IIn Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy, the hero describes how his good-natured uncle Toby is plagued by a particularly large and troublesome fly, which “swarmed around his nose and tormented him cruelly throughout dinner”. Eventually he manages to catch the pesky insect, but instead of killing it, he releases it out the window.
“Why would I hurt you?” he says. “This world is certainly big enough to accommodate you and me.” The novel’s hero is still a child at the time, but this “lesson of common goodwill” leaves a lasting impression on him, leaving, as he put it, ” my whole body in a vibration of supremely pleasant sensation”.
Karen Armstrong cites this act of kindness at the end of a chapter examining the critical role played by the ancient concept of ahimsa in Indian spiritual traditions. It means “harmlessness” and forbids any kind of harm to others and was one of the basic principles that aspirants in yoga had to observe.
Ahimsa, however, was taken most seriously by the Jains, whose religious tradition began in the fifth century BC. by Vardhamana Jnatiputra. He taught that not only humans had one jiva (soul), but also every animal, plant and stone as well as water, fire and air. It follows that all these things should be treated with the same courtesy and respect that we would wish. This radical empathy meant that Jainas avoided killing insects or plants, and twice a day they asked forgiveness for any creatures they might have accidentally injured or destroyed: “May all creatures forgive me. May I have friendship with all creatures and enmity with none.”
For Armstrong, the concept of ahimsa is one of many examples of how ancient spiritual traditions can teach us how to regain a sense of the sacredness of nature. This is important because, as she argues, the future of our species may now depend on cultivating a Jain-like awareness of the terrible harm and harm we are inflicting on planet Earth’s other denizens.
Armstrong was once a nun living in a convent completely cut off from the outside world, with no news or television. She and her colleagues were exceptionally briefed on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, “but our superiors forgot to tell us when it was over, so we spent three weeks anxiously awaiting Armageddon.” It was around this time that she also discovered the works of the Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats – writers who were also mourning “mankind’s broken relationship with nature”.
Today, Armstrong says, the “scary reality” of the climate crisis shows that “we need to change not just our lifestyle, but our entire belief system.” We must learn how to treat nature with reverence from the Romantics and from the spiritual traditions of the Axial Age (900-200 BC) that produced Confucianism and Taoism in China and Hinduism and Buddhism in India: “We never quite surpassed the deep insights of that time.”
Armstrong has written a rich and subtle exploration of nature’s sacredness, filled with a timeless wisdom and deep humanity born of a lifelong study of religious thought. Each chapter examines ideas and practices that were fundamental to the way humans experienced nature in the past and how they can help us create a new connection with the world around us. According to Armstrong, “recycling and political protests are not enough”. In addition to these things, we need a completely new world view.
Much has been written about the scientific and technological aspects of climate change, explaining the impact it is having on our world and the actions we must take to avert catastrophe. But Armstrong’s book is both more personal and deeper. His urgent message is that hearts and minds must change if we are to learn again to honor and stop polluting our beautiful and fragile planet. For this to happen, we must reconnect with the myths and even the rituals of ancient spiritual traditions, which have the power to awaken our original emotional ties to nature and reveal our “total dependence” on her.
A key part of this process is regaining what Armstrong calls a “silent receptivity” to the natural world. The romantic poets understood this instinctively. But today, when we’re all connected to our smartphones, “the sounds of nature have receded”. For Taoists like Laozi in the fourth century B.C. From the 1st century BC, contemplating nature—“sitting still”—was the way to free oneself from one’s ego and attune to the sacred enlivening power flowing through all of creation. People in many parts of the world have developed a similar concept of this “sacred reality”, very different from the “analytical worldview” that has emerged in the West, which separates the material from the spiritual and emphasizes nature as “a commodity that must be”. exploited”.
This Taoist notion of “sitting quietly” is similar to Wordsworth’s notion of “a wise passivity.” To practice it, as Wordsworth wrote in Tintern Abbey, is to cultivate a “blessed mood” when “with an eye stilled by the power / of harmony and the deep power of joy / we look into the life of things . ” For Armstrong, this is the key to a closer relationship with creation and ultimately to preventing the impending climate catastrophe. Spending a few minutes each day quietly absorbing the sights and sounds of nature can remind us that we are a part of and dependent on the world around us, just as a child depends on its mother.