As I've stated a few times on this blog, I'm pretty much a skeptic when it comes to mystical things. But there is a theme that comes up often in Eastern religions that I find fascinating. The theme is "connectedness." A closely related theme is "balance" which I will get to later. The idea of connectedness is that there some kind of mystical force or energy that binds all living things together. In Taoism it is Qi
. In Hinduism the concept of Brahman implies an unknowable force that pervades, transcends, and encompasses the entire universe. Karma and reincarnation imparts a profound respect (at least in theory) for all living things, because the ant you are about to crush could have been you once. In Christianity the analog is simply not the same. The idea of the soul is limited to mankind. Your poor dog or cat is imparted no sacred meaning.
And even more interesting are the religions of "indigenous" peoples where sacredness is imparted to all things, even plants. There is a nice myth (perhaps not quite true) of the noble savage
, living in balance with his environment. The indiginous religion, which says that all life must be respected, is a necessary result of the fact that life is so close to the edge. Droughts, famine, or the movement of game could cause a group of individuals to starve and die. Thus, belief and worship of the natural world was necessary in order to attempt to gain some small measure of control over those forces.
|Kyetrak Glacier, north slope of Cho Oyo in Himalayas|
Obviously today, we no longer need to be connected with nature and most of us are do not live in anything like a "natural environment." For most Westerners, the idea that all living things might have some kind of sacred meaning seems very alien. As a result, destruction of natural resources, extinction of animals, etc. is seen as "too bad" but not "sacrilege". Yet the idea that humans may over-run this planet causing our eventual doom, is a theme that is coming up more and more often. In movies like the "Matrix" machines decide that humans are a virus to the Earth and must be removed from the playing field. In the more recent flick "Avatar" the conflict is drawn out starkly. The West is represented by the destructive Corporation, and the Na'Vi represent the harmonious savages, who believe deeply in natural sacredness and concepts like the Qi.
|Kilimanjaro. Left: 1993. Right: 2010.|
The ideas of "Qi", Brahman, Karma, and natural sacredness do not have to be believed in a religious sense in order to see that the world is indeed very interconnected. That much is becoming more clear every year. As a traveler, I have seen the glaciers receding in New Zealand
and the Himalaya
, I have seen the snows of Kilimanjaro drying up
, I have seen mile upon mile of bleached coral
on the Not so Great Anymore Barrier Reef. I kiteboard in LA, and after a heavy rain and I sometimes have to dodge piles of plastic garbage on the water so large that I'm surprised noone has claimed it for a new real estate development. Global warming, pollution, the bleaching of coral reefs, and the unbelievably tragic but quite likely extinction of many large species like orangutans
and polar bears
show that the Earth's balance has already shifted negatively. Avatar plays upon a growing hunger for many to find another way to live in balance with the world. So, if the new world is the cause of our problems, and does not have a philosophy to solve them, the natural place to look is our own past.
|Great Barrier Reef Bleaching Events 1998 vs 2002|
Just to be clear: I'm definitely not a bleeding heart liberal. I grew up with conservative parents in a conservative region on a farm in Ohio, and one of the first lessons I learned was the necessity of killing animals for food. I was just a 12 year old kid, and truly felt sorry for my chicken that I had raised myself. It looked at me and flapped its wings frantically. It was one of the hardest things I'd every done, as I swung the hatchet down on its neck. But later I realized it was born and raised for that sole purpose. And to be honest I really am not that interested in the politics involved with climate change. The facts already speak for themselves, the politics will soon be irrelevant.
|The Christmas Tree at Night|
But yes, I do believe that there is an invisible "energy" that connects us all. There are two forms of this energy. The first is the subtle form that is spoke about in a movie like Avatar. This is the recognition of the common aspects of all life. How all things have the shared need to live, to grow, to consume and transform energy into new manifestations. The chain of life, where that matter/energy goes from plant to animal and finally back to the oceans or earth, is just a series of different states of energy for the same matter. So in that subtle sense, yes, I do believe that energy does connect all things. This form is represented best by the Tree of Life
, which is the symbol of both nature and of connectedness.
However, that form is being drowned out and displaced by a new and overwhelming form that is rushing over the globe much like a tsunami. This new force is the combined output of our entire human race of 6.9 billion people. The energy gets dispersed in many forms, including heat, atmospheric gas, waste products, and is put to use in clearing land and erecting fences. Carbon dioxide gas gets trapped by the oceans, raising the pH to levels where coral cannot properly form hard shells. One look from the space station of the earth at night shows how we've turned it into a veritable Christmas Tree of light. We are using stupendous amounts of energy, releasing it in myriad negative forms all over the world.
I too yearn sometimes for that mythical savage existence, where I would live in a harmonious utopia, in balance with nature. Yes I would miss my cocoa cappuccinos, but at least I wouldn't have to watch the earth groan under our weight anymore. On a long trip like the one which I am about to embark, there is time to immerse yourself in nature more deeply. I am most looking forward to Nepal and Mongolia for those reasons. Having extended periods outside of large cities, living in rugged and wild places, makes you see things differently. You see the beauty of the world up close and it is impossible to not be affected. The earthquakes in Haiti or Japan were horrific, yet they were still "Far Away" and for most they were just a spectacle on TV. The truth and horror of what people there really experienced is not truly processed. The change to the Earth is the same. It is happening on TV, and in news reports. Its something that scientists worry about, not you. Global warming isn't hanging out in your yoga class or drinking next to you at the bar. Only when you get out and see a glacier retreating in person, when you see the melting streams, does it really hit home. Only when you are in Sumatra, and visit the last refuge of the few wild remaining Orangutans and look in their intelligent eyes do you really understand their plight. Only then does one realize these changes really are happening. For me, its time to get re-connected. The TV is off. I've been back in LA for too long, I need to get back to nature while I still can. It may not be around very long to enjoy.