Karen Armstrong (Wildmoor, United Kingdom, 1944) has an old and powerful tree in front of the window of her studio, in the London neighborhood of Islington. It does not belong to her garden, but to her neighbor’s, but the British essayist has been teaching herself for months to contemplate the unique life of that tree. Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences in 2017, this former nun is the author of 25 books in which she has immersed herself in religion and the different traditions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism). Armstrong proposes in her new book, Sacred nature. How can we reclaim our bond with the natural world? (Editorial Crítica), a complementary attitude to the urgent response that the threat of climate change needs: to return to emotional empathy with the planet that surrounds us. The light of the London sun at the end of summer filters through the window of the room in his house, in which we speak. There is hardly a noise. One of those streets in the British capital that seem trapped in time, as if we were in a small town and not in a big metropolis.
QUESTION.Science constantly threatens us with the coming catastrophe if we don’t do something about the climate. Isn’t this apocalyptic message counterproductive?
RESPONSE.We have been told that we are in danger. And it is clear that temperatures are rising to astronomical levels that we have never experienced. But we still do nothing about it. We don’t have an emotional motivation. There is only fear. The scientific information is very complete and evident. But I’m afraid we just park it in the back of our brains and that’s it, because the situation is terrible.
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P.Why is there a lack of a firmer individual awareness?
R.I am sure that the experts who attend the climate change summits have found the key, but I do not think that the average citizen is as motivated. He often feels that he is unable to understand the scientific reasons. Individually we continue without doing too much. We kept driving our cars, and as soon as the pandemic was over we got back on planes.
P.You suggest a more emotional response to support the scientific discourse.
R.I think that in the West we have considerably damaged our relationship with nature, the emotional bond that we had with it. Everything that happens now can cause us a lot of fear, but the truth is that, since the 16th century, we have completely separated ourselves from it.
P.You go to the Chinese or Indian traditions. Don’t you think that the capitalist desire has made these countries as polluting as the rest?
R.Yes, but many people in India or China still have that intimate bond. It is an intrinsic part of their culture, something that, on the contrary, does not exist in the West. In India, to begin with, nature was sacred. Monotheisms have, in general, a very different relation to it. In India or China, for the time being, God is not a deity in the sky. He is basically a force, somehow holy, that is everywhere. And they don’t call it God. The Chinese call it Qì (chee). the Hindus, Rita either Brahman. A mysterious physical or spiritual force that transcends our ordinary conception of things and is constantly stirring, creating and making everything fall into place.
P.And then they have an intrinsic respect for what surrounds them…
R.They were taught from the beginning to revere nature. Something they didn’t do to us [en la cultura occidental]. We were taught to conquer it, and that is what we have done. And now we are paying for it.
We were taught to conquer nature, and that is what we have done. Now we’re paying it
P.But it is not a deliberate purpose to protect nature…
R.They were not taught through a complete instruction manual, or through doctrinal explanation. It was done through rituals. The rituals in China or India taught them to respect nature from an emotional point of view. Like that sitting in silence that Taoism proposes.
P.His approach is humble. For now, he asks us Westerners to sit down too…
R.We don’t do much contemplation of that style lately. In the presence of nature, we don’t give up our headphones or our phones. Faced with nature, we dedicate ourselves to taking hundreds of photographs. Like in museums. The people who now go to the British Museum, faced with a spectacle as astonishing as the Parthenon marbles, dedicate themselves to photographing them with their mobile phones.
Buddha attained enlightenment by looking outward. Sending his affection to every corner of the world
P.Where do we start?
R.Start by sitting down and turning off your phone. It is not about something sophisticated, like yoga. You sit down and start listening to the sounds. You look at the little creatures around you. Pay attention to the sound of the wind. Look how the sunlight falls on the trees. Let your usual worries melt away for 10 minutes. It is a meditation in reverse, you do not immerse yourself in your interior, but, in the presence of nature, you let her inform you. The romantic poets, like Wordsworth, knew this. in his poem Tintern Abbey explains how he has managed to learn to look at nature in a different way. In one of her poems she even gets angry with a friend who simply has his nose stuck between the pages of a book all day. What would she say if she saw people with their mobile phones now!
P.It is not easy to give up two centuries of industrial and technological revolution and conquered comforts.
R.I know, it’s terrifying. But we are not taking it as seriously as we should. Of course it is a complex task. It is about nothing less than questioning the way we have lived and thought.
P.It suggests looking less inside and more outside…
R.We always think of the Buddha and the mystics as characters who look within themselves. However, the sacred texts tell us that the Buddha attained enlightenment by looking outward. Sending his thoughts and his affection to every corner of the world. And he did not stop doing it until he confirmed that equanimity had reached every creature around him. Chinese culture also uses this idea of spreading your light through circles. First to those closest, family and friends. Then to your whole neighborhood, even the ones you don’t like. To your city and, finally, to the rest of the world. Then it is neo-Confucianism that demands that this concentric idea be extended to nature.
P.Did we have something similar in the West?
R.We do not have this tradition in the Judeo-Christian culture. We see the presence of the divine in historical events, such as the exodus from Egypt or the life of Jesus Christ. Not so much in the wild. Islam is different.
P.Different in what?
R.When the Koran arises, the Arabs did not have the least love for nature. How could they have it! They lived in a horrible climate in Saudi Arabia. It was impossible to produce enough food for everyone, and the fights between them were constant. The Qur’an suggests that nature is also a revelation of the divine. We in the West may have only heard about jihad [guerra santa], but the Qur’an contains wonderful passages extolling nature. In the Muslim religion no attention is paid to miracles as in Christianity. They are a way of overcoming nature. The Qur’an pays attention to the regularity of things, such as the moon rising every night or the land producing food, even if it is scarce. Teach to be grateful.
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