A few weeks ago I attended a conference on ecological health. Its purpose was to look at the big picture of what is happening to the earth and how it affects human health, animal health, and ecosystem health. For three days we listened to speeches on the science behind the five generally acknowledged drivers of extinctions: climate change, ozone depletion, toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, and invasive species.
The usual narrative on these matters is that speakers first present the dark future on some specific sectoral issue, like climate change, that lies before us and then urge action on the policy agenda that might help with that particular issue. But when you look at the whole, a different kind of truth emerges.
Previously I have argued that one of the greatest hopes for the future is an environmental health movementa deepening awareness of the profound linkages between human health and ecological health that is coming into being all around the world.
But what has come to me more recently is a deeper appreciation of what this planetary season of a great dying of lifethe sixth great holocaust of extinction in the history of the earthactually means for us. I have come to believe that the phrase environmental health movement simply does not do justice to the coming change in consciousness that could save whatever it is possible to save of the creation that we inherited.
A better understanding of the new consciousness, it seems to me, may come from our own experience of health and illness as individuals. Is it not possible that the remarkable changes in psychological statein consciousnessthat one sees in many people diagnosed with life-threatening illness may also take place when the people of a nation, a continent, or a planet, come to recognize that we as a species have loosed a great dying upon all life that profoundly threatens us as well?
With the borning of this consciousness, a great psychic wound that will be carried by all of humanity for hundreds of years to come opens up. And how we as a species carry this wound becomes a critical question. For a wound wrongly carried leads to depression and cynicism and despair. But a wound rightly carried can lead to nothing less than transformation. For a wound, as Rachel Naomi Remen says, is not only a wound but an opening. He was cracked, Dame Edith Sitwell said of William Blake, but it was through the crack that the light came. This is the fundament of the archetype of the wounded healer.
The rebirth we need for the next epoch of human development must return us, at least in part, to a spiritual consciousness that lightens the psychic burdens we place on materialism for fulfillment. The danger, we know, is in the deep connection between Romanticism, with its spiritual inclinations, and totalitarian movements like fascism. As soon as I propose that the psychic wound of the great planetary dying may lead us toward a consciousness of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls InterBeing, I am immediately aware of the dangers that emerge when you seek to apply an inner truth, such as the benefits of spiritual consciousness when facing a life-threatening illness, to the design of human institutions. The case is in many respects better that the sustainable global civilization we need must be based on reason and science and good sense, not on the inner truths on which we inevitably disagree.
And yet these inner truths have been at the heart of most of the great turning points in human evolution. The American Founding Fathers did a rather good job in this regard. Most of them were deeply spiritually motivated, yet they created a framework that separated church and state that has endured many cycles of religious and spiritual change.
The great wound we face as a species will have to be acknowledged at a depth that most of us have only begun to imagine if we are to carry this wound in a way that leads to planetary healing. This involves a movement toward a new stage of consciousness, just as the birth of democracy, the end of slavery, the extension of rights to women and workers and people of color, and the emergence of the environmental movement have required a new consciousness. Whether we call this new consciousness spiritual or not is partly a question of definition. But more than that, the movements toward new levels of human consciousness are carried by people with different psychological styles in different ways. The religious and spiritual mindsets cannot be privileged above the scientific and secular mindsets. We need them all.
Michael Lerner is president of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California and of the Smith Farm Center for the Healing Arts in Washington, DC.
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