What Lies Beneath: Of Mushrooms, Mycelia and Interconnection

On these warm, humid days of late summer, I have been walking the woods looking for mushrooms. There are so many to be found, and of such a marvelous variety!

Mushrooms mean more to me since I began to understand them as the visible fruits of the vast underground network known as the mycelium.

From Animate Earth by Stephan Harding: “Mycelia can grow at prodigious speed and explore space with phenomenal density. They can extend several centimeters a day and can infuse a mere gram of soil with over a kilometer of their intensely networked pipe-like cells….Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on Earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon.”

FullSizeRender 3Especially fascinating to me is the symbiotic relationship that has developed between trees (and other plants) and the members of the fungi kingdom. The photo-synthesizers turn sunlight into sugar, which they share with the fungi in return for a functional extension of their roots further and wider than the plant could achieve on its own. The fungi exchange valuable minerals and water for the precious sunlight-sugar, and in a healthy environment all prosper and do well on our rich Mother Earth.

I walk the forest moodily these days, spying mushrooms and thinking about what lies beneath. It seems like an apt metaphor to be exploring in our social landscape as well.

What lies beneath the visible expressions of life that seize our attention day by day?

What lies beneath the constant eruptions of violence in the world, from Orlando to Charlottesville, from Aleppo to Barcelona, from Nice to Mosul?

What lies beneath the visible evidence of climate dysfunction—wildfires, floods—and the inexorable biological die-off known as the Sixth Great Extinction?

What lies beneath the naked greed and egotism polluting the American political system? Where is this ugly cancer of racism and hate coming from?

Humans now have the neurological equivalent of mycelia, the vast extension of our nervous system through the World Wide Web. Information is our sugar, and it seems we are quite dependent on it—even addicted, you might say.

The thing is that our Web has grown up in a spiritually impoverished time, in intellectual, technical soils that are superficial and incapable of providing us with the nourishment we need to turn the sugar of information into harmonious, beautiful, ethically strong philosophies and ways of living.

When soils are constantly bombarded with chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and anti-fungals, they produce plants that are weakly rooted and susceptible to diseases and infections.

So too, when we humans inhabit social landscapes that are constantly saturated with negativity, devoid of hope and inspiration, we are susceptible to being taken over by campaigns of hate and sloganeering. We fall prey to violence, whether self-destructive (the opioid crisis, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, physical illness) or against others (domestic violence, sexual violence, hate crimes, gangs, economic bludgeoning and the brainwashed othering that results in racial profiling).

Our World Wide Web could be, and sometimes is, a nourishing network. The places I go on the Internet are places of reflection, ethical courage, and humility. I strive to dig my roots deep into this rich soil and at times make my own thoughts visible, mushroom-style, as I do in Transition Times.

But we learned in the 2016 American election that the hateful, spiritually empty areas of the Web are growing quickly. It’s like a Roundup Ready crop, fast-growing and seemingly robust, yet devoid of true nourishment for the spirit.

What are those boys who brought hate to Charlottesville doing this week, in the aftermath of their eruption into plain view? What nastiness are they readying for the weeks and months ahead?

Harding: “When ready to reproduce, previously invisible mycelia gather their hyphae together to form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms and moulds that sprout into the air….They can emerge quickly because the underlying mycelium is immensely effective at supplying concentrated hydraulic power to a specific point in the network on very short notice. Fungal fruiting bodies release spores tiny enough to ride on swirling currents of air, and thus they find new places fit for colonization. Vast numbers of spores are released—some bracket fungi growing out of trees can release some 30 thousand million spores each day.”

These days, we who believe in equality and justice for all must work harder to make ourselves visible. We must be outspoken and forceful like never before. We must send the spores of our clear understanding of love and inclusivity far and wide, becoming beacons of hope and monuments to “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

The mycelium of our movement must dig down and go far and wide, creating a rich substratum of thought and practice that counters the shallow, hostile soils of hate that have been spreading on the Web.

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It will be important, in the days and years ahead, to consciously work on building our connections in the real world, as well as in our virtual landscapes.

We have to remember, and teach our children, how to enjoy creative collaboration in real life. It can be as simple as sitting in thoughtful conversation or working together to make a good meal.

We all have the potential to create beauty in our lives, and to share what we have created with others.

As we tend to our social landscapes, we must also remember to value the often unheeded planetary systems without which none of us could survive for an instant: the plants that make our air, the clean waters we all depend on, the rich microbial soils and the vast fungal networks that provide the silent steady pulse of harmonious interconnection.

A task for these August eclipse days: pay attention to what lies beneath the surface of your life. Dig your roots down deep, and work with your neighbors, real and virtual, to build a healthy, vibrant community—for all life on Earth. Stand up tall and send out those positive spores.

Envisioning a Cosmic Religion, Rooted in Mother Earth: Homage to Thich Nhat Hanh

It must have something to do with reaching midlife. The beat of elders moving on out of this lifetime has picked up for me, and it’s so hard to let them go, knowing that as each life ends, those of us remaining are called ever more strongly to step into their shoes and become the elders leading our society.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Few people alive today could step easily into the humble, powerful shoes of Thich Nhat Hanh. Like the Dalai Lama, he is a Buddhist monk who has been so generous and warm in inviting others into his orbit. Whether or not you practice Buddhism, whether or not you follow any religious tradition at all, there is so much wisdom and guidance in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, so much to learn and gain from listening to him.

I regret that I never had the chance to be physically in his presence, but as with so many of the other great leaders I admire, I know him through the writings he has shared and through his public persona and the good works he has accomplished.

At 88 years old, Thich Nhat Hanh is in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage from which he may still recover. He is still with us today but even after he is gone, I know his spirit will be showering us with the lovingkindness he knows we need to overcome the negativity that besets so many of us as individuals and as societies.

Today, in homage to Thay (as his students call him lovingly), I want to quote at some length from one of his last books, the beautiful Love Letter to the Earth. I urge you to buy a copy of this small bright gem of a book, and use it as a guide and inspiration—maybe you will be moved to write some love letters of your own to our dear battered planet.

“Dear Mother Earth,

“The human species is but one of your many children. Unfortunately, many of us have been blinded by greed, pride, and delusion, and only a few of us have been able to recognize you as our Mother. Not realizing this, we have done you great harm, compromising both your health and your beauty. Our deluded minds push us to exploit you and create more and more discord, putting you and all your forms of life under stress and strain. Looking deeply, we also recognize that you have enough patience, endurance and energy to embrace and transform all the damage we have caused, even if it takes you hundreds of millions of years.

“When greed and pride overtake our basic survival needs, the result is always violence and unnecessary devastation. We know that whenever one species develops too rapidly, exceeding its natural limit, there is great loss and damage, and the lives of other species are endangered. For equilibrium to be restored, causes and conditions naturally arise to bring about the destruction and annihilation of that species. Often these causes and conditions originate from within the destructive species itself. We have learned that when we perpetrate violence toward our own and other species, we are violent toward ourselves. When we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.

“We understand that all things are impermanent and without a separate self-nature. You and Father Sun, like everything else in the cosmos, are constantly changing, and you are only made of non-you elements. That is why we know that, in the ultimate dimension, you transcend birth and death, being and nonbeing. Nonetheless, we need to protect you and restore balance, so that you can continue for a long time in this beautiful and precious form, not just for our children and their children but for five hundred million years and beyond. We want to protect you so you can remain a glorious jewel within our solar system for eons to come.

Northern lights, photographed from space

Northern lights, photographed from space

We know that you want us to live in such a way that in each moment of our daily lives we can cherish life and generate the energies of mindfulness, peace, solidity, compassion and love. We vow to fulfill your wish and respond to your love. We have the deep conviction that generating these wholesome energies, we will help reduce the suffering on Earth and contribute to alleviating the suffering caused by violence, war, hunger and illness. In alleviating our suffering, we alleviate yours.

“Dear Mother, there have been times when we suffered greatly as a result of natural disasters. We know that whenever we suffer, you suffer through us. The floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis aren’t punishments or manifestations of your anger, but are phenomena that must occur on occasion, so that balance can be restored. The same is true of a shooting star. For balance in nature to be achieved, at times some species have to endure loss. In those moments, we have turned to you, dear Mother, and asked whether or not we could count on you, on your stability and compassion. You didn’t answer us right away. Then, beholding us with great compassion, you replied, “Yes, of course you can count on your Mother. I will always be here for you.” But then you said, “Dear children, you must ask yourselves, can your Mother Earth count on you?”

“Dear Mother, today we offer you our solemn reply, “Yes, Mother, you can count on us.””

Love Letter to the Earth concludes on a vision of a new kind of spirituality, a new kind of religion, founded on the Buddhist principle of interbeing—which, like deep ecology, understands that every form of life on earth, and indeed every element of our planetary biosphere is profoundly interconnected and interdependent, not in a hierarchy but in a rhizomatic web. Every strand in that web must be honored and tended, and this is the work that human beings, especially, are called upon to take up.

If Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision of a new religion for the 21st century could be realized, what a wonderful world it could be. Listen:

“We can build a deep spiritual practice based not on dogmas or beliefs in things we can’t verify, but entirely on evidence. To say that the Earth is a great being is not just an idea; each of us can see this for ourselves. Each of us can see that the Earth has the qualities of endurance, stability and inclusiveness. We can observe the Earth embracing everyone and everything without discrimination. When we say that the Earth has given birth to many great beings, including buddhas, bodhisattvas and saints, we are not exaggerating. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Moses and Mohammed are all children of the Earth. How can we describe the Earth as mere matter when she has given birth to so many great beings?

“When we say the Earth has created life, we know it’s only possible because she contains within herself the whole cosmos. Just as the Earth is not only the Earth, so too are we not only humans. We have the Earth and the whole cosmos within us. We are made of the sun. We are made of stars. Touching the true nature of reality, we can transcend the dualistic view that the cosmos is something greater than ourselves or different from ourselves. Getting deeply in touch with the phenomenal realm, the historical dimension, we can realize our true nature of no-birth and no-death. We can transcend all fear and touch eternity.

Orionid-shooting-star

“Every advance in our understanding of ourselves, our nature and our place in the cosmos deepens our reverence and love. To understand and to love are fundamental desires. Understanding has some kind of connection with love. Understanding can take us in the direction of love. When we understand and become aware of the great harmony, elegance and beauty of the cosmos, we may feel great admiration and love. This is the most basic kind of religious feeling: it is based on evidence and our own experience. Humanity needs a kind of spirituality that we can all practice together.

“Dogmatism and fanaticism have been the cause of great separation and war. Misunderstanding and irreverence have been the cause of enormous injustice and destruction. In the twenty-first century it should be possible for us to come together and offer ourselves the kind of religion that can help unite all peoples and all nations, and remove all separation and discrimination. If existing religions and philosophies, as well as science, can make an effort to go in this direction, it will be possible to establish a cosmic religion based not on myth, belief or dogma, but on evidence and the insights of interbeing. And that would be a giant leap for humankind.”

Amen, Thay. Go lightly.  We will carry on.

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth

Parallax Press, 2013

Finding Hope in Heartbreak

There has been a steady beat of heart-breaking news lately from various fronts.  Did you hear that the flame retardants required by law to be sprayed on American sofas are highly toxic chemicals that continue to break down in your living room? And those sofas, by the way, if they’re the nice wood-framed ones from Ikea, are being made from irreplaceable 600-year-old trees.  When you lie on your sofa to breast-feed your baby, you’re getting a whopping dose of PCB-type chemicals, and your infant is too, since toxic chemicals pass right into breast milk.

