A few nights ago, my partner heard me whimpering with discomfort at 3:30 in the night. I was crying. He tried to wake me up. I was worried that the deer may not have enough water at night in the fires and the smoke. I could see their soft innocent faces in my dream. I went out in the middle of the night to put out water. Most nights these days I find myself waking up in the dead of night with images of animals and birds in pain.
It all began some time back when I went camping alone at a remote site in a forest in California. I did not have an agenda of rock-climbing, hiking, surmounting a mountain peak or getting exercise. My intention was to attune to the rhythm and speed of the elemental realm and listen to the forest. To allow the spirit world to touch me deeply. I did not know that such a simple intention was about to disrupt my life- perhaps permanently!
It was profoundly 'wholing' to be able to immerse in the fecundity of the wild. I could feel the forest pregnant, primal and pulsing in the amplitude and intensity of its own erotic charge. Slowly expanding the ravines of my own sensual pleasure. As I walked into the ecotones of my subconscious, the veils between the human and spirit realms started getting thinner and thinner.
The soothing darkness of the thick mysterious night continues to nourish my heart. Memories of jumping in rivers and feeling the sunlight dry the droplets on my brown skin brings a trembling delight to my heart.
A potent but unpredictable process ensued in the forest which continues to unfold, palpably, for many weeks even after I returned to the city. Like an enormous transmission moving through my system, I experienced a magnitude of care and love in my heart that I had never experienced before. As if the trees, the birds, the soil and all of life became my lover - my consort - my family.
This love entered along with extraordinary grief. It too is revealing much that I had not seen before. It is clarifying. Melting layers of delusion. Sprouting new tendrils of insights in interbeingness - stretching out to mend.
The first night in the forest I experienced fear. Especially fear of wild creatures like bears and mountain lions. I pitched my tent, tucked myself into my sleeping bag and these waves of unease passed through my chest. I woke up twice in the middle of the night imagining a bear standing outside my tent. It wasn’t. Clearly, I was tripping. That’s what a forest does to you even without any intoxicants. It deeply reflects you back and pulls up dormant emotions from the dark hidden caves of the subconscious.
After about twenty-four hours, the fear subsides. After the first two nights, the fear is completely gone. Instead I began to feel care for the bears and mountain lions. My body unfolded. The breath started softening and spreading into regions of my pelvic floor. I could feel my muscles widening, and my nervous system resting ever more deeply.
The over-culture has injected these stories of fear of the forest. But in my time in the wild over many years, not once have I experienced a single incident where any animal went out of its way to harm me. There is a connection here. Between the multi-million dollar deforestation industry and the lucrative political war and weapons industry. If America wants to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan, it has to create a narrative of fear. Iraqis are dangerous, cruel or demonic beasts that need to be fought in the righteous battle of democracy. Dehumanizing the Iraqis gives Americans moral authority to torture them. Similarly, a forest is a dangerous place full of vicious beasts waiting to eat you.
I may be digressing.. allow me to reel back a little.
My intention was to attune and converse with the forest. But this forest was not really opening up to me. This was unlike my experience of being in forests in other parts of the world. I finally had the painful realization that it is not trusting me. It was heart-breaking.
Meanwhile, in my meditation, my mind was revealing story after story about racism. I was confused. After a few days, I drove out to the dirt road to find a bar of signal on my phone and called my partner.
I tell him, “I am trying to do my elemental practices. I want to be present to the trembling leaves and the enormous redwoods, take in the sounds of the river and smell the morning air. But instead I’m kind of a hot mess here! Instead of being present to the immediacy of the sensorial experience, my mind is flooded with stories. I have conversations about colonization with my activist friends in the city. But I am not here to write a paper on Racism. I just want to feel some quiet and calm so that I can be present to the forest instead of all this anger.”
He laughs, “You’ve never been the one to manufacture quiet and calm - not even as a meditation teacher. You have always seen emotions as important messengers. What is the anger and discomfort trying to tell you? This has to be a messy process. It has to. And you’ve done this so many times before.”
