My friend and colleague @RyanEliason often describes an experience that took place when he was nineteen years old and encountered a clear cut in a forest that he had enjoyed as a youngster. At first the nineteen-year-old Ryan was just shocked, as he surveyed the land now scraped down to its clay soil. As he observed the damage and stopped to let the reality of the situation sink in, the enormity of the loss hit him. The sacred place he loved was gone forever. He began to sob.
For Ryan this was a moment of deep truth, of profound awakening—and the experience changed him forever. Even today, as he tells this story, his authenticity shines through and transforms those around him.
In my own life, especially as a sensitive, young person, I braced myself against such a moment for years. To me, these losses seemed so painful that I pushed the experience away, even as I felt a pervasive sadness over the state of the world and worked to “save it”. This was more of a depression that a deep awakening. Then, after attending Sophia Center in Oakland, California, I traveled to Genesis Farm Center for Earth Literacy in New Jersey where my own awakening awaited me and the story of Earth finally sank in fully.
The day it happened day started innocently enough. I was engaged in a course on genetics taught by Harvard-trained chemist, Larry Edwards and was loving the deep knowledge of the genome. As we studied the magical evolution of life, I came to understand the story of how this genetic instruction code was passed to every being along the way to our becoming human. Our class walked through 3.7 billion years of evolutionary R&D and I was captivated. I experienced deep awe and thought: “This is so amazing… so elegant… and so very sacred.”
Then it hit me: the human, evolved from a pre-cellular creature into the thinking complex conscious being with these instructions. The physical evolution that took place over 3.7 billion years is re-created in nine months in the womb: from single cell, to multi-cell, to growing a tail, to evolving the cortex, all of it. We remember the instructions step-by-step. The human being remembers, within this special set of instructions, what brought us from molten rock to this day. Alongside us, the living systems of which we are an integral part, evolved as we did. We were designed to be here together—living together in a system with all of creation. We are preprogrammed to expect beauty and awe as part of our experience.
When I fully understood our current moment, I was filled with an awareness of what our species was doing to the genome in our short time on this planet. From accelerating and causing extinction events, to nuclear releases and genetic experimentation… I suddenly felt the enormity of our arrogance and the weight of the loss. Like Ryan, I too, and just as suddenly, began to sob.
Some may see these tears as weak or even ridiculous. I see them differently. These tears are a spontaneous response to desecration. It is what happens when you allow the pain of the world, the loss of the sacred, to really sink in.
This grief, like all grief, can change you forever. And like all grief, we walk through the denial and sadness and anger to emerge with a commitment and purpose.
It is as if Earth and the Universe are filling our human awareness with these sudden moments of clarity. That is why when I am asked to defend what it means to be “green” or am stereotyped as a bleeding heart or a tree hugger, I sometimes find it difficult to respond in words. Is a response even possible? Certainly not without recalling the story of how it came to be. I see the world so differently than how I saw it before that profound moment. There is no question about that. The transformation happened in a process that I can only describe as grace.
In my case, devotion to preserving, protecting and restoring living systems is not something I chose to undertake or even dreamed up; rather it is something that happened to me. If you spend enough time quietly studying or being with the natural world, and contemplating its beauty, its amazing science, and its interconnection, I predict it will happen to you too.
Science is not at odds with the sacred—it serves a doorway—the more we learn, the more awe is possible.
Do you have your own story of profound awakening? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.