In Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy, the hero describes how his good-natured uncle Toby is plagued by a particularly large and annoying fly which “buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner time”. Eventually he manages to catch the offending insect, but instead of killing it, he releases it out of the window.
“Why should I hurt them?” he says. “This world surely is wide enough to hold both them and me.” The novel’s hero is a child at the time, but this “lesson of universal good-will” leaves an abiding impression on him, setting, as he put it “my whole frame into one vibration of the most pleasurable sensation”.
Karen Armstrong cites this act of kindness at the end of a chapter exploring the crucial role played by the ancient concept of ahimsa in Indian spiritual traditions. Meaning “harmlessness”, it prohibits any kind of injury to others and was one of the core principles that aspirants in yoga had to observe.
But ahimsa was taken most seriously by the Jains, whose religious tradition was founded by Vardhamana Jnatiputra in the fifth century BC. He taught that it was not only humans who had a jiva (soul), but also every animal, plant and rock, as well as water, fire and air. It followed that all these things should be treated with the same courtesy and respect that we would wish to receive. This radical empathy meant that Jains avoided killing any insect or plant, and twice a day they asked for forgiveness for any creature they might have inadvertently injured or destroyed: “May all creatures pardon me. May I have friendship with all creatures and enmity toward none.”
For Armstrong, the concept of ahimsa is one of many examples of how ancient spiritual traditions can teach us how to regain a sense of the sacredness of nature. This matters because, as she argues, the future of our species may now depend on cultivating a Jain-like awareness of the terrible damage and harm we are inflicting on the other inhabitants of planet Earth.
Armstrong was once a nun living in a convent entirely cut off from the outside world, without news or television. She and her peers were informed exceptionally of the Cuban crisis crisis in 1962, “but our superiors forgot to tell us when it was over, so we spent three weeks waiting anxiously for Armageddon”. It was around that time that she also discovered the works of the Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats – writers who also mourned humanity’s “broken relationship with nature”.
Today, Armstrong says, the “fearful reality” of the climate crisis shows that “we have to change not only our lifestyle but our whole belief system”. We need to learn from the Romantics and from the spiritual traditions of the Axial Age (900-200BC), which gave birth to Confucianism and Taoism in China as well as Hinduism and Buddhism in India, how to treat nature with reverence: “We have never wholly surpassed the profound insights of this time.”
Armstrong has written a rich and subtle exploration of the sacredness of nature, filled with a timeless wisdom and deep humanity that comes from a lifetime spent studying religious thought. Each chapter explores ideas and practices that were fundamental to the way people experienced nature in the past, and shows how they can help us forge a new bond with the world around us. According to Armstrong “recycling and political protests, are not enough”. As well as these things, we need a completely new worldview.
Much has been written on the scientific and technological aspects of climate change, explaining the impacts on our world and the measures we need to take to avert catastrophe. But Armstrong’s book is both more personal and more profound. Its urgent message is that hearts and minds need to change if we are to once more learn to revere our beautiful and fragile planet, and to stop polluting it. For this to happen we need to reconnect with the myths and even the rituals of ancient spiritual traditions that have the power to awaken our primal emotional bonds to nature and reveal our “utter dependence” on it.
A vital part of this process is to regain what Armstrong calls a “silent receptiveness” to the natural world. The Romantic poets understood this instinctively. But today, when we are all plugged into our smartphones, “the sounds of nature have retreated”. For Taoists, such as Laozi in the fourth century BC, the intense contemplation of nature – “quiet sitting” – was the way to free yourself from your ego and to tune into the sacred animating force flowing through all of creation. People in many parts of the world developed a concept similar to this “sacred reality”, one very different from the “analytical worldview” that emerged in the west, which separates the material from the spiritual and emphasises nature as “a commodity that must be exploited”.
This Taoist notion of “quiet sitting” resembles Wordsworth’s idea of ”a wise passiveness”. To practice it, as Wordsworth wrote in Tintern Abbey, is to cultivate a “blessed mood”, when “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things. ” For Armstrong this is the key to unlocking a closer relationship with creation and ultimately preventing the impending climate catastrophe. Spending a few minutes each day quietly absorbing the sights and sounds of nature can help remind us that we are part of the world around us and depend on it, as a child depends on its mother.