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Conference on ecological spiritualities, part 1

This article is the first in a multi-part series focusing on interfaith issues and spirituality and the plant world.

TWH – Harvard Divinity School hosted a hybrid conference on “Ecological Spiritualities” April 27-30. Spiritual practices and traditions differ in their relationship to the environment.

This conference provided an interreligious approach to understanding these differences. Animists, Buddhists, Christians, Confucians, Muslims and pagans presented. No speaker claimed to speak on behalf of his entire community.

Hybrid conferences developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One obvious advantage is that they have removed the barriers of travel costs to conferences. In this process, they have greatly expanded who can present and who can attend.

Interreligious and secular perspectives

Dr. Dorothy Dean, a professor at Hastings College, spoke about climatic grief as a spiritual practice. His presentation could apply to all practices and traditions as well as to secular people.

Dean tied the grief to the loss of an irreplaceable other. Nobody complains about something that can be easily replaced. People cry for what is irreplaceable. Those who mourn the earth feel that this loss is irreplaceable. Those who mourn the loss of species believe that this loss is irreplaceable.

Dean talked about the relational aspect of grief and identity. She quoted Judith Butler, “I am what I am by the ties that bind me.”

Dean asked the question, “Who am I when you’re gone?”

She spoke of life by acknowledging the life outside of us. You have to cry before you can hope. No shortcut exists.

Unlike the elderly, young people will live to feel the effects of severe climate change. The rise of “Nones” among young people, however, leaves them without a solid spiritual framework to resolve collective trauma.

Dean suggested that a secular spirituality could develop in response to climatic bereavement.

Dr. Ikechukwu Anthony Kanu spoke about the Igbo people’s approach to spirituality and religion, ecology. Their spirituality “sees nature as interdependent, interconnected and complementary”.

Kanu said that the idea of ​​the environment as property is at the root of the ecological crisis. In Nigeria, this idea was born with the arrival of colonialism. He argued that there is a need for another way of understanding the environment. Kanu believes that the Igbo-African approach could work to resolve the crisis.

Market in Onitsha, Anambra State, Nigeria, which sells items used for spiritual, cultural and/or traditional purposes – Image credit: Frankincense Diala – CC BY-SA 4.0

The Igbo are not polytheists. In their cosmology, a Supreme Being exists. In this Supreme Being, other spiritual beings exist. Kanu said that these other spiritual beings work in different departments of the Supreme Being.

For the Igbo, the python, owl, vulture, parrot and tortoise are sacred animals. The Igbo consider the python as Mother. They never kill a python. The owl sings the ancestors. The vulture is a mystical symbol of the ancestors. Soothsayers guard turtles; they symbolize wisdom.

Trees sacred to the Igbo include the alligator pepper tree, yam, and kola nut.

Before the influence of colonialism, the Igbo had a four-day week. Each day was tied to a specific spirit. Each day had a set of prohibited behaviors. Kanu said it reduces overconsumption.

Some Igbo people practice both traditional African religion and Christianity. Recent surveys show that Nigerians are reverting to traditional African religions. Traditional healers and healers now live in cities.

Spirituality and the plant world

Dr. Venessa Chakour explained how herbalism deepened her connection to the earth. When she lived in New York, she harvested wild herbs in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Chakour stressed that people should only harvest abundant plants. Some herbs, such as white sage, are under threat due to illegal over-harvesting.

Nellie’s Lawn East of Long Meadow in Prospect Park (2006) – Image Credit: Garry R. Osgood – DC BY 2.5

When Chakour harvests in public parks, she goes inside the park. This way, she avoids the weeds that grow near car exhaust. She builds her relationship with plants. Plant harvesting is the removal of life or a body part, such as a leaf, from a living thing. Harvesting is a relational exchange. As in other relational interactions, negotiations must take place.

Chakour said that in Scottish Gaelic traditions, hawthorn flowers indicate the awakening of spring. Their berries indicate the arrival of autumn. People collect their flowers around Bealltainn (Scottish Gaelic), anglicized as Beltane. They collect its berries around Samhain.

A conversation about plants and spirituality would be incomplete without discussing psychoactive plants.

Dr. Silje Trym Mathiassen spoke about spirituality and ayahuasca. For thousands of years, Amazonian cultures have used psychoactive plants.

Several different psychoactive plants make up the drink, Ayahuasca. Its active ingredient is the chemical dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT.

Mathiassen described the spiritual use of Ayahuasca as a relational healing process. And that the ayahuasca ritual is a meeting place between humans, gods and nature.

She referred to a “relational liveliness”, often referred to as animism. Rather than touching trees, humans and trees touch each other. In animistic relationships, humans can learn from plants.

Curandero bendiciendo la ayahuasca (healer blessing ayahuasca) (2007) – Image credit: François Delonnay/Archivo Centro Takiwasi – Takiwasi – CC BY-SA 4.0

Mathiassen highlighted the conference’s perspective that nature is sacred. The divine is both immanent and transcendent. The divine is more than all that is. The sacramental rituals of Ayahuasca lead one to encounter the divine. She said that through the Ayahuasca ritual, people “feel a responsiveness and liveliness” that changes them.

Dr. Maria Fernanda Gebara spoke about Amazonian plant medicine among the Yawanawá. They live around Acre, Brazil, near the Peruvian Andes. Gebara used the concept of animism to describe the use of sacred plants among the Yawanawá.

She explained that in animism, we become others. Humans live in a relational and animated world. Gebara said, “being is the experience of encounter.”

The Yawanawá have a guiding principle – “never take more than you can give back”.

Gebara also explained how tourism, especially “spiritual” tourism, has affected the Amazon.

In one village, when the spiritual leader died, the practice became more materialistic. Wealthy non-natives had come to the Amazon basin.

The next generation of spiritual leaders spent more time explaining their culture to these spiritual tourists. As a result, the spiritual leader had less time to devote to the needs of the village and surrounding areas.

The Yawanawá believe that medicinal plants do not belong to them. Medicinal plants belong to the forest.