Awakening to the Spiritual Dimension of Ecosystems
by Tina R. Fields
“The indigenous Hawaiian concept that one must maintain correct behavior toward pohaku [stones] or risk supernatural retribution is explored in this chapter through participant-observation/grounded theory exploration of the experiences of an undergraduate student group living one semester on the Big Island, brief narrative interviews with local residents, and historical inquiry into native Hawaiian views about pohaku. After exposure to native stories heard in conjunction with uncanny animistic experiences, students’, locals’, and vacationers’ relationships with the land and its manifestation as the volcano goddess Pele became altered toward more respectful attitudes, a sense of spiritual import in the everyday, and more ecologically sustainable behavior.
Just as human consciousness influences behavior and our behavior in turn obviously affects the land, simultaneously the land itself may subtly, yet strongly, influence human consciousness. The pohaku phenomenon opens questions about the influence of story on belief and behavior, the potential for nonhumans to serve as teachers of proper ecological relationship, and how land itself might influence human consciousness. Together, these inquiries can lead to a shift in relational stance from the current paradigm of ownership to a more indigenous stance of belonging. This shift of consciousness carries with it strong practical implications for our long-term survival as a species.”
“Cultural stories… describing relationships between humans and nonhumans, carry ancient knowledge still relevant to us today, and can also serve as a bridge between contemporary scientific inquiry and deeply embedded animistic spiritual sensibilities…the intersection between cultural story and ecological relationship. I describe a series of interactions between dominant, inanimistic and native, animistic cultural worldviews, then demonstrate how experiential encounters between the two paradigms can catalyze transformation in the dominant, toward more cross-cultural respect and ecological awareness…”
The Old Becomes New Again: Systems Thinking and Hawaiian Worldviews
This emphasis on relationship illustrates a radically different worldview from the one that has for many years informed the scientific method, which seeks knowledge through the examination of individual parts. However, this indigenous sort of relational stance is echoed in the ecological sciences and in the newer emphasis on whole systems thinking.
Among its other aspects, whole systems thinking focuses less on the parts than on the synergistic whole and the movement between its parts, from which the qualities and even the existence of each concrete part may be said to arise (Capra 1996). Buddhists will similarly recognize this aspratītyasamutpāda or “dependent co-arising,” the idea that all phenomena (including beings) arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. Thich Nhat Hanh (1975) gives a beautiful example of this when he describes looking at an orange, and seeing a cloud. How is that? Impossible, crazy talk; yet simple if thought out systemically. The orange could not exist but for the tree that it grew from; and that tree only exists because it sprouted from a seed due to the dance between earth, sun, and water; and the water arrived on earth in part by rain falling from a cloud; and so forth.
These are old views of reality based in longitudinal observation of nature and thus, unsurprisingly, shared across the globe. The linguist Dan Moonhawk Alford (as quoted in DellaFlora 2000) noted that in much of Native America, God is spoken of in verb form. In Lakota or Cheyenne, God is not “Great Spirit” as portrayed in numerous films but actually closer to “Great Mysteriousing,” and Cherokee call upon “Thinks Breath Creates.” To sum up my point here, indigenous perspectives tend to focus much more on the moving relationships between beings and processes than on the static individuals engaged in those relationships. (They are also less likely to see these individual beings as static.)
