Karen Armstrong (Wildmoor, UK, 1944) has an old and powerful tree outside her studio window in the London Borough of Islington. It does not belong in her garden, but in the neighbor’s, but for months the British essayist has been learning to contemplate the unique life of this tree. Prize of the Princess of Asturias for Social Sciences in 2017, this former nun is the author of 25 books in which she immersed herself in religion and the different traditions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism). Armstrong suggests in his new book, Sacred nature. How can we reconnect with the natural world? (Editorial Critica), a complementary take on the urgent response the threat of climate change needs: a return to emotional empathy with the planet that surrounds us. The light of the late summer London sun filters through the window of the room in his house where we are talking. There is almost no noise. One of those streets in the British capital that seems to be trapped in time, as if we are in a small town rather than a big metropolis.
QUESTION.Science constantly threatens us with impending disaster if we don’t do something about the climate. Isn’t this apocalyptic message counterproductive?
ANSWER.They told us we were in danger. And it’s clear that temperatures are rising to astronomical levels we’ve never experienced. But we are still not doing anything about it. We have no emotional motivation. There is only fear. The scientific information is very complete and obvious. But I’m afraid we just park it in the back of our brains, and that’s because the situation is dire.
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P.Why is there a lack of a more solid individual consciousness?
R.I’m sure the experts who attend climate change summits have found the key, but I don’t think the average citizen is that motivated. Many times he feels that he is unable to understand the scientific reasons. Individually we carry on without doing much. We kept driving our cars and as soon as the pandemic was over, we got back on the planes.
P.You offer a more emotional response in support of scientific discourse.
R.I think that in the West we have significantly broken our connection with nature, the emotional connection we had with it. Everything that is happening 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 Chinese or Indian traditions. Don’t you think that capitalist desire has made these countries as polluting as the rest?
R.Yes, but many people in India or China still have that intimate relationship. It is an inherent part of their culture, something that, by contrast, does not exist in the West. In India, to begin with, nature was sacred. Monotheisms in general have very different attitudes towards it. In India or China, for now, God is not a deity in the sky. It is basically a force, somehow sacred, that is everywhere. And they don’t call him God. The Chinese call it What? (cheese). the hindus Rita or Brahman. A mysterious physical or spiritual force that transcends our ordinary understanding of things and is constantly stirring, creating and making everything fall into place.
P.And then they have an inner respect for what surrounds them…
R.From the beginning they were taught to respect nature. Something they didn’t do to us [en la cultura occidental]. We were taught to conquer it and we did. And now we’re paying for it.
We were taught to conquer nature and we did. We’re paying it now
P.But this is not a deliberate goal to protect nature…
R.They were not taught through a complete manual of instructions or through doctrinal explanation. It was done through rituals. Rituals in China or India teach them to respect nature from an emotional point of view. Like that sitting in silence that Taoism suggests.
P.His approach is humble. For now, he’s asking us Westerners to sit down too…
R.We haven’t been giving this style much thought lately. In the presence of nature, we do not give up our headphones or phones. Faced with nature, we dedicate ourselves to taking hundreds of photos. Like in museums. People who now go to the British Museum, faced with a sight as astonishing as the Parthenon marbles, devote themselves to photographing them with their mobile phones.
Buddha attained enlightenment by looking outside. Sending love to every corner of the world
P.Where do we start?
R.Start by sitting down and turning off your phone. It’s not about something complicated like yoga. You sit down and start listening to the sounds. You look at the little creatures around you. Note the wind noise. See how the sunlight falls on the trees. Let your usual cares melt away for 10 minutes. It is a reverse meditation, you do not immerse yourself in your inner self, but in the presence of nature you let it inform you. Romantic poets like Wordsworth knew this. in his poem Tintern Abbey explains how he managed to learn to look at nature in a different way. In one of his poems, he even gets angry at a friend who just stuck his nose between the pages of a book all day. What would you say if you saw people with cell phones now!
P.It is not easy to give up two centuries of industrial and technological revolution and won comforts.
R.I know, it’s terrifying. But we don’t take it as seriously as we should. Of course, this is a complex task. It is about nothing less than questioning the way we have lived and thought.
P.It suggests looking less inward and more outward…
R.We always think of the Buddha and the mystics as introspective heroes. However, the scriptures tell us that the Buddha attained enlightenment by looking outward. Sending his thoughts and love to every corner of the world. And he did not stop doing so until he confirmed that calm had reached every being around him. Chinese culture also uses this idea of spreading your light through circles. First to those closest to you, family and friends. Then to your entire 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 requires this concentric idea to be extended to nature.
P.Did we have anything similar in the West?
R.We do not have this tradition in 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 appeared, the Arabs had not the least love for nature. How could they have it! They lived in a terrible climate in Saudi Arabia. It was impossible to produce enough food for everyone and fighting between them was constant. The Qur’an suggests that nature is also a revelation of the divine. We in the West may have only heard of jihad [guerra santa], but the Qur’an contains wonderful passages praising nature. In the Muslim religion, no attention is paid to miracles, as in Christianity. They are a way to overcome nature. The Qur’an draws attention to the regularity of things, such as the moon rising every night or the earth producing food even if it is scarce. Learn to be grateful.
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