Living Earth

Engaged Ecology: Seven Practices to Restore Our Harmony with Nature

It has rained steadily through the night, a gentle hushing sound in the thick tree canopy. In the morning light, crickets thrill and every leaf trembles and gleams. Soft mist gently rises as the creek gushes along its deep habitual groove in Rose Valley, a place as beautiful as it sounds: my home.

Amid such grace, one might forget the planet is in chaos. Wars rage… and the trees grow slowly. And yet, if one pays attention, the very poignancy of the Earth’s beauty is the reminder of her woundedness.

Often, we don’t pay attention. Climate change, war, and extreme poverty are somewhere else. We have bills to pay and problems of our own. Yet anyone living a ‘modern life’ has contributed to the conditions on Earth that cause suffering. How and what we consume, the policies of our leaders, our forgetfulness, have a direct impact on other beings—human and non-human. Denial, greed, and fear are not limited to big corporations and banks.

What then must we do? Can we live in such a way that we begin to reverse the damage? Can we reduce unnecessary suffering in the world and still take care of ourselves and our families?

Ecology, a branch of science, examines relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment. Part biology, part Earth science, ecology looks at the vital connections between plants, animals, and the world. Ecology calls to mind the Buddhist principle of Interbeing. As Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh, (also called Thay), explains: you can hold an orange in your hand, but it does not really exist as an orange. That is, it does not exist apart from the tree, the sun, and rain, the soil and its organisms, the farmer, the truck driver, and so on. One could say the orange is actually made up of ‘non-orange elements’—a set of conditions that allow the orange to be here. If you really look at the orange, says my teacher, you can see the entire cosmos at play.

The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss introduced the term ‘deep ecology’ in the 1980s. His concept, grounded in the teachings of Spinoza, Gandhi, and Buddha, explained that our cool, disembodied detachment from Nature and one another is an illusion, and he outlined a philosophy of being, thinking, and acting in the world—what he called ecosophy, an identification so deep that “one experiences oneself to be a genuine part of all life. We are not outside the rest of Nature,” says Næss, “and therefore cannot do with it as we please without changing ourselves.”

Doing as we please for so long has changed us. For fifteen hundred years, Western religious and philosophical values taught us we were set apart from and above the rest of Nature. So it was fine to exploit and deplete the Earth’s natural resources. If other people were in the way, we just enslaved them or removed them. And if animals were in the way, we removed them too, killed them for sport, enclosed them, or destroyed their habitats.

This kind of disconnection from Nature and from one another is the tragedy of our human story, the tale of darkness we have written ourselves into. It is a story that only ever served the few over the many, until finally the few have dwindled to a very small number of people who control more of the world’s wealth than everyone else combined. The inevitable result of such disparity is played out in innumerable ways and with devastating impact on the Earth and the human spirit. Like a child who hides from the mother out of shame for his wrongdoing, we have built barriers between ourselves and the natural world, invented false tales and excuses, unable to admit the terrible wrong we have done to the planet and to one another.

And yet, this is not the whole story.

Thay recounts that when he first heard the words from Genesis, “Let there be Light,” he imagined Light saying, “I will come when darkness comes.” And God said, “but the darkness is already here.” “Then,” said the Light, “I am already here as well.” What he means is that one can’t exist without the other. We contain both the seeds of darkness and the seeds of light within us. We have the capacity to generate terrible suffering and the capacity to generate great joy. A new story is already seeded within us, ready to flower. Its truth is found in Nature, in the reality of Interbeing. We are not separate from Nature. Rather, we are a grace note in its vast intelligent symphony. We are not adrift in a cold lifeless Universe. Instead we are a confluence of its vital energies and forces. Like the orange, we are woven into the very fabric of a radiant, vibrant living design.

A few hours have passed now. The sky is clear and the air rich with the mushroomy smell of forest soil. Some crows startle and flow out of a single tree, slick shadows, blue-black. Crow is a trickster, associated with transformation and the mystery of life. Human beings think in such symbols because Nature’s forms deeply influence our subconscious. We see ourselves reflected back by the world around us. We associate Crow sometimes with despair—but also with the courage to return to life.

Courage is one of the values we need so that conditions for joy and abundance can return. Our good intentions alone are not enough. Confronted with the terrible suffering in his homeland during the Vietnam War, Thích Nhất Hạnh, then a young monk, realized it was not enough to pray for peace or sit in meditation. In Saigon, he and his sangha responded quickly to render direct aid to the injured and refugee as part of their practice of mindfulness, not separate from it. Thay called this path ‘Engaged Buddhism” and outlined fourteen principles to describe it.

A follower of these principles would quickly see how the values they contain have much in common with Deep Ecology. How we live our lives now has everything to do with how we will save ourselves and write a new story for our children and the world. We need an ‘Engaged Ecology’ that moves beyond concepts and energy-saving tips to actual deep practice—a way of being, thinking, and acting, that restores our relationship with our communities and the Earth. We need shared values, something we are often reluctant to propose. What values; whose values? Where can we possibly turn to find values so universal that anyone might embrace them?

