Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in the deepest sense.
Jon Kabat Zinn
This is what I believe. Actually I have, for as long as I can remember, whether intuitively as a child, in brokenness and confusion as a teen, and through immersion in thought, reading and be-ing as a young adult. Then came motherhood and this understanding of the universe became absolutely undeniably alive.
We are all interconnected. Not just humans—all living things. We are interconnected, interdependent, and interactive with the natural world. The pulse of life that exists within us exists in a parallel rhythm with that of our beautiful planet.
COVID-19 has revealed a long-pervasive social pandemic. Those of us who are on the ‘winning’ end, who are privileged and have shelter, food, safety and health, are confronted with the push-and-pull between a petty hunger for returning to our modern routines and the more courageous examination of the inherent social and spiritual value in this crisis. Our thirst for immediate gratification, our consistent focus on the external world–appearance, status, success, material possession, entertainment–the legitimized no-matter-what “winning” attitude has made us numb to the dimension of our individual, internal be-ing, and as a matter of extension, the equally intangible realm of the in-between: relationship.
The irony of this virus, as many have pointed out, is that it originated exactly because of and through the greatest human failure: the loss of connection between us and the natural world. As COVID-19 came into existence at an archaic market in the dark corner of a large, urban 21st century environment, mutating in the most ecologically diverse of wild animals confined in cages, merchandise to be exploited for the pleasure or salvage of humans, it simultaneously exposed our vulnerability to the potency of nature’s defense against us.
It is the ultimate message of the natural world, defying human’s long standing obsession to separate ourselves from our own ecosystem, to hold ourselves as a more valuable life-form and therefore to assert power over: control, exploitation, and disregarding the diversity of non-human life on this planet, that for millions of years our species lived in sync with. It is also an unequivocal message of these collective living beings to us—from microorganisms, insects, plants, to wild and domesticated animals—that ‘intelligence’ and ‘evolution’ are relative concepts and that the failure of humankind to understand and honor the sophistication of their abilities might ultimately be our most powerful enemy.
At least since the beginning of the ‘modern age’—the past five hundred years—our human ancestors have steadily walked out on their place in the natural world. During short periods of history, we literally leaped onto a new platform—to embrace ever more powerful machines and manufacturing of synthetic products. Yet, for the majority of this time, we have more steadily, subtly moved away from a conscious and willing acceptance of our dependency on this intricate web of life—as though with each generation, each year, we unplugged, slowly, every single strand of the web from our bodies, one-by-one, until we found ourselves completely outside of it, free but un-anchored and lost.
Unlike the world order in indigenous cultures, the globalization of “Old World” values has created an immeasurable imbalance—inside and outside of us. And in this imbalance, we find mankind ever further encroaching on wild habitats, destroying forests and exploiting what is deemed ‘exotic’. As we, humans, have been trying to cement our place in the larger world to predict and dominate powerful forces of nature, we have not only extinguished thousands of species but we continue to satisfy our hunger for conquering the out-of-the-ordinary living beings: hunting for trophy or consumption, captivating for display, trading for profit, extracting fluids or body parts for “traditional” medicine, exploiting for modern science. While some of us may still be in awe of the wild, the respect for and sacredness of our interconnection has been completely lost to most.
This need to make up for something that we have lost touch with, this ongoing search for an anchor, shows itself in more consumption, exploitation. Certainly, the modern comfort of a warm and safe home, the convenience of transportation and automation, the progress of science, medicine and technology and access to basic resources such as clean water and wholesome food are inherently and undeniably positive developments from which all human beings deserve to benefit. Unfortunately, generation after generation—perhaps with exception to those who were deeply and traumatically impacted by recent wars and disasters—takes these modern privileges for granted and has an almost insatiable hunger for more: speed, lightness, ease, beauty, gain. Something-to-cling-to.
The argument could be made that people need religious faith as an anchor—that faithfulness and following a religious discipline would bring us back to what’s truly important, to a center. To sacredness and sanctity of life, to integrity, to humility, to a connection with the higher power. We need all those things. But religion is not the answer, if religious doctrine puts a human image of God at the center. When we are implicitly or explicitly worshipping God’s creation of the natural world as having the sole purpose of serving humans, we are furthering, yet again, a false dichotomy between God, human and the inherently life-giving natural world. It simply illustrates that religious beliefs and practices are a reflection of the prevailing societal worldview.
The Euro-centric, Western ideology that most of us have been socialized into and continue to consciously and unconsciously perpetuate, values skepticism and one singular truth; focuses on the future, goals and status; relies on individualism and compartmentalized societies; puts winning at the center; and is fundamentally human-centric with the world around us objectified for human gain. This same dualism then creeps into deeper versions of separation: male versus female, north versus south, white versus ‘of color’, privileged versus disenfranchised, powerful versus oppressed, urban versus rural, populist versus progressive, intellect versus intuition. Instead of looking at all aspects of the world as a continuum, and recognizing the inherent value of each, this social division of the world plays itself out in the same way as the alienation from nature: through fear, oppression, injustice, “othering”.
Ironically, for centuries, the individual, internal human experience has been a very isolated one. As the external world grew increasingly imbalanced, so have our psyches: ravaging storms of traumatic pain, deep depression, uncontrollable anxiety, self-destructive thoughts and devastating loneliness individually and collectively suppressed so as to keep it veiled and hidden from our success-driven world. As the planet continues to shift to ever greater urbanization and alienation, stress, anxiety, depression and isolation also increase.
