Permaculture + Spirituality?

posted by The Paititi Team on January 23rd, 2012

There is quite an active debate in the Permaculture community currently regarding whether or not metaphysics should or should not be incorporated into Permaculture Design Courses and we feel that this is a very important conversation to share with our community.

As many of you know we have created a course we call “Shamanic Permaculture” which weaves together the practical tools of nature awareness and consciousness expansion utilized by the ancient indigenous traditions of the Amazon into the traditional Permaculture Design Course.  This course was created out of our personal experience in seeing how these traditions greatly complement and reinforce the process of learning Permaculture which we expand on below.

In the article which really sparked this debate posted on the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) blog, by Craig Mackintosh titled “Permaculture & Metaphysics” Craig states in response to our courses and others which incorporate various spiritual material that, “I personally often feel frustrated that too many permaculturists are mixing subjective spiritual/metaphysical/religious elements into their courses, and are thereby helping to ensure permaculture is relegated to the periphery rather than — as desperately needs to happen — being taken up broad scale by all people everywhere, regardless of their culture and preferred belief system.”

We definitely understand the intentions expressed in this post and agree with them fully… “We need to break down barriers, and not erect them. I think we should respect people of any religion and/or belief set…”

After observing this conversation in the last month it has become very clear that there are some core misunderstandings both regarding what is spirituality and what is shamanism and we wish here to share some additional perspectives regarding their role in both Permaculture and the future of humanity. Although spirituality should not be included in every Permaculture Design Courses (PDC), there is a definite place for it in some, in my humble opinion.

To start, there is a lot of misunderstanding about spirituality in our western culture. In our modern society we often interpret spirituality as fairies and magical forces but this is not spirituality, this is mysticism. Spirituality is not based on blind fate and external forces but on experience and practice. True spirituality deals with practical aspects of our life, our behavior and ways of transforming humanity beyond external circumstances. True spirituality seeks patterns that can unite belief systems together objectively from all backgrounds and can relate to people who have religious believes as well as to the “average Joe” who does not have anything to do with spirituality. It contains tools, methods and skillful means that actually allow us to become more present and objective with ourselves so that we can apply them to external circumstances.

A true spiritual practitioner learns how to work with their disturbing emotions, judgments, have integrity and take full responsibility for one’s actions, as well as dissolve stale concepts and ideas. All this work is done so that we can really create communities that can move beyond the consumerism, self-centeredness and selfishness that is the sickness of humanity, and instead ground in a view of life where we truly consider others.

If we can’t work with ourselves in this way we are no better than the modern destructive, egotistical mindset that really got us in the global mess we find ourselves in now. If we really wish to create change we must start with ourselves and scrutinize our every thought and action. The most influential people in history show us this.

Most, if not all cultures on the earth are rooted in Shamanism and earth based religions. All the ancestral knowledge that is used in Permaculture today comes from traditions such as these. Following the principals of Permaculture we can find common principles used in these traditions together with Christianity and Buddhism as well as all other religions on earth. There is the same essential humanity uniting all these cultures and religions since we are all human beings independent from race, religion, sex or a way of life. Therefore we all share the same universal qualities such as love, compassion, sincerity and the willingness to seek the truth.

Shamanism was born from cultures who lived in deep connection with nature both internally and externally who realized deep states of awareness of their interconnection with all life. They understand how energy flows and how to work harmoniously with in these flows. At our Permaculture center we work with Shamanism because Shamanism and Permaculture have a core root in common. Nature is our teacher and in this way the principles between Shamanism and Permaculture are naturally the same. Pretty much all indigenous culture on earth have roots in shamanism and since the ethic, principles and techniques of Permaculture have roots in indigenous cultures, it too has Shamanic roots.

We are working with Shamanism not in terms of ritualistic mystification, but in a way that allows ourselves and our participants to implement practical tools that unravel our inborn qualities of observation and deeper receptivity to all life forms without conceptualization or a specific religious preference.  We do not impose worldviews to people but provide objective means that allow us to see the world without excessive intellectualization, cultivating discerning wisdom in that process.

