What Can Nature Teach Us About Peace?

September 2008, was the first time I participated in Unity’s Day of Prayer. I had volunteered to meditate and pray from 10-11am.  With the bitter rhetoric of election politics swirling around, over flowing from the media outlets into neighborhoods and signs on the corner, I was very agitated and started my prayer time nagged by worries which ranged from the proliferation of war to the ongoing environmental destruction in our society, and I tried to envision a better future for my children. About 20 minutes into my meditation I was hit with “So what?” Not in an apathetic type of way, it was as if all of a sudden I was genuinely freed from attachment to the results – of my prayers, of my actions, of other people’s actions in relation to our fate here on earth.  It did not propel me into complacency, in fact it freed up my energy to still direct my prayers and actions in a meaningful way, yet in losing my attachment to the results I also dropped my fears and animosities towards “the other;” The other policies, the other beliefs, the other candidates and so on. I realized that I was part of a larger whole, and we were either going to survive and evolve or we weren’t, but either way we were going to do it together. I was truly overcome with a sense of peace and gratitude that I live in such an interesting time in history and that peace and wonder has not wavered over these last few years, despite the tumultuous events in the US and around the world.

Because inner peace was a gift that was given to me during my first observance of Unity’s Day of Prayer, I am truly honored and grateful to have been asked to speak at this service tonight. As leader of the Earth Care Ministry team at Atlanta Unity and more generally a supporter of all things green I thought it would be interesting to look at a few of the ways in which Nature demonstrates how we can work together to foster peace in the world.

This is a poem called The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I would imagine that many of us can relate to this poem. The solace that we find in nature, whether hiking among our elders in a forest of ancient trees or strolling barefoot along a vast seashore where possibilities seem limitless, is both grounding and transcendent. These experiences resonate deeply in our core, as our heart center opens and tunes to the vibration of the universe. If we are lucky, a portal opens briefly, offering us a deep, unshakable inner knowing of our oneness with this world and all that is in it. Our human worries dissipate and are carried along invisible threads into the ether. These experiences may last only a few fleeting seconds, but they make an impression and create an insatiable craving for connection that can last a lifetime, as Nature beckons us back time and again to Her groves and shores.

Surely the natural world is not all doves and rainbows, but there is no denying that an intricate order and harmonious balance are the underpinnings of our universe.  It is a living example of the definition of peace which is  – “a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom.”

Throughout history, humans have been inspired by nature’s models – whether it was studying birds to learn how to design airplanes, or more recent endeavors, such as analyzing spider webs – which are ten times stronger than a steel strand of the same weight- to possibly create suspension bridge cables or artificial ligaments for medicine. What then, can some of the laws – or at least the ways of Nature, teach us about working together peacefully on earth?

First, let us look at how the earth is able to maintain the delicate balance which makes life on earth possible. Like any living thing, the earth always strives to maintain constant or stable conditions for itself, called homeostasis.

To explain this balance, the prominent thinkers of the scientific and industrial revolution believed that a system could be broken down into its individual components so that each component could be analyzed as an independent entity, and the components could be added in a linear fashion to describe the totality of the system. This is similar to the assembly line which also originated during this time.

However, that approach left many questions unanswered. Scientists then began to take a more holistic approach.  In the 1940s-1960s Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote about General Systems Theory which he called, “a way of seeing.” Scientists began to look at wholes instead of parts and in doing so discovered that whether they were looking at cells, bodies, ecosystems or the planet – they are all organized and intricately balanced systems interdependent in their movements, function and exchange of energy and information.

Gaia Theory, which was first articulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, holds that the Earth itself is a living system and that Earth’s physical and biological processes are inextricably bound to form a self-regulating system. Systems do not act separate from one another – but together to support and evolve life. These systems were found to be self-regulating systems as they self-correct through feedback. Self-regulating systems are found in nature, including the physiological systems of our body, in ecosystems, and in climate. Adaption and evolution are prime examples of how our world self-regulates, but to think of it in terms of our everyday life, it is as simple as eating when we are hungry or cooling off by perspiring when we are hot.

Self-regulation for optimal health is a basic component of living systems, yet in many ways, our species seems to have lost this ability. A system is able to adapt because its’ feedback loop is open, meaning it is able to take in information and then connect that perception to appropriate action. But when we live in a society that views pain as dysfunctional, we find it easier to repress our pain, therefore shutting down our feedback loop and subsequent response. For example, it is extremely painful to see pictures of the famine in Somalia, so many of us block it out and divert our attention, repressing our compassion and ability to at least donate money to the cause. In terms of the environment, most of us turn our heads when the tops are blown off of mountains, native lands are destroyed by mining, or animals suffer in factory farms. Instead of working to ensure that drinking water is safe for everyone, we buy bottled water for ourselves and our families. We know we live in a world with finite resources, yet we expect unlimited growth of goods in our economy. I could go on and on, as there are unfortunately many examples of injustices to which we have collectively shrugged our shoulders in defeat.

The dulling response to the condition of our world is called psychic numbing, a term coined by Robert Lifton. Because psychic numbing exists on both the collective and individual levels, it has created a plethora of common ailments in our culture, such as: addiction, alienation, apathy, a sense of powerlessness, stress and burnout. As Thomas Merton writes, “The truth that many people never understand until it is too late is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer.”

In her book, Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy writes, “Our pain for the world, including the fear, anger, sorrow and guilt we feel on behalf of the Earth…is natural and healthy. It is dysfunctional only to the point where it is misunderstood and repressed. By honoring our pain for the world we open a gateway into deep participation in the world’s self-healing.”

