Toward a Contemplative Ecology | A Conversation with Douglas Christie and Andrew Zolli

By Andrew Zolli, via Garrison Institute
Images | Gian-Reto Tarnutzer

Note: This is a portion of a longer interview which can be found here.

Andrew Zolli: [A]n honest encounter with the climate crisis often brings deep tears, which can move us from impassivity into either action or despair. I’m sure that at least some climate denialism, and much climate apathy, is rooted in an instinctive repression of those tears—an inability to look at facts that seem too painful to process, and too challenging to the status-quo of our self-constructed lives. It’s hardly surprising that a culture of endless distraction and of ecological repudiation emerged at the same time; sometimes it seems to me that in American culture we either recoil from honest tears or drown in false ones.

But, as you’ve suggested, tears can serve a deep spiritual purpose—to demonstrate an understanding of the mirrored brokenness between the heart inside and world outside.

Douglas Christie: It’s worth noting that, in the Christian monastic tradition, tears were bound up and connected with practice. For the monks it was a question of, How might I turn this poignant moment of self-awareness back into my already seriously considered practice? And the second thing is that these tears were connected to community. In traditional literature, tears often show up during a conversation between an elder and disciple as the result of some kind of probing of a moral or spiritual question that is of great significance to the one who is seeking help.

What do you do with those tears? Well, inevitably, there was a communal response to this question. You turn your attention back to the community with clearer eyes, with a deeper sense of commitment, and a greater sense of openness. I’m not saying that this simple analogy will tell us how to not feel overwhelmed at the crisis we’re facing, but there is a lesson to be learned, I think, in reflecting on how an opening up of the soul or the heart can lead people back to their existing communities. In many ways, that’s where an opening wants to be realized.

Andrew Zolli: In these days of polarized, sorted-out communities, that turning back to community can sometimes seem daunting. It can be hard to know where to engage. But in my own work on community resilience, I often see an analogue of the experience you’re describing. In the wake of a major disaster, the marks of ordinary time and identity are lost, and the experience of radical loss drives some people to a place that is primal and communal. Connections to people and place intensify. The unimportant stuff falls away, and something deeper takes its place. After devastating tornados rampaged through one town, I observed a man rubbing soil on his arms and face, almost practicing a form of communion with the place. Another began replanting a garden even before her house was mucked out. And it doesn’t just occur in disaster-zones: after 9/11, anthropologists working for the National Parks Service found hundreds of makeshift shrines erected in forests and wildernesses throughout the United States.

That all speaks to the critical element of topos, which you define as a deep sense of place. Yet I find myself contrasting that idea with our more everyday experience of place in the modern world, which seems increasingly fragmented. Thanks to technology, we often occupy more than one place, space, and community simultaneously: I’m here in my office, on the phone, on social media, sometimes all at once. I can be situated in more than once place—socially, psychologically—from moment to moment. There’s a paradox there: on the one hand, I have more places where I might experience meaning, more places to find community; but I can also more easily be dislocated from the place I’m really “in” at the moment. And this seems closely related to the next term you introduce, prosochē, which concerns the the nature of attention.

Douglas Christie: Well, it seems clear to me that at least part of what the growth of mindfulness in our culture is about is a longing to find a meaningful response to the unbearable complexity of our lives. In our spiritual traditions—whether Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise—there are historical precedents for both individuals and communities who practice some form of retreat or withdrawal. They remove themselves and they give shape to a form of life that narrows down the range of what people are attending to.

In the monastic world, there is a certain amount of time for silence, a certain amount of time for manual labor, and, when the bell rings, you stop what you’re doing and go recite or chant the psalms or other sacred texts. Even if that monastic model isn’t viable for many of us, I think there’s a reason why people are looking to these traditions for help. They point to the possibility that you can strip away some of the extraneous things that are always calling for your attention and be intentional about paying attention to fewer things with greater awareness and greater heart.

In our culture, there’s always a danger of turning these practices into individualistic activities, but I think practices of attention can lead us back to a place that roots us in one another’s company and allows us to be present with each other in our joys and suffering. It’s a way of being present instead of absent.

Andrew Zolli: That presence is, for me, one of the central promises of a contemplative ecology—that by calming our minds and settling our attention, we can amplify our ability to be fully alive to the beauty, inherent strangeness, and interconnectedness of the world as a living system. By reducing our distractions, we’re able to discern the interrelationships across this pulsing, creative, dynamic whole, and to commune more deeply with the world as it is.

I think this naturally brings us to logos, which is an intrinsic, deep, and creative principle. How does logos relate to this larger discussion about attention and place?

Douglas Christie: In the Christian tradition, it seems that the language of creation is often the standard point of reference for how we might revere and respond to the natural world. The world was created by God and is seen as good, and therefore we have an obligation to respect it and respond to it.

Of course, that’s a beautiful and valuable principle. But I think it’s worth noting that it hardly scratches the surface of how the Christian tradition has always understood the created world, which is that God is pulsing through every living thing. If you take this basic theological idea in Christianity—that everything that exists came into being through the Word of God—then that invites you to really listen to the world itself in a different way. Every living being gives voice to this profound, sacred reality.

If you do this, you’re listening to the voice of the beloved in and through everything. You’re not flattening everything out, as if the cry of the hawk is the same as the sound the wind makes when it rustles through the trees or the sound of a pinecone that hits the earth. No, they’re all manifesting different and distinct tonal qualities. This is religiously important.

Andrew Zolli: This reverence for the symphony of creation sets up the context for love, for eros, which you frame as a healing force. How do you distinguish between that kind of love and other ways people talk about love?

Douglas Christie: There are Christian theologians whose theology is informed by the ancient Greek idea of eros, which, when it’s connected with the understanding of the divine, is the yearning of God for the world. It becomes the source of our own yearning for connection with one another, God, and all of reality.

When eros becomes part of a spiritual practice, it’s the capacity that we have to open ourselves up to places on the edge. It can foster an experience of being drawn into the life of the other. It’s often about surrender, vulnerability, tenderness, and receptivity to the other, who is beckoning to us. We both do and don’t want to let ourselves become this vulnerable, but the language of eros invites us to consider how enlivening and enthralling these exchanges are.

It’s also complicated, of course, as we can see in our ambiguous, often-conflicted responses to the possibility of intimacy in human relationships. Instead of practicing simple openness, too often we project our own anxieties onto the other. We do this out of fear, insecurity, or a kind of uncertainty about whether letting go in love is really possible—or whether we are capable of such release. In the mystical tradition, this manifests itself as an apprehension about letting go to experience the infinite other.

Can we really open ourselves to the life of the other, without the ego closing off this very possibility? Can we inhabit a place of receptivity? Can we allow the life of the other to flow into us and inform and shape us? If so, then we also begin to develop another way of understanding community and our own sense of belonging.


Douglas Christie is a Christian theologian, professor at Loyola Marymount University, and the author, most recently, of The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. In the book, Christie interweaves concepts from early Christian contemplatives, the American transcendental tradition, and the contemporary ecological crisis. In so doing, he ties together ancient practices and modern concerns, and provides signposts on the contemplative’s journey to a new relationship with both the self and the world. In this Earth Day dialogue, he explores these ideas with Andrew Zolli, the Garrison Institute’s President.