He was right. I have given many talks on how anger is a clarifying and potent force that needs to be honored. I needed my own medicine fed back to me.
And the one thing I do know after twenty years of meditation practice is how to sit in discomfort. This is the teaching of the ancient feminine Tantric Lineages - to be able to conjoin or unite the macrocosm with the microcosm. Inversely, so much of the modern consumerist meditation industrial complex is built on avoidance of messy emotions and conflict.
I came back to my site and tried to do some awareness practices. But it felt like the practices were keeping me a little rigid. They were creating a scaffolding so that I didn’t go into a complete freefall. I could see that the scaffolding was there to keep me safe - to keep me in the known - in the familiar.
A point came, when I had to decide. “Can I let go of all defenses and safeguards and find the courage to freefall? Do I have the capacity to descend in the underworld of the collective psyche?” It was an enormous risk. But gripping on to the comfortable and predictable felt even more painful.
When one leaps off the cliff in radical trust, one doesn’t know if the ground will ever appear.
I gave up all practices. Submitted all the structures and scaffoldings of “concepts” to the forest as a loving offering. And asked the forest to take me into the depths of its heart.
The next few days were full of intense body pains. The stories and emotions ran wild. The body was releasing toxins. I could not eat much. There were times I could barely even walk. I would have to lay down and simply find the energy to breathe.
Over time, a new feeling gently emerged. A secret happiness floating up like a soft tiny cloud. Something subliminally cracking open and the delicate ribbon that connects all life was beginning to reveal itself. Lying on the ground I felt its tender gravity on my body. I was becoming heavy with pleasure. A tear rolled down my face. I felt like I was being slowly swallowed by the forest.
Images of indigenous people of the land that we call California, living here hundreds of years ago, came alive. Them worshipping this forest. Holding rituals intended to offer respect and gratitude. Them treating the soil, the trees and the animals like their relatives. Referring to them as their brothers and sisters. I realized that in order to communicate with the forest, I first need to build a relationship with these wise ancestors who cared for this land. I needed to honor them and make offerings.
After a while, it seemed as if the forest began speaking to me - mostly in images. It was delivering a vision and there were times my body could barely hold the energy of this transmission.
The most important teaching was in the ‘gaze’ of humans towards the trees and animals. It was as if they were looking at their beloved. As if they were witnessing the sacred.
This was a relationship that was tended. This is why the forest and its spirits trusted the ancient humans. The forest spoke to them, offered visions and teachings, and took them inside its pulsating energies and secret mysteries. The forest played with them and delighted them. This was a movement of reciprocity.
In ancient times nothing was taken without permission. There was a process of relationship building, bowing and honoring.
As I saw these images, I realized that this was true about most Earth based indigenous cultures in every continent. This is how humans were once in ‘right relationship’ with the non-human world.
When the white colonizers came to the Americas they did not follow the native ways. Instead they destroyed most communities that were holding the inseparable weave of sacred relationality! Even in Asia, cultures that saw the ‘divine’ in trees and rocks - cultures that acknowledged and worshiped the forest spirits - were called names such as savages, pagans, uncivilized, primitive, uncultured, heathens by the white colonizers! This includes my own ancestors from India.
Earlier I could see the inseparability of racism with the ecological crisis in the form of how the climate crisis adversely impacts the poorest of poor communities around the world in brutally unequal ways, and how most climate refugees are people of color.
But now I could see that white supremacy and its scientific view divorced from sacred relationality with other life-forms is what has caused the environmental crisis. And I wonder how can white people who have not done sufficient work around anti-racism offer holistic ecological solutions to the world? What does it mean for white people to take on leadership roles in countries where they have destroyed native communities and their ancestral spiritual practices of listening to the Earth? How can white colonizers listen to the Earth when generations of their ancestors are steeped in behaviors of unconscionable extraction, anthropocentrism and consumerism? In order to truly listen to the energies of nature, isn’t it imperative for white people to unpack the trauma of intergenerational racism and do sincere work of healing it first?
