Essay Living Earth

Death and Rebirth

Fire season came early in 2020. An unseasonable summer lightning storm set fire to the land, the air dense with smoke, the sun rising red, ashes falling. After sheltering in place for months from fear of the pandemic, we sheltered from fire and smoke, hardly daring to open a window. Is this what it means to live at the end of an era, poisoned air and a burnt land, thousands of migratory birds falling dead from the sky in exhaustion, their migratory paths obliterated? We are experiencing a civilization dying, and as it dies it is attacking its own ecosystem, the web of life stretched to breaking. A society increasingly divided, economic inequality and poverty rising, people caught in conspiracy theories as they fear a world they cannot understand or control. We can feel the collective anxiety of a culture for whom the future is uncertain, its dream of progress and prosperity fading.

We do know that we have to learn to live in harmony with the earth and her more-than-human inhabitants. We can no longer afford to be exiles in our own land, starved of what is sacred. With care and love and respect we can learn a different way to be. But first we have to face the dying of this time, feel the sorrow in our hearts at what is being lost, species extinct, wild lands and natural habitats vanishing. We need to be fully present in this experience, because it is here as we stand on the threshold of collapse that the doors of light are to be found, as in our own life cycle. If we dream too early of a sustainable future we will miss this moment, this light, this opportunity. Our feet will not be touching the ground, our hearts will not open with grief. Then the angels will pass us by.

Spring follows winter, the earth turns and the seasons change. And unless the present ecocide is so extreme that humanity cannot survive, a new civilization will emerge from the wreckage, from the devastation of our present time. Some people envision a technological future, an advanced sustainable civilization run on clean energy. But those who have looked closely through the cracks in our present culture know that this is just a figment of a science-fiction imagination.

“If sustainability only refers to humanity and not to the whole web of life, we are just recreating a dying image. If we do not take the foundational step of returning our consciousness to the living Earth, reconnecting to the ground under our feet, the future will not come alive.”

Rebirth requires an end to the story of separation and an awakening to the story of a living oneness, a unity with all of life. These are the primal values we need for a future to come alive in the ruins of our industrial world.

Looking at the world around us, with accelerating environmental collapse, inequality and divisiveness, power dynamics and patterns of control, this seems like an intangible dream, easily dissolved by the harsh light of our present reality. Our present collective dream is still material prosperity, supported by either fragmented democracies or increasingly authoritarian regimes. Care for the Earth is not our most pressing concern, even as the temperature rises and the forests burn. The story of humanity as separate from the Earth, or having “dominion over the earth,” has a stranglehold on our conscious and unconscious selves.

How will we then transition to a living future from our present dying Earth? How many species will have to die, forests be clear-cut, oceans poisoned with plastic, before we awaken from this nightmare we call progress? The present moment seems like a Zen koan, “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without breaking the bottle or hurting the goose?” The simple Zen answer, “Look, it’s out!” may image a sudden shift in consciousness, but it does not seem to point to the reality of any transition.[1] And while I believe in miracles and magic, I also recognize the hard, broken landscape we are entering. I could see it out of my window in the smoke of the August wildfires, the air too thick to breathe.

For over twenty years I have been watching this division unfold—the vision of a future based upon oneness that recognizes the interdependence of all of life, and the bleakness of our present time of greed and corruption and the wasteland it creates. Seeing young people protest for a future that they may never know touches a deep chord—how many generations will be lost until we turn back to the Earth? Or most simply, how long will it take before we return to values that support life, that recognize that all life, all creation, is sacred? Not just human beings, but butterflies and spiders, rocks and rivers, grasses and forests, algae and fungi…

When we return our consciousness to this primary awareness, this simple truth known and honored by our ancestors, spring will come again. How this spring will awaken, how the seeds will grow, what trees will remain to bear fruit, will depend upon our attitude and actions in the coming years and decades. Those who have recognized the Earth as a single, organic, interconnected living being can support this transition, can help to keep the inner rivers of life pure, so that they can nurture what will be born. Rebirth always comes from the darkness, like seeds underground, or the initiation chambers of the ancient mysteries. But this darkness can be full of the nutrients needed for rebirth, and soil that looks barren can still be tended with love and care.

“And what of the divine light that is our true nature, and also present within and around all that exists? How can we work with this light in the darkness of the coming decades, this light that was present in the beginning and knows the meaning and purpose of our human journey together with the Earth?”

