Tag Archives: ecology

A Time for ‘Self-Stripping’

DSC01928 Burn

In the Umbrian countryside, it is time to burn old growth.

We are now halfway through the period of Lent – a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan, which I was fortunate enough to experience while living in Egypt. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.

Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. Using our will, we burn the dross of our affective and instinctual energies, habits, tendencies and passions. Once clear of the obstacles that prevent us from receiving our higher intuitions, we are free to receive wisdom from the Higher Self. In other words, purification is a necessary process that we all must endure along the journey towards personal psychosynthesis before we are adequately equipped to seek spiritual psychosynthesis.

Dante-Divine Comedy Mountain of Purgatory

Dante’s Mountain of Purgatory

Assagioli often referred to Dante’s Divine Comedy as a “wonderful guide and description” for our personal and spiritual development. He wrote:

“The first part of Dante’s pilgrimage is a long difficult path of purification and expiation across the kingdoms of his lower nature. Divine wisdom is not revealed to him directly: in his impure, unregenerated state, still surrounded by the impenetrable veil of matter, man is unable to directly contemplate the supreme truth.”

Similarly, Evelyn Underhill, in her classic book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, wrote that Dante’s Purgatorio was a period of “self-stripping, which no mystic system omits.”

I find it interesting that Lent – this period of purification and expiation – always coincides with the time before and after the spring equinox. In the Italian countryside, now is the time to prune the olive and fruit trees, prepare the land for spring planting, clean the manure out of donkey stables, and clip back the vines. At the same time, as I walk through the open fields, rabbits and hares flash by, pheasants in their brilliant plumage call out, and deer start to appear at dusk. My neighbors’ chickens and geese are all suddenly busy laying. Often I am graced with a dozen fresh eggs.

DSC04110 eggs

What to do when your neighbor gives you so many fresh chicken and geese eggs? Make ravioli of course!

For the Italian contadini, early spring (like Lent) is a time of clearing away dead wood, burning unnecessary growth, and discarding all that is old and no longer serves. And while this process of pruning and clearing and cleaning takes place, we are simultaneously able to enjoy the beginnings of new life.

Levels of Purification

014005 Purification of the Personality

Body. Assagioli calls on us to purify ourselves on many different levels. The first step is purification of the body. This means a healthy diet; avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, drugs; andplenty of exercise, fresh air and water. However, he does warn that when we become too fixated on physical purification, we can actually hinder other more important practices.

Emotions. Assagioli insists that what is most urgently needed is purification of our emotions. We start with identifying our feelings, sensations, thoughts and desires and then disidentifying from them. He wrote:

“What is the significance of ‘purity of heart’?

Complete absence of personal desires – absence of every thought for oneself – the abandonment of every idea or desire for compensation or benefit – full disinterest – self-giving – the renouncement of every pleasure, of every personal satisfaction.”

Imagination. Perhaps even more vital today, given all the images available to us through social media, is our need to purify our imagination. More than 50 years ago, Assagioli named these images that exploited “man’s morbid fascination for violence, horror, cruelty, and perverted sex.” He called them “collective poison, a psychological smog”. We all know how viral these images are today (along with tweets, which are simply verbal images as opposed to true discourse) and how harmful they have become to society as a whole.

To clear such psychological smog, Assagioli calls us to practice reflective meditation, mental silence, and the self-identification exercise. The goal is to eliminate all impurities from the personality that are preventing us from being receptive to the energies from the Higher Self or God. Assagioli wrote:

“Joy is one achievement that follows purification and the active practice of virtue. Joy is a result of a state of purity, of the absence of egoism, of harmony with God and with humankind.”

Purification for the Planet

Our personal act of purification is not just for ourselves alone. It also desperately needs to be carried out because, when we do this work, we are also participating in the great work of planetary purification.

DSC01957 Bruno

Bruno (76 years old) becomes one with the tree he is pruning.

At the physical level, when we purify our bodies, we also are helping to raise consciousness at a higher, collective level. We bring energy to matter in its entirety – animal, vegetable, and mineral – helping to purify it from contamination and exploitation, a result of humankind’s selfish purposes. Assagioli even suggests that we can symbolically purify and bless matter by spraying our cash with perfumed holy water!

At an emotional level, our purification helps to energize the dispersion of negative emotions in the world. Purification at our mental level helps to melt down and destroy old concepts, dogma, fanaticism and ideologies that produce fears and have hypnotized many people. We turn to Assagioli again:

“A nation is an entity, a soul analogous to a human soul: it can be noble and high or selfish, proud, overbearing. It is about educating, raising, purifying the soul of one’s nation, of which each of us is a part.”

 

013919 End of Purification Redemption

Assagioli’s note from his archives.

