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In this guest blog, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee reflects on Greta Thunberg’s ability to speak truth to power, and the need for activism to be rooted in a relationship with the sacred.  

In recent weeks young people around the world have taken to the streets in their thousands, placards reading simple truths, “Planet before Profit,” “Our Earth Matters,” Their actions and words are speaking clearly, of real concern for their future and for the Earth. They know “There’s no Planet B.”

We are all present at a moment in our shared destiny when the Earth is crying out to us to help Her in this time of crisis that is destroying Her ecosystem, the fragile web of life that supports Her multihued unity. Around us are what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “bells of mindfulness”—we can hear them ringing in the unprecedented species depletion (such as the recent awareness of what is called an “insect Armageddon,” with a 45-75% loss of insect biomass), the oceans filling with plastic at a rate unfathomable a few decades ago, and accelerating climate change; all with unforeseen consequences. And, on a different level, though just as painful, is the loss of wildness and wonder, a diminishing sense of the sacred that nourishes our souls.

And together with the young people, many of us are responding with action and ideas, even as our governments and corporations—with their values focused only on economic growth and materialism—are unable or unwilling to make this a real priority. This was forcefully articulated at last year’s UN Climate Change COP24 Conference by the 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who spoke truth to power when she said: “We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet….”

This last sentence brought tears to my eyes, as my soul heard her speak about real care for the Earth—for this living, beautiful being who has given us life, who has nourished us with Her endless generosity, even as we have abused and desecrated Her, raped and pillaged Her body which our culture regards greedily as just a “resource” for our endless use and abuse. And since this talk Greta has shown the power of a single person, as she has become an icon, a catalyst inspiring a growing mass of young people around the world, calling out for the future of the Earth and their own future, demanding that their voices and the cries of the Earth be heard.

But behind Greta’s phrase, “the living planet,” is a deeper truth that calls out to our forgetfulness. As was known to the ancients and to Indigenous peoples, our Earth is a being with a soul as well as a body, what in the West we called the anima mundi, the soul of the world, or what the Kogi in the Sierra Nevada in Colombia call Aluna, the spiritual intelligence within nature. Until we recognize, remember, and reconnect with the spiritual nature of the Earth, the primal intelligence within all of life, we will be walking in the darkness of our forgetfulness, unable to find the way to work together with Her, to start to heal and transform the living oneness to which we all belong.

Every butterfly, every bee, every waterfall, every dream we have, is a part of this living, spiritual being. She is ancient beyond our understanding, even as She is crying out at this moment. The great unspoken tragedy of this time is that we have forgotten Her living sacred presence, and this is the silent censorship that has clear-cut our consciousness. Our industrialized world has stripped us of our natural relationship, our interbeing with creation, and now, as the web of life is being torn apart, we do not even know how to respond. We do not know how to access Her wisdom, how to return to being a part of the great conversation that belongs to all of life. We remain stranded on the desolate shores of materialism, as in a supermarket where the shelves are increasingly empty.

Spiritual Activism is an emerging field that calls for a spiritual response to our present global crisis—to our present social divisiveness and ecological devastation, to our self-destructive identification with an old story of separation rather than embracing the living story of life’s interdependent wholeness. Yes, we desperately need to reduce carbon emissions and pesticides, to stop turning rainforests into ranchland or palm oil plantations. But there is also a call to reconnect with the sacred within creation, with the spiritual lifeblood of the planet. Otherwise we will just be continuing the same one-sided conversation that has caused this devastation. We need to work together with the Earth, to include Her wonder and wisdom. We need to reconnect with Her soul.

And this is a work that we each can do—it does not need governments or big organizations, but individuals whose hearts are open and who have heard the cry of the Earth. Within our own being we can make this connection, and so help to bring the sacred alive again in our own daily life and the life of the Earth. There are many different ways to reconnect, from walking in a sacred manner, to working with the soil with care in our hands, to including the Earth in our prayers, or simply recognizing divine presence in the world around us. Whatever our practice or prayer, whatever way we reaffirm a world of reverence, this foundational work is not complicated, but rather simply requires our attention, real mindfulness. Then whatever our outer activities, we are connected to the true nature of the living Earth. And it can empower us to make a real contribution to enable humanity to rejoin the great conversation, the sacred relationship with the Earth that was part of the Original Instructions given to our ancestors.

The Earth will continue. We are now living through the sixth mass extinction of species in Her history. It is our shared future that is uncertain: whether we will keep to our ancient promise to witness Her wonder and beauty, honor Her sacred ways; or whether we will continue our present path, stumbling through an increasingly soulless wasteland, caught in consumerism, until the sea levels rise, the air becomes too toxic, the oceans too acidic, our souls too desolate. Again, in the words of the young activist Greta Thunberg, “We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.” But she also said, “Change is coming.” The real question is whether we are open to be a part of real change—for hearts and hands to help the Earth, for our souls to reconnect with the magic and mystery of Her living being.

Watch Greta Thunberg speaking at COP24

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a Sufi teacher and the author of many books including Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, and forthcoming title,  Including the Earth in Our Prayers:  A Global Dimension to Spiritual Practice.  The focus of his writing and teaching is on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition.