Spirituality & Sustainability

by Valériane Bernard

Many people in the world still refrain from disposing of cooking oil in the sink with the excuse that the governments are not doing anything concrete! They also rant about the value of saving water to protect the environment, if councils and leaders do not care? This defeatist thinking overlooks the power of the individual and surrenders all power to external agencies. Is this what we want?


In contrast to that approach, looking at the environment from a spiritual angle is less common because, in spirituality, the power of the individual is understood to be the source of change. Yes, things do happen in the world under certain conditions, but then, what we are doing, how we are acting, our attitude and the consequences of our behaviour all have an impact personally and on the world. A spiritually-minded person will accept their part in that chain of events.

This spiritual perspective is also captured in the expression, "may you be the change that you want to see" or "when I change the world changes" which have been expressed by significant figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Dadi Janki, Head of Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual Organisation. To apply this accountability to our immediate surroundings restores hope and offers a constructive attitude towards the future as it recognises the worth of each individual. In this way, the value of a spiritual perspective is undeniable.

Changes will not happen in isolation; we must encourage change in a practical and real way. This requires deep thinking about our reality and understanding the scope and impact of the change we wish to undertake, be it on a personal, family, community or global level.

The attitude which stems from the thought "if they are doing nothing, we will do nothing", will only produce harmful passive and aggressive behaviours. The devastation of hope that follows, depletes self-esteem and makes us feel powerless.

On the other hand, when people recognise their personal power, and their capacity to generate ideas and initiatives, benefits will flow straight through to them and others.

So the question is not whether we should or should not tip cooking oil down the plug hole, but whether we can address an important life choice from our ethical core, from values such as love for life, for truth, nature and our neighbours. These values will produce a respectful attitude towards the environment that is embued with the attitude of caring.

The connection between spiritual life and ecology

There is a deep connection between human life and ecology. Nature provides our food, the air we breathe; the body through which we express ourselves... Nature and life are interconnected on every level: without healthy nature, there is no way to sustain human life.

By living in cities built of iron and concrete, and maintained by technologies, people can be forgiven for feeling divorced from mother nature. As a result of this urban lifestyle, we have gradually buried any sense of interconnectedness with matter. Many times we perceive nature as a commodity to be traded and consumed, rather than sensing her maternal importance as a sustainer of life, in the way that countless indigenous cultures still do today.

The attitude of nonviolence and respect for matter

Working with indigenous communities in Central America, the author learned that when these families had to make an important decision, they always considered the effect of the decision across five upcoming generations. Such a wise approach considers the importance and value given to sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of the present time and is to be commended for its respect for natural resources. Do you agree?

We assert that any society that only thinks of itself in the present moment without considering future generations is a sick society. If people are injured or feed themselves inappropriately by, for example, being bulimic or anorexic, it is understood that this person is out of balance or ill. Similarly, societal attitudes such as 'consumerism at all cost' reflect that our connection with matter is not healthy.

When our grandmother became sick we never thought, "she is very old and she has to die, why take care of her". We loved my grandmother and wanted to be with her in those moments and care for her more than ever!

Individuals have high potential, even when ill. This positive outlook can heal many situations that would otherwise consume precious energy.

Developing nonviolent, caring ways to use matter

In order to develop a non-violent relationship with matter, a deeper understanding of the self is necessary, since there are so many actions that we do automatically. For example, we may have the habit of consuming without thinking of the consequences. As mindless as that sounds, that is how humans live! Each thing we purchase is a tiny part of nature, some form of matter that is being taken from the earth and sold for someone's economic gain. And is it that we, the consumer, just want to experience something new from that tiny bit! Is this not a form of greed? Just wanting a product to satisfy our desire for newness. Is this behaviour necessary or justifiable?

