In March this year (2011) the science journal Nature announced what many people already knew, that there are clear indications that the world’s Sixth Mass Extinction is already underway. The last mass extinction came some 65 million years ago when a comet or asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula, in modern-day Mexico, causing firestorms whose dust cooled the planet, and an estimated 76 percent of species were killed, including the dinosaurs. The four previous mass extinction of species were due to gradual global warming and cooling, and happened on a scale of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. What is particular about our present mass extinction is that it has happened so quickly over a few centuries, and most significantly, it is man made. “The modern global mass extinction is a largely unaddressed hazard of climate change and human activities.” 
We are slowly, and in some cases reluctantly, waking up to the global ecological disaster of toxic pollution, climate change and extinction of species. And the fact that these changes may be irreversible and possibly catastrophic is becoming known. Joanna Macy’s recent interview suggests that we may be coming to the end of the Cenozoic Era, the sixty-five million years since the last Mass Extinction:
Continuing on our “business-as-usual” trajectory will acidify the oceans and trigger runaway global heating, epic mass extinction and a completely new cycle of geological time. A few climate scientists consider we may have already entered into runaway climate change.
Humanity is now faced with this unprecedented, self-created global disaster, and as the recent climate change conference in Copenhagen illustrated, we seem unwilling to face the facts, putting short term economic gain above the reality of what is actually taking place and its long term consequences.
However there is another dimension to this global predicament which we should not ignore. Many spiritual teachings tell us that what happens in the outer world first takes place in the inner. We know this in our individual practice, as expressed in the simple mantra “all change happens from within.” Indigenous peoples have long understood how this happens on a macrocosmic level, and their shamans often worked to keep the inner worlds aligned so that the harmony of life could continue. For example the Kogis of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia work to maintain the balance of life, mediating between the material world and “Aluna,” the cosmic consciousness that is the source of life and intelligence.
If the outer, material world is a reflection of the inner world, how can we “face the facts” and take real responsibility for our outer situation if we do not know what is happening in the inner world, in our own soul and the soul of the world?
While an indigenous culture and its shamans would look first to the inner in order to understand the outer, this is not a part of our Western spiritual heritage. And while Eastern spiritual traditions have helped us to understand that personal transformation depends upon inner change, the larger, macrocosmic dimension of these teachings have been mostly overlooked. Yet any holistic, spiritual understanding of our present global predicament vitally needs this perspective.
Firstly it should be understood that just as it is our physical acts that affect the outer world and have produced our ecological crisis, it is our consciousness that directly affects the inner world. The inner worlds are shaped by the consciousness of humanity more than we understand, which is why so many spiritual teachings stress the importance of our attitude: the values by which we live. Our attitude of consciousness is a determining factor in the inner world.
It has been suggested that our present ecological disaster comes from an attitude of separation. Our Western culture focused on individual welfare at the cost of our interrelationship to the whole. We also separated the physical world from its roots in the sacred. This allowed humanity to abuse and pollute the world in a way that would be unthinkable for any indigenous culture that reveres the sacredness of creation.
For many years I have witnessed how our disregard and forgetfulness of the sacred, our focus solely on material well-being, has been very destructive to the inner world. Places of power and beauty have been be spoiled, their wisdom and magic covered over or lost. I have also seen the inner result of our neglect of the world soul, the anima mundi, which the ancients understood as the spiritual ordering principle in creation. A desolation and deep sadness is now present in the inner world, as what is so essential and precious has been abandoned.
In recent years the misuse of the imagination has been especially damaging. The imagination was long understood as a bridge between the worlds, connecting us to the soul, enabling access to the symbolic world that underlies the physical. It is this symbolic, archetypal world that often gives meaning and depth to our outer life. However, recently we have discovered the magical, or “secret” use of the imagination as a way to attract the outer life or material objects that we want. Projecting our desires and illusions into the inner world we have prostituted its sacred use for personal gain. Spiritual teachings and stories have long warned us against this , but our disregard for anything except the desires of the ego mean that we have desecrated the inner world so that it can no longer so easily give meaning to our life. Through our greed we have polluted not just our rivers but also the sacred waters of the inner world.
During the last year I have become aware of an even more disastrous change taking place. A light in the inner world that gave meaning and spiritual sustenance to our souls and to the whole world has been going out. And it is now extinguished. Something that for millennia was central to the inner life has gone, lost through our greed, and arrogance, our ego-centered power dynamics and forgetfulness of the sacred. We are not just entering an external era of extinction, but an inner dark age. And what is more dangerous is that we do not appear to know it is happening, even though this inner light is fundamental to the well-being of our individual soul and the soul of the world.
