“Some day, when we have harnessed the power of the sun and the waves and gravity, we will learn how to harness the power of love. And then, for the second time, we will have discovered fire.” — Teilhard de Chardin
We’ve all heard of the notion of an ecological footprint—that measure of human impact on the carrying capacity of Earth developed by Mathis Wackernagel during his doctoral studies. It is often expressed in terms of how many planets, like ours, it would take to “offset” the damage that would be done to the one we’ve got if everyone were to live like we do with our patterns of consumption, waste disposal, pollution, energy use, and resource depletion (both non-renewable and renewable at rates beyond a sustainable regenerative capacity). All this can be calculated in terms of carbon emissions and other quantifiable indicators of sustainability as part of a systemic Life-Cycle Assessment framework. More often than not, we end up with an ecological footprint that suggests we would need three, five, seven or more “extra” Earths for everyone on this planet to live like we do—with the same style of life and standard of living we enjoy. Not particularly heartening.
You may have a sense that at this point in the 21st century, humanity won’t “solve” it’s way out of this “problem.” And you are precisely right. The levels of complexity reached by our current extent of global interconnectedness and interdependence are not amenable to rational resolution alone. To frame our collective challenges in terms of “problems to be solved” is to perpetuate the type of thinking that has created the conditions of critical instability that currently afflict all major life support systems on our planet. We can’t engineer our way to the additional planets needed to perpetuate the lifestyles we currently inhabit. We are not going to “fix” this problem. In fact, it’s not a problem at all; once we realize that, it becomes possible to curate the emergence of relationships that foster abundance. Relationships with ourselves, with each other, with our “more than human” world, and with future generations—of all beings.
What is needed is a post-rational engagement with the processes of life affirming, future creating, opportunity increasing emergence. Indeed, more than post-rational engagements, we need to dare engage in post-conceptual approaches; those that cultivate and celebrate holistic being, curated emergence, and transcendent consciousness. To do this, it will be important to foster our sense-ability—what often is dismissed as “mere” intuition, gut instinct or hunches.
If natural sciences author Janine Benyus is right and life truly creates conditions conducive to life, then it doesn’t matter how much we seek to engineer our way into the future because—more often than not—we will only derail the natural process of healthy emergence. This will be ever more the case as our technologies and powers of intervention increase. However, if we consider our bio-physical form as a highly sophisticated evolutionary path-finding system and accept the postulate of “self as instrument” for this process, we can foster our sense-abilities and tend to our spiritual footprint. In doing so we may be able to bring our formidable powers of reason, conceptualization, and intellectualization into service of the dynamics of life—rather than seeking to impose our will by doing just the opposite.
Tending to our spiritual footprint is not a conceptual innovation. There are many instances of this concept being applied for the betterment of our lives, though they tend to fall strongly into the pastoral work of Christian evangelism. A more secular—though no less sacred—appreciation of the term leads to a process that creates conditions conducive to life, just as is done in the living world at large. This is an invitation to let go, to flow, but not to be any less passionately engaged with life. Far from inviting resignation or apathy, a healthy spiritual footprint empowers, enlivens, and evokes positive potentials. And it does so not only for the individual or organization or community that tends to it, but for all those it touches.
Let’s take an example to illustrate how the spiritual footprint works. Say you are experiencing a challenge in your life, a disorienting dilemma—what some might see as a “problem” in need of “fixing”—but you re-cast it as an opportunity for curating emergence and inviting abundance. Now let’s make this problem more personal and particular. Suppose that your partner and life-mate is leaving you or has already left. How do you cultivate abundance in such a situation?
There are three strong traps that easily lead to a diminished spiritual footprint should you fall into them.
The first one involves spiritual numbing. This happens when you withdraw into yourself, focus on the very real sensations of hurt and injustice, and shut out the cruel world. It is not an act of self pity, simply one of self preservation—or so it seems. You toughen up and are less accessible and less vulnerable to others. The 2002 independent Australian film Beneath Clouds by Ivan Sen brilliantly illustrates the full force of this trap.
The second trap involves spiritual narrowing. It is similar to the core gesture involved in spiritual numbing, but rather than buffer and decrease the intensity of engagement with life, it seeks to narrow the range of engagement. Focusing inward, on your inner life to the exclusion of all the “noise and chaos” in the swirl around you, is often thought of as a path of “mindfulness.” But mindfulness does not ask you to decrease the bandwidth of your engagement with life. On the contrary, it asks you to broaden it. As Marti Spiegelman of the Andean Research Institute puts it, the principle at work here is the more you notice, the more you notice. Training yourself to open your senses will help you open your heart, and doing so will allow you to appreciate the play of emergent possibilities in what otherwise might seem like an overwhelm of chaos and crisis.
The third trap involves spiritual suppression. Here, what happens is you hold yourself back from taking the leap that your changed life circumstance asks of you; to raise your consciousness beyond the bounds of your current ego identity. How can you think like your family without sacrificing thinking about your own interests?
Political philosopher Carolyn Merchant postulates an ethical framework comprised of three levels of self-identity: the ego-centric, the homo-centric, and the eco-centric levels. These map over to the dimensionality of spirit in that a life challenge or disorienting dilemma can serve as a catalyst to move from one level to the next—but only if you tend to your spiritual footprint.
You can avoid these traps and consciously cultivate your spiritual footprint such that it runs true to the spirit of emergence that underlies this creative cosmos. If you do, you will find that you can create a positive feedback process of energetic resonance that lifts you above the mundane particulars of your temporary situation and celebrates the enduring patterns of manifest potential inherent in the fullness of your being. If you try to “figure it out” and plot your way through, you will inevitably impoverish your spiritual footprint and mire yourself in the traps of spiritual depletion. By trusting that you can sense your way to life-affirming, future-creating, and opportunity-increasing pathways that celebrate life, you leave a spiritual footprint that affirms not only your own power as the most highly-evolved instrument for conscious evolution known to our species, but you also inspire and empower others to claim their heritage as curators of emergence. What’s more, with a strong spiritual footprint on your path, your ability to find ways of leaving a positive ecological footprint becomes not only feasible, but joyful, as well.
Pictured sculpture by Victor Castro. Photograph by Alexander Laszlo.