Seeking Wisdom: Overview of The Tao of Liberation
By Mark Hathaway
Today we stand at what may well be the most important crossroads in the history of humanity, and perhaps the Earth itself. Our industrial growth society continues to consume the natural wealth of our planet at ever-increasing rates, far beyond what is sustainable in even the near term. We are changing the very chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, threatening to push these life-sustaining systems past key tipping points in ways that would vastly accelerate the process of mass extinctions already underway.
Yet, our great push for economic growth, development, and the accumulation of goods and capital has only benefitted a relatively small proportion of humanity. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow: The richest 20% of the world’s population now earns nearly 200 times more than the poorest 20% while a tiny group of about 700 billionaires have a collective net “worth” equal to $2.2 trillion, more than the combined annual income of the poorer half of humanity. Our planet, fruit of over four billion years of evolution, is being devoured by a relatively small minority – and even this privileged group cannot hope to sustain its exploitation for much longer before provoking an ecological collapse.
All the major crises we face – the destruction of ecosystems, the grinding poverty of billions due to greed and systemic injustice, and the continued threats of militarism and war – are of our own making. These crises – particularly the threats of ecological collapse and the still-present possibility of nuclear conflict – have the potential to destroy not only a specific culture or a particular region of the world, but the complex diversity of our planet’s web of life. Not only present – but also future generations – of the Earth community are threatened.
Certainly, the dangers we face engender fear. It is important to acknowledge this fear while also recognizing the complexity of the challenges we face. Yet, despite the gravity of our situation, there is also very real room for hope. It is not as though a giant asteroid was hurtling toward our planet and we were powerless to stop it. The very fact that these crises are of our own making means that it is possible for us to address them in a meaningful and effective way – at least if we act in a timely manner with sufficient energy and wisdom.
Indeed, people around the world are finding creative solutions to many of the problems we face. New technologies for generating energy are being developed. Ecological approaches to agriculture are demonstrating that food can be produced sustainably while nurturing the health of soil and conserving water. Grassroots movements are reinventing democracy and proving that organized action can bring about real change. Together, humanity has the creative resources to largely overcome social injustice, create a sustainable economy, and live in harmony with one another and with the other creatures who share the planet with us.
Yet, despite these very real and very significant advances, there is little evidence – particularly at the level of our large institutions such as governments and corporations – of concerted action on a scale sufficient to actually halt deepening poverty and ecological devastation, much less to initiate a process that could truly heal the Earth community. The recent climate change conference in Copenhagen, for example, illustrates the huge gap between the creativity and foresight of civil society and the “business as usual” approach of the leaders of our global institutions.
In our book, The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation, Leonardo Boff and I explore the multiple obstacles that prevent us from moving toward a just and sustainable society. At one level, we see that we are in the grip of a pathological system, a global dis/order that is neither rational nor inevitable, yet is nonetheless very powerful because it has distorted both our values and our very perception of reality.
The cultural, political, and economic systems we have created are bent on domination and exploitation, destroying the living wealth of our planet to accumulate a dead abstraction called money. These same systems seem to have taken on a kind of life of their own, subtly warping human desires and creativity to suit their purposes.
Instead of pursuing fulfillment and the sustenance of life, we seek a kind of unbounded, cancerous economic growth where the idea of “development” often means destroying ecosystems and livelihoods to generate a fictitious capital with no intrinsic value. We submit to the rule of corporate pseudo-persons who have neither heart nor soul, who essentially act like immensely powerful sociopaths. Instead of an economy that sustains life, we seek out gain through a speculative financial system that has become a giant global casino, a parasite sucking life from the planet and wreaking havoc in human communities. We substitute authentic cultural and ecological diversity with a kind of “monoculture of the mind” – a globalized culture of consumerism.
This global dis/order has become a veritable monster devouring life on our planet. Yet, even here, there lies a seed of hope. Certainly, this system has grown to be extremely powerful, but once its pathological nature becomes apparent, we can see clearly that it is also fundamentally irrational and essentially, undesirable. As David Korten wrote in his classic work When Corporations Rule the World, “We continue to go boldly where no one wants to go” (1995, p. 261)
No one, not even the richest and most powerful, truly wants to live in a degraded world where beauty and diversity have become but a distant memory. No one desires to live in a world where the divisions between rich and poor lead to violence and insecurity for all. No one wishes to see the possibilities of future generations undermined for centuries, or even millennia, to come.
