The Need for Ecospiritual Community
In Novasutras, we invite the co-creation of a shared spirituality to address the needs of our time. An ecospirituality developed in community can be a source of renewed meaning for people confronting the existential crises we now face: climate disruption, mass extinction, and threats to freshwater and arable soil availability. Because these crises may catastrophically destabilize economic and social institutions, and diminish the hope for peace in our time, the need for spiritual community has never been greater. At the same time, many people are turning away from traditional spiritual communities, particularly those under 30 years old, whose lives will be most impacted by crises in the decades to come. The idea of Novasutras was developed specifically to provide an attractive alternative spiritual community for those who are primarily interested in Earth care, and who may reject traditional faiths because their personal worldviews are grounded in scientific and egalitarian principles.
Ecospirituality in Novasutras
The Novasutras mission is to enact change through ecospiritual community. We reawaken our deepest connection with our living world to reclaim our joy, honor our pain, grow trusted relationships, and take meaningful action in service to all life.
We express our core values through the terms agaya and ubuntu.
Agaya is a new term, merging the scientific understandings of the Gaia Theory with the resonant sense of Agape. Evidence associated with the Gaia Theory shows that the evolution of life on Earth is constantly creating and maintaining conditions to support more complex life. Agape refers to transcendent, universal love. Agape is strongly associated with compassion and altruism. In coupling these ideas of agape and the Gaia Theory, agaya invites us to consider the possibility that the evolutionary creativity of life on Earth is an expression of transcendent love. It is intended as an expression to honor the deep, sacred beauty of the universe and its capacity to create life, reflecting inspiration, awe, reverence and delight in the natural world. (learn more)
Ubuntu is one feature of agaya, perhaps its driving force. Ubuntu philosophers sometimes translate this Nguni Bantu word as: “I am because we are.” The word originated in southern Africa to mean humanity, and most ubuntu philosophy focuses on the bonds between humans. In Novasutras we expand this definition to include the broader connections between all things, binding together the more-than-human world. Ubuntu is the essential truth of what Thich Nhat Hanh called “interbeing,” or the Buddhist notion of interdependent co-arising. As ecological science shows us, we are who and what we are only because of our relationships. (learn more)
Michelle’s story: the Calling of Earth’s Three Green Hearts
I became spiritually connected to what I came to understand as agaya and ubuntu during my fieldwork in the rainforest. My PhD work was investigating the evolution of the human capacity for culture by studying the behavioral ecology of our closest living relatives. I started with an intention to study bonobos in what was then Zaire in the mid-1990s, but after a couple months a brewing civil war began moving across the country that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. This pushed me to transition into a study of tool use and cultural variations in the orangutans on Sumatra in Indonesia.
Yet while I was so inspired, so in love with the vibrancy, diversity, the spectacular aliveness of these equatorial rainforests, I was also confronted with how vulnerable they are to human abuses. So many large animals of the forests of Congo were missing, lost to the guns of bushmeat hunters who purchased their weapons and ammunition with funds obtained from the mining for the minerals in electronic devices sold in North America and Europe. The forests of Sumatra were being illegally logged for the hardwood being sold in China and Japan, opening the way to clearcuts for palm plantations to supply the palm oil that is now in almost every product on our grocery store shelves around the world.
These sacred places, Earth’s Three Green Hearts, were under threat, and in the decades since then the rapid progress of climate change has pushed them dangerously close to collapse. So I’ve spent those decades trying to understand the calling that I got there, of how to change the systems and patterns of industrial civilization, so that beings like the bonobos and orangutans I met might have a chance to survive.
Connecting Earth Spirituality and Earth Activism
“It’s in that convergence of spiritual people becoming active and active people becoming spiritual that the hope of humanity now rests.”
This quote by Van Jones suggested one powerful pathway for change: creating ecospiritual community for activists.
The Novasutras movement grounds the work of activists in relevant spirituality. We leverage the human adaptation of shared spiritual practices and community to support sustained group commitment and powerful collective action. We see the power of spiritual communities expressed in indigenous and folk traditions around the world, as people confront threats to their lands and waters.
The Function and Value of Religious and Spiritual Communities
Durkheim (1912) proposed that religion has three major functions in society: it 1) to provide social cohesion to help maintain solidarity through shared rituals and beliefs, 2) to enforce religious-based morals and norms to help maintain conformity and control in society, and 3) to offer meaning and purpose, to answer any existential questions in people’s lives.