In the end, purification brings redemption. Our souls, through suffering and sacrifice, are renewed. Like the olive tree and the grapevines whose branches are cut bare, promising new fruit, we too are reduced to our true selves, ready for new, fresh growth.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Nola

Nola the White Rhino (1974-2015)

Nola the White Rhino (1974-2015)

Perhaps you have already read the obituary for Nola the White Rhino (41) who recently died at the San Diego Zoo. She had arthritis and a painful bacterial infection, was a major park attraction and loved having her back scratched. Today only three white rhinos remain in the world.

The climate change conference in Paris has opened and millions of people across the globe are marching for a cleaner environment and protection for the animals and plants that share our home with us. I don’t need to reiterate all the reasons why we need to quickly transform our energy consumption into lives that gently walk on this planet. Unless we change along with the climate, our world is headed to become a silent and empty place. Like all animals on this planet, Nola has something unique to teach us about being more fully human.

Saint Francis preaching to the birds.

Saint Francis preaching to the birds.

Saint Francis of Assisi understood that by loving creatures, great and small, we learn more about God’s love for all of creation, including ourselves. The ascetic and mystic lived in the 13th century with a small group of like-minded followers, and together they were dedicated to helping lepers, the poor, and outcasts. They built themselves huts of branches and twigs to sleep in, wandered in pairs over the Umbrian countryside, dressed in the ordinary cloths of the peasants, and worked in the fields to earn their daily bread.

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Soul Harvest – Part 1

Signora Giuseppa in her Garden

Signora Giuseppa in her garden north of Rome.

It took me a long time and a good deal of sweat to understand it — just how much our Earth is a sanctuary for our souls. And this awareness evolved only thanks to Signora Giuseppa. Having worked the land for more than seventy years, Giuseppa quietly and wisely guided me towards this realization while we walked around her fields or campetto. Through her simple and daily vigil of being with, caring for, and depending upon the Earth, she initiated me into the profound experience of gardening and growing what one eats. For it is through this deeply experiential reality that we are best able to integrate the sacredness of the Earth with our own humanity.

Signora Giuseppa is a round but sturdy widow whose hands are small, yet broad and strong. Whenever she stands before you, her feet are firmly planted and her eyes steady upon you. She is eighty-two years old and one of the few people I have ever met that is really present to all that is around her. Every afternoon you can find her tending her two-acre campetto in the Italian countryside north of Rome. Since she was five years old, she has lived all her life (literally) off the fruits of her labor. From olive oil to fava beans to wine grapes and, of course, tomatoes, her harvest is as varied as it is delicious.

Whenever I visit, she chatters away in her Italian dialect as she heads out to feed her chickens with a bucket of soggy bread and milled corn in hand and an assortment of half-wild cats underfoot. She knows I don’t always understand, but what she seems to find more important is our time together. It is always a pleasure to visit her and see what she is sowing, planting, harvesting, gathering, drying, and feeding her chickens.

Only educated to the third grade (and only thanks to Mussolini insisting that all Italian children learn to read and write), Giuseppa has managed to integrate life’s lessons. For some time now, I have declared her farm “The University of Gardening” and she la professoressa. Whenever I say this in front of the many visitors and relatives that often drop by, Giuseppa beams proudly and quickly adds, “I was never much educated, but I do have some esperienza.”

It wasn’t until I too had this esperienza of hoeing, planting, composting, weeding, watering, and finally reaping the harvest of my own garden did I come to understand how holy the Earth really is. My education evolved mostly from my following Giuseppa around her campetto and simply watching. She used to tease me by telling everyone that I liked to come by and steal her secrets. Yet, while she showed me how far apart to plant tomatoes, when to harvest the garlic, and how to recognize a cauliflower that wouldn’t produce fruit, Giuseppa was also teaching me how to relate to the land, how to observe, care, tend, and support its needs, how to appreciate its bounty, receive its gifts, and surrender that which doesn’t survive.

Oh sure, I had been ecologically aware for years—bicycling to work, recycling my plastics, picking up tossed garbage left along the roadside, hanging up wash instead of using a dryer, and buying a fuel-efficient car. All these small conscious acts of conservation are vital to the planet’s ultimate survival. But until one actually works the Earth, one cannot appreciate the lessons it holds, nor how fundamentally attached we are to it, nor how much working on the land can actually help us to become fully human. As Gandhi once said, “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Note: This story was written while I was still living in Italy in 2007. It is the first part of a three part series to be continued next time…

Go to Soul Harvest – Part 2

Soul Harvest – Part 2

Signora Giuseppa and the author during the grape harvest in 2010.

Signora Giuseppa and the author during the grape harvest in 2010.

