Sara Zaltash shares her experience of Bristol’s pioneering spiritual ecology conference
We met there on a grey Saturday drenched with autumn rains, perhaps 120 of the West Country’s bright-eyed devout; activists and herbalists, healers and meditators, growers and thinkers, each seeking the sound and vision offered by the pioneering pilgrims on the panel. As I looked around and locked eyes with a neighbour over here or smiled at a stranger over there, I knew that I had personally been called by the promise of a community coalescing around a certain truth: “that unless you have some roots in a spiritual practice that holds life sacred and encourages joyful communion with all your fellow beings, facing the enormous challenges ahead becomes nearly impossible.”
Ecology. Economy. Humanity. Spirit. Challenges indeed for a consciousness that is making leaps toward to collective realisation everyday. The Internet, of course, has gifted me the above quotation from Joanna Macy’s contribution to the community-defining collection of essays Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, edited by contemporary Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. At FutureNOW, I asked myself the same question as in present times: if all beings were truly to be given equal internet access, then why would some choose to become more enlightened than others? Perhaps because enlightenment is shrouded in mysticism, in mandala graphics and incense smoke, and social conditioning against such motifs is so strong that even a geezer like Russell Brand has to mind his patchoulis and quantum realities if he’s to get his meaning made. I confess that I am from another community too: I am an artist, an e’er-do-well and erstwhile academic. But that’s alright. Queuing up for morning tea I asked Will from Wiltshire, a university lecturer in environmental literature, whether he knew anyone else at this rock star convention of spiritual ecology leaders. “Not a soul,” he said, “But that’s alright. It’s important to be brave sometimes.”
Brave words indeed flowed from the radical Church of England priest and BBC TV presenter Rev. Peter Owen Jones; from stand-up philosopher and acclaimed author Tim Freke; and from the ultimate guru of this movement, the environmental activist, magazine editor and spiritual guide, Satish Kumar. These men spoke in turn about the need for humanity to relinquish its delusion of dominion over the planet and about accepting the ultimate mystery of existence. Kumar spoke about the loving sacredness of the soil, of society, of sacrifice – the necessary sacrifices of the mother, of the planet and of ourselves. Inspirational speakers, Rev. Jones and Kumar both upheld the twin peaks of land and spirit in their humbly adlibbed sermons, calling for the acknowledgement of the essential present-ness of our future responsibility to “eco”, our home. Bursting with insight, Freke offered paradoxological thinking as a salvation from the impotence that may come from abiding the mystery of all-being. A proponent of love as a political act, Freke claimed “You Are The One” in a perfect paradox of consciousness consciously recognising itself, of humanity living its own dream.
As an artist-thinker, I enjoy a bit of practical guidance to usher in my cerebral shift. Noting that only in Western cultures does laughter need to be externally provoked, Bristol’s own laughing yogi, Joe Hoare, led us in several standing laughter practices. Full of her own bright chuckles, stellar spiritual vocalist and teacher Chloe Goodchild gathered us under the wings of her naked voice practice. Leading singing meditations throughout the day, Goodchild opened and closed the proceedings with her adaptation of Rumi’s well-loved verse: “Beyond ideas of right and wrong doing there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Goodchild’s field is a singing field; in that field we met and she shared the seeds of various Eastern spiritual practices that combined with the voice carry our hidden gift for future generations.
Resounding from that day like the oft-rung meditation bell are some provocative unanswered questions from the closing Q&A session: when does mysticism first appear in children? How can we revere the earth? Are species other than humans involved in the evolution of consciousness? Perhaps the answer, as Hoare offered, is that “when you know how to listen, everyone is your guru”. Rev. Jones spoke about the need to keep talking, to create space for conversations and community to bring about the changes we wish to be. For a novice pilgrim like me, practical guidance to walk in nature, to wash in the dew and to learn to bake my own bread were as comforting as the evolution of consciousness that is enacted by these actions towards personal, spiritual and environmental empowerment. The challenge of living a peaceful, respectful and unified future now is as real as our fields of land, of work and of energy. Let’s meet in that field, in the future, now.