Every soul brings with it a light that carries the meaning and destiny of its life. This light is what gives direction to our life so that we can live the meaning of our soul, the deepest purpose of our incarnation. Most people experience this as the light of their conscience or moral compass that guides them through life. Those drawn to a spiritual path are able to work with this light. Through purification and spiritual practice we are able to increase our light so that we can more easily see the path we need to follow back to our real Self. The greater the light the easier it is to live the purpose and destiny of our soul. It is also this light that enables us to transform ourselves and uncover what is real within our heart and soul. However, selfishness, forgetfulness, and the many corrupting influences of life easily cover over this light, until without its illumination we are easily trapped in life’s many illusions, unable to change or evolve. And while the light within us enables us to inwardly change and grow, to evolve as a human being and a soul, in the darkness we can easily regress.
What is true for the life of an individual is also true for an era of humanity. Each era has a light that enables humanity to fulfill the purpose of that era. In recent times this light has given humanity the discoveries of science, an understanding of the material world that has improved our physical well-being even as it has entranced us. Sadly these discoveries have had a shadow side of greed and exploitation, and our focus on the physical world has resulted in a profound forgetfulness of the inner world and what is sacred. At the end of an era, the light that belongs to that era can transform into the light of the next era, or it can go out. We can see the seeds of the next era in a dawning global consciousness, in our remembrance of the interrelationship and oneness of all of life, even in certain technologies like the Internet. But the darkness of our collective greed, selfishness and forgetfulness of the sacred has had a stronger pull. Like a dense cloud this darkness has covered us. And now the light has gone out.
What does it mean that this light has gone out? This light carried the higher destiny and purpose of humanity and the world. It made possible transformation and evolution. Without this light there can be no real change, no shift in consciousness, no evolution, whatever our apparent intentions or aspirations. The light of the individual soul, our individual destiny, remains. But this individual light is no longer nourished or supported by the greater light of the era. Without the energy of this greater light the destiny of the individual soul, its possibility of evolution, is severely limited. And also our individual light is more susceptible to being diminished or influenced by the forces of darkness that are very present in the world at this time. This is our present condition, and our lack of awareness or understanding of the inner world makes it especially precarious. This present inner situation is as radical and extreme as the outer predicament of “Mass Extinction.”
We have come to the end of an era and are destroying our own ecosystem. We do not have the potential for any real change or transformation. We are left in an inner and outer wasteland, polluted by our own greed and forgetfulness, that can give no real meaning to our life, individually or collectively. And we have become so separated, so alienated from our own soul and the soul of the world, that we do not even seem to notice. Our materialistic culture is so caught in its surface illusions that it cannot see that the light has gone out.
How long can this last? How long can the ignorance of our true predicament remain? How long can we collectively sustain the distractions that protect us from seeing what is really happening? And how long will humanity and the whole world remain in this darkness? Some people say that 2012 is the year when the new era will begin. Others think that our destruction of the planet will continue for decades, until the oil runs out or the sea levels rise.
And so we wait in the darkness of a dying world. We sense in our souls what we can see in the ecosystem, that something is over, that the world will not return to what it was. And the collective, still caught in its dream of materialism, feels an anxiety, even anger, as it knows that this dream has passed its sell-by date, that its promises of prosperity are empty.
What can we do? Spiritual teachings talk about the importance of witnessing, of watching without judgment or expectations. This is not a time for action or achievement, but a time for real awareness. There is a need to wake up to the reality of what we have done.
1. H. Richard Lane, program director, NSF, Division of Earth Sciences.
2. For example, adab, or spiritual courtesy, is central to Sufism. Adab is an outer expression of an inner spiritual attitude.
3. Carl Jung describes this tragedy: “man himself has ceased to be the microcosm and his anima is no longer the consubstantial scintilla or spark of the Anima Mundi, the World Soul.” (Coll.Works, v11, 759.)
4. For example the Persian Story of Moshkel Gosha, in which the bush-digger uses the jewels of the inner world for personal gain with disastrous results.
5. In Sufism this is the mystery of “light upon light,” whereby the light of our aspiration attracts a higher, divine light that helps us on our journey.
6. This has been most evident when people are caught in a collective darkness, as for example Nazi Germany, or more recently Bosnia or Rwanda, and ordinary people regress into terrible cruelty.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (b.1953) is a Sufi teacher, and founder of the Golden Sufi Center. Author of many books, his recent writing and teaching has focused on spiritual responsibility in our present time of transition, cf.http://www.workingwithoneness.org/spiritual-ecology. He wrote the above article partly in response to the Ecobuddhism interview with Joanna Macy.