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Step Five of the Green Bodhisattva Path
In Step Five of the 12 Steps of Ecological Recovery, “We admitted to Earth, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” Once we had made our ecological inventory, it was time to share it with another human being. We were under no obligation to change anything about our lives so long as nobody else knew the exact nature of our problems. No matter how thorough or fearless we had been with our inventory, its words were not real, or binding, until they had been shared with another.
We gained further insights through the process of sharing. The persons listening to our inventory invariably asked for explanations or elaborations at various points, and in responding to these requests we learned much more about ourselves and our histories than we could have arrived at on our own. More than that, sharing our inventories helped to ease our fear and isolation. The ecological excesses of our lives—the waste, the overconsumption, the inevitable compromises we felt compelled to make in the course of any given day or month—these were easier to come to terms with once we had shared them, not because the responsibility for those wrongs had been divided, but because we realized that we did not have to suffer them alone.
But what of sharing our ecological inventory with Earth? How was that to be accomplished?
In a traditional Fifth Step, the process of sharing a moral inventory was carried out as if God were present and listening to all that was said. The speaker and listener sometimes paused at intervals during the inventory to honor or acknowledge this fact. When it came to making our ecological inventories, however, a question inevitably arose: Did Earth listen to our inventory? Did Earth respond to confession, to meditation, or to prayer?
Such questions were for each E.R. to decide for him- or herself. We could offer no theological rulebook for matters of individual conscience or belief. However, we can share something we know about the more physical disciplines of biology, geology, and ecology.
Everything that happens to us in life is supported by a biological platform. Even our thoughts are biologically-generated electrical impulses firing along synaptic pathways through the brain. We experience these thoughts as our own, but the truth is, they only take place inside of our bodies. Those bodies are composed of cells that are constantly dying and being replaced with nutrients taken from Earth. There is no part of our bodies that was not taken from Earth, and no part that was not dedicated to some other purpose before it came to us. Thinking forward at bit, there isn’t any part of our bodies that won’t be dedicated to some future purpose not our own. These are the simple biological facts. There is no part of us that exists independently, or really separate, from Earth. Our thoughts, localized in bodies made of Earth, give rise to the belief that we occupy a world apart. But such a world does not, in truth, exist.
Some of our E.R.s believed in prayer, and some did not. But all who considered the matter carefully acknowledged that their bodies, at least, were in perpetual “conversation” with Earth. Was that conversation intimate enough to call a kind of living prayer? Some thought so and willingly embraced the reality of that idea. Others thought the reality far more intimate than that. No conversation was possible between two things that were fundamentally the same. Such members favored an identification with Earth instead, seeking through meditation and various other spiritual or ecological practices to realize a oneness that already existed between their thoughts, their bodies, and Earth.
Next came geology. The 20th century priest and environmental activist Thomas Berry felt so intimate a connection to Earth elements as the origin and foundation for all life that he eventually ceased referring to himself as a theologian, substituting the term geo-logian instead. This was an idea many E.R.s embraced as well. “Men come, and men go,” says the Book of Ecclesiastes, “but Earth abides.” The geological strata of the planet was a scripture far older and more accurate than any text written by humankind. The story it told was of a planet that gave rise to all life, patiently sustained all life, and into whose embrace all life was in a process of perpetual return. As much as anything, that process was a function of gravity. Matter was constantly rising and falling on the surface of the planet—rising in the myriad life forms that had spread across nearly every square mile of its surface, powered by the sun and atmosphere, and then falling back once more into the planet’s embrace, to begin the process again. Earth was the place where all of this happened. Really, Earth was all this. Ecology was just another name for this ceaseless interaction between biology and geology—between life and the planet. The name we chose for all of this was Earth.
“Earth as we understood Earth” our third and eleventh steps said. We were the first 12 Step fellowship to make a leap of that kind. True, the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous often allowed that Nature could be our Higher Power. In fact, it said this often enough that many E.R.s came to believe that A.A.’s early pioneers probably felt the same way they did about Earth. Still, theology—not biology, geology, or ecology—remained foundational for the language of 12 Step recovery, with the caveat that you could, if you liked, think of Earth or Nature as God.
The original insight of Ecological Recovery was the discovery that Earth was a Higher Power as broad and inclusive in its scope as God. Earth as we understood Earth could be as small as the family garden or as vast as the cosmos. In the former case, it was a familiar mystery, intimate and nurturing, and even loving in the food it produced for the body and the delight it gave the senses. In the latter, like everything else in the universe, it was star rubble and therefore as much a part of the whole as a cell was part of the body. Like God, Earth could go as small or as large as you liked. Taking a page from Berry’s book, some of us began to think of ourselves as eco-logians. Others felt there was no need to preserve the language of theology. We were the Children of Earth. “Child of God” was just one way of stating that much older, more elemental reality.
When we made our searching and fearless ecological inventory in Step Four, and then, in Step Five, admitted to Earth, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs, we acknowledged the many specific ways in which we had denied the reality of our condition as Earth children. It didn’t matter whether we thought of it as a confession or a prayer, or even whether we thought there was someone or something else listening to what we said. Earth was witness to everything, and always had been. It was as if a star were to confess its presence to the night sky, or a flower tell what it did to the field. How could Earth not know everything? Our Fifth Step was as much a process of realizing this as it was a process of admitting all of our wrongs.