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The Sacredness of Earth Day: Stewardship as Spiritual Practice

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As we celebrate Earth Day, let us remember the essential connection between stewardship and spiritual practice. By now, most of us know what we need to do to lead more sustainable lives. We know that consciously creating a green lifestyle is the single most powerful way for ordinary citizens to make a difference in the future quality of life on Earth. But we often resist these important lifestyle changes because of inertia, or because old habits die hard, we're just too busy or we feel it's too little, too late. In my own life, in addition to teaching others about green living, I have found that when my sustainable habits are imbued with spiritual awareness, I am much more likely to make and maintain the necessary lifestyle changes required to respond to the ecological crisis.

Sustainable living offers us an ongoing opportunity to practice spiritual mindfulness. Each conscious Earth-friendly act--composting, reusing, recycling, repairing, carpooling, eco-wise shopping, and conserving water and energy--is also an act of spiritual mindfulness. It is the degree of mindfulness that we bring to our most ordinary daily acts of sustainability that determines the sacredness of life. Indeed, it is mindfulness that transforms the mundane into the sacred. The recycling bins become daily rounds of Earth awareness, the water and energy saved prayers of gratitude, and the rides shared a collective offering to clean, fresh air. Sustainable living helps us to simplify our lives and re-prioritize what matters to us--family, community and time for long-forgotten dreams--and it returns us to a saner rhythm. As an antidote to the addiction of consumerism, stewardship heals the spiritual emptiness at the core of much of modern life. Ultimately, skillful stewardship is a blending of reverence with responsibility.

How do we create this blend of reverence and responsibility? In certain Eastern spiritual traditions, compassion for the human family includes ecological compassion. But in the West we have been slower to make this essential connection. Having become myopic in our obsession with personal healing, we often forget that our individual well-being is inseparable from the healing of the planet. Many of us are shocked to realize that our unconscious overconsumption is hurting not only the health of the planet, but the health of our spirit as well.

Eminent Jungian scholar James Hillman articulated this fundamental assertion: "Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: We cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet." Understanding Hillman's statement as the crux of our ecological as well as our moral crisis--our alienation from the whole of which we are part, and our disconnection from our future--is a good first step toward stewardship as spiritual practice. Our alienation from one another and our alienation from the Earth have caused some of our greatest suffering in the Western world. Just as we seek to heal the alienation among individuals, families and society, we must also seek to heal our alienation from the natural world.

Today there is much talk of soul, and the loss of soul. It is heartbreakingly clear that our loss of soul is, in part, a direct reflection of our desecration of the Earth. The human family's spiritual bankruptcy is in direct proportion to our disregard for the planet we live on. As we destroy the Earth, we are destroying some essential part of our humanity. Indeed the health of the planet and the health of the human psyche is a seamless continuum.

Paradoxically, for many of us it's our connection with the Earth that reawakens our soul and imbues us with a sense of the sacred. Often some of our deepest personal healing takes place through our relationship with the natural world. But this subversive split--the desire to be healed by nature while we continue to harm it by living unsustainably--can never lead to genuine, whole healing. By joining sustainable living with spiritual practice we can mend this split, making the circle whole again. We heal the Earth as the Earth heals us.

A central focus of my teaching has been to guide my students toward the inexorable connection between the state of their psyches and the state of the planet. It's not so much the scary statistics on ecological devastation that inspire this connection, but rather something much more personal that links our souls to the soul of the Earth. For many people this connection takes place during an experience of natural beauty--the pink radiance of dawn, the luminous shafts of sunlight in a forest, the tiny yellow blossoms amidst the arid red desert landscape, the immense orange of a full harvest moon, a tender moment with a creature, or the immediate healing that comes from swimming in the sea. These are moments when we lucidly understand that a part of our sanity as human beings utterly depends on our relationship with the natural world.

Sometimes this essential link between psyche and planet occurs as our chosen spiritual practice strengthens our connection to the whole. Recognizing that we can't separate from something of which we are a part, we begin to understand the fundamental relationship between our personal suffering and the Earth's suffering. When we deaden our feelings about the planet's crisis, we also deaden our souls. The more we try to isolate from the suffering of the natural world, the more we suffer. By contrast, the more we open our hearts to feel the pain, the more connected, courageous and alive we feel. As we awaken our caring for the Earth, there is a concurrent blossoming of compassion in other areas of our life-- for family, colleagues, and community. For many of us compassion is the most effective doorway into sustainable living. Once we care deeply about something, then we want to take action.

Understanding that our destiny is forever linked with the fate of the Earth, that the health of our souls is inextricably related to the health of our planet, is at the heart of stewardship as a spiritual practice. Walking the path of stewardship, we take it one day at a time, just as we do with our spiritual practice. We aspire toward a fresh beginner's mind as we compost, plant trees, shop with green values, conserve, recycle, reuse and repair. This daily practice is made up of humble acts that simplify our lives, offering us the gifts of time, community and creativity. By consuming less we end up with so much more. Gently, inexorably, both our spiritual practice and our stewardship are changing us and changing the world.

Co-Founder of the Empowerment Institute, Gail Straub has pioneered empowerment worldwide for over thirty years. She is the co-author of the best-selling Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life As You Want It, and her most recent book is the award-winning feminist memoir Returning to My Mother's House: Taking Back the Wisdom of the Feminine. Her passion for empowerment led to her work in Russia where she trained activists in the empowerment methodology, helping to build a visionary leadership model for social change. She has done similar work in China where the Chinese Women's Federation adopted the empowerment framework. Currently she leads the Global Initiative for the Empowerment of Women to support women in Afghanistan, Darfur, Nigeria, and South Africa to heal from violence and to build strong empowered lives. All her empowerment work includes the principles of stewardship and she has taught Green Living worldwide.