On our final day, we spent the morning listening to a wonderful explication of Buddhist thought and its relevance to our environmental worldview and behavior from Tom. His emphasis was on the importance of “taking time to notice,” learning to live with less ego and selfish desire, and avoiding excess. He offered a critique from Wendell Berry of American rugged individualism and emphasized instead the value of a more interdependent and less selfish conception of existence. Western culture, he argued, has been too obsessed with the self, an obsession that he sees related to Christianity’s championing of the idea of individual salvation. We discussed some questions that are rather difficult to answer. Someone asked, for example, how we should define excess, and Tom’s response was that it begins when we benefit at the expense of the environment or of someone else. It seems that the Mormon answer would be something along the lines of using more than we need for our basic necessities. That, anyway, is how I read D&C 104.
We also asked, as we have all week, what constitutes spirituality. Tom said that it was expressed in acts of compassion for all that surrounds us and that it is based in an understanding of our belonging in the web of life. He insisted, I think rightly, that any way of life that is compassionate expresses some spirituality, regardless of whether it is done as an intentional expression of religious devotion. I am not sure how I define spirituality exactly, because it is for me somewhat of a paradox. To express our spirituality, it seems we need connection to the spirit, to what lies beyond the physical realm. But since Mormonism doesn’t distinguish, at least in spatial terms, between the spiritual and the physical, this need not be an act of overlooking or looking past the physical but something more akin to Wordsworth’s phrase of “seeing into the life of things.” In fact, it seems most valuable precisely when it emerges in the intimate and personal context of our physical existence—in human relationships, in service, and in the natural world. To be spiritual outside of the context of our bodies and the body of this earth is a kind of despairing otherworldliness. I think spirituality has something to do with feeling dependent upon but ultimately undetermined by physical laws—that we become more than our chemistry and biology, more than what environmental determinism would say we are. We are in the spiritual realm free from the earth, but not in the sense of being liberated, as if the boundedness of physical existence were a prison but rather free in the sense of being agents, able to make genuine choices within our physical sphere. Elder Oaks, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS church, says that spirituality is the awareness of gaining mastery over the self. It seems that Christianity and Buddhism need not be at opposite poles, although I recognize that Christianity on its own has a lot to learn from Buddhism. My friend, Adam Miller, has written a wonderful collection of essays on LDS theology that are influenced in part by his respect for Buddhism. He convinces me that when we create polar oppositions between Eastern and Western thought, we lose the chance to identify and explore the rich common ground between them.
We took some time to reflect on ourselves and what kind of increased awareness of what our own spiritual relationship to the world might be. It was clear that by this point we had developed enough trust and affection for each other that we were able to share openly. Several people expressed a feeling that they had learned and experienced much more than they had expected, that this was not some New Age-y experiment in hugging trees but rather a sincere exploration about what it means to be human and to be on this wonderful but fragile planet. One person stated that she felt that it had been the first authentic church experience she had had because of the honesty of our communications with one another. This was echoed by others.
We hiked up Odelle Creek in the afternoon. This was an exceptionally beautiful creek into the wilderness. My son, Sam, brought along his flyrod and caught and released a number of small but fat and feisty cutthroats who consistently struck and fought hard, well beyond what their size warranted. I was cheering him on breathlessly. I could hear him talking with other adults on the trail on the way back, explaining the intricacies of flyfishing like an expert. I was busting out in smiles. He is hooked.
In the evening we enjoyed a lecture on the new field of ecopsychology by Louisa Carter. She covered a lot of ground, explaining what it is that different research suggests we have lost in mental health by virtue of being more disconnected from nature. She stressed the importance of what she called “diffuse attention practices” such as meditation, recreation, and yoga that allow us to become more aware of our connectedness to what is outside of us. In this sense, she said, recreation can become a kind of re-creation, an idea that captured my mind when I was writing Home Waters. I find recreation spiritually renewing but only up to a point. If it is done for selfish reasons, if it is used as an escape from responsibility, or if it does not stem from a committed lifestyle of care for the earth, then I find it damaging. In these case, it commodifies nature and separates us from the very thing that we think we love. But when it brings us closer to an understanding of our ecological context and inspires awe and reanimates a desire to live with greater restraint, it becomes a deeply spiritual exercise of remaking the world and our relationship to it. Tom reminded us that dharma is the same word for “truth and teaching” and for “nature.” So maybe it is a kind of combination of Christian and Buddhist thinking to suggest, as I did in my book, that for these reasons nature ultimately nature teaches us to repent, or as Tom put it, to “change the priorities of your life.”