Soil and Soul
This talk is inspired by a quote that I read a few months ago and that has remained with me. It is attributed to an American advisor on climate change called Gus Speth who said,“I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
Today I want to share with you my growing conviction that the ecological crisis that we are surrounded by, and that we have helped to create, is calling to us. That the chaos and the fear contain the seed of invitation to each one of us, a spiritual invitation. And I don’t believe it’s a moralistic invitation, laden with shoulds and shoudn’ts and guilt. No, today I want to talk about a revolution of the soul.
Revolution comes from the Latin word ‘evolvere’which can be understood as an unrolling. The word was first recordeddescribing a ‘wheeling’ manoeuvre. So re-volution means to circle back, to come back to. To arrive, as TS Elliot wrote, where we started and know the place for the first time.
This knowing that I am talking about is not an intellectual knowing. The invitation that I believe we are being offered, called to in a visceral way, is to re-orientate to soul to and soil, and in many respects I believe these two are the same thing. As I tell my children, we are made up, I believe, of an earth part and an angel part. When I die my chattering monkey mind will disappear but my body will live on in the soil as nutrients and my soul will drop back in to collective consciousness, the ocean of being. What bliss.
Sadly, though we are so disconnected from these two essential and enduring elements which make up, I believe, our most real nature. Our society values growing up and education focuses on our heads almost exclusively. For these reasons it is time, I believe, to start talking, about growing down, back in to the earth.
Soil is something practical that we can all feel and experience and as I talk today I want to invite you to do exactly this. So I am handing out a gift for each of you now, it’s a small pot of soil and I want to invite you, if you are feeling brave, to feel and connect with this pocket of soil as I talk today. You might get a bit messy and dirty, but that’s ok.
Soul is harder to define than soil or revolution, and so I want to spend some time with this word. I prefer the word soul to spirit, and I love Thomas Moore’s explanation of the two in his beautiful book, Care of the Soul. Spirit is often associated with light and aspiration, a Higher Power, salvation, reaching, cleansing. Soul is altogether different. For one it’s far more earthy. We intuitively know that soul has to do with genuineness and depth when we say that certain music has ‘soul’ or a person is ‘soulful’. When we look closely at the image of soulfulness, Thomas Moore says, we see that soul is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.
Soul is also messy and it is not linear. Soul often takes us places that can feel dark and uncomfortable. Things we’d rather not look at. Memories and feelings we’ve locked away. And I think that is what the climate crisis is asking of us. When soul is neglected, Thomas Moore writes, it does not just go away – it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence and loss of meaning. No wonder that depression and anxiety seem to be the scourge of our time. No wonder nature mimics our illness and dis-ease.
Our temptation, Moore continues, is to isolate these symptoms and complex feelings – as a scientist would. To eradicate them one by one. But the root problem, Moore contends, is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, and round about the same time I would say as we lost our connection to soil. Put another way, as the mythologist Dr. Martin Shaw wrote recently, “If you don’t attend to your soul’s vitality with intent, then suppressed it will run you ragged. They are not above catastrophe to get your attention” Attending to the soul though is not something our scientists and politicians typically know how to do. But you do, and I do. It’s that still small voice that is deep within each one of us.
So I ask you today, are you running thin? Do you feel ragged and worn out most of the time? What is calling to you and what do you yearn for? How is your soul calling you? Where is your soul calling you? What is difficult to look at? What might your dreams be telling you? It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the doomsday scenarios and to imagine what we as individuals without power and connections could possibly do or contribute to alter the course of our race, let alone our own lives. We just want someone to tell us what to do, give us the plan and the ten point steps and we’ll do them, we promise.
But maybe doing is not the answer. Maybe that’s actually our greatest problem. That we’ve become a race of human doings, who don’t even do doing so well. Just look were all our fancy strategies and plans have gotten us so far. And in our rush, rush, rush, do, do, do we reach for the most convenient solutions and these are never good for Mother Earth. Maybe it’s time to pause amidst the madness and listen in a different way….
Recently I heard someone observe that it is arrogant to say that the Earth is dying, it will outlive humans of course – but we humans might well be dying out. Can we sit with that? Not just our own dying, but that of humankind? And if we sit with it for long enough, what might that move us to do? How would we be with each other? The world? We all know that because things are mortal and limited they are more precious. So let’s imagine for a while that humankind’s chapter was ending. Can you sit with that? With your dying, and your children’s and your grandchildren and maybe after that nothing. Just a returning to the soil and soul and nothing after that. No future on Earth, no children for your children’s children.
How would we engage with other humans if we knew that all of us, collectively were terminally ill? If we knew we were all dying, together? How might that open our hearts to our fellow beings? How might we then engage with the earth? How might it seem all the more precious to us if we knew that we would die one day, but all humankind would be extinct, and soon? I am not saying that will be are but I am asking you to follow the thought experiment with me and to feel the soil in your hands as you do so. To love this tiny patch of dark, fermenting matter as your soul and your body longs to be loved.
This is the revolution of the soul that I am talking about. In these times it is a radical act to eschew busyness now and again, to simplify our lives where and how we can, to lie fallow and just do nothing, to turn within. To hold anxiety and fear within us and dirt under our fingernails and allow it to be. It means at times muting the deafening voices of the world, the media, and society and to listen keenly to that still small voice within. What is it saying? What does it yearn for? Even more radically perhaps, when you commune with nature and animals what do they tell you?
