What Is Contemplative Ecology?
"The heart of contemplation is an encounter with unfathomable reality, unmediated by any thought or concept or idea. In that encounter, everything changes. Reality touches us, and we are then unable to stomach the lies we normally tell, the lies our society encourages, and the destructive habits and systems in which we are embedded."
The PDF linked below began as a transcript of a talk I gave in 2019 at Antioch University. It was part of a series of talks and forums organized by graduate student Gemma Laser called Self Care As Earth Care. It has been edited and expanded since then to reflect subsequent talks and presentations I have given introducing contemplative ecology to new audiences. An abbreviated version is also available.
Contemplative Ecology: A Brief History
The first use of the term "contemplative ecology" that I am aware of was in an article published in 2002 in Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology by Donald St. John, titled "Technological Culture And Contemplative Ecology In Thomas Merton's Conjectures Of A Guilty Bystander." Donald St. John has since published a more complete account of Thomas Merton's contemplative ecology called Thomas Merton's Tree of Life: The Growth of a Radical Ecologist.
I started using the term "contemplative ecology" in 2007 to unify my work as a marine naturalist and my decades of experience as a contemplative. I intended to point to the observation that the ecological crisis involves the inner life of the mind and body, the external life of our social, political and economic relationships, our relationship with the natural world, and the places where they all meet and interact with each other, sometimes creatively, often destructively. I wanted to emphasize the importance of addressing both the inner and the outer, whereas environmentalism and ecology tend to focus on external issues, problems and systems, and not so much on their psychological underpinnings and effects; and contemplation tends to be inward-focused and uninterested in the world of ecological interrelationships. In this way, contemplative ecology offers a way to address the crisis at its root, and gives us a simple yet ultimately satisfying place to live as we turn away from industrial civilization's incessant demand for MORE!
Around the same time that I started calling my work "contemplative ecology," Gillian and Russell Comstock founded the Metta Earth Community in Lincoln, Vermont, which they call "A Center for Contemplative Ecology." They describe Metta Earth as "a cultural renewal project integrating holistic education, contemplative practice, deep ecology, and regenerative food systems to create resilient community."
Contemplative ecology is known to many people as a Christian theology, history and philosophy because of a 2012 book by Douglas Christie called The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Christie grounded contemplative ecology in the history of Christian contemplative practice going back to the 4th century. Christian contemplative ecology is being developed and expanded by Christopher Peet, a professor of psychology in Alberta, Canada and a scholar of the Axial Age, who has started an Institute for Contemplative Ecology near Edmunton.
Although they call it "ecodharma," there are Buddhist expressions of contemplative ecology as well, particularly in the work of David Loy, the Ecodharma Centre, and to some extent Joanna Macy. I would also include Developing Ecological Consciousness by Chris Uhl as an expression of contemplative ecology.
As contemplative ecology grows and changes shape, new initiatives appear, such as the certificate in Contemplative Ecological Education at the Universty of Calgary, initiated by Jackie Seidel and Janet Groen. Although it is common now to see contemplative ecology referenced within a Christian, especially Roman Catholic, context, this graduate program appears to draw on a broad range of disciplines and practices such as "eco-psychology, eco-social justice, ecofeminism, eco-criticism, deep ecology, etc" according to the program description.
In my case, I never intended contemplative ecology to be associated with any religious or spiritual tradition. I ground it within an ecological perspective and experiences of intersubjectivity and interrelationship with the natural world. From my perspective, contemplation is fundamentally natural, not exclusive to humans, absolutely available to everyone, and in no need of reference to a body of religious beliefs or practices. It can be framed in those beliefs and traditions, but is not dependent on them or derived from them.
We are living through an ecological catastrophe of our own making. If contemplative ecology does not show us how to change direction fundamentally, then it is useless.
Waves of Stillness: A Meditation on Contemplative Ecology (Opens in Youtube)