In the indigenous Amazonian traditions they actually refer to shamanism as a Sacred Science. It was called a sacred science because it really integrates all aspects of life instead of dividing them into separate disconnected compartments as our modern science does today. In addition it was considered sacred because those who lived by this science had deep reverence, respect, humility and gratitude towards all life and their opportunity to interact in this beautiful life tapestry consciously. Modern scientific perspective is quite short sited and has been the source of many fundamental design flaws of our modern world and the state of the world today is the result of this thinking.

The original shamans where those who were curious about the working of nature and humanity. Shamans naturally became healers because they transmitted to people how to come back into their innate harmony through their deep connection to nature and in this way were able to resolve many sicknesses which are born out of disconnection and disharmony. In addition they had deep relationships with plants and learned how to utilize these plants in a synergetic partnership. This knowledge did not come through a modern laboratory but through profound levels of openness and intuition. Today modern science is beginning to prove what this culture understood for 1,000s of years and modern science has only studied about 1% of what these healers know.

Permaculturists should also be curious to learn from nature and always be a student willing to give up old rigid concept in order to really become more conscious in the work we are doing. In this way we unlock our healing potential for the earth and each other. If we can’t learn how to work with our internal dialogue, repressed emotions and judgments, stale concepts and ideas in order to really see things as they are without our conditioned views how will we ever be able to truly observe — a core practice in being a good permaculture practitioner. True listening and observation require a blank slate and this is something that is very difficult to do in the absence of a spiritual discipline.

Rigid ideologies will never offer solid stable structure. For true transformation of our communities into a Permanent Culture our ideas must be capable of evolution and integration. The nature and all life that inhabits earth have always evolved. As Permaculture and Shamanic practice have taught me, we must mold our systems on the wisdom learned through deep observation with nature. In this way, a tree cannot be too flexible, nor can it be too rigid. If it is too flexible it will never stand and if it is too rigid it will snap under the pressure of the elements.  By trying to be accepted into the mainstream mentality by modeling Permaculture courses based on what we feel will make it excepted by mainstream views is trying to be too flexible because it has to go against its own principles to conform. At the same time, not learning how to integrate objective spiritual perspective is very rigid. In this way it risks becoming another dogmatic ideology. We have to learn how to walk the middle path and integrate.

In terms of the mentality of the world today, I believe most people are much more open to objective, non-dogmatic spirituality than Craig’s article suggests. At one point in my life I worked a corporate job in New York City for many years and it was living there that actually brought me back on my spiritual path. I can say from my own experience that I have had these conversations with many of my New York community including many “influential” people who you mention you would like to gain recognition with… Bankers, lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, hedge fund managers, teachers, scientist, celebrities, models, designers, brand strategist, to name a few. They are very open to this work, resonate deeply and many actually participate in our courses and gain great benefit, which I have seen them integrate into their lives and work.

Often we have lawyers in a course alongside hippies and we learn how to appreciate each other’s perspectives and gifts. Each person is a teacher and adds value to the whole. I am surprised to see such disdain and judgment in this article and among many comments for hippies and other “fringe” communities. For one the hippies where the first to adopt the permaculture thinking and in that way we should be grateful and honor their ability to be trail blazers. Further more, this harsh judgment pattern strongly reveals the need for the permaculture community to really internalize its ethic and principles which is accomplished through a deeper spiritual approach.

Again, a spiritual perspective should not be included in all courses but there is a definitely need and place for some courses to take this approach. With that said, it is essential to be clear and communicate with people. When incorporating supplemental material into a PDC course it is possible to define to the participants what material is part of the core original PDC curriculum and which material is supplemental and part of additional tools that relate to nature awareness. It is important to clearly communicate why the supplemental information is added and give context.  In promotional materials for all courses we must be transparent and clear with the information that will be presented and in this way people will chose a course that resonates with them.

In nature everything has it’s place and we must also allow permaculture to service different people in different ways. People will naturally find the course and teachers that they resonate with if the information is presented clearly. We must learn to cooperate not compete. The fear based mentality present in the PRI discussion will not support the success of Permaculture on a global level.

True earth stewardship is not a process of doing but a process of being. Being present, being an observer, being open and receptive to nature and other beings, being responsible, being accepting, being at peace, and being an example.

Cynthia Robinson