Defining the Boundaries that give rise to "the Edge" so they can be Crossed
by Kerri Halliday

A growing number of people are concerned with damage to our environment, with many of the concerned people joining conservation groups and protesting against particular developments. However, some people in their actions do not confront the cause of the environmental problems which manifest themselves but make a superficial examination of the problems. Until the root cause of our “western” interaction with the environment is examined, defined and treated, environmental problems will continue to manifest themselves. It is up to the generations of concerned people to now identify the boundaries which exist and contribute to “the edge” of our psychological and spiritual interaction with the environment. In this paper I explore the paradigm which has lead to our current interaction with the environment. I have explained how I have been faced with identifying and defining “the edge” for myself and through an exploration of the wisdom of Native American spirituality how I would like to begin to dissolve the boundaries of “the edge” for my child.

On the 2nd of March 1996 our son was welcomed to the world. His birth was by caesarean due to the physiology of my body, which results in me being unable to deliver a child naturally. Liam’s arrival to the world was very much apart from nature, however we want him to grow up with a sense of connectedness to the natural world, a sense which is re-emerging within us. However, to have this sense of connectedness with nature he will need to be introduced to a host of concepts incompatible with the prevailing western worldview.

There has been an increasing awareness by many authors that environmental problems manifesting themselves today result from the relationship humans have with their environment. Consequently, there has been growing attention given to gaining insights into the relationship humans have with nature. This has resulted in many suggestions being put forward as remedies for “healing” what has been identified as the human/nature split. Many of the suggestions revolve around the need for there to be a shift from our current mechanistic, Newtonian worldview to a new worldview. Wilber (1990), for example, proposes a truly unified worldview one that “would unite science, philosophy-psychology and religion-mysticism”, while Capra (1992) would characterise the new paradigm as needing to be “holistic, ecological, or systemic“. This “transcendental paradigm”, advanced by Wilber (1990) and supported by Matus and Steindl-Rast (1992), or “overall knowledge quest” would include not only the “hardware” of physical sciences but also the “soft ware” of philosophy and psychology and the “transcendental ware” of mystical-spiritual religion” (Wilber, 1990).

Spretnak (1993) also believes the ecological problems we face today are due to our epistemology and drive for modernity. For solutions to the problems she believes it is necessary to examine and adopt aspects of the wisdom traditions into our new epistemology. The wisdom traditions she explores are: the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings about Dhamma, the wisdom of Native American spirituality, the wisdom of Goddess spirituality and the wisdom of the Abrahamic traditions.

In “States of Grace” Spretnak (1993) acknowledges many people have begun to address the human/nature relationship which gives rise to notions that industrialised societies somehow live on top of nature, rather than embedded within its finely balanced complexities, and that humans have no inherent connectedness with one another. These notions are being rejected as ignorant fabrications, which have led to heinous deeds. Turning away from such constricted consciousness has lead many people to new areas of exploration. As a result, a common thread for a mechanism to redress humans relationship with nature has emerged with many people being lead to areas of exploration which can be termed "spiritual" with the contemporary spiritual awakening assuming many shapes.

The acceptance of “spiritual” exploration within our western culture is difficult because our culture has enthroned science resulting in “scientific” scepticism toward anything that cannot be quantified. Consequently religion and spirituality have been pushed to the cultural periphery. As a result, it is usually with embarrassment that people talk about spirituality because the majority of society can not identify with it . This is very much where I have come from, I have studied science at secondary school, undertaken a science degree, taught science and now work as an environmental scientist. For my whole life I have been embedded in the culture of the mechanistic, Newtonian world. With the more study I had undertaken the more focused my view had become, specialising, specialising until I had lost sight of the “whole”.

Upon reflection I believe that I have always been a very spiritual person, I have felt “something” but could not define it because I did not possess the language to express this. Therefore, spirituality as I can now describe and define it did not exist for me until, I had the language to make it reality. Spretnak (1993) supports that this is the commonly held view of post-modern deconstructionists stating they believe “language systems determine our only possible mode of thought, no ground of meaning exists outside of our language inventions”. I would now explain the feeling I had when I viewed my surroundings as a sense of awe or, using Spretnak’s words, as a “state of grace”.