What makes gardening such a precise mirror for the soul? There are many biblical parables that invoke the imagery of the garden – the pruning of vines, sowing of seeds, and harvesting of grapes. Taoists believe that miniature gardens are the Earthly copy of Paradise. In Islam the four gardens of Paradise – Soul, Heart, Spirit, and Essence – symbolize the mystical journey of the soul. And then there’s my retired neighbor Angelo who once told me that gardening was the most humble of tasks. “Your head is always bowed and sometimes you have to go down on your knees.”

And as the gardener creates, so does the garden transform the inner life of its creator. The word ‘create’ actually derives from the Latin creare which means to produce, to make life. The garden’s cycle mirrors our own growth, complete with floods, heat, drought, infestation, dying, resurrecting, blossoming, blooming, maturing, rotting, bounty, beauty, and miracles. In our deeper psyche we tend to our life’s garden of sorrows and joys. We pull out, cut back, dig up, bury, sow, support, and nourish hoping one day to harvest our life’s experiences into wisdom. Without all this soul/gardening work, our spirits are swamped under the weeds, our creative gifts choked, our true selves unable to flourish.

As we relate to the Earth with hoe, shovel and watering can, the Earth begins to teach us about ourselves. Working the Earth is like dreaming, it can act as a medium between self and soul. When we take time to garden, we are allowing our souls to speak to our conscious selves, to display outwardly where in the soul process we really are.  And as we gain in awareness, we can equally influence the soul to move to its next necessary task by outwardly performing the chore in the garden.

Signora Giuseppa's village in Italy

Signora Giuseppa’s village.

There were days when I found myself tearing at weeds, only moments later to feel the fierce roots of long-buried anger and resentment clinging to my heart. Other days I was filled with joy, longing to spill seeds upon every patch of bare Earth. By gardening we unearth a place where our inner and outer worlds can merge. And in this space, with time and nourishment, we encourage the self closer to universal truths.

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Soul Harvest – Part 3

This year's harvest from the author's garden in Germany.

This year’s harvest from the author’s garden in Germany.

With gardening always comes the harvest — a communion with our Earth, the holy connection between us and the planet. What better way to participate in this than by eating a cherry tomato or snap pea that we have grown in relationship with the Earth? This replenishment of our bodies with what the Earth offers us through our own labor aided by nature’s gifts of sun and rain creates a circular relationship of spiritual unity. Perhaps this is the true meaning of Eucharist, which comes from the Greek for gratitude. By receiving the garden’s bounty into our bodies, we gain the strength, energy, and respect to continue our lives in tandem with it.

Signora Giuseppa enjoys the fruits of her labor - homemade foccacia baked in the wood-burning oven.

Signora Giuseppa enjoys the fruits of her labor – homemade foccacia baked in the wood-burning oven.

One August, when most Italians flee their homes for holidays in the countryside or al mare, Giuseppa was faithfully tending her rows of tomato plants. I passed by one cloudy afternoon to find her worried over the possibility of rain. “If it rains, Caterì, it will ruin all the ripe tomatoes.” She and her extended family spend two days peeling and canning these tomatoes for the winter months. I offered to help her pick them without realizing what I was actually getting into. She accepted my offer, grabbed some crates, and bounded out into the field, calling for me to follow with the wheelbarrow. We spent nearly four hours picking tomatoes that afternoon with her chatting the entire time.

“We used to work for a patrone,” she told me. “Half of what we harvested went to the landowner. One hot summer day, I carried a heavy basket of tomatoes the long road up to the landowner’s house. I used to carry everything on my head in those days, but the wet wash from the lavanderia was always the worst, especially in winter.

“I arrived in the midday heat with those tomatoes. I had been working all morning in the fields and hadn’t eaten a thing. It was a thirty-minute walk straight uphill. The sweat was pouring down me. Do you think that Signora offered me a glass of water or a shady place to rest for a moment?”

We hauled the crates onto the wheelbarrow. “Wait, Caterì, let me help you. These crates are too heavy.” She worked like a twenty-year-old and didn’t seem to tire. Visibly rejoicing in the summer harvest, she became more animated and energized as the number of crates of tomatoes grew and grew. Meanwhile, my back was killing me even as I marveled over the variety and seemingly endless number of tomatoes that lay hidden inside the masses of vines.

As we returned to the fields, Giuseppa lingered for a moment next to the tiny clusters of unripe grapes. “Do you remember last year?” my professoressa quizzed me. “The grapes were ruined with disease. This year the plants are green and lush with fruit. It will be a good year for wine.”

She brushed one hand tenderly over the grapes. “Every year has its own season. Just like our lives. One year there is fruit, another only ruin.”

“But at least here in the campo,” Giuseppa laughed, “there’s always something to eat.”

Note: This story was written while the author was still living in Italy in 2007. It is the last of a three part series.

Go to Soul Harvest – Part 1

Go to Soul Harvest – Part 2