In order to colonize others one has to colonize oneself first. In order to destroy cultures that view the Earth as sacred one has to destroy one’s own communities that have built and tended to deep familial and spiritual bonds with nature. First, you have to burn down your own Shamans and Witches.
In the work of ecological healing, it can be profoundly potent if white people would be willing to follow the ancient wisdom of the native people of the land that they have colonized. They need to seek out native people who still remember their ancestral Earth practices. It is likely that the solutions and pathways native people offer might sound unscientific, illogical, mumbo jumbo, meaningless superstition to a linear, rigid, anthropocentric, disembodied or heady person who has gulped down the kool-aid of white supremacy and consumerism all their life. But this is the necessary hurdle that one will need to overcome in order to wake up to a deeper and subtler reality. The invitation is to be humble and learn the art of courting the mystery.
The most glaring facet of white supremacy is ‘entitlement’. And its biggest gift to the world is capitalism that has literally broken the back of entire continents causing bloodshed and starvation, robbing many of their basic human dignity.
I also admit that I have met a small number of white people who are perhaps more free of the toxic white supremacist values than many people of color. And in some sense we need to distinguish the ‘behavior’ from the ‘race of a person.’ Unfortunately today, people of all colors across the globe are entranced by the spell of white supremist values of hyper-individualism, domination and control.
The Intertwined Ecology of Oppression
After going through days of heightened physical changes in the forest, I regained some strength. When I walked into the more popular old groves of the forest, they were peppered with tourists. For many people it seemed like the forest was another amusement park where they could extract another ‘experience’.
Entering a forest is like walking into a temple of worship or the abode of a lover. One cannot enter a forest with the mind of a colonizer who thinks they can walk into anyone’s home whenever they feel like - ransack, destroy or extract whatever they feel like. The modern mind lacks respect, relationality, humility or knowledge of rituals of permission taking.
Today some people engage in the elemental practice of Buddhist and Hindu Tantra with a desire to extract another ‘experience’. Or truckloads of tourists drive into the Amazon forest each month for shamanic Ayahuasca ceremonies. But I wonder if spiritual growth is possible without confronting racism, patriarchy and anthropocentrism?
With the advent of globalization and cultural homogeneity that which is considered ‘normative’ or ‘legitimate’ often gravitates and caters to white values or white-centerd needs. The painful truth is that human ‘entitlement’ plays out similarly. Human beings feel that all non-human life forms need to cater to human-centered needs. This is evident in not just white people but also in black and brown people who have lost connection to their roots and ancestral wisdom.
I found myself in the layered ecology of oppression - where the roots of one oppression extend into a greater oppression that is often not evident. The oppression of racism, casteism and patriarchy has deeper roots in humanocentrism. Part of my anguish had to do with how I too was conditioned by the values of domination and extraction - and how I too am completely complicit in this.
Today, most humans across all races display vulgar behaviors of entitlement towards nature. We humans seem to feel superior to other living beings not unlike white supremacists who seem to feel superior over other people of color. And somehow this obscene behavior is normalized.
It is violent to enslave other human-beings. My own ancestors were brutally enslaved. But fencing off a piece of land, possessing it as one’s property and creating a written document of ownership is not different from slavery. We need to deeply reflect - what is our relationship to land?
Enraptured in Ishq
I have a dear friend from India. She has an extraordinary medicine when it comes to romantic love for men. Her love is so full-bodied, rich, vital and erotic that it literally opens up portals of divine realms for many men who get into a relationship with her. It is like a transmission of Ishq which is an Urdu/Arabic word often used by the Sufis. There is literally no translation for it in English. Ishq is an intense version of love that includes the emotions of eros, fearlessness, untamable ecstatic beauty, delight-filled madness, worship, longing, surrender and sacrifice. For me, it is a sacred transmission just listening to her when she is enraptured in this ‘wild love’.
But the problem is that she is young and sometimes lacks discernment. In recent years she has wasted this love on men who completely lack calibre or depth to even understand what is being offered to them. Recently she was in a relationship with a man where unfortunately for him her love was an object to be consumed. He was so limited by analytical thought and logos that he could only calculate what he could get from the relationship and how he could optimize his experience.