Such relational ties extend to animals, stones, and processes as well as other people. Native Hawaiians consider themselves literally related to nonhumans through their ‘aumakua, a family’s deified ancestral spirit helper who generally appears in the form of a real living being such as shark, lizard, or owl. They may also take the shape of an object like a rock or a cloud. Each family’s specific ‘aumakua also brings with it a particular set of principles, values, and standards (Meyer 2003, 46, 108). In the ancient Hawaiian creation story Kumulipo, the first child of Papa and Wākea, the cosmic earth and sky beings who created everything, is the taro or kalo plant, with human beings coming along second. People therefore owe taro the great respect due one’s elder sibling; which means we should not, for example, speak roughly to one another or make crude jokes at a table where taro is being served. Kane notes that for early Hawaiians,
There seems to have been no concept of the supernatural as that term is used in modern religions. Theirs was a universe in which everything (including the gods) was natural and therefore of Nature, an organic universe in which every thing and every person had its integral place within the whole. Success was achieved by living in careful and reverent harmony with Nature, failure to do so being marked by swift retribution from the gods. The modern concept of Nature as an object of conquest would have been incomprehensible to the Polynesian mind. In all Polynesia, religion so permeated every aspect of life that there was no separate word for it. (Kane 1996, 22)
The native Hawaiian relationship with stones—the children of one of their deities—is very different from the currently dominant Cartesian/ postindustrial norm that views stones simply as inert, “dead matter” and potential building materials. Further, this worldview is not just a wistful yearning toward the past or even a myth (although it behooves us to remember the basic tenet voiced by both Joseph Campbell  and Coomaraswamy  that in some deep way, living myth is always true). It is instead a currently living, relational perception, and one that might be best understood when illustrated by stories…
The reawakening in non-natives of a native-style animistic caring about the more-than-human world holds the possibility for similar transformation, thus offering one possible denouement of the postcolonial modernity saga. Vine DeLoria noted the need to bring such native insights to bear on current policy:
No real progress can be made in environmental law unless some of the insights into the sacredness of land derived from traditional tribal religions become the basic attitudes of the larger society (1999, 213)…
Particularly important to note in this time of ecological crisis is that such an indigenous attitude of respect is not only internal, but is expected to translate into a particular set of balanced and life-fostering behaviors. Hawaiians call this attitude pono, a complex term that encompasses goodness, well-being, purity, integrity, perfection, success, proper procedure, and the notion of personal and professional excellence (Meyer 2003). Pono is often translated into English, for better or worse, as “righteousness,” because acting pono out in right behavior [hana pono] encourages “harmony among persons, and among persons and the psychic forces of nature and the supernatural” (Pukui 1972, as quoted in Meyer 2003, 109). Reciprocity, ho‘oponopono, was viewed as essential for survival; and fundamental to reciprocity are effective relationships with all beings (Meyer 2003). The poignant letter above exhibits a sense of the writer’s feeling not guilt or fear of divine retribution, but rather like a child receiving a corrective lesson about proper treatment of others.Returning the stones—and better yet, deliberately not taking them in the first place—are acts of pono. And this mainlander has learned it.
The native worldview is deliberately being leveraged to bring us back into right relationship, for example, with coral reefs. Waikiki Aquarium sponsored a 2003 lecture series named “Papa and Wākea,” after the native creator earth/sky gods, which included an evening about limu [seaweeds]. Instead of simply covering natural history, two professors discussed “the importance of building understanding and reconnection to our reefs today, as we incorporate our rich cultural histories into modern resource management” (Abbott and Hunter 2003). I find this somewhat radical in an animistic sense. In essence, the aquarium is inviting people to allow the indigenous spiritual stories of the island to infuse future approaches to management, presumably with the intention of bringing those ecological stewardship decisions more in alignment with pono.
The AEI students, immigrants to Hawai‘i like Eriksson, and the recalcitrant stone-taking tourists all provide examples of the sort of consciousness shifting that can happen when mainstream people with open minds and hearts come into contact with landscapes that are still inhabited by the old stories. But it must now be noted that the stories, while powerful, are not the core of this transformation. They merely serve as the vehicle to bring us into alignment with the deepest teacher—the earth itself.
The prevalence of the pohaku experience, the commonality of stories told about its origination and healing, and the attendant subsequent shifts in behavior and worldview, together bring up a philosophical question of enormous import: Could the land, through cultural stories, be teaching humans how to be in proper respectful relationship with it?
Many outdoor leaders, such as myself, who work with groups in wild places for any length of time repeatedly witness psychological effects of alienation from nature. Such feelings as disconnection, depression, fear, dullness, numbness, tightness, ennui, loss of dreams and creativity, and a sense of being very alone in a cold world (see, e.g., Greenway 1995) can be identified largely through the healing that follows a return to deep relationship with the living world and the wild self.
This makes a lot of sense, if we think about it. For most of our tenure as a species on this planet, humans have held an animistic perspective; one that believes and acts as though, as a Chukchee shaman once noted, “everything that is, is alive” (Cloutier 1980, 35–6). One observation from the emerging field of ecopsychology is that acting as if the world is dead can send us into despair and self-destructive behaviors. Perhaps the original “Fall from Grace” was actually a fall up—away from recognition of the immanent physical world as divine, and now the quest for God must take place right here. Buddhist ecophilosopher Joanna Macy explains the importance of reclaiming an animistic perspective at this time:
[After] several millennia of assigning the sacred to a transcendent dimension removed from ordinary life, the world around us begins to go dead and loses its luminosity and meaning. The Earth is reduced to a supply store of material resources and a sewer for our wastes. And in such a world, devoid of the sacred, anything goes -buy up, sell off, consume as much as you can! What’s so beautiful about being alive at this moment is that the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. We are retrieving the projection. We are taking the sacred back into our lives. The swing is from transcendence to immanence. The most vital movement of our era involves making the sacred immanent again. (Macy 2000)
Therefore the question arises: Can it be that this ethic was created or taught by the land itself?