Perhaps for the first time in humanity, all people – both those who (in the short term) benefit from the current system and those who do not – actually have a common interest in working to change this system for the longer-term benefit of all. The difficulty, of course, is that many – particularly those who appear to benefit from the system in the short-term – have difficulties seeing this. What is more, the current global dis/order actively reinforces the dynamics of denial, despair, and addiction (particularly, the addiction of consumerism) to blind us to the reality we face.
A Sickness of the Soul
To heal and transform our world, then, will take more than new technologies, hard work, organization, and concerted action – albeit all these will certainly be required. We need to understand the various dimensions of the global crisis and the dynamics that conspire to perpetuate them; we need to find ways to overcome the obstacles in our path; we need an even deeper understanding of reality itself including the very nature of transformation; and we need to sharpen our intuition and develop new sensitivities to be able to act creatively and effectively.
In searching for this wisdom, we must first recognize that all the threats we face can, in some sense, be seen as symptoms of a deeper cultural and spiritual sickness afflicting humanity, particularly the 20% of us consuming the greater part of the Earth’s wealth. We suffer from a deep disease of the soul – a kind of collective delusional state that has hypnotized us into acting in ways that are harmful to ourselves and to the greater community of life of which we are part.
This crisis, then, can also be understood as the key ethical and spiritual question of our time. Some term the current threat in terms of “ecocide” – the destruction of the life sustaining systems that allow the full complexity, diversity, and beauty of life we witness today, including human life. Never before have our religious and spiritual traditions faced such an urgent and dire challenge.
The mystic Meister Eckhart said that, “Every creature is full of God, and is a book about God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” Similarly, Martin Luther King wrote that, “God writes the gospel, not in the Bible alone, but on trees, flowers, clouds, and stars.” The loss of each creature – and even more so the loss of each species – can be understood as the destruction of a unique revelation of the divine. The great ecological thinker Thomas Berry once observed that our species could only evolve its intelligence and creativity in a world as beautiful as this one. With each loss of this beauty, we are also spiritually impoverished.
Once we begin to see clearly the nature of the crises we face, we are impelled to look deeper into our cultures, our values, our faith traditions, and our very selves. As the psychologist Roger Walsh noted over 25 years ago in his book Staying Alive, the crisis we face can serve to “strip away our defences and help us to confront both the true condition of the world and our role in creating it” (1984, p. 77). It has the potential of leading us to truly profound changes in the way we live, think, and act – indeed, in the way we perceive reality itself.
This crisis, then, is also an opportunity, an urgent invitation to a deep awakening and a spiritual transformation. We are called to reinvent ourselves as a species. How can we shift from destroying the planet that sustains us – from exploiting nature and our fellow human beings – to become conscious agents of healing and liberating transformation? How can we come to play a constructive role in the greater Earth community of which we are a part and act wisely in ways that actually advance (rather than reverse) evolutionary processes?
First, we need to understand how we have become ensnared in the delusion that currently warps our perceptions and lures us to act in ways that are both harmful and fundamentally irrational. This process began long ago, dating back at least to the time when humans first began the cycle of conquest and empire-building and accelerating rapidly over the past five hundred years during the age of colonization, industrialization, and modern science.
Over time, we have come to understand power – not in terms of our innate ability to create nor in terms of our collective ability to interact and work together – but rather as the exercise of control, domination, and exploitation. At the same time, we have converted the cosmos once understood as a living organism into a lifeless machine composed of dead, inert “matter” – a word which, ironically, comes from the Latin for “mother.”
Ecologically, this distorted view has progressively separated humans from the greater Earth community. We see ourselves – not just distinct from other creatures – but somehow superior to them. The Earth is no longer understood as a living community of which we are a part, but rather as a storehouse of “raw materials” and “resources” ripe for exploitation.
The very word “environment” illustrates this problem. There is really no “environment” “out there.” We are part of the greater community of life. We constantly exchange oxygen, water, and nutrients with those beyond the boundary of our skins. When we poison the air, the water, or the soil, we inevitably poison ourselves. When we diminish the beauty and diversity of the planetary community, we also diminish our humanity and our potential for authentic enlightenment and self-realization. As Wendell Berry notes, “The world that environs us, that is around us, is also within us. We are made of it; we eat, drink, and breathe it; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.”
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes, the tradition of the second chapter of Genesis teaches us this same insight: Adam, the human, is formed out of adamah, the Hebrew word used for earth (soil). The last syllable of adamah, “ahh,” the sound of the letter “Hey” (which is essentially the sound of breathing) is infused through the nostrils of the “earthling” (adam) and thus becomes imminent within. We are living, walking expressions of the Earth itself. We are the Earth made conscious in a new way. We are not over and above, but rather a part of the Earth.
