Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound. By the mediation of a thousand little mosses and fungi, the most unsightly objects become radiant of beauty…seen with the eye of the poet , as God sees them, all things are alive and beautiful.
-Henry David Thoreau
This past week I attended a fascinating talk titled “Garbage and the Soul – Reclaiming the Rejected.” The talk, presented to the Comox Valley C.G. Jung Society by that Matt Kelly, a Comox Valley Jungian analyst, kept a full to capacity meeting enthralled for two hours considering some surprising and intriguing aspects of the enigmatic question: “Does what we reject/trash in the outer world (garbage) mirror/come from our treatment of unwanted aspects of our inner life?”—sort of the flip side of the famous Chief Seattle quote: “What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
So our treatment of garbage is more like an equilibrium than a one way flow: how we treat the complex world of nature affects the parameters of how we view/treat ourselves; how we treat the vast complexity of our inner life has profound effects on our relationship to the natural world.
While ‘dumpster diving’ through our treatment of cast off attitudes and aspects of unaccepted self, Kelly pointed to Jung’s ecology of the psyche as a self-regulating system with parallels in alchemy, the goal of which was inner renewal through the process of transformations/integrations to a whole self—which, for Jung was the ultimate goal of psychological. Could a shift in our inner life have an impact on the way we treat outer garbage? Kelly asked. Could the way we treat our physical garbage, have some kind of alchemical effect on the wholeness/quality of our inner life?
Garbage, the physical stuff we call waste and toss away, is huge. Every year our species, in its ravenous race to consume everything, generates a massive 2.12 billion tons of waste. If all this annual waste was put on dump trucks they would go around the world 24 times. We are filling our land and choking our seas with the massive amount of waste we generate each year under the psychological pressure of a conception of self that can’t seem to find satisfaction outside the near complete absorption with production and efficiency. Such absorptions almost completely blot out the possibility that joy, authenticity and understanding could inspire in our lives a deeply satisfying sense of connection to the whole of ourselves and to the whole of living forms that make our life on Earth possible.
What kind of a world for ourselves and the rest of Earth’s life forms might we see if we shifted our perception of our inherent place on Earth as plunderers to a vision of ourselves as cooperators living within the limits of the life-sustaining flow of solar energy and learning to dance in harmony with the natural rhythms of a living earth? Would it not be a sense of immense relief to be freed from the struggle to dominate and feel permitted to just be–permitted to dance with the joy of inclusive existence? What effect might accepting a living, vital world as the grounds of our beingness have on our sense of soul—our perception of self?
How we know determines–on one level–our allowed perception of an external reality, but on another equally important level how we know also casts the reflective surface on which we see our own image mirrored. If as a European clergymen of the 17th century I believed that celebrating the Great Mother Goddess, which infused all of life and matter with a sense of the sacred, was really just the action of demon possessed witches incanting evil into the realm of our social organization, then by reflection I would see myself as defender of all that is good and righteous as I helped ignite the flames which would eliminate millions of these women for the sin of dancing to a tune unsanctioned by the church. More than just eliminating the theology of earth based religions, the flames of these human torches would excise the very basis of an ecological awareness from western consciousness. Matter would be separated from spirit and decreed to be dead, inert. Released from the perceived constraints of a moral relation to the natural world, humanity is free to see animals, plants and indigenous populations that western civilization was not exploiting/developing as waste waiting for the transforming hand of technology.
Leon Kass, in his intriguing and carefully weighed book, Toward a More Natural Science, traces the interrelatedness of love for the natural world and respect for the inhering worth of the self:
(A natural science or healthy epistemology would) reawaken not only wonder and admiring delight at the given world, but also respect, awe, and gratitude: respect for the powers of living nature, awe before the mysteries of living nature, and gratitude for the unmerited-and, in the face of evolution, simply miraculous-privilege of our being here to experience wonder and delight, respect and awe. Finally these attitudes and sentiments toward nature will nurture a truer self-respect, no longer one we simply manufacture for ourselves, but one that is ours by nature.
While this love is commonly assumed to be a love confined to human species, it rises to its full and most profound significance when applied to the whole of our living Earth and creative universe. We pay a high price, indeed, imaging our earth and ourselves to be inert bits of matter stuck together by a highly improbable but indifferent accident. Poet, agriculturist, novelist and philosopher, Wendell Berry traces love of the living land to a sense of the sacred without which our denuded spirits:
“seem more and more to comfort themselves by buying things. No longer in need of the exalted drama of grief and joy, they feed now on little shocks of greed, scandal and violence”.
