Introduction Keynote

Watching River Otters

Walking in the wetlands I encounter a family of river otters playing in the water, then sliding their sleek bodies onto the land. They tumble over each other in the sand, as a blue heron watches nearby. In their primal world there is neither truth nor falsehood, just life present, unfractured.

Once, long ago, we walked in this landscape, were part of this ecology of place. With songs and prayers, dances and dreams we were also alive in life’s wholeness. But today our human world is not like this, our consciousness long disconnected, held only by those Indigenous people and others who live close to the Earth. And in recent years social media has increased the noise of discord and distortions, half-truths, falsehoods, and conspiracy theories. Our collective consciousness has become fractured, different voices shouting while the planet burns.

And yet even as our patterns and habits of disbelief poison the land, the sea, and the air, even as we deny our responsibility for the coming catastrophe of climate change, or in some ways more dangerously, think that we can “green the economy” – continue with our fantasy of eternal economic growth – this landscape of wholeness is still present. It can be heard in every dawn chorus, seen in the “v” of geese flying south, in the fox found curled asleep in my garden. The Earth has not forgotten what is real, even if we increasingly have. Buds still break open in springtime, leaves turn golden in Autumn. And our bodies still awake every morning into this world. While our attention is drawn to our smartphones, sunlight filers through the clouds.

Yet, in our hearts there is a thread that connects it all together, the heart that still knows the meaning of love and companionship, care and community. Our hearts that can recognize the simple magic in birdsong, the essential beauty of a sunrise, the joy of a child’s laughter. Our hearts have not forgotten that we are all a part of one living community, bonded together since the very beginning, since the early days when we walked and played, sang and dreamed in harmony with the Earth and its magical nature. That thread is still present, even if it is covered over by the confusions of today, by our materialistic dreams. Like the otters playing in the water, it is too simple to be caught in distortion, too primal to be fractured. It can be found in the most ordinary things, a bowl of soup cooked with love and attention, a few kind words exchanged with friends or strangers.

Science has presented us with the basic truths of the coming ecological catastrophe. Along with a warming planet science has documented an insect apocalypse and oceans filling with plastic. If we are to survive together with the Earth we have to recognize that our present way of life is unsustainable, and act from this knowing to reduce carbon emissions and stop destroying wild places. But we also have to find this thread that connects back with a deeper truth, this knowing older than our rational mind. Sadly, because so much of our response comes from the same rational consciousness and its technological inventions that created these patterns in the first place, it is difficult to reconnect the thread, “to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

With so many voices clamoring for our attention to whom do we listen, and more important, whom do we trust? A few fundamental truths are becoming more and more self-evident. The interconnected and interdependent nature of the biosphere, and how we are all a part of this living wholeness. How our present dream of material prosperity is destroying the environment at an accelerating rate, causing ecocide as it tears at the fragile web of life that supports us all. And how governments and big corporations are too addicted to the present ideology of progress and profit to effect real change, instead increasing economic and social divisiveness. That the voices of young people crying out for a future being stolen, and suffering the very real trauma of climate anxiety, are more attuned to the moment than those in positions of power.

Those of us who have looked through the cracks in our present civilization know that it is over, past its sell-by date, but also that possibilities for radical change and transformation are present, like green shoots amidst a dying wasteland. It is possible that this century will be one of increasing insecurity, disturbance, chaos, even social breakdown, and then out of this a new civilization will gradually emerge, quite different to now—a civilization that will emerge organically in harmony with nature.

This Great Unraveling that can lead to a Great Turning has the potential to return us to a life-sustaining culture that once again recognizes how all of creation is sacred. And now is the time to begin planting seeds for this transformation, seeds that can germinate in the darkness and difficulties of the coming years, but belong to the foundations for a future seven generations or more.

Those alive today may never see this emerging civilization, but like the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages who laid their foundation stones knowing that it could be many generations, even centuries, before their buildings would be completed, this should not deter us. We have the opportunity to lay the foundations for a way of life more aligned with the deeper truths of the Earth and our own sacred nature. And I believe a simple step into this landscape that is always present, though hidden by today’s world of clicks and memes, will help us find what we need. It is a place where we all belong.

Watching the river otters playing, tumbling over each other in such intimacy, I know that there is a deeper truth to our journey together with the Earth, a truth older than any belief or ideology, and far from the discords of today. It does not offer a solution to today’s problems, because it is too simple and radical. It is a doorway into a way of being with each other and the Earth that carries the secrets of our shared existence, where we are a part of a living tapestry that stretches to the stars and beyond. And it is here, all around us, present in the most ordinary things.

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.


Read more

Related Reading