As A Leaf Is To A Tree:
Introduction To Deep Ecology

John Croft

Deep ecology is the experience of our fundamental interconnectedness with the earth of which we are made. We have been evolving here for many thousands of millions of years and our knowing and "remembering" are not as limited as we have been led to believe. We humans are not the apex of some pyramid of life, but rather a strand in a great web. As our ecological awareness and identification deepens, the sense of separation that most "civilised" humans feel evaporates and we realise that nature "out there" and human nature "in here" are one and the same. To Deep Ecology, our relationship to the Earth, or Gaia, is that of a leaf to a tree. We have no independent individual existence - the pain of the Earth is our own pain and the fate of the Earth is our fate also. No tree - no leaf. The sap in the leaf comes from the tree and returns to the tree.

Our much vaunted intelligence is but a tiny fragment of the intelligence of the Earth which is not only vastly more complex than we know, it is vastly more complex than we can know. Through the complexity of the web of life, there is a constant exchange of water, soil, breath and energy between the planet and ourselves. Our psyche too is Earth-made and we may be guided and informed by Earth wisdom if our deeply embedded and almost unconscious concepts of separate individuality, isolation and arrogant superiority can be healed. We are, and always will be part of an enormous supporting and living community, not only of other humans, but of all living things with which we share our Gaian home. We are already in community - we only act as though we were not.

We then, are like a leaf believing itself to be separate from the tree on which it is growing. This is obviously an illusion as without the tree it would wither and die. However, the power of this illusion is backed up by thousands of years of a faulty tradition that the Earth is a trap from which we must somehow escape, or that we are engaged with nature as though on a battlefield and that nature must be controlled if humanity is to survive. The result is that we destroy the Earth and that we have cut ourselves off from her wisdom and her nourishment. Healing the mistake of this illusory and faulty tradition is vital for the sake of both person and planet.

So what is this "unconscious" into which we descend through Deep Ecology? Freud said it contained a lot of repressed material, often of a sexual nature. However, as Norman 0. Brown pointed out in "Love's Body", we have repressed far more than our sexuality: our very organic nature is now unconscious to most of us, most of the time, and we have become shrunken into two dimensional social or cultural beings, aware of only five of the hundreds of senses that link us to the rich biological nature that underlies and nourishes these more symbolic and recent aspects of ourselves.

We suffer from amnesia, a complete unconsciousness of the first four and a half billion years of our life's journey. As leaves we have developed delusions of independence, denying interdependence, denying reality, denying our organic nature. Maintaining this illusion requires addictive, compulsive behaviours that are self destructive of individuals, society and the planet.

Little wonder that we find it hard to engage with the truly vital and important issues of the day. We find it hard to act in defence of the Earth when we are mere shadows, figments of our own imagination, having cut ourselves off from our own roots. As we experience Gaia as separate from ourselves, it is argued that we need to develop altruism (alter = the other) or a sense of responsibility or duty in order to defend her. Once we realise our total interconnectedness with Gaia, we can let go of a lot of responsibility (a "treacherous" foundation for action, as Arne Naess points out) for now our defence of Gaia can be powered by the far more powerful impulse of self-defence and the very instinct to survive.

Deep Ecology heals this modern rift between person and planet as we breathe into planetary intention. As we take a planetary intention, such experiences become commonplace. It is deep in our childhood that the cultural separation from the living world of nature begins. Deep Ecology offers a means of getting beyond this conditioning and experiencing again a memory of the time when life was felt as a seamless whole, inner and outer, human and natural, physical and spiritual, linked indissolubly in natural harmony.

People usually tell us "It is far more wonderful than anything you said." Deep Ecology is a spiritual gift! It is perfect and harmless. However, when you apply perfect spiritual energy to a mind that has been conditioned to know fear and pain and all kinds of negative things, then the conditioning is exposed and you can let go of it. You can let go of human misery and be a free and natural person. Your human personality can be filled with serenity, joy, health and spiritual wisdom. Deep Ecology delivers more of these things than we can possibly promise. The reality of them is far more glorious than words... It has been called "a biological experience of religion".