This is the light that knows the names of creation, how all of existence is woven together—our dreams with the cry of the screech owl, the wind bending the branches of the tree, the waves crashing on the shore nearby.

It is important to understand that this light is not the same as the sunlight that warms us and helps our crops to grow. This spiritual light has a consciousness, a knowing. On the most fundamental level it knows the names of creation and the divine purpose of all that exists, just as the divine light of your own soul knows your own deepest purpose. In spiritual practice connecting with this inner light enables you to live this purpose, to sing the song of your soul in your daily life. Which is why reconnecting with this light may often involve a life crisis or change, a new career or relationship, as you shift from a life centered on the ego to the life of the soul. When I was nineteen, after I met my teacher and was reconnected to my own inner nature, I stopped being an architectural student, which was my mother’s dream, and worked odd jobs until I went back to college and studied English literature and became an English teacher. My love of words has been central to my life since.

Through the work of reconnecting the Earth with Her own light, we can help Her to remember Her song and sacred purpose. She is not a resource to be exploited, nor is She a wild force to be tamed. The light of the Earth weaves this song into to the physical world, bonding matter and spirit and divine purpose. The central purpose of humanity has always been to live and celebrate this song, this primal belonging, until we forgot, began our power struggles and became separate from both the divine and the Earth. And then the soul of the Earth began to recede, and finally, thousands of years later, became sick, just as the collective soul of humanity has become sick. If you are cut off from your source you become sick. The original imbalance comes from forgetting or being disconnected from your true nature.

And this is why we stand at a crossroads more crucial than just climate crisis, and why rebirth is essential. Our covenant was to sing the song of creation, through stories and prayers, ceremonies and just simple daily acts. Humanity brought a quality of consciousness into the many-textured levels of existence; we brought a divine light into the world and wove it into the fabric of life—we brought the world alive with our stories, in a way that was quite distinct from the solely instinctual consciousness of the animate world. When we gradually stopped singing these stories to the Earth, Her soul began to withdraw, until now in our computerized world the world soul, the anima mundi, is long forgotten, unrecognized, unsung. And She needs to come back to life, to be remembered. This is the central note of any rebirth: a reconnection with the Earth as a sacred being, so that Her soul can reawaken and live in the light, as She did in the first day.

If She can reawaken, then together we can create an organic self-organizing human civilization according to the values and principles of our shared existence. We will no longer impose our ideas or patterns of power and domination, but become partners, working, living, singing together with the Earth. And when the Earth reawakens, magic and miracles will come back into life and we will remember why we are here. This is the possibility for our evolution, the door that is being opened, back to the garden after our painful journey of separation, of forgetting.

How this possibility will unfold on the outer stage of life we do not yet know. Climate crisis will batter our society, extreme heat and rising seas, fire and catastrophic storms will change our global demographics. Physical survival will become the central question for many communities. But for those who are not caught in the fading dream of our present civilization, who can develop the tools of resilience, the light will be present, the grace that belongs to any death and transition. And this light needs to be lived here, in our simple daily acts, especially those of love and care for each other and the Earth. We need to weave this light back into our everyday life and the life of the Earth, and to try to listen to its song, become a part of its prayer. This may appear as something too insubstantial in the face of the many outer challenges of the coming decades. But for any real rebirth to take place we need to return to the beginning, to the seeds of our existence, which are not just physical survival. Our forgetfulness has brought us to this place, this barren landscape where the water is running dry. Our remembrance will turn our attention to what is waiting to be born.

Adapted from A Handbook for Survivalists: Caring for the Earth, A Series of Meditations.

Available as a free PDF: | ©2020, The Golden Sufi Center


[1] Some people see the possibility for such a sudden shift in our collective consciousness, from separation to an awareness of life’s essential unity. While I do see a consciousness of oneness as being foundational to humanity’s evolution, and any future civilization, I also recognize the grip that the present story of separation (and its offspring, scientific materialism) has on our collective consciousness, as well as being embodied in the structures and values of our present civilization. Which is why it seems that if we are to make this transition, economic and social collapse may be a part of our journey, breaking the stranglehold of this story.

About Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is Sufi teacher and author. He has authored a recent podcast, Stories for a Living Future.

The focus of his writing and teaching is on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition, spiritual ecology and an awakening global consciousness of oneness. His many books include Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth and Including the Earth in Our Prayers: A Global Dimension to Spiritual Practice.


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