Thursday, January 22, 2009

Compassion Begins with Mother Earth


Earth based spirituality covers such a wide spectrum of diverse religions and spiritual traditions, from indigenous traditions to modern NeoPagansim. We share no unified dogma, and no one person carries the authority to speak for all, certainly not me.

But I can say personally that the common thread I find in all our traditions is the deep understanding of interconnectedness. We are one interwoven tapestry of life on this earth, and from that basic insight arises compassion.

Compassion extends beyond love and sympathy for other human beings. Compassion includes compassion for the earth, for all the interrelated and interacting life forms, for the plants, animals, birds, trees, even the microorganisms that sustain life. For if we don't include that broader community in the scope of our compassion, if we continue to destroy the very systems that support our lives, we cannot survive. And we will create the devastation that leads to immense human suffering, loss and death.

Here's a compassion story: In the forest, the roots of trees are linked by a network of mycorrhizal fungi, whose threadlike hyphae interpenetrate the root hairs and extend their reach for water and nutrients. Scientists have traced pathways with radioactive isotopes, and learned that through these webs of fungi, trees feed their young. Moreover, trees growing in the sun will feed trees growing in the shade--even trees of another species. That's compassion!

Here's another: a couple of billions of years ago, life was simple. Just bacteria, simple cells without even a nucleus, floating in primal seas as they had already done for a couple of billion years. But even at that time, life was linked in complex associations. The green things, the ancestors of plants, used sunlight to make food from water and the carbon dioxide that filled the atmosphere. They gave off oxygen, and breathers evolved to make use of it, to burn food and use the energy, giving off carbon dioxide. All of life was linked in one common breath, passing back and forth from green to red.

Photosynthesizers could just lay back and be, basking in the sunlight. But breathers had to work, to go about and find food. They gobbled each other up with gusto.

But one day, as one primal organism chowed down on another, compassion intervened. Instead of dissolving and digesting its meal, the eater let its victim remain whole inside of itself, fusing into a new form of being, the ancestor of the cells in our own bodies and all complex organisms--cells with nuclei, eukaryotes.

Fusion became the rage. The new cells were bigger and could develop in all kinds of interesting ways, developing specialized organelles to do particular jobs, like making energy or propelling the whole thing around. And with their membranes relieved of many metabolic tasks, the new cells were free to combine in new ways, leading to an explosion of multicellular life, and all the strange and interesting things that came after.

And so compassion is embedded in every cell of our bodies. Imagine, then, what beauty and diversity might evolve if we made compassion the foundation of our religions and social structures.


Starhawk is, in her own words, "the author of many works celebrating the Goddess movement and Earth-based, feminist spirituality. I’m a peace, environmental, and global justice activist and trainer, a permaculture designer and teacher, a Pagan and Witch. To see how it all weaves together, follow the many strands of my web." She is also cofounder of the Reclaiming collective in San Francisco, California (USA), and wrote one of my favorite novels, the compassionate utopian/antiutopian novel of the future, The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993), which manages to see both the worst and the best possibilities for our future and, most importantly, gives us the tools to help us realize how to make the best choice. Her newest book is The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature. Committed to bringing the techniques and creative power of spirituality to political activism, Starhawk travels internationally teaching magic, the tools of ritual, the skills of activism, and classess in permaculture (both online and off).