Spretnak (1993) believes when we experience consciousness of the unity in which we are embedded, the sacred whole that is in and around us, we exist in a “state of grace”. Experiencing "grace" involves the expansion of consciousness of self to all of one’s surroundings as an unbroken whole, a consciousness of awe from which negative mindstates are absent, from which healing and groundedness result.

While Spretnak (1993) acknowledges experiencing “grace” is only one part of spiritual practice, she is convinced it is particularly important for a culture that has validated only perceptions of separateness and fragmentation.

When one experiences consciousness of the exquisite interrelatedness and subtle vibratory flux of the life of the material world one is filled with awe. Spretnak (1993) believes this primal experience, in all its variations, precedes culture not the other way around. This leads her to argue, that is why “vastly disparate primal cultures on all the inhabited continents developed around core concepts that the natural world is alive and the reverence toward the sacred whole is the obvious response” (Spretnak, 1993).

A wisdom tradition of particular interest to me is that of native people. Prior to “defining” my spirituality I was totally sceptical of the beliefs of native people and dismissed their beliefs because they could not be “verified” scientifically. Now armed with a new set of tools for examination I wanted to look again.

Spretnak (1993) believes as we seek to renew a sense of deep connectedness with the rest of the natural world, the native people’s intimate relationship with the cosmological processes show us what is possible. Metzner (1993) would support this view believing the comparison of our own culture to Native cultures is very important in alleviating the conceptions of the spirit/nature spilt so prevalent in the western worldview. To address our perceived split from nature we need to recognise and respect worldviews and spiritual practices different from our own, with Metzner (1995) believing that this is “perhaps the best antidote to the West’s fixation on the life-destroying dissociation between spirit and nature”. Metzner (1993) believes for native peoples “spirituality is not separate or above nature - the spiritual is the natural”.

David Suzuki (1992) supports Spretnak (1993) and points out many of the differences between the western worldview and traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge about the natural world tends to view all - or at least vast regions- of nature, often including the earth itself, as inherently holy rather than profane, savage, wild, or wasteland. The landscape itself, or certain regions of it, is seen as sacred and quivering with life. It is inscribed with meaning regarding the origins and unity of all life, rather than seen as mere property to be partitioned legally into commercial real estate holdings.

Also, according to Suzuki (1992) and supported by Spretnak (1993), the Native Mind is imbued with a deep sense of reverence for nature. It does not operate from an impulse to exercise human dominion over it. In addition, native wisdom sees spirit, however one defines that term, as dispersed throughout the cosmos or embodied in an inclusive, cosmos-sanctifying divine being. Spirit is not concentrated in a single, monotheistic Supreme Being (Suzuki , 1992; Spretnak, 1993).

Native wisdom “regards the human obligation to maintain the balance and health of the natural world as a solemn spiritual duty and an individual must perform daily - not simply as admirable, abstract ethical imperatives that can be ignored as one chooses. The Native Mind emphasises the need for reciprocity - for humans to express gratitude and make sacrifices routinely- to the natural world in return for the benefits they derive from it- rather than to extract whatever they desire unilaterally. Nature’s bounty is considered to be precious gifts that remain intimately and inextricably embedded in its living web rather than as “natural resources” passively awaiting human exploitation” (Suzuki, 1992).

There is a wealth of literature available on native wisdom with Wisdom of the Elders by Suzuki and Knudtson (1992), Story Earth by Joseph Brucherc (1992), Millennium - Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World by Maybury-Lewis (1992) and the examples within “States of Grace” providing many insights to the native worldviews. In addition, native wisdom through the speech of Chief Seattle, has enabled a great many in the western world to have an insight into the beliefs of Native people. However, Suzuki and Knudtson (1992) warn that this familiar speech, like other nature wisdom attributed to Native cultures needs to be researched to ensure its authenticity and that it is faithful to the enduring traditional themes of Native worldviews. This warning results from their research revealing that the so called “speech of Chief Seattle”, which has been flagged as the “quintessential expression of native views of nature”, was originally published some 30 years after the speech by a physician Dr. Henry Smith who took copious notes and later translated them. This 1887 version has subsequently undergone many revisions.