The act of purchasing has an impact that extends far beyond the immediate satisfaction of desire. An action is never neutral. Take for example the latest version of a wide screen TV. We may already have a television for our entertainment. To upgrade the product may simply reflect our purchasing power and desire to impress others; there is often little more benefit than that but the cost to nature is huge. Many times we are robbing nature to produce an object, which may be trashed within a year! Isn't this planned obsolescence plundering our life sustaining resources?

A third example may concern the decision to drive. When we consider the pollution released by the average vehicle, a moment's reflection can change our ways and make us walk to work or use the bus. This decision means that there will be one car less in the world. If circumstances dictate that someone uses a car, that is well and good, but many people could economise on car usage and save energy for essential purposes. Sharing resources is also another way ahead, so that more than one person benefits through use of that energy. Each step is our personal decision: we sometimes walk, other times we use a bike, and most of the time the train or tram. We can also share the car with a friend.

True nonviolence

In order to develop a truly nonviolent connection with nature, we must first learn to develop a respectful and nonviolent relationship with ourselves. This transformation takes important internal spiritual work. When this work is combined with greater awareness and understanding of the subtle changes we want to bring about in ourselves, we will start appreciating our true spiritual personality, and live in accordance with this knowledge.

Perhaps one of the unique subtleties of human beings is our thinking capacity. We create thoughts and either benefit from them or become victims (of emotions, feelings and thinking). When we criticise, speak aggressively, express dissatisfaction or diminish enthusiasm, we are subscribing to an inner atmosphere that will make it more difficult to sustain peace and happiness. In this way, we could say that these thoughts are violent because they attack wellness and happiness. This description of violence may seem inoffensive, particularly as these states of mind are so common. But definitely they will inhibit our capacity to be positive, cheerful and relaxed. In fact, these thoughts will cultivate a negative attitude towards everyday events and even towards the self, matter and people. The mind will only view situations through this misty veil of violence – and still we may wonder why energy is running out or why people feel listless.

At this point, we must arrest our negative tendencies and become aware of the need for high quality thinking. There is great significance in the form of each thought. Every thought counts.

Thought energy has an impact in our psychological well-being and our bodily health. Our bodies, the vehicles for self expression, are affected by our minds. Psychologists have recognised that 90 per cent of all our illnesses are psychosomatic. That means the way we feel and experience our feelings is influencing our skin, bones, organs, blood, etc. Our bodies bear the brunt of our personal and collective thoughts.

International collaboration

Many people in civil society wish to solve environmental issues but they feel disgruntled about the lack of outcomes and real solutions that emerge from these international gatherings. People wonder what lasting changes have emerged as a consequence of these global debates and alliances. Other speakers contend, in defence of these dialogues, that if these conferences had not happened, the environment would be in worse condition, as these Summits have, at least, pushed the administration of each participating country to act for a cleaner, healthier environment. In addition, the conferences enable civil societies to connect and get to know each other, and open new spaces for development, interconnectedness and action. This interaction forms one positive social element of globalisation.

Together with these viewpoints comes the understanding that all administrations, governments and institutions refer to collectives of individuals. The people make the system. Many communities do promote change within an ethical code of conduct and collaborate with economic and environmental specialists who are working hard to establish creative and balanced solutions.

Love means respect

How can we say we love something we do not respect? Often personal actions betray people's wishes for a healthy environment. How often do we recall and underline that we are a human family? Could it be that just a few citizens remain aware of this and act in ways that recognise this common ground. Do you?

We may well ask how is it possible for a society to let its children and women starve? Why have human beings polluted the planet to levels that, according to the World Health Organisation, one out of four citizens in poorer countries and one out of five people in richer countries die because of contamination of natural resources?

Although there are still many destructive and soul-destroying situations in the world, we can take heart that there is a large number of loyal, generous persons who have genuine interest in the well-being of neighbours...

When we become aware of the need for quality thinking, we need a qualified coach. The Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (www.bkwsu.org) offers a spiritual education to build our capacity to create a peaceful, nonviolent and fair world. Martin Luther King rightly said, "A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, this way of settling differences is not just". And this step has to go deep...

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