As we slow down and listen to what is truly happening within ourselves and within our world, recognize our interdependence, and start to unblock our response systems, I think that we will find reservoirs of courage, love and compassion, waiting to be released into the world.

Another example of stability from the law of nature is that there is Strength in Diversity

Within the last five years, ecologists found that in forests throughout the New and Old World tropics, older trees are more diverse than younger ones. In other words, diversity is actually selected for as the forests matures. This means diversity does matter and is an essential property of these complex ecosystems. Monoculture forests, where the trees are all of one particular species, are highly susceptible to diseases, and the trees are in direct competition with each other for the same nutrients. In diverse forests, however,  the threat of animals, fungi, and bacteria are spread out, there is less competition for certain resources, and there is more productivity and overall abundance.

Unfortunately in many cases it seems that the human tendency is to be wary of diversity, fearing the unknown or perceived threat to their place in society, seeing the world as “us” v. “them,” stereotyping  the “others” and somehow forgetting that we are all people, who for the most part, are doing their best to live a good life.

However, if we learned from the strength in diversity model of the forest, we would see that a wide array of interests and beliefs create a beautiful tapestry of our humanity and that we are wiser – and healthier – for these connections. My life is so much richer because of my yoga and meditation practice, the life altering experience of seeing Buddhist monks create an amazing sand mandala – and then put it in a local river for a blessing, the mystical poetry of Rumi, which has brought me comfort and insight– music from around the world which inspires and transports me and not to mention all the culinary delights that I have experienced while breaking bread – or challah, pita and naan – with my beautifully diverse group of friends.

A third lesson in peace from nature is to rise above our egos and Let Go of the Story

In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle observes that, “After two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float on peacefully, as if nothing ever happened. If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive by thinking, by story-making. [The] duck’s lesson is this: Flap your wings – which translates as “let go of the story” – and return to the only place of power: the present now. Imagine what our relationships would look like if we learned from the ducks example and didn’t hold on to our anger or resentment – or ask the rest of the flock, “Did you see what she just did to me?” Conflicts would no longer come with all of the usual baggage of past hurts in tow. Rather, we could listen authentically, respond appropriately and then walk away gracefully.

The last example that we will look at tonight is the value of Cooperation over Competition in Nature.

I’m sure you are all familiar with the theory of “the survival of the fittest.” The idea that only the strongest of a species survive. However, it has also been pointed out that “fittest” may not necessarily mean the strongest – rather “fittest” may mean the most adaptable and that which is most likely to “fit” in with the environment.

In the Documentary, I AM, the creator of the film, Tom Shadyac shows that, contrary to conventional thinking, cooperation and not competition, may be nature’s most fundamental operating principle.   Footage shows consensus decision-making is the norm amongst many species, from insects and birds to deer and primates.  The film further discovers that people function better and remain healthier when expressing positive emotions, such as love, care, compassion, and gratitude, versus their negative counterparts; anxiety, frustration, anger and fear. Charles Darwin may be best known for popularizing the notion that nature is competitive, but, as Shadyac points out, Darwin used the word love 95 times in The Descent of Man, while his most famous phrase, “survival of the fittest,” appears only twice.

In 1981, Margulis, who proposed The Gaia Theory with Lovelock, published a book called Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, in which she stated that the simplest of bacteria formed symbiotic relationships—relationships that benefitted both organisms—which eventually led to the evolution of new life forms. Her theory is called endosymbiosis and is based on the fact that bacteria routinely take and transfer bits of genetic material from each other. According to Margulis, symbiosis, or the way different organisms adapt, to living together, to the benefit of each, was the major mechanism for change on Earth.

In his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life – published in 2009, Keltner, writes that evolution has given us remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smoothly functioning groups. Recent studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, is built into our brains, bodies, genes and social practices. One of the structures in our body that seems especially adapted to promote altruism is the vagus nerve, which is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music- or the sweet dog videos on you tube. Scientists are beginning to question if a branch of our nervous system evolved to support compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.

Darwin himself, who was misunderstood to believe exclusively in our competitiveness, actually noted that humankind’s real power comes in their ability to perform complex tasks together, to sympathize and cooperate.

In that spirit of togetherness, I would like us to close with A Prayer of Healing from the The United Nations Environmental Sabbath Service.

A Prayer of Healing from the The United Nations Environmental Sabbath Service

To bring new life to the land
To restore the waters
To refresh the air

We join with the earth and with each other.

To renew the forests
To care for the plants
To protect the creatures

We join with the earth and with each other.

To celebrate the seas
To rejoice the sunlight
To sing the song of the stars

We join with the earth and with each other.

To recall our destiny
To renew our spirits
To reinvigorate our bodies

We join with the earth and with each other.

To create the human community
To promote justice and peace
To remember our children

We join together as many and diverse expressions of one loving mystery: for the healing of the earth and the renewal of all life.

Together We Shine!  We are channels through which Spirit illumines the world.

I was honored to present this at the prelude to Unity’s World Day of Prayer at Atlanta Unity Church. I have posted here for those who asked for the script and for any other interested readers.  Because it was a talk, more so than a paper, there aren’t citations per se, but I was very much inspired by Coming Back to Life, by Joanna Macy, especially in regards to systems theory.

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2 Comments on “What Can Nature Teach Us About Peace?

  1. Beth,

    Thank you so much for making your comments at the Unity fellowship available online. They resonated with some of my own thinking about the natural world as a place to find, as you put it, both a grounding and a transcendence for our lives.

    Joel

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