She felt utterly commodified and violated! She was devastated and it took a long time for her to regain her faith in men. It was heartbreaking to witness her pain.
I realized that nature is perhaps feeling similarly about us humans. It offers us this incredible Ishq and we have objectified and commodified her. We violate her every opportunity we get.
Reckoning the Normative
I returned from the forest at once blissed out and deeply disrupted by grief. These days even driving a car over a highway feels like an extreme act of violence. I cannot believe how our species has come to ‘normalize’ such a behavior.
How did we decide to build highways at the cost of destroying delicate and intelligent life-forms, blasting open wise old grandfather mountains, entering forests and plundering them? For extracting the metal of the car that is mined - how did we feel entitled to rip open the belly of the Earth without praying or permission taking? How did we get here?
Humans are so arrogant and lost that they call these extractive practices - ‘technological advancements and scientific achievements.’ So much so that we are now preparing to mine the Moon and Mars. How did we get here?
You may think I am being overly sentimental. But I am questioning how have we come to ‘normalize’ such psychopathic behavior?
In only the last one week of writing this article two reports came out. Humans wiped out two-thirds of the world’s wildlife in the last 50 years. Another report shows how hundreds of thousands of birds are suddenly dropping dead in the Southwest U.S., and no one knows why.
The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment report, published by the UN says that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. It adds, “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.”
Nothing is inanimate. Every rock and every stream is alive, breathing and extraordinarily intelligent. Likely more intelligent than humans.
She is sometimes by mother, my sibling, my child, my lover, my deity. Some days the grief is overwhelming and it is hard to even get out of bed. In those moments I feel frozen from shame, guilt and despair. And some other times, I can be with it completely present - without the shame or despair.
I try to remember my practices of emotional resourcing and titrating. But I do not want to get 'rid' of this grief. I know what's in the way IS the way. I can see how this grief is moving me towards authenticity, aliveness and awakeness. Wishing it completely gone feels like going back to a more numb, contracted, disembodied and psychopathic version of living. The grief is tenderizing my heart, melting away layers of delusion. Membranes of the skin becoming more porous and the heart a tiny bit humble.
The tears need to flow. Somedays I feel that I am crying the unshed tears of hundreds of humans who are not yet ready to feel this.
Healing the Split
When I am violated by another person what is it that I really want as repair? What is it that I want from my sexual abuser? Do I want this person to be punished, beaten or dehumanized? Will that heal me? The answer is ‘no.’
Or when I feel into the intergenerational pain of colonization what is it that I want from white colonizers and their grandchildren who are enjoying the privileges of the loot? Do I want white people to be persecuted, tortured or humiliated? Do I want revenge? Will that heal me?
No. Not at all.
What I really want is for them to fully and deeply feel. To realize the impact of their actions, inactions and intergenerational privilege - the web of systemic harm it perpetuates across all aspects of life (social, economic, political, cultural, etc.). I want them to take the enormous risk of letting down all scaffoldings and sitting in the unknown. In the confusion. I want them to sacrifice their defenses. For transformation to happen it requires a necessary disruption. This is sacred alchemy.
I want them to experience the required intensity of grief for their harmful behavior. And from that place of being tenderized and humbled by grief, I want them to offer repair.
If they offer repair without going through any grief work, it will not help much. Infact, it is even possible that it might harm me.
Fortunately, I experienced on multiple occasions, when the person who had violated or hurt me felt genuine grief, something miraculous happened. I did not have to carry the trauma anymore because they are taking responsibility for carrying it now and doing the work of transforming the pain. As if a weight lifted off my chest and I could literally breathe deeper. Their grieving and genuine transformation created a magical and palpable form of healing within me. It was almost as if their grief transformed the pain into a medicine. And the very spirit of the relationship deepened.
Many people are willing to offer physical labor or intellectual labor. Even a level of (conceptual) spiritual labor. But what this work of ecological healing demands is emotional labor. This is indeed an enormous but necessary ask. Emotional labor is even harder than starting an institution or marching on the frontlines and getting arrested in a protest. Without the emotional labor, the outward actions might remain performative or exhibitionist.