Translation of Native wisdom’s is necessary for western society to have access to their ideas, however, great care needs to be taken to ensure the meaning of the wisdom is not lost in the translation. This is very difficult as Jeanette Armstrong (1995) demonstrates when she wishes to share insights from her worldview ( that of an Okanagan, Native American) with western society. Armstrong (1995) feels as though she has a limited capacity to share the way she perceives because of what she cites as “the limited capacity permitted by a language that does not contain the words I require”.

Spretnak (1993) believes Native people’s languages reflect the cosmological focus central to their cultures, and as such provide an opportunity to “consider possibilities of human conceptualisation that are rooted in awareness of our cosmic reality”.

The overwhelming consensus by authors of the spiritual traditions of native peoples is that they give us a sense of our subtle interelatedness with the rest of the natural world. This is highlighted by Spretnak (1993) in the following passage “the cosmic union of humans and the rest of the Earth community”, including the stars and the moon, is central to the Native American worldview. Native people perceive “the environment” as a sensate, conscious entity suffused with spiritual powers. Hence their interactions are a respectful and spiritual exchange. “Everything we do is a prayer. Our religion is a way of life. In, fact, there is no word in Indian languages for “religion”, the closest concept usually being “the way you live”.

At the heart of western society’s problems is that the “sense of the sacred - our human perception of the larger reality, ultimate mystery, or creativity in the universe- has become so diminished that we lack the richly nuanced spiritual vocabulary of the language and visual arts that is the birthright of everyone born into a traditional native culture” (Spretnak, 1993).

Clearly modern society is out of touch with the insights of the great wisdom traditions, those rich cultural repositories of thousands of years of human development of relationship with the sacred.

Having spirituality “defined” for me has offered me the opportunity to confirm my connectedness to nature. It has facilitated the exploration of alternative worldviews and spiritual practices and has enabled me to use the language associated with spirituality. I have been able to experience and express special times, spiritual times when I felt at one with nature and had an overwhelming feeling of being part of a “greater self”. This feeling I had is one that Fisher (1986) believes “lies beyond what is normally acceptable” given our western worldview. That feeling was that nature was an extension of myself or that I was co-extensive with nature (our greater-self). A feeling that I hope with time will become what is normally accepted. To this end I have been exploring and trying to act in ways to ensure Liam does not face the same boundaries that I have crossed and continue to cross.

Following Liam’s birth I wanted to welcome him to the Earth in some “formal” way. I have resisted the desire by some members of the extended family to have him christened and I will continue to do so. I do not want him to be initiated into a religious domain which fosters the notion of a split between nature and spirit. As Metzner (1993) explains, in religion “we have a deeply ingrained belief that our spiritual life, our spiritual practices, must tend in a opposite direction to our nature. Spirit rises upward into transcendent realms while nature draws us downward. This leads to images of spirit separated from nature but also incompatible and opposed. This distorted perception has spread with western society believing that to become spiritual beings we have to overcome and separate from nature.” (Metzner, 1995). This view is in stark contrast to the view of native traditions.

Through the exploration of native traditions and wisdoms I have discovered many notions associated with life. Within several religions around the world is the philosophy or idea that life is envisioned as a path or road. This road is continuous and never ending. The terrain through which it winds and goes is representative of the pitfalls, or turns of life as one travels “the road of life”.

At the root of Native American aboriginal concepts is the belief that the road conveys an eternal return. There is no end. At death one returns in some way to the beginning of the cycle. On the path of life, when one has reached old age, one knows what one knew when one was born, but only realises and acknowledges it for the first time. This concept is at the root of aboriginal beliefs because, similar to the road, the “sacred” has no beginning or end. (Beck, 1993)

I discovered a ritual of the Omaha people which expressed what I had been wanting to undertake with Liam. This ritual was a supplication to the powers of the heavens, the air and the earth for the safety of the child from birth to old age. In it the life of the infant is pictured as about to travel a rugged road stretching over four hills, marking the stages of infancy, youth, manhood and old age. (Beck, 1993)

This ceremony expresses the belief of the Omaha that everything in the universe is related and interdependent. Therefore, the announcement to the universe that another human being was taking its place among the other existing life-forms was an acknowledgement of this view of the world.