In Recapture the Rapture, Jamie Wheal (2021) outlines three key components of spiritual community that promote human flourishing: 1. Comminitas (connection), 2. Catharsis (healing), and 3. Ecstasis (inspiration). In our disconnected, industrialized societies we are in desperate need of improving our interpersonal and community connections. The ills of our societies have amplified our need for the healing functions of spiritual community. And importantly, we need community support to safely and effectively experience and move through peak states, where insight, inspiration, and joy can emerge.
Traditionally, spiritual community has been an important source of comfort, solace, renewal, and inspiration during and after trauma. People who belong to a spiritual community or religious affiliation are more resilient in stressful situations (Moreira-Almeida, Neto, and Koenig, 2006, Alawiyah et al. 2011). Participation in a religious or spiritual community is correlated with better mental health (Garssen, Visser & Pool 2021), and with factors like longevity and overall well-being (Newman & Graham 2018).
A Time of Crisis for Youth
Right now, many are struggling with mental health issues that impede their well-being. In particular, climate anxiety and eco-grief are rising in people under 30. An international survey of 10,000 youth (16-25 year olds) shows the majority of young people around the world experience feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty in relation to climate; 45% say these emotions affect their daily life (Hickman et al. 2021). These emotional burdens fall most heavily on those who are also experiencing extreme weather events and disasters that are related to climate disruption, such as those in India and the Philippines where it reaches 74%.
Unfortunately, those who might need religion or spiritual community most are turning away from these offerings. In the US, young people are not getting the support they could be getting from spiritual communities (PRRI 2020). The share of young adults that are unaffiliated has generally been rising since the 1980s, with over one-third of youth saying they are “unaffiliated” in the most recent surveys.
Spiritual Community for the Religiously Disinclined
Globally, over one billion people report they have no religious affiliation (Pew 2012b). Research in the United States shows that the “nones,” and those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) have been the fastest growing responses to surveys asking about faith (Pew 2012a, Lipka and Gecewicz 2017, PRRI 2020). This isn’t confined to youths. Over one-third of adults between the ages of 30 and 49, and 30% of those aged 50 to 64, describe themselves as SBNR (Pew RLS 2014). Mercadante (2018) noted that many SBNR people had a “horizontally transcendent” spirituality, finding little appeal in concentrated, top-down expressions of divinity. Many are also spiritual explorers, sampling ideas, beliefs and practices from multiple traditions.
According to Lipka (2016), the reasons Americans gave for leaving the established religion of their childhood were that they didn’t believe the religion’s teachings (49%) or that they disliked organized religion (20%). Many in the latter group said they didn’t like the religion’s institutional structure or its focus on power and politics. Wheal (2021) notes that Enlightenment values of inclusivity, democracy, and scientific reasoning have pushed many people away from the strong and stable global religions that provided meaning in previous centuries. Yet these same Enlightenment values and the technological reshaping of society they made possible engendered a lack of connection to one another and to the living world.
The Polycrisis and the Metacrisis: Absence of Ecospiritual Connection
It may even be argued that the unfolding “polycrisis” of climate destabilization, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion, fisheries collapse, plastics pollution, deforestation, and the emerging pandemics and wars that result from these, share the same root. Philosopher Rupert Read (2023) posits these converging crises are the result of a “metacrisis.” He proposes that there is “a fundamental, underlying spiritual driver to the crisis,” that “…we are spiritually maladjusted to our home at this time in history… we don’t know how to live anymore.” Read suggests that we need to come together in doing the inner work necessary to cope with the emotions raised by the polycrisis and find shared meaning to propel action.
Spiritual Community for Collective Power in Action
Movements that changed societies and righted profound wrongs were led by people of deep spiritual commitment. Examples of this are readily found: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Quaker abolitionists, and Liberation Theology in Latin America. The power of activism by indigenous land defenders has been rooted in spirit and ceremony, from the Bishnoi people & the Chipko movement (the original tree-huggers, Estrada 2018), to the recent actions at Standing Rock in the Dakotas and resisting Line 3 in Minnesota.
The intention for Novasutras has always been to weave ecospirituality and ecoactivism more tightly together. We seek to appeal to the many activists who do not already have a strong connection to a spiritual community, or who find that their current spiritual community does not prioritize Earth care.
A Spiritual Community for Today and Tomorrow
In Novasutras, we have intentionally created spaces where those with naturalistic worldviews, scientific materialists, secularists, agnostics, and SBNR people can explore ecospirituality together. As spiritual seekers, we maintain a respect for a wide diversity of belief, expression and practice. We draw from wide variety of other wisdom traditions, emphasizing the reverence for Earth and Life found in most indigenous cultures. Useful ideas and practices in the Work That Reconnects (Joanna Macy), Engaged Buddhism (Thich Nhat Hanh), and Ecodharma (David Loy) shape what we do in Novasutras. We open our beliefs to deep inquiry and rigorous critique, as we explore what we think we know and how we know it, and derive meaning from truths grounded in verifiable facts from the natural sciences.