Deep Ecology is a process aimed at expanding awareness of and union with one's inner ecological self, and in so doing, results in healing on the mental, emotional and physical levels. From the holistic viewpoint on health, any illness results from the separation from one's inner self, source or spirit. It manifests on the mental level as a split between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind; on the emotional level as an inability to fully feel and express emotions, and finally on the physical level as tension. It appears culturally as environmentally destructive compulsions. If these tensions becomes chronic, they result in "dis-ease" or illness...

Clearly the fundamental depths of the inner self reach down into our.biological nature. A great deal of the pain we carry is not just personal pain, it is planetary and ecological in nature. Re-member-ing is also the basis to deep ecology, as through deepening our membership with the biota of the planet also builds a healthy basis for acknowledging the uniqueness of humanity, coequally unique with all other species. The trans-personal and even trans-species memories that can spontaneously arise within a Deep Ecology experience thus .can form an opening gateway to other experiences into Deeper Ecological Self.

Reconnecting To Deep Ecology

The danger in all modern therapies is that they can be used as a palliative, a sugar coated pill that leads us to forget our connections within the living planet of who we really are. New Age therapies can be lead, just as much as others, into the denial of reality. Many have been engaged in a futile attempt to perpetuate the ego-locked body by maintaining it forever. They misunderstand the ecological nature of their planetary selfhood. This current body is only a temporary expression as to who I really am. Therapies, John Seed reminds us, that attempt to heal and perpetuate a fictitious concept of the separate ego-locked permanent separation of the psyche from the world, are like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, which is still steering towards the ice-berg of our world wide planetary destruction. It is a little like being in a car, hurtling on a collision course at 400 kilometers per hour with a cliff wall while the passengers argue about the seating! Deep Ecology can become a powerful tool to wake us up.

As John Seed stated recently at an Ecopsychology Symposium, "Scientists warn that we are the last generation of humanity that may have the chance to avert biological collapse and the destruction of the systems that support complex life on Earth. Professor Paul Ehrlich warns us that we're sawing off the branch that we're sitting on. Does this not indicate some kind of psychological problem?" Unfortunately, from my experience it is still moot as to what extent do many New Age therapies contribute to this problem, or to its healing.

John Seed continues, quoting Arne Naess, the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Oslo University, who coined the term "Deep Ecology" in an essay in the book "Thinking Like a Mountain" says, "it is not enough to have ecological ideas, we have to have ecological identity, or ecological self".

He pointed out the a sense of responsibility or duty is a "treacherous basis" for conservation. How many of us are capable of altruism? As long as we are in the grip of the illusion that the Earth is other than our very self (alter = the other), it seems fantastic to suppose that we can make the very difficult changes in our lives and societies that would be needed to live contentedly within the constraints of the ecological systems.

If we can identify with the Earth don't need altruism. If we have the experience of ourselves not as isolated, separate, skin encapsulated egos but as part of the larger body of the Earth, then the defence of nature becomes merely self-defence and this does not require highly elevated moral stature. Self-interest comes "naturally" and it seems more hopeful to expand the sense of self to include the air (my breath) and water (my blood) and soil (my body), than to suddenly imagine most humans becoming "selfless', acting against their perceived self-interest to protect these things.

Now the fact that this is entirely an illusion can be demonstrated very simply by holding your breath for about 3 minutes. I am not talking about anything particularly mystical, it is very straight forward. We can call it "the atmosphere" and we can say - "oh what a good person that is sacrificing their self interest by working to protect the atmosphere instead of making lots of money" as though the atmosphere was "out there". But it is not "out there". None of it is "out there". It is all constantly migrating and cycling through us, whether it's the atmosphere, the water, or the soil. There is no "out there", it is all "in here", but most modern people don't feel that. Still, through thousands of years of conditioning absorbed by osmosis since the day we were born, we have succeeded in creating this incredibly pervasive illusion of separation from nature.

I would call this the central psychological problem of our age and it leads directly to turning us into a culture of ecopaths. This term describes a position with respect to the environment that parallels the position of a psychopath in relation to society, coldly bereft of normal empathy and compassion. As long as "the" environment is out there, we may leave it to some special interest group like the greenies to protect while we look after number one. The matter changes when we deeply realise that the nature "out there" and the nature "in here" are one and the same, that the sense of separation no matter how pervasive, is nonetheless totally illusory. Building your life upon illusion is to prepare for tragedy. This is the tragedy of our age.

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