Connecting with Ecological Intelligence

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The other day while getting my children ready for school I searched the laundry basket for a clean pair of underwear for my son. After extensive digging around I was only able to find one pair. It was too small for him, but I knew there were others in the basket. In that moment a thought flashed through my mind: sort by type. Some part of my mind thought I could sort laundry in the same way I search for a document on my computer, but the physical world just doesn’t work that way.

Whether we realize it or not who we are and the ways we act in the world are influenced by the many connections and relationships we share with the world around us. This includes all parts of the various ecosystems we inhabit: social, political, economic, epistemological, and even the technological ecosystems within which so many of us spend so much of our time these days interacting with the digital entities that populate them.

Quoting a 1999 study by David Orr, the authors of the Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation report that while a typical citizen of the United States is unable to name even ten of the plants and animals that live in their bioregion they can easily identify at least a thousand corporate logos.

If we spend most of our time interfacing the world from within human-built techno-industrial ecosystems, who are we, and who are we becoming? What is it that informs the ways that we act towards the world? (I use the phrase towards the world purposefully as it demonstrates the way that most people in our culture conceive of ourselves: as separate from the world.)

What are the ramifications of these actions? I believe we have enough data—climate disruption, the Earth’s sixth mass extinction, and the poisoning of the land, water, and air to name a few—to conclude that the modern project of a self that exists separate from the rest of the world has led us astray. As a culture we have lost touch with the aspects of the world that support our true flourishing as well as that of our planetary kin.

It is clear to me that Earth, through the ongoing processes of climate disruption and other ecological disasters, is presenting techno-industrial humanity with a lesson: ecologically nothing exists apart from the community of life. There is no away to which we can run. Everything is connected and respectful relations must be maintained to ensure the healthy functioning of each individual component and the healthy functioning of the system as a whole. In other words our well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of every other member of the Earth community. We must pass through these trials and we can no longer afford to ignore the consequences of our actions. In fact we cannot fully know who we are as a species or as individuals without consciously participating in these tests.

The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. Ecological intelligence surrounds us and pervades all aspects of our living Earth. It guides all of the interrelations that make life possible. It moves through and animates plants and animals. It guides the rise and fall of forests and mountain ranges and the breakdown of plant material to form rich soil.

We don’t necessarily need to go to wild places to interact with ecological intelligence. It is everywhere, but we need to relax the grip of our mental-rational minds in order to access these innate perceptive capacities.

Take a moment now to clench your fist. How does that feel? Do blood and energy flow freely through your hand? This is you under the influence of your brain and extreme mental consciousness. It is hard to receive much when we engage with the world in this way, but if you now relax your hand, how does it feel? This is you accessing a different form of consciousness that includes input received through your whole being, not just through the mind and brain. This orientation increases our capacity to receive and align with ecological intelligence.

My first thought after thinking that I could sort my laundry by type was that I need to spend more time in the forest. While this is true, I could very well in that moment have re-oriented myself—connecting with the Earth and relaxing my mental constriction—to make myself more available to the ecological intelligence that permeates the universe and moves through me at all times. I will invite you to try this now:

  • Close your eyes and for about ten seconds clench your whole body while focusing all of your awareness on your mind.

  • Keeping your eyes closed allow your body to relax, and take several deep breaths.

  • Imagine that your awareness now inhabits every part of your body, from the tips of your toes to the top of your head and everything in between.

  • Feel the energy that flows into and through you across the whole surface of your being. Imagine this ecological intelligence informing who you are as a human.

  • Tune now into your greater ecological self by imagining yourself as an integral component of the land you now inhabit.

  • Feel your connections with the other inhabitants of this ecosystem, as a node in the midst of a vast flow of intertwining information and intelligence. 

  • Now pay attention without attachment for about ten minutes to the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that arise, and imagine that these feelings, thoughts, and sensations are not yours alone but are expressions of the greater whole of life.

How do you feel when you engage in this way? How does it change how you feel about yourself as a person? See if you can take just 10 minutes each day to practice this form of intimate ecological engagement. Does it change the ways that you behave or interact with others, human and nonhuman alike? What if we were able for extended periods of time to experience ourselves simultaneously as individuals and as thinking-feeling expressions of the entire stream of ecological intelligence? Imagine a world where we interact with and as the world rather than towards it.

How was this exercise for you? What feelings, thoughts, or sensations came in response to the questions posed above? I’d love to hear back from you as we start this journey together towards re-humanization. Please send me accounts of your experiences and any clarifying questions you might have. I will address as many of your questions as I can in subsequent editions.

In forthcoming editions I’ll also discuss what I mean by re-humanization, why we in the West chose and continue choosing to hinder the flow of ecological intelligence through our beings, and the role that plants have to play in making ecological intelligence more easily accessible. Thanks for your attention!