To provide an alternative to what so many find objectionable in larger organized religions, in Novasutras we endeavor to use the best examples of scientific and democratic collective sensemaking. We avoid hierarchy that is found in most widespread traditional religions. We reject patriarchal language and power rooted in domination. Instead, we seek to grow shared power together. We embed evolutionary change and inclusive egalitarianism into our essential principles. We avoid top-down structures and decision-making in our work together, opting for consent- or consensus-based forms such as sociocracy.
In Novasutras, we try to appeal to those who are scientifically educated. We offer stories and celebrations that revolve around the best available information about the workings of nature. We are grounded in natural science perspectives, as seen in Religious Naturalist Orientation (as exemplified by “Everybody’s Story” in Ursula Goodenough’s book The Sacred Depths of Nature) or The Journey of the Universe (Brian Swimme).
Novasutras’ Values and Principles
Reverence for our living world is the core shared value in Novasutras. Starting with acknowledgement that Nature is sacred, we recognize patterns in the living world that help us make meaning:
- Change is essential, inevitable and important.
- Complexity and maturity emerge from diversity in cooperative relationships.
- The beauty of the living world is to be savored, honored, celebrated and protected.
We emphasize practices that research has shown to be effective in managing stress and creating bonding experiences, including meditation and nature connection.
Meditation is a foundational Novasutras practice. Research has shown that meditation provides many benefits for personal well-being. I lead group meditation events for Novasutras. We have made recordings of several guided meditations on agaya and ubuntu freely available through various channels (learn more). I now also offer individual instruction and guided meditation sessions online or by phone (schedule a personal guided meditation session with me).
Shinrin-Yoku (forest immersion) has become another important Novasutras practice. Usually shinrin-yoku involves mostly walking slowly through a wooded area, incorporating plenty of chances for standing still or sitting while you appreciate the details of the beauty around you, taking time to reconnect with the natural world. The health benefits of forest bathing practices have been quite well studied, with decades of research in Japan. Other studies of the effects of exposure to nature support the conclusion that it has extensive and diverse benefits for physical and mental well-being (details and references about shinrin-yoku).
We gather to celebrate Earth’s orbital cycles (the Grand Octal, at the Equinoxes, Solstices and Cross-Quarters) and moon phases, not because of some explicitly mystical or astrological connection, but because these are natural phenomena that are experienced by all who live on Earth, reminding us of our shared fate as inhabitants of this planet.
The Work That Reconnects
The Work That Reconnects is a set of learning practices, ceremonies, and meditations designed by Joanna Macy and colleagues to support our Earth care activism. These practices invite deep connection to the world, in all its beauty and in its suffering. By recognizing ourselves as part of Nature, and as co-creators of our future, we gain resilience and courage. We are guided by our love for the Earth to be agents for positive change.
Focusing Practice and Partnerships
Focusing Practice is an integrative body-mind modality developed by Eugene Gendlin and colleagues. The synergies between work within and ongoing community connections in Focusing Partnerships can improve our empathy and understanding as social change agents. We develop heart-knowing and deep listening skills so we can better serve the world’s needs. This practice builds our capacity to integrate information from our inner body knowing and “felt sense” into our consciousness, to help us with life satisfaction and authentic action in the world.
Sacred Activism as a Core Practice
In Novasutras, our ecospirituality supports ecoactivism. We encourage nonviolent action in service to all life, and share ideas on how to engage in sacred activism. Whether it’s having a climate conversation with a neighbor, or risking arrest in civil disobedience, there are many paths of sacred activism.
What ways do you practice sacred activism? How do the personal and community practices of Novasutras help your strength and resilience, so you can be effective, whole and healthy through these challenging times?
Please reply and share your thoughts in the comments, below.
“Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.”
~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
This paper was written in preparation for a talk delivered for the “Uses and Abuses of Power in Alternative Spiritualities” Conference hosted by Harvard Divinity School’s Program for the Evolution of Spirituality. Michelle was on a panel on Countering the Eco-abuses of Dominant Societal Paradigms, with Ian Mowll of GreenSpirit and Erik Assadourian of The Gaian Way.
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Read, R. 2023. The Horrible Wonderful Truth About Climate | Salter Lecture Quaker Yearly Meeting 2023 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUZ26eoLdkE&t=1221s
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