We can look to Nature.

An Engaged Ecology is a set of values and instructions derived from Nature that can guide us back to harmony and restore our fundamental relationship with the Earth.

Other wonderful teachers walk this terrain.

The Sufi master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is an eloquent spokesperson for the Earth. He speaks of a world soul crying out to us, the very call of creation. “We will each hear this cry in our own way, as it touches our own soul, but what matters is how we respond— whether we turn away, returning to our life of distractions, or whether we dare to follow the call and sense what it is telling us.”

German scholar Andreas Weber explores a ‘poetic ecology’ and speaks of Nature as the “living medium of our emotions and mental concepts,” a mirror for expressing our inner lives. In other words, our own intelligence is already a reflection of Nature’s. What else could it be? Daniel Goleman has suggested that this kind of ecological intelligence has a place beside social and emotional intelligence and we should teach this ‘ecoliteracy’ in our schools.

The fields of permaculture and biomimicry have also turned to Nature for the inspiration and models we need to restore our most fundamental relationship. We are in chaos because we have blinded ourselves to the essential qualities and character of Nature. Nature cooperates and regenerates. Nature adapts, self-organizes, and uses energy efficiently. Biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus enumerated Nine Basic Principles of Biomimicry so that we might strive to consciously emulate Nature’s genius and use its principles and designs to solve human problems.

Local Living Economy pioneer, Judy Wicks, and the editor of this journal, Nancy Roof, have also contributed insight, particularly by vibrant example, about service to our communities and to our world.

Thus, it is with a very deep bow of gratitude to Thay, these thinkers, and others, and with great humility that I have attempted to synthesize and integrate their ideas into Seven Principles and Practices for an Engaged Ecology. Each is invited to consider, interpret, and adapt these practices according to one’s own situation, capacities, and the needs of their communities.

Principle 1 – Nature’s brilliant design is all-pervasive.

Practice – Cultivating awareness of Nature

Trusting that truth is found in Life, we strive to develop awareness by spending time observing and contemplating Nature. This can be as simple as working in a garden or meditating on a single flower. We can seek deep natural experiences without traveling to exotic locations. Even at work, we can quietly observe life within and around us. Drinking a glass of water with deep awareness or basking in the warm sun for a few minutes with gratitude are simple ways to remember our most primal connections.

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photography | courtesy Rhonda Fabian

Our breath is Life’s precious gift. Bringing our awareness to our own quiet breathing while sitting without distraction for even a few breaths is one way to come home to our true Nature. We can practice this any time to be refreshed and restored.

Remembering that Nature has successfully supported life on Earth for billions of years, we begin the work of transforming our fear and healing our consciousness. We find that we can be happy simply because we are alive and supported by the Earth.

Principle 2 – Nature adapts and self-regulates.

Practice – Being open to learning and change

Nature continuously adjusts to changing conditions. We are committed to seeking ways to educate ourselves in order to adjust our behaviors that cause damage to people and planet. We know we will not be able to change anything without changing ourselves first. We can learn new ways by seeking formal and informal education about the natural world around us: the names of trees and birds in our area, the quality of our watershed, where our food and the products we purchase come from.

By practicing openness in our views, we benefit from the wisdom of others. In Nature, embracing diversity results in greater resilience. We will seek and value a diversity of views, paying special attention to the voice of the marginalized, including indigenous people. We may have strong views about what we think others should do, yet greater insight is revealed through the practice of careful listening and deep thinking. Accumulating facts is not wisdom. What we think we know is subject to change and no one has all the answers.

Principle 3 – Nature expresses innate potential.

Practice – Developing empathy for all forms of life

All life has value in itself, and this value is not dependent on usefulness to humans. Aware that life is a vast web of interconnections, we will work to change our view that humans are superior to other forms of life on Earth and protect diversity.

All living things are engaged in the process of unfolding their innate potential. We vow to recognize and encourage the potential of all beings, from the smallest multicellular life-forms, to people, ecosystems, and the Earth as a whole. We will not support acts that kill or destroy life, in our thinking or in our actions and way of life. We will examine the impact we have on non-human animals and make an effort to reduce their suffering. Industrial farming, animal testing, the use of animals for public entertainment, and hunting endangered animals all cause great suffering.

We will practice looking deeply at the foods, clothing, and other products we consume and choose not to purchase or use them if they ‘contain’ the unnecessary suffering of people or animals. We can choose local and hand-made goods, Fair Trade and humane products, and simply live with less. By working closely with others, we will continually seek ways to protect the lives of people, plants and animals, minerals, ecosystems, and watersheds.

Principle 4 – Nature regenerates and nurtures new life.

Practice – Cherishing and nurturing the young

Nature reproduces itself: the tender leaf, rosebud, the baby bird, tiny fish. Each new life, anywhere, at any scale, is Nature’s freshest gift of innocence and purity, fully deserving the most basic right—to live. Aware that a baby’s first breath ushers in new hope for the world, we vow to cherish, protect, and nurture new life.

