done, forgive one part of what they’ve done. Create the world that you want to live in—a world of grace, of forgiveness. Start practicing today.”
I’ll wind this up with poet James Broughten’s words about the connectedness of all things: “This is it, and I am it, and you are it, so is that, and he is it, and she is it, and it is it, and that is that.”
My New Year’s wish for you is that you engage yourself differently this year. Ponder connection: When you feed the dog, when you drive your child to school, when you smile at a neighbor, when you’re on the phone with a friend, when you sit by a tree. Breathe it all in. Be present, mindful. Connect. And see what happens.
Until next time: “In the end, we’re all one. We’re all doing the best we can, where we are, with what we’ve got. When we know better, we’ll do better.” — Ian Lawton