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Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee:

On Spiritual Ecology

Part 1

Prospero (The Tempest): "...and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer."


Ecobuddhism: 'Spiritual Ecology' is a concept you have put forward that we also find very relevant. Could you please expand on what you have written about ‘loss of soul’ in the context of the global ecological crisis: The inner wasteland is as barren as the Tar Sands in Alberta and Like climate change and the extinction of species, the inner wasteland is growing faster than we realize.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee: I think the real difficulty is that we have developed a culture that only sees the outer world. It has become so intrinsic to our consciousness that the general culture has no understanding of the inner worlds, nor any framework to explore them. There has been a resurgence of Shamanism in the past few decades, but for the collective culture the inner worlds don’t exist. People see only the outer physical world. When they are confronted by ecological problems, they see only the outer physical manifestation.

We are an unusual culture from this point of view. In most indigenous cultures their consciousness is much more open to the inner worlds, while in the Middle Ages our Western culture was closer to the symbolic world, as can seen in the sacred geometry and iconography of their cathedrals. That we have forgotten our understanding of the inner worlds is analogous with the burning of the books which has happened at different times in history. For example the burning of the library in Alexandria which carried the wisdom of hundreds of years, or the library of the Mayans, whose systematic destruction by the Spanish meant out of 3000 books just 3 fragments survived.  That Mayan library was a record of all their wisdom about time—their understanding of the cycles and cosmic dimension of time. Burning these books was an attempt to wipe out all their knowledge, so it is now no longer present. Similarly our knowledge about the inner worlds has been wiped from our collective memory. We have forgotten about the inner worlds so completely that we have even forgotten we have forgotten.

There are still peoples who carry such consciousness—for example the Kogi in Columbia. Their whole culture is about the relationship between the inner realm they call Aluna and the outer world. During a time of outer crisis, the people automatically look to their shamans, to their dreams and visions, to find out where the imbalance is in the inner world so they can bring everything back into harmony. 

Since the last century there has been a resurgence of our understanding of the inner world of symbols with the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others. Henry Corbin, a follower of Jung, went back to Sufi metaphysics and the teachings of Ibn ‘Arabi about the imagination and the symbolic world that exists between the physical world of the senses and the realm of mystery, the world of the soul.  This world of symbols and images is as real in its place as the visible world we see around us. In my early 30s, I discovered I could journey into this interior world, the mundus imaginalis.  I took people on Archetypal Journeys for seven years, to work with the symbols and energies in a similar way to shamanic journeys. Then about ten years ago, I really woke up to the effect Western culture was having on this interior world. There used to be beautiful temples in the inner world, places of great symbolic value. People could be drawn there to meditate, pray, to be nourished and healed by this interior world and its numinous images. In this inner world we could reconnect with our own soul. However, our collective dismissal of the inner worlds and the desecration caused by our culture of materialism have instead created an inner wasteland.

The symbolic world allows us to go deeper within our self and within life. It is a bridge to the mystery of what it means to be a human being—our divine nature.  Tibetan Buddhism has an enormously rich culture in its ritual practices—some of them deeply shamanic—that see the outer world as a reflection of the inner world. Their culture knows how to connect the two, and the importance of maintaining a bridge so the outer and inner worlds nourish each other.

In our present culture we have a deep disconnect from our ancient heritage of the inner world and its wisdom. It is more and more difficult to be nourished by the inner reality of the symbolic world and the realm of the soul. For most people it’s difficult to go into deep meditation and have a direct connection with Atman, Buddha nature, Soul—however you prefer to call it. It requires a lot of spiritual discipline and training.  For most people the symbolic world was the mediator.  For example in the Catholic Church, the mass and sacraments are a way for the ordinary person to be nourished by the divine, through symbols.  But the more we lay waste to the inner world, the more we are stranded in a physical world of materialism. The desecration happening to the inner world is similar to the physical wasteland we have created in the Tar Sands of Alberta, and yet it is an unspoken tragedy, almost unnoticed.  For many years now this inner desecration has been continuing, unreported, though I think people feel it as a certain deep anxiety and loss of meaning. 

What is ‘loss of soul’? From a spiritual perspective, each human being has a soul, a divine nature—the spark that comes into our physical body to have certain experiences in this world. We can call it our unique destiny or purpose. When Jung said “Find the meaning and make the meaning your goal”, that means to follow something that does not belong to our conditioning or sensory perception. It addresses why we have come into this beautiful but suffering world.

