How Do We Fit In?

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

When we speak of nature, we generally think of something quite separate from ourselves, though of course we are an essential part of it. We live with the minerals, plants, and animals, but seldom stop to wonder what each kingdom contributes to the whole it helps to form. Steeped in materialism and the idea that nature is there for us to exploit, we have lost much of our empathy and rapport with other life forms. Scientists may study the various kingdoms, but only as one might study a puzzle or an intricate machine. Most think nothing of destroying the individual animals and plants to find out about them: they are "objects" of study, not entities worthy of our respect and consideration. This widespread attitude of separateness from others, including other people, has brought us to the point where industrial and military techniques threaten the whole fabric of life on earth. Our scarred and fouled environment — uninhabitable for many of the original species and finally sometimes for man — as well as the human atrocities which have continued so notably in this century, arise from this same tendency to see all beyond ourself and our group as objects, to be used or abused at will.

The earth, however, is an organic whole, and the individuals that form it are coequal and necessary contributors. The ongoing scientific discoveries of the physical interconnectedness of all on earth point up the pervasive linking of everything into one organic system, each individual aspect contributing to and affecting all others: climate, ground cover, animals, bacteria, trees, rivers, oceans, fish, insects, geological activity — all dynamically connected. Each has a purpose, whether we can fathom it or not, and each makes its contribution to the whole.

While recognition of the physical dependence among all in nature has become widespread, the realization that nonhuman life forms contribute by their consciousness and life to the whole is still a novel idea to many. In our egocentricity, we have for too long downgraded the consciousness and life of the inhabitants of the globe, and denied spirit to such an extent that we frequently deny it even to ourselves. But the earth is a living being formed of living beings. We acknowledge consciousness in the animals; we intuit it in the plants. Why not in the minerals, the atoms, the planets? We understand so little about consciousness and life, about the earth as a whole, about the interrelations of the various dwellers on the planet — we don't even understand very well what a person is. How can we, then, put such limitations on the world around us? The view that all is alive and conscious, based in a spiritual reality that goes beyond the senses, beyond even the intellect, is coming increasingly to the fore. If, as most cultures from ancient to modern times attest, everything is at heart a spiritual entity, expressing itself in a way appropriate to the level of consciousness it has evolved forth, then each entity has its unique inner purpose its dharma, its duty or the law of its being, its raison d'être.

In trying to understand the role of the different kingdoms in the life of the earth, it is interesting to reflect on the idea that man contains in himself mineral, vegetative, animal, human, and godlike consciousnesses. Each of these aspects of our consciousness is important, and plays a vital and unique part in our functioning. Without any one of them, we would not be a complete human being. We are sometimes conscious of the animal and god parts of ourself because they border on the strictly human part that is the center of our awareness. Our understanding of plant consciousness, within or outside of us, is extremely small. But when we go to a forest or prairie and feel the peaceful, almost meditative atmosphere, could this not be a reflection of or reaction to the consciousness-quality of the plants that abide there?

The more vegetative side of ourselves, such as the autonomic nervous system, also opens avenues of thought. We are learning more all the time about the type of consciousness plants manifest and their vital role in the ecosphere. At present Western civilization fails to recognize any life or consciousness whatever in the minerals, so their consciousness presents an even greater mystery. Perhaps we will gain more insight into plant and mineral consciousness when we are able to understand better the corresponding levels of consciousness within ourselves.

The kingdoms of nature below man work relatively harmoniously together and their physical contribution to the globe is obvious. Their invisible contribution is not obvious, especially to those of us who have largely lost touch with nature both physically and psychologically. Yet the earth as a living being has many ranges of consciousness — physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual — that are as real as our own. We are, in fact, children of Mother Earth and reflect its makeup in our own. Our consciousness draws upon the larger being of the planet, just as we physically depend on elements originating from the body of the earth. All the evolving lives which form the planet partake of its spectrum of consciousness, and they are linked even more closely inwardly than they are physically. Our thoughts and feelings have a great impact on the corresponding portions of the earth. Problems such as pollution, destruction of the environment, desertification, and nuclear waste and warfare that increasingly plague world civilization are the outer manifestation of our selfishness, greed, psychological isolation, and insensitivity reflected onto the material globe. We perceive only our physical actions and their effects, but what forces must we have built up at the same time in the psychological portions of nature? What will the consequences for mankind and the globe be when these have their full effect?

It is easy to see the negative contribution mankind makes to the earth. But what of our positive contribution? Clearly, man by his very presence here has a role to play on the planet as an integral part of the system. As the dominant life form on earth today, we have the greatest impact on the rest of nature. Does this imply, however, that we are the most important? The various kingdoms, with their different bodies and characteristic states of consciousness, are all contributing to the being of the earth. At our evolutionary stage, we are between the almost automatic participation of the lower kingdoms and the self-aware role of the kingdoms more advanced than we. This has its counterpart in each one of us, where our human ego is the dominant portion of our being, yet every aspect of our consciousness is necessary if we are to be a complete person. When the functioning of any center of consciousness is impaired, the whole person suffers. Our human ego, still incompletely evolved, often runs riot, throwing the system out of balance and interfering with the workings of the less evolved consciousnesses which for the most part maintain an almost automatic balance. Our spiritual consciousness we largely fail to perceive, since it is beyond the range of our ordinary understanding and therefore escapes our observation — and so it is with the higher kingdoms of nature of which we are only subliminally aware. We have no way of knowing what type of consciousness the earth has as an entity, any more than an atom could perceive whether it helped to form an animal, a plant, or a rock. Yet as an organism of some kind, the earth as a whole is bound to be affected by the disharmony caused by the human kingdom, just as an imbalance in our being — whether centered in the psychological, organic, or cellular level — affects us and can even lead to sickness or death.

If we are to do our part to help maintain the health of our planet, we need to work together — all kingdoms of earth, all people. Perhaps instead of asking what we can take and use, and how we can get what we want, we should instead begin to ask: What is our purpose as human beings? What can we give of ourselves to the whole which we help to form? How can we fulfill our responsibility as the human kingdom of the earth? Answers to such questions cannot be found in pat formulae, nor will everyone agree as to the problems and their solutions. But even to realize that more is expected of us than self-centered attempts to dominate, or fulfill our desires and convenience at whatever cost to nature or the rest of mankind, is an essential first step toward dealing with the current ecological and human crises.

To live in balance with the rest of earth's kingdoms we need to turn our consciousness from the taking end of life and start thinking about contributing something of value to the various wholes to which we belong: our family, community, nation, species, and planet. We always have the opportunity to change, to examine our own lives to see what values we actually embody, whether they are valid, and how we can incorporate more of what we really believe into our daily routine. Such a change in outlook probably would transform our relations with other people: viewing our environment as an unconscious mass available for exploitation has its counterpart in seeing other people as something to be used for our own profit or convenience. While it is impossible to avoid utilizing the other kingdoms to sustain us, we can have a different attitude toward them: one of respect, of kindliness, of gratitude for the sacrifice members of these kingdoms make for our well-being, a conscious recognition that their contribution to the whole is equally important to our own.

Of course we cannot expect dramatic results overnight. Nevertheless, we can point ourselves in a positive direction and so begin to change for the better the course of our civilization and improve the quality of life on the planet for all species. Once we begin to approach life as a contributing partner instead of an exploiting competitor, it will become increasingly obvious to us how we can take our rightful place as a constructive and compassionate member of the earth's large family of kingdoms.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Theosophical University Press)


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