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Spirit and Academia

Sarah Cunningham's picture

As I and my fellow first-year students at Bryn Mawr College approach the end of a semester of reading, thinking, talking and writing about “Ecological Imaginings,” I find myself reflecting on something that applies not only to our topic, and not only to our class, but to the broader community, of our own institution and of higher education in general. Despite the broad range of our readings and discussions about ecology, one word which has rarely been mentioned is spirit, or spirituality. Once one notices this lack, it becomes glaring, conspicuous in its absence, since in many instances it proposes the resolution to our dilemmas, the center which would hold together our ethics and our analysis.

Over the last half century or so, the impact of our civilization on our planet has become more and more a cause for concern. Despite the many voices warning of the consequences of over-population, pollution, deforestation, ozone depletion, greenhouse gases, loss of species diversity, depletion of resources, environmentally caused health problems, climate change, and general looming disaster, it has been difficult for us as a species, either globally or nationally, to change our direction. The assumptions underlying our way of life are deeply entrenched, even as ever more people suffer as a result of these assumptions, and despite the growing awareness that we need to change.

So, our class has been exploring possibilities for a profound change in our collective way of thinking. We have read texts approaching this question from a range of perspectives. We have looked at ecolinguistics, ecofeminism, ecocriticism, environmental ethics, ecological education, environmental economics. Lyrical writings from Thoreau (1851) to Terry Tempest Williams (1994) have exhorted us to get out into nature, to let the earth speak to us. Thomas Berry (1990) has proposed an ecological core curriculum for all college students, in order to gain a true perspective on our place in the universe. We have debated Aldo Leopold's questions (1948) about how to institute a viable system of land ethics. Yet often we find ourselves at a loss for a unifying principle, with questions that purely rational, utilitarian, or aesthetic arguments cannot fully answer.

We have come closest to acknowledging spirit when we consider the way native peoples relate to their environment (LaDuke, 2002). For indigenous peoples worldwide, as for our own distant ancestors, it is self-evident that everything, great or small, has a spirit. Their shamanic practices and beliefs, which encompass what we think of as religion, artistic expression, and healing, form a link with the transcendent aspects of the physical world. They are always aware of being part of an alive and breathing, inseparable whole.

While we may admire this relationship to the natural world, we are still for the most part deeply cut off from it by our cultural heritage. First, by Christianity, which not so long ago viewed any spiritual practice not strictly in accordance with its own doctrine as the work of the devil, so that we are still quite frightened by anything that suggests “witch doctors” or the occult. Second, by science, which in leaving superstition behind feels the need to deny the reality of phenomena that it cannot explain in mechanistic material terms. Based on my own experience, I am convinced that by freeing ourselves from these assumptions, we may connect with the spiritual world around us, and within us, in ways that are neither incompatible with science, nor at odds with the essence of Christian religion, though they may clash with the orthodoxies of both.

I had better define what I mean by spirit. This is a personal definition, but I hope it will have a resonance, and perhaps open a door, for ecologically minded readers. In the process, I will explore why the subject is so taboo in academic circles. If, as Timothy Morton suggests (2007), most people become uncomfortable at the mention of “the unconscious,” or of “the environment,” how much more do they cringe when one brings up the topic of “spirituality.” There are surely good reasons for this; I want to imagine, though, how we might integrate spirit into our reasoned intellectual discourse.

I find it helpful, when defining “spirit”, to start from the uses of the word that have nothing to do with religion or the supernatural. We could begin with expressions such as “team spirit,” “the spirit of the age,” the “spirit” of cooperation or of optimism in which we might approach an endeavor. The spirit of our class is made up of our individual experiences and attitudes, the materials of the syllabus and the thought that went into choosing them, the experiences we have shared. It is constantly changing with our individual and collective moods, and with the happenings – hurricanes, college events, elections – in our surroundings. This spirit will live on in each of us, whether we're aware of it or not, even when we no longer meet as a class. This spirit of our particular group will also live on in future classes that our professor teaches on the same or similar topics.

This truth, which is not difficult to grasp, leads to an understanding of how spirit does live on even when the physical manifestations that gave rise to it are no longer present: how, for example, the spirit of Bryn Mawr College, or that of the city of Philadelphia, are shaped by the histories which brought them into being, and of which every detail, however small, has its effect on their evolution. We might consider that the spirit of the Lenni Lenape Indian tribe, which inhabited these parts before the Europeans arrived, is still here whether we are aware of it or not.

Now let's get smaller again. What about the chair I'm sitting in, or the computer on which I type this paper? My contention is that both of these have spirits too. Their spirits partake of all those who participated in designing and producing them, the growth or genesis of their raw materials, plus their history, what I have used them for. Each of these was mass-produced, yet has a unique life story that determines its abilities, its functioning – and, yes, its awareness: it has a mind of its own. The individual plants in a garden have spirits; like ours, they arise from a combination of their DNA and the environmental conditions they have experienced over their lifetimes. Each plant's spirit contributes to the spirit of the whole garden, much greater than the sum of its parts; the garden's spirit is also formed by the spirit of its gardeners. If we go out into the forest we may become aware of the spirits of individual plants and creatures, and of the spirit of the whole forest, which also partakes of its history, of human interventions, of evolution, of species that may have arrived from elsewhere, of climate changes, and so on. If we are thinking in this way, with this kind of awareness, then our quest for an ecological way of thinking is solved. There is no contradiction between the existence of individuals, and their participation in the whole, on a spiritual and on a physical level.

By this argument I do not mean to beg the question of a difference between the spiritual and the material. For a rational, intellectual community like Bryn Mawr College, where even the “humanities” are studied with a scientific, fact-based, rigor, it is natural to be suspicious of a realm of perception which has been seen as “paranormal,” “supernatural,” separate from and contradictory to the scientific method. I am convinced that phenomena in these categories, things I have experienced myself, ways of knowing that, once one allows the possibility of their reality, open the door to a tremendous richness of observation and understanding, are not contrary to science, just not yet understood. The leap that may be required in order to understand how all things not only have a spirit, but also awareness, consciousness, and intention, requires an experimental approach that, unlike most of the science that we now practice, is holistic rather than solely analytical: looking at the whole, and at relationships, rather than thinking we can understand everything by breaking things down into smaller and smaller parts. Barbara Smuts gives a beautiful example of this in describing her work with baboons (1999).

This is the sense in which shamans were the earliest scientists. By opening themselves to communication from non-human spirits, by expanding their consciousness, and by cultivating their awareness of the oneness of all things, they achieve remarkable knowledge and understanding that is of great practical use to their tribe. If our academic inquiries, and our science too, could be informed by this sense of ourselves as an integral part of the intelligent awareness of the planet, and of the universe, as all things are, we might find a way forward in which our human intelligence would not be the death of us.

Works Cited:

Berry, Thomas (1990). The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco, Sierra Club Books.

LaDuke, Winona (2002). Winona LaDuke Reader. Voyageur Press.

Leopold, Aldo (1948). A Sand County Almanac.

Morton, Timothy (2007). Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

Smuts, Barbara (1999). In The Lives of Animals, J.M. Coetzee, ed. Amy Gutman. Princeton University Press.

Thoreau, Henry David (1850). Walking.

Williams, Terry Tempest (1994). An Unnatural Hunger: Stories from the Field. New York, Vintage Books.



ZoeHlmn's picture

I like it!

I think it is interesting how you propose that we integrate spirituality into everything because everything has its own individual spirit.