Is it possible that the land “knows” and “feels” that respect from its people, and is therefore somehow more free to reciprocate?
When nature is perceived as infused with spirit and agency, many currently destructive practices such as clear-cutting, strip mining, or dumping of nuclear waste no longer seem neutral, but appalling. And the story is key: a tree seen in terms of board-feet or dollar signs will be treated very differently than if considered to be an elder relative who offers shelter and food. When contemplating manufacturing, an animist, recognizing wood as the body of his friend, may ask, “Is that object I wish to make worth taking his life for?” Perhaps it is not, perhaps it is; at any rate, contemplating the question makes it likely that fewer unnecessary things will get made, and fewer of the earth’s “resources” unnecessarily depleted.
Our world would be very different if the dominant ideology involved reciprocal respect for all beings, beings in all sorts of bodies. In a small way, the stones of Hawai‘i may be helping this come to pass.
Earlier I asked, is it possible that when we respect the land and its spirits to this degree, that it actually does respond in kind? If this question seems to ride a new-age fluffiness, I would only ask the reader for a moment to suspend the issue of “belief” altogether and instead contemplate the story’s effects. What would be the consequences of acting as if this is so? Or contemplate its opposite: what have been the consequences of civilization’s acting as if it were not? Most importantly, which is preferable? Which leads to more long-term survival, sustainability, and happiness?
Such indigenous models of relationship have been successful for tens of thousands of years. In contrast, human behavior under the modernity alternative, especially the mere 200 years since the Industrial Revolution began, has brought the planet to the brink of the sixth great extinction (Eldredge 2005). The currently prevalent relationship to land, based mainly on maximizing profits for corporations and pretending to be divorced from the nest of relationships in any healthily reciprocal way, is leading to humanity’s self-destruction. Hawai‘i is rapidly becoming the endangered species capital of the world (Bishop Museum 2008). If indeed thoughts do ultimately create the world, the healthy choice is clear. Hawai‘i contains the necessary elements for a provocative test case: the potential for mainstream adoption of an existing animistic worldview to catalyze new protective action.
The animistic Hawaiian concept of mauli-ola, which Heighton thinks still forms a basis for understanding Hawaiian behavior, means “the essence of life is present in every part of the world” (Howard 1974, 155). The pohaku phenomenon not only illustrates mauli-ola in action, but also opens a large philosophical question about the nature of consciousness itself. If we posit that instead of arising at the very end of one linear evolutionary chain, consciousness actually lies at the ground of being and is therefore present in everything, with each species and individual being representing a unique type of its flowering, the worldview about (and attempted management of) any whole living system takes on an expansive, numinous and participatory dimension.
“Hawaiians harbor a deep reverence and connection for land. This is manifested in kapus regarding sacred sites such as mountain tops, in offerings left at heiaus and in the personification of rocks (Pele), plants (taro as brother), and animals (as aumakua). Western perceptions seem to focus on quantitative characteristics of the natural world. Relationships are often anthropocentric, where value is determined by usefulness to humans in regards to scientific, consumptive or industrial measures. Native Hawaiians often refer to the energy of the land and the importance of having a reciprocal relationship with it. Food is honored with kind words and restrictions regarding treatment (menstruating women are kapu, as is walking over it). Hawaiian traditions seem to possess an inherent deep ecological philosophy.” (Scudder 2003)
Story can serve as a technology of attunement to different worldviews such as the animistic, potentiating a shift at the macro-level or societal consciousness. In particular, native eco-stories with their spiritual components debunk the outmoded modernist conceit that the animistic is merely imaginal—especially when they are also personally experienced. But they cannot simply be appropriated: Hawai‘i is not the same as Nebraska, and the stories of each place must be allowed to sing for themselves…”
Pule Ho‘opua [Ending Prayer]
E Pele e! He akua o ka pohaku enaena, Ele‘ele kau mai!
[O goddess of the burning stones, Let awe possess me!
This essay was first published in
So What? Now What? The Anthropology of Consciousness Responds to a World In Crisis
edited by Matthew C. Bronson and Tina R. Fields
UK: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009 (pp. 317-359).
Published here with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
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