The practice of psychology continues to teach us that we all, deep inside us, face the same truths. We all, to varying degrees, are confronted with vulnerability, shame, guilt, fear, despair. Only, our Western culture does not provide a vehicle to voice or express these, or we are further shamed when we do. These sentiments are what causes us to wage wars, to “other”, create inequalities, fuel hatred and anger, inflict pain. Embarking on a more positive future as a human race requires that we come out of our isolation, step out from behind this veil, stop the shaming, acknowledge our collective suffering and rewrite the narrative of “success”. Simultaneously, it’s time to fully embrace that which we all strive for individually and upon which our collective thriving is based: connection, comfort, love and hope. We ALL seek these qualities, build them into our lives; the poets and dancers more eloquently and loudly, the simple conformists quietly and reserved. Yet, we must stop pretending that only some of us are worthy of their full, unencumbered, life-long experience. Love, connection, comfort and hope can exist plentifully for everyone, every day.
There has been progress in the public discourse on the universality and importance of strong emotions, the understanding and acknowledgment of diversity and equity, and the value of vulnerability, introspection, intuition, compassion, connection. We have seen the relative resurgence of a desire to live more simply, to cultivate compassion for all living things, to protect our planet, to take individual responsibility for pollution, to connect with wild spaces.
Fortunately, good people are studying—to collect solid evidence for the benefit of those who are in doubt—the impact of nature on well-being. We know that green spaces, and especially natural habitats, are impacting our already connection-focused brains: they boost empathy and activate feelings of love, alleviate stress through balancing our nervous-system, calming our minds. We also know that spending time in nature, quietly, brings about the sense of spiritual connection to something larger than us, to the mystery of life. The natural rhythms of day and night, light and darkness, the journeys of sun and moon, fluctuation in weather, movement of tides, the dance of leaves in the wind, all find their parallel rhythms deep inside us.
A deeper alignment with nature slows us down, compels us to pay attention to and care for the well-being of our planet, our world. If we pause and take in, we awaken to something larger, a stunning life-affirming vitality and a subtle yet powerful connection to that cycle of life that heals and restores us. In this deep relationship, we find the urge to protect that which is life-giving, which ultimately keeps us all.
In this COVID-19 crisis, the imposition of mankind on the rest of the natural world could not have been illuminated more brightly and unexpectedly. As the world as we built it stopped, as we had no choice but close up shop and shelter at home, to halt production and seize travel in order to survive, the natural world showed back up in the most astonishing ways: clear air in Beijing, clean canals in Venice, herds of wildlife roaming emptied urban streets, thousands of sea turtles nesting on abandoned beaches. And more and more people figuring out that this forced isolation can bear a message that we have not otherwise heard: that we belong to each other, that sacredness lives among us and can be heard in stillness, that we have a responsibility to care for not only each other but for the rest of this planet as well. That our every behavior, every habit has a consequence. As the usual noise of our fast-paced lives settles, many among us are slowly awakening to this and we have a choice to make.
We are homo sapiens, wise man. We proudly distinguish ourselves from other sophisticated species [sonar communicating dolphins and whales, electricity producing eels, echo-locating bats, infra-red detecting vampire bats, collaborating army ants, dancing bees, whistling thorns, fire resistant eucalyptus, underground networks of trees and fungi] by our wisdom, by our consciousness of the past and vision for the future. It is time to leverage this wisdom and organize ourselves based on the blueprint of nature’s vital system that is inherently united.
In the year 2020, at a time in human history when we have explored the planet, have deep knowledge of physical and mental well-being, advanced technology and science, philosophy and theology, this pandemic forces us to take stock of our lives and what we truly need in order to thrive on this planet. To thrive collectively as humans, without division, and as part of the natural world. COVID-19 compels us to take stock of our lifestyles, choices, behaviors, beliefs. Which are essential to find happiness, health and well-being? What are the values that are critical to our collective prosperity? Which deeper problems do we really need to solve?
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
As humans, we possess the collective capacity for imagination, creativity, compassion, altruism, resilience. Therein indeed lies our super power. And therein lies a systemic, global responsibility to create equitable opportunities for each human being to cultivate these abilities. To create these opportunities, we all need a greater balance of give and take, it requires of us who have to give up that which we do not need.
When I am still, when I quiet my mind to pay attention to what is in this present moment and when I feel connected through this stillness to the larger world around me, I ask myself these questions: What is essential in my daily life, what can fall away? Where is my own threshold of consumption of products and energy that may exploit people and the planet: what CAN I dial back? What is the relationship between my individual prosperity and collective well-being? What CAN we collectively create anew—that is truly sustainable and allows the Earth to heal? How is my faith an avenue to true peace and unity? How can I best live the intricate give-and-take with the people I love and care for, the animals and plants around me, for all to flourish? How can we return love, belonging and connection—connectedness—to the center?
Tania Lönneker is a native Northern German who came to East Dallas via Honolulu, Hawai’i, and the Loisaida in New York City. After years assisting survivors of intimate partner violence seek protection and navigate the criminal justice system, she currently serves in the non-profit world promoting empathy, gratitude, equity, resilience, mindfulness, healing. She considers motherhood and her two teenagers the greatest gifts. A long-time Vegetarian, Tania is a novice practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga and always interested in the deeper questions, that which we cannot readily see.