Today, some environmentalists and activists are trying to fix the climate crisis without doing the emotional labor when it comes to their relationship with the Earth. Offering repair to the environment without putting in the emotional labor of doing the intense and important grief work is similar to a sexual offender in a Me-too situation, trying to immediately repair the pain of his victim without slowing down, without sitting with himself and deeply reflecting on the impact of his behavior. It is premature, arrogant and recapitulates a patriarchal and supremacist paradigm.
As my friend Lowell Harrison says, “I used to be an environmental activist trying to solve my own climate crisis - trying to keep my inner climate within a comfortable temperature by going to protests.”
Letting in grief feels like breaking open the dams built around the heart. It demands an abject vulnerability. A spiritual nudity. What will flood in will not only be guilt and sadness. But also an outpouring of strength, authenticity, beauty and love. We have done everything in our capacity to hold up the dam. Only when we allow the Earth’s pain to enter our bodies can we listen to Her needs. Take on her trauma so that she can breathe a little more easily.
We need to realize that we are standing on the shoulders of people who said that we have a crisis - anyone who has pointed out - shamans, indigenous folks and scientists - who have pointed out how enormous this crisis is. We are indebted to them.
But we cannot offer solutions for environmental healing without doing the grief work. Build your emotional capacity. Because it seems to me that there is no other way for humanity to come back into ‘right relationship’ with Nature without putting in the sincere emotional labor around grief. And I hope we find each other in this ceremony of grief - in hundreds and thousands - for there is nothing I wish for more than ‘togetherness’ in these intensified, polarized times.
From my experience of being around dozens of spiritual communities in the last twenty years, I can say that unfortunately, many spiritual communities are under-developed and anaemic in their capacity for emotional labor. Most of them lack a sophisticated understanding of working with messy emotions, largely modelling different flavors of spiritual & emotional bypassing.
This work is hard. Humility is the starting point and humility is the end point. Humility is the indicator that you are clearly willing to sacrifice yourself. Willing to melt in the fierce heat of truth.
That is the freefall!
Enter with caution
Grief is not easy. There are many examples of people who have literally gone mad, taken to addictions or ended up in mental institutions. Do not take this work lightly.
Often grief comes with shame, guilt and despair. One needs to learn to work with the shame, guilt and despair separately and skillfully, without bypassing it and without getting stuck in it.
It is also a slippery slope. For one can easily co-opt the grief of the Earth and center it around oneself - making it all about “my enormous grief.” Thus turning it into another form of performance, exhibitionism, vanity or conceit. Or worse, we can turn it into a digestible pill and create a business out of it.
In order to do this work, one needs to ask, “How do I touch into the required and sustained intensity of Grief without getting stuck in it?”
Because being stuck in grief is dangerous not just for oneself but for the world. We cannot show up for the world and offer repair if we are not strong and resourced. And we need to show up for the world because the world is burning right now! I How can we embody the paradox of slowness and urgency?
Also, remember grief has many flavors. Sadness. Remorse. Appreciation. Adoration. Gratitude. Love. Hope. Even authentic joy. The concept of non-duality is familiar to those who are grieving. Grieving is not a denial of life, abundance or eros. In fact it is a welcoming of it. It does not evangelize asceticism. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, a revolution without joy is not a revolution worth having.
Many ancient cultures equate grieving to singing praise! Grieving is a celebration of the enormous love we feel in our hearts for the Earth. Let the spring of holy tears crack open your heart.
For now, I go up to a hummingbird in wonder, and gently whisper, ‘I love you!’
I sing a lovesong to the mountain and feel the loud drum beat throb with ever increasing force and cadence like a spirit moving through my bones so that my ancestors can hear it.
Kneeling, bowing, with heartfelt tears, and a willingness to listen, I say to the forest, “I’m sorry.” And I will say it again and again. A hundred… a thousand … a million times if need be… till it comes from the very depths of my heart..
….till I really mean it,
“I am sorry.”