The Tao of Liberation
Where can we find the deep wisdom needed to reawaken us to our deep connection to the Earth, and indeed the entire cosmos that has midwifed us into being? And how can this wisdom become a deep wellspring that sustains and inspires us as we work for the integral healing of our world?
We are blessed to live in a time where the combined wisdom of all of humanity is available to us as never before. One source of this wisdom comes from science itself. New discoveries in quantum physics, systems theory, and the emerging story of the cosmos are helping us see reality in new ways. On the one hand, these insights are recovering a very old intuition – that the entire cosmos is in some sense alive. No longer is matter fundamental. So-called “empty” space is full of possibilities, filled with unimaginable energy and potentiality. Many believe that relationality and mind, not substance, are the most basic constituents of reality. Each entity, from the smallest, most ephemeral subatomic particle to the giant whirling galaxies are in some sense connected at a deep but subtle level to everything else .
We live in a time when, for the first time in history, we have developed the sensitivity to perceive the very first moments that gave birth to the cosmos – not only matter and energy, but space and time. The energy that bears witness to that great birth has been with us since the beginning, but we are only now able to perceive it.
Indeed, the entire cosmos is in a process of evolution. The universe is not so much a thing as an ever-changing story. Nowhere is this more evident than on our own planet. Yet, this evolution bears evidence to far more than just the drive for the “survival of the fittest”. Lynn Margulis has shown that complex cells actually carry more than one set of DNA and were probably originally formed through a process she calls “symbiogenesis” – a kind of cooperative fusion of cells for mutual benefit. James Lovelock has shown that cooperative dynamics are evident in the entire planetary ecosystem and that the living Earth in many ways resembles a giant organism that regulates climate, oxygen levels, and a host of other factors to sustain life.
In many ways, the entire cosmic story being revealed by science is far more mysterious, complex, and creatively playful than anything we could have imagined. Rather than fearing science – including the theory of evolution – there is an opportunity for people of faith to embrace these discoveries and to be filled with awe and wonder by them. At its deepest level, this story reveals a movement toward ever-deeper communion, ever-wider diversity, and ever-more complex self-organization, creativity, and mindfulness. Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme call this the “cosmogenic principle” – and it seems to bear witness to a dynamic wisdom at play which is interwoven into the very fabric of the universe.
At the same time, the accumulated insights and experience of spiritual traditions is available to us in new ways, permitting a dialogue of wisdoms that has never before been possible. Can we come to see this diversity of wisdoms – not as a cause for conflict – but rather as a rich tapestry from which we may draw guidance and sustenance?
One way to understand the wisdom needed to guide us is in terms of the ancient Chinese word “Tao” (or “Dao”, as it is actually pronounced). The Tao, normally translated at the “Way”, is a kind of embodied wisdom leading to harmony and right-relationship. At the same time, the Tao can be understood as the principle of order that constitutes the common ground of the cosmos; it is both the way that the universe works and the flowing cosmic structure that cannot be described, only tasted.
Similar, complementary ideas exist in other spiritual traditions. For example, Joanna Macy notes that in the Buddhist tradition the word Dharma signifies the “way things work”, or “orderly process itself” (1991a, p. xi). At the same time, Neil Douglas-Klotz observes that the Aramaic word used by Jesus normally translated as the “kingdom” or “reign” – Malkutha – refers to “the ruling principles that guide our lives toward unity” and conjures “the image of a ‘fruitful arm’ poised to create, or a coiled spring that is ready to unwind with all the verdant potential of the Earth” (1991, p. 20). While both the Dharma and the Malkutha frame the concept differently, we can think of them as pointing to the same reality as the Tao – a reality that ultimately evades a hard and fast description, but can only be intuited on a deeper level.
In our book, Leonardo Boff and I combine the image of the Tao with the idea of liberation. Traditionally, liberation has been used either in the personal sense of spiritual realization (enlightenment) or in the collective sense of a people seeking to free itself from oppressive political, economic, cultural, and social structures.
We include both of these uses, but frame them in a wider, ecological – and even cosmological – context. For us, liberation is the process of moving towards a world where all human beings can live with dignity in harmony with the great community of beings who make up the living Earth. Liberation, then, entails repairing the terrible damage that we have inflicted both upon each other and upon our planet – in other words, tikkun. On a yet another level, liberation is about realizing the potential of human beings as creative, life-enhancing participants within the unfolding evolution of our living Earth and the cosmos of which we are all a part.
We can even frame liberation in a cosmic perspective as the process through which the universe seeks to realize its own potential as it drives toward greater communion, differentiation, and interiority (or self-organisation (i.e. the cosmogenic principle). Within such a context, human individuals and societies become liberated to the extent that they:
- Become more diverse and complex, truly respecting and celebrating differences;
- Deepen the aspect of interiority and consciousness, fostering creative and participatory processes of self-organization; and
- Strengthen their bonds of community and interdependence, including their communion with the greater community of life on Earth.