Or maybe you caught the long article in the New York Times the other day about American zoos becoming Arks for modern-day Noahs, who have to choose which species to try to preserve and which to let go into extinction.  This was one of the most candid acknowledgements I’ve seen in the mainstream media of the explosive pace of extinctions occurring around the world, partly due to the loss of those ancient trees to logging.

And meanwhile, in my corner of the world, there was more bad weather—record heat in May, followed by violent electric storms, complete with hail and the threat of twisters, which knocked out my power last night, including permanent damage to my DSL box, leaving me without internet access this morning.

The relentlessness of this kind of information, combined with the evidence I can see before my eyes of climate change and the contamination of our landscapes, is like a steady drag on my spirit, a weight around my neck.

Even when I’m enjoying myself with friends and family, as I did this past weekend, I have one mental foot in the future, imagining a time when such happy, peaceful and bountiful gatherings will exist only in memory.

I am always giving myself silent pep talks, hanging on to the hope that we will accomplish the switch to renewable energy sources; that we will stop the deforestation and the industrial agriculture; that we will become responsible stewards of our home planet, rather than the armed pirates and chemical warriors that we have come to be in the last hundred years or so.

Joanna Macy

Lately I have been finding some comfort in Joanna Macy’s 1991 volume World as Lover, World as Self, reissued in 2007 by Parallax Press.  When I think of how oblivious I was back in 1991 about global heating and toxic contamination, I am amazed at Macy’s prescience.

Rather than simply bemoaning, or even exhorting her readers to change their ways before it’s too late, Macy offers us a way to understand and process what is happening to our world, principally through coming to the recognition that the traditional human individualist view of the self is a misconception.

“The crisis that threatens our planet, whether seen in its military, ecological or social aspect, derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self,” she says.  “It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things.  It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings.”

In place of this, Macy draws on the work of systems theorists and ecological philosophers like Arne Naess, as well as the Buddhist notion of “inter-being,” to argue for a “greening of the self,” a way of self-understanding that recognizes our essential connectedness with all other life forms on our planet.

Arne Naess

Once we have understood that we are integrals parts in the living system of Earth, we should no longer have to appeal to human beings’ dubious moral sense to prompt a shift to a more sustainable way of living.  We can simply appeal to self-interest, Macy says.

“For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, “Don’t cut off your leg.  That would be an act of violence.” It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is a part of your body.  Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin.  They are our external lungs.  We are beginning to realize that the world is our body.”

One of the ideas I find most exciting about this part of Macy’s work is her application of the concept of “inter-being” to temporality.

“By expanding our self-interest to include other beings in the body of Earth, the ecological self also widens our window on time.  It enlarges our temporal context, freeing us from identifying our goals and rewards solely in terms of our present lifetime.  The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception.  Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first spinning and splitting of the stars.

“Thus the greening of the self helps us to re-inhabit time and own our story as life on Earth.  We were present in the primal flaring forth, and in the rains that streamed down on this still-molten planet, and in the primordial seas. In our mother’s womb we remembered that journey wearing vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. Beneath the outer layers of our neocortex and what we learned at school, that story is in us—the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined.  When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us survive.”

When I think of my place in time and space in these terms, I do feel that gladness.  It is true that we are living through the sixth great extinction on the planet now.  It is true that we are producing and spreading contaminants in the air, water and soils that will last, some of them, for billions of years.

But the Earth has time.  And who knows, perhaps what we think of today as toxic waste can in time become the building blocks of new forms of life.  Our planet has shown itself to be remarkably adaptive.

Macy is unusual in working across disciplines and discourses that are generally kept apart, speaking fluently and persuasively in the tongues of sociology, systems theory, psychology, neurology, geology, ecology, theology, and even spirituality.  We are going to need the wisdom from all of these avenues of inquiry to begin to understand what will be happening to us in the coming years, as individuals, as a species, and as a part of the living fabric of Earth.

Perhaps that is what most distinguishes us most as human beings.  We want to understand.

And perhaps there is still a chance that if we can understand in time, we can, as Macy says, survive.

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