Knowing the seeds we plant in young minds will be the fruit our society reaps, we are committed to looking at all the ways children are affected by their environment. We will work to reexamine the purpose and goals of the educational system, understand the effects of excessive exposure to television, computer games, the Internet, and poisons in our food and in our water. We will work to support the concerns of mothers and children worldwide.

photography | courtesy Rhonda Fabian
photography | courtesy Rhonda Fabian

We are committed to protecting children from sexual and military exploitation and other forms of physical abuse, anywhere in the world. We will create opportunities and encourage children to participate in activities outside in Nature. If our community is unsafe, we will work with other families to create places for children to play and be happy. We are committed to teaching children the proper way to treat and take care of pets, how to grow a flower, and how to relax and be peaceful. As adults, we will make decisions and plans that take into account the needs of children in our community, not just in the present, but also for generations to come.

Principle 5 – Nature is efficient.

Practice – Limiting consumption and waste

Aware that Nature uses only what it needs, we too will make a diligent effort to consume only the energy we need and to reduce waste. We are determined not to waste the Earth’s precious resources while millions are hungry and lack the basic necessities of life. We will use and value renewable resources whenever possible and make every effort to reuse or recycle plastics, metals, and paper. We are committed to making our homes as energy efficient as we can and using natural means to make ourselves comfortable.

We will consume in a way that promotes health and wellbeing in our bodies and consciousness. By eliminating our use of disposable plastic items, avoiding excessive packaging, and using less paper, we can reduce our personal waste stream right away. Moving from place to place, we will use biking, walking, public transportation, and ride-sharing when it is feasible.

We commit to using seasonal foods that are produced locally when possible, and work to make sure our communities have access to healthy fresh food and safe public water supplies. We will nourish the collective body of our community and the Earth by sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.

Principle 6 – Nature functions cooperatively.

Practice – Thriving as a community

By looking at Nature, we can learn ways that plants, animals, and other living things think and act cooperatively. It is not possible for one person or one business to act cooperatively or be sustainable. Sustainability is a community practice. The quality of relationships in any living community is determined by its collective ability to survive and thrive. We will practice coming together with groups of neighbors and friends to collectively seek ways to make our communities more healthy and resilient. We will focus on slow, small solutions, using local resources and responses whenever possible.

By training ourselves in the practice of deep listening and positive speech, we will arrive at shared understanding in our community. Together, our excesses as a community can be curbed from within as we develop collective actions to reduce consumption and waste.

Together, we should take a clear stand against actions that harm our community and planet, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety. We can set limits, for example, on carbon consumption, and use limits as a means to strengthen community and sharing. We can learn from Nature to creatively use and respond to the changes taking place in our community and in the world.

Principle 7 – Nature is a system of systems.

Practice – Participating as citizens of the Earth

We are woven into the fabric of all Life and our actions have consequences. Aware of the violence and injustice done to our environment and societies, we are committed to using our time on Earth for efforts that benefit people and planet. We will do our best to select a livelihood that does not contribute to harming others. Aware of economic, political, and social systems around the world, and our interrelationship with these systems, we are determined to be responsible consumers and citizens of the Earth. We will make an effort to invest in and purchase from companies that preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the world.

We will look deeply at the collective psychological origins of the ecological crisis and the related crises of war and social injustice. By examining how ethnocentrism has manifested in our science, philosophy, and economics, we will work to resist the drive for globalization of Western culture, and oppose trade policies that lead to the devastation of both human culture and Nature. We will keep those who suffer from war, famine and poverty in our consciousness and contemplate our interconnection to help us decide how we, our community, and our country can help.

Summer is fading and the shadows of the day lengthen in the slanting light. How tenderly the days pass. Sometimes a despair rises in me that time is slipping away too fast. The breeze stirs; a shimmer of gold is loosed from the trees, and then I am reminded that deep within every falling leaf is the promise of new life. Incredible beauty can spring from the compost of our misconceptions. Deep within me a seed of insight glows: the human era of separation is coming to an end and the greatest of re-awakenings is already underway— how fortunate we are to be alive at this moment.

Thích Nhất Hạnh and the practice of mindfulness:

Benyus, J.M. A biomimicry primer:

Earth Holder Reading list:

Goleman, D., Bennett, L., & Barlow, Z. (2012). Ecoliterate: How educators are cultivating emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. CA: Jossey-Bass Center for Ecoliteracy:

Harding, S. What is deep ecology? Retrieved from:

Vaughan-Lee, L. (2013). Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth
Edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee; The Golden Sufi Center, July 1, 2013

Weber, A. (2015). Healing ecology | finding the human in nature, chapter one: Towards a ‘Poetic Ecology.’ Kosmos Journal, Spring | Summer, 31-37

Wicks, J. (2013). Good morning beautiful business: The unexpected journey of an activist entrepreneur and local economy pioneer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.