The ecological crisis is essential spiritual. The lack of a single word in English to designate the integration of the spiritual and the material is symptomatic. The growing consciousness movement is a sign of this human dis-ease, but its efforts are in danger of succumbing to the consumer-celebrity mentality. The so-called New Age movement, a label applied to a constellation of irreconcilable components ranging from the sensible to the lunatic, is one example. Many New Agers borrow heavily from Native American traditions in yet another Euro-American exploitation of the aboriginal. Having despoiled their land and identity, their last and most precious possession is now imperiled by those who would market it in fragments. In some Native groups, particularly, where songs, rituals, and art are considered not only patrimony but identity itself, this new pillage is deeply resented. In a particularly vicious déjà vu, aboriginal people who have, at considerable risk, generously shared their formerly much-maligned values and perceptions with outsiders, now see these outsiders making big money as New Age gurus, while the aboriginal peoples continue in extreme poverty. In spite of this, there is still a willingness to share because they realize it is not only aboriginal peoples who are threatened, but the entire planet. And traditional insight might yet help turn the tide.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Lakota ride [the reenactment and pilgrimage to Wounded Knee in 1990] of many days through blizzard conditions was the sense of their need for dedicated suffering to accomplish the healing of the sacred hoop. It was astonishing to some observers that a people who had already been forced to drink the cup of suffering to the dregs would regard more suffering as necessary. But this was suffering with a difference. This was suffering freely chosen in the hope that renewed respect for connection with massacred ancestors, undertaken voluntarily at personal cost in a sacred landscape, would breathe a new spirit into the People, and restore pain itself to its proper place and perspective. It would enable them symbolically to move through their century of pain to renewal, instead of continuing to anesthetize it in the Euro-American way by seeking refuge in drink, self-hatred, aggression, or oblivion.
The pain that gives us self-knowledge, willingly sought and moved through, is at the heart of repentance of any kind. Pain is the nexus, the synapse, the open space—one meaning of the Hebrew word for salvation—the point of intersection and integration of our selves with one another and all the Creation. It is pain that strips away the artifice by which we hide from ourselves, one another, the destruction of the natural world, and our indwelling with God. The ecological crisis is worsening because we do not wish to face the financial cost of living more cautiously and generously. More to the point, we don’t want to deal with the personal cost of facing our greed, our license, our attitude towards the Earth as something we have the right to dominate and exploit. We do not want to endure the enormous effort involved to rethink and reorganize human life on a global and long-term basis.
Most of all, we do not want to acknowledge the tissue of life, to move through the pain that leads to humility, that is, realityi; to risk compassion and an unknown transfiguration, to know ourselves as one among many components of an intricate web of life. We do not want to acknowledge that there is something potentially askew and destructive at a fundamental level within each one of us that needs examination, reorientation, and constant vigilance (notions of total depravity only intensifies the sin of self-hatred). To acknowledge pain flies in the face of our ecology-destroying, sort-sighted culture which dictates that pain is to be avoided at all costs. This culture lays waste the uncontrolled, unexploited natural environments of transcendence in which pain can become something larger than itself. This culture seeks to confine us to artificial environments where pain is a problem to be managed, anesthetized, or distracted. Beauty, as opposed to a static aesthetic, lies in the ambiguous and elusive qualities of the transcendent. If we destroy beauty, we have nowhere to take our pain.
'Creation' Magazine, September 1992.