Ho! Sun, Moon, Stars, all that move in the
heavens, I bid you hear me!
Into your midst has come a new life.
Consent ye, I implore!
Make its path smooth, that it may reach the
brow of the first hill.

Ho! Ye Winds, Clouds, Rain, Mist, all ye that
move in the air
I bid you hear me!
Into your midst has come a new life.
Consent ye, I implore!
Make its path smooth, that it may reach
the brow of the second hill.

Ho! Ye Hills, Valleys, Rivers, Lakes, Trees,
Grasses, all ye of the earth.
I bid you hear me!
Into your midst has come a new life.
Consent ye, I implore!
Make its path smooth, that it may reach
the brow of the third hill.

Ho! Ye Birds, great and small, that fly in
the air,
Ho! Ye animals, great and small, that dwell
in the forest.
Ho! Ye insects that creep among the grasses
and burrow in the ground.
I bid you hear me!
Into your midst has come a new life.
Consent ye, I implore!
Make its path smooth, that it may reach
the brow of the fourth hill.

Ho! All of the heavens, all ye of the air, all
ye of the earth,
I bid you hear me!
Into your midst has come a new life.
Consent ye, consent ye all, I implore!
Make its path smooth - then shall it travel
beyond the four hills.

I have undertaken this ritual with Liam. I feel that this is one way to encourage a closeness to nature. The other way is to ensure that Liam has an upbringing which enables him to experience nature. It is this experiencing of nature that authors such as Livingston (1981) believe is fundamental to establishing a strong connection to nature. To develop in Liam a sense that he is part of a "greater-self", and for him to be able to convey this to his peers is my aim. The pictures included in this paper show my interpretation of this vision.

For there to be a long term change in the relationship humans from western society have with nature there needs to be a change in the way we think. I believe that one way to address this is to begin by welcoming new born children to the Earth rather than to “a God.”

Armstrong, Jeanette (1995) Keepers Of The Earth In Roszak, et al, (eds.) Ecopsychology: Restoring The Earth, Healing The Mind, Sierra Club Books.

Beck, P. et al (1993) The Sacred Ways Of Knowledge, Sources Of Life, Nccp

Brucherc Joseph (1992) Story Earth Voices On The Environment

Capra, F et al (1992), Belonging To The Universe: New Thinking About God And Nature, Penguin.

Fisher, F (1986), "Wandering In Morphogenic Fields", Aust Nat. Hist.,22/1:19

Knudtson, Peter and Suzuki, David, (1992), Wisdom Of The Elders, Allen And Unwin, NSW, Australia.

Livinston J.A (1981), The Fallacy Of Wildlife Conservation, Mcclelland and Stewart, Toronto.

Maturana, H and Varela, F (1992) The Tree Of Knowledge The Biological Roots Of Human Understanding, Shambhala, Boston.

Matus and Steindl-Rast (1992) Belonging To The Universe: New Thinking About
God And Nature
, Penguin.

Maybury-Lewis, David, (1992), Millennium Tribal Wisdom And The Modern World, Viking, New York.

Metzner, R, (1993), “The Split Between Spirit And Nature In European Consciousness”, Trumpeter, 10:1 Winter.

Metzner, R, (1995) “The Psychopathology of the Human-Nature Relationship” in Ecopsychology, Roszak et al (eds), Sierra Club, San Francisco.

Spretnak, Charlene, (1993), States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age, Harper Collins, San Fransisco.

Suzuki, David, (1992), A Personal Forward: The Value Of Native Ecologies in Wisdom Of The Elders, Allen And Unwin, Sydney, NSW.

Wilber,K. (1990), Eye To Eye: The Quest For The New Paradigm, Shambala, Boston