Rather than the splitting of the atom into ephemeral bits in search of absolute power, the most penetrating and significant insight of the western world may have been suggested by Dostoevsky over 100 years ago when he pondered “What is hell, but the inability to love”.
The following excerpt from an Iroquois address to the UN Conference on Indigenous Peoples describes, dramatically, the malaise of seeing people and the natural world as simply the objects of plunder:
“The original instructions direct that we who walk about on Earth are to express a great respect, an affection and gratitude toward all the spirits which create and support Life… When people cease to respect and express gratitude for these many things, then all life will be destroyed and human life on this planet will come to an end.”
Never has there been a better allegory depicting the destructive side of ignoring what the natural world has to say than the Titanic.
The Titanic gave the illusion of safety and comfort but produced exactly the opposite effect. As the largest ship of its time it was supposed to be unsinkable. Eat, drink, be merry, and let your senses grow dull for on the Titanic human existence is no longer subject to the canons of nature-so the ill-fated passengers were told.
Sometimes our whole technological view of the meaning of life seems little more than another colossal bubble story like the Titanic but on an even grander scale.
In order to keep warm and fuel our factories we build nuclear reactors that generate waste so toxic we can’t go near it for tens of thousands of years. But we believe we can just shove the waste into a rock somewhere (in someone else’s backyard) and it’ll never bother us. We read of fish kills and dead lakes but continue to believe it has little to do with us because we’re going to grow algal food tablets in sterile containers one day. Yet, there are sightings of a massive environmental iceberg ahead.
As Daniel Kemmis in his book, Community and the Politics of Place, argues, “The concept of country, homeland, and dwelling place becomes simplified as ‘the environment’-that is, what surrounds us. Once we see our place, our part of the world, as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between ourselves. We have given up the understanding-dropped it out of our language and so out of our thought-that we and our country create one another, depend on another, are literally part of one another; that our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are part of one another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another, and so cannot possibly flourish alone; that, therefore, our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other”.
According to Georgeicu-Roegen one of the most serious economic problems of our times is the inability of economists to recognize that economic principles developed by Adam Smith when resources seemed inexhaustible and the environment appeared infinite in its ability to absorb the impact of human activity are utterly devastating when applied to a world in which neither of the above conditions exist.
In contrast to the mechanistic paradigm which sees humanity as separate from nature and thus exempt from ecological consequences, any ecologically aware world view must recognize that the place of humanity in nature is closer to the relation of cell to organism where cooperation and harmony ensure the survival and health of both cell and organism. The exquisite beauty in nature exists not because a few rugged self seeking, self serving individuals survive in a deadly competitive world but rather because the whole of nature in its infinite variety exits as an intrinsically coherent function of the natural system which provides for a pattern that persists as autonomous parts functioning together by recognizing and reacting to their experience of place.
Choosing to explore the realms of experience which science ignored (i.e.; precognition, synchronicity, psychokinesis, and the vast mythos of human culture and experience) Jung argued that while logos and the objectifying processes of science were not entirely wrong, they were, at best, a metaphor which when taken literally severely limited the perception of humanity. Anticipating Bateson’s concept of mind by several decades, Jung saw no clear demarcation between mind/body, spirit/matter, subject/object, they were all inextricably woven into the most exquisite interconnected pattern.
Many sources which attempt to understand the inner workings of human nature (writers, poets, saints, sages, philosophers) suggest that one of the greatest satisfactions available to humanity is its ability to feel at one with the natural world rather than the technological ability to manipulate and control the environment.
What we need most urgently is a spiritual transformation that allows us to feel emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually and spiritually the utter embeddedness of our own lives in the living, creative natural processes all around us. Once we know that experience in our hearts, we will fully comprehend that the only fitting relationship to such intelligence, such “mindfullness”, is one of discourse/dialogue rather than a vain attempt to dominate and control.
What we need now is not another widget, scientific advance or removal of trading barriers between nations; rather the most significant accomplishment that any of humanity could make right now would be a change or heart–a spiritual renewal. If we are to survive our isolating and destructive greeds, each of us must look both within and without to reawaken the sacred sense of connection which interweaves all living things, all of Earth’s dynamically functioning natural systems and all of our selves in a joyful interpenetrating web of community.