Spiritual ecology reunites matter with spirit, with the sacred, and brings this into relationship with the needs of our times. The most immediate way we can practice this is in the physicality of daily life
Our nihilistic culture tells us that the material world is all that exists, allowing us to plunder and desecrate the Earth with indifference. But through engaging and connecting deeply with the physical world we can, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, discover the non-physical worlds that lie beyond - the world of spirit and soul, the sacred, unknowable depths from which all 'matter' mysteriously springs forth. Indeed the root of the very word material is originally derived from the Latin 'mater', meaning origin, source, mother. Spiritual ecology reunites matter with spirit, with the sacred, and brings this into relationship with the needs of our times. The most immediate way we can practice this is in the physicality of daily life.
'Spiritual ecology arises out of the need for a spiritual response to our present ecological crisis,' Vaughan-Lee writes. 'Without including a spiritual dimension to our response to the 'cry of the Earth' we are in danger of reconstellating the same materialistic paradigm that has created our present consumer-driven ecocide.'
The materialism of the current paradigm may not necessarily be the problem though - perhaps it is more the nature of the materialist relationship. Our relationship with the material world is deeply nihilistic; it has been hijacked by consumerism, warped into an insatiable appetite for acquisition, driven by ego and self interest causing dissatisfaction, inequality and the ecocide Vaughan-Lee speaks of. Rather than reject the world of material 'stuff' however (though that's not what the authors suggest), can we instead learn to love and find meaning in the material world, by cultivating a relationship of care and maintenance?
This ‘New Materialism' (or perhaps it is very old) could be a key component to regenerating meaningful human existence within ecological limits. Spiritual Ecology: ten practices... offers a wealth of practical ways to cultivate such a relationship of care and maintenance, to 'awaken to the sacred of creation', through engaging with activities we encounter in our daily lives that we can then take out into the world. The authors bring many valuable insights to how we might approach daily life to come into a new relationship with the world around us that can nourish our work of change-making, and nourish our souls at the same time.
Vaughan-Lee and Hart present 10 simple practices, which could perhaps also be described as attitudes or approaches to life. Some are focused on everyday tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, walking, breathing and gardening, while others are more overtly spiritual practices such as prayer and reflections upon death. All 10 however offer a doorway to a spiritual connection with the material world around us, and a wonderfully rich way of engaging with daily life in a meaningful way.
As someone who finds the mechanics of daily life - such as cooking and cleaning - a tedious distraction from what I can perceive to be more important tasks, like challenging gross social and ecological injustice, this small book challenged me to find new ways of looking at the world around me. A welcome reminder that small things matter too, and that each action and thought creates habits of relating to all other things in life. It also reminded me of the power and great value of simplicity when engaging with so much complexity.
It's important to emphasise however the need for these practices to be coupled with tangible social action (and vice versa), the link perhaps not being immediately obvious to all. But once we see that everything is part of one living whole, that nothing is separate, we can understand that everything needs care and attention, and everything matters.
The chapter on simplicity is the most powerful, and in a sense all of the other practices are applications of this. The authors encourage us to de-clutter not only our homes and lives but also our inner world and how we engage with the world around us - a radical act in today's culture of accumulation: 'Beyond the clutter of thoughts and things, we also have to watch that we are not caught in constant activity, our culture's emphasis on endless doing rather than being... continual attention is needed so that the currents of accumulation do not fill the empty space we have created.' Walking, for example, has spiritual, political, and personal significance. Particularly when we have no destination in mind, walking is non-productive and non-teleological and therefore a subversion of post-modern culture in itself.
The other practices build on this foundation of radical simplicity, offering practical ways in which we can maintain space and clarity and free up time and energy to turn to the task of changemaking from a place of sacred depth. This is essential if we are to make strategic decisions about how and where to act for the greatest impact, to use our privilege for the greater good, and to avoid replicating the problems we are seeking to address.
It's as easy for activist and spiritual communities as any other to fall into such replicative patterns, such as nihilism or valuing the most productive people the most - even if productivism is a key part of what the group exists to oppose or offer alternatives to. The practices of walking, breathing, gardening, cooking and cleaning, when done with an awareness of interdependence and the sacred nature of all things, can be a much needed antidote.
This radical simplicity is an excellent grounding for sustaining social and political action. In my experience, when there's continually a huge and urgent task to be firefighting - and a perpetual lack of resources, time and energy - the simple, small things of daily life that nourish and sustain us can become forgotten in the whirlwind of activity. Practising simplicity can be a healing balm, a nourishing elixir to the complex, difficult and often painful bigger picture. It can also be a practice to remind us of our privilege. What a privilege to be free to walk, breathe and cook in peace, to have access to land to grow food on when those on the frontlines do not enjoy such luxuries. Remembering this can also be a spur to action.
As Vaughan-Lee says: 'We need first to return to, and reconnect with, the sacred nature of creation. Only from the foundation of this lived relationship can we attempt to bring the world back into balance, to heal and redeem what our present culture has with its greed and soulless materialism destroyed and desecrated. Our outer actions need to be based upon this inner connection.'
The practices in this book offer a practical way of connecting with this place within us, practices for a new materialism, practices for a new world.
 The New Materialism: How our relationship with the material world can change for the better. Andrew Simms & Ruth Potts 2012. ISBN 978-0-9552263-3-5.
Spiritual Ecology: 10 Practices to Reawaken the Sacred in Everyday LifeLlewellyn Vaughan-Lee and Hilary Hart
Golden Sufi Centre Publishing, May 2017
Order this book here Blackwells Publishers
Kara Moses is a facilitator of Nature connection, Social change and Outdoor education and a regular contributor to the Ecologist.
More on her work here: www.RewildEverything.org
For details of the new and upcoming Rewilding course she is running at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales see here: http://bit.ly/2uhwD3f