In the West in the past few decades we have had increasing access to spiritual teachings and practices, for example meditation and sacred chanting. These nourish the sacred part of ourselves with light, energy or presence. But our soul also needs to be nourished by the outer world:  it has incarnated into this world in order to have certain meaningful experiences in life.  In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  Since the beginning of time this sacred relationship to life has been understood by all indigenous cultures. Their rituals of daily life were always sacred and established and maintained a sacred relationship to creation which nourished them.

Native Americans saw their life as a communion with earth & spirit. 

When the Pomo Indian people wove baskets, the women would go out and pray over the grasses before they cut them. As they wove their baskets they would put the reeds or grasses through their mouths to moisten them, praying over them. The basket wove together the physical and the spiritual parts of life. Native American cultures saw their life as a communion with earth and spirit that nourished them but also nourished creation.

If your soul is nourished by life itself, then you don’t need a lot of stuff. Instead you feel the joy, beauty and mystery inherent in life. Of course, life still has struggles and physical hardship. Sometimes there wasn’t enough food in these cultures, but there was a deep spiritual connection, they were held together by the whole tapestry of life. There is something in creation that we can call a ‘sacred substance’. The Sufis call it the secret of the word Kun! (Be!). Indigenous cultures understood how to look after this spiritual substance in creation, with prayers, thanksgiving and rituals. We are not just the physical guardians of creation, we are also its spiritual guardians. 

But instead of looking after life’s sacred nature, we have abused and desecrated our environment to such a degree, that now this sacred substance has begun to diminish. If this substance is lost then a certain meaning to life also becomes lost. The soul can then no longer be nourished by the sacred in creation. The joy goes out of life, its deep mystery becomes inaccessible. Sometimes one can see in an individual when they have lost their way, lost contact with their soul—for example in a drug addict—a certain light in their eyes has gone out. Their life has lost its purpose.

EB: Cultures too can lose their soul?

LV-L:  It has happened in the past. Certain cultures withdrew, died, faded away, lost their purpose. Our Western culture that used to belong only to North America and Europe, has in the last 20 years gone global. Globally we are now just interested in consumerism. The few indigenous tribes, like those in the Amazon, are getting pushed further and further into extinction. The values of materialism and greed, where the only thing that matters is satisfying your egotistical desires at any cost to the environment, have become global with devastating effect. The little pockets of sacred inner nourishment are getting pushed more and more to the periphery. Whatever we do, it is more and more difficult to find a direction as a culture, because the spark isn’t there anymore.

Traditionally, then, there comes what is called a spiritual dark age, where a culture can no longer find its way.  We can no longer find meaning in the outer world because we have treated it so badly that the light is driven back into its very core. We will be left in a materialistic wasteland where there is no real purpose or joy. The shadow-side is we become more and more addicted to surface phenomena, because there is nothing to meet or nourish the soul.

In spiritual traditions the outer world always reflects changes that take place in the inner dimension. Just as we speak of reaching an outer environmental tipping point where we are in unchartered territory from which we cannot return, we are approaching an inner tipping point of losing access to the sacred substance in creation.

EB: The climate tipping point is becoming a mainstream proposition in science now.

LV-L:  Yes, I was just reading in the science journal Nature the other day that they are beginning to think this is happening.

EB: Given the extent of social engineering behind the very narrow self-concept generated by the industrial consumerism, one might say that in place of the Collective Unconscious, humanity now has television.

LV-L: Yes, the inner world became a wasteland and the way to compensate for it was we became more and more addicted to materialism and its distractions, because nothing else was nourishing us.

EB: In America after the last world war, they had this tremendous machinery of industrial production.  The record shows how ‘needs’ were created that the population didn’t yet have, by generations of psychology graduates hired to develop  mass advertising.

LV-L: They carefully and intelligently learned how to manipulate images to control human beings’ desires and create the mass market. Mass marketing is a way of using images and symbols to make people addicted to buying stuff. It’s pathological.

EB: Buddhist elder Sulak Sivaraksa says the Thai people retained their status as an independent Buddhist culture despite French and British colonization. But when the Vietnam War started next to them, their culture was overwhelmed. American consumerism seduced the young people into abandoning their cultural heritage for a pair of branded jeans, or whatever.

LV-L: I was in Northern Thailand in the early 70s. I remember talking to people there. They said theirs was a rich country agriculturally, and they could have two harvests a year and live quite contentedly on that with lots of time for their Buddhist festivals. Then the Americans came along because of Vietnam, saying the country could have three harvests a year, so they could sell the extra grain and buy things. They became seduced by that. But with three harvests a year, they didn’t have the same time for religious festivals and their deeply spiritual civilization instead became gradually addicted to consumerism.

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee PhD
is a Sufi teacher who has written many books, His latest work focuses on mysticism & spiritual responsibility in the context of ecological crisis & cultural transition.

→ Go to part 2

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