03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Inner Life: Nature And Transcendence

Yosemite wallsFor an introduction to this series of dialogues between EnlightenNext magazine's Ross Robertson and environmental philosopher Michael Zimmerman, see this post. For the previous blog in the series, click here.


I like the way you tied together the two core issues I brought up--anthropocentrism and interiority--so simply and directly in your last letter. I think my editorial comrade (and fellow "bright green" junkie) Joel Pitney summed it up pretty well in his enthusiastic comment to your post:

Until you can have both a consciousness-centric appreciation for the interiority in everything AND a recognition that our particular depth of interiority as humans (including morality and environmental responsibility itself) is the most advanced expression of consciousness that the universe has produced to date (as far as we know), then your perspective on the relationship between humanity, nature, and spirit can never be complete.

Touché! I wrote another story a few years back on similar issues surrounding interiority and consciousness in animals called Do Animals Have Souls?, and ever since then I've always found questions about the boundary lines between "animal" and "human" incredibly intriguing. I also had some great dialogues about this with a fellow professor of yours at CU Boulder, the brilliant cognitive ethologist Mark Bekoff, that folks can listen to here if they're interested. (Bekoff's most recent book, just out this year, is called Wild Justice.)

And for today, I was thinking about another facet of this discussion that might be interesting to bring into the mix: transcendence. Soul, spirit, God, higher consciousness . . . all of these are deeply tied to the subject of interiority. For myself, and I know for many, many others, my first memories of encounters with transcendent spirit occcurred in nature--in Yosemite Valley, in fact, probably around the age of five or six. My dad used to take us camping there every summer for a week or so, and I still have vivid memories of staring up at the massive cliff walls of the valley in silent stupefaction, whether from a trail or a meadow or a car window, simply contemplating nothing. I was just looking into space, into vastness, into majesty. I don't remember speaking about it to anyone, really. I don't know what I would have said, had no clue what it meant. But as rambunctious and uncontrollable as I was, I loved to do it. There was no way to measure or relate to the size and scale of those vertical spans of light and shadow, cut by angles of rocky overhang, treeline, waterfall. And the space that opened up inside me somewhere during all this cliff gazing was equally immeasurable. It was infinite, timeless, captivating in the way that only consciousness itself is captivating. I wasn't doing anything. It just came over me by itself whenever I stopped what I was doing and started paying attention.

These first encounters with the realm of the transcendent left an indelible impression, and I spent a good portion of my first twenty years chasing after that mysterious pulse of the endless so easily found in wilderness and wild places. But are experiences like these a strong enough foundation on which to build contemporary spirituality? In my own life at least, as much as I loved and longed for and dreamed about some final immersion in the purity and openness of these wild infinities, they never seemed to be.

So I was intrigued by the discussion you and Sean opened up in the first chapter of Integral Ecology, "The Return of Interiority," on the subject of nature spirituality. True to form, you also went straight for the jugular on several more hot-button issues in the realm of ecology and environmentalism. To use integral language, you basically described how most forms of "eco-romanticism," "Gaia worship," and the like were perpetrating a "pre/trans fallacy," mistaking an earlier stage of consciousness development marked by undifferentiated immersion in the biosphere for a much more advanced level of transcendent awakening to Spirit. You even go so far as to say that in truth, nature spirituality and Gaia worship are not antidotes to modern industrial society's split from the natural world, as they often seem to be, but actually expressions and perpetuations of "the industrial paradigm" itself!!

I gotta admire your guts :)

"Attempting to overcome alienating dissociation," you write, "[eco-romanticism] ended up in a suffocating, merged, enmeshed identification with nature that left no room for what differentiates humans (and the noosphere) from the biosphere." (31) There's a fascinating system of connections here between scientific materialism's rejection of interiority, the fear of anthropocentrism, and the hunger for meaning and depth endemic to postmodern culture that I'd love to explore further together. How did this happen? Where did we go wrong? Why is it often so confusing?

As you write a page or two later:

Most environmentalists abjure talk of transcendence and Spirit because they are moderns at heart--they agree that all being is material being. And because transcendence seems to be a uniquely human capacity, environmentalists fear that acknowledging transcendence will only encourage an anthropocentrism that justifies heedless destruction of natural phenomena. But genuine transcendence is not anthropocentric--animals have interiors that grow and complexify--nor is it otherworldly, as interiors are inside of NATURE. (33)

Imagine if one of your undergraduates were to come to your office this semester, knock earnestly on the door, and explain to you that after reading this chapter, they think they might be having a small existential crisis. "But I love nature," they say. "It's my connection to spirit! What's wrong with that?" You've got twenty minutes till your next class starts. What would you tell them?