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Want to Be Happier? Nurture Your Ecological Self

Grow
A woman enjoys nature; she is taking a deep breath.

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Do you have a relationship with Planet Earth—your home? Taking time to focus on and appreciate the place you live creates a feeling of connection and health.

Want to feel happier and more fulfilled in your daily life? You might start by considering how you view yourself in relation to the world around you. We sometimes view ourselves as separate beings in a world filled with other separate realities. This view of ourselves can lead to loneliness and frustration, and it’s not an accurate view of the way the world really works.

We don’t stand alone in this world, yet we often keep the dial that shapes our lives on “separateness” versus “connectedness.” While some people call themselves “Earthlings,” this reference to self isn’t common. Yet, we all live on and have evolved from Planet Earth. This makes us all Earthlings. Attention to this fact can enrich our lives and promote a more harmonious way of living on the Earth.

The way we view ourselves in relation to the rest of the natural world is sometimes referred to as our “ecological self.” And whether we think about it or not, our ecological self is a basic part of who we are. Our ecological self, like other aspects of our identity, develops over time. If the progression is healthy, we move from seeing our self as a separate, isolated being focused on individual interests to a self that exists only in connection to a larger whole. This means that the healthy development of the ecological self involves a widening of our sense of identity.

As individuals and as a society we have an Earth-story—a story about how we came to be and how we stand in relationship to everything around us. Reflecting on our ecological self involves reading the story of our existence and probing the deeper meaning of who we are. Reflecting on our ecological self also reminds us that the natural world isn’t just a passive backdrop for our lives or a resource to be used. It’s an incredible reality of which we are a part.

As you spend time reflecting on your ecological self, you’ll become more aware of your deep connectedness to the rest of the natural world. You’ll experience a sense of kinship with all living things. This sense of connectedness and kinship will then lead to increased happiness and life satisfaction.

While we’re generally aware of the importance of healthy relationships with other people as a fundamental part of a happy life, we may overlook the fact that having a positive relationship with the natural world also plays an important role in our happiness and well-being.

Unfortunately, a worldview perpetuated by Western society focuses more on using and controlling nature than living in community with the rest of the natural world. The ecological, social, and personal outcomes of this kind of thinking have been devastating. We wreak havoc on Planet Earth, create grossly unequal and unjust social conditions, and neglect an important part of our essential selves. Whether we think about it or not, our individual selves exist only in relationship with everything in the world. Attending to this relationship is what nurturing our ecological self is all about.

While it may seem paradoxical at first, nurturing our ecological self allows us to experience a place of “no self”—a place where the individual self dissolves into a much greater reality. An image that comes to mind is of a drop of water becoming one with the ocean. The poet Li Po expresses it well—“We sit together, the mountain and me / until only the mountain remains.” 

Our oneness with elements of the Earth and even with the Earth itself goes beyond poetic awareness. It’s rooted in scientific discoveries as well. Scientists today are telling us that everything in the world is connected and exists only in relationship to everything else. This understanding is based on systems thinking and replaces the idea of the world being made up of individual, isolated elements. While there’s a scientific basis for this way of thinking, it also reflects a spiritual knowing which goes beyond what can be dissected or measured.

Some people describe this new way of seeing as “post-humanism” and describe it as a worldview focusing on kinship with the other-than-human world versus control or domination. Post-humanism doesn’t mean post-humanity. In fact, post-humanism may be a call to realizing the fullness of our humanity. While the self-help literature tends to focus on the individual aspects of fulfillment, post-humanism suggests that the path to becoming fully human is through close connections with others and the larger world in which we live.

Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee, in Spiritual Ecology, reminds us that we are surrounded by—and a part of—a larger spiritual reality. The sacredness of this larger reality, he says, is in the core of our being. Becoming more aware of this sacredness is a path to nurturing our ecological selves. One of Vaughn-Lee’s suggestions for reawakening the sacred in our everyday lives is to use walking as a form of meditation, as a way to remember and reconnect with a part of our life which is far greater than any “me.” 

What I love about the walking meditation practice is the way it engages both the body and the soul. I feel the Earth beneath my feet; I become aware of the air I breathe; and I gain a deeper appreciation of how I am a part of the world around me.

In addition to meditative walking, other suggestions offered by Vaughn-Lee on how to become more aware of our spiritual connections with Planet Earth focus on giving extra attention to such basic activities as breathing and eating. Being spiritually alert to the meaning of these everyday activities helps us sense the forces of life moving through us and reminds us of our deep connections with the world around us. Tuning in to this larger spiritual reality also allows us to experience a sense of wholeness and holiness. Nurturing the ecological self, then, isn’t as much about self as it is about tuning in to our oneness with the world in which we live, and move, and have our being.

Read more from Ruth Wilson here.


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