No, this is not a time for doing. It is a time for keen listening, to our souls and to the soil. Humankind has become so obsessed with the rational but I don’t believe we can think our way out of our problems through acts of human cleverness anymore. Dropping the salvational fantasy, Thomas Moore says, frees us up to the possibility of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundation of soul. War on poverty, war on drugs, climate change activism – this relentless do, do, do, fight, fight, fight is only making the problem worse it seems and those of us who are not at the frontlines of doing are left feeling like we want to flee and stick our heads in the sand.
But there is another way, and our souls can guide us. Can you and I volunteer to be at the frontline of feeling? Of being? Even if only for a few minutes a day? Can we accept the mess? Can we get our hands dirty? Can we open our hearts and keep them open just a little more every day? Can we turn and look within, at what is gnawing us and driving us to live such madly busy disconnected lives? Can we be pain without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it? Our own pain, others’ pain, Mother Earth’s?
And will this solve anything? Probably not, and that’s ok too. This is not about solving, which is an intellectual pursuit of our minds. Our intellect wants clean answers but our souls live in the grey areas – the dawn and the dusk – and our souls intuit that grander and more mysterious is at play, perhaps. Will we get swallowed up by all the grief in the world and overwhelmed again? For moments maybe, but not forever.
I have been inspired for example by the story of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year old who is currently gracing the likes of the Pope and Barack Obama with her humble presence. At about the age of eight, when she first learned about climate change, she was shocked that adults did not appear to be taking the issue seriously. It was not the only reason she became depressed a few years later, but it was a significant factor. Of that time she said, “I kept thinking about it and I just wondered if I am going to have a future. And I kept that to myself because I’m not very much of a talker, and that wasn’t healthy. I became very depressed and stopped going to school.” Her parents described her as morose and introverted. Their child was slipping away with them.
Greta felt her feelings, she did not shy away from her depression and she did not accept the glib answers her parents and the adults gave her. She listened and she read and she recounts being moved by students from the Parkland school in Florida, who walked out of classes in protest against the US gun laws that enabled the massacre on their campus. After a record heatwave in northern Europe and forest fires that ravaged swathes of Swedish land up to the Arctic, Thunberg decided to go it alone. Day one was 20 August 2018. She started a school strike for climate change equipped only with a hand painted cardboard sign. Some of you will be aware of the global impact that she is having 363 days later, addressing Houses of Parliament and crowds in their thousands. Astonishing for a young girl who was not “very much of a talker’.
How might you be moved, if you, like Greta, went within to find your own answers? My point today is that I don’t think we’re going to solved the global crisis even if all of us do the things that we should do – like going vegan, and walking or cycling everywhere, giving up flying and planting trees like mad – and it’s unlikely that we’d end up doing those things en mass for long because right now they feel mostly like a long list of shoulds and we all know how diets go when we’re not actually connecting with our body and what feels good for us.
We need a revolution of the soul because we cannot think our way out of this current crisis. We also cannot guilt trip or lecture each other. That will never be sustainable. The only way through I believe is through and that means to feel, to let go of needing answers and to spend a little less time doing and a bit more time being and communing with our souls and with soil. The answers we need lie there in the dark, slightly hidden from us right now.
The good news is that you can feel and be in the midst of the concrete jungle too. I recently heard a beautiful story from an animal communicator called Anna Breytenbacht who was confined to a hospital bed. The nearest window looked out on a carpark but she could not even see through that. She could only hear the sounds that came through the window and see an occasional gust of wind as it played with a spider’s web on the sill. She became attuned to the sounds of different birds at different times of day and the stories these had to tell her. And as light fell and the room became dark she imagined the clouds changing colour, or growing, or fading away. Anna spent that week in a hospital bed in deep and real communion with nature, and with her soul.
Like seeds in soil, we have to go dig down in to the dark, fecund soil and establish roots before we can emerge and stand tall in the sun. This is the essential wisdom that I am inviting you to contemplate today. My friend and teacher Robyn Sheldon wrote about it in this way when she shared as follows, “I am cracking open at the moment, and if I don’t choose to do so, like a seed beginning to sprout, then I am hammered open because the earth and all of us as its inhabitants are going through such a tremendous energy shift right now. To open and expand is initially an involution into my core, through all the wounds and the cracks and the painful places into the deepest essence of dark unknowing, into the stillness of being and back out into the dance.”
And so, in this spirit, I want to give you two more gifts today. A seed and an invitation to plant this and have it represent a very personal wish that comes from your heart and your soul. What do you want to nurture and water from this day forth? Not because you think you should, but because your soul longs for this quality. Is it silence, simplicity, grief, time in nature, juiciness, abandon or love maybe? What will be your intention when you plant your seed?
Perhaps one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver, said it best when she wrote,
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
We humans have become so disconnected but there is hope, we still belong in the family of things. The soft animal of our body can guide us, soil and soul have messages for us. We belong and we can return if we are willing to circle back to soul and feel soil. That’s the invitation that I believe we are being offered and it’s harsh and exciting – like the wild geese’s call. I feel it in these times and I hope you do too.
Talk for the Cape Town Unitarian community
19 August 2019