A Fourfold Path
The Fourfold Path
In The Tao of Liberation, we explore how the wisdom of the Tao can guide us to liberation that we describe in terms of “The Ecology of Transformation.” To do so, we look at a wide variety of disciplines, including ecological economics, psychology, systems theory, quantum physics, the emerging story of the cosmos, and a variety of spiritual traditions.
In so doing, we look at four basic kinds of spiritual practices or "paths" that form the foundation for a spirituality that can help realign our lives and values—and even reframe our perceptions—as we seek authentic liberation.
The first can be described as the path of invocation, the way of opening ourselves to the guiding energy of the Tao, of reconnecting to the Source and our communion with all beings, of celebrating and praising the goodness of creation. This path is closely related with finding our place and feeling at home in the cosmos—not as masters but as creative participants—as well as with sensing the sacredness of life.
It is perhaps easiest to do this by starting with experiences of beauty, awe, and reverence. These spontaneously lead us into greater mindfulness. On a collective level, work around "Earth literacy" can serve as a doorway to this kind of awareness, especially if the kind of learning involved transcends the realm of information to truly serve as an experiential awakening to the beauty and wisdom of our local ecosystems.
Further still, we can open ourselves to the great story of the cosmos itself, a story of ongoing creation and evolution more mysterious and wonderful than any we could have imagined. As we come to see the universe not as a giant machine but as a living being continually birthed into being, a deep sense of gratitude awakens within us. We also come to understand more clearly our own part in this great story and begin to consciously participate in it, seeking to broaden diversity, strengthen communion, and deepen our creative participation in the self-organizing dynamics of emergence.
Yet, we can never fully open ourselves to beauty and awe unless we also clear away the cobwebs of delusion and create space for the Sacred to dwell. We can describe this path in terms of letting go or embracing the void. On one level, this means becoming aware of the ways that despair, denial, and addictions have deadened our souls. In an attempt to block out pain, we build walls that also cut us off from the wellspring of energy that can motivate and inspire us as we work for change. Joanna Macy's "work that reconnects" provides excellent examples of the kind of collective practices that can help us to let go of delusion and begin to awaken anew to both interconnection and compassion.
Meditation practices are also ways of experiencing and embracing the void—a void that is not empty but is, as both mystical traditions and modern quantum physics suggest, a vast sea of energy, pregnant with possibility.
The third path, of creative empowerment, helps us to reconnect with the embodied energy of the Tao in a way that combines both intuition and compassion. Science teaches us that living systems can change in rapid and often surprising ways through the process of emergence. In this perspective, the key to effective action is not brute force but rather finding the right action for the right place and right time.
To the extent, then, that we can awaken our intuition—both as individuals and communities -- the potential exists for liberating change that goes well beyond what we might have first imagined. The importance of vision also comes into play here. As we expand our imaginations to conceive of new ways of living, we begin to invite new possibilities that go beyond our old habits and ways of being.
Finally, we need to be able to incarnate the vision, moving from the realm of vision to action. This is perhaps the most complex of all the paths, for it calls us to work together in new ways that are infused with the power of creative synergy that remains open to the possibilities and potentiality of each moment while at the same time renouncing the exercise of domination and manipulating control.
In walking all four of these intertwined paths, we find inspiration in the dynamic image of the Tao. To the extent that we can align ourselves with the deep energy and purpose evident in the unfolding evolution of the cosmos, we tap into a vast potentiality that can enkindle, guide, and sustain our work for meaningful change. In the words of Thomas Berry in The Great Work, “We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. But this energy, in an ultimate sense, is ours not by domination but by invocation.” (1999, p. 175)
Mark Hathaway is an adult educator who researches and writes about the interconnections between ecology, economics, social justice, spirituality, and cosmology. He has extensive experience in social justice and ecology advocacy working in both Latin American and Canadian churches and ecumenical organizations. Together with Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, he is the author of The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation published by Orbis Books.
Berry, Thomas (1999). The great work: Our way into the future. New York: Bell Tower.
Douglas-Klotz, Neil (1990). Prayers of the cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic words of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Korten, David (1995). When corporations rule the world. West Hartford, Connecticut: 1995.
Macy, Joanna Rogers (1991a). Mutual causality in Buddhism and general systems theory: The Dharma of natural systems. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Walsh, Roger (1984). Staying alive: The psychology of human survival. Boston: Shambhala New Science Library.